Seduced by Beauty: Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

Seduced by Beauty: Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math

As a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture in 1956, I was fortunate to have as an instructor Gyorgy Kepes, a world renowned artist in his own right, in a basic course on design. Dr. Kepes chose as text references two books I have never forgotten, one of them George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty, a profound philosophical work on the meaning of that mysterious term of art, the other a more obscure work but just as profound, Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Psychoanalysis of Artistic Vision and Hearing. Ehrenzweig was an artist, a musician, and professionally a Freudian psychoanalyst full of the standard Freudian concepts of the ego, the id and the superego, but if one got past that, a superb analyst of the sense of beauty itself and the myriad ways it expresses itself in our responses to artistic media. Ehrenzweig’s book sounds as if it might be deeply impenetrable, but my copies seems to have possessed a strange attractiveness; I have just ordered a replacement, having over time loaned out three prior editions only to have them disappear forever from my bookshelf.

Ehrenzweig’s thesis is not simple, but strongly entangled with Freud’s psychoanalytic assumptions, but if you cut through those, he explains the evolution of art (and our sense of beauty) by showing that art and music made giant steps forward by what we might call mind stretching. In art, new ways of seeing the world, perspective, cubism, etc. comes from the artist dredging up from his unique unconscious new and previously unknown form material. Much of this is greeted  at its first appearance with revulsion, rejection, disbelief, but gradually shapes a new way of seeing.

In music this is best illustrated by example. Sometime in the late 50’s I was  privileged to hear Dr. Ehrenszweig lecture in Ann Arbor, and a demonstration he provided as part of the lecture has remained with me ever since. He played for the audience a short (32  bar) portion of Debussy’s composition  for orchestra, la Mer, which contemporary reports show its initial performance being greeted with wild criticism, even rejection, by a its French audience. To our ears there in the lecture hall it was familiar, beautiful, well-loved. He then played an equal length selection of what has been called Musique Concrete, a brief experimental fad of short sections of random taped sounds including voices, street noise, and the like, passed off for a while as a new musical form. He then repeated the prior section of la Mer, and we in the audience heard it transformed, as the random, dissonant, unharmonious construct that original French audience must have heard. It was a striking demonstration of his thesis.

So, a sense of beauty is an acquired capacity. It changes with time, custom, environment, in a word, taste. In science parlance, it is an emergent property, even in Ehrenzweig’s sense, derived from increasing familiarity, or its arrival as a near proof of some physical observation or set of observations. It changes our way of seeing the world.

Where is all this coming from, this wandering into principles of art and music? Well, it comes directly from my having just finished reading Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. This is a rich, well-researched exploration of the world of modern physics, particle physics, quantum physics, cosmology, all from the viewpoint of one who has become disillusioned with these fields’ wanderings off into unreality and away from the fuzziness of the real world and into the dreamlike but precise world of mathematics. Sabine’s is not the first confession of doubt, this sort of apostasy from an insider, so to speak. There were others. Peter Woit wrote Not Even Wrong, Jim Baggott wrote Escape from Reality, Lee Smolin wrote The Trouble With Physics: the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, Alexander Unzicker wroteBankrupting Physics, andmost recently,Adam Becker wroteWhat is Real?: the unfinished quest for the meaning of Quantum Physics. So, when Sabine’s op-ed The Uncertain Future of Particle Physicsappeared in the New York Times, she had plenty of support (and also attacks) from both within and outside of the field.

Taking her thesis from the books’ subtitle makes beauty the prime villain in the case. But the beauty she refers to is not the kind of beauty available to us all, but one only seen by mathematicians and the hyper educated audience they command. Einstein is said to have commented that if his equations for relativity were not acceptable to God that he was sorry for the good Lord because they were too beautiful not to be true. No, Sabine is referring to the tendency of mathematical physicists to see beauty in the simplicity and elegance of their equations and place them above their observations of the real world.

“As every physicist knows, the elegant forms of mathematics can easily outshine the dull stirrings of experience, and  eventually come to replace the phenomena they were originally invented to describe.” (Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light, Oxford, 1993)

This is what has happened, even going so far as claims that the mathematics is the reality.

Fundamentally, physics is not far from where it was almost 100 years ago. General Relativity was on a path to acceptance, and the quantum theorists were near agreement after their historic meeting in Copenhagen. Although both theoretical models were considered nearly complete, the fact that they still did not work well together seemed a possibly surmountable problem. No one could have though that a century on we would still have not reconciled those differences. But the math was beautiful, and as Einstein (may have) said, “Something this beautiful must be true.”

