Tag Archives: Philosophy

On Scientific Inevitability

If one looks through the history of human evolution, it is surprising to see that humanity has on several independent occasions, in several different locations, figured how to produce food, make pottery, write, invent the wheel, domesticate animals, build complex political societies, etc. It is almost as if these discoveries and inventions were an inevitable part of the evolution of humans. More controversially, one may extend such arguments to include the development of science, mathematics, medicine and many other branches of knowledge (more on this point below).

The interesting part about these ancient inventions is that because they originated in different parts of the world, the specifics varied geographically. For instance, native South Americans domesticated llamas, while cultures in Southwest Asia (today’s Middle East) domesticated sheep, cows, and horses, while the Ancient Chinese were able to domesticate chickens among other animals. The reason that different cultures domesticated different animals was because these animals were by and large native to the regions where they were domesticated.

Now, there are also many instances in human history where inventions were not made independently, but diffused geographically. For instance, writing was developed independently in at least a couple locations (Mesoamerica and Southwest Asia), but likely diffused from Southwest Asia into Europe and other neighboring geographic locations. While the peoples in these other places would have likely discovered writing on their own in due time, the diffusion from Southwest Asia made this unnecessary. These points are well-made in the excellent book by Jared Diamond entitled Guns, Germs and Steel.

If you've ever been to the US post-office, you'll realize very quickly that it's not the product of intelligent design.

At this point, you are probably wondering what I am trying to get at here, and it is no more than the following musing. Consider the following thought experiment: if two different civilizations were geographically isolated without any contact for thousands of years, would they both have developed a similar form of scientific inquiry? Perhaps the questions asked and the answers obtained would have been slightly different, but my naive guess is that given enough time, both would have developed a process that we would recognize today as genuinely scientific. Obviously, this thought experiment is not possible, and this fact makes it difficult to answer to what extent the development of science was inevitable, but I would consider it plausible and likely.

Because what we would call “modern science” was devised after the invention of the printing press, the process of scientific inquiry likely “diffused” rather than being invented independently in many places. The printing press accelerated the pace of information transfer and did not allow geographically separated areas to “invent” science on their own.

Today, we can communicate globally almost instantly and information transfer across large geographic distances is easy. Scientific communication therefore works through a similar diffusive process, through the writing of papers in journals, where scientists from anywhere in the world can submit papers and access them online. Looking at science in this way, as an almost inevitable evolutionary process, downplays the role of individuals and suggests that despite the contribution of any individual scientist, humankind would have likely reached that destination ultimately anyhow. The timescale to reach a particular scientific conclusion may have been slightly different, but those conclusions would have been made nonetheless.

There are some scientists out there who have contributed massively to the advancement of science and their absence may have slowed progress, but it is hard to imagine that progress would have slowed very significantly. In today’s world, where the idea of individual genius is romanticized in the media and further so by prizes such as the Nobel, it is important to remember that no scientist is indispensable, no matter how great. There were often competing scientists simultaneously working on the biggest discoveries of the 20th century, such as the theories of general relativity, the structure of DNA, and others. It is likely that had Einstein or Watson, Crick and Franklin not solved those problems, others would have.

So while the work of this year’s scientific Nobel winners is without a doubt praise-worthy and the recipients deserving, it is interesting to think about such prizes in this slightly different and less romanticized light.

Research Topics and the LAQ Method

As a scientific researcher, the toughest part of the job is to come up with good scientific questions. A large part of my time is spent looking for such questions and every once in a while, I happen upon a topic that is worth spending the time to investigate further. The most common method of generating such questions is to come up with a lot of them and then sift through the list to find some that are worth pursuing.

One of the main criteria I use for selecting such questions/problems is what I refer to as the “largest answerable question” or LAQ method. Because the lifetime of a researcher is limited by the human lifespan, it is important to try to answer the largest answerable questions that fall within the window of your ability. Hence, this selection process is actually tied in with one’s self-confidence and actually takes a fair amount of introspection. I imagine the LAQ method looking a little bit like this:

Image result for broad to specific triangle

One starts by asking some really general questions about some scientific topic which eventually proceeds to a more specific, answerable, concrete question. If the question is answerable, it usually will have ramifications that will be broadly felt by many in the community.

I imagine that most readers of this blog will have no trouble coming up with examples of success stories where scientists employed the LAQ method. Just about every famous scientist you can think of has probably, at least to some extent, used this method fruitfully. However, there are counterexamples as well, where important questions are asked by one scientist, but is answered by others.

