Tag Archives: Sabine HossenFelder

Book Review — The Universe Speaks in Numbers

Let’s say that back in the day, as a budding grad student in chemistry you had to take quantum mechanics to see where those atomic orbitals came from.   Say further, that as the years passed you knew enough to read News and Views in Nature and Perspectives in Science concerning physics as they appeared. So you’ve heard various terms like J/Psi, Virasoro algebra, Yang Mills gauge symmetry, Twisters, gluons, the Standard Model, instantons, string theory, the Atiyah Singer theorem etc. etc.  But you have no coherent framework in which to place them.

Then “The Universe Speaks in Numbers” by Graham Farmelo is the book for you.  It will provide a clear and chronological narrative of fundamental physics up to the present.  That isn’t the main point of the book, which is an argument about the role of beauty and mathematics in physics, something quite contentious presently.  Farmelo writes well and has a PhD in particle physics (1977) giving him a ringside seat for the twists and turns of  the physics he describes.  People disagree with his thesis (http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=11012) , but nowhere have I seen anyone infer that any of Farmelo’s treatment of the physics described in the book is incorrect.

40 years ago, something called the Standard Model of Particle physics was developed.  Physicists don’t like it because it seems like a kludge with 19 arbitrary fixed parameters.  But it works, and no experiment and no accelerator of any size has found anything inconsistent with it.  Even the recent discovery of the Higgs, was just part of the model.

You won’t find much of the debate about what physics should go from here in the book.  Farmelo says just study more math.  Others strongly disagree — Google Peter Woit, Sabine Hossenfelder.

The phenomena String theory predicts would require an accelerator the size of the Milky Way or larger to produce particles energetic enough to probe it.  So it’s theory divorced from any experiment possible today, and some claim that String Theory has become another form of theology.

It’s sad to see this.  The smartest people I know are physicists.  Contrast the life sciences, where experiments are easily done, and new data to explain arrives weekly.




A creation myth

Sigmund Freud may have been wrong about penis envy, but most lower forms of scientific life (chemists, biologists) do have physics envy — myself included.  Most graduate chemists have taken a quantum mechanics course, if only to see where atomic and molecular orbitals come from.  Anyone doing physical chemistry has likely studied statistical mechanics. I was fortunate enough to audit one such course given by E. Bright Wilson (of Pauling and Wilson).

Although we no longer study physics per se, most of us read books about physics.  Two excellent such books have come out in the past year.  One is “What is Real?” — https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/adam-becker/what-is-real/9780465096053/, the other is “Lost in Math” by Sabine Hossenfelder whose blog on physics is always worth reading, both for herself and the heavies who comment on what she writes — http://backreaction.blogspot.com

Both books deserve a long discursive review here. But that’s for another time.  Briefly, Hossenfelder thinks that physics for the past 30 years has become so fascinated with elegant mathematical descriptions of nature, that theories are judged by their mathematical elegance and beauty, rather than agreement with experiment.  She acknowledges that the experiments are both difficult and expensive, and notes that it took a century for one such prediction (gravitational waves) to be confirmed.

The mathematics of physics can certainly be seductive, and even a lowly chemist such as myself has been bowled over by it.  Here is how it hit me

Budding chemists start out by learning that electrons like to be in filled shells. The first shell has 2 elements, the next 2 + 6 elements etc. etc. It allows the neophyte to make some sense of the periodic table (as long as they deal with low atomic numbers — why the 4s electrons are of lower energy than the 3d electons still seems quite ad hoc to me). Later on we were told that this is because of quantum numbers n, l, m and s. Then we learn that atomic orbitals have shapes, in some wierd way determined by the quantum numbers, etc. etc.

Recursion relations are no stranger to the differential equations course, where you learn to (tediously) find them for a polynomial series solution for the differential equation at hand. I never really understood them, but I could use them (like far too much math that I took back in college).

