I just finished Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality (2021), by Frank Wilczek. It’s yet another book explaining fundamental physics for lay readers, and it does so pretty much entirely within the bounds of mainstream science. I enjoyed reading it, but it’s mainly a review of physics as we know it.
I saw it on the library’s list of new books and put it on hold back on May 14th. It didn’t become available until September 3 — more than a three-month wait. Apparently lots of people wanted to read it.
Bottom line, I recommend it as an easy and enjoyable read, especially for those with a more casual interest in physics.
One thing I like about ebooks is the ability to highlight text. Sadly, the library app doesn’t allow me to copy highlighted text, but at least there’s a listing of the highlights and easy navigation to them. Any quote you see in my posts that’s from a library book I typed in.
[One of the best gifts my parents gave me was forcing me to take a typing class back in high school. At the time, it was actual typewriters, but it sure did set me up for the home computer revolution.]
Anyway, the book was mainstream enough there isn’t much to talk about, but some bits I highlighted as tasty. As often seems to happen, many of those bits come from the Preface or Introduction, when the author is laying out the path they intend to follow in the book.
In the Preface, Wilczek points out how many scientific heroes — Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell — were devout Christians studying what they perceived as God’s handiwork. Even Einstein wasn’t immune. One of his more famous quotations is: “Subtle is the lord, but malicious he is not.”
The spirit of their enterprise, and mine here, transcends specific dogmas, whether religious or antireligious. I like to state it this way: In studying how the world works, we are studying how God works, and thereby learning what God is. In that spirit, we can interpret the search for knowledge as a form of worship, and our discoveries as revelations.
Good way to look at it. Under the presumption God created the universe, and that He created a sensible rational universe, it is surely something we can study. After all, if God did create everything, that includes our curious, investigative, inventive minds. Given those minds are what set us apart from the animals, using them to study His handiwork seems almost a calling.
A key aspect of my life’s path has been navigating between my spiritual and scientific views. I’ve never seen them as exclusive or incompatible, but as the Yin and Yang of a complete soul. (“Soul” as in when an aircraft has “124 souls onboard including crew.”)
Wilczek mentions three key themes the book follows:
The first of those themes is abundance. The world is large.
He means this in multiple ways. Compared to the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, or the universe, we’re increasingly tiny. Compared to cells, atoms, protons, or the Planck Length, we’re increasing huge. There may be 300-billion (or so) stars in our galaxy, but there are about 30-trillion (or so) cells in a human body.
Compared to the 13.8 billion year life of the universe so far, we’re less than the merest instant. Yet for each of us, a lifetime lasts a whole lifetime, and everything we do fits into that span. All of human written history fits into about 300 generations, yet it brought us from campfires to rockets.
While we have only about 86 billion neurons, under 30% of the stars in the galaxy, the number of thoughts those neurons can have far exceeds the number of stars in the visible universe. And those, physically speaking, comparatively tiny minds are capable of attempting to figure out everything from the Planck Length on up to the entire cosmos (or cosmoses as the case may be).
The second theme is that to appreciate the physical universe properly one must be “born again.”
Wilczek writes about his new grandson, Luke, and how that infant began to study and learn about the world he was born into.
In these and many other ways, I could see that Luke was constructing a model of the world. He approached it with insatiable curiosity and few preconceptions. But interacting with the world, he learned the things that nearly all human adults take for granted,…
He compares babies to scientists making experiments and drawing conclusions. As babies we construct a model of reality that allows us to successfully navigate the world. Something as basic and simple as ‘when I put an object down it stays there’ is a property of reality we must all learn.
Crucial is our sense of wonder and curiosity.
A bit he mentions in passing caught my eye:
The light has broken up into individual quanta, and quanta cannot be shared. At this fundamental level, we experience separate worlds.
Two people can stand side-by-side, look at the same thing, apparently see the same thing, and yet each is receiving their own personal stream of photons from the scene.
Our experience of reality is one of isolation, both inside the confines of our own brains, and in the stream of information we receive from the physical world. We might as well be brains in a vat — we could certainly never tell the difference!
In the Introduction Wilczek says (about applying an existing theory to a new domain):
If it works, then you’ve discovered something useful; if it doesn’t then you’ve learned something important. I’ve called that attitude Radical Conservatism, and to me it’s the essential innovation of the Scientific Revolution.
The third theme of the book is the idea of a “radically conservative approach” — essentially the notion of open exploration bounded by physical evidence and experiment. Newton was a radical.
