About the SA Blog Network

The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science
The Curious Wavefunction Home

Physics and fundamental laws: Necessary truth or misleading cacophony?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein: Both men seemed to believe in their later years that the search for fundamental laws was all that counted in physics (Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine)

Robert Oppenheimer’s greatest contribution to physics was one that he wanted nothing to do with for the rest of his life. In 1939 Oppenheimer and his student Hartland Snyder published a paper in the same issue of the Physical Review that featured Niels Bohr and John Wheeler’s seminal article on the mechanism of nuclear fission (the issue incidentally came out on the same day that Germany attacked Poland). In five short pages Oppenheimer and Snyder laid out the essential characteristics of what we know today as a black hole. Then World War 2 intervened, and the Bohr-Wheeler paper suddenly became very important while the Oppenheimer-Snyder piece was cast on the sidelines.

After the war, general relativity – which until then was considered a backwater of frontier science, more mathematics than physics – was resurrected by a handful of schools in Europe and the US led by pioneers like John Wheeler and Dennis Sciama. Strangely by then, Oppenheimer had lost all interest in the topic. This was attested to by Freeman Dyson who tried to get Oppenheimer interested in his pre-war work on gravitation several times. Each time the master changed the subject and never showed the slightest interest in recent developments in the field. Why did Oppenheimer display such casual indifference to a contribution that may well have gotten him a Nobel Prize had he lived long enough to see it experimentally validated? Because by then, as Dyson puts it,

“Oppenheimer in his later years believed that the only problem worthy of the attention of a serious theoretical physicist was the discovery of the fundamental equations of physics. Einstein certainly felt the same way. To discover the right equations was all that mattered. Once you had discovered the right equations, then the study of particular solutions of the equations would be a routine exercise for second-rate physicists or graduate students.”

Oppenheimer and Einstein’s view was one that was not alien to many of history’s greatest physicists. A search for the fundamental laws was the most important activity a physicist could be engaged in; everything else was best left to lesser minds. Personally I detest this attitude, but for better or worse I think it’s been implicitly true throughout the history of physics.

I was reminded of Oppenheimer’s story by Chad Orzel’s characteristically insightful critique of my previous post. The title of the post makes Orzel’s take clear: “Repeat after me: Particle physics is not all of physics”. His point is well-taken; particle physicists are behaving like the great questions of their discipline are the only ones that truly count, and therefore if those questions run into a wall then all of physics must be grinding to a halt. This is of course completely false simply based on the everyday work of the majority of the world’s physicists which has nothing to do with quantum chromodynamics and Higgs bosons. Orzel gives us just one example of the fact that such views are in a minority by pointing out that the most populated division of the American Physical Society actually consists of condensed matter physicists. Particle physicists clock in at number two, but even then:

“That (number) almost certainly overestimates the number of people working directly on a Theory of Everything. The fact is, the physicists whose work is genuinely in crisis as a result of recent developments (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) are a tiny minority of professional physicists. They’re vastly overrepresented in the media, in large part because wildly speculative stuff about multiple universes is sexy and provides lots of opportunities for stoner-friendly CGI, but if they all got sucked into a black hole tomorrow (thus settling the “firewall” debate for good and all), physics as a whole would continue on with barely a hiccup.”

That point about the overrepresentation of theoretical physics in the media is one which I would wildly applaud, especially since I wrote a post bemoaning how this fact misleads the public into thinking that the questions of particle physics are the only exciting ones in the field. In that post I called for a much bigger effort by experimentalists (and yes, by condensed matter experts) in presenting their science to the public.

Having said that, I think that Orzel’s post seems to give short shrift to what physics has been about until now, and therefore while I sympathize with his sentiments I suspect that all varieties of physicists will always have a weakness for fundamental laws. The fact is that even if the majority of physicists don’t themselves work on fundamental laws, it’s hard to deny that philosophically, the history of physics has largely been the search for fundamental laws which mostly manifested themselves under the rubric of “unification”.

