This article was last modified on November 9, 2010.


Heisenberg on the Language of Physics

Physics and science in general have gone through a number of revolutions and paradigms over the years. The Copernican Revolution was monumental, of course, and then there was Einstein’s theory of relativity about a century ago. But the likes of Bohr, Schroedinger and Werner Heisenberg took it to a new level with quantum mechanics and quantum theory. How could Schroedinger’s cat be simultaneously dead and alive? After they were done with physics, there was an “uncertainty principle” and the very foundation that Einstein and others had been working with for decades — perhaps centuries — was overturned and a gateway of confusion was opened.

As any layman who has tried to understand modern physics knows, it is a dreadfully challenging endeavor. Unbelievably large and small quantities, mathematical formulas that leave even the brightest minds stumped. But Werner Heisenberg found that one of the problems that separated the physicists from the laymen was even more fundamental: they could now no longer speak the same language. Seemingly, some concepts just could not be stated succinctly in ordinary language.

He recognizes that “language… contains a great number of concepts which are a suitable tool for more or less unambiguous communication about events in daily life.” [Heisenberg: 168] Ideas expressed in words can be done much more precisely than by mere signs or gestures, for example. The addition and refinement of words creates new realms of understanding about the world around us. The precision of language goes back a long ways in philosophy, and “the problem of the concepts in language has been a major theme since Socrates” [Heisenberg: 169] For example, what is justice? Even if we think we know, how do we find a definition we all agree on?

Language was a broad array of uses, not just merely descriptive ones. Poets, for example, use language more fluidly, relying on thought and emotion to convey their message, incorporating a figurative sense to their words where literalism is not a primary concern. But unlike poetry, “science must be based upon language as the only means of communication” [Heisenberg: 171] And that is a problem when the concepts go beyond the words we have in our lexicon. Words “have only a limited range of applicability. For instance, we can speak about a piece of iron or a piece of wood, but we cannot speak about a piece of water.” [Heisenberg: 168] We might say, for example, that particles are transmitted in “rays” or “waves”, but what if we found a third way? How could we communicate it if no term yet exists?

Heisenberg laments that “one has not yet found the correct language with which to speak about the new situation and … the incorrect statements published here and there in the enthusiasm about the new discoveries have caused all kinds of misunderstanding.” [Heisenberg: 167] Indeed, the new physics (still new after all these years) is hard enough, but if not able to be explained properly, who knows what could happen. This is much like the myths of evolution that arise due to biology teachers slipping and explaining things happening “randomly” or “by chance” because they have not been taught the fine differences in language, definition and connotation that might arise.

“But in what language, then, should (the new developments) be described? The first language that emerges from the process of scientific clarification is in theoretical physics usually a mathematical language, the mathematical scheme, which allows one to predict the results of experiments. The physicist may be satisfied when he has the mathematical scheme and knows how to use it for the interpretation of the experiments. But he has to speak about his results also to nonphysicists who will not be satisfied unless some explanation is given in plain language, understandable to anybody.” [Heisenberg: 168] We live in a world where math needs to be reduced to an ordinary language, but can this be done when the math goes beyond basic Euclidean geometry and becomes largely symbolic?

“In theoretical physics we try to understand groups of phenomena by introducing mathematical symbols that can be correlated with facts, namely, with the results of measurements. For the symbols we use names that visualize their correlation with the measurement. Thus the symbols are attached to the language.” [Heisenberg: 172] But it is a language of physics, not an ordinary language. And when trying to use ordinary language, physicists may have to falter and fail in their attempt. “When this vague and unsystematic use of the language leads into difficulties, the physicist has to withdraw into the mathematical scheme and its unambiguous correlation with the experimental facts.” [Heisenberg: 179] Instead of clearing up ambiguities, the scientist instead finds himself retreating and embracing them.

With the new physics, we cannot speak of the Lorentz contraction of moving bodies as a real contraction or an apparent one (which is it?), and our different ways of looking at space and time, thought to be universal, are hard to speak of now. “The ordinary language was based upon the old concepts of space and time and this language offered the only unambiguous means of communication about the setting up and the results of the measurements.” [Heisenberg: 174] How does one speak of new concepts in an old language?

“The most difficult problem… concerning the use of the language arises in quantum theory… our common concepts cannot be applied to the structure of the atoms.” [Heisenberg: 177] Again, “we cannot speak about the atoms in ordinary language” [Heisenberg: 179] (I confess that I do not grasp exactly what Heisenberg means here, because I have never found the topic of atoms to be unclear.)

Modern physics also discusses things like “coexistent states”, something that would be impossible with what Heisenberg calls “the usual materialistic ontology” that Einstein used and the layman today still takes as natural. “All these difficult definitions can be avoided if one confines the language to the description of facts, i.e., experimental results. However, if one wishes to speak about the atomic particles themselves one must either use the mathematical scheme as the only supplement to natural language or one must combine it with a language that makes use of a modified logic or of no well-defined logic at all.” [Heisenberg: 185-186]

How to adapt our language to one that can explain these difficult and ambiguous concepts in clear terms? “One should simply wait for the development of the language, which adjusts itself after some time to the new situation,” Heisenberg suggests. [Heisenberg: 175] But how does it adjust if we simply wait instead of adjusting it ourselves? Language is, of course, a human construct and cannot be modified or expanded without human interaction.

“Bohr… encouraged the physicists to use an ambiguous rather than an unambiguous language” to take into account the principle of uncertainty, but this cannot be the answer. [Heisenberg: 179] What, then, is the answer? Are scientists put to task, ordered to construct a language that communicates what they have discovered to the average man? Or is it the duty of the civilian to grasp science beyond what the pragmatic person would ever need?

Is science destined to be a realm beyond the scope and reach of the average man, or will the average man one day embrace and comprehend science, ushering in a new, bright age? That is the big question.

Sources

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science Harper Torchbook, 1962.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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