But Einstein had never been a physicist, he was a mathematician. And the quantum gang were themselves infused with perhaps a too large dose of eastern mysticism. And the resolution between the two sets of theories seems intractable even in mathematics. To be fair, Einstein’s objection to quantum theory was that it seemed too divorced from reality in its particulars, like superposition and action at a distance.

Dr. Hossenfelder’s field is particle physics. It’s cutting edge research is now being carried out at the Large Hadron Collider, a seventeen mile long tunnel filled with the tools for causing complex particles to collide at near light speed and in those collisions, to give up the secrets of their composition. Alas, those results have become few and far between of late. Meanwhile, in academia, large teams of highly qualified researchers were propounding alternative theories of how to explain what was known so far. This is the world Dr. Hossenfelder gives us a tour of: what the professionals call “normalness,” mathematical elegance, economy. She gives us a tour of the opinions of multiple physics spokespersons, almost  uniformly despairing, but offering no hope or options for change. And that is what is my particular disappointment in the book, in fact in almost all of the books cited above. With the possible exception  of Alaxander Unzicker, none seems able to step far enough back and away from the “standard models” to enable a path forward from the apparent impasse they all agree that we find ourselves in.

I won’t attempt to do a detailed review of Dr. Hossenfelder’s book. That has been done exhaustively by Jeremy Butterfield of Cambridge University. I will say that Lost in Math is an accomplished, well-written, and engaging piece of work, well worth the effort. She effectively disposes of the current rash of untestable alternatives, including multiverse theories, super symmetry, and the like, and urges a return to the study of reality. If you share my own skepticism about the current state of modern physics, you will also enjoy the other writers listed above, except for the caveat that none seem to offer any way forward, only a look at the current intellectual stalemate, including Lost in Math.

I have my own sense of the nature of the problem and that is this. The world is fuzzy and irregular, only  the math is smooth. Plato saw this 2000 years ago. His ideal forms existed only in the abstract, in an ideal realm. A perfect sphere, a perfect form, existed only in the imagination. Everything in the real world was but an imperfect copy of those ideals. Our now finely tuned instruments tell us this is still true. No matter how great the magnification, no surface is perfectly smooth. Irregularity is everywhere. Turbulence reigns. There is no math to adequately describe it. The equations themselves can only be approximations, beautiful to see but not complete.  No two snowflakes are identical, no two humans, no two galaxies. There is beauty in this vision as well. It is there for us to see. We just have to acquire a new way of seeing.

Oh, but don’t shy away from your own development of a sense of beauty. Remember that it can emerge on its own, but one can also seek it proactively. Just know that with that new way of seeing even a random, inelegant world can give you just as powerful a thrill of recognition, a sense of  richness and emotional satisfaction.

(note: Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog is at

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Questions and answers

Have you lain awake at night lately pondering the deep, unsolved questions of the universe? No I don’t mean how to pay this month’s rent or achieve world peace or make sure you don’t miss the bus again. No, I mean the real questions about the universe. Like these. If, like me, you have, here’s help with three of them.

  1. How is it that light has a speed limit?

When light traveling at c enters a refracting medium such as water or glass, its velocity is slowed. Now visible light is a range of multiple frequencies, it’s colors, from infrared to ultraviolet, and each is slowed to a different degree. Newton showed us this. In the process, the light  gives up some of its energy, so when it leaves that medium, it leaves at a different intensity. However, the instant it leaves that medium, it resumes its original velocity, c. This is because that velocity is not a function of its energy level, its intensity, but is a function of the medium carrying it just as the speed of sound varies as its medium varies. This is true because the refracting medium, say, glass or water, is itself a structure of the same substance as that of the light, a higher energy density concentration of the medium, and the interaction of light with those concentrations results in a measure of damping, even cancelling  out some of the frequencies of the light.

We must consider that the universe is, like an ocean, home to many disparate, more or less diffuse phenomena, like currents, layers, varying frequencies and amplitudes; but also containing unique, organized, and coherent, more or less stable entities such as stars, galaxies, clusters, planets, rocks, even humans,   all created out of the same substance, the energy of the cosmos. Some of these entities are of such dense concentrations of energy that they absorb all of the energy of the impinging light. We say that these are opaque. Some have a partial damping effect. They are called translucent. And some offer little or no barriers to light. Each gives up some energy in this passage, usually converted to a lower form like heat, some perhaps to cause other, structural changes as was shown in Einstein’s Nobel winning discovery, the photoelectric effect, although  his proposed mechanism may be questioned..

  1. What is dark energy?

If there existed in the universe no individual, unique  entities, that is, no stars, no planets, not even any intergalactic dust, then all of the universe would be 100% “dark energy.” And it  would be pretty dark! What?? you say. How do we know this?

