Having grown up poor and white on the outskirts of the Detroit suburbs, I have little patience for anyone who whines and moans about their lot in life. I also lost my father in my early teens, so I had as rough a start as anyone. Education was my ticket out, as it can be for anyone willing to concentrate and do the work.
That education was highly valued in my family is a bit surprising, considering that my mother imposed arguably the world’s most childish and silly religion on all of us. What kind of parent teaches children that they will live forever as physical bodies on this planet? That sort of idiocy in the name of religious freedom should be outlawed.
Both of my parents were chemists, but thanks to an overly protective mother I was never allowed the chemistry set I always wanted. Mathematics and physics theory were safe by comparison, requiring only paper and pencil. Since it was dark enough where I lived for naked-eye astronomy, I always kept track of visible planets and meteor showers. And any new electronics set was eagerly anticipated.
The school system available was no bastion of learning but I was a motivated autodidact. I was generally ahead of other students in mathematics because I saw it as a fun game to be played, not rote learning. That makes it difficult for me to understand why adults complain that mathematics is difficult: it all depends on how you approach it.
In my senior year of high school I requested to be allowed to teach myself calculus as independent study and was immediately granted the pleasure. That was a subject I devoured quickly because I found it fascinating. Calculus is the basis of the scientific revolution and I find it puzzling that knowledge of it appears to be the first thing forgotten by most adults, if ever learned at all.
Most of my entire senior year in high school was independent study: more physics, tonal music theory, computer coding. It set a pattern for me that would have positive and negative implications.
At the University of Michigan I decided on a physics major immediately, a circumstance one counselor described as having a divine calling. College was such a welcome change from a mediocre high school and the petty closed-mindedness of religious extremists. Ann Arbor was a wonderful experience and the high point of my official academic contact.
By the middle of my sophomore year I had grown tired of the pace of the standard undergraduate curriculum. Fortunately there was a mechanism in place that allowed me to take graduate classes for credit as both an undergraduate and graduate student. At the end of four years I had both a bachelors and masters in physics.
After such a pleasant academic experience, I naturally assumed that would be the life for me, despite warnings from wiser instructors. I also assumed any academic future would be as free-wheeling and enjoyable as my experience at Michigan, which naturally included a variety of independent study classes to accommodate my accelerated schedule. Boy was I wrong.
For a doctoral program, I had my pick of any school. I briefly considered Rockefeller University in Manhattan because it is a unique institution and sometimes wonder how different my life would have been starting from there. I also considered Princeton and Cal Tech, but in the end went with the university at the top of the list for physics: Berkeley. Besides, I wanted to put a continent between myself and my religious past.
Since I already had an extra degree, I took few actual classes at Berkeley. Initially I had the freedom to pursue a variety of intellectual avenues while also assisting my advisor on his current work. I encountered the writings of Arthur Eddington, and while his actual calculations in the Fundamental Theory were too simple-minded he showed me that there was a place for philosophic structure in physics. This was reinforced by the past of work of my advisor, Geoffrey Chew, the main inspiration behind a largely forgotten approach to physics known as analytic S-matrix theory. This approach is the most philosophically profound attempt at fundamental physics of the last century. Unfortunately it is also almost impossible to calculate anything using it, so it was quickly displaced by quantum field theory and the standard model.
In that time period I also began reading traditional philosophy. Discovering Martin Heidegger was a true revelation for me: what power and depth in his writing. I learned German primarily to read Heidegger in the original. The intimate connection in his work between the language and the concepts taught me that all good philosophy should be read in the original language. Language expresses the deepest philosophy of a culture in the hands of someone like Heidegger.
I was also at this time that I read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It was a bit of a shock to me for him to make explicit comparisons between formal academic training and priesthoods. With my childhood background it left me feeling uneasy about what I was doing.
After a couple years of relative freedom, the pressure began to formalize the doctoral process. Having branched out philosophically I no longer had the desire to complete a standard pure physics doctorate. I had glimpsed possibilities in Heidegger for how his work could inform the entire enterprise of scientific cognition and wanted to pursue that further. There was an official mechanism at Berkeley to design an interdisciplinary doctoral program, and I grasped at that thinking that it would allow the room for creativity I needed to integrate Heidegger. I wanted to write an original ontology of physics and assumed that I would be supported in the enterprise.
