Some more on writing physics

Let me call your attention to another peculiarity about writing physics, pertinent to this very lecture. Humanists read papers. Physicists give talks. The tradition of talking informally is so strong that most physicists are shocked when they discover that people in other disciplines read their talks from a prepared text. This is only the third or fourth time in my life that I’ve done it. Only sissies read their talks. Since the invention of the overhead projector an exception to this rule has gradually emerged. It’s OK to read your talk provided you write it on plastic and project it on a screen so everybody else can see what you’re reading. With this compromise you get neither the precision of the written language, nor the spontaneity of informal speech. It’s an art form that seems to have become particularly popular with university administrators.

I’m lecturing to the weekly physics colloquium at Harvard in two weeks. Lecturing at my alma mater makes me nervous. There’s a deep fear that at the end somebody will stand up and say “What, we gave you a degree? Hand it back!” Not that it matters very much at this stage, but these old anxieties die hard. What I’d like to do is read them a paper I wrote several months ago for a festschrift, in which I tried very hard to home in on “quantum nonlocality” in the hope of demonstrating the absurdity of some of its claims. You can’t do that without taking exquisite care with your verbal formulations. It just won’t work as an informal talk. It has to be read. But I worry that people will be so scandalized by this bizarre behavior that they will be unable to listen to what I say. It’s unfortunate that physics has become so rigidly informal.

Having traveled back to my college days, let me conclude as I began, back in high school. I took a test that was supposed to tell me what to do with my life. I think it was called the Kudor Preference Test. You were asked questions like “Would you rather spend an hour reading to an invalid or taking apart a clock?” You answered the questions by punching holes in an answer sheet with a pin.

They told me afterwards that the test showed that I had two great interests: science and writing. So, they said, I should aim to become the editor of a science journal.

Implicit in this recommendation is the distinction, remarked on earlier in this series by Jonathan Culler, between writing and writing up. Clearly the proprietors of the test knew that scientists produced papers, but evidently they thought that this was writing up — not writing. Writing was done in editorial offices; in laboratories you only wrote up.

But writing physics is different from both writing up physics, and the editorial refinement of written-up physics. While there has to be something there before the writing begins, that something only acquires its character and shape through writing. My transformation of the spoon into a dome with mosaics is clearly not writing up physics. I like to think it is writing physics. The distinction between the two might shed some light on current debates in the “science wars” between physicists and social constructivists. The physicists believe that there is a clean distinction between objective truth and mere social convention. They view physics as a process of discovering and writing up objective truths. Social constructivists — at least the ones I find interesting — maintain that objective truth and social convention are so deeply entangled that it’s impossible to separate the two. For them physics is not writing up. Physics is writing.

Who would have thought, before Einstein’s 1905 paper, that simultaneity was a convention — not an objective fact — that clocks were not a useful invention for the recording of objective time, but that time itself was a useful invention for characterizing the correlations between objective clocks?

The issue in the debates of the “science wars” is not whether the physical can be disentangled from the social – the real, from the conventional – but whether their deep entanglement is trivial or profound — a fruitful or a sterile way of looking at the scientific process.

The great Russian physicist L. D. Landau was said to have hated writing. He coauthored an extraordinary series of textbooks in collaboration with E. M. Lifshitz, who did all the writing. From my perspective Lifshitz operated in a coauthor’s paradise. He was linked to nature through Landau, who was in deep nonverbal communion with her, but had no investment whatever in the process of articulating that communion.

It is also said that even Landau’s profound technical papers were actually written by Lifshitz. Many physicists look down on Lifshitz: Landau did the physics, Lifshitz wrote it up. I don’t believe that for a minute. If Evgenii Lifshitz really wrote the amazing papers of Landau, he was doing physics of the highest order. Landau was not so much a coauthor, as a natural phenomenon — an important component of the remarkable coherence of the physical world that Lifshitz wrote about so powerfully in the papers of Landau.

So the testers were right about my interests — just wrong about how I ought to exercise them. They ought to have said, “You like science and you like writing, so be a scientist. Go forth young man and write science.”

From the Mermin piece, from which, I quoted in my earlier post. And, before I forget, a must-read piece!


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