Physics envy

There are people who like to explain things in direct and simple language. There are also people who are good at making simple things complex. P B Medawar made an interesting observation. There are some fields that are genuinely difficult. In these fields, if you want to communicate, you will have to work really hard to make the language simple. There are also other fields that are fundamentally very easy, where if you want to impress people, you have to make the language more difficult than it needed to be. Medawar called this "Physics Envy", meaning that there are people who want their subject to be “treated as profoundly difficult, even when it isn't.” One interpretation of physics envy is that we are not as simple (or complex), as we pretend to be.

We like to construct simple models and expect that simple models would solve all our problems.

Take this question: “How rich will we be when we have converted all our forests, all our soil, all our water resources, and all our minerals to cash?” This ‘grand unifying theory’ is overwhelmingly simple, but is a form of physics envy.

Albert Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” It is true that all complex systems are made up of simple parts, and everything is a complex manifestation of simple laws. But it is also true that a system is more than the sum of its component parts. As physicist, Murray Gell-Mann said, “The basic laws of physics are fundamental in the sense that all the other laws are built on them, but that doesn’t mean you can derive all the other laws from the laws of physics.”

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© 2017 by Dr Purnendu Ghosh