The Nerd-Off

By Sean Carroll | September 10, 2006 4:47 pm

Dr. Free-Ride is trying to goad us into proclaiming our nerdliness. Various science bloggers are having a friendly competition to see who is the nerdliest of them all, and she wants to know why CV isn’t represented.

Regrettably, I’m going to pass on this one. (Not that I couldn’t put up a respectable showing, since past indiscretions are apparently fair game; I loved my old RPN Hewlett-Packard calculator, and I’ll put the glasses I wore in high school up against anyone’s.) It’s just that I’m not entirely on board with the program of reclaiming “nerdliness” as a badge of honor, as gays have managed to reclaim queer and so forth.

Words like “nerd” or “geek” have two very different sets of connotations, and it’s hard to evoke one without the other. One has to do with technical mastery and know-how, or even a more broadly-based appreciation for things academic and intellectual. The other has to do with social awkwardness, the inability to comfortably converse with strangers at cocktail parties, and a tendency to dress in the least attractive way possible.

Roughly speaking, the first of these connotations is “good,” and the second is “bad.” But they’re both problematic. Nobody would be happier than me if we could somehow increase society’s appreciation for people with technical skills, and eliminate the defensive dismissal that so many people fall back on when confronted with math or science or computers. (There are only so many times you can tell people what you do for a living, only to hear “That was my worst subject in high school.”) So in that very particular sense, I’m all in favor of celebrating nerdliness. But for me it’s very much a part of what should be a general appreciation for intellectual endeavor, whether technically oriented or not. And as a matter of personal experience, I’ve found science and engineering types to be at least as anti-intellectual as the average person on the street, when it comes to non-technical kinds of scholarship. Naturally, there are plenty of pro-intellectual types, among people with and without technical backgrounds. That geek cred, however, lends a special kind of bite to know-nothingness when it rears its ugly head; someone with a Ph.D. in physics can not only dismiss philosophy or art or literature as airy nonsense, they can compare it directly and unfavorably to their own sphere of competence. And they do.

But it’s the social-backwardness aspect of being a nerd that is the biggest problem. You can protest all you want that you’re really talking about technical competence, not lack of social fluency, but the latter comes immediately to mind whenever anyone hears talk about nerds and geeks. Wikipedia spells it out:

Nerd, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to somebody who pursues academic and intellectual interests at the expense of social skills such as: interpersonal communication, fashion, and physical fitness.

What is worse, there’s a certain point of view (I won’t name names … some of my best friends are nerds) that actually celebrates social awkwardness for its own sake. (Trust me about this, I’ve been employed by both MIT and Caltech.) And that’s just wrong. I’m not talking about principled eccentricity, letting your freak flag fly — nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s admirable in its own way. Nor am I saying that everyone should be scouring the latest issues of GQ and Vogue for fashion tips; superficiality is just as bad as nerdliness. And laughing at our high-school (and college) selves is always fun and healthy. All I’m saying is that there is much to be valued in an ability to relate to other kinds of people in a disparate set of circumstances, take care of your appearance, and function effectively in a wider social context. These are skills we should try to cultivate, not disparage.

The point is that these two aspects of nerdliness operate against each other. If we want the rest of the world to appreciate technical skills, then we should work to eradicate the notion that they are necessarily associated with a lack of social skills. And that’s the connotation of “nerd,” like it or not. Celebrating knowledge and competence and intellectual curiosity is good, but celebrating nerdliness sends the wrong message, I would argue. There’s no reason why someone who programs in assembly and is deft with a contour integral can’t also be a well-rounded and engaging conversationalist who is at all the gallery openings and whom everyone wants at their parties — that’s the message we want to send.

What a killjoy, huh? In my defense, if you’d been sleeping on a concrete floor for the last several days, waiting for your furniture to arrive, you’d be grumpy too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Nice post Poindexter!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Don’t give me none of that. I’ve seen the giggles when you bring your Urkel lunch box to cosmology meetings.

  • Anshul

    Shouldn’t this blog post automatically qualify you for the nerd-off?

