The Shadow of Physics

Photograph Source: Геральт – CC BY 2.0

The modern English word physics is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek word φυσικός (phusikós, “natural; physical”), which is in turn from the ancient Greek φύσις (phúsis, “origin; nature, property”), which is again from the ancient Greek φύω (phúō, “produce; bear; grow”), and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *bʰuH- (“to appear, become, rise up”). Aside from the interesting consonant shift from b to p, it is an etymological curiosity that, as its meaning is traced through the history of language, the word physics reveals its origin to be as a referent for appearance. The etymological root of physics has the opposite meaning of the modern word, at least in the vernacular.

Perhaps professional physicists would be more willing to admit that while our understanding of nature is vast and comprehensive, vast enough to allow humanity to easily manipulate energy and matter, the physical theories which underlie our understanding are necessarily incomplete because they rely on approximations and unproven axioms. This admission should not carry a negative connotation, nor is it meant to dismiss the civilizational progress which could have not been possible without a thorough understanding of nature. Physics has, as a historically situated web of researchers, institutions, publishers, governmental patrons, etc, produced the greatest technological achievements of mankind. Yet physics is not nature, it is an approximation of nature. It excels in its explanations of fundamental phenomena, in the creation of general laws, of beauty. Its practicality drops off rapidly for systems that are much too big or complex to be quickly, analytically probed with fundamental laws. There are some tricks, and there are many clever approximations that allow us to peek into that seemingly chaotic abyss, just ask Strogatz.

However, very few analytical solutions for these complex systems are possible. The physicist must become a computer scientist, and create a program to run iterations of the Runge–Kutta method for distasteful differential equations. Still, the complexity of everyday life remains mysterious. It is theoretically predictable, yet these predictions are practically impossible. And at some point in their search for completely satisfying knowledge, the physicist must retire to chemistry, embracing the domain of less fundamental laws as a trade-off for incomplete yet physically incalculable knowledge. And then to biology, to neuroscience, to human behavior, to evolutionary psychology, sociology, politics, literature, and philosophy. It is in these domains that the physicist attaches an emotional meaning to Boltzmann’s constant times the log of the multiplicity, the equation inscribed upon the tombstone of the man who voluntarily ended his own life, a great mind battered down by the fear of failure and inaccuracy. He contained that noble spark which animated his furious theoretical probing, a spark which ignited the kindling of his mind and engulfed him, and swept him off his feet into a rope, hung on the ceiling of a picturesque Italian villa. It is for the psychologist to ask why so many in the field of statistical mechanics chose this fate, Paul Ehrenfest ended his life in a murder-suicide; Gilbert N Lewis injested hydrogen cyanide after not receiving the Nobel Prize, having been nominated 41 times previously.

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Gregory Randazzo studies Atmospheric Science and Climate Change at Cornell University. He can be reached at climate@riseup.net 

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