Explaining Theoretical Physics Is Complicated

Most people (strange though this might sound) don’t actually personally know any theoretical physicists; it is for this reason that whenever some story about theoretical physics makes the news (such as Stephen Hawking’s recent pronouncement that he doesn’t believe in black holes anymore), my lay friends tend to turn to me requesting an explanation.

And I can do it: I understand most of the issues involved, at least in principle. But the problem with theoretical physics (and probably a great many other disciplines as well), is that before you can explain something to a lay person, you need to spend about twice as long explaining what you are explaining*, and it can be pretty difficult to maintain the interest of your audience long enough to reach the punchline.

For example, in order to understand the basis for Hawking’s new statement, you need to understand:

  1. What a black hole is (and thankfully, decades of science fiction have allowed this to permeate the popular consciousness)
  2. The difference between an event horizon and an apparent horizon
  3. The black hole information paradox (at least in very general terms, i.e: “it doesn’t sit well with physics if information is destroyed.”)
  4. Quantum Entanglement (there is no intuitive way to explain this) and how it gives rise to a “fire wall.”
  5. The Equivalence Principle, and why the black hole firewall paradox violates it.

In some ways, I almost feel like a comic book would be a more effective way to explain this, since at least then there could be exciting visuals to go along with it.

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*A good example of this is in my description of my Master’s Thesis.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to Explaining Theoretical Physics Is Complicated

  1. I don’t have any comic books, but there is an excellent youtube video on the subject with some stick figure illustrations in it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXTGInIbD_Q

  2. MathPi says:

    As a former amateur theoretical physicist I can relate. A great quote by Einstein comes to mine “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” But this is indeed harder for subjects which are based on lots of background knowledge such as modern physics.

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