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A physicist’s cognitive mojo: a work in progress

January 10, 2014

I wrote this up as an article initially as an outcome of a class I took on qualitative research. I see this project as connected to the larger goals of connecting science with the humanities, though it might not be so evident yet in this article. But I hope to produce a more extensive work, further down the road, for publication. Comments and thoughts welcomed.


One stormy night, an English teenager was holed up in country villa together with her boyfriend and their friend. To rouse themselves from ennui, they exchanged gossips, and when that lost its entertainment value, began to read ghost stories to each other. Then, the guys started boasting over how they could each, probably, write better supernatural tales than the ones they had just read. The girl, had had enough and decided to call it a night. Unfortunately, her rest was waylaid by a vivid nightmare she could not shake off. That night, a tale of horror and scientific hubris was born; as was a nineteenth century German doctor she christened Frankenstein. The girl was Mary Godwin, her boyfriend Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend, the infamous Lord Byron.[1]

Frankenstein went down in fictional history because it was the first time that science was galvanized to bring to life a creature assembled from human corpses; at least one story well-known to the reading and movie-watching public. The imagined possibility of such an act coincided with the philosophy of vitalism popular at the time, which sat at the intersection of the physical and the biological, and thus, of the biophysical. However, the point of the fictional example is to foreground the kind of scientific preparations and multiple technical skill-sets required to bring to fruition any physics experiment regardless of the consequence: an experimentalist who designs the test and determines the parameters for the experiment, an instrumentalist who develops the right combination of apparatuses needed for the experiment, and a theorist who conjures the theories for the experimentalist and instrumentalist to work with.

Since Frankenstein, the image of a scientist has undergone multiple rebranding and the scientist of today has risen to a degree of sophisticated portrayal unprecedented in popular culture. Physicists of various pedigrees have popped up in shows as diverse as the geek-fest Star Trek, the corny Back to the Future, and conspiratorial Angels and Demons. The latest incarnation takes the form of popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where four male and two female characters from different physical and life sciences backgrounds are representative embodiments of the experimentalists, theorists, and instrumentalists.

Even as the sitcom strikes a chord with its clever scripting featuring ingenuous, slick, and intelligent exchanges – with care paid to the ‘accurate’ description of physics theories emerging at any point during the conversations – the show does not sufficiently map the less than homogenous and complex cognitive world of a physicist at work, or of how a physicist tries to connect his/her work to the rest of the world.  In the rare occasion that happens, the script tends to fall back into romantic stereotypes.

It was the desire to understand better how physicists think about concepts such as precision and ambiguity, the certain and uncertain, potentiality and constraints, theory and experiment; as well as the language used to articulate these dichotomous continuum; that brings about investigations into the sociology, history, and philosophy of physics to pierce the shroud of physics knowledge-construction. The fields of physics that generate the most interest have historically been in the big sciences, from space science and nuclear physics of the yesteryear to the particle physics of today. Big science, with the complexity of its socio-politics as well as potential for high-drama, is rich material for reality-TV science.

Recently, I conducted a survey with a small posse of physicists to assess their relationship to the Standard Model of particle physics through questions on the unification of forces, possibilities beyond the Standard Model, and the influence of external push-factors on their work with physics. Unfortunately, the Nobel Prize was not yet announced at the time of the survey so I could get their responses. Nevertheless, below are some items of interest from the bucket list of responses.

Foremost, language is very important to a physicist as it marks the main difference between new age spiel and scientific rigor. Physicists are particularly insistent that the choice of descriptors used to portray their thinking and work should present a physics that is delimited by the scientific method: a euphemism for the taming of unruly and capricious Nature. Just as we need rules and routines to give sufficient calm and order to an otherwise frenetic life, the physicists need to have the right language to organize the data they collect, and to work out the expanse of uncertainty in relation to what is known. They want precision in the terms used to deal with the malleability and ever-changeability of knowledge at the frontier. Moreover, they do not like to be perceived as ideologues, and are thus ambivalent over the use words such as “belief.”  For at least one of the respondents, “belief” has a connotation of “faith” rather than “fact.”

