I have a confession: whenever I write a post in my series about 19th century math, I wonder who I’m writing for. Most of what I write on this site has a clear audience—I write for someone who is literate and sophisticated, but has little science or math background. In other words, someone who might like reading popular science books and magazines, but who may never have taken a physics class, or took an introductory class where they probably didn’t cover any discoveries since about 1900. In other words, I write mostly for the intelligent layperson; whether I’m successful at this is up to you to decide.
In any case, I’m not usually writing for Ph.D. physicists, or engineers, or physics majors. So when I publish something on the more technical side (with equations no less!), I worry. Someone who wants to learn a bit about neutrinos to help understand the stories in the popular science press probably has no interest in Grassmann numbers. I honestly think most people would be more interested in the technical stuff than they are aware, simply because when I talk to folks about it, they seem to respond. (Yes, I wrote “folks”—I’m a transplanted Midwesterner.)
I am reassured by Sean Carroll’s candid post in which he addresses criticisms about the level of his book, From Eternity to Here. I admit when I read the book, I found myself wondering who the audience was. It’s a very ambitious book, covering a lot of ground in relativity, statistical physics, quantum physics, and cosmology—largely as a set-up for Sean’s theory about the directionality of time, and what it means about the structure of the Universe. I find his ideas interesting (though I don’t buy all of them, even without reading his technical papers on the subject), but that’s not the point I want to make here. Rather, the challenge is that he wants to present a rather advanced idea—his theory about why time has a direction—to people who may not know much about relativity or the other areas of physics at all. As a result, the book feels a bit schizophrenic at times: veering from very basic to very advanced. (Call this the “Stephen Hawking problem” if you like.) This might sound like a negative review, but it isn’t: I especially thought his chapters on entropy were truly excellent, and wouldn’t mind assigning those as supplemental reading for students of physics, as well as non-scientists who want to learn about that difficult topic—it’s clear and very intuitive.
Now if Sean had gone ballistic on the reviewer, I’d have lost much of my considerable respect for him, but he didn’t: he acknowledges the difficulty of setting tone and level. I understand that completely, and I don’t know what I would do if I tried writing a book like that. It’s not merely a rhetorical question, because….
I Am Writing a Book!
I have begun to research and outline a book, which will involve a lot of travel and talking to people over the next few months. I won’t reveal too many details yet, but suffice to say that it will be about cosmology from the point of view of experiment and observation (which is something a theorist should attempt more often, methinks). This does mean my blogging rate will decline in May, but I think my excuse is good enough that you should forgive me, right?
In any case, this proposed book won’t involve 19th century math (or any math, really), but there will be a lot of science. As I work on it, I will be walking the line that Sean walks—along with anyone who writes about complex ideas for a general audience.