Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, July 16, 1997 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Jeff Love

What Is Light?: A Book Review

Pre-Meeting Notice:

Dear Marvin,
As per last meeting, I will present on July 16 a review of Nordberg's "What is Light" book. Refer all inquiries to the following URL:

love, Jeff


In attendance: Kevin, Roberto, Meredyth, Larry, Rachel, Don, Roger, Glenn, Marvin and Jeff.

Jeff assures us that he is not a physicist. But he is a seeker. Understanding is surely not the exclusive preserve of physicists, says Jeff. There must be a metaphysical alternative to physics - another way of looking at the universe that is just as valid as physics. Another way of perceiving its structure.

He expresses the longing of the philosopher to perceive the universe as simple - to understand what it is all about. The pursuit of simplicity is what the greatest minds have always sought. To explain much with little is the goal of physics. The practice of theoretical physics is precisely to explain much with little. That is what Newton accomplished in his mechanics. A few simple equations described the motions of all the planets and connected these with how things behave on earth! That is what James Clerk Maxwell did in expressing all electrical and magnetic phenomena in a mere four equations. That is the dream of every great mind: to perceive simplicity in the cloud of complexity around us. And that is Jeff's dream. That's what he seeks. The great idea that unveils simplicity. A noble wish. But there are caveats.

Caveat#1. Ultimate simplicity may be a meaningless phrase. What appears to be simple in one dimension of thought may be quite complex in another. So simplicity is a function of the mode of thought. Thoughts can get more complicated as they get simpler! Here's an example. The mathematical machinery of Maxwell is a monument of simplicity to the technical people who understand it. It is incomprehensibly complex to the people who don't think mathematically.

Caveat#2. More important than the simplicity of an idea is its veracity. The idea must be true! It must meet high standards of testing and prediction. Ideas that are simple but not true are plentiful.

Jeff reported on a book that offers a ball-of-light theory of elementary particles. It is titled "What Is Light?" by John Nordberg. What Jeff reported of this book is simply strings of jargon: technical words, that among professionals have clearly defined meanings, but are used meaninglessly by the author. The layman is mislead by the jargon into thinking there is technical content. There is none.

The simplicity aspect lay in this claim: that all elementary particles are variations on a single object - a ball of light. The author uses the word photon for it but the ball of light object he describes is not something physicists would designate a photon.

Jeff's report revealed the book to be a complicated exposition on the idea's simplicity. There is no quantitative discussion of its fit to experimental finding and no evidence of quantitative predictions for future findings - the two hallmarks of science. The author concludes with a call to the physics community to work out the implications of his idea. He worked none out himself! And he wants his ideas rescued by the establishment.

Like many spiritual people, Jeff wants answers.
Every drunk at the bar has answers. So do a large population of the mentally disturbed and the chronically enraged. If they use trade jargon and seem to be saying something deep perhaps they are. How is Jeff to be protected from nonsense? How is he to distinguish it from truth?

Our protection against nonsense in science and technology lies only in appealing to the establishment. To the society of professionals whose business is the study of the matter. This is the beauty in venerable institutions: they are repositories of information and learning. They can enlighten you.
You want your surgeon to be licensed - to be a certified member of the establishment of surgeons. And your dentist and your electrician. Without yourself becoming an expert you have no other reliable recourse.

There are lovable souls who resent the establishment. They do their own wiring. They don't have medical operations. There is alternative medicine. "The establishment confines and abuses people. They suppress unconventional ideas. It is in their nature to block change", say these people.

There are grains of truth in the indictment. But the evils are not of the same magnitude as the good. You don't abandon your house because a lightbulb fails. The house is too precious.

The matter of understanding illustrates the point.
In the commendable drive to perceive simplicity we can blind ourselves to reality. To do so is to behave like the proverbial drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post. Even though his keys were lost elsewhere he searched at the lamp post because that was the only lighted place.
To avoid error we consult the establishment. To find what physicists know one reads physicists: those with credentials; people who have established themselves among their peers.
One can use the establishment to advantage.

There is no 'alternative physics'. To believe so is only to deprive oneself of treasures.

Here are some 'establishment' books:
1. "Knowledge And Wonder; The Natural World As Man Knows It", Victor F. Weisskopf, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1979
2. "Physics And Philosophy", Werner Heisenberg, Harper, N.Y. 1962
3. Dreams Of A Final Theory" Steven Weinberg, Pantheon, N.Y. 1992
4. Books by Paul Davies, John R. Barrow, Heinz Pagels.
There are many others.

July 1997
Marvin Chester

Return to Concept Exchange Society

© m chester 1997 Occidental CA