Facts are produced of theoretical models proved to be the best predictor (and sometimes, description) of the latest knowledge based on the available methods for testing and falsifying these models. The Standard Model itself has proven rather resilient despite being put through multiple experimental wringers, and the confidence level for the existence of the Higgs Boson that would provide the final confirmation were found to be sufficiently high across the different direct and indirect searches for the boson.  While ‘belief’ is applied philosophically to represent the degree of certainty validating the scientific value of a knowledge set, physicists would prefer using words that have strict mathematical and logical denotations, such as the statistical terms deployed for describing a particular physical property or state. However, when it comes to choices of verbal lexicon, physicists would fret over every word-choice, as they are aware of how open non-mathematical language is to possible misreading. This is evident by the close attention the respondents provided to the phrasing of my questions, particularly when the questions are aimed at elucidating their relationship to, and perception of, their science.

When queried about the range of speculative contingencies, for most of the physicists, the points where knowledge is speculative merely assert the need for more direct evidence to justify the available theories, including corrections that are to be added to the original theories for closer approximation to ‘real’ data.  The accounts of the speculative, and the multiple experimental triggers that are the outcome of significant choices, are all wrapped around the symbolic signification, and delimitations, produced by telling the story of the particles of the Standard Model through abstract algebra and algebraic geometry (group theory included): what mathematical terms get extended and what get dropped whenever physicists consider what it is to move ‘beyond’ the Standard Model. Even the new physics they envision is shaped by the status of the mathematics deployed for representational purposes, including the resurrection of particular mathematical subfields for resolving long-standing paradoxes or unresolved cul-de-sacs. If the foundational cornerstones of mathematics were unimportant, there would not be so many hand-wrangling over the correspondence between physical realism and mathematical narratives, nor the multiple papers and books written on that subject.

Additionally, physicists are not always the most united when it comes to believing what is possible among the not-yet-existing, even if they might possess the same basic knowledge of their fields. This lack of unity can be explained by a difference between applying models, rules, and laws to solve a problem (and we know solutions to the same problem are far from uniform), and thinking philosophically about that problem. For example, when asked about the meaning of subjectivity, one gets answers ranging from interpretational preferences, expectation biases, forms of contextualization, to decision-making that are governed by external factors rather than the science. Seldom do physicists consider the data they work with as inherently subjective (even if the constitution of the data itself is not) despite the preference for the logic of one model over that of another due to myriad circumstances that are not always clear.

But, in the case of objectivity, most of the answers appear standard on the surface until one digs deeper; they range from the application of clear and inclusive criteria to the acceptance or rejection of data before applying it to the testing of a hypothesis, the repeatability (or as some philosophers would say, the cycle of falsification and justification) and duplication of that experiment, as well as the exclusion of bias in the decision-making process. The attainment of objectivity is a recursive move for the first two instances, even if their starting points can have a range of subjective possibilities. As for the third instance, one finds that there is no clear way for measuring bias other than, perhaps, by tracing the entire process from hypothesis to the final interpretation of analysis. However one might reason, bias does not cease to exist even after an experimental fit with theory, nor after an experimental setup is found to be replicable. The issue of how bias functions is illustrated in Trevor Pinch and Harry Collins’s The Golem: What You Should Know About Science, through their series of case studies spanning different subfields of science.

Finally, there are the different backgrounds and trainings of the physicists, especially when it boils down to whether they are experimentalists, theoreticians, or phenomenologists (the ones who attempt to bridge the divide). While both are grounded on finding empirical evidence to support whatever predictive theories there are, they do not necessarily have the same level of investment when dealing with more speculative forms of physical theories. While a theoretician is more willing to wait until the boundaries of knowledge open while continuing to work on theories without experimental counterparts, experimentalists tend to be more skeptical, even if not necessarily dismissive, because of the need for attention to expediency and practicability in order to succeed in everyday science. However, both sides agree that experimentalists and theoreticians are able to find middle ground from which to work.

[1]If you are a fan or merely interested, here is an archive of the notebook drafts to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein <;.

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