Language & Quantum Physics: Crossing Boundaries and Limitations

Me & Mira Zussman

Language and quantum physics are thought to be non-problematic, stemming primarily from an unexamined acceptance in Physics of the "naturalness" of language, a certain Positivism quiet popular in the 1920's. (By "language" we mean here both the language used in communicating physics as well as the language used in developing and constructing physics.)

We don't share this sunny optimism, and want show our readers that unfortunately there are several problems with language in quantum physics. We want to do this from several perspectives: first, as a feminist critique of the language of physics as carrier and shaper of the ideology of domination; secondly, as modernist/postmodernist dialogue: quantum physics is both heir to the modernist tradition of Newton and Descartes, as well as kin the the postmodernist Zeitgeist of the present; we will also explore the difficulties relating to the translation which comes into the discourse of physics, both among the practitioners as well as between physicists and the public at large; finally, we want to point to the limitations which stem from limitations of the very language of physics, mathematics: Godel's theorem tells us that there will true statements which will not be verifiable by our rationalist methods, hence our rationalist approach to physics will yield only some of the truths of this theory.

Feminist Critique

We start from the outside, at the literal (pshat) level and observe that language of physics carries with it the traditional views of Nature as female, and the idea that It has to be tamed. Nature is seen as the Other- the female Other - through the minds eyes of the Father, Reason. The discourse of physics uses passive voice most of the time, so that things "were done" by the researcher, rather than the researcher inserting her/himself in the work. This is reinforcing the dominant paradigm in so far as it hides the physicist as actor.

In the past, physics borrowed words from other languages, notably Greek and Latin - electron, momentum,quantum (!) for instance. Thus, it went outside the culture/language of the physicist, alienating the user, forcing her/him to think in a foreign language, literally. Quantum physics has kept some of this custom, with many words from Greek, Latin kept. The new words which were added were at first in German - eigenvalue, zitterbewegung, brehmstrahlung, which mean proper value, dithering motion, and ray radiation, respectively. The new particles seen in the 1930's and 1940's were still given Greek-sounding names: neutron, pion, mu-meson. The pion is even denoted with the Greek letter pi.

More recently, with the dominance - sorry, influence :) - of American physics, there has been a more informal approach to naming of particles. Thus the constituents of matter are called quarks, from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake ! So maybe physicists are literate after all. Also, the names of the individual quarks are easily understood: up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom. This is a move away from the alienating naming in Greek and Latin, though it is still probably alienating to non-English speakers.

Language has had a totalizing effect, first in making almost all physicist use English as the language of international intercourse, and secondly in thereby forcing most people to think in a foreign language, where they have to accept to assumptions of that language. English itself is a rather compact language, modular, with new words, concepts easily added on. It is not "flowing" as some of the Romance European language are, but more to the point and terse. As in Judaism/Christianity/Islam the Divine is a jealous one, so in physics, the language is mostly English - there are still national conferences carried out in the respective language of the country, but much of the physics language is local adaptation of words invented in Germany or England/USA. Thus, in Romanian, the phrase "Quantum Mechanics" is "Mecanica Cuantica" - as is probably in Spanish! The lingua franca of Physics is English!


We move now the the level of allegory (remez) and look at modernity and language in quantum physics. Toulmin, in his book Cosmopolis has pointed out the hidden agenda of modernity, to which quantum physics is heir. I have looked at some of these issues elsewhere. Here I just want to point out how quantum physics attempts in its use of language to have it both ways: both to have the modernist split of oral/written, particular/universal, specific/general, timely/timeless, opting for the second element of these false dual pairs. It also wants to have the tension between, by means of Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity.

The oral/written pair is a good starting point. While language clearly falls in the written part, we can take here the larger view of language as communication. Oral communication, discussion, is a very big part of creating physics and also telling others about one's work. In this sense, while the written is still privileged, sometimes papers have as references "Private communication", usually from a well-known (and living!) physicist. It indicates that the present work is so new that it has not been written down. It might also imply endorsement by the well-known physicist.

