Some people seem to want to know more about things like black holes, quarks, strings, the whole universe and so on. But what do such people really want? I suspect that they simply want to be able to talk about these things in terms that are familiar to them. They want to be able to say, “Oh, OK — so a black hole is like a ….”
The problem is, the poor physicists can’t give you anything familiar that is ‘like’ a black hole, or an electron, or anything, for that matter. What is an electron? Nobody can give the layperson an answer! It isn’t ‘like’ anything … it is just itself. Is there any way out of this conundrum? Yes: the solution is to become familiar with black holes, quarks and electrons.
When black holes are as familiar to you as chairs (out of mere repetition) you won’t need to ‘know’ what black holes are anymore. You won’t need to ask, “what are black holes like?” When that day comes, you won’t need any help conceiving of black holes — black holes will already be part of your mental furniture.
This revelation very much pulls the mystique from popular physics writing. None of these books preach understanding … only a vague familiarity. After all, the people who read popular books about string theory in order to ‘know’ more about string theory probably don’t take much interest in ‘knowing’ more about the chair they sit on as they read the book. But perhaps they should! It is just as difficult to understand the chair as it is to understand black holes. But the layperson already feels quite familiar with their chair and so they are unlikely see any need to study it.
I do envy the familiarity the physicist has with nature. No doubt this is why the physicist’s mind is envied by many wannabe sages. Personally, I am working towards taking my place amoungst them (the physicists, not the sages). Maybe, one day, I’ll be called a physicist too. And maybe, one day, I’ll write a book to teach laypeople what electrons are. Let’s hope some publisher will fall for it.