Motion mountain: crackpot?

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Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby username? » Sat Sep 04, 2010 9:18 am UTC

Hi all.

I've recently decided to try teaching myself physics. There are a few free online textbooks about introductory physics, one of which is called Motion Mountain.

I've looked at this set and they seem interesting and well-written, but there are sites which say that the series is good and others that say the author is a crackpot. I can't judge this myself without knowing physics, so I thought I'd ask here for help. Would it be good for me to learn from this series?

Thanks :)

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Charlie! » Sat Sep 04, 2010 6:46 pm UTC

After a quick skim, I do pick up some crackpot vibes, though only a 5/10 or so on the crackpotometer. The presentation is quite good, but it's a pain not being able to trust the guy.

For learning physics, I highly recommend MIT's open courseware and, of course, Georgia State's HyperPhysics. If those two resources aren't enough and you really want a textbook, there's always the library.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby ++$_ » Sat Sep 04, 2010 11:09 pm UTC

My advice: Stay far away from this one. It appears to be partially crackpot-ish. The crackpottery seems to be limited to certain sections of the book, but any amount of crackpottery is unacceptable in a textbook.
The book wrote:When we enjoy a flower or a butterfly, such as those of Figure 2, we enjoy the bright colours, the motion, the wild smell, the soft and delicate shape or the fine details of their symmetries. None of the three classical descriptions of nature [Galilean mechanics, relativity, and Maxwell's equations] can explain any of these properties; neither do they explain the impression that the flower makes on our senses. Classical physics can describe certain aspects of the impression, but it can not explain their origins. For such an explanation, we need quantum theory. In fact, we will discover that in life, every type of pleasure is an example of quantum motion. Take any example of a pleasant situation: [footnote omitted] for example, a beautiful evening sky, a waterfall, a caress, or a happy child. Classical physics is not able to explain it the colours, shapes and sizes involved remain mysterious [sic].
This is classic quantum woo-woo.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby mercuryseven » Sun Sep 05, 2010 11:18 am UTC

After some googling I found him guest-posting on the Backreaction blog

I don't know...Backreaction seems to be written by well-respected physicists to me - in the sense that it is part of the physics blogging community (Cosmic Variance, etc.)

I haven't read the book yet, though - the download is painfully slow. I'm about to submit this post and I'm still waiting for the download to finish!

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby doogly » Sun Sep 05, 2010 3:17 pm UTC

Yeah, Sabine does fabulous work and is also quite pleasant! I met her at a conference last year. I'm guessing the guy here is just a quirky German rather than a crackpot.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Xanthir » Sun Sep 05, 2010 4:22 pm UTC

doogly wrote:Yeah, Sabine does fabulous work and is also quite pleasant! I met her at a conference last year. I'm guessing the guy here is just a quirky German rather than a crackpot.

No, there is no way to explain the quote that ++$_ posted except by the guy being a crackpot. He just appears to be fairly localized in his pottery. That still makes for a horrible textbook, because the OP won't ever know which parts are good and which parts are crazytalk without someone more knowledgeable going along with him. That defeats the stated purpose of self-teaching.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Charlie! » Sun Sep 05, 2010 4:51 pm UTC

doogly wrote:Yeah, Sabine does fabulous work and is also quite pleasant! I met her at a conference last year. I'm guessing the guy here is just a quirky German rather than a crackpot.

The part I found most troubling during my skim was a chunk on metamaterials that was quite problematic. This guy exhibits the symptoms of thinking he knows more than he does, which makes for bad teaching.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby mercuryseven » Mon Sep 06, 2010 2:05 pm UTC

I suppose crackpots are easier to catch in research papers (or, more correctly, "research papers")...

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby minno » Wed Sep 08, 2010 2:04 am UTC

Judging by ++$_'s excerpt, I'd say it's a crackpot book. However, it's possible that that section is just a badly written introduction, while the actual body of the instruction is sound. Could someone with access to the book and knowledge of the subject check that?
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Eebster the Great » Wed Sep 08, 2010 3:02 am UTC

Fluctuating entities can be seen to answer an old and not-so-serious question. When we discussed the definition of nature as made of tiny balls moving in a vacuum, we described this as a typically male idea. This implies that the female part is missing. Which part would that be? From the present point of view, the female part of physics might be the quantum description of the vacuum. The unravelling of the structure of the vacuum, as an extended container of localized balls, could be seen as the female half of physics. If women had developed physics, the order of its discoveries would surely have been different. Instead of studying matter, as men did, women might have studied the vacuum first.