The particular/universal pair is also fraught with tension. We "believe" that the physical laws we have discovered are universal, yet we are bound by the rules of empirical observation to admit that so far we have only limited, particular support for our theories. Thus, it is possible that far away, the four fundamental forces we know are of a different nature, with different internal symmetries, or that there might even be more forces! We know the particular form and behavior of matter, and we extrapolate that these laws must hold in the whole of the universe, but must admit here that we do this with little evidence except that having done this so far has worked. There is a very important counter-example: quantum physics itself! It arose precisely because the extension of classical rules to the atomic sizes did not work.

This extrapolation is part of the language of physics, mathematics which we will discuss shortly. Here we have in mind the inductive approach, much used, maybe carelessly so. There is a counter-balance to this method, the deductive method, rather maligned now as not being "abstract" enough. In this method, we take the data we have at our disposal and deduce the theory which could explain this.

General relativity is more sensitive to this question, as there the tension between particular and universal is very important. Thus, there might be a particular choice of coordinates which expresses certain relationships. Yet, there is no universal choice of coordinates to express this.

The specific/general pair is not so problematic, as diverse fields of physics, especially experimental physics employs this pair, moving between them with ease.

Coming to the timely/timeless, this is a pair undergoing some revision. It used to be that all the laws - especially the "fundamental" ones, those of particle physics - were thought as being timeless. Though seldom expressed, this idea permeated physics from the time of Aristotle and even in quantum physics this idea was accepted. Only in the last two decades has there been a revision of this, coming from the conjunction between particle physics and general relativity. It is now believed that the laws of the universe were different in the very beginning of time and space then they are now! The scales of time at which these laws change are so large that as far as the present time is concerned, these laws are "timeless". Yet on the scale of the life of the universe, of billions of years, there might be change.


But many of these discussions I have presented above, plus most discussion in physics have some limitations- no, problems - coming from the fact that we are using now English, while we formulate physics in the language of mathematics. As Benjamin has shown us, the task of the translator is an arduous one. The difficulty might be compounded by the fact that many physicists don't even know that they are translating - we are working now on the level of interpretation (drush).

What exactly is the problem? No translation is "neutral", and biases of various nature will be introduced. The translator needs to be aware of this fact, and take care to mention explicitly what these assumptions are. This is seldom done. Also, it is helpful if the translator tells the reader/listener why is this translation undertaken. There is always a reason, and it might help the translator to keep that in mind, as well as the audience as well.

Within physics, this problem is not that acute, since most physicists are -still - somewhat familiar with the whole of physics. The problem stems from the prejudices most physicists bring to the field- a certain "near-sighted pragmatism" I would call it- which accepts the premise that there is some Nature, separate from us. We are merely uncovering what is there, not inventing new ways to perceive Nature.

The difficulty comes in the dialogue between physics and the non-physicists. Here, the translation is more "distant". If the intra-physics translation was like translating from Spanish to Italian, the extra-physics translation was like translating that poem from Spanish to Arabic. This task is most difficult, and as Benjamin taught us, the first question we should ask ourselves is whether the translation is possible at all! In some cases, the translation is not possible. Some mathematical concepts can not be translated in flat, plain English. The interweaving of concepts and structures of the mathematical structure cannot be reproduced in English. One can give perhaps a faint (false?) shadow, projected on the wall-cave on English, of the concepts involved. Perhaps a translation in words fails, but a translation of a different kind, mixing words and music might be more appropriate (See also my talks at San Jose State and Stanford).


We come now to the mystical (sod) level of our discussion. It was pointed out several decades ago by Kurt Godel, in his famous incompleteness theorem, that any mathematical system, no matter how simple, will contain true statements which will not be decidable. There is a more recent proof by Gregory Chaitin in Mathematica. Thus, our physics of the atom, or of stars, will say some true things about the quantum behavior, yet we will not be able to show, by use of mathematics alone, whether that is true or false! It might even be that the formula derived in that particular case will give the correct experimental description. It so happens that most physicists are not so worried about mathematical niceties, so this might be ok as far as physics is concerned. We are talking here about the fact that any system using mathematics as its language will be incomplete in this manner. What we want to point out here is the inherent limitations of mathematics as a language for physics.
The Ten Sefirot
Reproduction from Z. ben-Shimon ha-Levi's The Way of the Kabbalah.

(To Modernity)

Copyright © 1995-2012 Ovid C. Jacob