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Physics envy: The last emotion you ever want to feel

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

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The BICEP2 discovery of gravitational waves from inflation is - more than the achievement of any particular science - a human achievement (Image: BICEP2)

This is a guest post by my friend Pinkesh Patel, a data scientist at Facebook. Pinkesh has a PhD in physics from Caltech during which he worked on LIGO, the gravitational wave detector. He then did research in computational biology at Stanford after which he moved to Facebook. Pinkesh is thus ideally poised to think about the whole spectrum of scientific domains and cultures, from hard physics to “soft” sociology.

The post was sparked by a conversation we had in which I lamented the gaping chasm I felt existed between the discovery of inflation and our inability to design even simple drugs against diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Pinkesh reminded me that this is because even a supposedly overarching science like physics actually has a very limited set of domains of applicability and that science is really all about “domain expertise”; as Pinkesh puts it, we have to distinguish the scale of a science from its reach. Most importantly, he underscores the sense of wonder that all of us should feel about any scientific discovery, no matter what field it is in. Great discoveries are not about specific fields; they are about a convergence of everything that humanity has achieved since its beginnings, and of this we should all be proud. I agree.

“How are you feeling, mom?” asked Eric, a thirty something chemist who wasn’t sure how exactly he would answer that question himself after having spent a large portion of his day modeling the ATP binding pocket of an obscure protein. He was visiting his sixty five year old mother who was convalescing after a particularly brutal course of chemotherapy that the doctors had hoped would deliver the coup de grace to her breast cancer.

“I haven’t felt better in ages!” said Helga, clearly grimacing as she turned to face her son. Given his puzzled look, she corrected herself “Oh, the chemo is terrible, especially the constant nausea, however its quite something to think that we can answer questions about the possibility that we live in a multiverse and that gravity is a quantum phenomenon after all.” “Been surfing the old Internet have we?” quipped Eric. “Oh the news just keeps rolling in and this whole Internet thing has been quite a hoot for somewhat amateur followers of science like myself. Take this Sean Carroll fellow and his wonderful writing for instance…” said Helga, her enthusiasm only interrupted by a thirty second bout of coughing.

“I am glad that this news has piqued your curiosity and taken your mind off of this awful ‘treatment’ regimen,” said Eric, while straightening his ailing mother’s hair. He continued “But why does this stuff interest you so? You are an experimental condensed matter physicist and have always been interested in esoteric things like two-dimensional electron gases and their ilk.” “You see my son, when you get to my age, or perhaps once you are wise enough to realize that you are not special, you start looking for grandeur elsewhere and what is more special than …” said Helga, interrupted by another bout of coughing.

“See, this is what I don’t get. How can we, the ape that looked forward, the only intelligent thing in the known universe, understand concepts such as what happened a few trillionth of a second after the big bang and yet not cure this awful illness?” asked Eric. “How come I cannot even make my simulation code not run for more than a few nano-seconds, with only a few hundred atoms to deal with, whilst we can simulate the impact of quantum fluctuations of space and time and detect their impact on light 400,000 years later, that too after 13.8 billion years of travel?” A smile appeared over Helga’s face. She had obviously pondered along similar lines countless times, mostly driven by the ostensibly innocent questions of her students.

“Eric, it’s because you are giving too little credit to the other sciences and because you are confusing the scale of an idea with its reach. When the Bohr model of the atom could explain the Balmer emission spectra, he had not explained everything that was to be known about electrons and protons. Far from it, he had barely scratched the surface. Dig a little deeper and you see the Zeeman effect of the fine splitting of these spectral lines and oh boy, you have a decade more of work and new concepts such as the exclusion principle that need to be invented. And that was just the hydrogen atom. You think that just because the scale of physics is large, that its reach is also large. I am a physicist and I know some of the limitations of my field. It works wonderfully in small boxes of the universe or if we consider the universe itself as a big box, where we abstract away all the things that we, the ape that looked forward, hold dear” said Helga.

“That’s all well and good and I applaud the work done by physicists, but in my own little corner of science it feels like we are savages who cannot even understand the basic tenets of our endeavor,” lamented Eric. “That is because you think that the ideas that are needed to make progress in your field are a subset of the ideas about the entire universe, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes your piece of the universe is a subset of the universe as a whole, however in that case we have abstracted things like galaxies and human beings away as what we call ‘higher order terms’. Zoomed out, pesky things like human beings don’t impact the universe, and it is not the scale of your pursuit that determines its difficulty. So in essence physics is the first order approximation of the universe, but we all live in the world of second, third, … fifty-fifth order approximations and the first order sheds no light on these ‘higher orders’“ replied Helga.

“Yes, yes I have heard all that. Physics is the easiest of the sciences as it is the most controlled, limited in scope etc. But these seem to be bedtime stories that we biologists tell ourselves to sleep soundly” said Eric. “We cannot even understand what is making your cells grow wildly and kill you in the very same organ that nourished me in my first moments, whilst we know what nourished the universe in its first moments. How do I reconcile with these facts?” continued Eric. “It is again because you think that physics discovered this and that you biologists didn’t have anything to do with it” replied Helga.

