Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Obama Physics?

I cringe when I read a bastardization of physics like this. I think this news reporter is simply trying to be "cute" in applying a couple of laws of physics to the Barack Obama political campaign (this post will probably make sense only to those in the US, but the implication of it goes beyond the US border).

While I'm sure this is done tongue-in-cheek, in some academic circles, such a practice is done seriously. The Postmodernist movement has attempted to "incorporate" many aspect of physics into social, political, and other human activities and policies. The theory of relativity is a very common victim, followed by quantum mechanics. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have detailed several of these in their excellent book "Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science".

I really don't quite understand why some people think that various principles of physics should be applicable to human behavior and policies. Maybe physicists should take this as a compliment because some social and political scientists seem to think that the laws of physics should be applicable in all aspect of our world, including human interactions. However, they are only understanding a very small and narrow aspect of how we do and understand physics, while ignoring others. They obviously do not know about the physics of phase transition, for example, whereby what we know in a particular phase cannot be simply extrapolated into the next phase. In first order phase transition, there is an abrupt change in a number of thermodynamic quantities that completely destroys one's ability to simply extrapolate one's knowledge in one phase into another.

Or what about emergent behavior where by the collective behavior of a system simply cannot be predicted even when one has the complete knowledge of all the interactions at the microscopic level? This throws into doubt about the existence of a "theory of everything", but more importantly, it is a clear signal that one simply cannot weely-neely apply principles known at one level to accurately describe properties at another level. It isn't that obvious, not that easy!

But of course, these postmodernists didn't realize that. All that they can do is extract some superficial aspect of physics and apply it to their hearts content without any evidence that what they are doing is valid. Very nice!


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