Editorial – European physicists

By . Published on 23 February 2017 in:
February 2017, , ,

My name is Peter and I am the Chairperson of the European Physical Society/History of Physics (EPS/HoP) Group.

A visit to the Parlamentarium at the European Parliamentin Brussels showed me that the striking accents of the exhibition focus on the commonness of European politics and economics, but, where Europe’s shared cultural heritage was illustrated, there was little to be found on the topics of natural sciences and their great discoveries.

It is precisely the issues of politics and economy which give rise to disproportionate difficulties as these issues affect the national interests of the various member States. On the other hand, culture is supranational, and from Galileo Galilei onwards, physics and technologies have been playing their part in shaping the development of European culture. For two thousand years, Europe has represented la forge de l’idée, the sacred forge where all greater ideas had to undergo hammering and refinement. Today Europe does not yet own a unifying art object or poem, but Europe does have a conjoining physics. Moreover, Europeans have made significant contributions to the advancement of physics and this does not come out at all at the Parlamentarium visitors centre in Brussels.

As physicists, we only have ourselves to blame. We try to defend the right of physics to exist in our society by merely listing the products resulting from its achievements – for instance the mobile phone, computers, telecommunications. This is  a futile exercise, not only because no one doubts the meaningfulness of physics itself, but also because a list of products does not highlight the cultural necessity of basic research to a sufficient degree.

Physics has certainly been shaping our way of thinking. According to the 19th century thinker Franz Brentano, even philosophers should apply the “true method” i.e. the same approach as the methods underlying the natural sciences. Physics and philosophy were intricately related until the 20th century. Currently, many of the traditional philosophical issues are being discussed in the context of physics with thoughtful contributions to philosophical issues by physicists. Modern physics has shown that it is a folly to pretend that the nature of reality could uniquely be approached through the thoughts of philosophers. This firmly held spiritual arrogance has fixed its paralysing claws into the culture of the Occident for two thousand years.

Modern Physics has shown that it too has limits in its ability to describe reality. Physicists have to recognise that mathematising the world does not yield the only possible “true world”. Now physics must extend its hands and invite philosophers and writers and artists to provide new insights to find out what could be hidden beyond the mathematical structure.

So why are we physicists acting so diffidently?

Peter M. Schuster
Chair of the EPS History of Physics Group

Read previous post:
Kumiko Kotera: doing beautiful physics without giving up on family, art and the rest of the world

Kumiko Kotera is a young researcher in Astrophysics, at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris, (IAP) of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). She builds theoretical models to probe the most violent phenomena in the Universe, by deciphering their so-called "astroparticle" messengers (cosmic rays, neutrinos and photons).