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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Ack-Ack Macaque
Gareth L. Powell
Progress: 249/792 pages
Introduction to Topology
Bert Mendelson
Progress: 10/224 pages
Isaac Newton
James Gleick
Progress: 32/289 pages
Basics of Plasma Astrophysics
Claudio Chiuderi, Marco Velli
Progress: 58/250 pages
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (The Library of America)
Brian Attebery, Ursula K. Le Guin
Progress: 468/700 pages
A Student's Guide to Lagrangians and Hamiltonians
Patrick Hamill
Progress: 7/180 pages
Complete Poems, 1904-1962
E.E. Cummings
Progress: 242/1102 pages
The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe
Gravitation (Physics Series)
Kip Thorne;Kip S. Thorne;Charles W. Misner;John Archibald Wheeler;John Wheeler
Progress: 48/1215 pages
I Am a Cat
Graeme Wilson, Aiko Ito, Sōseki Natsume
Progress: 410/638 pages

Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg

Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science - Werner Heisenberg

Really, the title should have warned me that I was unlikely to get along with this book - but it doesn't actually say, Physics and Metaphysics. I have very little time for metaphysics; it's day is long since past (couple of millenia, at least) and it is really only of historical interest to those concerned with understanding nature. Far too much of the book is spent on either; comparing quantum mechanics (QM) with Western metaphysics or pondering unanswerable conundrums, like, "does anything exist when it isn't being observed?" and "what type of reality is really real?" What science does (with increasing precision over time) is attempt to explain the contents and behaviour of nature, not whether it is "dogmatically objective" or some other type of objective or subjective or, who knows, subjunctive or conjunctive or metastatically cancerous...


This comparison with western metaphysics is as profitless as the later (80s-90s) fad for comparison with "eastern philosophy." Metaphysics, regardless of hemisphere did not lead to nuclear reactors and smart phones, so any apparent correspondences are vague, incomplete and of no practical use.


Heisenberg seems inconsistent at times, which is a bit naff in a book on science or philosophy, let alone both. For instance, he states categorically that no human observer is actually necessary in QM but later seems to tacitly assume the opposite. He's also wrong about a few things, but only in the light of 50 years' worth of further scientific investigations.


I also don't know who the intended audience is; he assumes quite a bit of knowledge of both physics and metaphysics - certainly too much of the former for a non-physicist audience now or then and too much of the latter for present-day non-philosophy students.


Probably the only really valuable insight I got from the book was the point that General Relativity isn't a limiting case or approximation of (or to) any other physical theory: it famously can't be integrated into any current quantum theory but it can't be derived from any other classical theory either, nor can any other classical theory be derived from it: It just stands there in majestic aloofness. It has done since it was first published and still does now.


The other segment of interest to me was the final chapter on the influence of science in general and modern physics in particular on contemporary society - <i>here's</i> where I think general philosophical thought might profitably be focused, along with close examination of recent history.


The book also seems badly organised; why does the chapter on alternatives to the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM not follow immediately after the chapter on the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, for instance?


I find it difficult to recommend this book to anybody: if you want to become familiar with the central concepts of QM, The Character of Physical Law by R.P. Feynman is enormously better. Einstein's own book is a much better introduction to Relativity theory (especially if you can remember school algebra). If you are interested in the philosophy of science, this book won't help. It's too out of date to work as an introduction to the state of contemporary fundamental physics. The only bits that seem to remain really relevant are the thoughts about the use of language in science and the thoughts on science's impact on society at large.