I thought physicists were required to know math?

I guess not. Although maybe it’s only a requirement if you’re not a creationist physicist, as Jeffrey Shallit describes.

But wait — Shallit is all cranky about the math, but I had to look at the original post, and there’s more. He’s complaining about species boundaries!

“Species” are not very well defined. Paleontologists work from bones, naturalists work with dead specimens, geneticists work with DNA, and ecologists work with living communities. Each group has its own definition, and very often they are in conflict with the others.

This one always gets me. So the creationist is saying, ‘species boundaries are fuzzy and ill-defined, therefore my claim that species are fixed and unchanging is validated, and evolution is false’. Yeah no.

Boy, I haven’t looked at Uncommon Descent in ages. It’s still a clueless loon factory.


  1. markr1957 says

    I would have thought that a physicist should have at least a passing understanding of quantum mechanics, where everything is fuzzy (as in probabilistic, not deterministic). The only certainty about any subatomic particle is its existence, not its location or its velocity, so does this prove that matter doesn’t exist – to take Shallits ‘argument’ to its logical conclusion?

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Species” are not very well defined
    that, I agree with. (the rest is balderdash).
    Probably not coincidental that this follows so quickly after the publication of the discovery that a teenage girl’s [specifically stated] 90k y.o. fossilized knuckle joint was found, by DNA analysis, to be a mix of two species, one being Neanderthal, the second some other homo-sapiens progenitor (I don’t remember the official designation).
    Seems to me our definition of species is vague, with the “fuzzy boundaries” discussed.

  3. grasshopper says

    ” Each group has its own definition, and very often they are in conflict with the others.”
    Is he talking about Christians or species?

  4. chrislawson says

    Physicists need to know a subset of maths*. Which is fine until someone starts blathering on about number theory and infinite series in the mistaken belief that being competent at exponentials and calculus makes you good at everything.

    This doesn’t mean a physicist can’t be good at a lot of maths, including areas that aren’t directly related to their field.

  5. zetopan says

    The “Uncommon Descent” web name is actually truncated. Their full title is “Uncommon Descent Into Madness”, what with them being moronic creationists and all.

  6. lpetrich says

    As to physicists and math, I know of a certain amateur physicist who claims that mathematics cannot be a fundamental sort of description because one has to define one’s terms. Though he claims that math can be useful, he has a very different response when I show him some physics math. He claims that I’m distracting from the evidence with my math. Even though it’s the math that his heroes had used.

    This “gentleman” claims to be restoring the physics of Newton and Maxwell and Einstein and his other heroes, as opposed to such bizarre speculations as supersymmetry and magnetic monopoles and string theory and multiverses. He often argues from quotes from his heroes like where Albert Einstein stated something like an object’s mass depends on its energy content, and he concludes from that that the Higgs mechanism is bogus.

    He even thumps Wikipedia, like its article on the Einstein-de Haas effect, where magnetizing an object will make it spin. This is from conservation of angular momentum from the spins getting aligned, and the article states that that means that elementary-particle spin is much like macroscopic angular momentum. This “gentleman” thumps that part of the article rather hard, arguing that elementary-particle spin is just like macroscopic rotation, and that quantum-mechanical spin is all wrong.

    He thinks that photons are circling electrons and that virtual particles are woo-woo like spontaneous generation. Hydrogen atoms don’t twinkle and magnets don’t shine, he tells us. I tried to show him that one of his heroes, Richard Feynman, was a big believer in virtual particles, with no success.

    He argues like a theologian, and he even once referred to something that “Einstein told us”, as though he was a religious prophet. He claims that critics like me “deny Einstein”.

    He claims that time is derived from motion, though I can’t figure out how that is supposed to happen. This is blatantly contrary to relativity, which firmly states that space and time are are part of a unified space-time continuum. This “gentleman” likes to thump Einstein’s Leyden address about how gravity is inhomogeneous space, ignoring where Einstein endorses space-time unity. Even when I quoted Hermann Minkowski on that subject, he ignored it.

  7. nobgu says

    A lot of physicists are using math the same way a secretary is using word processing software. I think there are two reasons for that. The obvious one is that the math required even for entry level physics is often very advanced (e.g. a lot of important functions are not Riemann-integrable), and instead of teaching these advanced techniques (e.g. Lebesgue-Integration) the physically required result is looked up in a table. The IMO more important but less obvious (at least it took me more than a decade after to realize) reason is that the Universe doesn’t care whether something is mathematically correct or not (e.g. modeling space as R^n is questionable – see Banach-Tarski paradox – but doesn’t prevent one from solving actual physics problems).

  8. indianajones says

    Disclaimer: I am neither physicist not mathematician. merely an interested hobbyist/amateur.

    Mathematics is really cool for describing stuff. And, by it’s arbitrary rules (and they are, but see below) examines itself and the implications of something like ‘If this mathematical thing is true, then what does that imply?’

    So, the first thing can be as simple as ‘how many sheep do i have?’ and it works. From there it implies other rules, subtraction for instance. And the cool thing about it (mathematics I mean) is, is that it often implies things that don;t seem to have any application at all, but in maths world are still true. And from there, give it a century or a millennium, or so, it then finds application where it does describe real world application. Number theory grew out of counting sheep. It implies prime numbers. Which are super useful for encryption. Which our international banking system relies upon. Your average bronze age herder counting sheep didn’t realise that.

