Force (as in F = ma) as a cultural concept

David Schoonmaker reviews The Best American Science Writing 2005, edited by Alan Lightman, in American Scientist:

Frank Wilczek’s scientific achievements are certainly familiar to me, but his popular writing was not. In “Whence the Force of F=ma?” the Nobelist explores his long-standing problem with the left-hand side of Newton’s second law. It had never occurred to me how insubstantial the concept of force is, so I was intrigued to learn that thinkers like Wilczek have been questioning its value to physics as a concept for more than a century. No less than Bertrand Russell titled the 14th chapter of his book The ABC of Relativity “The Abolition of Force.” Wilczek notes that “the concept of force is conspicuously absent from our most advanced formulations of the basic laws. It doesn’t appear in Schrödinger’s equation, or in any reasonable formulation of quantum field theory, or in the foundations of general relativity.”

Wilczek then gets to the nub of his concern: “If F=ma is formally empty, microscopically obscure, and maybe even morally suspect, what’s the source of its undeniable power?” His answer is that force is more a cultural concept than a physical one. “F=ma by itself does not provide an algorithm for constructing the mechanics of the world. The equation is more like a common language, in which different useful insights about the mechanics of the world can be expressed.”

Score one for risk taking. Frank Wilczek’s insights are worthy and clearly presented, and his prose is lively and engaging. I look forward to reading more from him.

More here.