Well, because two Bell Systems  engineers, looking for something else, found it. And lo, we can detect it in all directions, even when we point our detectors toward apparently empty regions of the sky. When this phenomenon was first detected, it was misinterpreted, probably because we were in the throes of “big bang” theories and the experts immediately grabbed this new finding for their own and dubbed it the “echo of the big bang.” That meant hanging everything on the assumption of a great “something from nothing” theory and using any new discovery as evidence for it. But what if there was no “big bang”? What if there were only gradual populating of the cosmos with tiny energy concentrations that gradually grew into proto-stars, then galaxies, and ultimately into what we see today? After all, in the absence of any “big bang” we had all the time in the world, not just 13.7 billion years, didn’t we? This makes sense in another way as well. It means that what we see today is the same as what we would have seen millions of years ago, instead of the theory that everything happened all at once, a singularity never to be repeated, and that there will never be evidence of what came before.

The simple answer, and may Sir William of Occam rest easy in his grave, is that what the seekers of mystery in our midst choose to call dark (because unknown?) energy, is the energy that makes up the entire limitless cosmos and is the medium from which all things are made and the medium that gives light and all other radiation its speed limit, the medium that Wilson and Penzias discovered, the medium that was then called the CMBR.

  1. What is “dark matter”?

When somebody, probably many somebodies, calculated in an idle moment how much mass the universe actually contains. then subtracted that part which is observable from our little observatory here on earth, they came up  with a large remainder, some 95%. Then they calculated the amount that was somehow affecting the observable mass, came up with about 27% and called that “dark matter.” The rest of the unknown, missing mass they called “dark energy,” (68%), is explained above.

But, to understand what dark matter really is, let’s go back about 100 years, to Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. When Albert, bless him, sought to describe gravity in a new way, he came up with an invention called “spacetime”, a four-dimensional  entity in which all observable masses existed. Then he said that the presence of a mass in that medium caused it to be distorted, and the example he used was that of a heavy ball lying on an elastic sheet, causing a depression in the sheet which made passing objects tend to fall toward the massive ball. This was a nice simple way to describe what appeared to be happening but, like Newton’s model before him, it didn’t explain what gravity was, just how it worked.

Now let’s substitute something real for Einstein’s “spacetime,” which he made up by joining two concepts neither of which actually exist as objects in nature, let’s substitute our concept of a cosmos made up of an electromagnetic field of energy, something we can show actually exists. We also know that high concentrations of energy affect the region in which they appear, creating what we call a field. In our model of the universe, that “field” is actually a distortion of the cosmic field. We also know that the intensity of that effect is highest nearest the central phenomenon and falls off at a fixed rate as one moves away from it. So what we have near a high energy concentration, say a star or a planet, is a distortion of the cosmos that raises its energy level to a detectable effect on nearby objects. This is how we detect “dark matter” is it not? by its effects. So, it’s all part of the same complex. Dark matter is energy raised to a detectable level, but not yet to the level where it becomes visible. So it stays dark, but we know it’s there. Wow! And we can see how light is distorted when it passes near a star, because it’s passing through a high energy density region. And when an object passes near a star, its speed slows and it falls toward that star, just as Einstein’s distorted sheet drew it in.

I know there are other pressing questions, but at least now you may be able to sleep a little better, along with the comfort that someone is out there looking for the answers. Patience. And good night.



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Wave-particle singularity

I blame Democritus. How could a Greek thinker from more than  2500 years ago be responsible for today’s problems, you may ask.? Well, he made up the idea that the world is made of some combination, aggregation, congealing of a bunch of hard shiny little pieces, much like the grains of sand on a beach, but much smaller, and that these “particles” were the smallest and hardest of all entities, even though they were too small to see. Now tell me, “How many other 2500 year old ideas do you believe?” Well, religion, maybe. But I’ll bet you that more people believe in particles than believe in any religion.

To be fair to Democritus, He did not describe everything as made up of particles. Light, to my knowledge, is not even mentioned in works and ideas attributed to him. Light was described as an essence, as a projection from the eye to illuminate the world, as many other things. Others weighed in, however. Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC) was the first to propose a theory of light[ and claimed that light has a finite speed. He maintained that light was something in motion, and therefore must take some time to travel. Aristotle argued, to the contrary, that “light is due to the presence of something, but it is not a movement”.

Light didn’t come to be called particulate until later and then only loosely, by Robert Hooke. In his 1665 work Micrographia (“Observation IX”). Hooke (1635-1703) developed a “pulse theory” and compared the spreading of light to that of waves in water  Hooke suggested that light’s vibrations could be perpendicular to the direction of propagation. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) worked out a mathematical wave theory of light in 1678, and published it in his Treatise on light in 1690. He proposed that light was emitted in all directions as a series of waves in a medium called the Luminiferous ether. As waves are not affected by gravity, it was assumed that they slowed down upon entering a denser medium. (Reference: Wikipedia 5  January 2019). Isaac Newton, who really gave us the most of what we know about light, seemed to be of two minds about its character. His suggestion was “corpuscles.”

