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Theoretical Physics, Minus the Physics

September 27, 2008

The great iPete introduced me to the work of rock-star physicist Brian Greene several years ago, and I returned the favor this week by noticing that he was coming on a local radio show. Listening to the podcast was enlightening, as I tried to keep up with his entry-level discussions of string theory, multiverses, the elusive Theory of Everything, the Large Hadron Collider, and Greene’s careful contention that a little black hole never hurt anyone. All of which left me a little dizzy, but which also got me thinking about some of the underlying themes in what he was saying:

– raising children, whether through parenting, teaching, or mentoring, and the importance of nurturing kids in their inborn curiosity about science.

– the importance of a wide community of non-professional scientists, and the way in which the world of formal science is beholden to a population of amateur scientists. It reminded me of the Christian/religious world, where many formerly professionally religious people who doing much more important work now as amateurs. And I also thought of my friend Jon who is a super-snappy web guy, but also an amateur presidential historian– it’s like his alter-ego or something.

– the limitations of our knowledge, and the urgent need for humanity to question the answers inherited from our forebears, and to passionately press ahead into what is unknown. Einstein was a genius, in fact keeping a notepad by his deathbed in case of any last-second epiphany. But the second his work was completed, a legion of theoretical physicists stormed the gates of his work, finding the holes and proving him wrong and taking his work to the next level. In this way, Einstein is honored by those who come after him, even and especially when they show his shortcomings, limitations, and mistakes.

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