As long as physics was around its practitioners have tried to find common ground between disparate phenomena. Galileo discovered that Jupiter had moons just like the earth and Venus had phases just like our moon does. Newton’s crowning achievement – one that unseated two thousand years of “ethereal” thinking set in motion by Aristotle – was to demonstrate that objects in the heavens obey the same laws followed by objects on earth. Unification continued to be a high water mark in developments that followed. A completely legitimate history of physics can be written simply based on stories about unification, from Faraday and Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism to Weinberg and others’ unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces.

We know all this, but the reason why unification has featured high on the list of physicists’ favorite moments in history is because with unification comes simplification. And this simplification has always been a principal component of the search for fundamental laws. As physicists say only half jokingly, the most fundamental law would be a one-line equation on a cocktail napkin that explains everything. There is something not only greatly pleasing but exceedingly practical in having two equations for two very different phenomena suddenly condensed into one. So it’s not just particle physics but all kinds of physicists who have benefited from unified fundamental laws, and it goes without saying that a condensed matter physicist would cherish simplification in his mathematics as much as a particle theorist.

Moving from the realm of the ethereal to the wildly practical for instance, one only needed to have asked physicists working on radar during World War 2 how grateful they were for Maxwell’s equations. The fact is that even if condensed matter physicists don’t work on fundamental laws themselves, and even if it may be true that their day-to-day work would largely remain unaffected if all the world’s string theorists decided to throw in the towel tomorrow and write existentialist novels, it’s also equally true that every condensed matter physicist has already benefited from fundamental laws. I would suspect that this remains true regardless of whether or not a condensed matter physicist will personally have her work transformed by the unification of quantum mechanics and general relativity.

Then there are the questions of aesthetics and completeness which most physicists appreciate even though they may not dictate their own work. Condensed matter physicists may well believe in Philip Anderson’s dictum that “More is Different” and they may well agree that a purely reductionist approach does not help them crack superconductivity or giant magnetoresistance, but I would strongly suspect that every one of them secretly wishes that there were in fact a direct, simple, fundamental derivation of the properties of ceramic superconductors from the properties of quarks. Just because there does not seem a plausible path from string theory to your pet project does not mean you won’t appreciate finding one. Ever since ancient societies started tentatively groping for explanations of physical phenomena, the goal of physics has been to discover the most basic unifying, connected principles of the cosmos. And this was always implicitly true whether or not you were actively involved in the pursuit of such laws.

So I agree with Orzel that the failure to find a theory of quantum gravity would not generally impact the search for a better topological insulator or DNA tweezer. But somewhere, deep down, it would send a troubling message to every kind of physicist; that at its most fundamental level their science is disconnected and incomplete. Such a revelation might deprive only particle physicists of their jobs, but I am thinking it would leave many more physicists with a deep sense of unease and uncertainty about their own work.

Update: Chad Orzel has a response to my post up on his blog. I agree with him that we seem to disagree very little on this topic on a fundamental level. I have criticized the strong reductionist approach myself several times in previous posts, and as a chemist I appreciate how complexity can be as pleasing and important as simplicity.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 12 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. David Cummings 7:19 pm 01/22/2014

    Sometimes I think many people — and many physicists and mathematicians — are too impatient. Are we there (quantum gravity, dark matter, dark energy… whatever) yet?

    We discovered that the universe is expanding less than a hundred years ago. Quantum mechanics is less than a century old. Relativity not much older than that.

    And yet, we’ve been human for upwards of 2 million years. And we’ve had agriculture for over 10,000 years.

    But a century looking for quantum gravity — OMG! We’re not there yet!

    Link to this
  2. 2. rloldershaw 10:09 pm 01/22/2014

    General Relativity relates the geometry of matter to its energy-momentum content.

    The factor that “negotiates” (provides the scaling for) this relationship is as follows: k = 8 pi G / c^4.