It was only a hundred years or so ago that somehow everything, including light, became particulate, and that was through the back door, by Einstein, no less.

In 1901, Max Planck used quanta to mean “quanta of matter and electricity”,[5] gas, and heat.[6] In 1905, in response to Planck’s work and the experimental work of Lenard (who explained his results by using the term quanta of electricity), Albert Einstein suggested that radiation existed in spatially localized packets which he called “quanta of light” (“Lichtquanta”)(W).In later writing he coined the word “photon” to refer to these “light quanta.” So, the makeup of light went from being an essence to a collection of “particles.”

Unfortunately, in observing the behavior of light at all visible scales, it seemed that Huygens had it all over Einstein. Light still, stubbornly, behaved as if it were made up of waves. Until you wanted it to behave like particles. Thus grew a new interpretation. Light had two characters., sometimes wave-like, sometimes particle-like. And a new word entered the modern physics lexicon, “duality.” And this has been debated to this day.

But, if you’ll pardon the expression, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

As some of you know, I have my own ideas about how the universe devolved and how it is made up today. And that model fits right into this discussion. But before get going into that, there’s an intermediate step. The world of particle physics and quantum mechanics, today’s “standard model,” accepts wave-particle duality as a given. The behavior of some entities can seem wave-like, but as soon as they are observed they turn into particles. And this is not claimed as a theory of perception or observation. It is accepted as a real-time event, and even has a name, “wave-function collapse.” I must, however, insist that no one has actually seen this happen. It’s just that at one instance, it’s this and then it’s that. But some serious thinkers have begun to try a new approach. In the 1920’s Einstein himself suggested that matter might be considered as something like “condensations in the ether,” referring to his own statement that there must be something called an ether making up the substance of the universe. Now some are characterizing particles as concentrations of energy, not as Democritus’ hard primal substances.. And some have posed critical questions, as, “How might a wave be mistaken for a particle?” First, let us remember that the word “wave” describes a behavior, not an object. A wave must be a wave of something, of energy, of water. It is not something in and of itself that can be separated from its medium, so we must always accept, assume, or postulate a medium. (Light, for instance, is an electromagnetic (EM) substance.) A particle, on the other hand, is something, sand, dust, air, or the like.

Time for some definitions.(from lgsims96)

Attributes of particles

A particle has mass, it is localized in space. Two or more particles cannot occupy the same space at the same time. A particle can have any relative velocity from 0 to almost c (the speed of light). 

Attributes of waves

An electromagnetic (EM) wave has no mass. It is not localized; it spreads out over a large volume of space. Many waves can occupy the same space at the same time. These waves have only one relative velocity c. They have attributes of wavelength, frequency, intensity and amplitude of the disturbance (electric charge).

lgsims96, a HubPages blogger, wrote these attributes in his 2013 post titled Wave-particle duality, here,, in which he explains how wave can be mistaken for particles and vice-versa. In it he assumes that particles, in accordance with current theory, carry with them an electromagnetic field that interacts with all the other particles’ fields that it encounters. But he introduces his ideas this way:

Waves can exhibit particle-like characteristics and particles can exhibit wave-like characteristics. Is it possible that waves alone could behave as particles? What if the universe is composed of a single medium capable of supporting vibrations? And if all that we perceive as matter and energy is only vibrations (electromagnetic waves) within this medium? This is all there is and nothing else.  

“Years ago the ether was proposed as a medium to support the movement of electromagnetic waves through empty space. After all you can not have water waves if you have no water to support the waves. You can not have sound waves without air or some other medium to support the wave. 

“One major objection to the idea of the ether is that it would cause resistance to the movement of matter through the medium. That objection disappears if matter itself is only a vibration in the medium. Thus, without the medium there is no light, there is no matter. It might be this medium is solid. It certainly must have a high rigidity to transport light waves at such a high velocity.”

Some of you will recognize elements of my own theories here. The universe is made up of one field, not billions of them as posited in the standard model. The anomalies we see are not the separate ones of each individual entity, but these entities themselves are organized coherent distortions of the one field and these high energy distortions  carry with them the unique characteristics we apprehend. To see it in another way. all that we know as reality, objects, events, phenomena, consist of defects in an elastic medium, the cosmos. There is no duality. There is, rather, a profound singularity. What we imagine as particles are complex, organized, coherent distortions of that medium. Everything is made of waves, but waves of something.