Noticing his puzzled look, she carried on “See, think about the chain of events that make us think that the inflationary theory is true: We have a representation of space and time in our heads and a representation of the known facts about the universe such as its flatness, homogeneity etc. We make a leap of faith from this representation and reconcile it with other known facts about the universe to predict that if such and such is true, then these fluctuations ought to leave a signature in the cosmic microwave background photons. We then use our knowledge of the Earth and decide to put up our observatory to detect these photons, which happen to be in the microwave band and are readily absorbed by moisture, in the driest place on the planet. Leave alone the fact that we have not evolved to live or work there, but we manage to do it regardless and transport this machine there. We use the latest in condensed matter physics and our understanding of quantum mechanics to make the most sensitive possible instruments. We store the data we collect using other fields of knowledge such as the giant magneto resistance and then we use error correcting codes to transmit this data without errors from objects we set up orbiting the planet to our homes. This data is then processed using other wonderful instruments known as computers, which I admit to not understanding fully. We then display it using liquid crystal display technology using a medium of scientific representation such as graphs. Then comes the crazy part, we jump across these umpteen series of representations to the bare fact that the universe underwent inflation. Try explaining how this is “Physics” and not hundreds of other human endeavors to an alien.”

“And why stop there, what made it possible for us to have the free time to ponder such questions in the first place? Inventions such as agriculture, law and order, money to name just a few. The tapestry of science is woven using all the threads of all fields of human endeavor. You cannot just disentangle one and say that that one is advanced and the others are lagging behind. The victories and defeats of all of these fields belong to all of us.

Yes, I wish we could cure this accursed disease and many others like it, but we will get there my son. The same evolutionary process that accidentally made me joyful due to some abstract coarse grained simulation of the universe in my head, also makes me not care for my own well being, but of humanity’s as a whole. I will die, but we will solve these and other problems together, not as physicists, chemists, barbers and politicians, but as human beings” said Helga, as another bout of coughing made it impossible to continue the conversation any further that evening.

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.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 4:04 pm 04/3/2014

    Another way to look at it is time spent on the investigation. For physics and chemistry it was all about discovering the fundamental make-up of matter, explaining chemical reactions, understanding the chemical bond and as a side benefit one particular physicist discovered a new theory of gravity. This coupled with new discoveries in astronomy have given us a fantastic insight into the evolution of the universe. In 1895 the atom was just a tool used in chemistry, many did not believe it actually existed. This widely held belief caused poor Boltzmann to finally commit suicide during another of his bouts of depression. But in 1895 something new was discovered, the X-ray. This caused a rush of new investigations into the structure of matter. It still took a few years before the atoms existence was accepted. That we could still do incredible science without a fundamental understanding of physics and chemistry that every undergrad enjoys today is remarkable. Ammonia was synthesized from air in 1914! Artificial fertilizer!

    When did molecular biology really get started? Without the X-ray the structure of DNA would not have been discovered in 1953. I look on this discovery as just as fundamental to the research into diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s and autism as the X-ray was to the fundamental structure of matter. A door that no one new existed, opened. Suddenly we have a new model involving DNA, RNA and how proteins are synthesized.

    So, from a time spent point of view, 1895 to 2014 is 119 years. 1953 to 2014 is only 61 years. Give it a little time. The big questions will be answered. The universe inside living organisms like the human body is just as vast and complicated, maybe more so, than the universe outside those organisms.

    I really enjoyed this post!

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  2. 2. QRIUS1 8:34 pm 04/3/2014

    Very thoughtful writing. Rewarding reading.

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  3. 3. AlShawafi 1:45 pm 04/6/2014

