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Language limits grasp of physic, says Vize 97 prize winner in Prague

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Prague, Oct 5 (CTK) – Language and its limited possibilities are a barrier to the explanation and easier understanding of many scientific discoveries and physical phenomena, U.S. solid-state physicist Nathaniel David Mermin said in Prague where he received the annual Vision 97 (Vize 97) prize on Thursday.

Mermin, 82, deals with philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics and special relativity, apart from solid-state physics and low-temperature physics. He taught physics at Cornell University for many years.

The Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation awarded Mermin for his contribution to the development and promotion of physics.

Mermin said language is a powerful tool once people want to discuss both personal and impersonal affairs, but a very awkward tool for communicating about scientific discoveries that were made long after language was created.

For example, it is difficult to explain how to get from one square in Prague’s centre to another one and include the curvature of the Earth in the description, he said.

Mermin said he was deciding whether to choose a career in law or physics when he was young. He said law deals with human affairs, social conventions and rules, while physics deals with factual truths and laws. Many people choose physics to avoid the personal dimension, he added.

The Vision 97 prize is bestowed on thinkers who contributed to the understanding of science as an integral part of general culture, who focus on matters related to cognition, being and human existence in an unconventional way.

The prize is awarded on October 5, which is the birth anniversary of late president and thinker Vaclav Havel (1936-2011).

Mermin said prizes are both good and bad for researchers, because the publicity distracts their attention from work and they are forced to lecture all over the world. However, the Vision 97 prize is wonderful since nobody in the United States will know that he received it, he said.

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