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ANAHITA  December 1999

ANAHITA December 1999

Subject:

Re: Physics and penis envy

From:

Janeen Grohsmeyer <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Sun, 26 Dec 1999 01:41:26 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

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Don Walter wrote:


>Physics envy affects some social scientists, and is analogous to the penis
>envy that Freud attributed to a lot of his patients

Please excuse me if I am incorrect, but from the above statement I receive
the impression that you perhaps believe social sciences are "female"
subjects, while physics is a "male" subject.  Is this what you meant to
imply?

And does it then follow that you believe that men are better at physics
and/or math than women?


> (anybody remember
>Freud? What a quaint old fart he sounds like, these days!).

Perhaps there is a reason for that.


 I am a retired
>applied mathematician (an old fart of different species), who studied
>Quantum Physics quite hard

I think almost everyone who studies Quantum Physics studies it "quite hard."
I certainly did.

; as with the precipitating incidents in
>Rashomon,

Would you perhaps care to share your information about these "precipitating
incidents" with those of us on this list who are not applied mathematicians
or students of Quantum Physics?

>Heisenberg seems to have announced a principle which means many
>different things to different people.

Rather like Freud, in that regard.

 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,

I think one of its positive results *is* the undermining of determinism.

 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.

May I take the above to mean that while Heisenberg's uncertainty principle
is difficult to explain in its entirety to those not familiar with physics,
determinism (sometimes referred to popularly as the Newtonian view or a
clock-work universe) was (as you say) deeply undermined, or (as I said),
"Ultimately we can NOT know everything.  Complete knowledge (like complete
truth) is denied."

  But I deny that
>anything easily comprehensible was put in its place at the same time.

I was not aware that such an assertion had been made.  Would you please be
more specific?

 The
>product form of his principle, quoted by someone else on this list,

That was I.

earlier
>in this discussion, is usually interpreted by physicists _not_ to say that
>you cannot locate an atom (you can),

Yes, Veronica made that point nicely in her post, and also stated that atoms
do exist.

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.

Yes, that is an excellent description of the implications of the principle.
I was trying to communicate that same idea when I said, "You can never know
exactly how fast something is going or what its mass is or where it is."

I have understood the principle to mean that the uncertainty in position or
in momentum (momentum = mass*velocity) can never be zero, and that the more
exact you get with one measurement, the less exact you can be with the
other.  Would you say that this is an adequate description?

> But how to translate that curious finding, into a
>helpful analogy for social observations, is not very clear to me.


For me, it is a reminder that we can never know all there is to know about
any topic.  I think we all know that anyway, but sometimes we can get ...
tunnel-vision, a fervent belief in our own interpretation, and an
unwillingness to look at new evidence, or to reexamine old evidence.

Knowing that "Complete knowledge is unattainable" is not just a saying, but
is an underpinning of the entire universe, might help remind us that we
don't know everything, and might humble us in our occasional arrogance.
(Rather like that story about the Zen master who kept pouring tea into the
already full teacup of his student.)

This is, in my opinion, one of the positive effects of the popularization
about the undermining of determinism.  We have to admit there are things we
don't know, and can't know.


>        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)

True. The universe is not only stranger than we do imagine; it's stranger
than we can imagine.  (I am afraid I can't remember who said that, but it's
very apt.)  Our minds, our senses, are not adequate to "see" the inner
workings of the universe.

But we try, because it's one of our ways to understand.

---- wonderful
>sentences like that

Please excuse me, but I am not sure to which wonderful sentence you are
referring.  Could you specify?

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

The mentions about physics and Heisenberg's principle on this list include
(in addition to the above discussion):

from Phoebe:
"Just as physicists now know that every physical observation affects the
event observed ... "

and from Veronica:
>>Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states, I believe, that it is
>>impossible to know exactly where a given atom is.  It does not follow,
>>therefore, that atoms do not exist.

Would you disagree with either of these statements?

If so, can you please explain to us why?  I would like to learn more about
this, and I certainly don't want to go about disseminating inaccuarate or
misleading information.

Sincerely,
Janeen Grohsmeyer (who has had no training in social sciences, but who did
spend some time studying physics, mathematics, and electrical
engineering.)(quite hard.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

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

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