A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Commentary on “Particle Physics of Middle-Earth”

Santa Claus brought me a copy of Verlyn Flieger’s latest book There Would Always Be a Fairy Tale. I have spent the last week reading it, and wondering if I should go back and fix my old posts wherever she addressed a topic about which I’ve blogged. For example, the essay “Re-creating Reality” starts with, “Let us begin by acknowledging the obvious: fiction by its very nature is escapist.” and continues from there to make clearer observations than I did in “Maslow’s Hierarchy”.

But then I got to the essay entitled “Words and World-Making: the Particle Physics of Middle-earth”. Oh, dear. She starts by citing John Wheeler, and that is all to the good. Unfortunately, Fritjof Capra makes an appearance as well. The Tao of Physics shouldn’t be used for anything of consequence. (Optional rant below.) But the thing I’d like to get out into the blogosphere is a better conception about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Prof. Flieger writes, “If we measure position, we will disrupt momentum; if we measure momentum, we must forego position. The measurement of either forecloses the measurement of the other.” I’m fine with this, up to the word “forego”. The rest is not what Heisenberg (or Wheeler) said.

Momentum and position are “complementary”. You can measure them both, but the more precision you demand about one, the less you can have in the other. That’s all. Nothing is foreclosed. In fact, you can turn it to your advantage.

Telescope Glamor Shot

Part of the Very Large Array

The Very Large Array (apparently there are hobbits naming things at NRAO) is an extreme example. They want to detect radio photons, of which they want to know both the position (i.e., they want the photon to hit the telescope) and the momentum (in the lateral dimension). They use a telescope 22 miles across so they deliberately measure the photon’s position very badly, which means they can measure its direction of travel (related to its lateral momentum) with exquisite precision.

Thing is, the essay doesn’t need either Wheeler’s general relativity or Capra’s hippies. Prof. Flieger proposed an analogy: that words to Tolkien are the measuring devices of nature, and the speakers of those words are the observers. This is perfect, and it leads to another comment by Heisenberg, less famous but much more relevant:

This again emphasizes a subjective element in the description of atomic events, since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer, and we have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess, and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal.
Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, Lecture 3.

Less Germanically phrased: to look at something in the world, we have to have a question in mind. Those questions are written in a language. The language determines what we observe.

This is exactly where Prof. Flieger’s essay ends up. Gimli’s speech about the mountains of Moria is a beautiful example of how using three different observational devices – the senses of elves, dwarves, and men – leads to different ideas of the world, and therefore each race carries with them ideas about the observed phenomena “in the language that they possess”.

Coda: Heisenberg vs. Celebrimbor

Another pair of complementary variables under the Uncertainty Principle are energy and time. The more precisely the energy of a quantum state is constrained, the longer it can last without decaying. The Elves wanted “to preserve all things unstained,” said Elrond (II,ii), but to do that means the energy of each body would have to be fixed, and life would be impossible. Eru knew what he was about.

Optional Rant

The Tao of Physics makes a big deal out of the fact that English translations of texts from Eastern religions use a lot of the same words that quantum physicists use. This is a fundamental logical error – we are using those words as metaphors for the mathematics, and the Eastern mystics are not. Worse, the physics Capra uses is out of date. He uses a bootstrap model of the S-matrix that isn’t borne out by experiment any longer. I would cut him some slack on this, since his book was already at the printers when the J/ψ particle was discovered and S-matrix theory became an academic curiosity, useful mostly to morons. However, if you want to keep the mantle of Science on your shoulders, you have to change your theories when new evidence arrives. Later editions of TToP didn’t change. The Standard Model is, well, the standard now, and it doesn’t sound much like TToP anymore.


A Faërie Addendum


King Arthur Has Returned


  1. But, Joe, how do you really feel about S-matrix theory. Be honest.

    And as you well know, new scholarship requires new articles, not revision of the old.

    Just started reading Flieger’s book this morning.

    • Joe

      Ha – nobody’s clicking through that link. Joke completely failed.

    • Joe

      I held off on replying, to find out how many people would click on the link and thereby get the joke. Not many, it turns out.

  2. You show us why it is so important that people like yourself are involved in this kind of discussion.
    Your assertion that “language determines what we observe” is very important. It displays the limitation of knowledge. It also reminds us that comparing texts written in different eras is essentially problematic. I try to remind my children that the writers of the bible were not trying to write modern science and doing it badly. They were writing an entirely different kind of literature and doing it very well indeed!

    • Joe

      Well, if we go by sales figures, they’re the most successful authors of all time!

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén