One of the most mysterious powers physicists claim is physical intuition. Let the mathematicians have their rigorous proofs and careful calculations. We just need to ask ourselves, “Does this make sense physically?”
It’s tempting to chalk this up to bluster, or physicist arrogance. Sometimes, though, a physicist manages to figure out something that stumps the mathematicians. Edward Witten’s work on knot theory is a classic example, where he used ideas from physics, not rigorous proof, to win one of mathematics’ highest honors.
So what is physical intuition? And what is its relationship to proof?
Let me walk you through an example. I recently saw a talk by someone in my field who might be a master of physical intuition. He was trying to learn about what we call Effective Field Theories, theories that are “effectively” true at some energy but don’t include the details of higher-energy particles. He calculated that there are limits to the effect these higher-energy particles can have, just based on simple cause and effect. To explain the calculation to us, he gave a physical example, of coupled oscillators.
Oscillators are familiar problems for first-year physics students. Objects that go back and forth, like springs and pendulums, tend to obey similar equations. Link two of them together (couple them), and the equations get more complicated, work for a second-year student instead of a first-year one. Such a student will notice that coupled oscillators “repel” each other: their frequencies get father apart than they would be if they weren’t coupled.
Our seminar speaker wanted us to revisit those second-year-student days, in order to understand how different particles behave in Effective Field Theory. Just as the frequencies of the oscillators repel each other, the energies of particles repel each other: the unknown high-energy particles could only push the energies of the lighter particles we can detect lower, not higher.
This is an example of physical intuition. Examine it, and you can learn a few things about how physical intuition works.
First, physical intuition comes from experience. Using physical intuition wasn’t just a matter of imagining the particles and trying to see what “makes sense”. Instead, it required thinking about similar problems from our experience as physicists: problems that don’t just seem similar on the surface, but are mathematically similar.
Second, physical intuition doesn’t replace calculation. Our speaker had done the math, he hadn’t just made a physical argument. Instead, physical intuition serves two roles: to inspire, and to help remember. Physical intuition can inspire new solutions, suggesting ideas that you go on to check with calculation. In addition to that, it can help your mind sort out what you already know. Without the physical story, we might not have remembered that the low-energy particles have their energies pushed down. With the story though, we had a similar problem to compare, and it made the whole thing more memorable. Human minds aren’t good at holding a giant pile of facts. What they are good at is holding narratives. “Physical intuition” ties what we know into a narrative, building on past problems to understand new ones.
Finally, physical intuition can be risky. If the problem is too different then the intuition can lead you astray. The mathematics of coupled oscillators and Effective Field Theories was similar enough for this argument to work, but if it turned out to be different in an important way then the intuition would have backfired, making it harder to find the answer and harder to keep track once it was found.
Physical intuition may seem mysterious. But deep down, it’s just physicists using our experience, comparing similar problems to help keep track of what we need to know. I’m sure chemists, biologists, and mathematicians all have similar stories to tell.