Looking for Meaning in All the Wrong Places

By Beth Macy June 21, 2015

Where is meaning to be found? Bohm had a different answer than his peers in the field of theoretical physics.

Bohm had excelled at math, yet he saw those around him clinging to mathematics in a way that seemed to avoid the central issue, that being to understand what the mathematical equations meant. Even though throughout his career he needed to use mathematics as a way of resolving technical aspects of his research, he always had a deep distrust that the math alone was trustworthy. Never, he thought, could a mathematical transaction be entirely free of unexamined assumptions, and the more complex the mathematics, the greater the susceptibility to potential error. His own way, much like his childhood days of fantastic flights to other planets, was to “feel out the answer and see it in his mind before setting down the necessary mathematical steps.  His problem-solving ability was guided less by logic than by a combination of imagination and intuition.”

This physical and intuitive sense guided him in his pursuit to better know the universe and its forces. In his Penn State days, when given the problem of understanding the theory of the gyroscope, he had solved the problem by envisioning himself as a gyroscope, searching for a “direct perception of the inner nature” of the motion of the gyroscope.

And later, in trying to understand the motion of the quantum, he felt his way into an understanding of its half up/half down spins. 

Trust in his physical intuitive capacities never ceased to overpower his reliance on mathematics alone. In fact, in the words of Bohm’s colleague and coauthor, B.J. Hiley, “Dave always arrives at the right conclusions, but his mathematics is terrible. I take it home and find all sorts of errors and then have to spend the night trying to develop the correct proof. But in the end, the result is always exactly the same as the one Dave saw directly.”