Proustians around the globerejoice today, as an old film-clip
dating from 1904shows their
seldom-photographed and almost never filmed idolskipping down the steps after a wedding.You can read about it, and watch the
Proust, aimable écrivain mondain à l'audience encore confidentielle, qui se
trouve être un ami proche du marié. Peut-être est-ce lui, ce jeune homme en
manteau clair, coiffé d'un chapeau melon qui laisse les yeux dans l'ombre,
laissant apercevoir la moustache et l'ovale du visage, dévalant précipitamment
les marches, doublant le cortège sur le côté droit, afin de rejoindre avant les
autres l'éblouissante belle-mère ? On le voit quelques secondes sur un film
d'amateur – une pellicule de deux minutes à peine, conservée aux Archives
françaises du film à Bois-d'Arcy.
It’s actually an odd little
sequence:stately couple after
stately couple slowly descend the outdoor stairway, the ladies in their finery
(as awkward to walk in as a burka ), the gentlemen all without exceptionin top-hats -- when suddenly from
stage-lefta rather dapper but
hardly fancy figure, in a Chaplinesque bowler
hat, hurries past all the worthies and disappears, rather like a
streaker.He seems more like Zellig
or Forrest Gump, than like a society figure, or anyone destined to greatness.
The film cuts offjust before the shots rang out,
changing history forever.
The question then presents itself,
where the World of Dr Justice TM (headquarters: Geneva) might
possess, in our extensive private holdings, additional images of the famous
novelist, not previously recognized for what they are.And indeed, such proved to be the
case.We submitted an old
daguerrotype taken at the Exposition Universelle (Paris, 1900) to the sort of
entero-chiasmic homothetic image-analysis of the sort that is probably familiar
to you from “24”, and were able to make the identification.The incomparable man of letters
is the fourth figure from the left:
grand romancier essaie de se perdre parmi la foule
These are just the latest
discoveries of previously unrecognized Proustiana in slightly over two years,
the earlier having been a letter from Proust, written to his friend Charles
Haas but never posted, containing fairly explosive material, which it was our
own good fortune to unearth.You
can read the background to this literary coup here:
Back in the days of Sputnik, before the Internet and social
media, we children used but few social acronymic sigilla.One indelible in memory was SWAK, which
stood for “Sealed With A Kiss”:you put it on the back of the envelope (over where you would have licked
the flap) of a letter to your girl- or boyfriend.But its acronymic status was accidental -- it was not
part of any acronymic army, such as we have in today’s busy world of BRB and
TYT -- and functioned much like (what would later become) such sublinguistic
symbols as the happy-face.Indeed,
those same envelopes often had, subscripted to the stamps, the amazingly kid-witty
formula entreating speedy delivery:
Postman postman -- Don’t D-lay!
Do De cha-chaall De way!
Today’s acronymic armamentarium is incomparably greater, in
extent and sometimes even in structure.As, when to LOL there
effectively accretea comparative
and a superlative (à la good/better/best):ROFL;LMAO.
Such reflections were occasioned by a passage in James
Gleick’s entertaining survey, The Information (2011), as he recounts
that earlier splendid invention, telegraphy, which anticipated the Internet in quasi-instantaneously
connecting (eventually) everyone to anyone else.Initially simply for economy (since the sender paid by
the word), later also for comsec,telegraph-fans came up with such LOL&SWAK-like acronyms as
GMLT (give my love to…)
YMIR(your message is received)
which, as you possibly guessedbut more likely not, stood for“Will you exchange gold for eastern funds”.And with that, afficionados
were well on their way to the construction of extensive subject-specific
codebooks, and thence, generalizing, to subject-neutral cryptography.
It is remarkable, what pleasure a certain cast of mind
takes, in coming up with artificial languages and coding-systems.Some are systematic, are meant to be practical, and are very
ambitious, spanning the whole of natural language:Leibniz’s characteristicauniversalis, or Volapük and its
congeners.Others are practical
but limited to a given domain, like shipping-codes.And still others are just for fun:Netspeak, and LOLcats lingo.(Strenuous
fun, though: the entire Bible has been translated into LOLcats, Old Testament
and New.)Mankind hasn’t had
so much funsince Adam named the
physicists, working with cesium-filled chambers and the like, have reported
results that, at least as reported in the press, seem supraluminal.Their technique is admirable;
their results, at least as entertaining as that of the Euler disk; but they
by no means dethrone the position of the speed of light in a vacuum, c, which still reigns at the center of
physics.Their surprising lab results
may be compared with the paradoxical distinctions of group-velocity vs. phase
velocity, in wave phenomena, or unphysical illusions such as in the thought-experiment of flipping a flashlight left to right-- millions of years later, on the arc of heaven as it were, an illumination mimics that trajectory with distances multiplied by a zillion, so that the 'signal' moves supraluminally, though nothing is actually moving left to right. A
curiosity. Einstein in heaven is not tearing his wild white hair.
