Friday, June 03, 2005
Interesting Article on Physics Myopathy
In the April lecture, he explained that Newton’s law of gravity is considered to be a fundamental law, but it is impossible to observe this force in objects on a nanoscale.
“When you get up close and take it apart to see how the law works, you discover it’s not there,” he said.
Heat laws are also thought to be fundamental, he explained, but the smallest particles do not obey them.
“Heat, conceptually, is like a painting of Monet; when you get up close to see its parts, to see how the parts work, you discover nothing but a lot of meaningless dots,” he said.
The distinction between fundamental and emergent laws then becomes nonexistent and even basic assumptions become mysterious. Because laws like those regulating heat and gravity are only true for some matter, the foundations of physics are becoming weak, he said.
“Physics is now in the midst of a crisis, an ideological battle,” he said. “The most fundamental things you know may not be fundamental.”
Laughlin also argued that, for mysteries like why atoms are so uniform throughout the galaxy, physicists form creation myths to explain away these quandaries. Inflationary cosmology, he said, is the “myth” created to solve this problem by saying that during the expansion after the big bang, matter became uniform.
“That, on the face of it, is a pretty far-fetched theory, but the reason we take this theory so seriously is the depth of the crisis. In other words, we really need to have an explanation for why this stuff is so uniform, and we don’t have it,” he said. “I like to say that the emergentist nature of the theories of the universe are really an act of desperation.”
The best chance at solving some of these mysteries of the universe, Laughlin suggests in A Different Universe, is to avoid the reductionist approach of studying particles too minute to measure, and to look at the basic realities of the natural world.
I'm very excited that physicists have figured out that reductionism isn't all it's cracked up to be. I'm not against reductionism, but I do think that the trend toward reductionism to the exclusion of other principles is damaging both to science and to other human endeavors. Specifically, the trend toward reductionism is damaging towards morality, because ultimately you can reduce bad actions to non-bad parts. "I didn't kill him with a gun, I just moved my finger a little toward my body. It's not normally illegal for me to move my finger in this way, is it?" Reductionism doesn't work in life, nor does it really work in science. There is validity in searching for reductionism, because some things in fact can be reduced. However, every once in a while, you need to back up, take a breath, and say "is this really right?"
I'm very glad such a prominent physicist is doing this. Very encouraging.