Unfortunately, getting a doctorate across multiple departments at Berkeley meant jumping through the individual academic hoops of each individual department. I knew that I would have trouble completing a standard physics doctorate because my motivation was faltering. Trying to do that simultaneously with standard programs in traditional philosophy and philosophy of science was a setup for failure. And that is precisely what occurred.
It was the first crash and burn of my life. I could have stayed and adjusted to the system, but with Kuhn in my thoughts I could not help but think that academic life was no less constricted and petty than my religious childhood. I just would not live a life like that. I walked away from it.
After four years at Michigan I had a couple of degrees and warm memories. I spent the same amount of time at Berkeley and came away with a profound disrespect for the entire academic enterprise. That was a definitive turning point in my life.
The next couple decades after that were spent learning how to live in the real world. I also had enough opportunities to travel the world that I am now more content to sit still. And I had one satisfying relationship that became the family I had lost to that silly religion.
During those years I continued to study and work on problems of personal interest: mathematical physics was in my blood. I also choose not to share any of my work during that period, deeming the time not ripe.
That time period was when I embraced web standards in a big way. Having encountered WordPerfect in the business world I came to love markup languages. That is why I write in pure HTML and MathML, standards that will persist. Since my early education included an actual touch typing class, I need not resort to markdown.
During those quiet years I also branched out to other languages. Heidegger had taught me that real philosophy should be read in the original language. If I want to read Aristotle, it has to be in Attic Greek. If there were any classical Latin philosophers (an interesting gap) I would read them in the tongue of Caesar, and knowing Latin is naturally an important point of access for all Romance languages. And how can one really read Laozi except in traditional Chinese characters? Mainland Chinese have done themselves a great disservice in cutting themselves off from the longest continuous philosophical tradition in history by adopting those horrendous simplifications.
With this orientation to language and philosophy, I have naturally come to view mathematics as a language that expresses a certain philosophy of physical reality: I am certainly no Platonist. That philosophy includes the objectification that separates a system under study from the remainder of reality. This approach finds resonance in Heidegger’s concept of world projection, not that academic philosophers would see a connection of that sort. Especially not at Berkeley.
An orientation of this sort also leads to the conclusion that while mathematics is certainly useful in its domain of application, it has built-in limitations. Mathematics expresses an objectivity that leads to the very paradoxes of quantum mechanics and as such will never provide a full understanding of the latter. The problem needs something more.
Over reliance on mathematics without concern for its own limitations has been driving theoretical physics far too much since the advent of quantum mechanics. This has generated a body of philosophical speculations attempting to explain quantum mechanics that I find to be fundamentally meaningless. It has also given the world an entire generation of physicists wasted on string theory.
The main advantage of not being part of any academic system is that I do not have to mouth the credo of quantum mechanics. I know that quantum mechanics works as a system of calculation. Why it works is another matter entirely, and I remain open to questioning everything about it. I also do not see it as the final explanation for everything: I certainly do not have the knee-jerk habit to quantize every bit of reality by default.
And that is the motivation for the name of this web site. Continuous or analytic mathematical systems can be extremely difficult to understand, especially when they are nonlinear, but can display amazing types of behavior. Analytic S-matrix theory was an attempt to explain aspects of the quantum world from a perspective of fundamental continuity. It failed in part because it was much too difficult to use in practice, unlike the standard model that swept it aside, but that does not mean the underlying perspective was wrong. Learning about it changed my entire orientation to the application of mathematics to the understanding of reality.
Quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are easy to use in application. That does not mean they are absolutely true in a fundamental sense, nor that the world is fundamentally quantum mechanical. Reality is probably more complicated than that.
At this point in my journey I have the freedom to focus on mathematical physics as much as desired with no limits to the way I pursue ideas. It is in my blood and is what gets me out of bed each day. I will continue to share this love of mine while I still draw breath.
If any of this has stimulated a conversation, drop me a line:
Uploaded 2019.03.05 analyticphysics.com