    Maths also predicted things like Neptune before they were directly observed, just for instance.

    So for your friend, maths is only useful insofar as it describes reality, and I suppose in essence reality describes its terms. But maths is REALLY good at it, certainly better than anything else we have come across for predictive value by a very very long way.

  9. zetopan says

    Some people simply go through the motions with memorization and cannot be bothered with actually understanding. It is a trivial exercise to flummox some engineers, physicists, etc. with a problem that they have not seen before and hence do not know the solution. Those with actual understanding will know how to approach solving the problem with the things that they know, while those without any actual understanding will but have memorized everything will want someone to give them the formula for the solution. I have personally seen situations where the person under discussion will actually state that they don’t want to know how to derive an equation, just give them the damn equation.

  10. zetopan says

    An addendum: And those same people will often be incapable of seeing that any given result is even obviously wrong. i.e. They totally rely on the results of their computation even when the resulting units are completely nonsensical. Since they lack the interest or ability to perform the derivation on their own, they cannot determine if that specific equation is even applicable to their specific usage. This type of error is very common among creationists since they only want to “prove” the conclusion that they initially started out with.

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    zetopan @15:

    This type of error is very common among creationists since they only want to “prove” the conclusion that they initially started out with.

    Yeah, I forget the guy’s name, but one of them claimed that the whole “universe is expanding” thing was nonsense. This was, he said, because the gravitational force between two nearby galaxy clusters was far greater than the force on the sun from the Milky Way. True, but irrelevant to expansion versus gravitational binding. My feeling was that he knew this, but was giving (crappy) ammunition to the troops. Utterly contemptible.

  12. Sean Boyd says

    Creationist physicists (at least, those of the Xtian variety) are firmly stuck in the 3=1 paradigm. Bad math will follow.

    #11 nobgu,

    modeling space as R^n is questionable – see Banach-Tarski paradox – but doesn’t prevent one from solving actual physics problems

    Party pooper. Once joked with an advisor in grad school that we could use the Banach-Tarski construction to take the math department lounge and create two of equal size: one for smoking and one for non-smoking. He pointed out that, as a side effect, we’d never be able to integrate over the non-smoking section to find out how much smoke was really being produced. Oh, those crazy mathies!

  13. says

    Sean, the value of π as 3 (which is what I guess you are getting at—and ignore this if it’s not) is accurate, it’s just not terribly precise.

  14. lpetrich says

    Rob Grigjanis @13: This “gentleman” has published his theories in many online forums, sometimes under his real name, John Duffield, and sometimes under the name Farsight. He even has his own: http://physicsdiscussionforum.org/ Here are some of the essays that he has posted in many places, as they appear in that aforementioned forum:
    * Time and Space > Time Explained
    * Energy and Mass > Mass Made Simple
    * Light and Electromagnetism > Getting to grips with electromagnetism
    * Gravity and Relativity > How Gravity Works
    Another place is “Science Sundays with John Duffield” at https://bogpaper.wordpress.com Here is where he argues that the Higgs mechanism is contrary to E = m*c^2: https://bogpaper.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/science-sundays-with-john-duffield-higgs-spin-zero/

    He also goes from discussions of “topological charge” to the curious notion that electric charge is topological, that its value is related to some topological invariant. When I asked him for articles about that, he preferred to give Google search-result URL’s instead of the article URL’s themselves.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    lpetrich @20: No big surprise that Duffield appears to be an ardent libertarian. What a load of twaddle. He seems to think that the major claim of the Higgs mechanism is that it explains the masses of all particles. Not a word about electroweak unification. And it’s still not at all clear from his ramblings why E=mc² contradicts the Higgs mechanism.

    Funny quote (my bolding):

    You haven’t seen a picture of the Higgs boson, have you? No. There are no particle tracks because its lifetime is so conveniently short. Instead its existence is “inferred” from a bump on a graph.

    Hilarious. He seems unaware of the long history of inferring the existence of particles from their “bumps”. If you can’t see ’em directly, they don’t exist! Bozo.

  16. lpetrich says

    Rob Grigjanis @22: When I mentioned to him short-lived elementary particles, he dismissed them as “ephermera”. Presumably meaning that if a particle is not stable, then it is not truly elementary.

    Protons and neutrons he considers photons moving in a trefoil-knot pattern, with the handles being the quarks.

    Here is his main argument for time being a result of motion:

    “Hold your hands up. See that gap between them? That’s a space, and you can see it’s there, even though you can’t see the space itself. Now waggle those hands. That’s motion, and you can see that’s there too. But can you see time? No. Can you see time flowing? No. Can you see any travelling through time? No. These phrases are just figures of speech. There’s no scientific evidence for time flowing or time travel. Time travel is science fiction, and it’s going to stay that way forever because travelling back in time is impossible. It’s impossible because we don’t even travel forward in time, not really.”

    He has challenged me to prove him wrong by jumping backward in time.

  17. Rob Grigjanis says

    lpetrich @23: Sadly, the world will never suffer a shortage of Duffields. Before the internet, they only inflicted their nonsense on the more polite regulars, or unsuspecting newcomers, at their local pub. Hence the term “pub bore”.