So it wasn’t a shock when the QM instructor back in 1961 got to them in the course of solving the Schrodinger equation for the hydrogen atom (with it’s radially symmetric potential). First the equation had to be expressed in spherical coordinates (r, theta and phi) which made the Laplacian look rather fierce. Then the equation was split into 3 variables, each involving one of r, theta or phi. The easiest to solve was the one involving phi which involved only a complex exponential. But periodic nature of the solution made the magnetic quantum number fall out. Pretty good, but nothing earthshaking.

Recursion relations made their appearance with the solution of the radial and the theta equations. So it was plug and chug time with series solutions and recursion relations so things wouldn’t blow up (or as Dr. Gouterman, the instructor, put it: the electron has to be somewhere, so the wavefunction must be zero at infinity). MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over) until all of a sudden there were the main quantum number (n) and the azimuthal quantum number (l) coming directly out of the recursion relations.

When I first realized what was going on, it really hit me. I can still see the room and the people in it (just as people can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about 9/11 or (for the oldsters among you) when Kennedy was shot — I was cutting a physiology class in med school). The realization that what I had considered mathematical diddle, in some way was giving us the quantum numbers and the periodic table, and the shape of orbitals, was a glimpse of incredible and unseen power. For me it was like seeing the face of God.

But what interested me the most about “Lost in Math” was Hossenfelder’s discussion of the different physical laws appearing at different physical scales (e.g. effective laws), emergent properties and reductionism (pp. 44 –> ).  Although things at larger scales (atoms) can be understood in terms of the physics of smaller scales (protons, neutrons, electrons), the details of elementary particle interactions (quarks, gluons, leptons etc.) don’t matter much to the chemist.  The orbits of planets don’t depend on planetary structure, etc. etc.  She notes that reduction of events at one scale to those at a smaller one is not an optional philosophical position to hold, it’s just the way nature is as revealed by experiment.  She notes that you could ‘in principle, derive the theory for large scales from the theory for small scales’ (although I’ve never seen it done) and then she moves on

But the different structures and different laws at different scales is what has always fascinated me about the world in which we exist.  Do we have a model for a world structured this way?

Of course we do.  It’s the computer.


Neurologists have always been interested in computers, and computer people have always been interested in the brain — von Neumann wrote “The Computer and the Brain” shortly before his death in 1958.

Back in med school in the 60s people were just figuring out how neurons talked to each other where they met at the synapse.  It was with a certain degree of excitement that we found that information appeared to flow just one way across the synapse (from the PREsynaptic neuron to the POST synaptic neuron).  E.g. just like the vacuum tubes of the earliest computers.  Current (and information) could flow just one way.

The microprocessors based on transistors that a normal person could play with came out in the 70s.  I was naturally interested, as having taken QM I thought I could understand how transistors work.  I knew about energy gaps in atomic spectra, but how in the world a crystal with zillions of atoms and electrons floating around could produce one seemed like a mystery to me, and still does.  It’s an example of ’emergence’ about which more later.

But forgetting all that, it’s fairly easy to see how electrons could flow from a semiconductor with an abundance of them (due to doping) to a semiconductor with a deficit — and have a hard time flowing back.  Again a one way valve, just like our concept of the synapses.

Now of course, we know information can flow the other way in the synapse from POST synaptic to PREsynaptic neuron, some of the main carriers of which are the endogenous marihuana-like substances in your brain — anandamide etc. etc.  — the endocannabinoids.

In 1968 my wife learned how to do assembly language coding with punch cards ones and zeros, the whole bit.  Why?  Because I was scheduled for two years of active duty as an Army doc, a time in which we had half a million men in Vietnam.  She was preparing to be a widow with 2 infants, as the Army sent me a form asking for my preferences in assignment, a form so out of date, that it offered the option of taking my family with me to Vietnam if I’d extend my tour over there to 4 years.  So I sat around drinking Scotch and reading Faulkner waiting to go in.

