The role of physics in society

If we could get into one of those wonderful Wellsian time machines, all polished oak and glass, with polished brass handles and instruments, and go back in time to sometime in the second half of the 19th century, we would find ourselves in a very different world. of today’s For Americans especially, it is hard to conceive of a world in which the United States counts for relatively little on the world stage. The same applied even more to all the other countries of the Americas. With the exception of Canada and Cuba, the entire continent had become politically independent from Europe during that century, but was still perceived as an extension of European cultures, with limited involvement in world affairs.

In effect, the entire world was run by a handful of Western European countries, led by Great Britain, which, even without the United States, had an empire that covered about a quarter of the globe. In addition, it was by far the world’s largest manufacturer of machinery, armaments, and textiles, and the Bank of England owned most of the gold used in world trade. France also had a very large empire and also some very small European countries, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. Germany and Italy were busy for many years during this period with the unification of their countries under a central authority and thus missed out on most of the empire building activity, but especially Germany was rapidly catching up with Britain as a leading manufacturing nation at the end of that century.

Looking at the size of all these European countries on the map, one can only wonder how they dominated most of the world at that time. What made their influence so overwhelming when, just centuries before, they seemed to be on the verge of extinction from the Black Death? The answer to this question leads to the topic of this article.

What made the small nations of Western Europe invincible at that time were the practical applications of natural laws, contained in Newton’s monumental synthesis, the mathematical principles, published in 1687. Just four years before that date, Western Europe had come close to being invaded by the Ottoman Turks and was only saved by the timely arrival of the King of Poland, Jan Sobieski, who mounted his cavalry to the aid of the besieged. Duke of Lorraine and his Christian coalition, waging a desperate battle before the gates of Vienna. And just two hundred years later, the spate of inventions derived from applying the basic laws of physics allowed these same small, endangered countries to rule the world.

Was that all there was to the story? If we had landed our time machine somewhere in England during this period, the second half of the 19th century, we would have encountered appalling and, for us today, totally unacceptable social conditions. But there would have been something else. English society at that time exuded an underlying confidence and certainty that we can only envy today. They were looking to science to solve all their problems by simply continuing on the same path they had been following for over a hundred years. And by science they meant the scientific way of looking at things, which meant not just building better steam engines, roads, railways, and ships, but also better social systems and laws, based not on hereditary privilege but on utility to community. They knew that they still had a lot of work to do, but they felt that they were on the right track and that the next 20th century would bring great benefits and solutions to problems.

Where did this “scientific way of looking at things” come from and why did it suddenly provide such an impetus to some Western European nations? The answer is not in Newton but beyond him, in Galileo. Galileo founded modern physics by providing the axiomatic postulates that defined this “scientific path” to the future. First, he secularized science by removing God from the picture and installing nature and its laws in his place. Nature was all that was needed to explain the physical world in mathematical (scientific) terms. He then concentrated the focus of his new physics on matter and motion alone. What causes a change in the movement is a physical force and these are the realities that Newton deals with.

Galileo was a revolutionary innovator when it came to seeing the world. He looked at it analytically, feeling no personal connection to the objects he was analyzing. These changes from the medieval participatory experience of the world enabled Galileo and later thinkers such as Newton to express natural phenomena and natural laws in mathematical and logical terms. The previously impenetrable laws of nature were explained in simple and rational ways that ordinary people could understand. They could see that if you confined God and the upper world to a realm of belief alone, the only reality you had to deal with in nature consisted of physical objects which, in Lord Kelvin’s words, were “quantifiable” and ” measurable”. .

By the end of the 19th century, all of nature was becoming a well-lit room, with each new advance in science adding to the brightness of the lighting. It was fully expected that physics would finish its theoretical work very soon. As Lord Kelin himself said in the 1880s: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; all that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Here, then, is the origin of that confidence and certainty that so characterized Victorian society, and that could be seen in any portrait of the plump and prosperous people of the new moneyed classes of the time. There was complete harmony between the way people experienced the world as the only solid reality and the way science explained this world in laws that were predictable and logical, with causes leading to their calculable effects as surely as balls. billiards crashing on a table.

Then came the 20th century and physics broke the atomic barrier. The solid reality of physical objects (with which Newton was concerned) disintegrated into the subatomic world of particles. It became clear that these particles were not just very small fragments of the same matter that people were familiar with. As time passed and quantum mechanics continued to gain ground, the very reality of the existence of such particles as separate entities became dubious. One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, Werner Heisenberg, put it this way:

“In the experiments on atomic events we have to do with things and facts, the phenomena that are as real as any phenomenon of daily life. But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; They form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than of things or facts.

But any object of nature that Newton dealt with is simply composed of a large number of these “atoms or elementary particles.” If these are not real and the objects themselves are real, where does reality begin? Is reality simply a function of the number of atoms you can put together? We can begin to see why we no longer enjoy that feeling of certainty and confidence in having the correct answers that our Victorian ancestors claimed.

We still, or at least most of us, feel the world as Galileo did. We still feel that the physical objects of nature are the only solid reality, and this includes gases, which may not be visible but which we know to consist of those very “elementary atoms and particles” whose reality, apparently, can no longer be taken. for granted Our current science no longer reflects the way we feel about the world. The old harmony is gone. However, most of us still have faith in the ability of science to explain the world to us. In Newton’s time, educated people easily understood science. Its laws could be taught to schoolchildren. Even if it couldn’t really explain what gravity really was, Newton proved mathematically that its operation could be successfully explained by saying that it worked in direct proportion to the masses of the bodies involved and in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them. Today, the mathematics of physics has become so difficult that only a small group of specialists can understand it. Ordinary people, even if they are reasonably well acquainted with science, can no longer contribute to the debate in terms of the mathematical work involved.

However, physics has now reached the point where both in theory and in practice, for example in quantum mechanics, the consequences and implications of the work done are both philosophical and mathematical. This may have the effect of bringing this very remote and difficult science once again into an area of ​​public debate. Mathematics, of course, would remain beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, but the conceptual framework that Galileo bequeathed to later thinkers, especially with regard to reality, might need revision and others besides theoretical physicists might find it useful. in the frame. Galileo, like most of the educated people of his time, was well versed in Platonic concepts of reality. For Plato, the knowledge obtained from the physical world was fleeting and unreliable, being simply the subjective result of our sensory perceptions. Real, true knowledge, which did not depend on the human senses and was therefore objective, was for him a property only of the superior divine world. However, when Galileo came to establish his axiomatic postulates regarding future scientific methods, he felt that matter and motion, and only matter and motion, were suitable for science because they did not depend on any human presence or any other system. human sense. He felt that these two “qualities” were independently (and therefore objectively) real. His thinking in this regard affected the course of the entire future of physics, although over time, not only matter and motion, but all physical phenomena came to be considered independently (and therefore objectively) real, as we have seen. seen.

However, physics, in its own normal development in the last hundred years, has realized that all physical phenomena, perceived through the senses, must be subjective in nature. Even matter and motion involve the sense of sight, and Galileo was wrong to think that these two qualities of the physical world could be considered in any way objective or independent of man’s senses. But if everything we perceive in nature has, by definition, to be subjective, then no physical phenomenon can have an independent identity or history of its own, which would prompt a very serious rethinking of the earliest periods on this earth, before the Earth. appearance of man . For these reasons, it seems reasonable to assume that our concepts of reality in modern physics are most in need of new thinking, so that a revised conceptual framework can be produced within which the physics of the future can operate.

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