(II) Various neuroscientists, sticking electrodes into
hapless experimental subjects, detected electrical blips in the brain, as many
as seven seconds before the fellow (responding to the prompting, “Coffee tea or
milk?”) at last says, “Tea please.”
Neuroscientists -- an excitable lot -- froth over this.“We feel we choose, but we don’t” enthuses
one from the University College, London (whom I shall not name, so as not to
defame; quotation from 1 Sept 2011 Nature). Furthermore (adds one of his henchmen, in the same issue):
It’s possible that what are now
correlationscould at some point
become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours.If that were the case, then it would
threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher.
[“… any … any…” : sic;
The only reason such illation might have any color of
probability, is that the neuroscientists (whose characters were formed in the
laboratory, pithing frogs) regularly choose actions too trivial to reflect our
real humanity.In the case above
-- I lied about the Stewardess Trilemma, really all the experiment was about
was pushing some damned button, a button which moreover had no effect upon
anything.Boring beyond belief. No
doubt the experimental subjects were in a coma throughout the experiment, or
Dreaming of Babylon;meanwhile the
burblings of the subcortical tissues continued, much like the similar
borborygmus of the bowels;until
eventually a finger twitched:Ah
what the heck, push now.
Not to knock it -- such results might even scale up.Thus, to take the creature dear to the
Churchlands, the sea-slug:quite
possibly its “choice” to slime-right or slime-left, at any given instant, owes
its promptings largely to meteorological and other influences, with any
accompanying mentation bearing but the faintest resemblance to the decision to
enter the priesthood, or to see if cohomological algebra can yield insights
into Yang-Mills theory.But it
doesn’t scale up to us -- at least, not
to us at our best.Prior, say, to
coming up with the Urysohn Metrization conjecture, and then coming up with its
proof, there was plenty of unconscious ruminating, and well more than seven
seconds’ worth.No mathematician
denies it; all proclaim it.(Poincaré stepping onto the bus.)But that doesn’t
mean that the truth of the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, or even the validity or
coherence of our proofs thereof, are caused
by, or bear any structural resemblance to, the sort of subcerebral singultus that
so fascinates the guys in the lab. While button-pushing may be close enough to a reflex action, that you could imagine it might just fall out of biochemistry, without invoking mind or will at all, that really doesn't work to explain such mental palaces as the UMT.
will, like the Cosmos itself, is a gift from our Maker, not just something we
picked up at WalMart.Hencethere is no a-priori reason why it
should be intuitively understandable, or even analytically explicable (without
millennia of hard work, and even then may lie beyond our poor powers), any more
than is the Cosmos.
The question at issue here is, What sort of entities are
fundamental in physics?E.g., in
the late nineteenth century through early twentieth centuries,
whether atoms were real objects or
only mnemonic devices for coding chemical regularities.
-- Abraham Pais, Subtle is the
Lord (1982), p. 80
The idea of atoms in some
sensegoes back to Ancient Greece;
and today, they are taken for granted.So it is surprising to laymen, how long opposition to a Realist take on
atoms lasted among some philosophers and physicists (e.g. Ernst Mach).An opposing view, from a leading German
Ostwald’s ‘Energetik’, according to
which molecules and atoms are but mathematical
fictions, and energy, in its many forms, the prime physical reality.
-- ibid, p. 83
Good bluff Rutherford, by contrast, had sucked atoms with
his mother’s milk, and claimed that he “could see the little buggers as plainly
as a spoon”.
Oddly, the debate on this seemingly practical laboratory
matter,had elements more
characteristic of political or theological controversy, in which neither side
has a prayer of of convincing the other by rational argument:
The most remarkable fact about the
nineteenth century debates on atoms and moleculesis the large extent to which chemists and physicists
spoke at cross purposes, when they did not actually ignore each other.
