The limits of physics

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim, science writer and co-founder of LA’s Institute for Figuring, has written an interesting piece for Aeon Magazine (here’s the link) on the limits of physics and mathematics as descriptive languages of the world. Challenging the idea that ‘physics is a progression towards an ever more accurate and encompassing Truth’, she adopts the viewpoint that, though mathematics has been extraordinarily useful in making sense of the natural world, it might still only be an imperfect framework that we have laid down on a much more complicated reality.

In order to articulate a more nuanced conception of what physics is, we need to offer an alternative to Platonism. We need to explain how the mathematics ‘arises’ in the world, in ways other than assuming that it was put there there by some kind of transcendent being or process. To approach this question dispassionately, it is necessary to abandon the beautiful but loaded metaphor of the cosmic book — and all its authorial resonances — and focus, not the creation of the world, but on the creation of physics as a science.

She talks about the development of physics as a science and a methodology and how it has been a progression in quantifying an ever increasing amount of the physical world. As more and more phenomena fall under the explanatory power of physics, there is a tendency among physicists to ‘believe that the mathematical relationships they discover in the world about us represent some kind of transcendent truth existing independently from, and perhaps a priori to, the physical world.’ But, she says, this doesn’t really give us the whole story.

We should be wary of claims about ultimate truth. While quantification, as a project, is far from complete, it is an open question as to what it might ultimately embrace. Let us look again at the colour red. Red is not just an electromagnetic phenomenon, it is also a perceptual and contextual phenomenon. Stare for a minute at a green square then look away: you will see an afterimage of a red square. No red light has been presented to your eyes, yet your brain will perceive a vivid red shape. As Goethe argued in the late-18th century, and Edwin Land (who invented Polaroid film in 1932) echoed, colour cannot be reduced to purely prismatic effects. It exists as much in our minds as in the external world. To put this into a personal context, no understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum will help me to understand why certain shades of yellow make me nauseous, while electric orange fills me with joy.

Her essay is not an argument against science, but against the obsession with quantitative measures, rigorous equations, and strict boundaries between natural elements. The universe might be messier than we give it credit for, and our attempts at categorization might lead more to confusion than to understanding.


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