Maths Left Me Trailing

As an aeronautical engineer and an information modeller, I am more than averagely capable mathematically. Literate in the calculus and statistics of human-scale classical physics, natural science and business economics, including say, the compressible flow of Navier-Stokes for example.

Several years ago I wrote of Peter Rowlands (2007) “Zero to Infinity – The Foundations of Physics” ..

Maths Leaves Me Trailing

I could tell I was reading an important book, actually just the free peek at the introductory chapter(s) afforded by Amazon, but the maths of fundamental theoretical physics I found impenetrable as presented. I have the same problem with some of the more formal logical notations of pure philosophy, whilst we’re on the topic.

At that time, online correspondent Rick Ryals (since deceased) encouraged me by pointing out he had qualified in physics and been employed in science research, and yet in recent decades he too found it impossible to present his own latest thinking in the kind of mathematics expected. It was holding him back getting his own evolving ideas taken seriously.

I never did buy Rowlands 700 page tome, partly out of fear for the maths and partly because, as a hard-back text-book I would struggle to read, the price was scary too. Recently with all the renewed interest in the psychological and psychic aspects of fundamental physics, and the recurrence of my own informational foundations, I found myself re-reading that earlier post. I was moved to buy a second-hand copy of the 2008 hard-back reprint at last. And glad I did. Still expensive but reinforced the original impression of its importance and value.

Recently, I had also been looking at good reviews of Jim Baggott’s latest (2020) “Quantum Reality” and Tweeted a quip about the sub-editor’s use of Schrödinger’s Cat in  the headline sub-title. Like Hawking did “I reach for my gun” whenever I hear mention.

I’ve not actually ordered it yet …

because … well … imagine my surprise

… following-up the renewed Rowlands interest and discovering he has written several books including (2015) “How Schrödinger’s Cat Escaped The Box” clearly described as a popular readership version of his more formal work.

But that meme of a title?

(Hat tip to @Katoi – from a project “about Dirac”, the only human face amongst the cartoon characters, with Schrödinger as Tom – the cat – from Tom & Jerry.)

Why had I never heard of Rowlands since? A professor of physics at Liverpool Uni, many publications including many books. Hmmm. His books published by World Scientific out of Singapore, few citations to be found, and most of those from his circle of collaborators. This is thought overlooked – or rejected – by mainstream physics?

Anyway, I’ve taken the plunge and acquired a copy of “How Schrödinger’s Cat Escaped The Box“, now reading the Kindle version in advance of receiving the hard-copy.

It is a wonderful read.

I’ve read a great deal of popular, and not so popular science, even more philosophy of science and the metaphysical foundations of its ontologies and epistemologies. As Rowlands points out is his aim, it is clearly written in such a way that the maths – yes there still is a lot of maths – is presented very simply. The simplicity comes from sticking with the abstractions symbolised in the mathematical relations and dispensing with the ubiquitous thought experiments as examples; Schrödinger’s cat-in-a-box for one (hence his title) but all the rubber sheets and bowling balls, clocks and astronauts travelling on trains, spacecraft and beams of light. Let’s escape from the box of conventional thought.

I’m only two chapters in so far, and I must have read the same content hundreds of times before – the particles and forces of the standard model(s), quantum mechanics and relativity, E=Mc2, you name it. As I say, it may be the same hackneyed scope as many a popular science book on these topics, but it’s presentation is very readable and preserves the mathematical significance of the symmetries.

He does also of course make reference to his “Zero to Infinity – The Foundations of Physics” very early on. A second reason he is able to keep the maths simple in his popular work is that he is only presenting the equations that represent the model of physics. What he is not doing is presenting all the calculations that relate the model to the many physical properties, constants and observed values in the universe that lead to the current-day paradoxes, anomalies and gaps which still prevent any consensus on the unification of physics as a whole. You want that level of calculation, you go to his formal work.

If you really want to start from zero, you also dispense with the presumed realities of the human-scale physical world. It is these that make the fundamental quantum and gravitational relativity views seem weird. The only thing after zero are points of possibility, or conceivability as others have said.

“This book requires [no] prior knowledge of physics or mathematics beyond arithmetic and the simplest algebra … Trained scientist[s] will find this [not] easy. There is an immense barrier to be overcome. This difficulty is not intrinsic to the subject. Complexity has nothing to do with it. [The difficulty] comes from our own habits of thought … generations of conditioning which makes us want to see nature in a different way to the one in which it really acts.”

Nature repeats itself at different levels. Of course it’s not the actual structures and qualities that repeat, but the abstract patterns that underlie them.

[The] paradox of Schrödinger’s cat is symptomatic of our desire to compromise, to hold on to a view of nature which has some tangible connection to our ordinary world. However if Schrödinger’s cat is ever to escape from its box, we have to escape from ours.

Too true. Thinking outside the box. Any excuse to post this:

Reading on …


Post Notes: …

Read completed. Excellent. Recommended. Keeping the maths simple, the abstractions do seem to maintain their relationship to reality. Fascinating, no longer feel “left trailing” by the maths.

[Some more references to Rowlands in my next Cormac O’Raffery post.]

Contact with Rowlands and his ongoing work established:

In his own words:

“[not] broken through yet, but a few green shoots”


4 thoughts on “Maths Left Me Trailing”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.