physics & philosophical pyromania

Dave Long
Mon, 06 Jan 2003 11:41:53 -0800

  Foogilly bargilly / Albert the physicist's
  Mollusc of reference / Gives us our "space"

  Laws of dynamics hold / Relativisticly
  Such a constraint then yields / Gravity's face

Albert the physicist accomplished
a great deal by holding God to a
stricter standard than Augustine:
not only does He not play dice,
He does not break symmetries. [0]

Unfortunately, this view of the
world greets quantum mechanics 
with reactionary suspicion.

On the other hand, the obituary
Nature ran for Thom (1923-2002)
mentions a quote which indicates
that Apollo, unlike Yahweh, may
have been perfectly comfortable
with a fundamentally Uncertain

> The master whose oracle is at Delphi neither reveals, nor hides,
> but gives hints.

So the universe is neither revealed,
as a clockwork would be, nor hidden,
as complete flux would be, but hinted
at, as an ergodic evolution would be.

It turns out the fellow who said that,
Heraclitus, has left only a few (famed
for opacity) fragments to our time; he
seems to have spoken of fire as Lao Tzu
spoke of the Tao (and both are as close
in time as they are in ideas).

However, if instead of treating him as
some sort of monoelemental materialist,
we think of fire as his metaphor for
turbulence[1] and entropy[2] (one that
I think justifiable to anyone who has
spent a comfortable evening watching a
fire), then "odd" behavior such as his
slacking on legislation to play dice
with children [3] becomes likely.

If I may take the liberty, I will
try to update Heraclitus' doctrine,
> This world (kosmos), which is the same for all, no one of gods or men
> has made; but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an ever-living
> Fire, with measures kindling, and measures going out.
> This cosmos, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made;
> but it evolves ergodically[4], with bifurcations that break symmetries,
> and bifurcations that restore.


(quotations in [0,1,3] courtesy of
Koerner, _The Pleasure of Counting_)

[0] about this approach, Lewis Fry
Richardson once noted:

> When we were schoolboys and the answer to an arithmetical problem came
> out as a whole number, we felt sure we had got it right.  The idea
> that simplicity implies rightness is not confined to schoolboys.
> Einstein has somewhere remarked that he was guided towards his
> discoveries partly by the notion that the important laws of physics
> were really simple.  R. H. Fowler has been heard to remark that,
> of two formulae the more elegant is likely to be true.  Dirac very
> recently sought an explanation alternative to that of the spin in the
> electron because he felt that Nature could not have arranged things
> in such a complicated way *...
> [If these mathematicians] would condescend to attend to meteorology
> the subject might be greatly enriched.  But I suspect they would have
> to abandon the idea that the truth is really simple.

* are geometric algebras perhaps
  suited to elegant spins?

[1] > There is an old story of a distinguished scientist who is
> asked which two questions he would most like to ask God.  "Oh, I
> would ask Him to explain the theory which links quantum mechanics
> and general relativity."  "And the second question?  Would you ask
> Him to explain turbulence?"  "No, I don't wish to embarrass Him."

[2] "The fairest order in the world is a heap of random sweepings"

[3] Why would H. spend his time
playing dice with children?  We
have the luxury of computers to
perform Monte Carlo simulations
(and graduate students to code
them), he had dice (and kids).

Had he thought of it, he had a
technology that Richardson used
available to him also:
> Richardson retired early [after discovering that the only large group
> in Britain interested in his researches were the poison gas experts]
> "to prosecute thoroughly researches on the Instability of Peace."  This
> involved a substantial loss of income and from now on the Richardsons
> lived even more frugally than before.  Even so Richardson could not
> resist a brief return to his old intellectual passion.  When the
> young American oceanographer Henry Stommel wrote asking whether he
> might visit, Richardson wrote back "Come but bring some golf balls".
> Before he had succeeded in finding any (luxuries such as these were
> in short supply after the war), a telegram arrived with the message
> "Forget the golf balls they all sink".  Richardson wished to see if
> the 4/3 rule for atmospheric turbulence applied to the turbulent flow
> in the sea lochs ... The end result was a joint paper in the Journal
> of Meteorology beginning:
> > We have observed the relative motion of two floating pieces of parsnip,
> > and have repeated the observation for many such pairs at different
> > initial separation.

[4] from:
> Time is a child playing checkers; the king is a child.
> Time is an infant moving counters on a gameboard;
> the ultimate power moves at hazard, without plan.