Sunday, June 29, 2008

Chemistry

I am one of the luckiest people walking this Earth. I have a great family, and live in the land of plenty. I could rhapsodize about my wonderful wife and beautiful sons, but this is not the venue for that. I'll focus on my professional life, because there, I am also fortunate beyond reason. I am a scientist, but even more, I am a chemist.

I started my scientific life in physics, and I have stayed pretty connected to that world. Still, I think that chemistry is more interesting than much of modern physics because chemistry deals with processes and materials that one is able to experience. With 'stuff'. With things that happen at a scale that we can care about. Solid-state physics is kind of like that, so I sort of adopt it into chemistry...

I think some people are beguiled by time travel, or exotic states of matter, or that the equations that 'explain' the universe may someday fit on a t-shirt. This stuff is fine, as far as it goes.

I find things like silly putty, liquid nitrogen and epoxy every bit as fascinating as anything I could learn from the Large Hadron Collider, because while they seem mundane, something very fundamental and surprising is really at the heart of them.

Of course a billion gazillion dollars worth of physics hardware is going to tell you something interesting. But so will 5o cents worth of silicone polymer if you know what to ask of it. Neither one is likely to lead directly to something useful. Both are deep. Saying that you are probing the heart of matter sounds more important than playing with silly putty. But I am not convinced that they are necessarily different, depending on the approach taken.

I believe that the natural world is predictable to some extent, but that it is too complex to predict much in any detail. A bias towards trying things is the only thing I can see that is likely to work to help solve problems. Knowing what holds nuclei together is important, and I want the LHC to help figure out all those kind of physics-y things. Yet I wouldn't oversell what knowing this will get us. I doubt that knowing things at a super low level 'ends' science, or that physics is somehow the most fundamental science, whatever that is supposed to mean. Details are important, and stuff emerges that cannot be predicted, even in principle, I think. We once thought that there was a hierarchy of knowledge, but that seems pretty vacuous now.

Physics can be pretty precise when talking about certain simple things. My sense is that the precision and mathematization of physics is misperceived as a plus, though- fundamentally the deal made in physics is a trading off of relevance, detail and usefulness for tractability. To the extent that experimentation becomes something to support theorizing both theory and experiment have become perverse.

I hope it isn't too unkind to draw an analogy between modern physics and economics- we are far into the realm of diminishing returns with respect to particle physics. With chemistry, we are just getting started. There are huge swaths of the periodic table yet to explore.

I have no beef with big physics. String theory is not going to make the periodic table change, though. It may or may not lead to a theory of everything. Chemistry certainly will not. But I'm not apologizing for finding chemistry far more compelling. I want the physics to happen. But I am content to read about it in the newspaper. Chemistry, on the other hand, I want to do.

Perhaps my biases come from the fact that chemistry is just too complex for theory to handle. No chemical reaction worth doing is going to be amenable to exact calculation for a long, long time, and even then, I predict that the results would be far less useful than just running the reaction. I am not, in any fashion, knocking the efforts to try. There is a lot to learn, even without doing reactions. Less than by doing them, I'd wager, but still.

2 Comments:

At Monday, June 30, 2008, Blogger Ψ*Ψ said...

I'm beginning to think I may have given up on physics too early. Definitely wouldn't mind being more conversant with solid state.
Also, your post reminded me of this.

 
At Tuesday, July 01, 2008, Blogger David Eaton said...

Solid State is very cool, I agree. But lately I have been reading about 'soft matter' physics, and I find it as compelling as solid state.

I am pretty much much a frustrated mathematician. I wish I had the noodle for the really abstract stuff. I have a lot of fun banging my head against a mathematical brick wall.

I have that cartoon on my office wall...

 

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