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Science as Communal Storytelling: Notes from Chapter 1 of *Six Ideas that Shaped Physics*

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Sep 2, 2021Last updated Dec 6, 20214 min read

Most of us believe we have a pretty good understanding of what physics and science are. When we think of the former, we think of complex theories and equations that describe how the universe functions. When we think of the latter, we think of the scientific process we learned in school, resulting in accurate and irrefutable conclusions that guide our lives. In the first chapter of the first volume of Six Ideas that Shaped Physics, though, Prof. Thomas Moore steps back from these immediate understandings and examines, at a human level, what science and physics are -- a refreshingly engaging introduction addressing why and how to study physics.

"It is part of nature that we strive to discern order in the cosmos and love to tell each other stories that explain what we discern," the chapter opens -- as fitting for a book on religion as physics. Science, Moore says, is fundamentally just another example of this natural storytelling. Scientific stories take the form of conceptual models, and larger, more ambitious models are called theories, but just as in other kinds of storytelling -- and against pre-conceived notions about science -- creating these models is fundamentally an act of imagination, not discovery.

It's true that science has rules: models need to be logically consistent, and verifiable with reproducible experiments. These rules often don't hold for for other kinds of stories. Following these two rules, though, are not enough for a collection of stories to be revered as "science". Moore lists two more conditions, leaving behind the technical and leading us back to the humanistic:

  1. A sufficiently large community of scholars.

  2. An overarching theory rich enough to provide a solid context for research.

Without others to believe or simply consider your stories, they remain limited personal ideas. Without agreement on a foundation to build off of, knowledge is fragmented into different, parallel or diverging tracks of advancement rather than a unified one. In Newton's time, for example, the physics of the celestial (i.e. astronomy) and terrestrial were divergent fields of knowledge, each with their own incomptabile models and theories. Newton's laws of gravitation and motion united explanations of physics of the two domains under one model, and in time combined the fields themselves together under physics.

Before and afterwards, similar examples of splitting and re-unifying narratives occur: theories of electromagnetic fields or atomic models from entirely separate areas of study merged into new theories in physics, for example, which today has again split into the two divergent theories of General Relativity and the Standard Model.

Serving the practical requirements of a textbook introduction, Moore then surveys his recommended categories of study. Though GR and SM are the two fundamental theories of physics as we understand it today, in practice we study five more simplified theories: electromagnetic field theory, quantum mechanics, special relativity, statistical mechanics, and newtonian mechanics. Common to all these theories is the appreciation of "symmetry principles," Moore writes, i.e. looking for conservation laws to define the behavior of physical systems. As such, the first of Moore's six volumes studies conservation laws in the abstract and in application, and the other five volumes each focus on one of the aforementioned five main theories of physics.

The rest of the chapter goes into specifics about what mechanical interactions are possible at the macroscopic level -- long-range: gravitational, electrostatic, and magnetic; contact: friction (shear), compression, and tension (normal) -- and the basics of dimensional analysis, in preparation for the coming technical chapters of the text.

Just this first chapter, though -- of a physics textbook, of all things -- has been one of my more memorable recent reads. Moore presents the nature and development of physics in a heavily humanistic, non-technical framing, one that encourages students to engage their curiosity when studying physics and one day perhaps even participate in the field's development. His breakdowns of historical and technical topics alike are clear and eloquent. This is exactly the kind of un-technically-compromising interdisciplinary approach I hope to take to my education overall, and I'm excited to start here.

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