Inventing Reality: Physics as Language
by Bruce Gregory
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1988
Physicists do not discover the physical world, they invent a physical world — they invent a story that fits as closely as possible the facts they create in their experimental apparatus. In the words of Einstein, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind.” Or, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser puts it, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
From Aristotle to contemporary physics, Bruce Gregory tells the story of attempts to answer these questions by inventing new languages. For physicists, explanations that lack predictive power are like Kipling’s “just-so” stories. When a vocabulary fails to predict accurately, scientists search for a new way to talk — a new description of the world. Physicists do not always agree on the same theories, or even on the same facts, but they agree on the procedures to be followed in testing theories and establishing facts — in deciding whether to continue to rely on an existing vocabulary or to attempt to invent a new one.
An economist’s world is made up of markets, supply, and demand. A mathematician’s world is made up of imaginary numbers and infinite sets. The physical world is made up of leptons and quarks because physicists talk about their world in terms of leptons and quarks. This is the vocabulary that gives them the power to predict the outcome of their experiments. The word real is not descriptive. Real is an honorific term we bestow on our most cherished beliefs — our most treasured ways of speaking.
Using non-technical language, Inventing Reality tells how physicists struggle to invent a language powerful enough to talk about the world. The author draws on ingenious metaphors and concrete examples from everyday life to show how the language of physics works. In the process, he develops a powerful and provocative way of looking at the relationship between language and the world.
Bruce Gregory is Associate Director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. For many years he was a member of the senior staff of the National Academy of Sciences and has written extensively about topics as diverse as the future of astronomy and the impact of man-made chemicals on the earth’s ozone layer. For over twenty years he has made science intelligible to audiences ranging from junior high school students to the general public and Members of Congress.