Saturday, March 22, 2008

The greatest achievement of humanity?

Professor Zee, in his book "Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell", suggested that Quantum Field Theory is humanity's greatest achievement.

As I sit in a Dubai hotel room, listening to J. S. Bach's English Suites (BWV 806-811) there is a conceptual part of me which fervently wants to agree with him ... and then there's Bach.

Assuming humans could communicate with life out there, what on earth are we going to talk about? Dr. Lewis Thomas offered the answer: send music. ''I would vote for Bach, all of Bach,'' he wrote. ''We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance.''

I really think that we should adopt the view of the evolutionary psychologists (and Protagoras). Man is the measure of all things. We create our cultural matrix and look for the best. I'm not sure QFT, JSB, Mr Shakespeare and all the rest are so commensurable.


My disapproving Freudian superego notes that although I read Zee's book (in some sense of the word 'read') I didn't actually understand it.

I loftily respond that I am far from seeking QFT bragging rights. The reason I don't understand it is that it is the culmination of a progression through successive paradigms of mathematical abstraction to a perspective which is exceedingly remote from any commonsense way of thinking about reality. Getting there takes years of study. And yet it works better than any other scientific theory in terms of agreement with experience (i.e. experiment)*.

I live in this universe, and I am aspirational to understand it as best I can before I depart it.

And while we are talking about things of value which are remote from common sensibilities, I recall that on Classic FM's list of 100 best classical pieces as voted by listeners, there was not a single composition from Bach.

* In the sublime there is always bathos. QFT does not explain why things fall if you drop them.