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Saturday, October 15, 2005

reductionism and monogamy

I can't stop thinking of this question of why elementary science is seen as more exciting than model building in less "elementary" science.

I think this attitude comes from our realist view of the objects of our theories. But it is a selective realist view, at least for the hard core ideologues. They take as real only those elements in our fundamental most reduced theories. This is the source of the often quoted statement that most of supposedly solid matter is "really" empty space. I would say that the fact that one can't move something else into a certain space makes a pretty good case for it not being empty. But if one takes the perspective of an electron, then yes, there is a possibility of moving into the space inside that chair over there. Or, more precisely, the way in which we describe the microscopic details of the atomic structure of the wood in the chair involves a somewhat thin probability wave of electrons moving throughout otherwise empty space. We forget that this itself is a model, that in fact one should use quantum field theory, although perhaps the same conclusion about the emptiness of space could follow with some kind of interpretation of how likely it is to find a chunk of field somewhere.

Now, if we take only the elements of our fundamental theory to be real and think of those of less elementary theories as composite, then its clear that the excitement for those adventurous types is in finding new elementary entities. It is sort of like the difference between the excitement of dating many people or building a relationship with one person. The "mistake" of the one who never builds relationships is in thinking that once the basic elements of something are identified, nothing particularly interesting can come of those elements. This person is always on the search for new basic elements, not realizing that there is an equally rich gain as one ascends the hierarchy. I'm tempted to point out that this is the percieved "male" reproductive strategy and to wonder whether this is one of the points that has been raised by feminists and cultural critics who have claimed that much of science is dominantly male in essence. But I'm venturing off into fields unknown and hence risking the ever worrisome label of "crackpot".


jan said...

This is clearly a particle physicist speaking. A chemist would argue from the completely opposite perspective, not expecting the basic elements to provide much excitement at all, only their compounds. But as professionally biased the starting point for your discussion may be (seeing the quest for more fundamental elements as the most natural one), you make a beautiful analogy to relationships, since these more complex social bonds are indeed - about chemistry. Then you seem to take the plunge though: the polygamous individual in your narrative is not a physicist looking for new basic elements - he's a biologist!

So, you as a physicist, would you rather date Hydrogen or Helium?

Froggita said...

Speaking as a wanna-be biologist, I think polyandry would be fun. Besides, there doesn't have to be a strict choice between multiple partners and deepening relationships. Speaking as an armchair feminist, I think it's ridiculous to consider any human pursuit as dominantly male or female "in essence". It's a kind of name-calling that restricts both men and women, instead of freeing them.

Speaking as someone who drank coffee today and shouldn't have, I'm really glad you posted on your blog, Boaz, because it gave me something interesting to read that's totally unrelated to my homework.

Boaz said...

Thanks for the comments Jan and Anne.
Jan, yes, thanks for pointing out my bias. I do have those opinions in me and I am trying to understand them. And, yes, chemists and many others probably hold the opposite view. I think some others share the opinions I'm discussing as well, but its probably better to be honest and say that I think these things... Having said that, I want to say that I feel like there is something "out there" that I'm pointing to. I suppose if I write and read more humanities I'd getting better at making these kinds of arguments. I want to say things like "there's a modern trend that...", or "an underlying element of Western culture..." that I guess have some truth to them, but these statements are probably way too strong when unqualified.
Yeah, maybe I need to get better at defining the "scope" of the variables I'm using. (Just so all those computer scientists out there can understand this, uhh? Is scope even the right term?)

I'm not sure I understand the point about how my narrative ended up describing a biologist. Maybe I'm missing some comedic element here... I think that part of my brain has been fried recently by work on this paper (I think it was the part where I went through all 42 pages adding commas and periods to the 385 equations)
As for the question of which element I'd prefer to date as a physicist... hard to answer that question. I'm not sure I date, "as a physicist". As a person who reluctantly (well, still trying to get comfortable with it) identifies as a physicist, I suppose I'm a helium type of guy.

Good points Ann, from all your different identities. You should develop a different voice for each of these. Or at least put on a different hat. (I was recently reading Dr. Seuss' "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins"...)