Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

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The Penny Post

Those gossiping physicists

By Andrei Codrescu

Friends will sometimes say, “You have to meet X, you’ll love each other!” You meet X and you don’t love each other. Actually, you dislike each other at first sight. A good friend will be philosophical about it, shrug his shoulders and say, in the local parlance, “c’est la vie.” The trouble is, you’re all poets, working the same turf.

Then there is the thorny question of gossip, which is the Number One pastime of human beings. Only people without any friends discuss politics and philosophy without contextual gossip. An idea seems so barren and boring if unattached to a person! The best idea, even quantum mechanics, is so much more interesting when considered in the light of Heisenberg’s collaboration with the Nazis. And that’s not even gossip, that’s just history, unless one adds the piquant details of Heisenberg’s sexual liasons with Nazis.

Which brings up a question: Can there be a common endeavor, whether physics or poetry, that can remain objective when the researchers involved are also people? According to Peter Freund, one of the founding physicists of String Theory, in his book “A Passion for Discovery,” the answer is Yes and No. Theoretical physicists are intensely jealous human beings who gossip nonstop and go to great lengths to diminish or steal outright each other’s ideas. But for all that, they create science that explains the real world objectively, or at least until another theorist sets a new standard for objectivity. In physics, theories do not overthrow each other, as much as create new realities in which only their own laws work. Newton’s physics are not replaced by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which is not made obsolete by Heisenberg’s Quantum Mechanics, which is not erased by String Theory. We know this because both Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have been tested in the real world by things like nuclear bombs and particle generators. String Theory is still too theoretical for our technology, but it posits a number of alternate universes and, even without instruments, some of us know it’s true because we’ve been to them. You’re there right now, in universe nr. 6.

The reason for all these theories that eventually turn out to be true is that science is full of contradictions, and some brash and arrogant humans will not rest until they reconcile them. Arrogance is very important in this business, as is a sense that one is smarter than everyone else. What’s also very important is that everyone knows what everybody else is doing, and that involves a lot of gossip. Peter Freund notes that until recently, the world of theoretical physicists was pretty small, and it wasn’t hard to find out who was doing what (or with whom). These days, theoretical physics, like every other field, is a more crowded place, and were it not for the Internet, gossip would be a lot more difficult. As it is, we can now gossip at the speed of our keyboards.

The friend of the friend I was introduced to and didn’t like is now working on an essay to demolish my poetry esthetic, which he is familiar with, while I have no idea what he does. There are a million poets now. It might have been a good idea to find out what the guy did before I snubbed him. Poetry esthetics might seem a lot less imposing than theoretical physics, but it isn’t. Outlandish humans make both.

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