Monday, March 15, 2010

Anne Hathaway, process metaphysics, and quarks

"For the process philosopher, the classical principle operari sequitur esse (functioning follows upon being) is reversed: his motto is esse sequitur operari, since being follows from operation." (Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy, A Companion to Metaphysics, p417)

Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway, has recently been puzzling newspaper columnists with her pronouncements on physics and philosophy. In early 2009, Miss Hathaway could be found extolling the virtues of process metaphysics at one of the film industry's increasingly rare awards ceremonies. Just over a year later, the erstwhile star of The Princess Diaries, admitted to GQ magazine that her intellectual interests included a voracious appetite for physics:

"I'm interested in elementary particles. What I like thinking about is how time and space exist in the universe and how we understand it.

"Any spare time I have, I bury my head in a physics textbook. I'm learning. I'm reading a lot about Einstein. I like theories. I want to understand string theory. I am dying for someone to explain quarks to me!"

To most newspaper journalists, these separate statements might appear logically unconnected, and perhaps even a little contrived. It may be, however, that Anne has simply been reading some of philosopher Nicholas Rescher's output. For those unfamiliar with process philosophy, the basic idea is that processes should be treated as more fundamental than objects; processes, it is claimed, are basic, whilst things are derivative. Now, Rescher in particular claims that this process philosophy finds support within modern quantum physics:

"Matter in the small, as contemporary physics concerns it, is not a Rutherfordian planetary system of particle-like objects, but a collection of fluctuating processes organized into stable structures...Twentieth-century physics has thus turned the tables on classical atomism. Instead of very small things (atoms) combining to produce standard processes (windstorms and such) modern physics envisions very small processes (quantum phenomena) combining to produce standard things (ordinary macroscopic objects) as a result of their modus operandi," (ibid, p418).

Hence Miss Hathaway's interest in quarks.

On a point of substance, however, one might disagree with Rescher's sentiments. Process philosophy finds no more support or refutation in quantum physics than it receives in classical physics. The ontology of both classical physics and quantum physics reflects the common dichotomy between things and processes. In quantum physics, there are different types of quantum fields, and these fields have excitation states which are colloquially referred to as particles. These particles are exhaustively classified by the values they possess for properties such as mass, spin and charge. These properties determine what type of mathematical object the particles are represented by, and which type of evolution equation those objects must satisfy. Quarks and electrons, for example, are spin 1/2 particles with a non-zero mass, they are represented by cross-sections of Dirac spinor bundles, and their evolutionary processes are such that those cross-sections must satisfy the Dirac equation. There are both objects and processes in quantum physics, just as there are objects and processes in classical physics.

1 comment:

Marvin Caldwell-Barr said...

Mention of elementary particles in this post brought to mind the paradox of the twin slit experiment which to this day science seems unable to answer definitively.

David Deutch is adament that what you see is what you get; that the behavior of the photons or electrons in the experiment -- which shows individual subatomic particles in two spacial positions at once, and, by definition, in two time frames at once (until you look at them, whereupon they settle for only one state) -- is physical fact, and applies all the way up from the quantum level to our physical world.

(He uses a pack of cards to explain that when YOU turn a card over, countless versions of YOU also turn a card over, but in different universes which he calls the multiverse)

Several top quantum physicists have the same view. Stephen Hawking and the late Richard Feynman are two notable examples.

Roger Penrose sees it differently. While conceding that quantum physics does indeed drive you to the many worlds concept, he believes that when gravity is successfully brought into quantum theory, a whole new picture will emerge which will show that things at our level behave differently from things at the quantum level.

I find Prof Penrose's version more acceptable, logically.

But now a "team of scientists has succeeded in putting an object large enough to be visible to the naked eye into a mixed quantum state of moving and not moving, until someone looks at it, and it settles for one or other state.

How about that?