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog/ Allyson

    I think they we should get a YouTube of each of them dancing before we decide.

  • Abhinav

    I think that Jorge Cham of Phd comics has said the last word on the differentiation between nerds, gees and dorks in his comics. Follow the
    links .

  • bizarre

    i’ve always wondered what “poindexter” has to do with being nerdy… who the hell (or what the hell) is poindexter?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark
  • limes

    You know, as a soon-to-be-15 female who reads and loves this blog, I have to say that I can out-nerd at least 79.3% of my demographic. I mean, really, I don’t know anyone else my age who makes Martini jokes when talking about the Uncertainty Principle in Physics class.

    At school I hear other people giving us free showings of The Great Tragedie of My Mathe Class and My Inablitie to Understand Exponentiale Functions or I Cannot Comprehend Conservation of Momentum or Titration. It really is a great tragedy, because I fear for their budgeting skills/401Ks/ability to understand half the news.

    Then again, most of them live in constant terror of the comma and semicolon too, so I guess wanton stupidity doesn’t always discriminate.

  • jam

    I get the feeling that limes missed the point of the blog entry.

    Sean, thank you for this ‘essay’ of sorts. I entirely agree, having spent time as you have at various Institutes of Technology.

    Unfortunately even such mascots as Stephen Hawking have reputations for utterly dismissing the contributions of other intellectual fields in the arts and humanities. It’s very common for me to encounter fresh new grad students who subscribe to the same point of view, that there is nothing to be gained from history, literature, or music.

    It interests me that often the same people who spend much time focusing on their superior social identities as outcast, or nerd, or technical master, are sorely lacking in the actual knowledge or technical ability that would characterize them as future leaders in their fields. Sometimes it is because they are young and do not know better, it is a novelty (just look at the undergraduates at some of these Insts. of Tech.), but it is grievable when they do not grow out of it later as real scientists or authors or what have you.

    We must have done with elitism of all kinds except that which emphasizes the pursuit of excellence in one’s chosen arena. (And I make no mistake, social skills and literary abilities are important for conveying one’s ideas in the sciences and to the general public.) I do not think that emphasizing “identity” as nerd is very productive.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I think that limes got the basic idea. More importantly, I fear that Anshul (#3) has seen through my dastardly strategy! And here I thought I was being so tricky.

  • twaters

    my bad, Sean, nothin but love for you :o (

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I understand. Just stick to the high road here.

  • macho

    Not that I want to enter the contest but I think you mean nerdiest. Nerd is a noun.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    I like reading about philosophy, literature, politics, criminology,… but none of them pose the intellectual challenge of physics and math and that’s why I pursue them. If thats someone’s opinion, how can that someone erase it without ever having experience to the contrary? Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be open to possibilities. As for social awkwardness, one can call it ‘nerdiness’, ‘dorkiness’, ‘geekiness’, ‘elitism’ or whatever one thinks is accurate. But there is no advantage to be gained from social awkwardness, so it probably has a biological origin. People who seem to be happy with their social awkwardness are, for the most part, probably just making the best of it.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/ Dr. Free-Ride

    Sean, you were already on the block to be scored due to the technical proficiency of your comments here and here.

    But I have to say, as a life long nerd, I’ve never bought into the socially inept/dismissive of other spheres angle. Sure, the jocks and the beautiful people didn’t *want* to hang out with the math team, but that was their issue, not ours. (Circa 1983, we were the ones listening to the New Music Show on NYU’s radio station, rather than the standard-issue hair metal. And we were a fun bunch to hang with.) The important thing wasn’t so much whether you knew pi to 100 decimal places (as some of my friends did), but that you felt the joy that came from pursuing knowledge in one of its many forms.

    A tribe that glories in learning is a tribe of which I’m proud to be a part — and we really can throw a mean party, given half a chance.

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    Sean, doesn’t that same argument more or less hold true for reclaiming “queer”, “black”, or what have you?

