“…at the scale observable by our unaided senses”

One of the reasons Physics is seen as difficult to understand is because it tends to consider, in the popular imagination at least, very strange and far away things. The early universe, for example, was very much unlike anything that happens near us now in almost every respect. It was hot and dense and full of particles and not-really-particles interacting in ways they don’t often interact anymore – more about all this can be found here – understanding this requires understanding difficult maths and complicated observational techniques, and that makes Physics seem tricky.

The primary information that comes from experiments about very small things and very big things is almost totally inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t have very expensive equipment. You can’t see the glow left after the big bang with the naked eye, it’s so faint that it has no direct effect on our daily lives.  The curiosities of quantum mechanics are totally shielded from our direct perception, and there’s no way anyone is going to get anywhere near a black hole, probably ever.

But, as I discovered while auditing the a class of L Mahadevan in fall 2010, there are far stranger things than electrons that we know much less about which are present in our everyday lives. The work that Professor Mahadevan and his group does is eloquently characterised as considering phenomena ‘at the scale observable by our unaided senses’, and shows that the mathematics which describes the curvature of a lily petal is arguably more subtle than that which describes the electron, or even the precession of planets around the Sun. Mahadevan’s group considers the physical and mathematical origins of the diverse structures observed in biology, so called soft-matter, from the folds of the human brain to the self organising thermo-regulation of bee swarms.

from Liang and Mahadevan (2011)  from Liang and Mahadevan (2011)

At the early stages of my Physics training I was driven by the strange attraction of fundamental physics. While there’s definitely value in considering very small and far away things, it took a long time to appreciate that there is a great deal of fascinating work to done at the length scale of the everyday.


Published by

Harry Kennard

Energy, climate change and health researcher

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