I am a human being, one of the few species, which attach any significance to the contents of web pages. If you too are a human being (and about half the visitors to this web page aren't!) then what I have to say may be of passing interest. I was born in 1959 and am 40 years old as I write this. It was through a strange set of circumstances that I began to study physics, and an even more remarkable chain of events has allowed me to continue studying and practising physics for the last 20 years or so. By now I am beginning to get the hang of it, but other physicists still frighten me. It's the thought (well more of a gut feeling actually) that they really know something that I would not even be capable of appreciating. It is this fear which is really at the heart of everything I do in physics. I am really trying to explain things to myself, and to tell myself that I really do understand it. Explaining things to other people is just another side of explaining things to myself.
Have you ever looked up at the sky on a starry night? Have you ever tried to do it with a friend? Or worse still, a keen astronomer? Do you recall how the conversations go?
Them: You see that bright star at the top of the "W" near the horizon?
You: Yes I see it. It just above the big fir tree.
Them: No. Nearer the roof of the church.
You: Oh that one!
Them: Yes. Now move up about 10 degrees from that in the direction of the reddy-blue star.
You: Which reddy blue one?
Them: The one near the middle one of those three in a row.
You: Which three in a row? Oh there! I was looking near the three that are sort of ina row over there...
But think about it. There you are, both with exactly the same data and yet for one person (usually them) the sky is filled with specific meaning, relevance and stories. But for the other person (usually you or me) its all just bewildering. No matter how crystal clear their explanations, nothing will put their understanding into your head. Well there is something that will and its not complicated. Its just familiarity. And the problem is that its hard to beome familiar with a subject that can seem unfriendly and uninviting. The way to becaome familiar (if you want to) is to focus on your own experience of the subject. Let me explain.
As I hope the above dialogue makes clear, one person's experience can simply not be substituted into another person's head. We can communicate a few facts, or potentially lots of facts, by simply telling other people about them. However we cannot communicate familiarity. Familiarity is aquired by experience, and learning by experience is generally slow and hard. I have written my book about the physics of matter in the knowledge that this is so. And my aim in writing the book has been really to try to extend a hand of friendship to those who feel personally compelled to learn about the physics of matter (as oppossed to those who are actually being compelled!) . I personally am fascinated by the funny ways that things behave and I find explanations which relate (for example) electrical properties to optical properties just stunning. Its the equivalent to finding that "the star down there near the horizon" is blinking exactly in phase with another star at the top of the sky. Its the links and the connections that allow me to make some kind of crude map of the way the world works that compel me to keep tryingto understand about physics. These links ease my constant fear that the depth of my ignorance will one day be uncovered.
I hope that day will never come for either of us
All the best
Michael de Podesta