  • olli

    Hey, I’ve been sleeping on the floor for the past week and a half, too, waiting for at least my new mattress to arrive,,,

  • thm

    The habit of dismissing philosophy and literature, etc., as “Airy nonsense” has got to be blamed at least in part on Feynman. Certainly almost all physics PhDs of the past twenty years have read his popular books while still young and impressionable. Feynman’s writing resonated strongly with young nerds like me. But Feynman almost systematically goes through other academic disciplines–chemistry, biology, philosophy, mathematics, foreign languages, and painting are a few that come to mind–and comes up with a clever anecdote that demonstrates how trivial each discipline must be if you’re a brilliant physicist like Feynman.

  • Stuart P

    A good friend of my family was a nerdly science teacher and one of the most dedicated scientists, photographers, fathers, and citizens we ever knew. I remember the day when his little boy walked up to him and asked, “Dad, are we nerds?”

    “Yes, son, we are”

    “Okay!”

    From that day on, I only had respect for ‘nerds’.

  • adam

    Nerds aren’t in such a bad situation. And who cares what other people think about us?

    As for Feynman and philosophy, my lack of enthusiasm for much of philosophy came from studying it at college, although it’s more a lack of enthusiasm for philosophers than philosophy. Some of it is very interesting; some of it may even be useful. But for self-important tools, alongside physicists, medical doctors and teachers, count philosophers*.

    *I note that I am only a medical qualification short of being all four. Shurely shome coincidence.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    Thank you for this, Sean. It’s what I’ve been yelling to my colleagues about for 4 years running.

    What makes me crazy is that physicists don’t even know that they’re using sophomoric philosopical arguments to dismiss philosophy–if you want to stake out a realist position, at least know what that is, and what the counterarguments about it, rather than just dismissing the whole discussion as ‘airy’ and ‘ephemeral,’ as a solid state experimentalist would dismiss, say, string theory.

  • KC

    Are there any recommendations on how to obtain these social skills? Or is it too late once one is pushing 40…

  • http://www.allysonbeatrice.com/blog/ Allyson

    I hope to not cause a big ball of fury, but some of the geek/nerd lack of social skills could likely be attributed to Asperger’s, yeah?

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Wow.

    I think this post qualifies as a serious entry.

    I mean, Sean can intellectually nerd-out about the idea of being a nerd. That has to be worth something!

    Re: lack of social skills, I do agree that one should not celebrate a lack of social skills. On the other hand, sometimes “not being interested in the right things” or “being interested in the wrong things” is mis-interpreted as a lack of social skills. I certainly have met plenty a nerd who has a genuine lack of socials skills. But I have also (at least in years past when I was in high school and college) felt ostracized because I was interested in something that I wasn’t supposed to be… and had that interest trotted out as evidence of a lack of social skills. (Here’s a great commentary on this: http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=19990516.)

    “He’s so good with math and numbers he doesn’t know how to talk to people.” It’s a fallacy that is unfortunately not recognized universally as a fallacy.

    What we need is for nerds to celebrate and be open about their nerdiness… because sometimes there are nerds among us that non-nerds don’t recognize as nerds, simply because they have reasonable social skills!

    -Rob

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Also re: dismissal of all non-science as not worthy endeavors for human creativity : that is indeed one of my pet peeves.

    However, I think that is part of a larger phenomenon. “Anybody not working in my area of expertise is, ultimately, wasting their time.” Think of the various humanist types who think that scientists are wasting their time because they are so concerned about cold facts that have no “human” connection, or because all of scientific knowledge is just a social construction of patriarchal, Western civilization anyway and thus there isn’t anything real to study.

    The “humanities are fluffy” idea is distressingly common among scientists, and it does make me sad.

    -Rob

  • citrine

    I see this divide between the tech and fluffy stuff arising due to the very different kinds of thinking required when dealing with each kind of info. Analysis of tech info requires one to proceed in a systematic way according to very rigid rules. The nebulous realm of emotions, impressions etc. calls for negotiating many shades of grey and often fluid rules. Very few people seem to have a mindset that is flexible enough to deal equally well with both kinds of information.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Being a well-rounded conversationalist is overrated.