    Which described Gravitational-Wave is a confirmation of hypothesis compound balls balanced for researcher Adnan Al-Shawaf
    Scientists have theorized that special energy ( which described gravitational waves ) have infused space that exerts a repulsive force, causing the universe to expand faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant that was in March 2014 , Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had hosted a press conference on Monday, March 17th, the existence of gravitational waves was confirmed by radio astronomers this week who reported that they had seen the beginning of the Big Bang.
    Researcher Adnan Al-Shawaf confirming that which has been described as the waves of gravitational is a new constitution force which control balanced of universe it’s a cosmic forces that doesn’t mean a type of another four forces , according to his hypothesis it had been title ” hypothesis compound balls balanced … an approach in astronomy ” which has been explained the balanced forces of universe and selected a shape and resource of that forces, it were two forces the reason of the first was motion and the reason of the second forces was a surface orb’s area according to first hypothesis’s law ” An orb that is contain of the known material which is occupy on space and it has a regular and irregular shape and it has a volume in space repulse against all similar other orbs which separate among the space ,by the field of repulsion spread every direction and its effect according to the surface orb’s area in all direction, it prorates reversely with square root for the distance , And all of orbs aren’t had gravity field without motion” and , according to the eighth hypothesis’s law ” The compound systems of orbs balanced through the compound balanced fictitious balls layers which the orb rolls in them in compound systems where the orb stay the centre of layers compound fictitious balls” that had been solving the paradox of why the heavens look uniform from pole to pole and uniform of galaxies movement in cluster….etc .
    Researcher Adnan Al-Shawaf refuting that published by some astrophysics center and scientific sides around the world which has been a hasty deciding the gravitational waves process makes the universe immortal and transforms it into a multiverse, He also noted there is some opposition physicists, but it did not provide explanations and scientific solutions
    according to second law of Adnan’s hypothesis ” Every orbs has never been ruled by the space balance laws and it will never harmonize with another balance system of other orbs unless it is charged by the field of the gravity (magnetic attraction field ) which is gained by the space due to the rotation of itself ,and the magnetic field intensity is directly proportional with square root for the distance” consequently with “a causing the universe to expand faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant ” the result most to make the universe going to interior collapsing , like explosive of supernova.
    Researcher Adnan Al-Shawaf also confirms his hypothesis is a trial which has weave solutions for scientific questions in universe.
    Examples for some points of a comparison between the hypothesis and the prevalent theories

    1 – Planet’s movement on elliptical shaped orbits isn’t a circle way around sun so the distance between planet and sun is changing for example, the distance between Mercury planet and sun at the perigee is 46,001,200 km . which is going to increasing at the aphelion to 69,816,900 km, the percentage of changing indistance between perigee and aphelion is over 50%
    what is the reason of this changing ?
    According to a current prevalent theories which confirmed Mercury planet at the perigee had been a balancing between centrifugal and gravity and didn’t gave us a logical explanation.
    If Mercury had a balancing at perigee ….why it’s going to aphelion and it’ll be back to perigee again ??????
    We know the orbital speed decrease in the aphelion but that is a result not a reason for changing in location from perigee to aphelion …. although Mercury’s mass is the main coefficient of centrifugal and gravity which supposed a constant number ( Mercury don’t lose anything in mass to go away from perigee to aphelion and the orbital speed decrease )
    According to hypothesis the changing’s reason are the coefficients of hypothesis’s laws and formulas such as Mercury’s surface area and the changing at an angle of Mercury’s orbital rotation with the direction of the sun’s orbital rotation and the changing at equatorial rotation velocity of the sun decrease whenever the level of Mercury’s orbital rotation to go away from sun’s equator…etc, according Mercury’s location in perigee or aphelion.
    2 – Why the orbital rotation of planets in solar system in a horizontal levels close to the sun’s equator , as well as stars orbital rotation around the galaxy and the moons around planets despite the magnetic field on the poles is stronger than magnetic field on orb’s equator ?
    hypothesis explained the magnetic field attraction is tougher on the equator because the rotation on equator is tougher.
    3 – If two galaxies collided we see the stars in the small galaxy’s arms make a binary stars with the stars of large galaxy’s arms without accident and the small galaxy’s nucleus go away despite it has a high mass where the small galaxy’s nucleus has a high gravity more than stars ?
    According to hypothesis which explained the magnetic field attraction because motion in a vacuum but the small galaxy’s nucleus has high repulsion filed by the surface area more than stars so it go away after the colliding.
    4 – the difference in the curvature of the chart speeds of stars in the external galaxy’s arms are controversial with curvature of the expected from luminous disk according laws of prevailing theories ?
    Hypothesis dealt with the square root of the distance and increasing the rotation speed of magnetic strike is directly proportional with square root of the distance
    5 – In the Big Bang theory of gravity separated from another forces in the Plank time , Why ?
    Hypothesis says the emergence of gravity because the motion of material in a vacuum .. etc. and interpreted in the direction of expansion of the universe and then collapse inward period.
    6 – Why the asteroid’s that has irregular shape it moving through a rocking way (recoil motion ) ? Released a modern interpretation in 2014 for this moving through a rocking away because of the concentration of the mass at one part in the asteroid
    and, If the gravity was the result of mass we could not saw motion on a rocking way because the sum of mass is constant whether if it is concentration at one part or distributed on all Asteroid’s body, look to second photo if we add a measure of mass in a point A or B the Asteroid’s mass is constant.
    Adnan’s Hypothesis it had published a in his book entitled “The hypothesis of combined balancing balls …. approach in astronomy ” and which has been put in the Library (Books House) – Sana’a – which part of the Ministry of Culture in Yemen, No. of entry of the book is 670/2013. And a certificate of Intellectual Property No. 271 / 2013 . This book consists of four chapters, and it is taught by some of the universities have been converted to several universities and, research centers and Unions around the world , and it has published online ….etc in more than one a universal language

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  4. 4. llirbo 3:10 pm 04/9/2014

    Typo? “… the only intelligent thing in the known universe” Known intelligent thing I’m sure! Very fun article. On point too.

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