Studying Science in My Retirement Years–Breaking the Science Barrier

I am listening to From Eternity to Here by Sean Carroll and although I can understand his words I doubt I understand what he’s trying to tell me.  The book is about time and entropy, and how they are seen from classical physics, relativity, and quantum physics.  I read and listen to a lot of science books, but I believe there’s a science barrier that I can’t break through.  I’ve also been reading Brian Greene and Lawrence M. Krauss, whose books often overlap what Carroll is covering.  These books are fantastic, both in the quality of writing and research, and in scope of topic.  They take the reader to the edge of space and time and describe the cutting edge of scientific knowledge.

The fruits of my study show a murky comprehension at best.  I can understand science at the level Galileo and Newton understood it, but 21st Century science is magical and closer to science fiction, lots of razzle-dazzle.  I’d like to truly see where science is pointing.  I’d like to grasp the experimental logic of how scientists got there.

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I’m sixty years old and I never stopped trying to understand reality.  The older I get the more sure I am that religion has nothing to say about the nature of reality.  In recent years I’ve come doubt the validity of philosophy.  Logic and rhetoric can be very seductive, but also deceptive.  I am quite confident that science is the only system that explains reality. 

But I’m not sure I can understand science’s explanation!

What’s hilariously ironic, is we believers in science must take so much of what we’re taught about science on faith.

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I struggle to make sense of quantum physics.  I wish they’d stop talking about cats and talk about actual experiments.  When science writers try to convey quantum physics they end up talking in metaphors that just don’t make a lot of sense.  Black holes and cosmology have a conceptual reality that makes sense, even though I can’t understand why information won’t be destroyed if it fell into a singularity.  I was very lucky to read The Information by James Gleick before reading these books, because information theory does make sense to me, just not at the quantum mechanics level yet.

When little kids ask their mommies where everything comes from and their moms answer “God created everything” – that’s a big convenient cheat.  Moms really don’t know or don’t want to take the time to explain what science has learned about the nature of reality.  The truth is out there, at least part of it, and it’s not what Fox Mulder and Dana Scully discovered with the help of Chris Carter, or anything you can learn from prophets and their religions, or even from Plato and Aristotle, and their philosophical descendants.

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If you want to know the truth you have to study science.  It’s the only game in town.  Trust me.  I’ve read hundreds of books searching for the truth, and it all distills down to that.  Religion and philosophy can take you down years of blind alleys.

How badly do you want to know the truth?  Bad enough to study math?  Yeah, I thought so.  At 60, I don’t think I can go back and pick up where I left off after my B in Calculus I.  Without being a math whiz, how close can we come to really understanding science?  Without math, how close can anyone get to understanding what science has to teach?  I don’t want to accept science on faith.  Nor should anyone else.

In school and college I studied physics, chemistry and biology.  I know a fair history of science and great experiments, and how we gained the scientific knowledge we have up until around Einstein.  This is classical science.  It’s the science at the world’s eye view of things, where most experiments can be repeated in the classroom.  I’ve explored the larger world of astronomy with telescopes and books, and the mechanical universe makes sense too.  It’s when cosmology melds with particle physics and the quantum reality that my mind fails to grasp what’s going on.

Since I never had my own personal atom smasher, I’ve never really understood how scientists know what they know about the zoo of sub-atomic particles, much less quantum physics.  Because this world is invisible, and exploring it is so mathematical, science writers often resort to analogies, metaphors, similes, and thought experiments to explain this frontier of reality.  These stories sound wonderful, but they don’t help me see what’s really happening.  Classical experiments in gravity, optics and electricity have a immediate truth to them that doesn’t work when studying particle physics.  Chemistry is abstract, but models of molecular bonds help picture it.  The microscope gives biology a direct view.  Animations of the sub-atomic world help me picture things, but I’ve been told my whole life these animations are wrong.

What I need to do is go back to the 1600 and retrace all the experiments that were done to set the stage for particle physics.  That might help me conceptualize quantum mechanics.

I did find Following the Path of Discovery – Repeat Famous Experiments and Inventions – Hands on Activities for High School and College Students.

I once bought a CD-ROM copy of Scientific American’s “The Amateur Scientist” but I can’t find it now.  Too bad, it’s out of print and selling for $852 used.  But it contains the complete run of the “The Amateur Scientist” from Scientific American.  That would be a great way to spend my retirement years, doing those experiments myself.  But DIY science has gone out of fashion.  SciAm dropped “The Amateur Scientist” in 2001.  Heathkit and Edmund Scientific gave up on budding scientists years ago.  Make Magazine has rekindled the old DIY craze, but it’s not quite the same.

The big movement in Education now-a-days is STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  Maybe it will reignite a rediscovery of science learning through teaching classic experiments.

PBS should create a television series on historical science experiments.  There’s lots of stuff on the net about fun science experiments, like what Steve Spangler does, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  PBS NOVA comes close sometimes, but they don’t follow an experiment step-by-step, but instead create a historical summary of it.

And I might not need to see historical experiments performed to understand particle physics.  Studying the history of quantum mechanics from the beginning, starting with Michael Faraday, might do the trick.  I’m reading 21st century books when I might need to read 19th century books first, or good histories of that period.

I’ve often wondered if I should start a reading program that covered the history of science.  My problem might be I’m reading about modern science without enough historical foundation in science.

If I was an ambitious blogger I’d create a timeline of science history, and then link the best science books I could find to the timeline.  Maybe someone has already done that?  So far I haven’t found such a timeline, so I might get to work on it.  It would be a great retirement project that could take years.

Here’s an example.  In 1838, Michael Faraday noticed a strange light arc between the cathode and anode in a glass tube.  It took science until 1897 to discover this light was electrons.  At the time science thought atoms were the smallest bits of matter.  What are the best science books that cover those years and experiments?  How would I arrange such books on a timeline?  What other science experiments were going on between 1838-1897 that should go on the timeline too.  What books cover their history?

I’m rearranging my books right now, so this gives me an idea.  I want to start a reading project that starts with 1600 and moves forward in time.

JWH – 8/22/12