    If you assume that G (Newtonian gravitational constant) is an absolute constant that holds good for microcosm, macrocosm and cosmocosm, it leads to a bizarre Planck mass, a vacuum energy density crisis to the tune of a factor of 10^120, the celebrated hierarchy problems of particle physics, etc. It also guarantees that any quantum gravity model you can come up with is going to be a glue and popsicle stick model.

    Alternatively, in a fractal cosmological paradigm with discrete global self-similarity, k must be amended by an additional factor that increases G by a factor of 10^38 when you go from a higher cosmological scale to a lower one.

    There is a lot of observational evidence that supports a fractal paradigm, and when you adopt its value for k, then the Planck mass is roughly the mass of the proton, the vacuum energy density crisis is resolved, and the hierarchy problems of particle physics disappear. One can also see clearly how to unify GR and QM.

    We can keep banging our collective heads against the wall of absolute G, but at some point we might want to try the door offered by questioning this inadequately tested assumption. A discrete fractal paradigm might be a good place to start. It offers a door to a new and far more unified cosmos.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity/Fractal Cosmology

    Link to this
  3. 3. Roger846 10:56 pm 01/22/2014

    I don’t think the fundamental equations of the universe will be equations at all. I think it will be a piece or pieces of metaphysical knowledge. If metaphysics is the study of the nature of being (things that exist), and physics is the study of things in the universe, which exists, then it seems logical that the laws of physics must derive from metaphysics. I think this bottom up approach is the best approach for making progress into what the fundamental laws of the universe are.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jtdwyer 7:11 am 01/23/2014

    Ancient progress report:
    “We have not succeeded in answering all our questions. Indeed, we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things…”

    Link to this
  5. 5. Spironis 1:39 pm 01/23/2014

    Euclid has five postulates, is self-consistent, is rigorously derived. The Earth’s surface cannot be mapped onto flat paper absent distortion, cutting, or folding. Patch and curve-fit Euclid to make empirical flat maps.

    Boson symmetries applied to fermionic matter (quarks) suffer unending parity violations, symmetry breakings, chiral anomalies, Chern-Simons repair of Einstein-Hilbert action. Patch and curve-fit physics to empirically model matter (quantum gravity, SUSY, unification).

    “Correct” theory real world fails through weak founding postulates. Bolyai then Thurston repaired Euclid. Quantized physics celebrates its failures. Physical Review D will ooze “more studies are needed” until postulates are repaired.

    Link to this
  6. 6. joepoppa 5:24 pm 01/23/2014

    All they’re doing, now, is playing pin the tail on the donkey, hoping, if they can just stick in enough pins, one will hit its mark. Galileo had his telescope, Newton his apple; we could use some observation, ourselves. It’s hard to describe a sunset to a blind man who has never seen one. It’s hard to know what’s out there, unless you’ve actually been there. What we really should be focusing on is getting the hell off this planet and seeing what’s out there. The exploration of near-Earth orbits had given us so much. Imagine what we would gain if we expanded our horizons further.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Dr. Strangelove 1:51 am 01/24/2014

    I see nothing wrong with the search for fundamental laws. So long as physicists can differentiate between reality and mathematical abstraction. To me, fundamental laws are just expressions of the laws of nature in the language of mathematics. The greater the ‘algorithmic compression’ the more ‘fundamental’ the laws are. Theoretical physicists are obsessed with explaining a lot of phenomena with just a few short equations. Well and good if they succeed. But the existence of the theory of everything is just a belief not fact. They could well be chasing a mirage.

    Link to this
  8. 8. harderwijk 2:28 am 01/24/2014

    In his bio the author claims that he “considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience”.

    The immediate problem with such eminently eloquent, concise and necessarily formulaic psychometrics is the inevitable ambiguity inherent in our each and every most noble attempt to explain ourselves.

    The sum of human knowledge and all of what we call ‘consciousness’, ‘thought’, ‘mindset’ etc is fraught by our complete and undeniable reliance on each our own unique ability to negotiate the vagaries of constantly shifting, traditional and colloquial grammatical and syntactical rules of at least one or more of the 6,000 or so spoken languages currently in circulation, as those rules are haphazardly applied, from place to place and time to time.

