Sunday, November 30, 2014

Theories of Everything

“I saw a movie this week that I know you’d love! It’s called ‘The Theory of Everything.’” I smile and ask what my friend liked about it. He is happy to say. I do not intend to see the movie, but I don’t say that.

People who are not scientists often believe that the heights of science are what the physicists are happy to tell us that they are: struggling with nature to make her give up her secrets, or, in a less sexist formulation, knocking one’s head against the equations to make sense of nature, to get at the most basic essence, a theory of everything. 

That theory of everything intrigued me, too, as a young girl. In grade school, I kept a small notebook in which I doubled numbers: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, to numbers with many digits. It was a sort of talisman that I kept with me and sometimes added to during boring classes. It seemed to be a key to great secrets. I built Platonic solids and other geometric forms and hung them on threads from the ceiling of my bedroom. I made hexaflexagons with so many sides they were hard to fold. Logical paradoxes: Zeno, the Cretan liar, and others. I tried to visualize stars in space outside the solar system, and, of course I could visualize the movement of the planets around the sun. This was before special effects in the movies.

But I also helped my mother in the kitchen made bread myself. I had Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, and American Plastic Bricks, a more limited forerunner to Legos. I had a chemistry set, and I was my father’s primary typewriter repair assistant. He paid me minimum wage.

Mathematics was beautiful, but physics promised power. Einstein and the Manhattan Project had shown that mass could be converted to energy bigtime. The older models of matter, of electrons orbiting a nucleus of protons and neutrons, were breaking down, classic simplicity scattered into myriad particles. Disappointing in a universe that the physicists said was elegant. The mathematics that seemed elegant to me, of groups and rings, didn’t neatly hold it together. I went to college planning to major in physics, maybe astronomy, and found that what pleased me was much more physical: chemistry.

Chemistry and biology were willing to admit their complexities, with no claims to What It Is All About. Physics hadn’t managed to provide that either, but grandiose claims persisted. And it was mostly math, not the beautiful crystals that emerged from solution in organic chemistry lab. Chemistry had its ironclad logics, too: the sequences of qualitative analysis and the deciphering of mechanisms.

I never looked back after that first crystallization experiment; chemistry was my subject. Later, in my professional life, physicists looked down on me for that. Physics, after all, explains all of chemistry, and chemistry explains all of biology, and so physics is higher in the hierarchy of pure science.

But the physical equations that “explain” chemistry aren’t easily solvable, so they tell us very little of practical use. We come closer to that with today’s computers, but you still don’t do chemistry by inputting data about chemical elements into a computer. It’s easier to work it out in the lab, even though sometimes that can be very difficult indeed. What does that do to that hierarchy? Nothing at all, if you ask a physicist.

I’ve seen that arrogance lead to big and little mistakes. For one example, an inability to understand that chemistry takes place with many molecules, with a Boltzmann thermal distribution and more complex internal energies, not an accelerator billiard-ball, one atom at a time. Or simply ignoring that thermodynamics says a brilliant proposal won’t work. Without the arrogance, the mistakes are much more easily corrected.

And what would we do with a Theory of Everything, if one were even possible? Perhaps gravity and relativity can be reconciled, but, like the atomic particles that conceptually shattered, where would that bump in the rug come up next? It’s turtles all the way down.

During my career, I obtained a spectrum that was badly needed for a practical project; I cleaned up a dump in the woods of radioactive and hazardous waste; I helped develop those changing perspectives in Google Maps; and, best of all, I helped to get a very big tailings pond in Estonia stabilized so that it’s not contaminating the Baltic Sea. I may have even convinced some that women can do science too. I’ve helped people get ahead in their careers and still have a lot of young people I talk to, mostly via the internet. I’ve had moments of exaltation, when the results are just as I’ve predicted, and moments of illumination, when I’ve found something new.

Stephen Hawking has done big things in physics and has written books that people feel have helped them to understand science, all while dealing with enormous physical disabilities. I’m sure it’s a good movie and emotionally moving. But I won’t see it.

My friend meant well. He probably thought I would be inspired by both the science and the human struggle. But there are many more satisfactions in science than the Theory of Everything.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Chemistry classes at U of S were very enjoyable - we had good profs. They gave me the background I needed to understand animal nutrition and feed value.
Summing up your accomplishments to date is a wonderful feeling, I expect. I wish I could do that but will leave it to my eulogist who better say more than he sure was funny or I will come back to haunt him.