Saturday, February 18, 2006

Two down, Ten to go...

I finished Boltzmann's Atom. The book details the work of Ludwig Boltzmann at the end of the nineteenth century. He was the first to use statistical probabilities to describe atomic motion. There was not consensus among his peers that atoms even existed, so his theory on the nature of entropy was not widely accepted. Indeed, it was vehemently rejected by many.

But Ludwig Boltzmann might just be called the father of theoretical physics. The last century has served to uphold his theories, rejected though they were at the time.

I found it interesting in reading that his loudest critic, Ernst Mach (of Mach-6 fame) gained quite a following at the time. Mach didn't believe atoms even existed. But he ended up being wrong.

And lots of others were skeptical of Boltzmann's work because they were used to classical physics which was articulated through "laws" that they took to be absolute. Boltzmann's work put some classical ideas into the category of "true most of the time." The nature of probabilities dictates that nothing behaves the same way all the time. It is just likely to behave that way... and once in a great while, it won't. (Think of what it must have been like to have someone telling you that heat doesn't ABSOLUTELY flow from a hot object into a cold one. It is only EXTREMELY likely that it will. But there is a chance, unimaginably small, but a chance nonetheless, that heat can flow from a colder object into a hotter one.)

This kind of theorizing didn't sit well with classical physicists of the time.

And, to be sure, it is still quite mind-blowing even today.

It's funny how science works. This book reminds me of how much faith is a part of theorizing. It reminds me that bias exists in science. It reminds me that we are human.

Dudley Herschbach is a Nobel Laureate in chemsitry (1986, I think.) I was able to attend "seminar" on the day that he addressed the chemistry students at Wittenberg. Someone asked him about how it felt to win such a prestigious award. He said something very interesting. I don't remember it word for word, but it was something like this: I am humbled to receive such an award, because really, it's the atoms that should be honored. They are the ones who do all this amazing stuff. All we do is figure out what they were already doing, and have been doing for a very long time.

Science is clouded by the humanity of scientists. There is stuff we don't understand, and stuff we don't want to understand. We look at experimental data and go "huh?" And sometimes, we don't even believe what the data say. We argue about what constitutes "proof."

All this hampers our efforts to figure out what is really going on. The cool thing is, nature keeps on doing its thing, regardless of our understanding.

Anyway, all that to say this: I finished my second book.

I am now debating which book I should pick up next.

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Blogger Leslie said...

Read God's Politics! I have glanced over it, but not enough to comment.

I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

Sat Feb 18, 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Addie said...

When I started reading this post, I thought it might be just a smidge over my head! I'm pretty sure the book would be miles over my head, but the post was great!

I loved the way you related this to our faith. More often than I like, I'm more similar to Ernst Mach than Boltzmann. Not surprisingly, there are some things I don't understand, but sadly there are things I don't want to understand. I want my absolutes to be the correct/only absolutes. This is something I'm faced with more and more as I get older and continue to re-evaluate all that I 'thought' I knew. So nice that God has already given us a great example of this through science. Thanks for sharing. Once again, I will be 'chewing' on your post for a few days.

Sat Feb 18, 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger PEZmama said...

I started God's Politics. I have thought about posting - most likely quotes from the book.

He says things better than I ever could.

Sat Feb 18, 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Cup-a-Joe said...

For Christmas my Mother-in-law got me A Briefer History of Time so I know a smidge of what you are talking about.
Boltzmann's work led to Quantum Mechanics which is a weird way of veiwing physics but it unifies the Strong (Nuclear) Force, the Weak (Nuclear) Force, and Electro-Magnetism.
However, Gravity is still ruled by Einstien's General Relativity which does not agree with Quantum Mechanics.
If a way could be found to combine the two theories, we could have a unified theory of everything that explains how the universe developed.
I look forward to that development, so that at last the subject of the mechanism of creation would be finished, and we could get on to the who and why. Who created it, and why we are here in it are much more compelling questions and scientists have no clear answers for any of these questions.
Of course, Biblically we know who did it, and why He did it, and even a large part about why we are here in it. But as long as the discussion is about the mechanism of how it was done, the world neglects the larger questions, and we as Christians are shut out of the conversation.

Sorry, did this turn into a rant? Proly.

Sun Feb 19, 09:56:00 AM  

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