    We nerds communicate via telepathy.

  • assman

    There are people who are far less social then even nerds: namely loners. I am one of those. Nerds actually have quite a bit of social skill. They often have parties to which I am not invited. They also have fun. It is just that they are for the most part not the ‘cool’ croud. Nerds are far more social than most people think. I used to be in a program in which the whole group was a bunch of nerds. They had friends. They had girlfriends. Many of them ended up getting married. Its just that for the most part they were a pretty unattractive bunch. I think the only real difference between nerds and ‘cool’ people is they have different cultures. Nerds value intellect, tech, science etc. ‘Cool’s value those things deemed cool: money, material things, social standing, attractiveness, fashion sense, clubbing, power etc. To talk about the ‘cool’ things in front of nerds is deemed shallow and somewhat scary (since nerds are anxious about their social inferiority). To talk about science and math among ‘cools’ is deemed a sign of inferiority. Each group has their own norms, morals, values, and social ettiquette that are used to distinguish them from the other group. Both groups actively try to eliminate outsiders. Actually the whole nerd/cool thing is part of a much broader pattern of superior group/inferior group relations. A similar dynamic exists between United States/Canada, United States/Rest of World, Liberal/Conservative (conservatives are the nerds although that is changing), rich/working class etc.

    There are however outsiders who don’t really fit in to any of these groups. I am one of those. I always found it hard to fit in because all these groups have fairly rigid social codes and arbitrary ways of distinguishing themselves. It is extremely easy to say something to offend either group. I am also fairly anti social and introverted. I also don’t have real social skills like putting time and energy into maintaining relationships, calling/emailing, being open and approachable, organizing events, having good conversations (instead of monologues), smiling, understanding social etiquette etc. To me these are what a person requires to be social. Nerds for the most part have these skills.

  • http://www.laurengunderson.com Lauren Gunderson

    gotta say, Sean. Don’t know when this happened (somewhere between me being on the Academic Quiz Bowl in 7th grade and me creating the Walk-While-You-Read Brigade at Emory) but nerdiness and its cohorts (primarily ‘dork’) are sexy words now.

    Its endearing. People like nerds, mostly. Not because they are goofy but, in my experience, because they are passionate about something. Someone who will willing get into a debate about String Theory shows some actual life-force, as opposed to the ever-non-chalance of many “popular” kids , who are only popular , again in my experience, because they are vague enough to pass in any group. I stuck out. I made a choice. I cared about something. I know you did too!

    I’ve been accused of being a science nerd AS WELL as a theatre nerd, literary dork, and others. Nerds aren’t just science-based.

    Its become a funny event: its tough being a nerd girl in middle school, but in college it makes you cool and alluring. Something like that.

    Cool post, Sean!

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    I like reading about philosophy, literature, politics, criminology,… but none of them pose the intellectual challenge of physics and math

    I hear this a lot from fellow physicists, but to call philosophy less of an intellectual challenge means you have not delved deep enough into it. It is not all sophistry (although a lot of it is), and to do it right requires acute logical thinking.

    Part of the philosophy of science is to investigate interpretations of quantum mechanics, their implications, and their context in modern thinking. Considering that physics does not currently offer a fully satisfactory interpretation of QM, the above quote is rather misplaced.

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  • http://RiofrioSpaceTime.blogspot.com Louise

    Is CV going to forget the 9/11 anniversary too? Where were you?

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    PK,
    Philosophy does require acute logical thinking but that’s not the challenge. Physics asks of logic but also calculations and that’s what I see as its challenge. Logic can be beautiful and intricate but getting the right numbers (or functions) is just as much, if not more. About the questions in the foundations of physics, I consider them to be fascinating too and its a matter of opinion whether one calls it philosophy or physics. What do you consider to be most unsatsfactory about the inerpretation of QM?

