Monday, 19 December 2011

Prof Brian Cox: Physics or Metaphysics?

Much as I appreciate the work of the physicist Brian Cox in popularising scientific knowledge and countering nonsense or pseudoscientific "woo", there were a couple of occasions in his programme "Night with the Stars" on BBC2 TV last night where it seems to me he slipped from physics to metaphysics.
This was also noted by Arifa Akbar in a review in The Independent:
Physics began to sound first like metaphysics ("Particles that make this diamond are in communication with every one of you and with everything in the universe") and then, like Buddhism ("When I heat this diamond up, all the atoms in the universe change their energy levels... Everything is connected to everything else"). These wondrous statements made quantum physics seem suddenly clear cut, until it got complicated again.

Similarly David Butcher in The Radio Times:
he shows how diamonds are made up of nothingness, and how one such precious gem in the heart of London is in communication with the largest diamond in the cosmos. He also reveals how things can be in two places at once

It is good to see the actual equations of quantum physics, or a version of them, in this case Feynman's path-integration method, actually being shown in a popular presentation, but the interpretation given to it is just one of many, none of which are yet entirely satisfactory. The problem is that electrons are not analogous to "particles" of sand, although that term is still used to describe them. I sometimes think that they are perhaps more like a "cloud" or "swarm". Surely his interpretation of the Pauli exclusion principle is just plain wrong.


  1. Wave-particle duality has never been satisfactorily explained. Physics books talk about wave nature of electrons in Modern Physics chapter but chemical reactions are explained, as if electrons are particles in Chemistry books. Problem gets worse with the nature of light. Why should and how does light know that it has to behave like particle for Compton effect and like wave for polarisation? Neither teachers nor text books give satisfactory explanation (here in India). Can Britishers help us?

    Awani Kumar
    Lucknow, India

  2. Prof. Brian Cox wrote something about the way some have responded to his TV show. The key is "the subtle interconnectedness in quantum theory cannot be used to transmit information". I don't recall if this was clear from the TV show - difficult to convey in such a quick whirlwind tour of quantum physics.