I am almost done reading Erwin Schrodinger’s book What is Life?, which was written in 1943. In it, Schrodinger asks deep questions about genetics and attempts to put physical constraints on information-carrying molecules (DNA was not known at the time to be the site of genetic information). It is an entertaining read in two regards. Firstly, Schrodinger, at the time of writing, introduces to physicists some of the most pertinent and probing questions in genetics. The book was, after all, one that was read by both Watson and Crick before they set about discovering the structure of DNA. Secondly, and more interestingly, Schrodinger gets almost everything he tries to answer wrong! For instance, he suggests that quantum mechanics may play a role in causing a mutation of certain genes. This is not to say that his reasoning was not sound, but at the time of writing, there were just not enough experimental constraints on some of the assumptions he made.

Nonetheless, I applaud Schrodinger for writing the book and exposing his ignorance. Even though he was not able to answer many of the questions himself, he was an inspiration to many others who eventually were able to shed light on many of the questions posed in the book. Here is an example where the LAQ method fails, but still pushes science forward in a tangible way.

What are your strategies with coming up with good research questions? I have to admit that while the LAQ method is useful, I sometimes pursue problems purely because I find them stunning and no other reason is needed!

Discovery vs. Q&A Experiments

When one looks through the history of condensed matter experiment, it is strange to see how many times discoveries were made in a serendipitous fashion (see here for instance). I would argue that most groundbreaking findings were unanticipated. The discoveries of superconductivity by Onnes, the Meissner effect, superfluidity in He-4, cuprate (and high temperature) superconductivity, the quantum Hall effect and the fractional quantum Hall effect were all unforeseen by the very experimentalists that were conducting the experiments! Theorists also did not anticipate these results. Of course, a whole slew of phases and effects were theoretically predicted and then experimentally observed as well, such as Bose-Einstein condensation, the Kosterlitz-Thouless transition, superfluidity in He-3 and the discovery of topological insulators, not to diminish the role of prediction.

For the condensed matter experimentalist, though, this presents a rather strange paradigm.  Naively (and I would say that the general public by and large shares this view), science is perceived as working within a question and answer framework. You pose a concrete question, and then conduct and experiment to try to answer said question. In condensed matter physics, this often not the case, or at least only loosely the case. There are of course experiments that have been conducted to answer concrete questions — and when they are conducted, they usually end up being beautiful experiments (see here for example). But these kinds of experiments can only be conducted when a field reaches a point where concrete questions can be formulated. For exploratory studies, the questions are often not even clear. I would, therefore, consider these kinds of Q&A experiments to be the exception to the rule rather than the norm.

More often then not, discoveries are made by exploring uncharted territory, entering a space others have not explored before, and tempting fate. Questions are often not concrete but posed in the form, “What if I do this…?”. I know that this makes condensed matter physics sound like it lacks organization, clarity and structure. But this is not totally untrue. Most progress in the history of science did not proceed in a straight line like textbooks make it seem. When weird particles were popping up all over the place in particle physics in the 1930s and 40s, it was hard to see any organizing principles. Experimentalists were discovering new particles at a rate with which theory could not keep up. Only after a large number of particles had been discovered did Gell-Mann come up with his “Eightfold Way”, which ultimately led to the Standard Model.

This is all to say that scientific progress is tortuous, thought processes of scientists are highly nonlinear, and there is a lot of intuition required in deciding what problems to solve or what space is worth exploring. In condensed matter experiment, it is therefore important to keep pushing boundaries of what has been done before, explore, and do something unique in hope of finding something new!

Exposure to a wide variety of observations and methods is required to choose what boundaries to push and where to spend one’s time exploring. This is what makes diversity and avoiding “herd thinking” important to the scientific endeavor. Exploratory science without concrete questions makes some (especially younger graduate students) feel uncomfortable, since there is always the fear of finding nothing! This means that condensed matter physics, despite its tremendous progress over the last few decades, where certain general organizing principles have been identified, is still somewhat of a “wild west” in terms of science. But it is precisely this lack of structure that makes it particularly exciting — there are still plenty of rocks that need overturning, and it’s hard to foresee what is going to be found underneath them.

In experimental science, questions are important to formulate — but the adventure towards the answer usually ends up being more important than the answer itself.

Fractional quasiparticles and reality

As a condensed matter physicist, one of the central themes that one must become accustomed to is the idea of a quasiparticle. These quasiparticles are not particles as nature made them per se, but only exist inside matter. (Yes, nature made matter too, and therefore quasiparticles as well, but come on — you know what I mean!)

Probably the first formulation of a quasiparticle was in Einstein’s theory of specific heat in a solid at low temperature. He postulated that the sound vibrations in a solid, much like photons from a blackbody, obeyed the Planck distribution, implying some sort of particulate nature to sound. This introduction was quite indirect, and the first really explicit formulation of quasiparticles was presented by Landau in his theory of He4. Here, he proposed that most physical observables could be described in terms of “phonons” and “rotons“, quantized sound vibrations at low and high momenta respectively.

