Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Gerhard Braunshausen, Craig Roberts, Richard Brown
from the Industrial/Grave issue
Gerhard Braunshausen: It’s probably fair to say that in the last twenty or so years physicists have become very surprised by the behavior of matter at the lowest level. Thirty years ago we were hoping to be able to reduce all matter to a single number of basic building blocks. It was thought that the whole complexity of the inanimate universe could be explained by the four fundamental forces that act between these few elementary particles. This hope was, however, shattered by a surprising discovery: the smaller the dimensions became into which physicists wanted to probe, a higher and higher amount of energy was needed to investigate that microcosmos. And with that increase in energy, a whole new family of previously unknown so-called ‘fundamental particles’ emerged. It was like opening a Pandora’s Box: a hitherto unknown sub-microcosmos unfolded itself. But in the wake of understanding this ‘zoo of particles’ we had to give up more and more of our successful ideas which came out of Newton’s mechanics. For example, in the ’60s in Geneva they tried to measure the size of a proton. They found overwhelming evidence that one proton is actually an extended and composite particle. But they were unable to bring the constituents apart. And still today we are not able to do so – in fact we are beginning to think that this is impossible for fundamental reasons. So here we find the limitation of the reductionist view that every complex system can be analyzed closer to its parts, which exist independently of the system as a whole.
Craig Roberts: In 1936 there were three particles known and four postulated. The pion wasn’t found for another twenty years because the energy levels required were too high. Society didn’t have the technology to construct machines which could provide enough energy to accelerate particles to make smaller particles and investigate them. To create such ‘exotic’ particles you have to provide a lot of energy, and that means you have to create particle accelerators which require a lot of money and technology. The technology didn’t really become available until after World War 2. There was a lot of funding going into nuclear weapons research, and that provided a lot of accelerator technology.
Pataphysics: Chaos science and the importance of entropy are now discussed frequently. Here the importance seems to lie not in the building blocks themselves, but rather how they are assembled.
CR: Chaos has become very important and relevant recently because of the advent of large-scale computing facilities. Chaos is particularly relevant to non-linear dynamics. If a clock pendulum has a large amplitude, then you can’t describe that accurately using Newtonian mechanics. The only way you can get an exact solution is to solve it numerically. With the advent of powerful computers, it is possible to look at more and more non-linear equations – they manifest quite extraordinary properties.
P: How much do you think chaos science will change the way science is approached?
CR: It’s certainly opened up an exciting new area for us to investigate. We used to give up on non-linear systems, or try to approximate them by linear systems. Now we know there is more to these systems than simple linearity. It will have an impact I think, but it’s hard to say exactly what. Certainly it’s very relevant to modeling biological systems, which is probably pertinent to the whole population at large, because even the simplest biological system which involves a reproduction rate is a non-linear system. Stable solutions to problems of that kind can only be found numerically using notions of chaos and non-linear dynamics. The ‘chaos’ that their talking about is not chaos in the sense that it’s completely random; it simply means that after one hundred or one thousand iterations, the result you get from starting at point A, which is infinitesimally removed from point B, is macroscopically removed from the result you get starting at point B. Hence if two points are separated by one tenth of a unit at the starting point, they’ll be separated by hundreds or thousands of units at the end point. That’s the sort of chaos they mean. You’ll get to a point where you can’t specify the initial conditions sufficiently accurately in order to decide whether you are at point A or point B, and so your outcome will be completely different; point A and point B will be different within the numerical precision of the computer, and that will have macroscopic consequences to the outcome. There is nothing intrinsically non-deterministic in chaos. Every time I start at point A, I will always finish at A’ – if I do it today or tomorrow, I will still end up at A’. But if I start at B, then I’ll end up at B’, and B’ will be very different from A’.
P: Doesn’t the idea of entropy in chaos science imply that there won’t necessarily be a tomorrow?
CR: I don’t think entropy says anything about tomorrow…
P: It introduces the element of time, in that today is going to be different from tomorrow.
CR: Entropy in a pure physical sense is simply a statement of the fact that the degree of disorder of any closed system always increases with time. Philosophers sometimes think about this sort of thing and try to take the idea of entropy from physics. With little background and no experience whatsoever, they take this completely out of context and try to use it to construct world-views.
P: What’s your opinion of that?
CR: I think it’s fatuous… The Australasian Association of Philosophers had a meeting recently and I went to a symposium later. They were discussing inductivism, which is the idea that if the sun has risen every day in human memory, then is the sun going to rise tomorrow? An inductivist will say yes, and that the probability is vastly increased because I have seen that it has risen every day in human memory. A non-inductivist will say, well it may rise tomorrow, it may not, but I can have no faith in the point of view that the sun has risen every day in the past billion years… Philosophers tend to get involved in such pedantic arguments – I don’t know why they develop these schools. Others who are like that are people who discuss time and quantum mechanics – they just love discussing the philosophy of it, but they don’t really have any concept of it.