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“Quantum” thoughts

This recent posting on LinkedIn’s Theoretical Physics group led to much meandering discussion to no discernable clarity. Einstein’s admission to bafflement does not deter every Tom, Dick, or Harry from his own interpretation, of course, but maybe some clarification is possible.

With this in mind, I went to Wikipedia for guidance.

from Wikipedia(12/26/18)

In physics, a quantum(plural: quanta) is the minimum amount of any physical entity (physical property) involved in an interaction. The fundamental notion that a physical property may be “quantized” is referred to as “the hypothesis of quantization“.[1]This means that the magnitude of the physical property can take on only discrete values consisting of integer multiples of one quantum. 

For example, a photon is a single quantum of light (or of any other form of electromagnetic radiation). Similarly, the energy of an electron bound within anatom is quantized and can exist only in certain discrete values. (Indeed, atoms and matter in general are stable because electrons can exist only at discrete energy levels within an atom.)

I tried to find experimental evidence for this last assertion, but was unsuccessful. Wikipedia goes on:

Quantization is one of the foundations of the much broader physics of quantum mechanics. Quantization of energy and its influence on how energy and matter interact (quantum electrodynamics) is part of the fundamental framework for understanding and describing nature.

So, what, then, is quantization? The best answer I can seem to find is that it is the arbitrary assignment of a numerical value to some unit of a quantity, or force , or value. And who knows what it means? It seems it can be interpreted at will, by whomever, and may or may not be agreed upon.

Again, from Wikipedia:

The word quantum comes from the Latinquantus, meaning “how great”. “Quanta”, short for “quanta of electricity” (electrons), was used in a 1902 article on the photoelectric effect by Philipp Lenard, who credited Hermann von Helmholtzfor using the word in the area of electricity. However, the word quantum in general was well known before 1900. It was often used by physicians, such as in the term quantum satis. Both Helmholtz and Julius von Mayerwere physicians as well as physicists. Helmholtz used quantum with reference to heat in his article on Mayer’s work, and the word quantum can be found in the formulation of the first law of thermodynamicsby Mayer in his letter dated July 24, 1841 

In 1901,Max Planck used quanta to mean “quanta of matter and electricity”,gas, and heat.In 1905, in response to Planck’s work and the experimental work of Lenard (who explained his results by using the term quanta of electricity),Albert Einstein suggested thatradiation existed in spatially localized packets which he called“quanta of light” (“Lichtquanta”).

The concept of quantization of radiation theory was discovered in 1900 by Max Planck, who had been trying to understand the emission of radiation from heated objects, known as black-body radiation. By assuming that energy can be absorbed or released only in tiny, differential, discrete packets (which he called “bundles”, or “energy elements”), Planck accounted for certain objects changing colour when heated.On December 14, 1900, Planck reported his findings to the German Physical Society, and introduced the idea of quantization for the first time as a part of his research on black-body radiation.[As a result of his experiments, Planck deduced the numerical value of h, known as the Planck constant, and reported more precise values for the unit of electrical charge and the Avogadro–Loschmidt number, the number of real molecules in a mole, to the German Physical Society. After his theory was validated, Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery in 1918.

The original use of the term,quantum satis(the amount which is enough) can easily have meaning in an analog universe, that is, as the quantity, level, intensity, etc., required to achieve detection. This interpretation requires a standard variable to be set and modified, upgraded as methodology improves. In a sine wave, for instance, if detection occurs only when a value achieves a certain positive level, the result can be mistakenly interpreted as a series of separated point values, which have been artificially cut off at their lower values.

Wikipedia’s list of usage examples (in physics) follows, not to speak of “quantum leap”

Elementary particle


Introduction to quantum mechanics

Magneticflux quantum


Photon polarization

Quantization (physics)

Quantum cellular automata

Quantum channel


Quantum chromodynamics


Quantum cryptography

Quantum dot

Quantum electrodynamics

Quantum electronics

Quantum entanglement

Quantum Field Theory

Quantum immortality

Quantum lithography

Quantum Mechanics

Quantum number

Quantum Optics

Quantum sensor

Quantum state

Subatomic particle

Quantum teleportation

(Each of these has a Wikipedia page!)

Planck’s defining of (not “discovery of”) energy quanta led to the almost immediate conflation or misinterpretation that energy only existedas quanta, that is, that it could not be considered as a continuous phenomenon. Which is where we got the photon, and the (false) truism of “wave-particle duality,” the subject of millions of words of explanation throughout the literature. But, it was convenient for the math, so it stuck, and bedevils us to this day. Understanding light as a wave phenomenon also explains in simple terms the famous double slit experiment (you can look it up here) as simple diffraction mechanics, not as mysterious particle-jumping-around behavior. Physics does not need made up mystery. There will always be enough to go around without the need to make them up out of thin air.

