Sunday, January 22, 2012

Not a Lot of Popularizers

1975 The Tao of Physics
1979 The Dance of the Wu Li Masters
1984 The Looking Glass Universe
1984 In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat
1988 The Symbiotic Universe
1988 A Brief History of Time
1989 Coming of Age in the Milky Way

The 1970s and 1980s produced a rash of popular books on physics. In 1994 came Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace, another book I bought along the way, but the curious thing is that string theory does not lend itself to popularization quite so much—either that or the hot air has cooled in this balloon: we don’t have a string of books on string theory; it is too evidently a theory based on pure mathematics. When one of those twin brothers goes off on a decades-long trip to outer space at speeds close to the speed of light—and returns to find the other twin an old man while he is still full of testosterone—why that’s a worthy plot. Trips into Hilbert space, a mathematical dimension, just don’t have the same sort of impact.

The less accessible a subject, the less it will be known to the public—and the more so, if it is deemed important, will it be wrapped in awe. Mathematics wins that prize hands down. I’ve been reading Morris Kline’s book, Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, a Christmas gift from Brigitte—she who knows what I need. It is not an attempt at popularization, to be sure, but the closest thing we’re likely to get. It was published in 1980 by Oxford University Press and tells the (I’m not kidding) nail-bitingly suspenseful story of the history of math. As Brigitte will testify, I’ve read many, many books of which, at first, I’ve understood at most, say, twenty percent of the content. I have some of the characteristics of the junk yard dog. This book is one of them. It is my conviction that anything made by humans is accessible—if only one makes the effort to penetrate the subject. Eventually, as John von Neumann said of math, you get used to it. And after years, one fine day, we find out that it’s true. The grand old patterns of human nature appear quite clearly again, and what felt like impenetrable fog becomes the same-old. The mild reward is that, at that point, you can eventually feel the problems the great but largely unknown names (who’s ever heard of Kronecker, Borel, Lebesgue , and Baire, for instance) actually felt as real. In my own case, alas, once I’ve penetrated the actual pattern of the thing, I tend to lose interest. I’m interested in the shape of things. For me it’s all about orientation. I appreciate the work of popularizers, and almost-popularizers like Morris Kline, because they let me get there faster.

Sometimes it does take decades to get anywhere at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve first started looking into physics—a subject entirely inaccessible until one has managed at least a certain level of comfort with mathematics, which, these days, is physics. Until then a vast complex field that throws huge shadows over everything, from practical life to cosmology, has the aspect of watching an elaborate thirteenth century Japanese drama unfold, told entirely in Japanese, and all you get is the emotional toning of the harsh shouts of the samurai engaged in its battles.


  1. I go through similar long-term getting-used-to-it learning bouts with mathematics -- which is a field that really needs more popularizations. I haven't read the Kline book, but I believe you entirely that you can have a suspenseful story of the history of math. But too many people don't ever get that side.

    I suppose it's to be expected, though -- good popularization, I think, is harder than the real thing. At least, in the sense that you don't just need to know what you're talking about, you need to know how to use metaphor, analogy, and anecdote to summarize it cleaning and convey the points without being too misleading. (I think relativity was helped a lot by the fact that this was partly the way Einstein actually thought, and the way physicists of his day still often communicated even with each other, so the form of the theory was already, as you say, halfway a literary endeavor despite being mathematical.)

    1. There is, of course, Goedel, Escher, Bach, which I suppose you have read. I didn't mention it here because I haven't reached that portion of Kline's book yet and so am saving it up for another post. That's something of a tour de force. Kline's theme in a sentence: We thought we were tracing God's thought and about to grasp Certainty, but, alas, it's just a human construct...

  2. Some things do take an awfully long time. I've done some things recently that took over 50 years - on and off, intense and desultory - and for the most part I did not even know that they had to be done way back when, but the need was there.

    I am going to try and remember Morris Kline, but I have already mixed his name up with that of Moritz Schlick... so good luck on that.

    1. You will enjoy the book. I don't know how Brigitte obtained it, but used volumes (or for all I know brand new ones) may be available via the source of any book. The Amazon...


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