Are you a realist or a relativist?

By Marcus Wilson 31/01/2012 14

A colleague of mine in the Faculty of Education here at Waikato has drawn my attention to an elegantly titled paper by Andreas Quale: "On the Role of Mathematics in Physics"  Science and Education (2011), 20:359-372, for those of you who like references.

The paper is about the way mathematics relates to physics, highlighting the problem of teachers presenting the view (either explicitly or implicitly) that mathematics leads to physics. In other words, if you find a solution to an equation used in physics, that solution HAS to mean something. The one example quoted is Dirac’s ‘discovery’, by theoretical means alone, of the positron, or anti-electron – here DIrac’s equation, which he developed to obey certain conditions, had some unexpected solutions.

[1 Feb 12 – wrote this last night and got interrupted halfway through by a phone call – I now see I didn’t finish this paragraph!  Dirac’s equation, which described in mathematical terms a quantum theory consistent with special relativity, also had solutions that didn’t seem to make sense. Dirac then thought through what the solutions would mean in term of physics, and came up with the interpretation of them being negative energy solutions – this in turn led to the idea of an anti-particle. Now, as it turned out, the anti-particles were later shown to exist, but did Dirac just get lucky here? Was there any reason per se that the strange solutions to the equation HAD to represent something physical? Probably not – for example, the average physicist is quite adept at picking the ‘right’ root from a quadratic equation and dismissing the other as ‘unphysical’. Above all, physics is based on EXPERIMENT – i.e. the real world, not a theoretically constructed world (and remember, you’re reading a theoretical physicist in this blog!]

Specifically, the author talks about the problem of presenting a realist ontology to students learning physics, whereas a better strategy would be to present a relativist ontology, as adopted by radical constructivism.

I have a couple of problems with this article. First of all, I’m not sure that the average physics teacher would recognize ‘radical constructivism’ if he got hit on the head with it or be able to tell at a glance a realist from a relativist. I certainly struggle with this education-speak.  But, most significantly, the author presents no evidence that the problem he describes is actually occuring. In other words, do physics teachers REALLY present the view that maths leads to physics – solve the equations and physics emerges no matter what. Maybe some do, but has anyone actually established this? If they have, could we have a reference or two for it.  In fact, there isn’t a single reference for the first five pages of the article!- something that I have never, ever, seen in a physics paper.

You see, my recent interviews of physicists gives no evidence that this problem is happening – not in the tertiary sector at any rate. So, if there’s a difference between what my data suggests and what the article suggests, I’d like to know some more details. And it’s not there. Frustrating.

It will inspire me to do a bit of searching around, though.

14 Responses to “Are you a realist or a relativist?”

  • *Claps delightedly. Fantastic article Marcus, i couldnt agree more. Although the use of mathematics in physics is implied both from within (i.e. the inclusion of equation in physics talks that seldom call for the (yes I do this as much as everyone else)), and from without (check out the whiteboards in big bang theory – there are always more probabilitites than Feynmann diagrams) whenever i have ASKED a physicist whether or not math is crucial to physics they have always responded negatively, but with the proviso that it’s an extremely helpful, succint way to express physically complex phenomena.

    I’m really loking forward to hearing what you dig out though – and i will pose the same question to the next students i see at outreach!

  • The Dirac sea is a theoretical model of the vacuum as an infinite sea of particles with negative energy
    The existence of the sea implies an infinite negative electric charge filling all of space.
    It has been said that this negative energy is also radiant energy. This is what T.Henry Moray referred to when he said The sea of energy upon which the earth floats.
    This is the same energy that Tom Bearden talks about and through innovative circuitry John Bedini has captured, and also he shares his circuitry with those who want to learn. Through his Bedini Monopole groups. Where back yard experimenters can prove that there is something missing from the text books and find another form of electricity that is not AC or DC. The capturing of this energy involved cycling it into batteries whereby sulfated batteries can be restored.

