Monday, April 25, 2005

Why I double-majored in physics

To me, physics has always primarily been a reverse math problem. I've never been particulary interested in how the experimental evidence is obtained. I just think of experimental results as particularly important mathematical properties, the goal being to construct a formal axiomatic system in which said properties become theorems. (Indeed, I'm particularly drawn to things like general relativity and string theory because I find the associated mathematics tastier than it is in other areas of physics.) Many actual physicists think this way too, and some of them also have blogs. See for example Kent Budge:
Particle physics is the quest to find a Lagrangian density that explains everything we observe about the universe. But there is more to it than that. Particle physicists are strongly disposed to believe that this ultimate Lagrangian density, or Theory of Everything, must be simple and elegant. In fact, they expect the Theory of Everything to be so compelling in its simplicity and elegance that, when we finally see and understand it, we will exclaim: It could be no other way! Einstein was expressing a thought much like this when he said, "What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world."

In this respect, the particle physicist's vision is much like the mathematician's. Just as all the theorems of plane geometry are derived from a few axioms, so the complexity and diversity of the universe is derived from a minimal Lagrangian density. This Lagrangian density should have as few free parameters as possible.
The above link is to the first of a four-part (1 2 3 4) series about the symmetry of the Standard Model. (Don't be afraid to click: the intended audience is not mathematically inclined, so the series is more physics appreciation than physics.)

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