One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

Dark matter and dark energy are more directly motivated by observations of the real world. Dark matter is apparently needed to account for the gravitational effects that seem to come from parts of space where no ordinary matter is visible, or not enough to explain the tug. For example, rotating galaxies seem to have some additional source of gravitational attraction, beyond the visible stars and gas, that stops them from flying apart. The “lensing” effect where distant astrophysical objects get distorted by the gravitational warping of spacetime also seems to demand this invisible form of matter. But dark matter does not exist in the usual sense, in that it has not been seen and there are no theories that can convincingly explain or demand its existence. Dark energy too is a kind of “stuff” required to explain the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, discovered by astronomers observing far-away objects in the mid-1990s. But it is just a name for a puzzle, without any direct detection.

It seems quite possible that dark energy, and perhaps dark matter too, will turn out to be like Crookes’ “dark space” and “radiant energy”: not exactly stuff, but symptoms of some hitherto unknown physical principle. These connections were exquisitely intuited by Philip Pullman in theHis Dark Materials trilogy, where (the title alone gives a clue) a mysterious substance called Dust is an amalgam of dark matter and Barrett’s quasi-sentient psychomeres, given a spiritual interpretation by the scientist-priests of Pullman’s alternative steampunk Oxford University who sense its presence using instruments evidently based on Crookes’ light mill.

Scientists, of course, are not just making things up, while leaning on the convenience of supposed invisibility. They are using dark matter and dark energy, and (if one is charitable) quantum many-worlds and branes, and other imperceptible and hypothetical realms, to perform an essential task: to plug gaps in their knowledge with notions they can grasp.

From Nautilus, a great publication for all the obvious reasons. This article was perfect. I’d definitely recommend it. If only I could write half as well. 

The Power Of Science And The Danger Of Scientism

The Power Of Science And The Danger Of Scientism

“Can you be a strident defender of science and still be suspicious of the way it is appropriated within culture? Can you be passionate about the practice and promise of science, yet still remain troubled by the way other beliefs and assumptions are heralded in its name? If such a thing is possible, you may be pro-science but anti-scientism.

Quantum Mechanics and Ontological Certainty

The other day I was having an altogether uncivil conversation with a self-declared defender of science, America and reason itself. The poster was judge, jury and executioner. I was accused of being a ‘TrueChristian,’ written with ominous significance, and probably–worse–a Roman Catholic. They would deign to chat with me but there should be no confusion that I, in spite of my ostensible protestations to the contrary, or perhaps because of them, had no idea what science really was.

Inevitably the conversation turned towards some more philosophical considerations. One that came up was whether ‘something can come from nothing.’ I readily admit my favoritism for classical logic. Unsurprisingly Quantum Mechanics was conscripted into another cause. One day it’ll be allowed to trundle its way from super hadron collider to super hadron collider. That’s not today. 

Luckily the conversation veered away from Solid State Theory. I have seen atheists declare, serenely and apparently unaware, that it has been completely dormant in recent years. 

Everyone agrees on some underlying facts, or is at least familiar with them. QM is a deterministic theory and Schrödinger’s equation gives a unitary evolution. Given a boundary condition and Schrödinger’s equation, everything is set. The kicker is that the non-determinism lies in the measurement problem, since the collapse of the wave function is not a unitary process and is subject to randomness.

Yet we keep it around because it correctly predicts experiments. At least, we think it is able to predict experiments. There is not one scientist who is unaware of the limitations to what we are able to measure. Since it involves concepts that we’re not able to measure directly (such as the ‘wave function’) and doesn’t predict everything we might want it to (such as the outcome of a single measurement) it does seem to violate quite a few assumptions we have about the world.

The argument presented was based off a misconception but a popular one. The misconception, simply put, is that because scientists are not able to appropriately identify the creation and disappearance of particles then the particles themselves must appear and disappear. Thus ‘something comes from nothing.’ The universe, presumably, can then pop into existence or something marginally more banal.

The problem is that the statement commits a subtle but significant categorical error. Quantum mechanics concerns itself with probabilities (e.g. a particle has a 20% chance of appearing here, disappearing there; ‘teleporting’ from here to there). It is not expressed by statements, but is essentially a set of instructions that we accept when we accept the theory. Quantum mechanics does not tell scientists anything about probabilities. At best, it instructs them to assign probabilities in a certain way. Since instructions are neither true nor false, this part of quantum mechanics cannot be interpreted as ontological. It is not a description of the world as it is but of a world as we perceive it. 

This may sound like splitting hairs, but it’s quite significant to the field. It explains, in part, the defining contradiction between General Relativity and QM. Ultimately, the ‘probabilities’ associated with quantum mechanics are a problem because, as it has often been posed, how can one consider the logic of quantum mechanics when the mathematics used in quantum mechanics depends in such a thorough fashion on classical logic (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’)?

Scientists in the field affirm the functional logic of events’ probability must be defined, so every event of algebra must be assigned a probability but the algebra of events in quantum mechanics cannot be closed under the conjunction of events and satisfy ‘every measure is defined’ (a requirement of Boolean algebra). Yes, we are returning to the ole’ can’t know where it is and where it is going at the same time. Hence the algebra of events in quantum mechanics is not defined by a Boolean algebra, because every Boolean algebra is closed under conjunction.

Boolean algebra, for this who may need a refresher, is simply the ‘type’ of algebra that involves ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements. We’re most familiar with it in binary coding: “10001101” is an expression of Boolean algebra.

The issue is, however, is that journalists and scientists–or, at least, a few of the former–sometimes produce soundbites that are misinterpreted. Yes, scientists do not use ‘classical’ logic in working with quantum mechanics (though, confusingly enough, classical logic is used as the foundation for quantum mechanics) **operationally**. But that is something altogether different from ontological certainty.

Yes, very few people who are in the field make the claim **ontologically**. Even though it is impossible to define (operationally) certain features of quantum mechanics with complete certainty it is still a far cry from ‘knowing’ certain features (ontologically). Thus, while scientists of that field will use as an operational precept ‘something comes from nothing’ they are not making an ontological claim because they do not have that sort of evidence. Most are not even considering it.

Turn back to the old cat metaphor, the one with a poor felix and poison. The point of the metaphor is not concerning itself with whether the cat is alive or dead. Saying ‘the cat is dead’ or ‘the cat is alive’ would be an ontological claim. Yet, if you notice, that is never defined because quantum mechanics is not (chiefly!) concerned with such statements. As the metaphor plays out the focus shifts to ‘us’ and how we, operationally, compensate for the lack of our ontological knowledge. To try and twist the metaphor into an expression of ontological certainty would explode it. Equally, to try and assert ontological principles (e.g. ‘nothing comes from nothing’) from QM would do a grave disservice to the field not to mention my patience.

If it is not tr…

If it is not true, it is very well invented. – George Hakewill

If the multitude assent and applaud, men ought to immediately to examine themselves as to what blunder or fault they may have committed. – Phocion

“Thus we cram one syllable, and cut off the rest, as the owl fattened her mice after she had bit off their legs to prevent them from running away.” – Jonathan Swift

“That where he erres, he erres so ingeniosely, that one had rather erre with him than hitt the marke with Clavius.” – Said of Joseph Justus by John Aubrey

Some More Aphorisms