Social Constructionism in Physics and … Everything!

I just finished a semester at the University of Nevada focusing on Public Policy as part of a Masters in Public Administration. Throughout the semester we focused on rational models of public policy and decision-making, but we constantly returned to the ways in which those models break down and cannot completely inform ad shape the public policy making process. We select our goals via political processes and develop rational means for reaching those political ends. There is no way to take a policy or its administration out of the hands and minds of humans to have an objective and rational process free of the differences which arise when we all have different perspectives on an issue.

 

Surprisingly, this is also what we see when we look at physics, and it is one of the big stumbling blocks preventing us from linking Einstein’s theory of relativity with quantum mechanics. Throughout her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Amanda Gefter introduces us to the biggest concepts and challenges within the world of physics and how she and her dad attempted to make sense of those concepts on their own. A major influencer on the world of physics, and consequently on the adventure that Gefter took, was John Wheeler, who seemed to bring an idea of social construction to the rational and scientific world of physics. Wheeler described the idea of the self observing universe, to say that we are matter, observing other matter, creating our reality as we observe it. This idea exactly the idea of social construction in politics and governance that I touched on in the opening note. Gefter quotes a note in one of Wheeler’s notebooks, “Add ‘Participant’ to ‘Undecidable Propositions’ to Arrive at Physics.”

 

Social Constructionism is a theory from  the social sciences. It is used to describe the ways in which a society or group comes to understand the problems it faces: who is at fault for the problem, who receives a benefit from our problem solution, who has the right to complain about a problem, and in what order should we attempt to solve our problems? These are all serious questions to which there is no perfect answer. We cannot identify a perfectly rational answer that will satisfy everyone. Our individual preferences will always be at play and our interactions in the decision-making process will shape the outcomes we decide we want and the solutions we decide to implement to reach those outcomes. In a sense, these large political questions are like the undecidable propositions described by Wheeler. Politics is the outcome we arrive at when you add participants to undecidable propositions in society, and physics is what you arrive at when you add participants with limited knowledge and limited perspectives to the observation and understanding of major questions about the workings of the universe.

 

We use questions of social science to inform the way we think about our interactions with other people and how we form societies. Social Constructionism reminds us that what seems clear and obvious to us, may seem different to someone else with different experiences, different backgrounds, different needs, and different expectations. Keeping this theory in mind helps us better connect with other people and helps us see the world in new ways. Similarly, physics informs how we understand the universe to be ordered and how matter and energy interact within the universe. Recognizing that our perspective matters, when it comes to science and physics, helps us to consider our own biases and prior conceptions which may influence exactly how we choose to study and experiment with the universe. Keeping social constructionism in mind also helps us understand why we choose to study certain aspects of science and why we present our findings in the ways that we do. We may never be able to get to a purely rational place in either science or politics (though science is certainly much closer), but understanding and knowing where social construction plays a part will help us be more observant and honest about what we say, study, believe, and discover.
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Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

Finding Your Voice in Writing

Amanda Gefter’s book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, mostly focuses on physics and the complex state of how our leading physicists were thinking about the universe in 2014. The book also, however, focuses on Gefter’s journey into science journalism, about her life and experiences, about our quest for knowledge, and about the ways in which we try to express and share what it is we know and learn. A little over halfway through the book, Gefter writes about her first attempt at writing a book, and endeavor she undertook with her father.

 

Gefter struggled to write a book with her father that would be more than a repository for the knowledge that she and her father had gained over the years as they delved ever deeper into the complex physics of spacetime, relativity, and quantum mechanics. She describes her efforts to write a book and how her publisher described her final product as lacking her true voice. All her life, writing for a bridal magazine, writing academic papers, and trying to break into science journalism, Gefter had felt that she needed to write with a voice that was distinctly not her own. She had adopted the voice of a stuffy, old, British man for the academic papers she wrote in college, mimicking the style she saw in the academic papers around her, and her bridal magazine days early in her career seemed to lack any voice at all. To be able to write successfully, Gefter was challenged to find her true voice, and to use her voice to describe the science she loved and wanted so passionately to understand and be a part of.