  • jay

    As thm(#18) correctly pointed out, our dismissal of philosophy and literature as airy nonsense originates from the great Feynman. We worship him and we talk and act like him when we socialize with people from other areas. He in some sense liberated us from fear of being nerds, i.e. being unaware of what’s going on in other parts of lives. What he or the likes unknowingly instilled into us functions as a kind of hormone driving younglings into a way of success by focusing on a goal monomaniacally, which makes them nerds, dorks, or whatever in broader social context. But who can blame this phenomenon? Society as a whole needs it to spearhead into next stages. But, if you are unsuccessful in your pursuits or too extreme in being nerds, you will be punished by being cut off from the society if you are too late in compromising.

    Sean, working at Caltech, probably you would have a hard time in unFeynmaning things, right? ;-)

    Btw, is Feynman a nerd? Usually, a supernerd changes the culture in which he lives, so eventually he isn’t called a nerd any more.

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  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    I see this divide between the tech and fluffy stuff arising due to the very different kinds of thinking required when dealing with each kind of info. Analysis of tech info requires one to proceed in a systematic way according to very rigid rules. The nebulous realm of emotions, impressions etc. calls for negotiating many shades of grey and often fluid rules. Very few people seem to have a mindset that is flexible enough to deal equally well with both kinds of information.

    I think you misrepresent both forms of thinking.

    First, calling philosophy, literature, history, etc. “the nebuoulous realm of emotions, impressions, etc.” is feeding directly into the misconception about other academic fields that scientists have — namely, that it is fluffy. All of these fields have a rigor that goes beyond how you “feel”. I don’t really understand most of them, becuase I don’t have training in most of them, so I can’t really tell you what that rigor is there… but it is. It’s not all impressions!

    Second, we should not forget that inspiriation and aesthetics and intuition play in science. Yes, ultimatley, if you are going to write a paper or make a case, you have to proceed in a systematic way and show that what you are doing follows from the data and what comes before. But many discoveries in science come from intuition or aesthetics. Consider that people think some theories are more “beautiful” than others. It doesn’t make them right — that’s determined by the data and ultimately the systematic process. But it does guide where people put their efforts, and has also proven to be a useful guide. The process of science is not just turning the crank, as it were.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    KC #22: “Are there any recommendations on how to obtain these social skills? Or is it too late once one is pushing 40…”

    I would say it is _never_ too late for pushing oneself to learn something new and useful.

    My own approach, as someone who as a foreigner still struggles to integrate myself into my new cultures, is to accept invitations as often as possible. Pushing myself, even when I can think of a million reasons why “I don’t have time”. I rarely regret those times “to broaden and build “, as they say.

    Also, I pay close attention to what I like. so that when I see a smidgeon of that appealing aspect of whatever in my environment, then I follow the trail and see where it leads.

    For those living in California, they have it easy. California, being what it is, has a support or social group for everything, even for how to be social…. For example, for the CalTech nerds, the administration tries to help too.

  • http://highlyallochthonous.blogspot.com/ gengar

    Re comments 18 & 34, I’ve never picked up the intellectual bigotry you’re talking about in the writing of Feynman that I’ve read… any examples?

    I’m not claiming it is not the case, but he’d always struck me as someone who was interested in a wide range of things outside of pure physics – music, art, strippers…

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Philosophy does require acute logical thinking but that’s not the challenge. Physics asks of logic but also calculations and that’s what I see as its challenge.

    If you W.V.O. Quine you’ll see that philosophy can be highly mathematical. And John Baez just had a post on the desirablility of a philosophical basis for quantum mechanics using category theory.

    What do you consider to be most unsatsfactory about the inerpretation of QM?

    There are many different interpretations of quantum mechanics (Copenhagen, many worlds, GRW, Ithaka, modal, and so on), and they all have their problems, either conceptual or technical. It pretty much boils down to what is commonly known as the measurement problem: at some point we have to make the cut what we consider quantum and what we consider classical. The problem is that the theory does not tell us where this transition occurs.

    This is precisely where the “calculations” are the easy part: there is no ambiguity in how to obtain values for physical observables in experiments. However, to assign “elements of reality” to the objects in the theory is a philosophical nightmare.

