Friday, July 24, 2009

Sixty Symbols: Figures of Physics

The last post was very long so this one will be very short. My friend Robert Pincus (cloud physicist and gastronome) recently forwarded this site called Sixty Symbols to me and I think its wonderful. Produced by the University of Nottingham its an innovative attempt to take people through the world of symbols in physics and astronomy.

There are separate video clips for a range of physics' most important symbols. Things like

z: cosmological redshift
h: Planck's constant (quantum physics)
c: the speed of light

and lots of others which occur in fonts I don't have access to.

The symbols of physics carry a kind of compressed meaning which can reach an almost poetic level sometimes. I have always found equations profoundly beautiful because, like poems, there is an economy in which just a few short strokes of the pen embraces entire universes of dynamics, relation and potential. It is interesting to note in this regard that Wolfgang Pauli dreamt in the symbols of physics. In his 30 year long correspondence with Jung he came to believe that these symbols were like archetypes in their own way (the history of physics has yet to absorb this side of Pauli's life). Pauli saw the symbols as almost mythic in their ability to embrace the world. That might be going too far but if you think there is something unusual happening in poetry then one can argue the same characteristics of mind and the world happen in mathematical physics as well.

I hope you enjoy the site. I am slowly working my way through the videos. Some are better than others but the idea is a grand one indeed.


  1. "... but if you think there is something unusual happening in poetry then one can argue the same characteristics of mind and the world happen in mathematical physics as well."

    Adam, an empiricist might not see your insight here, but a radical-empiricist certainly would recognize not only this "odd" dynamic of poetry, but would also see mathematical physics participating in such a phenomenon as well.

    Does the concept of radical empiricism hold any meaning to you?

  2. I love the idea of symbols as comparable with Jungian archetypes! A quick search led me to one really expensive book where the letters are collected, and a more reasonably priced one called "Pauli and Jung: The Meeting of Two Great Minds". Can you by any chance recommend this or some other book where I can find out more?

  3. @Mike - yes the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" is a issue for the radical empiricist and I have always felt like poetry has the same (though unquantifiable) character. Lots of theories as to why math works so well and lots of theories as to why poetry works "so well". It would be interesting to see what has been written on them together.

    By radical empricicism I take William James emphasis on experience. is this what you mean?

  4. @gorm - I had to buy the first one for my research for the book. It was pretty cool to have all the letters back and forth. The other book I have not read but I am sure it tells the necessary story. It is amazing that the Pauli of "Not even wrong" turns out to be this guy of deep "spiritual" (need to be careful of this word) sensitivies who experienced those sensitivies through physics.

  5. I'd like to throw something out here that combines this with some of your other posts.

    This unusual thing that poetry does, is connect us experientially to a reality that seems transcendent to us; here we experience profundity, beauty, awe and the like: The "more" of "being more human." It's becoming funny to me that this is considered transcendent. After all, we don't consider our interaction in the realms of Time and Space to be transcendent; and more, we are dubious of anything that can't be corralled into time and space. So the phenomenon of Poetry is branded artifact and decoration by the ranchers of time and space.

    But what if the experience that poetry leads us into is a realm every bit as real and fundamental as Time and Space? What if poetry is a meter of its realm, in a similar manner as a clock and a ruler are meters to their realms? Would we give a well crafted poem the same appreciation we afford a time piece that's well crafted in precise machinery bearing effortlessly on rubies- which themselves were aeons in the making and stand to bear their loads for centuries more?

    I would argue, that if we could bring ourselves to consider this Poetic realm, as real as Time and Space, we would change our concept of transcendence: No longer would transcending entail a leaving of Time and Space or Human Being: The Poetic realm, Time, and Space coincide with each other. All of life is expressed in our Time and Space, and can be fully perceived by the Human level of consciousness- if we are willing to see and make manifest the realities we encounter in the "Poetic realm."

    What becomes of transcendence then? Transcendence comes into play, but it does so in its rightful place: within ourselves; it's not Life that needs to be transcended, rather, it's our often reductionist ways into life that need our attention of transcendence. Such a transcendence then, doesn't take us out of Time and Space, but takes us deeper into them.

  6. @Adam- I'm new to the concept of Radical empiricist. I encountered it watching a panel discussion on consciousness in a "Closer to Truth" episode where one of the scientists referred to herself as such.

    My Google research revealed James as the source of the concept, but didn't describe the term in a very definitive way, so I am surmising it this way: An empiricist will study the world from the point of view of our five senses, which entails putting the world into some form that can be perceived through these means, or somehow disregarding something that can't be fit into our five senses as irrelevant.

    The sense that I got from the idea of radical empiricism, is that here, a phenomenon is given a purchase in its own right, and drives the method necessary to understand it, which may entail the use of our five senses, or it may require some other method. I see it allowing for a broader hermeneutic frame work.

    How does this compare to your sense of the concept? Is this a legitimate concept in your eyes?

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