At the Centre of the Shadow

How do you prove how nature works?

I want to try to answer this question by reference to a legendary historical episode from nineteenth-century French physics. Interpreted simplistically, it provides a rather romantic but wholly mythical view of the scientific method at work. Interpreted carefully, it holds an object-lesson for those seeking a better understanding of the nature of the scientific enterprise.

Imagine you are a physicist. How do you go about your job? We might suppose that you draw on your experiences of the natural world, gained through observation or experiment, or both. In your attempt to explain what you find, you conceive an idea, from which you derive a conceptual structure which connects what you find with your vision of nature’s detailed, inner workings. You might build this structure using models or ‘toy’ systems that have the virtue of conceptual and mathematical simplicity: perfectly elastic point-particles, or waves flowing in an elastic medium, or vortices, fields, or other abstract representations, analogies, or metaphors.

Available on Jim Baggott’s Substack.

At the Centre of the Shadow – by Jim Baggott (