    I guess you can call all this physics, but I think that would not be fair to all those philosophers working in the field.

  • advice

    One exists in a superposition of the available states to his space function. Depending on the perturbations into the potential well, one could tend more toward one state then another other. And only when observed, one collapses to one; a state only measurable by the observer and dependent on the characterists associated with his frame of reference.

    For instance:
    A pop talk show can measure Sean as a very eloquent and entertaining persona.
    A cute chick in a crowded bar can measure Sean as an extremely boring and annoying physicist after having corrected for the initial experimental erroneous measure of fascination.
    At the low probability event of a regular person walking past Sean’s office decorated with papers composed of ten+ letter long words, Sean would be classified with high probability as a nerd, especially upon a conversation consisting primarily of ten+ letter long words.

    Nerdiness and geekiness are art forms of expression. And yes, after so many decades, this art form is still unappreciated by society and needs fashion icons to stand tall and bold (bald too) and make a statement.

    It is funny that the hairstyle introduced and promoted so heavily by Einstein never reached the masses. Ever saw the crazy hair crazy take place?!

    You are in the world’s biggest playground for nerds. It is your lifetime opportunity to gather and analyze data to clear the truths and myths about that piece of the social descrepency.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    PK,

    Thank you for your reply.
    I do know though that Mathematical Logic is, well, mathematical. Also, at a calculational level Non-relativistic QM is straightforward (well not in all its applications), but we were talking about calculations in physics in general. I see no point in ‘setting people straight’ about their opinions on why they consider their field to be the best: I do consider physics to be most challenging otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it; that doesn’t mean I think everthing else is worthless or trivial. “to assign elements of reality”, from what I can guess from the phrase, doesn’t bother me because there is no requirement that everything we use in a theory we’ve to be able to attach to reality.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Now that you have qualified your earlier statement, I think we are pretty much in agreement. However, you wrote initially that

    I like reading about philosophy, literature, politics, criminology,… but none of them pose the intellectual challenge of physics and math [...]

    This is not a statement of your personal preference, but a valuation. And with that valuation I disagree.

    cheers,
    PK

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    PK,

    It was never a valuation. I made it clear that it was my opinion;see the whole of #14. If I considered all else to be worthless and trivial I wouldn’t have been reading about them.
    Anyways, does your agreement extend to my response to “assign elements of reality to the objects in the theory is a philosophical nightmare”? That is, I see no problem here as there is no requirement that everything we use in a theory has to have a basis in reality.

    Best,
    Chinmaya

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Well, it would be a natural requirement for any theory that purports to describe the physical world to have some objects that corresponds to elements of realiity. Otherwise, what does it mean for it to be a physical theory? Quantum theory does not conform to this: it is a theory that tells you how to calculate measurement outcomes, but those measurement outcomes cannot consistently be associated with properties of the underlying microscopic system.

    This is a problem, but it is also what makes quantum theory such a fascinating subject.

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  • Gabrielvc

    This is a good post, and in fact is closely related to myself. My wife, for instance, had a hard time teaching me how to combine the colors in the outfit.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Sure some objects have to correspond to reality, otherwise there would be nothing to calculate. But there is no reason why some objects have to as long as you’ve postulates that takes one from beyond observation to everything observable. My view on what makes a physical theory physical is (I think) rather traditional: it has to tell what will be the outcome of measurements; we can’t know what reality is beyond our measurements so that’s all we can claim to know. However, you wrote QM “is a theory that tells you how to calculate measurement outcomes, but those measurement outcomes cannot consistently be associated with properties of the underlying microscopic system.” When does this happen?

  • strategichamlet

    Re: humanities and science.

    I had a history professor in college who said to me one time (as well as I can remember) “The difference between what I do (history) and what you do (physics) is that for the most part everyone in your field can agree on what the important questions are, you may disagree about the answers, but there isn’t much debate about the questions. In history, however, we can’t even agree on what the important questions are.”

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    However, you wrote [that] “measurement outcomes cannot consistently be associated with properties of the underlying microscopic system.” When does this happen?

