Deconstructing Physics

Stephanie Nelson (NELSON@USCVM.BITNET)
Fri, 8 Apr 1994 14:10:06 PDT

When I encounter something new and difficult, one way I judge whether it is
worth working to understand is to take a look at the quality of the other minds
that are brought to it. It's sort of like judging a professor by the quality
of his grad students, I guess. Anyway, here's a sample posting from the
Derrida list that I thought might interest even Bob Graber! Stephanie
======================================================================= 63
Date: Thu, 7 Apr 1994 23:12:56 -0700
Reply-To: A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction
Sender: A discussion of Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction
From: Paul Speaker <phs@ASTRO.CALTECH.EDU>
Subject: Re: deconstruction and science
To: Multiple recipients of list DERRIDA <DERRIDA@CFRVM.BITNET>

I think that it would be interesting to apply deconstruction to
the language of particular areas of science, rather than the methods of
science as a whole. The applications to creating a new viewpoint on
the subject of evolution, I think are rather significant, but as I am
ignorant on some of technical details of evolutionary theory, I would
rather look at an area with which I am more familiar, i.e., the
theories associated with the so-called "grand unified theories" of
physics.(I am a Ph.D student in astrophysics at Caltech, by the way.)
The predisposition of many theoretical physicists towards a
belief in the existence of a theory that puts all fundamental forces
into a unified mathematical framework seems to me from the people I've
talked to about this subject a mostly aesthetic one. In addition, it
also seems very analogous to the desire of stuctural literary critics to
put forth an almost transcendental language that is the context for all
understanding. One can well ask whether two theories that are different
in their mathematical language and their predictions are equally valid.
This question is fairly moot in the realm of most physics and the other
sciences, but it is not moot when one looks at these "grand unified
theories," of which there are several candidates, when the only places
these theories give different predictions are under conditions that
we shall never see and possibly never have and never will exist to
begin with.
I think also that a parallel may be drawn between these
theoretical physicists of today with the "degenerate" Scholastics of the
15th century. The Scholastics were obsessed with such trivial concerns
as the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, while all the while
having complete faith in the logical framework of Scholasticism. However,
by adding these realms of thought to the domain of Scholasticism they
were indeed mutating the process, and so they were doing little more than
chasing tautologies.
The same has become true of the theoretical physicist. The
mathematical language of physics has been present and growing since
Newton. However, in recent years, it has expanded to include areas
that are unverifiable, while still assuming they could carry along the
same mathematical framework to this new area. As recently as 25 years ago
nobody asked why(?) an electron had such-and-such mass, but this is a
question that is being investigated quite a bit these days. The
question can not be investigated in terms of things are observable, so
the theoretical physicist hopes that the magic carpet of mathematics
will carry one to these fundamental(?) properties. It is interesting
that these physicists, in a sense, are working to put themselves
out of a job by answering all possible questions.

Paul Speaker

p.s. David Lindley's book "The End of Physics" gives a largely nontech-
nical account of this quest of theoretical physicists.