-- ibid, p. 80
Since that time, a host of new physical building-blocks have
been proposed, and in some cases observed: from the unexpected and rather unwelcome
muon (I.I. Rabi: “Who ordered that?”),
to the massless chargeless neutrino (rather like Bishop Berkeley’s “ghosts of
departed quantities”), through quarks, gluons, gravitons & gravitinos,
selectrons & electrinos, axions, preons, virtual photons, phonons … such as might make even Rutherford
gag.But several of these are now
widely accepted -- not as mere bookkeeping mechanisms, but as entities with
further properties to be discovered;so that the smart money has been on Realism, so far.
Ernest Rutherford, swallowing an atom but straining at a quark
We shouldn’t be too hard on old Ostwaldfor backing the wrong horse in the
Atoms Affair.Dissident voices today would declare as epiphenomenal not only atoms, but
even the elementary particles of
which those are admittedly merely bundles:demoted to excitation-states of superstrings;or emerging from the
combinatorial-automaton structure of the world.
Additionally, his Energetik
has enjoyed a bit of a revival in some quarters:
More recently, information (or,
solemnly, “The Information” -- Wheeler's "It from Bit") has emerged among some as a skeleton-key to
everything else in the physical world.
Thus, at the bottom of everything, behind and beyond the
Maya of the particle zoo, lies:
Stewardess:Coffee tea or mi-ilk?
The Milesian:Just water,
Or, a more recherché candidate, from philosopher Hilary
Nothing has more physical
significance than spectral measure.
(That might strike the layman as rather a … spectral candidate for the role of
firmest substrate of all.)
~ ~ ~
The word “ontology” is not one you are likely to overhear at
the bus-stop;nor indeed does a
physics-major typically run across it.But the more we see physics
as science (Wissenschaft) rather than a special kind of engineering (the “shut up and calculate” ethos of the years around
WWII), the more we meet questions traditionally treated under that rubric --
and indeed, contemporaneously, even under that very name.
My own position is that the issue
of ontology is crucial to quantum
-- Roger Penrose,The
Road to Reality (2004), p. 785
Let us now return to the ontology
of the consistent-histories approach.The theory operates with entities
called coarse-grained histories. … The ontological status of the insertion of such a projector setis still not fully clear. …A history from a maximally refined set
seems to me to provide a strong candidate for what might be regarded as
-- Penrose, The Road to
Reality (2004), p. 788
Present-day quantum mechanics has
no credible ontology … The imporance of having an ontologically coherent quantum mechanics cannot be over-estimated.
-- Penrose, The Road to Reality (2004), p. 860, 865
Re the notion of macroscopic quantum superposition being
This is taking a ‘pragmatic’
stancethat does not really
address the ontological issues.
-- Roger Penrose,The Road to Reality (2004), p.
contemporary thinkers seem to have supposed that, in discarding its mechanist ontology, physics had
discarded its ontology:matter had
been dematerialized … The very progress of physics itselfseemed to them to call for the
renunciation of mechanism and materialismin favour of the de-ontologised
view of science presented by Mach.
John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 138
In philosophy proper, ontology is fundamental, being prior
to anything else.In its
application to or rather analogue withinphysics, by contrast, it historically comes behindhand, as a setting in
order of what-all several centuries of reflection and experiment have come up
with:We may think of it as a kind
of cast of characters, not fully
drawn-up until the play has been written:in the course of writing it, you find out you need a ladies-maid, and so
eventually she is placed upon the prefatory page of Dramatis personae, that
typographically precedes the play itself -- and as a nice afterthought, you
name her Lisette.Similarly, particle physics did not
begin by being defined, a priori, as (back among the Greeks) the Science of
Atoms, or (later) as the Science of the Proton, the Neutron, and the Electron,
or (later still-- the Barock Age) as the Menagerie-management of the
Particle-zoo (with a fixed given roster of inmates), nor as the Curating of the
Wiggling of Strings.There is a
thematic continuity throughout all these stages, but the staffage keeps
As for the role of this Ontology, or Cast of Characters, it
is not (despite the spectral example of traditional metaphysics per se) just
something to admire from afar, like Mount Rushmore, but rather, as Goedel said
pragmatically re which axioms we should adopt for math and logic, they should
themselves possess generative potential -- by their fruits ye shall know them.Thus, hard-headedly:
Kepler’s theoretical ontology,
unlike Gilbert’s, was not organically related to his laws;even if it could be squared with the
latter, which seems doubtful, it failed to make any contribution to the
testable content of his system.