So when computers became something the general populace could have, I tried to build a mental one using and or and not logical gates and 1s and 0s for high and low voltages. Since I could see how to build the three using transistors (reductionism), I just went one plane higher.  Note, although the gates can be easily reduced to transistors, and transistors to p and n type semiconductors, there is nothing in the laws of semiconductor physics that implies putting them together to form logic gates.  So the higher plane of logic gates is essentially an act of creation.  They do not necessarily arise from transistors.

What I was really interested in was hooking the gates together to form an ALU (arithmetic and logic unit).  I eventually did it, but doing so showed me the necessity of other components of the chip (the clock and in particular the microcode which lies below assembly language instructions).

The next level up, is what my wife was doing — sending assembly language instructions of 1’s and 0’s to the computer, and watching how gates were opened and shut, registers filled and emptied, transforming the 1’s and 0’s in the process.  Again note that there is nothing necessary in the way the gates are hooked together to make them do anything.  The program is at yet another higher level.

Above that are the higher level programs, Basic, C and on up.  Above that hooking computers together to form networks and then the internet with TCP/IP  etc.

While they all can be reduced, there is nothing inherent in the things that they are reduced to which implies their existence.  Their existence was essentially created by humanity’s collective mind.

Could something be going on in the levels of the world seen in physics.  Here’s what Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin (he of the fractional quantum Hall effect) has to say about it — http://www.pnas.org/content/97/1/28.  Note that this was written before people began taking quantum computers seriously.

“However, it is obvious glancing through this list that the Theory of Everything is not even remotely a theory of every thing (2). We know this equation is correct because it has been solved accurately for small numbers of particles (isolated atoms and small molecules) and found to agree in minute detail with experiment (35). However, it cannot be solved accurately when the number of particles exceeds about 10. No computer existing, or that will ever exist, can break this barrier because it is a catastrophe of dimension. If the amount of computer memory required to represent the quantum wavefunction of one particle is Nthen the amount required to represent the wavefunction of k particles is Nk. It is possible to perform approximate calculations for larger systems, and it is through such calculations that we have learned why atoms have the size they do, why chemical bonds have the length and strength they do, why solid matter has the elastic properties it does, why some things are transparent while others reflect or absorb light (6). With a little more experimental input for guidance it is even possible to predict atomic conformations of small molecules, simple chemical reaction rates, structural phase transitions, ferromagnetism, and sometimes even superconducting transition temperatures (7). But the schemes for approximating are not first-principles deductions but are rather art keyed to experiment, and thus tend to be the least reliable precisely when reliability is most needed, i.e., when experimental information is scarce, the physical behavior has no precedent, and the key questions have not yet been identified. There are many notorious failures of alleged ab initio computation methods, including the phase diagram of liquid 3He and the entire phenomenonology of high-temperature superconductors (810). Predicting protein functionality or the behavior of the human brain from these equations is patently absurd. So the triumph of the reductionism of the Greeks is a pyrrhic victory: We have succeeded in reducing all of ordinary physical behavior to a simple, correct Theory of Everything only to discover that it has revealed exactly nothing about many things of great importance.”

So reductionism doesn’t explain the laws we have at various levels.  They are regularities to be sure, and they describe what is happening, but a description is NOT an explanation, in the same way that Newton’s gravitational law predicts zillions of observations about the real world.     But even  Newton famously said Hypotheses non fingo (Latin for “I feign no hypotheses”) when discussing the action at a distance which his theory of gravity entailed. Actually he thought the idea was crazy. “That Gravity should be innate, inherent and essential to Matter, so that one body may act upon another at a distance thro’ a Vacuum, without the Mediation of any thing else, by and through which their Action and Force may be conveyed from one to another, is to me so great an Absurdity that I believe no Man who has in philosophical Matters a competent Faculty of thinking can ever fall into it”

So are the various physical laws things that are imposed from without, by God only knows what?  The computer with its various levels of phenomena certainly was consciously constructed.

Is what I’ve just written a creation myth or is there something to it?