    Given that no two people on the planet have ever shared precisely identical circumstances of birth, formative years, education and life experience, we may reasonably assume that each individual human brain has developed its own unique set of referential means for ‘joining the dots’, in the never-ending evolutionary-determined struggle to ‘make sense’ of ‘the real world’.

    Therefore, I would suggest, we may also reasonably assume that the probability that, in each and every particular situation, any two people shall ever agree absolutely, implicitly and explicitly in the minutest detail as to the most expedient precise meaning applicable to the words we use, as and when we use them, is vanishingly small. Conflict is not an optional inconvenience. It’s in our DNA.

    The way we cope with this, which is what makes societies and civilisation, though tenuous and often blood-drenched, at least feasible, is that we have learned, for the sake of cooperation in the hunt, commerce and the propagation of the species, to avoid at all cost and whenever possible getting bogged down in the pesky details. The red tape. So-called ‘consensus’ therefore, and the laws of contract that underpin the enterprise, involves compromise. And the majority rules.

    Like it or not, we are culturally and socially habituated to expect without question that all the words and expressions we have learned to rely upon in order to ‘think straight’, ‘communicate effectively’ and generally ‘make sense’ of ‘the real world’, our relationships, business and sundry social transactions, all come with precise meanings pre-installed, out of the box. A truly beguiling, enduring and universal assumption that, on closer inspection, is patently false.

    This is not surprising. After all, what’s the point of saying anything at all if nothing can be relied upon for its presumed inherent meaning. As usual, the problem is at once very simple and immensely complicated. I certainly know what I’m talking about. And, I’m prepared to take it for granted that you too surely know what you’re talking about. But, and here’s the rub. Neither you nor I, nor anyone else who has ever lived long enough to learn to say their first words, have no means whatsoever of knowing with absolute certainty what each other is talking about. You only need to listen to Noam Chomsky for a while and then ask three people what he meant.

    The simplest expression, such as “I love you”, “turn right at your next opportunity”, or “this is one small step for man …”, depends for its meaning – how the message is ultimately received and understood – on cerebral processes the complexity of which is not yet and indeed may never be fully understood. It is simply not conceivable that ‘meaning’ (whatever that means), can be transmitted intact, by means of the semantic codes we ordinarily associate with conversation and discourse, without any distortion or uncorrupted by all the collateral ‘noise’. A normal telephone conversation relies on electronic equipment for encoding and decoding the digital signals.

    Language deployment and comprehension involves at least three fundamental, highly individuated mental processes that are casually taken for granted as ‘interpretation’. Up front is the pretext, all the a priori foreknowledge that every speaker/listener and reader/writer must possess and immediately relies upon for recognising a text as legitimate raw data. Then there’s the context, the highly specific circumstances in which each particular text is negotiated. This can be as mundane as the words on a traffic sign, or for that matter, a red light, flashing light, siren, gestures and body language etc. Finally comes the most remarkable human propensity of all, that of reading the subtext, ‘reading between the lines’, to discern (extrapolate) what is not explicitly there.

    Therefore, as no two people have ever possessed identical brains that developed the immensely complicated cerebral wiring that must respond in certain specific sequences to each piece of raw data as it’s received, each in its own unique way, we may safely say that you and I simply cannot see the world and everything we have seen and heard in precisely the same way.

    So when I read, “he considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience”, I am immediately challenged by questions of ambiguity of meaning. What does he mean by ‘science’? What is meant by “all-encompassing part”? A beating human heart is part of what we understand as being alive. (The legal definition of ‘life’ varies in each jurisdiction.) But a part of a whole cannot realistically be considered as all-encompassing of that whole. My beating heart has everything to do with everything I do. But I am more than the sum of my parts.

