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F = ma

New York Times science writer and "lapsed physics major" Dennis Overbye remarks on the dangers of actually discussing his metier with another lapsed physics major and a psychology writer:

At times like this the science writer is safer in the newspaper columns than in a bar where the audience can talk back.

Not that this would be particularly surprising news to many, Overbye goes on to explain:

I was barely launched into a glib discourse on dark energy, extra dimensions and the fate of matter in black holes when I was brought crashing back to earth by a simple question.

"But what is energy?" my wife, Nancy, the psychology writer, asked.

A simple question — one on which all this framework of wonders solidly squatted — but like any good question ultimately unanswerable. You might as well ask what is existence, or what is matter? Those puzzles have kept philosophers and scientists in a spiral of speculation, ranging from earth, air, fire and water, to atoms to tiny wriggling strings — today's favorite — for more than 2,000 years. What would you tell a Martian who asked for a definition of money? It's a medium of exchange, easier to measure than to define.

Overbye then goes on to wave his hands at the question so unconvincingly you wonder if he isn't a lapsed philosophy major, too. Matter and energy are "the Janus faces of a primordial Something," he suggests. "Call it the Ground of Being. Call it ... 'cosmic pizazz.' "

Now, I have two questions. First, What the hell is he talking about? Second, and more significantly, What the hell does he think he's talking about? Science doesn't posit any "cosmic pizazz"; what Overbye's concocted here is some pretty cosmic hoo-ha. What does he think he's doing by publishing this?

Classical mechanics had a clean, simple definition of force: it's mass times acceleration (F = ma). By that definition, then, there doesn't seem to be any such "thing" as force; there's nothing "there," there's just a mass with a changing velocity. Energy works pretty much the same way; it's nothing more than the other side of some equation.

This is legitimately puzzling, and more than fair game for an astute science writer. But to explain it away with "cosmic pizazz"? Does no one at the Times science department know how to think — or do they somehow believe physicists have simply been absent-mindedly forgetting to write this cosmic pizazz variable into their equations all these years?

"Great science, like great art, and indeed great journalism, I am reminded in these suddenly endless silences, comes from challenging the obvious," Overbye writes. He's missing the other half of yet another equation. They also require at least a smidgeon of genuine understanding, and perhaps the tiniest awareness of what it is that they don't actually know.

October 23, 2002 11:53 AM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

#It's F = ma, not f.# :)

I think his point is that energy and matter are the fundamental things that make up the Universe (and because E = mc2, energy and matter are really the same thing). They're the bottom rung of what is in a physical sense.

Thus, the question "what is energy?" is one that can only be answered philosophically. I think that's his point, although he is pretty flippant about it.

Posted by Dave A on October 24, 2002 10:58 AM

It's F = ma, not f.

Meh. Right you are. Thank you for pointing that out; I'll correct it.

Thus, the question "what is energy?" is one that can only be answered philosophically. I think that's his point, although he is pretty flippant about it.

That first is actually a very strong claim. Maybe there are indeed philosophically satisfying accounts for the various things posited by science, but maybe not — maybe the only answers (such as there are) are purely scientific, and it's the asking of the philosophical side of the question that introduces the semblance of a puzzle.

In any case, if Overbye's trying to distinguish between a philosophical question and a scientific one, he completely failed to say so. I agree that that's at the root of his hand-waving, but, from what he wrote, I don't know that he realizes it.

Posted by M on October 24, 2002 12:20 PM

Physical science actually can be reduced to a simple truth -- mass equals motion. Some things (forms of mass) just move a hell of alot faster than others. Like all simple truths, it probably has functional use only for simple minds like mine. My take home message is "stop and you die", with the corrollary "get in the car and drive real fast".

Posted by Les on October 28, 2002 8:16 PM

Oh yeah, I forgot you were talking about energy. Energy is both the byproduct of mass in motion and the enabling fuel of motion, and thus mass. So its kind of like God -- your existence is dependent upon it and its upon yours. Man and god, chicken and egg, DNA and protein, maybe even man and wife...the best relationships are those that require mutual creation. (Then again maybe RNA rules).

Posted by Les on October 28, 2002 8:24 PM

The A in your equation stands for Area, not Acceleration.

Posted by Your Dumb on November 1, 2003 5:22 AM


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