Importance of ‘minor details’ in science overlooked

Three weeks ago, WSN columnist Marcelo Cicconet criticized the current scientific developments as unable to achieve significant breakthroughs.

The author opens an interesting discussion on the impact and significance of recent developments in science. As much as I like Cicconet’s rhetoric and the fascinating description of the history of science, I have some divergent views on the development of physics since quantum mechanics.

At the beginning of the 20th century, quantum mechanics was dramatically developed in a way that wowed the world. The probabilistic model that quantum mechanics operates under, where events can only be “determined” up to certain probabilities, had a stimulating impact on the world of science, philosophy and religion. People of various religious beliefs and faiths used — and still use — quantum mechanics to justify their arguments. But because quantum mechanics is such a revolutionary scientific advancement, subsequent and less revolutionary developments after quantum mechanics may feel anti-climactic. We remember the drama and glory of the discovery of quantum, and so we want more of those. But don’t forget — big things don’t happen every day.

Quantum mechanics is revolutionary in that it is not just a big discovery, but it represents a paradigm shift from the world of determinism to the world of probabilism. How long did it take between previous paradigm shifts? The shift from Ptolemy’s geocentrism to Copernicus’s heliocentrism took 1,500 years; from Aristotelian mechanics to Newtonian mechanics took more than 2,000 years; and from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics took around 300 years. So if we want to see another dramatic paradigm shift, we may have to wait a bit longer than a century.

While we wait, we may want to emphasize that such change is not accomplished overnight. Schrödinger and Planck did not create quantum mechanics straight from Newtonian physics; instead, their success in unveiling the quantum world was inextricably tied to the previous development in physics. And what was the previous development to quantum mechanics? Mostly mathematical manipulations, or in Cicconet’s words, “solving minor details.” For example, 200 years after Newton established classical mechanics, two scientists named Joseph Louis Lagrange and William Rowan Hamilton reformulated Newtonian mechanics. If you look at their work, it’s nothing more than a few plays of substituting variables and redefining mathematical quantities. However, the Hamiltonian and Lagrangian mechanics were the cornerstone of quantum mechanics, as certain concepts developed in their work were heavily used in the formulation of quantum physics.

It may be true that “Higgs’ discoveries … bring us closer to the ultimate answer about reality … just as much as 100,000,000,000 is closer to infinity than 42.” But who knows if they can become the “shoulders of giants” that future scientists stand on? And besides, that 100,000,000,000 is closer to infinity than 42 may be sufficient for the purpose of doing science — after all, science works because, in the words of Ralph Baierlein, “Avogadro’s number is closer to infinity than to 10.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 2 print edition. Richard Zhang is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]