Einstein's Unfinished Revolution book coverTo understand the enigma that is quantum physics, it’s best to start with the relatively easier problems of classical physics.

Classical physics was invented by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton to deal with everyday macroscopic objects that you can see with the naked eye or with the assistance of telescopes. Classical physics—equipped with calculus and its associated equations—can describe the precise location, speed, direction, and trajectory of any visible object, from airplanes and cannonballs to stars and planets.

If you were to take a snapshot of the solar system at this moment in time, you could measure, using the equations of classical physics, the position and velocity of each planet and could predict the precise location of any one planet at any future time (within a small margin of error up to a limited but significant amount of time). The mechanics of the equations are complex, but the problems are fully soluble.

As Lee Smolin explains in his new book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, this turns out to not be the case at the smallest of scales. When you start asking what matter is made of—atoms, protons, electrons, photons, quarks, etc.—a new type of physics is required, quantum physics. Quantum mechanics was invented in the early twentieth century to explain quantum physics, and seeks to describe how quantum particles behave and interact with each other.

Continue reading “Philosophy Meets Physics: The Competing Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics”

Infinite Powers by Steven Strogatz book coverCalculus is one of those subjects that is so complicated that most people not only don’t understand it, they don’t even know what it is that they don’t understand. But that’s unfortunate, because calculus is one of humanity’s most impressive achievements, an accomplishment that unlocks the secrets of the universe and delivers our most profound and useful technology, from radio and television to GPS navigation and MRI imaging. Calculus is the main protagonist in the story of science, and is a subject every educated person should understand at least conceptually.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trudge through a thousand-page textbook to appreciate the story and power of calculus. Steven Strogatz, in his latest book Infinite Powers, has provided a clear, concise, and fascinating tour of the subject. In fact, if you don’t understand what calculus is all about after reading this book, then the prospects are not great that you ever will. There is simply no better, clearer presentation of the ideas available. Strogatz uses metaphors, illustrations, stories, and examples to guide the reader through the most difficult concepts. While this is not an easy read, it is as reader-friendly as possible; remember, you’re tackling the most sophisticated branch of mathematics, the underlying logic of all science, and a subject that the sharpest mathematical minds in history had to grapple with for thousands of years.

Continue reading “How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe (And the Power of Human Cooperation)”

Rene Descartes MeditationsWe all hold innumerable beliefs with varying degrees of certainty, but few of us have challenged the veracity of those beliefs to the degree that Rene Descartes did in the Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes wrote:

“Some years ago I was struck by how many false things I had believed, and by how doubtful was the structure of beliefs that I had based on them. I realized that if I wanted to establish anything in the sciences that was stable and likely to last, I needed – just once in my life – to demolish everything completely and start again from the foundations…I am here quite alone, and at last I will devote myself, sincerely and without holding back, to demolishing my opinions.”

Continue reading “Rene Descartes and the Search for Certain Knowledge”