Who benefits from made-up mysteries? Maybe the academic programs, if you look at how many graduate students are studying string theory. When I ask these questions on the theoretical physics websites, half of what I get back are mathematical equations, which explain nothing.

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The truth is simple

The truth is simple. Finding it is complicated. In January 2017 the physicist Frank Wilczek lectured at Arizona State University on the subject “The Materiality of Vacuum,” in a series introduced by Lawrence Krauss, famous for the theory that “everything comes from nothing.”

“Vacuum is space devoid of matter.” (Wikipedia

Wilczek is a physicist who has not steered  clear of controversial subjects in his career, but is, as are  most modern theorists, deeply steeped in the conventions of quantum mechanics and the various particle theories of modern physics. He has come close, as in his book “The Lightness of Being,” to a field theory of the universe, but sees that field as a grid, a scaffolding, so to speak, on which is built, by some mechanism, the reality with which we daily interact and interpret.

To his credit, he sees, as Einstein and others before him, the need for something material on which to hang the universe with all it’s material “sensible matter,” stars planets, galaxies, clusters, that we study and try to make sense of. In that sense, it is amusing to have him onstage with Krauss, who with a straight face sees nothing.

But my argument is not with his assertion of materiality filling the void. That I applaud. It is with the insistence he and his colleagues have in continuing to call it a void, a vacuum, something “devoid of matter,” when there is a clearer, simpler way of describing it. In Wilczek’s universe, the vacuum is a soup of the smallest of particles, quarks and gluons, but these are virtual particles in that they arise in the soup. exist for billionths of seconds and disappear back into the void. Here is a graphic artist’s conception of this process.

Some, however continue to exist through phase transitions allowing the seeds of new universes to come into being. One of those universes turns out to be the one we inhabit and experience. Others may arise in parallel, but even though these have their beginnings in the same quarks and gluons they may follow different rules, different “laws of nature.” Why should this be? Why, to lend mystery to the process so that its reliance on fictional quarks and gluons can stand on its own, of course.

“Who has seen a quark? Who has seen a gluon?”

I haven’t found a text of Wilczek’s lectures, but have watched it on Youtube. A contemporary account of it describes his thesis this way:

“Wilczek began his lecture by speaking of the profound analogy between materials and vacuum. What our naked senses perceive as empty space turns out to be a riotous environment of virtual particles fluorescing and dying away on extremely small scales of space and time, as well as fog-like fields and condensates, which permeate all space and dictate the properties of elementary particles.

A pregnant emptiness

To give an analogy for this perplexing new picture of reality, Wilczek asks us to imagine intelligent fish in a world surrounded by water. Such creatures would perceive the water surrounding them as their version of empty space or a vacuum. “The big idea I want to convey is simply this: We’re like those fish,” he said. What our senses perceive as empty space is better understood as a substance, a material.

Just as the water-based world of the intelligent fish can change its state to ice or steam, our own vacuum may be capable of similar phase transitions. One such transition may have given birth to our universe, some 13 billion years ago — a concept explored in great detail in Krauss’ primer on the vacuum: “A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing” (Atria Books, 2013).”

This turning of “the big bang” into a phase transition warms my heart, since that has been my argument all along, as well as attributing materiality to the void, the vacuum. It is of course, not a “filled” vacuum, but a field. Even Wilczek accepts that energy is material, though not, in the traditional sense matter itself, or, at least, not yet.

My own model, The Simple Universe, is described in detail in my blog posts and my latest book, imagine darkness, in which the void, the vacuum, is replaced by our easily detectable electromagnetic field,  an ever present and everywhere present entity, which is at the same time the only fixed relativistic frame in existence. It doesn’t “fill” the vacuum, it isthe vacuum.

This simple truth does not need imaginary quarks and gluons. It does not need alternative universes with different “laws of nature.” It doesn’t need complex systems of particles, each with its own field and the inevitable multitude of field interactions. It does not need mysterious forces to explain electrical fields and magnetic fields, or gravity. There are simpler mechanisms for the resolution of energy into the palpable stuff we call matter. Just remember “reverberation, reinforcement, resonance, phase transition.” It explains how light is bent in so-called dark matter” regions. It offers a simpler explanation of “dark energy.” And at last we can understand why light has a speed limit.

(By the way, I am not an intelligent fish).

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The errors of our ways

One of the small pleasures of the mind is the discovery, in an unexpected place, in another discipline, even, of support for a concept that you might have thought original, but, it turns out had been anticipated 500 years before. That was my recent pleasure in the pages of Walter Isaacson’s monumental biography of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, of course, is the epitome of what we have come to call a Renaissance Man, a true generalist who excelled in whatever he set his mind to. In his world renowned paintings, in the science he developed for that work, in his keen observations of nature in all its particulars, he still challenges us to be clear and articulate. Here, in this quote from Isaacson, is his insight into physics, particularly into the question of what is real and what is perception, a standard to which all physics thinking should be held, clearly articulated 500 years ago.

