Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Physics Omniscient?

As I've been saying, Caltech had a great deal to offer in the way of intense experiences.  Cutting-edge science, brilliant and zany undergrads, and interaction with professors.  But for a mind like mine, that craves quiet contemplation and seeks out the wider connections among things, all of this activity was widely missing the mark and leaving me unsatisfied. 

One expects professors to be somewhat distant, especially toward naïve undergrads.  But I didn't have much luck explaining myself to my fellow physics majors either.  Most of them had already been entirely convinced that physics was the only genuine form of knowledge and the key to making all of science precise and unified.  Attempting to determine how deep this madness went, I would often ask whether it would be possible to develop a simple theory that could predict any future event.  Usually they would say that they did, and when I attacked this view they would do anything they could to defend it.  I found this defensiveness strange, since scientists had by no means even come close to having such omniscient knowledge.

The question of whether total knowledge is possible is actually an old debate in physics.  The 18th century physicist Laplace first pointed out that, assuming that everything is made of atoms, and that one has an equation of motion governing their movement, then given enough pencil and paper and time, one should be able to calculate where all those atoms will go based on where they are and how fast they're moving.  In this way the future could, theoretically, be predicted perfectly.  Of course, in practice there is no way one could keep track of all the atoms in the universe.  But sometimes shortcuts are possible in calculation, and in fact it is the whole business of physics to discover these, or its equations would be useless in practice.  So it was not entirely illogical for some of my fellow physicists to claim that the ultimate shortcut might one day be discovered.  Famous mathematicians and physicists from all different ages had held such a belief, from the ancient greek geometer Pythagoras, to the late quantum physicist Paul Dirac, to the still breathing and very influential Roger Penrose.

Nevertheless, from the time I first heard the idea to this very day I've found the idea that we humans might one day be omniscient thoroughly absurd.  Does the importance of modern science hinge on it?  No, of course not.  But to believe that omniscience is achievable is to believe that a simple equation could conquer the world, and thus destroy all its infinite richness and diversity.  This doesn't prove that it's not possible, but how could anyone honestly strive for such a goal?

Hopefully this has made it a bit more clear why I kept turning back to art and poetry, which not only seemed to affirm the fundamental mysteriousness of life, but glory in it.  I meant to say more about this in today's post, but it's late, so I'll leave it for tomorrow.

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