Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Beautiful Invisible – Giovanni Vignale ****

Whereas you might think of science as the opposite of art or literature – perhaps just as a collection of matter-of-fact observations and laws, lacking in emotion – there is just as much expression, imagination and beauty in our physical theories as there is in any poem or painting, physicist Giovanni Vignale argues here.
It is fundamental limits to our understanding that allow us to be imaginative, the book conveys. Reality is, at a deep level, inaccessible and unknowable, so we can only hope to describe it indirectly. We are forced to think creatively, to come up with stories and analogies, and to understand through metaphor and abstraction: scientific theories, the author says, “lie at the interface between the fictional and the real world.”
This may seem most obvious in the quantum mechanical world, where observations and experimental results don’t make intuitive sense, so we have to think outside the box when coming up with theories to make sense of them. But it is the same across all of physics, the book explains – fields, particles and all the rest are the result of the imaginative and creative thinking of physicists and have no physical existence in and of themselves.
Most of the examples the book chooses really get across the extent to which our descriptions of reality rely just as much on human imagination as on hard, matter-of-fact data. And, fittingly, much of the book is written in quite beautiful and poetic language.
The book has a particularly interesting section on the similarities between theories in physics and updated versions of classic pieces of literature. Think, for instance, of the modern takes on Shakespeare’s plays sometimes on television. Whilst these modern versions are superficially different from the original plays – the characters’ names may be different, or we might be in 21st century America rather than 16th century Italy – the underlying themes that are dealt with are the same, and there is a core storyline that remains whichever version you are watching. In this analogy, the core themes and core storyline are reality, with a physical theory being only a particular version or ‘representation’ of it we have come up with through creative thought, and only one of many theories that we could conceivably come up with that would serve just as good a purpose.
The Beautiful Invisible can be hard going at points. It combines a sophisticated philosophical outlook (about what reality is) and numerous references to literature (some pieces of which I know little about) with at times quite technical physics – with the section on electron spin being especially technical. It certainly took me out of my comfort zone on occasion. It is the kind of challenge that is enjoyable, however. And two aspects of physics are covered particularly well. One is entropy, and the other is the discussion around the violation of Bell’s inequality.
The book also wins points for uniqueness – I can’t recall reading anything quite like it before. It’s common for authors to point out that our theories are only imperfect representations of reality. But Vignale’s book explores the idea in much more detail than usual. All in all, it is an interesting perspective on theories in physics, which makes you appreciate science for the creative discipline it is.
Review by Matt Chorley

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