Thursday, 18 August 2011

Like A Neverending Circle, Like A Wheel Within A Wheel

So, physics is cool again [BBC News].  This happens every so often, and as far as I can tell there's a chaotic element to the cycle, but it's generally on the order of decades.  Professor Brian Cox seems to be taking a large amount of the credit and/or blame this time around, and it's partly deserved.  He's clearly passionate about the subject and puts it across very well to a lay audience (although his colleague Jeff Forshaw [YouTube] is the one to look out for if you want relativistic hyperbolic geometry to be fun!)

I don't think physics is cool because Brian Cox is involved though, eloquent as he is.  In fact, I think Brian Cox is fairly famous at the moment because he happened to be there at the right time.  The very beautiful Wonders Of The Solar System, for example, wouldn't have been made if there hadn't been a public enthusiasm for physics in the first place.  Take a look at America, where Carl Sagan's classic series Cosmos is currently being re-made.  I bet America hasn't heard of Brian Cox, let alone D:ream, and yet physics is kicking off there as well.

It's a cyclical thing, and it's always huge.  Take a look at Einstein as a classic example.  He was one of the first modern superstars, a moniker that is remarkable fitting,  truly famous across the globe, and yet most people had very little idea what he'd actually discovered.  A few decades later we had Richard Feynman, then Stephen Hawking.  It seems all you have to do to be a famous physicist is break the mould a little.  Playing a musical instrument aso seems to help;  step forward Dr Brian May PhD, and one of the greatest rock guitarists to have ever lived.  I also maintain, against much opposition, that Wayne Rooney and others like him are great physicists, even if they don't know how they do it.  So they only work with dynamics under 1g and narrowband air resistance?  Well, everybody has to specialise.

There's something deeper to physics-cool than celebrity endorsement and TV documentaries though.  Physics is cool because it makes you look smart.  Everybody seems to have a strange impression that physicists are particularly intelligent, that it's a subject for geniuses.  That's generally quite wrong, it's a remarkably simple subject if you get your head around the rules of the game.  It is exceedingly good at making you look smart though. 

I've lost count of the number of times I've "cleverly" fixed something using what I learned in physics classes at the age of 15.  Problem with the ice machine in the pub?  Well, that's a transformer, I recognise the coils, and it's making that grid of wires hot because electricity does that, and they melt the sheet of ice that comes from there.  But that wire is broken...

Shazzam, free drinks for the night and a reputation as a super-genius thrown in. You get to look like The Doctor and Sherlock thrown into one. Steven Moffat is clearly a physicist at heart.

Physics is cool because it gives you some very solid ground to stand on when you need to build an argument.  You know the basics, you can rule out daft ideas at a stroke and concentrate on what's actually real, in front of you, and how you can use it.  If you are faced with a problem you've never seen before you've got a head start, because you understand the rules the problem has to obey.  Sometimes, just sometimes, you solve a problem by going right back to first principles, and that feels particularly cool.