Shapes without lines* (p. 268)

 Leonardo’s reliance [as a painter] on shadows rather than contour lines to define the shape of most objects stemmed from a radical insight, one that he derived from both observation and mathematics: there was no such thing in nature as a precisely visible outline or border to an object. It was not just our way of perceiving objects that made their borders blurred. He realized [as a scientist] that nature itself, independent of how our eyes perceive it, does not have precise lines.

 In his mathematical studies he made a distinction between numerical qualities which involve discrete and individual units and continuous quantities of the sort found in geometry which involve measurements and gradations that are infinitely divisible. Shadows are in the latter category; they come in continuous seamless gradations rather than in discrete units that can be delineated. “Between light and darkness there is infinite variation because their quantity is continuous,” he wrote.

 That was not a radical proposition. But Leonardo then took it a further step. Nothing in nature he realized, has precise mathematical lines or boundaries or borders. “Lines are not part of any quantity of an objects surface nor are they part of the air which surrounds the surface,” he wrote. He realized that points and lines are mathematical constructs. They do not have a physical presence. They are infinitely small. “The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may be rather be called an imaginary idea then a real object; and this being its nature it occupies no space.”

*Walter Isaacson, “Leonardo da Vinci,” 2017

You, faithful readers of these pages, will, I’m sure, recognize the parallels to many of my prior assertions. There is a real world out there, separate from our perceptions and frequent misinterpretations of those perceptions. We see an apparent edge and interpret it as a line. We assume, because Democritus, Lucretius, et al, said so that everything is made of particles. We invent a measurement and, suddenly, say it exists as an object. The separation between object and description disappears, and then, and then, a whole discipline grows up about this new “object.” The classic, for me, is the quantum. Can anybody tell me what a quantum is? Invented by Max Planck and popularized by Einstein, the best I can tell is that Planck needed a measurement unit to plug into his equations about black body radiation, so he invented (not “discovered!”) a unit that became a monument used to reify every mysterious phenomenon hypothesized by scientists for the next century. Other questions: What is a quantum computer? a quantum leap? a quantum theory? Calling something a “quantum” something makes it less mysterious? or just beyond questioning or explanation. What about “relativity”? A close reading of the conceptual notion of relativity reveals that neither Galileo or Einstein were describing real physical things or events. In both instances, they were describing theories of perception. I am convinced that we will find, eventually, that the world is rough and analog and that only mathematics is precise and, perhaps, digital. Who said that first? Plato, of course.

A second pleasure from Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo is the reminder of how many scientific insights he had, years, even centuries, before they were rediscovered and published. His failure was that he never published them, but there they were in his notebooks, in his drawings, and his backward script.

Enough of my ranting. Suffice it to say: We will never have a real physics, that is, a physics untainted by extraneous verbal or philosophical meanderings until we become rigorous about the separation between the real world and our mostly defective perceptions of it. “Orders of abstraction” (Korzybski) and “logical types” (Russell) need to be clear and clearly stated if we are to make it out of this jungle and make real progress.

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The Accidental Universe (Apologies to Alan Lightman°)

*Alan Lightman’s book with this title, a collection of thoughtful essays on the universe was published in 2013. In it he lays out an assortment of ways of looking at and interpreting the universe, some according to the standard models of physics and cosmology, some in more philosophically, even poetic ways. My concern, and my use of the title here, is more in the sense of the real, physical basis of how this universe that we perceive, and of which we are a part, may have actually come into existence as a real accident, one that may have occurred only once, or perhaps many times, something we may never really know.

The current, accepted by most in the field, standard model of the origin and growth of the universe is the Big Bang, inflationary model is that originally proposed by Alan Guth, now at MIT. Lightman describes Guth’s revision of the previously accepted big bang model in this way. “We now have a great deal of evidence suggesting that our universe began as a nugget of extremely high density and temperature about fourteen billion years ago and has been expanding, thinning out, and cooling ever since. The (Guth’s) theory of inflation proposes that when the universe was only about a trillioth of a trillionth of a trillionth of second old, a peculiar type of energy caused the cosmos to expand very rapidly. A tiny fraction of a second later, the universe returned to the more leisurely rate of expansion of the standard Big Bang model.” Guth’s modification of the standard model, it seemed, cleared up some serious gaps in the standard model, like the perceived homogeneity of the observed universe today.

