The Best Explanation of Why People Like Physics That I Have Ever Heard


What are all these equations doing for us, anyway? Photo Courtesy Fermilab.

What’s so intriguing about arrows, circles, time, space, geometry, minutes, seconds, years? It could be that we empathize with these ideas, and the words trigger much more than their strict definitions.

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, psychologist Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth University and her team scanned the brains of 15 adults as they judged and interpreted distances in space and time. One of my favorite science writers, Virginia Hughes, wrote about the study recently for her blog, Only Human. She explains that the concept of distance gets cooked up in the right inferior parietal lobule. No matter the kind of distance—far, near, social, temporal, spatial—activity is concentrated in that region.

According to cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, the study might suggest that in our daily lives, we repeatedly recycle spatial representations to accommodate other aspects of ourselves and our worldview. Hughes writes:

Boroditsky has published some fascinating studies about language metaphors, showing, for example, that the way people talk about time matches the way they think about it.

These sorts of studies, she adds, might explain why humans can “[go] far beyond those things observable through physical experience to invent sophisticated notions of number and time, theorize about atoms and invisible forces, and worry about love, justice, ideas, goals, and principles.”

I haven’t read anything else that so eloquently and forthrightly identifies the way I understand my interest in physics and physical concepts—and the way I suspect other people see theirs, as well. Even though this part of the research is still speculation, I love the message it sends: studying space or time isn’t just about acquiring more information about the universe—it’s also about getting familiar with our own minds, molding our spatial acuity to conform to or transcend our social experiences, becoming more sophisticated in the way we talk about our bodies and brains being things that walk around and do stuff. That might sound really abstract… and it is. But it’s also an important speculation that I believe deserves attention.

Why? Because we need to understand ourselves not only in relation to each other, but in relation to ourselves. Counter to what one might think, seeing ourselves as people whose minds are located in our heads… but wait, where are they, anyway? Our memory is a large vault of information and ideas, and we’re constantly scrutinizing, worrying, hypothesizing, confirmation, relating, connecting. Physics and the study of movement in general — whether through dance, athletics, math, music, or anything that hinges on underlying patterns and formulae — can help us breathe through our minds, trace lines of thought, hear the trajectory of an idea as we begin to express it, and feel the enormity of both the small and the large. With help from physical understanding, we can better put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, plan for the future and still live in it, and identify with natural processes as well as that older, more mature version ourselves [Nautilus] we try to see in the mirror.  The equations give us those visceral cues, which in turn, help us navigate paths and bridge boundaries on a day-to-day basis. And so with that in mind, physics is something worth studying and living for.

Some more references on psychological distance here, here, and here.


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