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ANAHITA  December 1999

ANAHITA December 1999

Subject:

From:

Don Walter <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Women and Gender in the Ancient World <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 25 Dec 1999 19:20:13 -0800

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text/plain

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Physics envy affects some social scientists, and is analogous to the penis
envy that Freud attributed to a lot of his patients (anybody remember
Freud? What a quaint old fart he sounds like, these days!).  I am a retired
applied mathematician (an old fart of different species), who studied
Quantum Physics quite hard; as with the precipitating incidents in
Rashomon, Heisenberg seems to have announced a principle which means many
different things to different people.  Some of these are helpful
popularizations of actual quantum physics; but most of the things that
people report as "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle" may be helpful to
_them_, but should not be taken as vouched for by physics or physicists.
My particular understanding of H's principle is, I claim, fairly closely in
touch with what many presently active physicists mean by it; and that
principle is really quite difficult to popularize in an adequate way.
Certainly it is properly understood as undermining determinism; but its
_positive_ results, which are exceedingly interesting, are very hard to
represent in fields outside of physics.  So popularizations can
legitimately claim, I assert, that determinism was indeed deeply undermined
by all of quantum physics, as epitomized by H's principle.  But I deny that
anything easily comprehensible was put in its place at the same time.  The
product form of his principle, quoted by someone else on this list, earlier
in this discussion, is usually interpreted by physicists _not_ to say that
you cannot locate an atom (you can), but rather that if you locate it very
precisely at the moment of your observing it, you will necessarily have so
poor a notion of its velocity, that its position a moment later is
essentially unknowable. But how to translate that curious finding, into a
helpful analogy for social observations, is not very clear to me.
        The Being of light is another difficult topic, about which most physicists
with whom I have tried to discuss it, preferred not to commit themselves to
any comfortable "picture" ("pictures" being one of the things that
conventions of quantum physics generally deny usefulness to)---- wonderful
sentences like that are the kind of thing that emerges, when one tries to
capture what Heisenberg and his buddies _do_ say.

So, continue deconstructing or whatever literary or social-science thing
you like, but please don't claim that very many physicists agree with your
story about Heisenberg's principle--- unless you've surveyed them
specifically on your proposed interpretation (and of course, the story of
Heisenberg the man is controversial for different, less abstruse, reasons).

Don Walter

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Anahita's archives: http://lsv.uky.edu/archives/anahita.html

Diotima's address: http://www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/gender.html

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