 

She wrote about the feedback that her first editor, Katinka Matson, gave her regarding her first attempt at a book, “Matson felt it was the co-authorship that had muted my voice. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was Safe and Screwed, like their confusing co-authorship structure. You violate the laws of physics when you try to speak from two observer’s points of view simultaneously. Maybe you violate the laws of publishing, too. Maybe our book had been an impossible object from the start. Maybe it didn’t make sense to try to write a book using both our voices, since it would add up to no voice at all.” In trying to fit her voice in with her father’s voice, Gefter left something out of her writing. She felt that she could not write as herself, and as a result she adopted a different persona for her writing, a persona that lacked her energy and spark and that failed to authentically convey her own excitement and interest in the puzzling and sometimes paradoxical science of the universe.

 

The answer for Gefter was not necessarily to give up the idea of publishing a book with her father, her copilot on her journey though physics. The challenge and answer for Gefter was to figure out what she needed to do to write as herself, and early on in her writing career this meant developing her writing voice independently, and then learning to incorporate others people and elements.

 

In the passage above, Safe and Screwed are two characters that she introduces in Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn when talking about black holes and the experiences that two people would have if one crossed the event horizon of a black hole and the other did not. Safe would be outside the even horizon, alive and presumably happily floating along in space. Screwed, on the other hand, would be burned apart by Hawking radiation and the part of him not devoured by quantum particles would be pulled and stretched by the gravitational force of the black hole. Screwed and Safe are how Gefter came to understand what our experience of black holes would be like, and sharing their stories and perspectives was the type of innovative science writing that Gefter needed to cultivate to express her own voice. Throughout the book, Gefter references Screwed and Safe, and she brings in other characters to help us see what is taking place at the edges of our understanding of the universe. This was the voice that Gefter needed to develop. She needed to step beyond the safeness of stuffy academic writing and passionless editorial writing to be an authentic, yet possibly screwed, science writer.

 

In our own lives and activities we must do the same. We cannot simply write, think, or do the things that we have seen before us. We cannot adopt styles and personalities because we think that is what other people expect. To be authentic to ourselves, to be innovative, and to make an impact and a difference, we must be ourselves, cultivate our own voice, and we must not be afraid to show who we are. We are not all stuffy old British men, so we should not write, speak, or behave as if we are, simply because most people in our jobs act that way or because that is the model of success we have seen before. I don’t think we literally all act like stuffy old British men, but in our lives we adopt certain personalities not because those personalities express who we are, but rather what we think we want to be, and because those personalities signal to others that we are part of a tribe (or at list think we are/want to be) and that we can use the same words and hold the same virtues as others in the tribe. Moving forward, for society to grow, become more inclusive, and develop new innovations, we must find ways to be ourselves and be more creative in the way we interact with and relate to the world. Otherwise we will never be able to communicate our excitement about the corner of the universe that fascinates us, and we will never create the meaningful societal connections that form the cornerstone of society.

Cutting Through

The truly great thing about physics is that it is universal. Literally. What we discover about physics here in the United States is true in South Africa, and what is discovered in South Africa can be learned just as well in Vietnam, and it all holds true on Jupiter or in the Andromeda Galexy. Physics is based in mathematics and repeatable experiments and it can be understood anywhere. It takes our perceptions and it boils them down into their most simplistic forms, tests them, repeats the test, and then determines what is real and what is unsupported. This means that physics has the ability to help us understand things in incredible new ways. We can better understand the universe and how it is held together, but only if we can study the physics and step beyond ourselves to understand what the tests, experiments, and math are trying to explain to us.

For Amanda Gefter, this is one of the best parts of physics. It takes our expectations, our assumptions, and what we want to be true, and completely ignores it. A good scientist, during their search for what is real and what is not, is able to cut through the noise of our expectations, beliefs, and desires to see the science underneath, holding things together.

Gefter writes, “That was what I loved about physics—that moment of pure surprise when you suddenly realize that what you had thought was one thing is really something else, or that two things that seemed so different are really two ways of looking at the very same thing. It was the perennial comfort that comes from discovering that the world is not remotely what it seems.”

By cutting through the noise of humanity, physics helps us to see the world more thoroughly. The world and the universe are not the way they simply appears to us from our perspective on Earth. Much of how we interpret and understand the universe is through what we see, but so much of the universe does not emit electromagnetic radiation or react with light in any way. How we perceive the universe depends on our point of view, and of our experience as human beings living on our planet. What physics does, is move beyond our experience of the universe to tell us how things are at any point in the universe, not just on planet Earth today. If we accept the world as it appears to us, then we somehow cease to move forward, and we begin to live in a story that never completely captures the reality we experience around us. We begin to live in ways that don’t add up, that put us at the center and don’t allow for the types of evolution and adaptation that we need to live in this universe responsibly. Physics takes the stories that we tell and re-writes them, adjusting the language to be the language of mathematics, giving us a new perspective from which to tell our story.