  • A New Zealand example of innovation and suppression. Robert Adams. Invented in the period 1967-1969 by Mr Robert Adams of New Zealand, for a variety of reasons the technology did not win immediate acceptance, not least of which was that the New Zealand government and the Lucas corporation, for various reasons, allegedly directly suppressed it, followed by a typically botched and incompetent CIA assassination attempt. That this direct suppression could happen during a period of global economic crisis triggered by the 1970s oil shock, is simply astonishing, and with hindsight, outright scandalous. As for the academics, they ignored it, and simply told Mr Adams free energy was impossible and ‘against all the laws of physics’.
    The Adams motor is real I have seen one going, lets teach our kids this. Get them interested in science.

  • You may have seen one going, but did it perform as claimed ie provide more available energy than went into making it go? There’s a big difference.

    Your quote (I’m assuming it’s a quote) lacks any citation (in my class students learn that this is called plagiarism) & carries a hint of conspiracy theory.

  • The original source for the quote appears to be this page:
    (c) 2002 Tim Harwood & John Jankowski

    Itself seemingly a copy from an earlier source so actual provenance is difficult to ascertain.

    But it appears on multiple free energy sites so I expect Derek was unaware of it’s source. As such I doubt he would be able to point to any evidence of the CIA assassination attempt alleged. An attempt which even if it occurred (which is doubtful) would not indicate that the motor worked as claimed, merely that people thought it did. But of course such serious action is never undertaken based on incorrect information….

    As pointed out by Alison unless the device is able to be properly validated seeing it in action is insufficient. I’ve seen vampires in Australia, doesn’t mean they are real.

  • From what I understand it doesn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics. The thermodynamic laws refer to a closed loop system. The way I have been told is it works similar to a solar panel, but rather than gathering energy from the sun it is from the quantum level.
    To clarify this quantum energy, we have cosmic rays and energy from the vacuum as well as the Dirac sea.
    The Earth is like a battery it holds temperature (a form of energy) as well as being a magnet. Magnets generate electricity.
    If you want proof all you have to do is visit the Bedini monopole group(yahoo groups). They measure all Coefficient Of Performance (COP) over 20 runs, before advancement is made to the next group. It is scientific in it’s analysis of a batteries performance when charged with radiant energy. They consistently measure a COP greater than 1. Sure it is not an Adams motor but more like the next generation of motors invented by John Bedini and uses bifilar wound coils. How to build a monopole motor is given on his website. It is also called a Simplified School Girl motor, as one of the school kids made one and won a science show in America.

  • Why is it that if you say something that appears to be plagiarism everyone is ready to shoot you down. But then if you offer something that has proof no one says anything ?

  • electrickiwi: “..if you offer something that has proof no one says anything.”

    Well, has it (Adams motor) been proved to produce useful energy? It’s an interesting design for a motor, for sure, but I have not seen any scientific analysis that goes beyond this – in particular, nothing to say that the total energy input was measured as XXX J and the total energy output was measured as YYY J and YYY is larger than XXX. What would you like us to say here?

    With regard the salt water burning, my immediate guess is that energy in the radio waves are splitting the H20 molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas (like electrolysis will – interesting how it works with conductive salt water just like electrolysis does); these then burn. A neat physics and chemistry demonstration, but it’s not energy for free. How much energy goes into the radio frequency generator? Plausibly the machine might simply release the DISSOLVED hydrogen and oxygen gas as the video clip states. If that is the case, it should be easily verified. One can measure how much dissolved H2 and O2 is in the water; one knows the energy release when H2 and O2 combine, so one should be able to predict the energy available per litre of water. Measuring the heat energy output of the flame can be done too, so one can then check that they agree. (I somehow doubt the TV channel asked them to do this.)

  • Er, Derek – where does the energy to compress the air come from? How much must be used to compress the air that gives anything like a reasonable travel distance (or any sort of distance at all, really)? The compressed air is not ‘free’ or ‘no cost’ energy.

  • I have to assume that Derek realises that compressed air is not an energy source. This must be about “Sticking it to The Man”.
    Which wouldn’t work as road cost don’t go away because you use a different motive power at the car, any fuel tax would just get re-applied somewhere else.

    The conspiracy theory should be redirected at the oil companies rather than the government.

  • Yeah sorry I didn’t mean to say compressed air was an energy source but a means to power our vehicles. I thought it might be interesting, I definitely thought it was interesting.
    I do get a little carried away sometimes.

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