Not going gently into that good night

I’ve been thinking a bit about the ways in which I am not now, and have never really been, a physicist.

Einstein was a physicist. His Gendanken experiments (which involved thinking about physical objects doing physical things in a space our minds have evolved to handle reasonably well) famously – or so we are told – led in part to special and general relativity. These theories seem to do a good job describing how a bunch of hot and cold balls – planets and stars and such – interact with each other in the big universe. Clearly it falls short of perfection, for it allows for, and in so doing predicts, singularities. They’re bad. Differing opinions are wrong.

On the other side of the 20th century physics coin is quantum mechanics. Long before its inception Joseph-Louis Lagrange devised elegant equations and methodologies for describing the dynamics of physical systems, like bouncing balls, and even planetary balls and stars, and such. So elegant and powerful were Lagrange’s ideas that they easily weathered the storm of quantum ideas, and ultimately the elementary particle zoo to which they gave birth. One can not study QM and HEP without encountering a Lagrangian or ten.

All of this is “physics” in a deep sense, as all these notions rest on methods that are useful in describing the dynamics of bouncing balls. QM may take the balls and spread them out in very non-intuitive ways, and evolution has evidently not equipped us to think about such matters clearly, or even rationally, but the mathematical methodology used to describe these bizarre physical systems can also be used to describe the motion of a bouncing ball. It’s all very physics-y. We connect with it. It’s somehow, shall we say, bosonic.

In a perfect world – universe – all particles would be bosons. Of course, we wouldn’t exist in that case, but that merely heightens the perfection of the purely bosonic universe. But less than a century ago this bouncing bosonic perfection was upended by the need to introduce fermions into the mix.

Many of the things that make sense to our ape brains, at least when thinking about bosons, completely befuddle the ape when thinking about fermions. Equations used to describe bouncing bosons do not apply to fermions.

To bring fermions into the fold required the introduction of the Dirac algebra, Dirac spinors, and the Dirac equation, exploiting mathematical methods that are decidedly not of the bouncing ball variety. In a sense, Dirac theory was the least physics-y theory of the last century. But very quickly ways were developed to incorporate Dirac’s mathematical objects into Lagrange’s. And all was well. Our ape brains were happy, and from that point onward treated this intrusion of fairly pure mathematics into the comfortable world of bouncing physics as a fluke.

Maybe that’s too strong, but the science media, when it turns its focus to TP, concentrates on the mysteries of black holes, and the weirdness of quantum entanglement. Needing eyeballs to stay in business, they frequently use both of these phenomena to hypothesize the possibility of time travel, or warping to a distant part of this universe – or even into another. Zounds! (Look, mom, I’m a hologram!) Let me see that article! This is huge – or at least it will be for the next 15 minutes.

But that’s all bouncing ball/ape brain pop science. We like it. (Hell, I like some of it.) What we, the people, do not like is your nerdy abstract Dirac theory. We spit on it – ptui.

And yet, of all the brilliant notions to which the 20th century gave birth (other than Duchamp’s toilet, of course), none is even remotely as important as the Dirac spinor, and all the mathematical machinery surrounding it. But ape brains short circuit when thinking about this stuff – spzzzt crackle spork. “Nerds! I want to hear more about worm holes and entanglement!”

Sigh. And this is why I am not a physicist. My thinking does not follow a line from Lagrange (or Newton) onward, it starts with Dirac. As a consequence, over the last 50 years, my failure to understand the intellectual motivations of physicists has been profound. Worse, I even didn’t understand that I didn’t understand.

My published research in some fundamental sense arose out of a desire to make sense of, and generalize, Dirac spinors. A lot of this research is just pure mathematics, but nearly all of it was focused on that one goal. (It goes without saying – or, no, it doesn’t go without saying, which is why I feel the need to say it – but personally I am quite happy with the progress I made, ending with a hyper-spinor that includes leptons and quarks and all their antiparticles, and their internal symmetries, and resting on extremely elegant mathematics. Resonant mathematics, as I like to call it. Anyway, it’s cool. So cool.)

But, ok, so big deal. These ideas did not catch fire, either because they’re misconceived (chortle), or for the reasons outlined above. In truth, during the decades of work on the hyper-spinor the reaction of the mainstream was often to douse it liberally with fire retardant piss. Well, I’m not a physicist, and that’s their prerogative, and during those decades of pushing that work into publication I had little choice but to allow myself to be pissed upon, and to encounter this antipathy with counter arguments as best I could. Still, although frequently unpleasant, the effort did lead to a publication or two.

But whatever demons drove me to that sometimes self-destructive obsession have mostly left the building. I no longer publish anything that would require me to deal with, and respond to, antipathetic bile. Which is why I have elected to have this blog be comment-free. So why do I bother? Well, I love writing. And in the words of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.