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Quantum Poetics 

Samuel Matlack

Popular science writing is an act of translation. This is true especially in writing about physics, whose mathematical language is far from everyday speech. But the industry of physics writing might promise more than it can deliver, particularly when it tries to offer descriptions of fundamental physical reality that, so we are sometimes told, dispel the illusions we get from ordinary experience. As with translating literary works from their original language into another, we need to ask the question of translatability — of whether and how a concept or theory in physics can be rendered in ordinary language. Straightforward description may be more elusive than we assume.

In the twentieth century, some physicists, notably Robert Oppenheimer, worried that physics had reached a point of extreme alienation from popular language, and even from the language of other scientific disciplines. Intelligibility to non-physicists was becoming increasingly difficult, in some cases even impossible.

Many physicists and science writers today seem more optimistic. While recognizing the distance between physics and ordinary language, they tend to believe that our language can be transformed to make the truths of physics available to a wide public audience. For instance, physicist Frank Wilczek writes that “Modern physics has opened up imaginative possibilities for cosmology that outrun the anticipations of ordinary language. To do them justice, we must both refine and expand everyday usage.”

The question of whether and how physics can be rendered in ordinary speech is nowhere more important than in our assessment of writers who try to present a vision of the world that is wholly other than what our everyday experience would have us believe, a world that, many think, is more real. This is the spirit of the recent book Reality Is Not What It Seems by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, which promises to be a “magic journey out of our commonsense view of things, far from complete.”

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Samuel Matlack is managing editor of The New Atlantis.

Samuel Matlack, "Quantum Poetics," The New Atlantis, Number 53, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 47-67.