Convergence 2010 — Physics and Fantasy

Convergence 2010 — Physics and Fantasy

Perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, free energy and other fake science stories. Where do they come from and what does physics really allow?

Notes from a panel at Convergence 2010, with web links, comments, and one smart-assed quote.


Quite the cast. I remembered Pamela Gay from last year. I read Jennifer Oullette’s blog. I had read the works of of Robert Forward and Robert Schadewald years ago, and missed them. After the panel I got a chance to talk to Lois Schadewald and tell her that I had been a fan of her brother. I bought a copy of Worlds of Their Own, a book of his articles that she has edited.

There was some discussion of the importance of mathematics in physics. The panel was unanimous: If you are going to really understand physics you have to know some math. Not necessarily a lot: You can do a lot with High School Algebra and Trigonometry. However, the more the better. Since I spend most of my time around people with very little interest in math I really enjoyed this part of the panel.

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.—Robert A. Heinlein, .

Somebody in the audience mentioned the story that Einstein was not good at math. As the panelists immediately responded, this is simply not true. It is an urban legend. What is true is that develop General Relativity he needed to learn Tensor Calculus, and got help from a friend on that. Einstein was a physicist, not a mathematician. At the time he was in a race with David Hilbert to develop General Relativity. Hilbert was a mathematician, and Einstein knew he had serious competition.

What will physics be like in 2110? Physics as we know it now will not be overthrown. There are countless experiments to support the conclusions of quantum mechanics and general relativity. What may (hopefully will) happen is that those two theories will be joined in some more general theory, just as they extend rather than replace classical mechanics.

We can expect a lot of technological growth in the next century. Robotics will be a big field. Even now robots are being developed as personal aides in Japanese nursing homes. Space elevators: The physics is done. The problem is now engineering (a lot of hard engineering).

Somebody asked what people can do to support science. The answer, from Matt Lowry and Pamela Gay, was to support science education. Matt mentioned that in the high school physics course he taught he used a curriculum that had been developed back in the 1960’s, and was still good. He asked how many people in the audience knew about PSSC physics. I was proud to raise my hand. That was my High School physics class. There were two other hands raised in that crowded room.

Matt posted about the panel here. He was serving drinks at the Skepchick party both Friday and Saturday nights and remembered me when I stopped by. Of the few people who recalled PSSC, I suspect I was the only one wearing a kilt.

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