P: It’s interesting that S.D.I. is basically a fantasy derived from Hollywood which has then been pushed along by the media. But that momentum will actually work eventually – those fantasies will be realized.
CR: It’s what the media pick up on. Nobel prizewinners might get five minutes or a column in a newspaper, S.D.I. gets the front page with graphics and diagrams of missiles, and it’s just not on – there’s no way S.D.I. will get up in the next fifty years. But no report has ever appeared in newspapers to that effect – that’s only commonly known throughout physics circles – reporters aren’t interested. If someone comes up and says, ‘No S.D.I. in fifty years,’ they’ll just go and talk to some general in the U.S. who has a barrow to push, and he’ll say that’s nonsense, and the story won’t get up.
P: Steven Hawking’s whole theory is based upon how time goes backwards and forwards. It’s a fantasy of his to go back in time to when he wasn’t disabled…
CR: I thought Hawking had actually tied the arrow of time to the arrow of entropy – that the degree of disorder always increases in a closed system. So the direction in which entropy is increasing is the direction of time; he thinks the thermodynamic arrow and the arrow of time are the same. He might then argue that if the system is not closed, there is some external influence whereby you could reverse the direction.
GB: He’s certainly one of the most prominent people we’ve got in science.
CR: He has made a large contribution to the study of general relativity – the theory of gravitation. He did a lot of groundwork to delimit the range of applicability of such theories – for that he is justly famous. I know people who have been with Hawking and his disability has obviously affected his psyche. When there is a conference he will always arrive late in his wheelchair, and will make a big scene coming in the door. A guy who arrives late driving a wheelchair with one finger – he’s going to make an impact. When the seminar is over, he rushes to the door – it’s obvious he wants to be noticed. It may not be his disability but there is that aspect to his character, and I’m not sure whether or not that’s generally relevant to all high-standing physicists.
GB: Feynman for instance…
CR: He was a showman. He’s now a god to the Americans. While Einstein was around he was their god, but now Feynman has taken over that role. Feynman is what they picture physics to be all about. They picture their country to be a place where they can have these people around just thinking freely.
P: What do you understand to be progress? Can we still speak of solutions?
GB: To call change progress it is necessary that an intellect judges the change perceived against a value system or world-view. As a result of this evaluation, change may be called either of two things: progress or regress.
Richard Brown: If you have a theory and there are some observations that the theory can’t account for, and then you have a new theory which accounts for the old observations and the new ones – isn’t that progress?
GB: I would conceive that to be progress. As such, we have progressed with quantum mechanics, but at the same time we have also lost ground or the initial intentions with which we started. We somehow lost touch with reality because we seem to not be able to call things by those simple names that we used to be able to. There is a duality that has come into the game which we haven’t been willing to accept before. With the Enlightenment, with Descartes, it started when we began to divide things up into substances. Aristotle was still talking about material and immaterial substances. With Descartes the word ‘immaterial’ became synonymous with unnecessary and useless. From then on, we’ve progressed so much in the understanding of how the physical world actually works – we understood gravitation, we understood electromagnetism and the basic constituents of matter that then introduced this phenomenon of quantum mechanics. The two classical theories that we already had, gravitation and electromagnetism, were not consistent with each other on a microscopic level. Then we started to see the duality of things again. We have to admit that what we now call a particle also has a wave structure.
CR: It’s just that the only macroscopic concepts we’ve got, the only macroscopic things we know about, are particles and waves. I don’t accept that it’s necessary to give these things a name. This is a problem with the interpretation. This is a problem with the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Some people need or want to ascribe names to things or label them; others are happy to just deal with the concept, to know that there is a concept called an electron and it behaves in a number of ways.
GB: So you distinguish the concept from the name.
CR: I think the best thing to do is to call it an electron, and the electron is its concept.
GB: But how do you then say what an electron is?
CR: An electron is an electron.
RB: I agree. The idea that you have to say more than that is like a hangover from Descartes. It’s like Derrida’s Metaphysics of Presence – even though you can’t directly see an electron you can still see the result in the equipment or whatever; somehow that’s supposed to be less objective than seeing the thing against the wall.
CR: An electron is its manifestation – it is what it is. An electron does things, I can make them, I know what they do, I understand them in every regard – simply because I can’t give them macroscopic concepts like a wall or a chair, I don’t think that has any relevance. It isn’t a ball, it’s not a wave, it’s just an electron, and to describe it any more than that is just not really relevant, and it doesn’t seem to be fruitful to try.
P: Whereas it might be fruitful to describe a wall…
CR: Well I can do that – I can tell you what a wall is.