The phone rang on Sunday afternoon...
"Hi, Steve? Syd has a question..."
(Syd is about ten)
"Hi Steve. Why is the sky blue?"
She probably has heard a few explanations - most of us have over the years. In fact the common explanation you are shown in high school and college isn't very good. We set up an iChat link for the sketches and facial expressions. Words and sketches appeared that were a bit richer than the standard explanation. No equations, but there was enough to branch off into color perception, colors that exist only in your mind, why the Sun looks yellowish and some experiments to try and so on until my battery was down to about ten percent. Her parents are probably annoyed.
We tend to describe reality as layers of stories. Take your smartphone. You push regions on it's screen and things happen. A video chat with a dear friend thousands of miles away, a map, photos from Iceland, music from a huge library or directly from a concert, someone's heartbeat. All of us know how to make these things happen - the incantations we make with our fingers and voices to interact with a real and virtual world. But that's just one layer.
Far below is the fundamental physics of the atoms the phone is made of. Quantum field theory provides a rich description of the subatomic particles and fields and we have general relativity to describe how it's mass interacts with spacetime and visa versa.. A story I know well - perhaps better than how to use my iPhone, but it's pretty useless when I'm trying to find directions on a map.
There are many layers in between. The story of materials - metals, semiconductors, plastics, battery chemistries .. the things that make the physical device. A bit deeper is how semiconductors work .. a bit above is how electrical circuits work. And then there's the rich layer where artificial language meets circuitry - the programming of the device. This story is told in code at a variety of levels. I know some of these stories well and can use them creatively and author in their language. And above it all are human interactions - an area we all know a bit about. There are many layers where I'm clueless. That's probably true of most of us, but I've noticed telling stories at one level while thinking about another can lead to new ideas.
It is quite possible to deeply understand how to use an iPhone or Android phone and think the Earth is flat and riding on elephants on the back of huge turtles. In a rich real world each of these layers must be locally valid and the layers must be constant with each other. Fake science - global warming denial, anti-vaxing, homeopathy and so on are modern versions of the flat earth.
Most of these layers have incomplete stories - works in progress. Our understanding needs improvement and that is wonderful. As an aside it is remarkable that the lowest layer .. basic physics .. turns out to be completely understood in the part of the Universe humans inhabit.1
The poet said the world is made of stories.. At least the real world can be described by them. It makes me think of the upcoming scientist's march on Washington. I'm torn about attending. It probably won't have much impact and will be ridiculed an misreported by the those who need to hear it's message. At the same time science is incredibly import to society - more now than ever in the past - and it's under direct attack. Unfortunately scientists are mostly lousy story tellers .. I know I am. Scientists live in a world of coded jargon. We don't take the time to talk about the astonishing surprise and beauty of Nature often enough.
I have serious shortcomings as a storyteller. Writers, musicians, poets, artists, actors and athletes are much better. I'm trying to get better and think it is important for more people to develop skills. Some of them are showing real promise. Alan Alda set up an excellent program at Stony Brook that is slowly spreading. A bit of hope.
a line I offered to Syd
The sky is mostly transparent and colorless, but it happens to be the stage on which the colors dance...
1 We know this to a very high confidence level .. much deeper than in most of science. You can even write down an expression for it ... here's a very compact dense form. Some call it Core Theory .. basically it's just the Standard Model with General Relativity nailed on. You can imagine places and situations where it breaks down .. in some collisions in particle accelerators and in some of the most violent events in the Universe. Then you need to unify gravity and quantum mechanics and more, but we don't directly interact with them as humans. This is probably one of the deepest advances in science and it really has only come together with a high degree of certainty in the past decade.
Just because we know what the interactions are and how they work, the details of real world problems can make them too difficult to calculate. We just know, to an astonishing level of confidence, there isn't anything other type of interaction that impacts our world.
(this may look like gibberish, but it describes the physics that we experience on Earth and most of the Universe. Not often seen on tshirts outside the boundaries of Caltech, but one of the great intellectual achievements. It is a capstone on a small corner of understanding Nature, but it just marks a beginning.)