Iconic science: the "spell of equations"

A well told story is indispensable. But discussing the urge to pull narrative whole from science fact, Robert P. Crease in his physicsweb essay, "Equations as Icons," offers a useful distinction for determining whether those urges help or harm.

[Remarkable equations like Richard Feynman's e + 1 = 0 or Albert Einstein's E = mc2] serve as clear and concise examples of what equations andformulas do: they show how seemingly disparate elements are implicated in a unity, and do so concisely, with few moving parts, so to speak. They bring what equations do out into the open. They are like a really good joke the economy of which reveals the structure of a joke, or a proof so concise that it demonstrates what a proof is.

If equations have a dark side, it is that they can also lead us to think that knowledge resides in the equation itself, rather than in the ongoing processes of construction and renovation.

Though Crease does not use the word, strenuous efforts to find a neat resolution to problems, or to wrap a bow tie around difficult issues, become something else if they put an end to inquiry. In that case they become idols, both sign and referent.

Wayne