Monday, September 14, 2015

The importance of narrative

I love a good mystery. I think that is what first attracted me to quantum mechanics. The way my professors taught it (and the textbooks were structured), quantum theory unfolds like a great detective story.  Pieces of evidence rolled in, players moved about, the truth gradually emerges.

The narrative is so strong, you can put together a timeline of the discovery of quantum theory.

Has anyone done the same for the weather?  If you know of one, can you leave it in the comments?

I had hoped that Weather Experiment would be that book, but it isn't.  It's not even "The pioneers who sought to see the future" as the subtitle claims.  I agree with this review in the NYT; the book is about british men and (mostly) ignores the work in other places.

American James Espy and Frenchman Urbain Le Verrier get brief mentions, but this is mostly a bunch of stories/biographies about british men strung together.

If you are looking for a coherent narrative of scientific discovery, look very, very carefully.  There are nuggets tucked in here and there.  When narrating who argued that air masses move up and who argued that they moved in circles and who said that they move horizontally, some context would have been useful.  It is possible that they were all right, given their life (weather) experience.

The book is fine if you are expecting a bunch of human stories about people who are affiliated with the study of weather as it was practiced in England.  There is a useful index.  Also, "Stars in FitzRoy's Meteorological Galaxy" just before the index, gives a synopsis of the players, including the ones given short shrift or omitted in this book.

It hadn't occurred to me before reading this book that predicting the future is a form of divining the future, and had caused religious crises of faith.  I also learned that accusations of data-hoarding are not new.  ;-)


  1. Do you remember what textbook you've used for Quantum? I am on a constant lookout for a good one for my classes and for research students (my education was Landau all the way, but this name just scares any physics student here!) :)

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    2. Have you seen Richard L Liboff's "Introductory Quantum Mechanics"? Also, Tipler's "Modern Physics". I took QM from the physics dept at Cal w/ Liboff and another class through the chemistry dept which used Tipler.

      Then I took group theory with a math professor who was a pioneer in quantum-classical correspondence theory. That was an intense and very fun time.

    3. BTW, you use Landau for undergrad QM at a liberal arts school? My profs recommended it as supplementary reading. I liked having Liboff as my primary text w/ Landau and Lifshitz and Cohen-Tannoudji as supplemental texts. We were required to purchase Liboff. The others were kept (multiple copies) at the reference desk at the library for student use.

  2. Oh, no, I would not dare use Landau here! I used it in _my_ undergraduate education (in a very technical Russian university) :) I will definitely check Liboff out! Thanks!

    1. I'm an American whimp, or so my foreign classmates told me. In grad QM, C-T was our primary text and L2 supplementary. I found L2 very heavy going. Did you use it in the original Russian? Does it make more sense in Russian? Or were my classmates correct and I am just a whimp?


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