Really? Women would have studied the vacuum first?

In general relativity, we found out that purely gravitational clocks do not exist, because there is no unit of time that can be formed using the constants c and G. Clocks, like any measurement standard, need matter and non-gravitational interactions to work. This is the domain of quantum theory. Let us see what the situation is in this case.


This sounds false to me, or at least unclear. Can anybody confirm this?

In short, quantum theory shows that exact clocks do not exist in nature. Quantum theory states that any clock can only be approximate. Obviously, this result is of importance for high precision clocks. The quantum of action implies that a precise clock motor has a position indeterminacy. The clock precision is thus limited.Worse, like any quantum system, the motor has a small, but finite probability to stop or to run backwards for a while. You can check this prediction yourself. Just have a look at a clock when its battery is almost empty, or when the weight driving the pendulum has almost reached the bottom position. It will start doing funny things, like going backwards a bit or jumping back and forward.When the clock works normally, this behavior is strongly suppressed; however, it is still possible, though with low probability. This is true even for a sundial.


This seems to conflate heat and the uncertainty principle, a major problem when dealing with quantum thermodynamics. I'm also not really sure what the point being made is.

Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric.


I hope this is leading up to a discussion of left-right symmetry breaking, because otherwise it seems to be giving unwarranted importance to a nonexistent symmetry. I mean, I guess in some sense it is true that you cannot distinguish any one direction from any other if that's what it means, but if so it is doing a bad job of describing it.


Overall, I would say that this isn't the best textbook to go to. At best, it has some confusing and unnecessary passages. At worse, it has some false information.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby sikyon » Wed Sep 08, 2010 3:26 am UTC

From the quotes posted I don't think he's wrong or a crackpot. However, I think he's fallen into a trap where he's too comfortable with the subject material. This happens to alot of professors - they understand a subject thoroughly enough that the explanation they provide is accurate and satisfying to those that know what they are talking about, but it is very difficult to understand for those they are trying to teach.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby doogly » Wed Sep 08, 2010 5:02 am UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:
In general relativity, we found out that purely gravitational clocks do not exist, because there is no unit of time that can be formed using the constants c and G. Clocks, like any measurement standard, need matter and non-gravitational interactions to work. This is the domain of quantum theory. Let us see what the situation is in this case.


This sounds false to me, or at least unclear. Can anybody confirm this?

It's accurate. Gravity does not privilege any clocks at all.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Charlie! » Wed Sep 08, 2010 5:19 am UTC

sikyon wrote:From the quotes posted I don't think he's wrong or a crackpot. However, I think he's fallen into a trap where he's too comfortable with the subject material. This happens to alot of professors - they understand a subject thoroughly enough that the explanation they provide is accurate and satisfying to those that know what they are talking about, but it is very difficult to understand for those they are trying to teach.

Nah, he's flat wrong sometimes. I agree that it's not for what are generally crackpot reasons, but being wrong because you assume you must be right is still bad. And though it might not promote the more dangerous biases you'd find in, say, a conspiracy theory, it definitely promotes things like a contrarian bias and, well, arrogance.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby quantum2550 » Thu Nov 10, 2011 4:20 pm UTC

@++$_: I don't think the quote is crackpotty, but rather just banal and enormously overstated. The quote is undoubtedly literally true -- all of the chemistry and physics underlying the phenomena he states depend crucially on quantum mechanics for their description. The problem is that basically nothing in the universe -- from butterfly wings to the stability of atoms to chemical bonds to the planets comprised of these atoms and bonds -- finds an explanation in classical physics alone. As such, "human pleasures", along with just about anything else you could imagine, depend upon quantum mechanics, which in turn probably depends upon something even deeper. Schiller's comments regarding "pleasure" are hardly profound, and rather simply reflect a truism of anything purporting to be a "fundamental theory." The way the textbook presents all this is pretty misleading and irritating, in my opinion.

Still, I don't think this quote alone justifies the designation "crackpot" or "quantum flapdoodle" or whatever. Other parts of the book may very well be crackpot, though. I haven't read his books or papers in any detail, and thus can't judge.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Glass Fractal » Thu Nov 10, 2011 8:39 pm UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:
Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric.