In solid state physics, one of the most common quasiparticles is the hole; in the study of magnetism it is the magnon, in semiconductor physics, the exciton is ubiquitous and there are many other examples as well. So let me ask a seemingly benign question: are these quasiparticles real (i.e. are they real particles)?

In my experience in the condensed matter community, I suspect that most would answer in the affirmative, and if not, at least claim that the particles observed in condensed matter are just as real as any particle observed in particle physics.

Part of the reason I bring this issue up is because of concerns raised soon following the discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect (FQHE). When the theory of the FQHE was formulated by Laughlin, it was thought that his formulation of quasiparticles of charge e/3 may have been a mere oddity in the mathematical description of the FQHE. Do these particles carrying e/3 current actually exist or is this just a convenient mathematical description?

In two papers that appeared almost concurrently, linked here and here, it was shown using quantum shot noise experiments that these e/3 particles did indeed exist. Briefly, quantum shot noise arises because of the discrete nature of particles and enables one to measure the charge of a current-carrying particle to a pretty good degree of accuracy. In comparing their results to the models of particles carrying charge e versus particles carrying charge e/3, the data shows no contest. Here is a plot below showing this result quite emphatically:

FracCharge.PNG

One may then pose the question: is there a true distinction between what really “exists out there” versus a theory that conveniently describes and predicts nature? Is the physicist’s job complete once the equations have been written down (i.e should he/she not care about questions like “are these fractional charges real”)?

These are tough questions to answer, and are largely personal, but I lean towards answering ‘yes’ to the former and ‘no’ to the latter. I would contend that the quantum shot noise experiments outlined above wouldn’t have even been conducted if the questions posed above were not serious considerations. While asking if something is real may not always be answerable, when it is, it usually results in a deepened understanding.

This discussion reminds me of an (8-year old!) YouTube video of David who, following oral surgery to remove a tooth, still feels the affects of anesthesia :

Consistency in the Hierarchy

When writing on this blog, I try to share nuggets here and there of phenomena, experiments, sociological observations and other peoples’ opinions I find illuminating. Unfortunately, this format can leave readers wanting when it comes to some sort of coherent message. Precisely because of this, I would like to revisit a few blog posts I’ve written in the past and highlight the common vein running through them.

Condensed matter physicists of the last couple generations have grown up ingrained with the idea that “More is Different”, a concept first coherently put forth by P. W. Anderson and carried further by others. Most discussions of these ideas tend to concentrate on the notion that there is a hierarchy of disciplines where each discipline is not logically dependent on the one beneath it. For instance, in solid state physics, we do not need to start out at the level of quarks and build up from there to obtain many properties of matter. More profoundly, one can observe phenomena which distinctly arise in the context of condensed matter physics, such as superconductivity, the quantum Hall effect and ferromagnetism that one wouldn’t necessarily predict by just studying particle physics.

While I have no objection to these claims (and actually agree with them quite strongly), it seems to me that one rather (almost trivial) fact is infrequently mentioned when these concepts are discussed. That is the role of consistency.

While it is true that one does not necessarily require the lower level theory to describe the theories at the higher level, these theories do need to be consistent with each other. This is why, after the publication of BCS theory, there were a slew of theoretical papers that tried to come to terms with various aspects of the theory (such as the approximation of particle number non-conservation and features associated with gauge invariance (pdf!)).

This requirement of consistency is what makes concepts like the Bohr-van Leeuwen theorem and Gibbs paradox so important. They bridge two levels of the “More is Different” hierarchy, exposing inconsistencies between the higher level theory (classical mechanics) and the lower level (the micro realm).

In the case of the Bohr-van Leeuwen theorem, it shows that classical mechanics, when applied to the microscopic scale, is not consistent with the observation of ferromagnetism. In the Gibbs paradox case, classical mechanics, when not taking into consideration particle indistinguishability (a quantum mechanical concept), is inconsistent with the idea the entropy must remain the same when dividing a gas tank into two equal partitions.

Today, we have the issue that ideas from the micro realm (quantum mechanics) appear to be inconsistent with our ideas on the macroscopic scale. This is why matter interference experiments are still carried out in the present time. It is imperative to know why it is possible for a C60 molecule (or a 10,000 amu molecule) to be described with a single wavefunction in a Schrodinger-like scheme, whereas this seems implausible for, say, a cat. There does again appear to be some inconsistency here, though there are some (but no consensus) frameworks, like decoherence, to get around this. I also can’t help but mention that non-locality, à la Bell, also seems totally at odds with one’s intuition on the macro-scale.

What I want to stress is that the inconsistency theorems (or paradoxes) contained seeds of some of the most important theoretical advances in physics. This is itself not a radical concept, but it often gets neglected when a generation grows up with a deep-rooted “More is Different” scientific outlook. We sometimes forget to look for concepts that bridge disparate levels of the hierarchy and subsequently look for inconsistencies between them.