måndag 28 mars 2011

Who Is Dr Faustus of Science Today?

Dr Faustus gives his soul to the Devil to satisfy his quest for knowledge (and power, fame, money,...). I take up this theme in the upcoming book Dr Faustus of Modern Physics focussing on the following pioneers of modern physics:
  • Boltzmann: statistical physics
  • Planck: blackbody radiation
  • Einstein: relativity theory
  • Bohr: quantum mechanics.
I present confessions and witnesses and set up a little tribunal to seek answers to the following questions:
  • Did X sell his scientific soul?
  • If so, why did X do it?
  • What was the deal? What was gained? What was lost?
I argue that a scientist may have to to sell his soul to resolve a paradox threatening the credibility of an area of science.

The following paradoxes were resolved by the scientists listed above:
  • Boltzmann: Irreversibility of reversible Hamiltonian mechanics
  • Planck: Ultraviolet catastrophe
  • Einstein: Michelson-Morley experiment: same speed of light independent of observer speed
  • Bohr: Schrödinger's cat alive and dead in superposition until observation,
by introducing
  • Boltzmann: molecular chaos or microscopic games of roulette
  • Planck: smallest unit of energy = quanta
  • Einstein: Lorentz transformation
  • Bohr: collapse of the wave function, complementarity.
The following question presents itself: Who is the most Dr Faustus of Science today?
Nominations are accepted.

I ague that the Faust theme has been central to science all the way from its beginning in Greece 2500 years ago:

An early paradox which had to be solved one way or the other, is Zeno's Arrow Paradox:
  • If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.
Zeno was a member of the school of Parmenides, which offered a radical solution to the paradox: There is no motion. All motion is apparent, and thus there is no paradox.

But this solution was not accepted by Heraclitus who coined the phrase: Panta Rei: Everything is always in motion. But then the paradox struck Heraclitus, also called the "Weeping Philosopher".

So there we have the essence of the Faustian drama or conflict:
  • Parmenides sold his soul: The paradox was resolved at the price of an absurd science without motion.
  • Heraclitus did not sell his soul: The paradox was unresolved at the price of weeping.
In both cases it appears that the philosopher lost (to whom?).

The book shows how Zeno's Arrow Paradox carries all the way into modern physics, as a central paradox concerning the essence of space, time and matter, a paradox which had (has) to be resolved one way or the other...into our time:
  • Karl Popper remarked to Einstein: "You are Parmenides".
  • Similarly he could have said to Bohr: "You are Heraclitus".

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