22 April 2012

Earth Day, Feynman, Science, and Beauty

Today is Earth Day, which, having also been born in 1970, is as old as I am.  International celebrations of Earth Day began 20 years later.  Like anything else, the way in which people observe Earth Day will be varied, from complete apathy to total euphoria.  As science helps us understand our less-than-special place in the universe, we slowly come around to the idea that we share our environment with our fellow animals.  We abuse our environment to our own peril.  What constitutes "abuse" is sometimes cause for great debate.  Instead of adding fuel to that fire, I wish to focus here on the beauty of the natural world.

We all experience the world in different ways.  I am unfortunate enough to speak only English.  I envy those, like my wife, fluent in both English and Japanese, who possess ways of formulating thoughts for which the English language is not adequately equipped.  They are capable of seeing the world in ways that I cannot.  As someone who speaks English, I may have ways of seeing my surroundings that someone in, say, China cannot.  Then again, a person living in China may have some ways better than mine for seeing his or her environment.  Language helps us formulate thoughts, communicate them to others, and learn from others.

Mathematics is a language, and a very special one at that.  What makes it special is that it is universal.  I have been around people from other countries who I could not talk to in English.  But, once we started putting equations on a chalkboard, we could share our thoughts.  Physics enhances the beauty of mathematics by helping us understand our natural world.  I have always enjoyed the idea that mathematics is the language of the universe, but physics is the poetry.  Just like the words we think of when hearing the word "language," mathematics is a language that provides us with a unique way of seeing the world.

Unfortunately, too few people possess enough fluency in mathematics to really "see" the world in the way some scientists can.  The joy I acquire when probing for a physical understanding of what happens in a great sporting moment is as heart-stopping for me as the moment itself.  Keeping with the definition Socrates gave us for a wise person, the more I know, the more I realize what I don't know.  The desire to "know" why something happens pushed me into being a physicist.

There were other influences that pushed me into physics.  One was seeing Richard Feynman drop an O-ring into ice water during a hearing to determine the reason why the Challenger shuttle exploded on 28 January 1986.  I was mesmerized seeing a world-class physicist make something so complicated seem so simple.  Like many physicists of my generation, Feynman was one of several that we admired greatly.  Though I know that I'll never see the world as well as he did, I love the life-long struggle to see how close I can come.

I usually share a little bit of Feynman with my classes once or twice a semester.  Just this past Friday, I showed my Classical Mechanics students a few minutes of Feynman lecturing in 1964 to an audience at Cornell as part of his lecture series entitled The Character of Physical Law.  This was just about a year before Feynman got the call from Stockholm.  With all his charisma, charm, and enthusiasm for physics, Feynman ended the second lecture with some wonderful words about how mathematics helps us see beauty in the universe.  Click here for a YouTube video of his second lecture.  Go to about the 51:30 mark and watch until the end (about two-and-a-half minutes).  As Feynman says, "For you who don't know mathematics, it's really quite difficult to get a real feeling across as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature." Mathematics may be difficult, but it's well worth the effort to learn some of that wonderful language.

So, I celebrate Earth Day today by doing physics.  I hope to gain a little more understanding of the natural world and further appreciate its beauty.  

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