If looked at with a truly critical eye, however, a number of unanswered questions arise, like:

“Whence cometh that original nugget?”

“If such a thing actually existed, what caused it to explode?”

“What was the nature of that ‘peculiar type of energy’ that caused the “expansion?”

“Why did the expansion then stop after a fraction of a second?”

There are more questions than we can count as to the verification of the “Big Bang” and its “inflation” modification, but it answers many questions researchers have expounded on for many years. But here is my main question. What if the logic underlying those “questions” has itself been based on faulty assumptions? For example, the principal evidence assumed to confirm the Big Bang theory was the discovery. by Wilson and Penzias in 1964, of the so-called CMBR, the cosmic microwave background radiation, that could be interpreted, if you assume, without evidence, as the echo of a great explosion, some 13.8 billion years ago, the “aha” of the Big Bang theorists. But that discovery itself ignited inconsistencies in the original theory that required Guth’s “expansion” insight to explain away.

But let’s imagine that Georges LeMaitre had not, in 1927, speculated that the apparently expanding universe could, if one traced that expansion back in time, be led to an imaginary beginning? What then would the discovery of a cosmos filled, the same in all apparent directions, with an almost but not quite uniform level of energy, be attributed to? Is there another theory, another model of the universe in there somewhere? One in which such an energy field might fit and where it might answer some other questions that physicists and cosmologists have long been seeking answers for? Like, for instance, what is the explanation for the constancy of the maximum speed of light? Why is that also a constant for all forms of electromagnetic radiation? How is it that we are detecting the effects of something that for want of a better term we are calling “dark energy”? Dark matter? If those exist, what are they made of?

Le Maitre’s scheme needed an assumption, one that, of necessity, could not be proved. I have a friend who, whenever I explain the origin of some aspect of physics or cosmology, invariably responds with, “But where does that come from? What preceded that?” I have finally given up and tend to respond with, “Well, of course, it’s turtles all the way down,”after the apocryphal story quoted by Steven Hawking in “A Brief History of Time”. The real answer is that in any model there must have been a state or condition of origin , perhaps, at a scale such as that of the origin of the universe, must be an assumption. For example, in the Big Bang theory, there was something called spacetime, an invention by Einstein out of the three required spatial dimensions which are the minimum needed to describe an object, an event, or a phenomenon, along with a fourth, that of the time or duration of such an entity. (see “How many dimensions make a universe”, ) However, the problem with these is that none of them, taken by themselves, is actually a real object, event, or phenomenon, and are only invented tools for the description of such values. So the Big Bang has its origin in a non entity. Then it begins as this “nugget” of intense mass and energy with no known predecessor. It is described variously as a quantum fluctuation in “spacetime” (that again), as a “singularity” (meaning which, I suppose, as something which happened once and will never happen again), another assumption unsupported by any antecedent, that explodes or expands or both, together or in sequence, all by means unexplained or unexplainable by reference to any of what we know as the laws of physics. This is explained by saying “Oh, those did not exist before this.” But what did?

Oh! One other thing. This was all created out of nothing! This seems to violate one of the earliest laws of physics. Think Democritus, Lucretius, Aristotle.

So let’s back up and start over. If we assume (easily checked, based on what can observe all around us) that the universe was made from something, what could that something be? It’s another reasonable assumption that whatever it was made from must be still around. Well, there are one or two constants of modern physics that we have learned to rely on. One is the speed of light in a vacuum. We’ve observed and tested for generations and that one seems safe. The second is what may turn out to be Einstein’s greatest single contribution, E= mc2. That may not be as certain but seems reliable enough. The second of these tells us that matter, that is, what makes up what we perceive as solid, physical stuff, is, in some form, equivalent to energy. They can be converted, one into the other. And what is here now, in sufficient quantity, and that might have been here at the beginning of this, our universe? What exists in all directions as far as we can detect both from here on earth and from satellites that we have sent out to detect it? Why that CMBR, of course. Energy, as far as the detector can see, in every direction. At low levels, of course, about 2.7° Kelvin, but unlimited in extent. And once we get past the notion that it is just the echo of a hypothetical big bang, we can see it as a source. It was here at the beginning, is here now and will probably be here as long as we can imagine.

How, then do we get from here to an accidental universe? That sea of energy, of course, is its source. Limitless in extent, turbulent as any sea, constantly tossing up orderly events in the midst of its chaos, orderly events that sometimes reverberate, reinforce and resonate. Each time creating higher energy foci that become points of stability causing higher energy density distortions in the field. Finally, we see order arising in the field, and ultimately what we call matter and masses, planets, stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies as far as light can travel and the eye can see.

And, in at least one case, in a remarkable, real, unimaginably vast, rich, beautiful , dreamlike instance, an accidental universe.



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