The range of phenomena physics has explained is more than impressive;
it underlies the whole of modern civilization. Nevertheless, as a
physicist travels along his (in this case) career, the hairline cracks
in the edifice become more apparent, as does the dirt swept under the
rug, the fudges and the wholesale swindles, with the disconcerting
result that the totality occasionally appears more like Bruegel’s
Tower of Babel as dreamt by a modern slumlord, a ramshackle structure
of compartmentalized models soldered together into a skewed heap of
explanations as the whole jury-rigged monstrosity tumbles skyward.
Such examples abound throughout physics. Rather than pretending that
they don’t exist, physics educators would do well to acknowledge when
they invoke the Wizard working the levers from behind the curtain.
Even towards the end of the twentieth century, physics was regarded as
received Truth, a revelation of the face of God. Some physicists may
still believe that, but I prefer to think of physics as a collection
of models, models that map the territory, but are never the territory
itself. That may smack of defeatism to many, but ultimate answers are
not to be grasped by mortals. Physicists have indeed gone further than
other scientists in describing the natural world; they should not
confuse description with understanding.
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