Pounding the books: how 20th century science tore apart Newton’s universe | Engadget

Science is why you’re not reading this by the light of a fire nestled comfortably under a rock somewhere, yet its practice significantly predates its formalization by Galileo in the 16th century. Among its early adherents, even before Aristotle’s pioneering efforts, was Animaxander, the Greek philosopher credited with making the first argument that the Earth exists within a vacuum, not on a giant tortoise shell. His other revolutionary notions include, “hey, maybe animals evolved from earlier animals?” and “the gods aren’t angry, that’s just thunder.”

While Animaxander is not often mentioned alongside the later greats of Greek philosophy, his influence on the scientific method cannot be denied, he argues. NYT bestselling author, Carlo Rovelli, in his latest book, Animaxander and the birth of science, available now from Riverhead Books. In, Rovelli celebrates Animaxander, not necessarily for his scientific acumen but for his radical scientific thinking, specifically his talent for shunning conventional wisdom to glimpse the physical foundations of the natural world. In the excerpt below, Rovelli, who astute readers will remember from last year There are places in the world where rules are less important than kindness.it illustrates how even the works of intellectual titans like Einstein and Heisenberg can and inevitably lack their explanation of natural phenomena, in the same way that those works decimated the collective understanding of cosmological law under 19th-century Newtonian physics.

Riverhead Books

Taken from Animaxander and the birth of science. Copyright © 2023 by Carlo Rovelli. Extracted with permission from Riverhead, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

Did science begin with Anaximander? The question is wrongly posed. It depends on what we understand by “science”, a generic term. Depending on whether we give it a broad or narrow sense, we can say that science began with Newton, Galileo, Archimedes, Hipparchus, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, or Anaximander, or with an astronomer in Babylon whose name we don’t know, or with the first primate to achieve teach her offspring what she herself had learned, or with Eve, as in the quote that opens this chapter. Historically or symbolically, each of these moments marks humanity’s acquisition of a new and crucial tool for the growth of knowledge.

If by “science” we mean research based on systematic experimental activities, then it started more or less with Galileo. If we mean a collection of quantitative observations and theoretical/mathematical models that can order these observations and give accurate predictions, then the astronomy of Hipparchus and Ptolemy is science. Emphasizing a particular starting point, as I have done with Anaximander, means focusing on a specific aspect of the way we acquire knowledge. It means highlighting specific characteristics of science and thus implicitly reflecting on what science is, what the search for knowledge is and how it works.

What is scientific thought? What are your limits? What is the reason for its strength? What does it really teach us? What are its characteristics and how does it compare with other forms of knowledge?

These questions shaped my reflections on Anaximander in the previous chapters. In discussing how Anaximander paved the way for scientific knowledge, I highlighted a number of aspects of science itself. I will now make these observations more explicit.

The collapse of the illusions of the 19th century

A lively debate about the nature of scientific knowledge has taken place over the last century. The work of philosophers of science such as Carnap and Bachelard, Popper and Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, Quine, van Fraassen, and many others has transformed our understanding of what constitutes scientific activity. To some extent, this reflection was a reaction to a shock: the unexpected collapse of Newtonian physics at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the 19th century, a common joke was that Isaac Newton had been not only one of the most intelligent men in human history, but also the luckiest, because there is only one collection of fundamental natural laws, and Newton had been lucky . Fortune to be the one to discover them. Today we cannot help but smile at this notion, because it reveals a serious epistemological error on the part of 19th century thinkers: the idea that good scientific theories are final and remain valid until the end of time.

The 20th century swept away this easy illusion. Very precise experiments showed that Newton’s theory is wrong in a very precise sense. The planet Mercury, for example, does not move according to Newtonian laws. Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and their colleagues discovered a new collection of fundamental laws, general relativity and quantum mechanics, that replace Newton’s laws and work well in domains where Newton’s theory fails, such as explaining the orbit of Mercury or the behavior of electrons in atoms.

Once burned, twice shy: few people today believe that we now possess definitive scientific laws. In general, it is expected that one day Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s laws will also show their limits and be replaced by better ones. In fact, the limits of Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are already emerging. There are subtle incompatibilities between Einstein’s theory and Heisenberg’s, which make it unreasonable to assume that we have identified the final and definitive laws of the universe. As a result, the investigation continues. My own work in theoretical physics is precisely the search for laws that can combine these two theories.

Now the essential point here is that Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories are not minor corrections to Newton’s. The differences go far beyond a balanced equation, an arrangement, the addition or substitution of a formula. Rather, these new theories constitute a radical rethinking of the world. Newton saw the world as a vast empty space where “particles” move like pebbles. Einstein understands that this supposedly empty space is, in fact, a kind of sea agitated by a storm. It can fold in on itself, bend, and even (in the case of black holes) break apart. No one had seriously considered this possibility before. For his part, Heisenberg understands that Newton’s “particles” are not particles at all, but rather strange hybrids of particles and waves that run on lattices of Faraday lines. In short, throughout the 20th century, the world was found to be profoundly different from the way Newton envisioned it.

On the one hand, these discoveries confirmed the cognitive power of science. Like the theories of Newton and Maxwell in their day, these discoveries quickly led to an astonishing development of new technologies that once again radically changed human society. The ideas of Faraday and Maxwell gave rise to the technology of radio and communications. Einstein and Heisenberg led to computers, information technology, atomic power, and countless other technological advances that have changed our lives.

But, on the other hand, the realization that Newton’s picture of the world was false is disconcerting. After Newton, we thought we had understood once and for all the basic structure and workings of the physical world. We were wrong. It is likely that one day Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s theories will be shown to be false. Does this mean that the understanding of the world offered by science cannot be trusted, even for our best science? So what do we really know about the world? What does science teach us about the world?

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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