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F=Force

Last summer I read a book called Woman as Force in History. I have an old, worn, paperback edition printed in the 70s (the cover design gives it away), but the book was originally published in 1946. In it, the author, Mary R. Beard, argues that women have always been part of history (the events that actually happen), they are just neglected or forgotten when the stories of what happened were written down. I will probably come back to Mary R. Beard’s views on history later in this alphabet. Today let’s talk about her use of the word FORCE.

As you may or may not recall, my first degree is in engineering. Aerospace engineering even. Rocket Science. This means I did a fair bit of physics, and even taught physics to high school students for a while. I keep finding physics words popping up as I read theology and history. I find I am not particularly fond of the way physics metaphors are slung about in these other disciplines. Beard’s title is my way into this particular rant.

I will concede that Mary R. Beard may not have thought of her phrasing “woman as force” as provocative or even having anything to do with some guy Newton and classical mechanics. She wrote this book in the shadow of the second world war, when forces deployed meant armies and navies and air forces. Air FORCE – that word again. Possibly she meant Woman as Force! to suggest an army of women acting through history. She does not, however, clarify her particular use of the term. I kept thinking of physics and F=ma and W=Fd and vectors. (To translate briefly: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and Work done equals force applied multiplied by displacement. One notes that if one combines the two equations, Work=mad. Hmmm.) Beard’s use of the term FORCE was slightly distracting and reminded me of all the other times I’ve seen physics metaphors that don’t quite work when one knows something about the physics.

Other physics concepts that have been more distracting than helpful out of context:

Quantum anything. Most recently, I’ve noticed a book called Paradoxology: Spirituality in a Quantum Universe. This appears (I’ve not read the whole thing) to take up the idea of quanta, discrete bundles of energy, and talk about this idea as if it explained God. The author is a woman of some talent and energy, but I’m not sure why she thinks it necessary to dabble in quantum metaphor, something physicists themselves claim is difficult to understand well. (I had a flashback moment when the author turned out to have written the songs and been part of the nuns singing on “Joy is Like the Rain” one of the few vinyl records available to play at camp when I was growing up.)

Uncertainty, as in the Uncertainty Principle (is the cat there?) or Relativity. These ideas are so often poorly used in general conversation and thought that I hesitate to talk about them here. Please do note that in physics, uncertainty applies at the atomic scale, that is, when things are very very small. Relativity applies when things are moving very very fast, at speeds approaching the speed of light. Despite what the movies say, we don’t know how to travel that quickly.

Centripetal and centrifugal forces. I encountered these two in a book I otherwise liked very much. I tried to find other words to substitute for them to get past the fact that I kept using physics to shoot down the author’s literary arguments because of his poor choice of metaphor. I think his arguments had merit despite the metaphors.

Possibly no one else finds the poor use of physics metaphors distracting. Let me know what you think. I think people should stop using these metaphors unless they know the physics.

May the Force Be With You.

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