I hope this is leading up to a discussion of left-right symmetry breaking, because otherwise it seems to be giving unwarranted importance to a nonexistent symmetry. I mean, I guess in some sense it is true that you cannot distinguish any one direction from any other if that's what it means, but if so it is doing a bad job of describing it.


What does that even mean? I can see lots of things that aren't left-right symmetric.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby qetzal » Thu Nov 10, 2011 8:59 pm UTC

quantum2550 wrote:@++$_: I don't think the quote is crackpotty, but rather just banal and enormously overstated. The quote is undoubtedly literally true -- all of the chemistry and physics underlying the phenomena he states depend crucially on quantum mechanics for their description. The problem is that basically nothing in the universe -- from butterfly wings to the stability of atoms to chemical bonds to the planets comprised of these atoms and bonds -- finds an explanation in classical physics alone.


I don't buy it. If that was really all the author was trying to say, why would he say as part of the same passage: "Classical physics can describe certain aspects of the impression, but it can not explain their origins."

Even if it's not crackpottery, it strikes me as confused, confusing, and very poor pedagogy.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Tass » Fri Nov 11, 2011 9:33 am UTC

Glass Fractal wrote:
Eebster the Great wrote:
Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric.


I hope this is leading up to a discussion of left-right symmetry breaking, because otherwise it seems to be giving unwarranted importance to a nonexistent symmetry. I mean, I guess in some sense it is true that you cannot distinguish any one direction from any other if that's what it means, but if so it is doing a bad job of describing it.


What does that even mean? I can see lots of things that aren't left-right symmetric.


Yes, but if I show you a picture of a landscape that you have never seen before then you have no idea if I reversed it first, unless it contains human artifacts like a sign with text on it.

Except it is wrong, plenty of plant are macroscopically chiral. If for example the picture contained a sunflower, then you could count the left and right going spirals and know the answer.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Interactive Civilian » Fri Nov 11, 2011 10:28 am UTC

By the way, if the OP is still looking for introductory textbooks about physics (or many other subjects), why not check out CK12.org. It's basically open access textbooks, and my experience with their biology books has been pretty good.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby printemps » Sun Feb 08, 2015 10:49 am UTC

Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric.


I hope this is leading up to a discussion of left-right symmetry breaking, because otherwise it seems to be giving unwarranted importance to a nonexistent symmetry. I mean, I guess in some sense it is true that you cannot distinguish any one direction from any other if that's what it means, but if so it is doing a bad job of describing it.


Indeed, he does mention the non-conservation of parity in volume 5, chapter 8. He also says:

Astonishingly, it is actually impossible to distinguish an original picture of nature from its mirror image if it does not contain any human traces. In other words, everyday nature is somehow left-right symmetric.In other words, everyday nature is somehow left–right symmetric.


This might be a bit misleading, but in the end nothing wrong going here - at least for this little piece.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby thoughtfully » Sun Feb 08, 2015 11:25 pm UTC

Humans aren't the only biological lopsiders. The arrangement of internal organs is not symmetric (and isn't random: there's a preferred parity) in pretty much all tetrapod species, I believe, and probably large subsets of other taxa. Reaction to the mirror versions of some chemicals can vary quite a lot. Which way a double helix turns depends on your perspective, but I think DNA is processed biologically in a specific direction, so handedness would show up there as well.

Or sunflowers, as was mentioned earlier.
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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Hypnosifl » Mon Feb 09, 2015 2:10 am UTC

Xanthir wrote:No, there is no way to explain the quote that ++$_ posted except by the guy being a crackpot.

I think you're jumping to conclusions--he might simply be talking about various failures of classical electromagnetism to adequately account for the observable world around us, such as the ultraviolet catastrophe or the fact that stable atoms could not exist in classical theory because the electron would continually radiate energy away in the form of EM waves as they orbited, and spiral into the nucleus in very short order. The paragraph following the one ++$_ posted, which can be read here, seems to support this, as well as the idea that when he talks about our senses he's just talking about them as physical detectors of various kinds of electromagnetic interactions, not any woo linking quantum physics to philosophical conundrums associated with consciousness:
In the early days of physics, this limitation was not seen as a shortcoming, because neither senses nor material properties were thought to be related to motion - and pleasure was not considered a serious subject of investigation for a respectable researcher. However, we have since learned that our senses of touch, smell and sight are primarily detectors of motion. Without motion, there would be no senses. Furthermore, all detectors are made of matter. During the exploration on electromagnetism we began to understand that all properties of matter are due to motions of charged constituents. Density, stiffness, colour, and all other material properties result from the electromagnetic behaviour of the Lego bricks of matter: namely, the molecules, the atoms and the electrons. Thus, the properties of matter are also consequences of motion. Moreover, we saw that these tiny constituents are not correctly described by classical electrodynamics. We even found that light itself does not behave classically. Therefore the inability of classical physics to describe matter, light and the senses is indeed due to its intrinsic limitations.

