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The Shadow of Physics

Photograph Source: Геральт – CC BY 2.0

The modern English word physics is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek word φυσικός (phusikós, “natural; physical”), which is in turn from the ancient Greek φύσις (phúsis, “origin; nature, property”), which is again from the ancient Greek φύω (phúō, “produce; bear; grow”), and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *bʰuH- (“to appear, become, rise up”). Aside from the interesting consonant shift from b to p, it is an etymological curiosity that, as its meaning is traced through the history of language, the word physics reveals its origin to be as a referent for appearance. The etymological root of physics has the opposite meaning of the modern word, at least in the vernacular.

Perhaps professional physicists would be more willing to admit that while our understanding of nature is vast and comprehensive, vast enough to allow humanity to easily manipulate energy and matter, the physical theories which underlie our understanding are necessarily incomplete because they rely on approximations and unproven axioms. This admission should not carry a negative connotation, nor is it meant to dismiss the civilizational progress which could have not been possible without a thorough understanding of nature. Physics has, as a historically situated web of researchers, institutions, publishers, governmental patrons, etc, produced the greatest technological achievements of mankind. Yet physics is not nature, it is an approximation of nature. It excels in its explanations of fundamental phenomena, in the creation of general laws, of beauty. Its practicality drops off rapidly for systems that are much too big or complex to be quickly, analytically probed with fundamental laws. There are some tricks, and there are many clever approximations that allow us to peek into that seemingly chaotic abyss, just ask Strogatz.

However, very few analytical solutions for these complex systems are possible. The physicist must become a computer scientist, and create a program to run iterations of the Runge–Kutta method for distasteful differential equations. Still, the complexity of everyday life remains mysterious. It is theoretically predictable, yet these predictions are practically impossible. And at some point in their search for completely satisfying knowledge, the physicist must retire to chemistry, embracing the domain of less fundamental laws as a trade-off for incomplete yet physically incalculable knowledge. And then to biology, to neuroscience, to human behavior, to evolutionary psychology, sociology, politics, literature, and philosophy. It is in these domains that the physicist attaches an emotional meaning to Boltzmann’s constant times the log of the multiplicity, the equation inscribed upon the tombstone of the man who voluntarily ended his own life, a great mind battered down by the fear of failure and inaccuracy. He contained that noble spark which animated his furious theoretical probing, a spark which ignited the kindling of his mind and engulfed him, and swept him off his feet into a rope, hung on the ceiling of a picturesque Italian villa. It is for the psychologist to ask why so many in the field of statistical mechanics chose this fate, Paul Ehrenfest ended his life in a murder-suicide; Gilbert N Lewis injested hydrogen cyanide after not receiving the Nobel Prize, having been nominated 41 times previously.

Perhaps petty rivalries produced discontent in these men, perhaps their egos were tied inexorably to their intellectual achievements. But perhaps they chose their ultimate fate because they could only ever master an appearance of nature, dependent on approximations. Boltzmann’s theory of statistical mechanics was theoretically questioned on the basis of its ontology, and the criticism seemingly drove him to suicide. Why? Perhaps, for these men, physics represented a sublimation of the desire for an eternal existence after death which they rightfully cast aside. Performing physics was a way in which to connect with the eternal laws of the universe. Perhaps if they had only discovered an eternal law, their name might live eternally. Physics for them was a means of staving off death, loneliness, and isolation which physically represents that void of incalculability in which the vast majority of phenomena reside. They held fast to those few analytical solutions for dear life on the turbulent oceans of war, marriage, and friendship. The spirit shudders upon realizing what little can be truly known, calculated in full. Even the mathematician shudders. The climatologist certainly shudders.

However, this paradigm is physically accurate yet psychologically infantile, even pathological. There are much better ways of relating human fragility to materialism, of living with uncertainty. Newton, representing that pre-modern, currently untenable attitude, attempted to do this by devoting most of his time to religion and alchemy, obsessed with producing the Philosopher’s Stone. He admitted, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” There is a word in Old Armenian which is derived from the same Proto-Indo-European root as physics. Բոյս. It means boy, plant, nature, temper. I, personally, would not encourage anyone to emulate Newton’s devoted study of the occult, certainly not. However, his story underscores the necessity of resolving the materialist conception of the universe with the fact that our lives are limited. One remedy that proves effective, and is congruent with atheism, is literature. Literature has no fundamental laws, and its theories are more so artistic expressions and sociological critiques; they make no predictions. Literature is the embodiment of that vast void of the incalculable reality which is threatening and uncomfortable for the physicist. Reconciliation must be made at this border. The border between the calculated digits of pi and infinity, the border that drove Cantor insane. That border upon which wars were fought, fought when that brave soul (or traitor) Godel threw a bomb into the heart of Hilbert’s program, and with the help of his amphetamines invalidated the work of Russell and Whitehead. Wolfgang Pauli had already defected to the mystical, befriending Carl Gustav Jung. A statue of Shiva stands outside of CERN.

Perhaps it is time that the physicist learns to accept death, the incalculable void, and failure.

Perhaps it is time the physicist embraces humanity instead of standing apart from it.

As a student of science, I can use the Schrodinger equation to solve for a wave function in given boundary conditions, allowing me to calculate the average position and momentum for a particle in an atom, for example. No one can do the same for a particle in a lipid bilayer. No one can know exactly how, when, or where a virus particle penetrates a cell. The people who may write the code to solve such problems, on quantum computers, do not even exist in the minds of future parents, and it will remain so for generations. My own knowledge is incomplete. My humanity remains unsatisfied by physics in the face of death. Yet I read my literature on LCD screens, and conversations with my partner are mediated by high-frequency radio waves. Though I wish I had real books, face-to-face conversations, and tactile embraces. How can I use symmetry arguments to resolve such contradictions? Where are my equations of motion? Equations of emotion? They don’t exist. I wish physicists would invade biology. Psychology. Oncology. Epidemiology. Too many hidden variables. That incalculable void grows, in our families, in our bodies, in our tissues, hijacking our DNA. Quarter million dead in America. It’s very strange to pray over Zoom.

Did Feynman start a revolution when he said “Physics isn’t the most important thing. Love is.”?

What would a physicist do if the theory of everything were discovered, after the dream of Leibniz is accomplished? Is the calculation of everything truly desirable? Perhaps the biologically limited time in which we are permitted to probe the universe endows our choice of calculation with beauty, just as death endows every moment of life with meaning. And if the beauty of physics flows backward from our limited time to be physicists, just as the meaning of our life flows backward from death, then the most important question for the physicist becomes “what is the best way to use my limited number of calculations, shouldn’t I calculate the most beautiful systems?” just as the general question of our lives in the context of death becomes “how am I best to spend my limited, meaningful time?”  Physics thus becomes human.

“When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” -Sagan

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