More On Stories In Science

In a previous post I commented on the role of stories in science.

Storytelling is increasingly important in business (see eg here) so it’s interesting to elaborate on it’s use in technical areas, even including quite complicated ones. This should help in addressing the problem of the curse of knowledge that has important business implications.

On this theme, here’s an extract from a post by Michael Nielsen (some knowledge of physics required):

On the other hand, though, I think the link between success in physics and a good grasp of stories could be extended to many of the best and brightest regardless of research topic. Einstein’s real breakthrough with Special Relativity was a matter of storytelling– people knew before Einstein that Lorentz transformations would solve the problems with Maxwell’s Equations, but thought it was too weird. Einstein showed that not only was it the right solution, but it had to be that way, and he did it by providing stories to make it all make sense (again, see some earlier posts: one, two). Schroedinger’s equation is in some sense a story that makes Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics palatable (the theories are mathematically equivalent, but as I understand it, nobody could make heads or tails of Heisenberg’s stuff). And when you get down to it, what are Feynman diagrams but little stories about what happens to an electron as it moves from point A to point B?

Yes, in some sense, the equations are the main thing. But when you look at the history of physics, you find again and again that the real giants of the field are the people who matched an interpretation to the equations, who came up with stories to explain it all. Any fool with a computer can manipulate equations, but it takes real genius to explain what’s going on in a way that makes it make sense.

I don’t have a good answer to “What’s a photon?”, but at least I can say this: If you feel that interpretations and stories are an important part of physics, you’re in good company.


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