    Whenever the dimension of your Hilbert is larger than 3. It is called the Kochen-Specker theorem, which is related to Gleason’s theorem.

  • Charon

    It pretty much boils down to what is commonly known as the measurement problem: at some point we have to make the cut what we consider quantum and what we consider classical.

    That’s not true. See, for example, Victor Stenger’s The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology. It’s a problem with Copenhagen, to be sure, but certainly not all interpretations (such as coherent histories).

    it is a theory that tells you how to calculate measurement outcomes, but those measurement outcomes cannot consistently be associated with properties of the underlying microscopic system.

    I’m sorry, are you objecting to the fact that QM isn’t deterministic? That’s physics, not philosophy. If and when hidden variables are completely ruled out, it will be by physicists.

    Philosophy has a role in interpretation of knowledge. Daniel Dennett, for instance. Rooted in science or math it can be okay. But much of philosophy does seem like a waste of time to those of us in the natural sciences. (And pretty uniquely philosophy, in my opinion. I value art, literature, social sciences, etc. quite highly.)

    There are too many people trying to do philosophy of science who don’t understand the science. I’d prefer they left it to those who do.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    In my previous comment, I meant a Hilbert space larger or equal than 3.

    The measurement problem is indeed usually associated with the Copenhagen interpretation. However, it is the poster boy for similar problems in the other interpretations of quantum mechanics. You can compare it to fitting a carpet in a room that is too small: if you flatten a bulge in one place, it will pop up elsewhere. Consistent histories also has its problems.

    I don’t object to nondeterministic theories, it is just that we cannot interpret quantum mechanical probabilities as classical probabilities (i.e., a lack of knowledge). Exactly how we should interpret the probabilities in quantum theory remains problematic.

    I have heared many theoretical physicists rubbish the foundations of physics community, but so far they have not come up with a consistent, satisfying interpretation of quantum mechanics either (other than the “shut up and calculate” interpretation). Perhaps it will all become clear when we have a theory of quantum gravity, who knows.

    The point is that some physicicsts have the tendency to dismiss certain disciplines out of hand (the philosophy of quantum mechanics is a case in point), without any real knowledge of that discipline. In a wider context, philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. have had a profound influence on society, and you’ll find that their thinking was incredibly complex. Just to put it out with the trash because there are a few charlatans around is naive and arrogant.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    The foundations of physics community isn’t exactly seperate from the physics community; the Kochen-Specker theorm is actually the Bell-Kochen-Specker theorem.

  • adam

    I don’t share PK’s enthusiasm for a satisfying interpretation of QM. I mean, I won’t be upset if there is one that gains any sort of wide acceptance (of course, Many Worlds variants have their enthusiastic supporters already, as does consistent/decoherent histories, etc) but for me, science is about making falsifiable predictions. It we can’t arrange our mental furniture to our satisfaction over an issue like the Measurement Problem, it’s no big deal to me. The hurdle at which Popper fell, that of deciding which of two equally predictive theories is ‘best’, is still alive in that regard. ‘Easiest to make predictions’ might be a decent practical discriminator.

    Which isn’t to say that there isn’t merit in attacking some of the same problems from the perspective of, say, what to do when no clear apparatus/system distinction can be made; that’s a science question. I just don’t have much time for ‘what does it all mean, man’ questions. I don’t think that they’re without interest, I just think that they’re not science, in general, subjective and also, potentially, unanswerable. It’s not a significant failure if we can’t make a pretty mental picture to explain things; there’s no reason to expect that such a picture exists/can be created (depending on how much of a Platonist you are).

