Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Science And The Modern World: The Trouble With Physics (2)

In his brilliant review of the state of play in modern physics, The Trouble With Physics,  Lee Smolin lists  five great problems that remain unsolved: "(1) How to combine general relativity and quantum theory into a single theory that can claim to be the complete theory of nature; (2) Resolve the problems in the foundations of quantum mechanics; (3) Determine whether or not the various particles and forces can be unified in a theory that explains them all as manifestations of a single, fundamental entity; (4) Explain how the values of the free constants in the standard model of particle physics are chosen in nature; (5) Explain dark matter and dark energy."  In other words, come up with a complete theory of nature. Think about that, as I am trying to do. Nature includes everything, does it not? We and everything we do are part of nature; it follows that art, politics, poetry, science, history is part of nature. But of course Dr. Smolin doesn't mean that; he is using the term 'nature' loosely, which is what you have to do when you are writing for people who don't know the difference between mass and weight. Nevertheless, this idea of a complete theory of nature rankles. History is strewn with the wreckage of philosophical systems that claimed to say or do it all, memory traumatized by multitudinous atrocities committed not so very long ago in the name of a higher good—as promised by some grand philosophical or religious system of belief. And even if we restrict ourselves to the pieces of nature that the natural sciences observe, how many truly complete theories are there? For that matter, how do we know when a theory or a science is complete? Even mathematics, the supreme fiction, is doomed (by Kurt Gödel's proof, 1931) to eternal incompleteness; why should physics, which seems more and more now to have become a branch of mathematics, be any different?

The more we learn the more we encounter problems or questions that we know cannot be solved or answered. Why does the arrow of time point in only one direction in thermodynamics and in the world as we know it, but not in the equations of relativity and quantum theory?

According to the Standard Model of quantum mechanics, information can be neither created nor destroyed. Yet if there is one thing we know, for sure, is that dead men tell no tales. Once you're dead the information that your brain has been storing up during your life-time is gone forever. If you don't know that, there's something wrong with you. When the great library of Alexandria was destroyed either by fire or—what is more likely—mold and neglect, the information it contained was destroyed forever. These are facts that only fools deny.

The objects revealed to us by quantum mechanics have properties that can only be described mathematically. They are like Platonic ideas. They have no individuality: every photon or electron, neutron, quark etc, is exactly like every other. It's as if there were only one of each. In the world as we know it, nothing is exactly like anything else. There is an ancient philosophical problems called The One And The Many. How do we connect the one and the many, absolute unity and infinite diversity?

Let's define science as the dehumanization of knowledge by mathematics. God, or Nature, it turns out is the supreme mathematician. Science, so defined, will always be vulnerable to the whims of the many to whom mathematics and therefore physics is an impenetrable mystery. Remember the legislator who asked if the Super Collider, to be built in Texas, would bring us any closer to God. Answer: No, not God, but the Higgs Boson. So of course the great machine was never completed, but search for Higgs Boson goes on. But does anyone really think that when the Higgs Boson has finally been cornered, the end of the quest for a theory of everything will be in sight?

The quest will be go on and on, eating up more billions of dollars at a time when we desperately need answers to some practical questions: is room-temp superconductivity possible? How do leaves and grasses convert sun light to food? Is it possible to run fuel-cells efficiently without platinum catalysts?

People have to believe in something, or someone, larger than themselves that they can turn to in their pain or fear or despair. Until recently, such beliefs have been religious. During much of the 20th century, people put their faith in various political religions, with horrific consequences. Now what? Neither Nature nor science, its interpreter, suffices. Nature with its deserts of vast, meaningless eternity is what we fear.

Climate-change is now the great unknown. What will happen to constitutional democracy and the rule of law as sea-levels and temperatures rise? If the past is prologue, something or somebody will be blamed and scape-goated. And who or what will that be? Do I really need to tell you? It's the bearers of bad news who are usually punished.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    As you well know, experience is the basis of understanding, and every form of logic structure will fall apart when it tries to explain something we have not experienced for ourselves... be it mathematics or mythology. The fun part is that we create the events that give us the experience we require to understand further - whether we like it or not, know it or not, or care or not.

    You are right that we all need a point on the horizon to steer towards. But, given that all of our religions are founded on stories told by the survivors of great calamity, and that there seems to be no way to avoid the coming disaster, wouldn't a wise man consider the story they will use to create the next religion?

    There is a quote in my head that i am sure is not a real quote, just me paraphrasing a concept that I got from somewhere that I don't know at the moment: "When death is all that is left for a man, then how he faces his death is all that matters." (Yep, I'm certain that is all botched up.)