Thursday, September 23, 2010

All figured out

Here is Sean at Cosmic Variance patting ourselves on the back for having all the physics underlying our every day life figured out. I know what he means, and in some sense its a good point. I've tried to make this point to people before. That the laws of physics that we know, explain everything. Everything. Its a good point to not nitpick about the mass of the Higgs or the existence of sypersymmetry, or an accurate framework for quantum gravity.

At the same time, here is the reductionist mentality writ large. I'd like to see more debate and clarification on this point. Is there a way to make this point that is not so arrogant and overblown? Its certainly an accomplishment, and there's certainly a precise statement to be made, but how to make it without claiming too much, or minimizing the work and value and richness involved in "the playing out" of these laws?


Ponder Stibbons said...

Not sure that he's right about that. Doesn't our "everyday life" contain many complex systems, like biological systems, the weather, societies, and so on? Does he want to say that we have worked out the 'basic physics' of all those things and the rest is non-basic? If so, it doesn't seem like an interesting claim --- basically an assertion that the dynamics of those systems that are apparent to us on an everyday scale are out of physics' purview.

Is quantum chemistry 'basic physics'? That field is still far from worked out, especially for large molecules, from what I understand.

Boaz said...

Well, I suppose he is saying that basically its been 50 years since we've had it all figured out. So maybe the claim would be that the way in which we explain things hasn't changed in 50 years. We've just gotten more confirmation that the approach is correct.

It does seem to be a pretty narrow view of physics that would write down equations of quantum mechanics, and standard model Lagrangian, and say that getting from there to explanations isn't really part of basic physics.

He gives high Tc superconductivity as an example of something that we don't know exactly how it works, but we can assume that it will fit into the existing physics framework.

It does seem that you really do need to find the right way to think about any field before you can do much with it. And the connection of that to the 'basic physics' may be a bit loose. Its been a little while since I've thought about quantum chemistry, but that would be interesting to understand better what models and approaches are being developed there.