Mara Beller

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Mara Beller (born Mara Baruch; August 14, 1945 – October 30, 2004) was a Russian-born Jewish-American historian of science.


The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing? (1998)[edit]

"The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing?", Physics Today (September, 1998)
  • Like the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, whom Steven Weinberg attacked in his 1996 New York Review of Books article on Sokal's hoax, Bohr was notorious for the obscurity of his writing. Yet physicists relate to Derrida's and Bohr's obscurities in fundamentally different ways: to Derrida's with contempt, to Bohr's with awe. Bohr's obscurity is attributed, time and again, to a "depth and subtlety" that mere mortals are not equipped to comprehend.
  • Astonishing statements, hardly distinguishable from those satirized by Sokal, abound in the writings of Bohr; Heisenberg, Pauli, Born and Jordan. And they are not just casual, incidental remarks.
  • While Einstein's belief in an objective reality is similar to that of Weinberg and Sokal, his arguments for his conception of reality are not. In fact, Einstein was no "naive realist," despite such caricaturing of his stand by the Copenhagen orthodoxy. He ridiculed the "correspondence" view of reality that many scientists accept uncritically. Einstein fully realized that the world is not presented to us twice-first as it is, and second, as it is theoretically described-so we can compare our theoretical "copy" with the "real thing." The world is given to us only once - through our best scientific theories. So Einstein deemed it necessary to ground his concept of objective reality in the invariant characteristics of our best scientific theories.
  • By using only simple analogies and intuitively appealing, yet misleading, metaphorical images, Bohr established supposedly necessary connections between acausality, wave-particle duality and the impossibility of an objective unified description in the quantum domain. One needed no technical knowledge of quantum mechanics to read Bohr's operational analysis of mutually exclusive experimental arrangements consisting of bolts, springs, rods and diaphragms.
    While publicly abstaining from criticizing Bohr, many of his contemporaries did not share his peculiar insistence on the impossibility of devising new nonclassical concepts-an insistence that put rigid strictures on the freedom to theorize. It is on this issue that the silence of other physicists had the most far-reaching consequences. This silence created and sustained the illusion that one needed no technical knowledge of quantum mechanics to fully comprehend its revolutionary epistemological lessons. Many postmodernist critics of science have fallen prey to this strategy of argumentation and freely proclaimed that physics itself irrevocably banished the notion of objective reality.
  • In an exchange several months after his New York Review of Books article, Weinberg admitted that the founders of quantum theory had been wrong in their "apparent subjectivism," and declared that "we know better now." What exactly do we know better now? Do we know better that one should not infer from the physical to the political realm and if yes, why? Or do we know better that the "orthodox" interpretation of quantum physics the one that confidently announced the final overthrow of causality and the ordinary conception of reality is not the only possible interpretation, and that, ultimately, it might not even be the surviving one?
  • The opponents of the postmodernist cultural studies of science condude confidently from the Sokal affair that "the emperors ... have no clothes." But who, exactly, are all those naked emperors? At whom should we be laughing?

Quotes about Beller[edit]

  • We find ourselves in agreement with most of the points made in Mara Beller's article "The Sokal hoax: At whom are we laughing?". … Beller is right to point out that this quasi-religious attitude can arise in any field, even in physics. Thus, many physicists have for years blindly repeated Bohr's and Heisenberg's views on the foundations of quantum mechanics, without having a clear idea of what they meant. We are pleased to note that the grip of the so-called Copenhagen orthodoxy is weakening and that physicists are beginning to consider alternative views on foundational questions with an open mind.
    • Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, Letter to Physics Today (April 7, 1999)
  • Indeed, in 1998, after the physicist Alan Sokal mocked humanists for delving into physics to support their ideas in a way that seemed ignorant at best and zany at worst – in what has come to be known as “Sokal’s hoax” – historian Mara Beller published an article in Physics Today entitled “The Sokal hoax: at whom are we laughing?”. She cited remarks by Bohr – but also by Heisenberg and Pauli – to make the point that in this respect physicists could sometimes be as zany as humanists, and there is no neat way to distinguish between the two.
    • Robert P. Crease, "Critical Point Fruitloopery", Physics World (February 2012)
  • I read the Beller article in Physics Today. In fact, I’ve read several of her articles before: she writes very well. She of course has a point about Bohr’s intractable language; I’ve spent many hours myself trying to make some sense of it all. To the people with less patience than I, I’m sure it’s not obvious that they should struggle to find some meaning there. That’s exactly why someone has to get in and say something reasonable about (a modernday version of) the “Copenhagen interpretation” before things get out of hand.
    • Christopher A. Fuchs, “Dropping In”, 20 September 1998, published in Coming of Age With Quantum Information : Notes on a Paulian Idea : Selected Correspondence, 1995–2001 (2011)
  • Shapin’s admirable essay misses, however, the point of Mara Beller’s piece in Physics Today (1998). Beller is not urging a more thoughtful attitude on physicists by pointing out that the wisdom of Bohr would sound like nonsense if it came from sociology or cultural studies. Quite the opposite. She is denouncing the great icons of quantum physics for uttering what she takes to be nonsense, and she is urging scientists to clean up their own act before they get on with the business of mocking others.
    • N. David Mermin, "Real Essences and Human Experience", in The One Culture? edited by Jay A. Labinger and Harry Collins (2001)
  • Mara Beller has probably succeeded in making what may well be the first truly penetrating assessment of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Physicists have been too much in awe of the mystique of their topic to have done anything comparable. [...] I am sorry if this role reversal of old and new is an anticlimactic answer to three quarter century of Copenhagen riddle. Mara Beller made me do it!
    • E. J. Post, Book Review of Quantum Dialogue: The Making of a Revolution, Foundations of Physics, Vol. 31, No. 11, November 2001

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