  • ZAPH

    ATTENTION TO ALL THE MALE NERDS

    i go by the name of . but prefer to call myslf Zaphoermiio(zaph)which is my computer
    identity.ive been a nerd all my life.I ama south african living on a baron township but i’ve always been facsinated by the wonders of hacking ,science fiction,& I write poetry.iv’e never had a computer growing up so mind my flawed dexterity.Nevr the less i was suppose to be completing my matric this year but circumstances forced me to repeat grd11.See I have a dream ..of studying in america-ucla(film,television&digital imaging)NEXT YEAR!!!! but the question is how.Which made me wonder
    if it is by any chance possible to hack into the SA department of educational qualifications,alter hte result renditons(so my name appears in this year’s newspapers),modify my IGETC & EFLTS scores,
    get me an ID,passport, visa,greencard,pay my tuition/semester ..etc all htrough hacking?(after all it si hte computer age isn’t it?)& if it is how could u guys help me?Trust me htis is not just another frail
    attempt to live hte american dream ,(i know this might sound a bit corny but I have a dream 4 america.(picture Hollywood meets Silicon valley)Beyond all reasonable doubt iam fucken obssesed with computers i even write raps
    about htem making out & stuff……..heres a sample

    Note i anthropomorphize(robots)……& it’s a bit abstract too

    iron caste flirt alert transversional hand pressure activate hte fabio receptor sensory inflex
    re-con hte hackers on cupids hovercraft star trek andromeda in garter belts target identifiied
    as Kismet. & you r let me guess come to bother me daddy McAsshole?Uh no!Oh i’m sorry
    it’s just that most of you prototype banal simulacrums just make me gag.Ooh! u’r in excessive
    heat Hal loves that in fact he’s intrigued by retiscence coz his state of the art automation’ll
    delete that programme.Mr puffy pistons incessant eclipse text message chewed by livid spams
    more like the kookie bloom Bard.from carbon based queer model 2 color coded component honcho AI smoulder doppleganger maneframe .splice it with a solar panel binary download sci-fi mechanism data but she said :Access denied.though she looks like the mannequins enticed
    by rusty juggernauts just give it a month then she’ll be autographing my name on the make up room’s mirror wit crimson lipstick the type that’ll pour u’r groin wit hot cofee when u insult a mathatter then her jenga crockery are all that’s left of u’r modus vivendi.Like nurse! my dental caps need adjusting !Up yourz!!!there’s a monkey wrench on the jumpseat & if u ring that bell once more I’ll………….solder my defective circuits wit u’r autonomous magic touch.That’s when my space needle jumped up scope googled backwardsUh! glitch dimensia technical difficulties
    seem to be sensual, fuelling up the transmitters wit mirth I cork barbarella shitholes wit a loose knut jackhammer coz i’m haggle priced i cum wit a satellite wave that’ll fry hakes in ya fridge
    So do u still dream of Genie when I cud be u’r Frankenstein made 4 every Victorian dessicated
    mansion’s furtive lab where the forlorn hasty stench of decrepitude haunts the lab but if u’r skirt
    blows up im’a flash the fang & whistle Dixie .Watch the warewolves dismount from linear parchs
    while the vampire’s bicentennial corpse deploys splinters to slit thraot.then up cranks ya gizmo
    ,beter reboot ryt now b4 Deedee cookie cuts the wires.the mothership sputters afterdark trailor
    park trash doll wouser emitts chips in relation to Area 51. my gosh!!!u & u’r starky comments
    don’t u ever like stop? but i mean i grow on people!so does fungi!!!no… wait !!!honey! plz!!Look at u pathetic, u wreak a deficiant virus & im’a bout to bunch ya red button Sooo?any last words b4 u self-detonate?Oh of coarse.. I forgot to sequence ya countdown

    hook;i slash space monkeys ,ratchet wheel tongue ,spot wolly wit a a snaggle gum fitted ,dentures spat out,head mounted version, zorb out of control to gargle your molars. Body cast over a bladed face amputated chain saw iron fist vitamins for the snail racing championships

    plz reply if possible

    have heart,I know this world is cruel&,hard&that my dream is probably farfetched
    but sometimes I hope that one human out there just one, may understand.
    (by all means I’m prepared to face whatever pain & consequences my decision would
    Have brought unto me(lock me up in a sanctum,train me ,torture me with food & sleep deprivation till I b’cum the best hacker to my fullest potential)

    HOPE!2600

    MY FELLOW BRETHREN

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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