Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Grand rant about non-physicists and their misconceptions and attitudes

These misconceptions and attitudes generally held by non-physicists have been bothering me for quite some while. So I'll list them here.


A peculiar error by people who do not understand physics is to attach "energy" to things for no reason. Don't get me wrong, if a machine does work, clearly some sort of energy transfer is going on, but this is implicitly true, so there's no need to say a magnet lifts things with magnetic energy. It lifts them with magnetic force1. It's also okay to just say magnetism.

There's also an alarming number of people whose idea of energy is alarmingly similar to old aether theories, as though it's some sort of incandescent medium that permeates reality.

The amazing pi!

"I'll memorize hundreds of digits of this mysterious, never ending number!" It's just a constant, and for almost all applications, you'll never need more than around 10 digits (say you make a meter-wide circle and want to know the circumference, then the error in your answer will be on atom scale if you have much more than 10 digits of pi, and at that level, measurement errors will dominate). Therefore, the irrational quality of pi is a curiosity at best. Nothing to write home about.

Furthermore, 2pi is the better constant. At almost no place in mathematics does pi appear where a constant equal to 2pi wouldn't make more sense.


Einstein did a lot of great things for certain, but his fame is way disproportionate to what he actually did. He's become some sort of patron saint/greek style personified concept deity of intelligence. People call you "an Einstein" when you're reasonably smart and/or a physicist. He did a lot of groundbreaking work, but this cult of personality is way out of hand (besides, everyone knows Feynman's cult of personality is the one to root for.)

If anyone deserves to be the patron saint of intelligence, perhaps C.F. Gauss is a better choice, seeing as how you can't swing a bracket in mathematics without hitting something named after him. Or Newton for that matter.

Schrödinger's cat

Erwin Schrödinger was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. But what is he remembered for? His thought experiment about a cat. And this is a fairly questionable thought experiment that overall probably gives you more misconceptions than it does insights. I really wish people would think "equation" and not "cat" when they hear his name.

1 Someone is bound to sit at home with a copy of Griffiths' Electrodynamics in their hands all riled up about how it says the magnets do no work. This is an incomplete statement. While the Lorentz force does no work, spin is none the less acted upon by a force proportional to ∇B.


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only person who prefers Feynman over Einstein.

    You forgot to mention Euler, he probably has more things named after him (quite possibly than Gauss and Newton combined) - he was ridiculously prolific.

  2. Yeh. Though I don't really blame anyone for liking Einstein so long as they have legitimate reasons for doing so.

    Yeah, that's true about Euler. I think my head was driven into the physicist track by the general topic of the preceding sections of the post.

  3. The whole pi versus 2pi thing is quite well summed up in "The Tau Manifesto" - both entertaining and interesting to someone not aware of the argument. Check it out -

  4. I'm so glad to not be alone in my opinion that pi is an ugly constant.