I don’t claim to be an expert on cooking, but it seems to me that there are essentially two schools of thought: there are those who look at the recipe first, and then get the ingredients; and there are those who look at the available ingredients, and then find the recipe. I belong firmly to the second school of thought. If I have to invent a new recipe that no-one has thought of before (unlikely, but still) then that is what I will do. Some culinary disasters undoubtedly arise from this strategy, but some remarkable successes can also arise.

Much the same applies to theories of physics. There is the theoretical school of thought, that looks at the textbooks, and tries to find the ingredients (e.g. curved spacetime, dark matter, spin 2 gravitons, supersymmetry, etc etc), with conspicuous lack of success. There is the practical school of thought, that looks at the evidence provided by experiment, and tries to find a way to cook up a theory that looks and tastes like the universe we observe.

Now in my cupboard I have a lot of ingredients that many people consider inedible. You do have to be careful with them, because they can be poisonous if not cooked properly. Acorns, beech nuts, mahonia berries, laurel berries, fuschia berries – all grow in my garden, and can be eaten if you know how to treat them. But why would I need to, when we’ve had the best apple season for years?

Theoretical physics uses a number of ingredients that many people consider inedible. You do have to be careful with them, because they can lead you astray. Differential geometry, spin connections, chiral spinors, Clifford algebras, gauge groups – they all grow in my garden, and can be useful if you know how to treat them. But why would I need to, when my group algebras provide the tastiest apple pie theories you could ever hope for?

Of course, those physicists who are looking for ever more exotic ingredients that grow only in some as yet undiscovered (and probably mythical) spice islands are not interested in something as simple, straightforward and wholesome as apple pie. But, trust me, if you understand apples as well as I do, and as well as Newton did, then you have no need to look any further.


2 Responses to “Cooking”

  1. James Arathoon Says:

    Seems mathematicians are cooks as well, but for the analogy to work there must be no mistakes and you must know the cake is baked perfectly at the end without being able to taste it.

    The recipe analogy with physics is slightly different and less compelling I think. With Physics a different set of assumptions, axioms and postulates could well give you the same answer (a non-unique solution) + some additional sweet subtleties you were not expecting.

    All good fun!

    • Robert A. Wilson Says:

      Well, I wasn’t thinking so much of mathematics, but yes, it is true that if you want to cook up a proof of something, you will need to experiment with different ingredients and different ways of combining them until you come up with a recipe that works. There may be many different ways of cooking a rhubarb crumble, but the most recent thing I cooked (this morning) was an apple and blackberry crumble. The principles are much the same, but I question some of the axioms: in particular, do you need sugar? I maintain that you don’t, but mainstream recipes say yes, you need sugar. The apples I used are beautifully sweet and juicy, and do not need sugar. I picked them yesterday. Blackberries, if properly ripe, never need sugar. Since the blackberry season is long gone, mine came from the freezer. Does the crumble need sugar? Oats? Nuts? You choose! Today I used a small amount of soft brown sugar and some oats in addition to the basic butter/flour crumble mix, but the recipe works in many variations. You don’t have to do exactly what the recipe book tells you!

      But a recipe in physics is not a proof, it is a theory. That’s the difference.

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