John Watkins, Science and Skepticism (1984), p. 197
As remarked earlier, I may well go to my grave without ever grasping the concept of an observable,
much less physical ontology in general. Still, it is helpful towards
organizing my thoughts, to have an online scribble-space, so that the
matter is, so to speak, officially a topic, a project under way. For
now, this is just a whiteboard on which to stow some juicy quotes. Your
own juicy contributions are more than welcome.
For a more general surview of the ontology of the various sciences, click here.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Physics may be defined as the art of saying things about stuff (or
stuff about things -- predications concerning entities, for the
fastidious).But what are these
entities, whereof we predicate?In
the first place -- observables.
P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930; 4th edn. 1958), p. 116:
From our assumption that the energy is an observable, there are sufficient stationary states for an arbitrary state to be dependent on them.
For a layman, this is bemusing. The assumption
that it’s an observable? Can you observe it, or can’t you? --
Evidently there is much more to qualifying as “an observable” than
merely being … observable.
(Compare Einstein, in one of his Zen moments: "It is the theory that decides what we can observe.")
P.A.M. Dirac, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (4th edn. 1958), p. 458 (re certain eigenstates):
Science contains many examples of theoretical concepts which are limits of things met with in practice
and are useful for the precise formulation of laws of nature, although
they are not realizable experimentally, and this is just one more of
Emphasis added. “Limits” in the mathematical sense.
Note that “not realizable experimentally” does not constitute much of a disability. What, after all, is? “Carthage lost the Punic Wars”; “I love you”; “E8 is a 248-dimensional rotation-space”: no, almost nothing is.
Robert Lindsay & Henry Margenau, Foundations of
Physics (1936), p.402:
Quantities such as position, energy, momentum, and
the like, capable of measurement… will be called observables,although
it is not intended to imply that they are observable directly.
The caveat is troubling enough;but now this:
In quantum mechanics, the state of a system is no
longer defined by means of a number of variables having an immediate intuitive
appeal … In fact, it is not defined in terms of observables at all;it is simply a function in
Carl Hempel, “Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning” (1950):
Green, soft, liquid, longer than designate observable characteristics, while bivalent, radioactive, better electric conductor, and introvert do not.
odd assertion, by a well-known philosopher of science, seems more
psychological than scientific. It is reminiscent of Locke’s distinction
between simple and composite ideas.
Eugen Merzbacher, Quantum Mechanics (1961, 2nd edn. 1970), p. 153:
Following Dirac, we call observable any Hermitian operator which possesses a complete set of eigenfunctions.
This might sound opaque to some, but for a math guy it’s the clearest statement yet, by far. Of course, what it amounts to physically, intuitively, is something else…
Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 202:
idea of making quantitative indicators of anything at all fascinates
some persons, and repels others as dangerous or absurd. This difference
is caused largely by thematically incompatible -- and therefore often
unresolvable -- personal views concerning the ability of quantifiables to lead to … the deepest reality.
the silly dichotomy -- as though failing to lead to "the deepest
reality" (a deeply suspect term) meant that they couldn't be "indicators
of anything at all".
I had some fun above, playing with a rumpled old word like stuff, shoving it before the microphone
of science.Here a gifted
[In its] Einsteinian reframing … is
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of
the Cosmos (2004), p. 39
In that historical context, the question concerned the
ontological status of (the novelty) ‘spacetime’, as opposed to the traditional
notions of the independent entities, space, and time.
(More recently, spacetime has been demoted in some theories
-- not returning to a Cartesian product of space and time, but being derived as
an epiphenomenon of more fundamental items.Thus, twistor theory, among others.)
If there is no aether to provide
the standard of rest, what is the whatwith respect to which this speed is to be interpreted?
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of
the Cosmos (2004), p. 45
If an individual electron is also a
wave, what is it that is waving?