Expressing Your Mind Through Writing

Writing is a great skill that helps open our own thoughts to ourselves and gives readers access to the mind of another person. When we are writing something, we take thoughts that are whirling around in our mind at a million miles per hour and give them shape and structure. We take those thoughts and organize them. We combine them and build logical steps between them, and we make sense of the sometimes random, sometimes disconnected, and sometimes vague thoughts that pass through our mind.

 

When we read, we get to peer behind the curtain at another person’s thoughts. Writing allows us to open a door into our mind for other people, to give them an idea of what is going on in our mind. Reading is a chance to think more deeply about something that another person has spent time organizing their thoughts around, and it is a chance to learn more about the universe from another person.

 

This is what Amanda Gefter loves about writing and reading. Gefter is a science journalist, but she did not set out to cover science initially. She knew she wanted to write, but writing about science seemed so dense, challenging, and in some sense far off, away from the world that she knew and could write about. But as she pursued science for her own hobby, she had opportunities to write about science that she never expected, and she began to see the importance of writing about science and serving as a door that could open complex physics to more people.

 

About writing, Gefter writes in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, “Writing, for me, was about muddling through ideas, turning them over, viewing them from every angle to see where they led, even if they only led back to themselves.” Gefter’s ideas are important because writing does not always need to be revelatory, novel, and ingenious. Sometimes writing can meander and not really take you any place. Sometimes writing can be circuitous and double back on itself. Writing helps the mind order itself, so even if your writing does not shape the world, it can still shape your mind. Even if you don’t plan on sharing your writing, getting thoughts down on the Word Doc or in a journal will help your mind.

 

Gefter continues, “My favorite stories and poems shined a spotlight on the writer’s thought process, exposing all of its cracks and contradictions. But the writing I did as a journalist was just the opposite. Its light revealed only the end products of thought, the conclusions.” Our writing can be a tool to help other people see our development of thoughts and ideas. It can help us show others that there are complex realities in this world that we ourselves are still working through. For Gefter, this was important to bring to the world of science, “Science journalism’s express goal was to hang over the writer’s mind a veil so opaque that the reader would mistake the writer’s thoughts about the world for the world itself—the world as seen from an impossible God’s-eye view, a paradigm of objectivity and at the same time a lie.” In the last part of the quote, Gefter criticizes science journalism for making everything seem as thought it has been solved and put together. When we approach science journalism from a point of finality, it makes it seem as though the science is not as riddled with challenges and contradictions as it truly is. Objectivity takes away the mystery and confusion of science and presents a fake reality. I believe that Gefter would argue that we need to show our thought process and honestly discuss what we do understand and what is still out there making scientists scratch their head. When we present science as just facts to remember and know, as if the puzzle of the universe has been solved, we turn people away, presenting science as just math and facts to memorize. Gefter would suggest that real science writing show people how to think critically and inquisitively about what they see around them, and invite them to think scientifically about the challenges still ahead of us.

 

The last part of Gefter’s quote that I will share is this, “For me, hiding the writer’s thoughts strips writing of its greatest gift: its ability to grant us access to other minds.” What we get when we write more openly about science, or any subject, is a greater dialogue between author and reader. Revealing our thought process, and taking the time to step back from objectivity at points, allows the reader to connect with us more thoroughly and see how our mind works. For a reader this process allows them to see the challenges in the area in which we write, and it gives them the chance to take the first step toward the debates and investigations taking place within our mind, and within a given field more broadly. How we do this will always depend on our subject, but I think the first step is to understand that people have different perspectives and that there is often no simple answer to anything. We can address other ideas and points of view, and we can provide evidence to support our own view. We cannot, however, simply present one point of view or one experiment in isolation and use our writing to say that we have found the one truth and the one answer, without demonstrating that other ways of thinking are possible.

Creating History

Physics often times does not align with what we expect. But really, there is no reason that the physics we experience here on our planet with our limited senses should lead us to perfectly predict how physics and reality play out across the universe. Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is an excellent physics book because it takes readers with little scientific background through the complex paradoxes and challenges of physics to explore the furthest reaches of our scientific thought. Author Amanda Gefter herself is not a physicist, and learned to understand physics first as a hobby, and later (as detailed in her book) as a bit of an obsessive search for the universe’s ultimate building block.

