Sunday, June 9, 2013

Deconstructing Time part 5 - Intuitive Physics

Before we dive into modern Physics theory I think it's probably appropriate to introduce a concept and provide a critique on the current way Physics is practiced. This is not meant to be critical per se - it's simply another way to illustrate the method I described in the first post on Deconstructing Time. Any time an IT Architect such as myself accepts an assignment, we run the risk of setting foot within an entirely new domain - at least it is new for us. Over the years, I have worked in the military, in Healthcare, in manufacturing, in telecommunications and so on. Until now though I had never immersed myself in the field of Physics. Like many folks, I have followed Physics as a news item and studied key concepts as part of my education - but I was never asked to create or validate any solutions for the field.

Intuition isn't as painful as it looks...

The term "Intuitive Physics" then is not meant to represent something wholly unique to that field - it could apply equally to Healthcare and then perhaps be called "Intuitive Medicine." What I'm referring to with this concept is the ability to take a generic (Cross Domain) methodology for problem-solving and direct it at an entirely new field without being or becoming an expert in that field. In fact, not being an expert in the field it is being directed at is one of its major value propositions in that one can avoid Group-think traps that tend to snare many of the more formally accredited members of the group. The reason I use the word "Intuit" is because the ultimate goal of the methodology is the ability to assimilate enough knowledge from the specific field quickly enough to parallel instinctively or intuitively the major lines of logical though that have developed or will develop. Again, this isn't because of any unique skills or abilities per se other than the ability to keep one's mind completely attuned to problem solving instead of getting bogged down in the internal politics and distractions of any given group.

This is a process or experience that has worked more or less the same way for me as an architect for more than 15 years. In every field where I was asked to provide IT solutions I was able to anticipate major issues and parallel the thought processes that went into the current solutions and those that were driving the next generation requirements. If I wasn't able to do this then instead of needing months or weeks to get ramped-up in a new field, it would take me years - Intuitive Solutions design then is a very pragmatic skill for IT practitioners who "jump domains."

The irony here is that intuition lost its place in physics for many decades after the 1930's

Getting back to Physics, while I'm still early in the process of immersion and can't perhaps really consider myself immersed in the sense that I usually achieve on most assignments (as this investigation is entirely virtual in nature and is part time), I have still begun to notice certain characteristics about the field. I always make observations like these while on assignment in order to better understand why something is or isn't working well within a particular environment - this helps drive solution options as well as helping to define constraints, dependencies and risks. So, for Physics thusfar I've noticed the following things:

  • In general, there is a lack of community support for questioning core assumptions. This seems to be changing, but appears to have been very rigid for about 75 years. I should point out that this situations changes over time as evolutionary 'bursts of dissent' often drives major advances, but these have historically occurred far apart. The pace of these bursts may be on the verge of some serious acceleration.  
  • In Physics, there seems to be some difficulty viewing concepts in holistic perspectives. This is a common phenomena and occurs whenever the subject matter becomes sufficiently complex - which is also why it is very widespread in IT. In Information Technology we refer to this as "Silos." In Physics though the problem seems worse - I've yet to view visualizations that link all of the core concepts of modern physics together within shared contexts. I'm still looking but if I don't find them I will provide a few myself in order to demonstrate what's missing.
  • Physics is overly dependent on the proof. Now this may sound counter-intuitive at first but it all depends upon how "proof" is defined. Arbitrarily narrow proofs tend to stifle the ability to voice dissent and thus lock group thinking into static modes. At times, physics has managed to escape these boxes by diverging into different directions but at the expense of being able to link them back together holistically (which is why Quantum Mechanics, Special Relativity and General Relativity aren't entirely lined up - and why many other possibly theories are completely dismissed). 
  • To expand a little on the previous point - non-physicists will note that in nearly all published explanations of any key aspect of Physics theory the proofs are tossed into the middle of the narrative. For outsiders, this almost appears compulsive in nature (as you rarely find any examples of where this doesn't occur). It has the effect of potentially excluding 90% of the world's population from the debate as it ensures that only those who have studied some physics are likely to brave all these proof-filled narratives. So the math becomes a barrier, and perhaps more of a barrier if the formal trade groups that control Physics (well, that's what we might call them) determines which proofs are allowed without much input from the majority of the members (and how they will be defined). This is justified by stating any wider results are invalid - this despite the volumes of conflicting and inexplicable data accrued over the past century - but more on that later. This proof-centric situation has the chilling effect of preventing the field from challenging its own core assumptions.
  • Physics has been for past century more of an experimental than an applied science. This is changing and changing primarily due to IT. But as in R & D for IT, the experimentalist view of the world often becomes divorced from reality and the balance between research and application should always include a healthy portion of practice. 
  • Like most experimental science, Physics is severely restrained by the tradeoffs associated in building, reproducible manageable results. What does this mean - it means that we too often build arbitrarily simplistic experiments that inevitably tell us only what we want to hear or worse yet give us a false impression of the problem. The best way to illustrate this issue perhaps to describe a typical medical experiment; a test group of patients is a given a new drug say for hair growth, another test group is given a placebo (let's say an M & M). The whole focus of the experiment then resolves around just two variables and the other variables are factored out. The problem with this though is that we know the real world doesn't work that way thus we can never be sure of the dynamics of what's coming out in the test results. 

I will insert more observations regarding the practice of Physics as we proceed in our series on time in the context of actual decisions and events regarding current theory. Our following articles will focus on some of the key questions that inspired modern Physical theory - the first being this: "What is light," and it's corollary, "Is Light a Particle or a Wave." These in turn will help us to understand the question most closely associated with our Use Case - "What is Time."

copyright 2013, Stephen Lahanas


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