Is it reasonable to expect simplicity?

The biggest unheralded consequence of Newton’s Laws was that they were able to express complex mechanical phenomenon in very simple elegant forms. The idea that all of physics could be reduced to a series of three laws started a brush fire in the academy. Just about every other discipline tried to emulate Newton’s accomplishment in their own fields. When Maxwell was able to do the same thing in electro-magnetism that Newton had done, the dream of unifying all of physics became the great golden prize of physics.

Maxwell’s equations were so simple and elegant that Einstein started his thinking in relativistic phenomena by insisting that they must have the same form for all observers, no matter what sort of reference frame they were occupying. When that line of reasoning was supported by experimental proof, it seemed that the whole enterprise of seeking elegant simplicity was fully sound. In fact Einstein spent the bulk of the rest of his career attempting to push through to a fully unified field theory of everything.

I suppose one of the reasons that Einstein found Quantum Physics so troubling was that it’s insistence on probability rather than absolutism was making everything much more complicated. If we can only state the chance that something will happen, then the hope that we can reduce things to more simple expressions seems to run head on into the wall.

And now that Bell’s Inequality has indicated that chance is not a by-product of an incomplete theory, but hard coded into reality, and there are more and more observations of quantum mechanical phenomenon extending into the macroscopic realm, some physicists are starting to question whether or not simplicity is in fact something to be pursued as the ultimate guide to reality…

Marcelo Gleiser writes of his own thinking along these lines in a blog post on NPR’s Cosmos and Culture blog:

“This rational order is truth in its purest form, the hidden code of Nature, the blueprint of Creation. The implicit assumption is that we, humans, can decipher it through the diligent application of reason and intuition. As we search, we transcend our human boundaries, our frailty, lifting ourselves into a higher plane of existence. This has been the dream of countless philosophers and scientists, from Plato and Ptolemy to Kepler and Einstein. Who can resist the seductive appeal of searching for immortal truth through reason? Who wouldn’t want to play god?

Since Thales asked what is the primal substance that makes up all matter around 650 BCE, we have been searching for oneness. This search, as old as philosophy, has served us well. There is a value system behind it, based on a double belief: First, that there is indeed an overarching structure behind all that is; second, that we can figure it out.

[…]Symmetry principles are extremely useful in the natural sciences. The problem starts when symmetry ceases to be a tool and is made into dogma. Nowadays, the hidden code of Nature is represented by the so-called theory of everything, or final theory. The best candidate is superstring theory, a theoretical construction that shifts the basic atomistic paradigm — that matter is made of small building blocks — to a new one whereby vibrating strings in nine spatial dimensions can represent what we measure as particles at lower energies and in 3d.”

Read the rest of his article here.

His upshot…

It’s time to let go of the old aesthetic of perfection, of equating beauty with truth. Here is a new banner, based on the beauty of imperfection: Nature creates through asymmetry. Perhaps we can use Andy Warhol’s print of Marilyn Monroe as our emblem, stressing her very prominent and very beautiful asymmetric beauty mark. Would she be as beautiful without it?

As a friend pointed out to me recently, God seems to create reality and beauty by keeping life and death, order and disorder, fruit and manure, carefully balanced. Not a dualistic view, but a larger horizon than perhaps we might typically seek.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...