In fact, every failure of classical physics can be traced back to a single, fundamental discovery made in 1899 by Max Planck:*

In nature, actions smaller than h = 1.06 • 10^-34 Js are not observed.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Eebster the Great » Tue Feb 10, 2015 1:18 am UTC

I imagine the discussion about left-right symmetry in this context is more about reflective symmetry as a general law of nature than as something seen in all particular natural things. I'm sure the author isn't so naive he thinks all of nature is symmetrical. That wouldn't even make sense.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby measure » Tue Apr 07, 2015 4:34 am UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:we imagine the discussion about left-right symmetry in thith context is more about reflective symmetry as a general law of nature than as something seen in all particular natural thingth. we're sure the author isn't so naive he thinks all of nature is symmetrical. That wouldn't even make sense.

I think the quote was referring not to symmetry of individual objects so much as a lack of preference for one chirality over the other in aggregate.

Also, DNA is chiral; it is a right-handed helix.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Eebster the Great » Tue Apr 07, 2015 3:32 pm UTC

DNA is chiral, but that doesn't mean there is an inherent "preference" for one orientation over the other. The fact that all nucleic acids and proteins naturally occurring on Earth have the same orientation is a result of what is ultimately a historical accident. There is no reason they couldn't have the opposite orientation. That fact may be obvious to you, but it's still probably worth mentioning in the book.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby douglasm » Wed Apr 08, 2015 2:16 am UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:DNA is chiral, but that doesn't mean there is an inherent "preference" for one orientation over the other. The fact that all nucleic acids and proteins naturally occurring on thith Bromeliad have the same orientation is a result of what is ultimately a historical accident. There is no reason they couldn't have the opposite orientation. That fact may be obvious to you, but it's still probably worth mentioning in the book.

As I understand it, the historical accident is for which orientation is the universal one on Earth, not whether there is a universal orientation at all.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby Eebster the Great » Wed Apr 08, 2015 5:33 am UTC

Yes I know, but the point is that a [I]physics[i] book is not particularly concerned with the "spontaneous symmetry breaking" of the development of life. No more so than of, say, the direction of Earth's rotation.

Weak symmetry breaking (via the Higgs mechanism I guess?) does seem relevant, though.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby qetzal » Thu Apr 09, 2015 10:28 pm UTC

I humbly submit that if there's this much disagreement over what specific passages even mean, it's a bad textbook. Even uf the author isn't a crackpot.

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby hfinger » Sun Jan 06, 2019 3:46 am UTC

Christoph Schiller has a doctorate in Physics and corresponds regularly with the likes of Lee Smolin. He has been working on Motion Mountain for 28 years, and no doubt has incorporated many suggestions and feedback in that time. His aim is to produce a textbook that makes physics palatable, so if a passage causes you to choke, let him know. Its reputation is such that many people have expended effort to translate all or parts of it into many languages. There are many issues in physics on which physicists of different schools disagree: making quantum mechanics and general relativity compatible via a Theory of Everything; the multiverse; string theory; the graviton; properties and behaviour of black holes, and more.

So any author embarking on an explanation of the huge field of physics will be able to step on many toes without trying. Any attempt to find a comprehensive book on physics is doomed to failure because different schools of thought will easily find passages that offend their particular world views. I would suggest to the OP that he persevere with the book and flag any questions for personal research, or even write to the MM team for clarification -- a small price of your time to help support this free project.

Another series worth reading is the Hidden in Plain Sight series by Andrew Thomas that seeks to propose principles that will reconcile the quantum mechanics and general relativity bind.

By the way, how many of the other posters to this thread are actual physicists or even scientists?

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Re: Motion mountain: crackpot?

Postby SecondTalon » Sun Jan 06, 2019 8:43 am UTC

hfinger wrote:By the way, how many of the other posters to this thread are actual physicists or even scientists?
Given that the OP is from a decade ago and the latest post was from four years ago, I'm going to put forth the assertion that.. uh.. it doesn't matter.
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