Fundamental Isn't Everything

During the past year or so, you’ve probably heard about the “God particle”, technically known as the Higgs boson, which many physicists expect to discover at the Large Hadron Collider when it gets going again after year-long repairs from a false start last fall. This particle, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, is “responsible” for the masses of all the “fundamental particles”, like electrons and quarks (of which all ordinary matter is composed), due to the way these particles interact with the Higgs. This will, many say, bring us closer to the TOE (“Theory Of Everything”), which is supposed to explain all of physics (or, as some naïvely suggest, all of reality). However, there are plenty of physicists who do not consider the Higgs terribly important for their own research. They suggest that particle physicists have fallen into the fallacy that knowing the fundamentals allows complete explanation of the rest.

You may be surprised to know that perfect knowledge about the carbon atom is insufficient to deduce the crystal structure of diamond (which is made entirely of carbon). Knowing everything about water molecules does not allow us to understand the wetness of water, or its freezing point. But you’re not alone; many scientists, including many physicists, claim that they can predict crystal structure and melting points from first principles. In thinking they can do so, they are incorrectly assuming that reductionism within physics is valid. (For some background on reductionism, see my blog entry entitled “Nothing-buttery”.) Reductionism claims, among other things, that knowing everything about the parts allows us to accurately predict everything about the whole. So even though a single water molecule cannot be wet, a collection of water molecules can be wet because of the properties of the water molecules. It is certainly true that we have very good explanations for crystal structure and the wetness of water. But what many scientists forget in this context is that along with the properties of the parts, we are also using additional assumptions and approximation techniques. But the use of such techniques is only justifiable after the fact, and is what prominent physicists Laughlin and Pines [PNAS v. 97 (2000) n. 1, pp. 28-31] describe as “art keyed to experiment”. That is, in arriving at an explanation for something like the wetness of water, we would not have ever been in a position to do so without first experiencing and studying wetness itself.

Interestingly enough, the standard assumptions and approximations work only for certain cases. They actually fail completely in many interesting examples of exotic behaviour, such as in superconductivity and the fractional quantum hall effect. Recently, a German research group studying the melting of a tiny sample of water (48 molecules, to be precise) was surprised to find a melting point of −180°C (reported here). New “art keyed to experiment” is needed to explain this novel behaviour.

The world as created by God is not simply a collection of fundamental particles interacting with one another according to simple mathematical rules. It is a universe, complete with (as the term implies) unity and diversity, always presenting us with unexpected novelty which not only keeps the scientist employed, but which leads time and again to technological advances, often including medical applications.

Last updated Jul. 29th, 2009 at 9:09am by Arnold Sikkema