Along her journey, Gefter introduces us to John Wheeler, a physicist who wrote with an almost poetic style when describing the complex science that he worked on. Wheeler helps us understand that one of the things within human experience that is so fundamental to how we view reality, is not quite as solid as we would expect. He is quoted  by Gefter writing, “We used to think that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us.” When we study physics we are actually adjusting and changing the past. We are not looking at an independent system that existed before us a certain way. When we measure and observe the past, we actually can change it from the present. This is explained by Gefter with further help from Wheeler by describing experiments with photons to measure how sub-atomic particles travel. Light is made of photons, but it acts as a wave, with probabilities based on the wave function determining where the photons of the light will be. Once, however, we make an observation of a single photon, the probabilistic wave function ceases to exist, and the photon acts as a particle, and not as a wave. Up until we make our measurement however, the photon is a series of probabilities and behaves as a wave, the same way a wave behaves in the open ocean, and not as a particle on a direct path.

Gefter writes, “Delayed-choice experiments have been carried out in laboratories, and each time they’ve worked just as wheeler suggested. It’s an established scientific fact: measurements in the present can rewrite history. No, not rewrite. Just write. Prior to observation, there is no history, just a haze of possibility, a past waiting to be born. ‘There is no more remarkable feature of this quantum world than the strange coupling it brings about between future and past,’ Wheeler wrote. If observations we make today can create a billion-year-old past, so, too, can observations made in the future help build the universe we see today.”

In the quote above Gefter is describing the same experiments with photons, but looking at photos billions of light years away from us that had to travel across the universe and split on one side or another of a black hole, universe, or other star to reach one of our telescopes. The path taken by a given photon is best described by the probabilistic wave function with all the features, such as frequency and amplitude, of physical waves that we can observe on earth. But once we make an observation in a telescope to measure the path the photon took around a galaxy, black hole, or star, the wave function no longer describes the photon, and the photon has to have followed a set pathway, a pathway that was not determined until it reached our planet, billions of years after it was emitted from its original source.

The physics is beyond my ability to describe, but the key point is that we are human and have limited brain space and experiential ability. We can only experience first hand so many sensations and realities. More possibilities exist than we can experience and understand. Thinking that we can ever describe reality in the most comprehensive manner is a great dream for scientists and physicists to work toward, but we will always be limited by the fact that we are human and can only experience the world in so many ways. Things that we take to be so certain, like history and the passage of time, seem to be interconnected with the present and the future in ways that we can’t quite explain right now.

Only Referencing the Inside

The problem of physics and the universe being relative to observers haunts Amanda Gefter in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Throughout the book she writes about the challenge of understanding physics and finding a set, definitive, absolute reality within physics. Motion, matter, electromagnetic waves, particles, and time all seem to change relative to an observer. The observer does not need to be alive, but it just any given point of reference.

 

During her quest to better understand physics and find an objective agreed upon base for reality Gefter spoke with physicist Fotini Markopoulou. Recounting the conversation Gefter writes, “Was there some way to continue talking about the universe while only referring to it from the inside? Markopoulou seemed to think so, but it came at a serious price. It meant tossing aside ordinary Boolean logic and replacing it with a kind of logic that depended on the observer. It meant redefining what we mean by “true.” It meant stripping physics of the ability to make absolute statements about ultimate reality. Propositions were no longer true or false. They were true or false according to some particular observer.”

 

Einstein’s theories of relativity tell us that observers make a big impact on how the universe is measured and understood. Where an observer exists in space, the observer’s scale, and its motion all impact the measurements for the observer.  Gefter was on a quest with her father to understand and determine what it is in the universe that is the absolute reality of the universe. What is the basic constant that forms the simplest building block of all of the universe? Here quest was to find the one thing that was not relative to a reference point and an observer and to find the one thing that everyone and everything in the universe can point to and say “yes, that there is X, and it is always X, and is X for all of us who look at it.”

 

The challenge is that we are all within the universe. We are all matter and each point within the universe is a point of the universe and is itself changing and interacting with other things in the universe. There is no way to stand outside the universe and set a universe clock to a specific time and see everything a specific way. There is no ‘outside’ to the universe, and that means that any point of reference or timeframe is relative to others based on a host of factors. Gefter wanted to find an objective piece of the universe that was not determined relative to another point, but the only way such a point could exist is if it were outside the universe, something we philosophically understand to be impossible.