Wilczek covers the same progression of thought starting with Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler, studying the heavens, Galileo studying how objects fall on Earth, and that radical, Newton, merging them and kicking off the aforementioned Scientific Revolution.
He quotes the radical rascal:
To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. ‘Tis much better to do a little with certainty & leave the rest for others that come after you.
That’s the whole ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ thing.
I also liked a quote due to John R. Pierce:
We will never again understand nature as well as Greek philosophers did… We know too much.
The more we learn, the less we seem to know. (We owe to Pierce the name transistor.)
Regarding the provisional nature of our theories:
Conversely, to the extent that GPS works, its success reinforces our confidence in all the underlying assumptions, including the assumption that Euclidean geometry describes, with good accuracy, the reality of spatial geometry on earthly scales. And so far, GPS has worked flawlessly.
Which should be taken as strong evidence in support of Special and General Relativity as well as in support of the quantum mechanics used in the design of the electronics. Note the crucial “in support of” — our theories are almost never proven.
The fact that Euclidean geometry fails to provide a complete model of reality does not detract from its mathematical consistency nor invalidate its many successes. But it does confirm the wisdom of Gauss’s fact-checking, radically conservative approach.
This bit caught my eye, too:
Yet a nucleus extends less than one-hundred-thousandth of its atom’s radius and — being nearly spherical — occupies less than one part in a million of one part in a billion of its volume. Those are literally astronomical numbers. The way a nucleus is dwarfed by its atom parallels how the Sun is dwarfed by its surrounding interstellar space.
Kind weird how atoms are a tiny, tiny positive seed wrapped in a comparatively vast electron cloud. It took us a while to figure that out.
Regarding the apparent meta-law that, in defiance of entropy, grows complexity from simple rules, basic building blocks, energy, and time:
Self-reproduction unleashes the power of exponential growth. Starting with one cell, after ten generations of doubling one has more than a thousand cells, and after forth or so generations one has trillions of cells, which are enough to make a human body.
Giant oaks from tiny acorns grow!
Regarding how every electron is identical to every other electron (true for all fundamental particles — no variation among them):
How does Nature do it? By tracing the common origin of all photons to a common universal electromagnetic field, we come to understand their otherwise baffling sameness. And we are led, by analogy, to introduce a field — call it the electron field — whose excitations are electrons. All electrons have the same properties, because each one is an excitation in the same universal field.
I’d never considered it before, but if “particles” are tiny little things the universe makes, how does it make them so consistently regular? Simple; each type is a manifestation of the same underlying field.
Talking about dark matter and dark energy, Wilczek explores other instances of “dark” (i.e. hidden) solutions to observations. For instance, the orbit of Uranus had anomalies that suggested something hidden affecting it. Turned out to be Neptune. The orbit of Mercury had anomalies that suggested something hidden about gravity.
As a little joke, to summarize their historical parallels, we could say that dark matter is from Neptune, while dark energy is from Mercury. The encouraging message from history is that good scientific mysteries often find worthy solutions.
Never underestimate those curious minds! It’s been said that much scientific progresses starts with the phrase, “Huh. That’s weird…”
It’s a neat way to see dark matter and dark energy.
Wilczek has a whole chapter, Complementarity Is Mind-Expanding, that speaks to one of the key observed differences between quantum and classical physics: In the quantum world certain properties are mutually exclusive.
The famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is one example: knowing both the precise position and momentum of a particle is impossible because those properties are mutually exclusive.
Wilczek mentions a wonderful analogy (due to a musician friend of his): The contrast between harmony and melody:
Harmony is a local analysis — here monitoring a moment in time, rather than a point in space — while melody is a more global analysis. Harmony is like position, while melody is like velocity.
Simultaneous notes in a given moment create a harmony, but a sequence of notes over time create a melody. The two are mutually exclusive. There is no melody in a chord, and there is no harmony in a melody (or rather there are many many different harmonies along the way).
Wilczek makes an important point regarding competing views and debates about them:
Of course, trying to understand different ways of thinking does not necessarily mean you must agree with them, much less adopt them as your own.
Just about every Thinker I’ve ever known or read about engaged in passionate, sometimes even fractious, debate. It seems to go with the territory of an intellectual analytical life. It tends to grow strong worldviews.
That said, science has a special status. It has earned enormous credibility, both as a body of understanding and as an approach to analyzing physical reality, through its impressive success in many applications. Scientists who define themselves narrowly fail to enrich their minds, but people who avoid science impoverish theirs.
Indeed. Life is both Yin and Yang.
To quote Einstein again: “But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.“
Stay balanced, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.