What’s bad about this habit [in physics]

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« on: September 01, 2019, 02:08:54 pm »
What’s bad about this habit

N. David Mermin

Space and time and spacetime are not properties of the world we live in but concepts we have invented to help us organize classical events.  Notions like dimension or interval, or curvature or geodesics,  are  properties not of the world we live in but of the abstract geometric constructions we have invented to help us organize events. As Einstein once again put it, “Space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions under which we live.”In some ways the point may also be easiest to see  in  quantum physics,where time and space refer ultimately to the time and place at which information is acquired or, if you prefer,  at which a measurement is made.

In my youth I had little sympathy for Niels Bohr’s philosophical pronouncements. In a review of Bohr’s philosophical writings I said that “one wants to shake the author vigorously and demand that he explain himself further or at least try harder to paraphrase some of his earlier formulations.” But in my declining years, I’ve come to realize that buried in those ponderous documents are some real gems: “In our description of nature the purpose is not to disclose the real essence of the phenomena but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of our experience,” and “Physics is to be regarded not so much as the study of something a priori given, but rather as the development of methods for ordering and surveying human experience.”

I’m suggesting that this characterization of physics by Bohr is as true of classical physics as it is of quantum physics. It’s just that in classical physics we were able to persuade ourselves that the abstractions we developed to order and survey our experience were themselves a part of that experience. Quantum mechanics has brought home to us the necessity of separating that irreducibly real experience from the remarkable, beautiful, and highly abstract superstructure we have found to tie it all together.
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