    To say that science is an all-encompassing part of human experience is to overlook the troubling disconnect between the cold, precise, unambiguous vocabulary of mathematical equations and formulas as the lingua franca of scientific research and the messy, emotional, unpredictable, incongruous, irrational, illogical flood of images, impressions, dreams, wishes, fears and ambitions that is so familiar to what we all broadly recognise as ‘human experience’.

    The expression ‘e=mc^2’ is ideally suited to scientific theory. And it has been fundamentally useful to nuclear technology. But that’s not where we live. Mathematics and physics have nothing to say about human experience. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Milky Way was said to be 50,000 light years in diameter. Nice round numbers, but quite incomprehensible for all that. Then it was discovered that a human error had been made. No surprises there. So now the diameter of the Milky Way is given in the text books as 100,000 light years. Human civilisation, as we know it, has been running for about one tenth of that time.

    But here we have clear grounds for Witgenstein’s complaint about the ‘tyranny of language’. To speak of the Milky Way as having a diameter at all, invites the idle and eminently non-falsifiable speculation that ‘The Milky Way” is a discrete object, a disk-shaped spiral for example, with real experiential dimensions like the length of my arm. A ‘diameter’, at least in standard Euclidian mathematics, requires that there be a definable ‘edge’ from which the measurement can be made. No one has ever seen the Milky Way as a definable object. In fact, we have never been there.

    All our glorious scientific discoveries and knowledge rely utterly and irrevocably on the ability of those speaking and those listening making some indefensible grand assumptions. Not least of which states that the words we use shall have precise concrete meanings. This is a forlorn hope. Only human clones could be expected to see and hear, perceive and understand, let alone reason logically and consistently in a precisely identical manner. Perhaps, perhaps not. Not even two identical computers, built on the same day at the same plant and programmed by the same analyst can be reliably expected to function in exactly the same way.

    Link to this
  9. 9. curmudgeon 8:10 am 01/24/2014

    “Sometimes I think many people — and many physicists and mathematicians — are too impatient.”

    In an increasingly ‘godless’ scientific community it is hardly surprising that anyone would want to see answers emerging in their lifetimes especially in investigations to which they have devoted their one and only go round. The compression of time in physics (as in most areas of life) is one of the most notable aspects of its history. What started as an attempt to answer ‘eternal’ questions is now all but obsessed with mere slivers of time, fractions of fractions of seconds. And what progressed as a steady assessment of the facts has descended into a headlong panic to publish with a consequential departure from the purely empirical into the theoretical and mathematically satisfying.

    Impatient, certainly. But in an age in which instant recognition and the rewards it brings are paramount concerns it is hard to resist the pressure to provide answers which may not be ultimately ‘right’ but are certainly ‘right now’, especially where funding is to be fought over. Only today I read a report which described dark energy as a ‘discovery’ rather than the theory (some might say, speculation) that it clearly is. Such a trend is not one that I expect to be reversed. It has its own ineluctable gravity. Only time will tell whether its sufficiently strong to form a black hole!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Clarkm 12:26 pm 01/24/2014

    Scientific American 50 years ago was science.
    I enjoyed it.
    My physics professors got published there.
    Then SA turned into 100% liberal propaganda.
    Lately I have invested in Discovery Communications, that seems to be able to provide information about science with out sounding like an NPR science Friday sermon.

    If SA is going to produce clean pieces like this one from Ashutosh Jogalekar, I am going to start reading SA again.

    Link to this
  11. 11. joebrownscience 4:44 pm 01/29/2014

    The sadness impressed by this article is that every particle we have ever observed, every photonic registration we documented as evidence, was valid only in conjunction with proximity to Sol, our star. The drive these giant felt was sidetracked, obfuscated, and diminished by expecting the remainder of the universe to abide by our arrogance in myopia. I am convinced there is a much better model than you were given, and others use it every day to move beyond where you may go. Just saying…

    Link to this
  12. 12. AjaySharma 6:39 am 02/2/2014

    The basic question is about E=mc2

    Einstein derived it in 1905 in Sep. 1905 paper, under extremely special conditions. Otherwise equation takes different forms
    Free article link

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article