Every year, at the time of thanksgiving, the CalTech physicist (and author of popular science books) Sean Carroll picks up a technique, principle, or theory of physics (or mathematics), for giving his thanks. Following this tradition (of some 8 years, I gather), Carroll has, for this year, picked up the Fourier transform as the recipient of his thanks. [^]
That way, it’s quite a good choice, if you ask me. …
…Though, of course, as soon as I began reading Carroll’s post, a certain thing to immediately cross my mind was what someone had said concerning Fourier’s theory.
Fourier’s is the most widely used theory in the entire history of physics, he had said, as well as the most abused one . … The words may not be exact, but that was the sense of what had been said. Someone respectable had said it, though I can’t any longer recall exactly who. (Perhaps, an engineer, not a physicist.)
The Fourier theory has fascinated me for long; I have published not just a paper on it but also quite a few blog posts.
To cut a long story short, I would pick out (i) the Lagrangian program (including what is known as the Lagrangian mechanics as well as the calculus of variations, the stationarity/minimum/maximum/action etc. principles, the Hamiltonian mechanics, etc.) and (ii) the Fourier theory, as the two basic “pillars” over which every modern quantum-mechanical riddle rests.
Yes, including wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement, EPR, Bell’s inequalities, whatnot….
As I have been pointing out, the biggest good point that both these theories have in common is that they allow us to at all perform at least some kind of a mathematical calculation of the analytical kind—even if, often times, only in a physically approximate sense—in situations where none would otherwise be possible.
The bad point goes with the good point.
The biggest bad point common to both of them is that they both take some physics that actually occurs only locally (say the classical Newtonian mechanics) and smear it onto a supposedly equivalent “world”—an imaginary non-entity serving as a substitute for the actually existing physical world. And, this non-entity, in both theories (Lagrangian and Fourier’s) is global in nature.
The substitution of the global mathematics in place of the local physics is the sin common to the abuse of both the theories.
Think of the brachistochrone problem, for instance [^]. The original Newtonian approach of working with the local forces using (including their reactions), is in principle applicable also in this situation. The trouble is, both the gravitational potential field and the constraints are continuous in nature, not discrete. As the bead descends on the curve, it undergoes an infinity of collisions, and so, as far as performing calculations go, the vector approach can’t be put to use in a direct manner here: you can’t possibly calculate an infinity of forces, or reactions to them, or use them to incrementally calculate the changes in velocities that these come to enforce. Thus, it is the complexity of the constraints (or the “boundary conditions”)—though not the inapplicability of the basic governing physical laws—that make Newton’s original approach impracticable in situations like the brachistochrone. The Lagrangian approach allows us to approach the same problem in a mathematically far simpler manner. [Newton himself was one of the very first to solve this problem using this alternative approach which, later on, to be formalized by Lagrange. (Look up the “lion’s paws” story.)]
Something similar happens also with the Fourier analysis. Even if a phenomenon is decidedly local, like diffusion of the physically distinct material particles (or parcels) from one place to another, the Fourier theory takes these distinct (spatially definite) particles, and then replaces them by positing a global non-entity that is spread everywhere in the universe, but with some peak coinciding with where the actual particles physically are. The so-smeared non-entity is the place-holder [!] for the spatially delimited particles, in Fourier’s theory. The globally spread-out entity is not just an abstraction, but, really speaking, also an approximation—a mathematical approximation. And as far as the inaccuracies in the calculations go, it turns out, this approximation does work out very well in practice. (The reason is not mystical. It is simply that the diffusing particles (atoms/molecules) are so small and so numerous in the physically existing universe.) But if you therefore commit the error of substituting this approximate mathematical abstraction in place of the exact physical reality, you directly end up having the riddles of QM.
If you are interested in pursuing this matter further, you should see my conference paper, first. (Drop me a line if you haven’t already downloaded it when it was available off my Web site, or can’t locate it any other way.) … Though I have also written quite a few posts on the topic, they don’t make for the best material—they are far too informally written (meaning: written completely on the fly and without any previously thought out structure at all). They also too lengthy, and often dwell on technical aspects that are too detailed.
And, that way, they don’t have much mathematical depth, anyway.
But since I seem to be the only person in the entire world who has ever thought along these lines (and one who continues to care), you may want to have a look at myQ detailed musings, too: [^] [^] [^][^].
(… And, no, as far as this issue goes, by no means am I done. I would continue exploring this topic further in my research, also in the future. Though, let me wind it all up for now… This was supposed to be a short and sweet post—a “Yo” post!)
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A Song I Like:
(Marathi) “ekaTyaane ekaTe gardeet chaalaave”
Singer: Avadhoot Gupte
Lyrics: Mangesh Padgaonkar
Music: Shreedhar Phadake
[May be I should post a translation of this song some time later. … Also, of that another Marathi song which I have run just a few posts ago, viz., “man pisaaT majhe…” As to that song (“man pisaaT”) I know for a fact that a lot of Marathi-“knowing” people have never bothered to carefully go through the actual words, they have never tried to put them in some kind of a context, and thus, paying only a fragmentary attention here and there, they have come to associate something of a too abstract and weird (or “artsy”) kind of a sense to it. Their appreciation of that song rests mostly on the musical tune and the singer’s rendition, but their sense of the lyrics seems to be quite off the mark. The actual song isn’t of a meaningless “artsy” kind, and I hope to bring out what I think is the original sense of that song, too. And, as far as the present song goes, there isn’t just an innovative sort of tune and a wonderful rendering by the singer. There also is a very beautiful piece of poetry lying underneath. … It’s a young new song (it came out only in 2010), but with an obvious touch of class to it. The original CD is just Rs. 100. … Enjoy…. More, later]