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of
the Cosmos (2004), p. 88
(Here the wordplay inheres not in the pronoun what, but in the verb.He could more conventionally have
written, “What is the medium for the wave?”, but the startling verbal
formulation ‘makes it strange’, confronting us with something more
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (1988; 2nd edn. 1996) p. 75:
fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or
gluon might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as
particles somewhat metaphysical. However, there is another property
of the strong nuclear force, called asymptotic freedom. The concept
of these entities was already well-defined, or not, as the case may
be: certainly well-defined as bookkeeping conventions, if nothing
more. Asymptotic freedom -- “at high energies, the strong force
becomes much weaker, and the quarks and gluons behave almost like free
particles” -- simply adds a further mode of observing their effects:
and in this case, their effects when they are relatively ineffectual --
quarks on holiday.
to be observable in isolation certainly doesn't make a thing
"metaphysical" (in the colloquial bad sense intended here). You cannot
observe a "brother" in isolation: dissect him down to his last tissues,
nothing will reveal his brotherhood but the historical context. Nor,
perhaps, can you observe Coulomb attraction in a single isolated
particle -- it takes two to tangle. (I might be wrong on this -- the
photon cloud and all that. But how does the cloud tell you whether
you've got an attraction or a repulsion?)
Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (1992), p. 181:
The positivist concentration on observables like particle positions and momenta has stood in the way of a “realist” interpretation of quantum mechanics, in which the wave function is the representation of physical reality.
Wiki, "Quantum field theory" (excellent article, btw):
In quantum field theory, unlike in quantum mechanics, position is not an observable.
the point of view of quantum field theory, particles are identical if
and only if they are excitations of the same underlying quantum field.
Thus, the question ‘Why are all electrons identical?” arises from
mistakenly regarding individual electrons as fundamental objects, when
in fact it is only the electron field that is fundamental.
The global phase of the wave function is arbitrary, and does not represent something physical.
Wiki, "Implicate and explicate order" (of interest only to those who are already devotees of guru-physicist David Bohm):
Bohm’s paradigm is inherently antithetical to reductionism … and can be regarded as a form of ontological holism.
Wiki, “Introduction to Gauge Theory”:
The electric field and the magnetic field are observable, while the more fundamental electromagnetic potentials V and A are not.
In this ontological context, it is
far from clear how the phrase ‘more like’ is to be applied.Comparison of historical theories gives
no sense that their ontologies are approaching a limit:in some fundamental ways, Einstein’s
general relativity resembles Aristotle’s physics more than Newton’s.
-- Thomas Kuhn, in I. Lakatos &
A. Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (1970), p. 265
Cf. too Dirac’s remarks (1951) that the aether concept was
ripe for resuscitation.
philosophical status of the wavefunction — the entity that determines
the probability of different outcomes of measurements on
quantum-mechanical particles — would seem to be an unlikely subject for
emotional debate. Yet online discussion of a paper claiming to show
mathematically that the wavefunction is real has ranged from ardently
star-struck to downright vitriolic since the article was first released
as a preprint in November 2011.
paper, thought by some to be one of the most important in quantum
foundations in decades, was finally published last week in Nature Physics
say that the mathematics leaves no doubt that the wavefunction is not
just a statistical tool, but rather, a real, objective state of a
I told you so...
Physicists reify space-time. They
elevate it from a four-dimensional diagram used to record their experience into
the kind of “real essence” that Bohr warned us not to seek.
-- David Mermin (March 2014), at:
Not the same as the question of the building-blocks
(ontological bricks) of physics, but related to it, is that of the Boundaries
of Disciplines:between physics
and neighboring fields (chemistry, mathematics, …) and within physics itself (mechanics,
astronomy, electromagnetism, condensed-matter, nucleonics, quantum theory, …).In one sense, the question is
idle -- you are working on whatever project you are working on, with methods
appropriate thereto, however outsiders might classify them.But it also has practical consequences,
e.g. in the writing of textbooks.As:
The traditional teaching of
thermodynamics and statistical mechanicsas distinct subjects,has often left students with their
knowledgecompartmentalized, and has left them ill-prepared to accept newer
ideas such as spin temperature or negative temperatureas legitimate and natural.
-- F. Reif, Fundamentals of
statistical and thermal physics (1965), p. viii
That, from the textbook we used in stat mech at Harvard --
in the physics department, though
previously I had only met notions of enthalpy, temperature, free energy, and
entropy, in a chemistry course.
Similarly, Lindsay & Margenau remark, in their
historical overview Foundations of Physics (1936), that they are moving
away from treating optics and electrodynamics as distinct disciplines, “the
former being, since Mawell’s time, really a branch of the latter.”