The Scale of the Physical Laws 10/5/19

A science discussion by Richard Bleil

Are you allowed to disagree with your college professors? Well of course you are. Good professors understand this. The best professors encourage it.

Disagreeing with a professor means that you are showing independent thought, which really is the goal of education. Now, I should add a caveat; when you disagree, it should be based on arguments within the scope of the course. To disagree with me in chemistry based on a Biblical passage is not independent thought; this is “parroting” what somebody else has said. Even if you yourself found the quote in the Bible, it’s still the Bible’s words, not your own. But, if you disagree within the scope of the course’s material, that shows not only independent thought, but synthesis of the information as well. In education, there is no higher goal.

This is the story of two disagreements that I had with professors. I didn’t “fight” with them per se, but i recognized that my opinions differed. The first time I was an undergraduate, and the second time a graduate student.

Okay, the first time. As an undergraduate seeking my bachelor’s degree, I struck up a conversation with my thermodynamics professor, who was telling me the story about a student who was certain that he found a violation of the first law of thermodynamics, specifically, heat pump units. After all, these take heat from the cold (a region of low energy) and put the heat into warm rooms (a region of high energy). The professor then pointed out that it is easy to demonstrate that the amount of energy going into the heat pump, in the form of electricity, is higher than the energy you get out, so, no, it is not a violation of the first law. “But,” he went on, “even if it was a violation, it’s just a small one, so it’s no big deal.”

Are you kidding me? No big deal? Of COURSE it would be a big deal! The laws of thermodynamics are taken to be the very foundation of everything that we understand. ANY violation would be a HUGE deal because it would mean the very foundational laws are wrong, or at the very least, incomplete. I did not disagree on the basis of the heat exchange question, but rather, on the significance of the violation if, indeed, there actually had been one.

The laws of thermodynamics are critical to our understanding of how things work. If there is so much as a crack in them, it means the entire castle of laws collapses. What’s more, these laws must apply universally, regardless of the scale of the system. They must always hold true, be it in a lab or in the Universe.

Which brings me to the second disagreement. One of the tenants of chemistry is that catalysts will increase the speed of a reaction, but cannot force a reaction to occur if it would not automatically do so on its own. The hydrolysis of sugar, for example, meaning the breakdown of the sugar in water, will do so naturally. In your body is a catalyst that makes this reaction occur faster. It’s necessary for life because, the natural rate of this occurrence is very slow, and thankfully so or putting sugar in our tea would have no effect. But waiting for this reaction to occur on its own would not provide us with the quickness of the energy we would need to live, and hence we would die.

Most chemists in American belong to the American Chemical Society, or the ACS. The ACS publishes a weekly news magazine called Chemical and Engineering News, or C&EN. One day, when I was in graduate school, I read an article that said that chlorine radicals (from Freon) catalytically cause the breakdown of ozone in the upper atmosphere. Okay, call me OCD, but no; it speeds up the breakdown, but cannot cause it according to the principle of chemistry, and being a publication of the major chemical society of the nation, I was considering writing a quick letter to the editor just to correct this admittedly minor grammatical infraction. Before doing so, I wanted to speak with one of the inorganic professors, who told me that I should not bother because sometimes, he said, the laws of chemistry may not apply to systems as large as the world.

Seriously? This was a major issue for me as well, although, again, I did not argue with the professor. But if the laws of chemistry only apply when we are in a chemistry lab, then why are we studying them at all?

The laws of science must be universally applicable. I recognize that there are times that more than one law may make it appear there is a violation, but they must all apply. A rocket flying away from the earth at first glance might seem like a violation of Newton’s laws, until you realize there is thrust from a rocket that is providing the necessary fuel. As such, with all of the laws combined, there can be no violation.

The reality is that science must be universally valid, regardless of the scale. Some of my regular readers might say, “but, isn’t quantum theory a violation of that? It only applies to small scale subatomic systems, right?” And you would be correct, but, even at that, it is an expansion of what were then the known physical laws, not a violation. As a matter of fact, there is a highly specialized field of science called “statistical thermodynamics” (which is my field) that actually has, as its goal, the charge of proving that quantum laws in large enough systems must “add up” to the classical laws. In other words, a bridge does exist to prove that these quantum laws will yield the classical thermodynamics laws of which we are all accustomed.

If scientific law is of any value whatsoever, they cannot have violations in example or scale. They must always be true. In the movie Excalibur, the character of King Arthur mades a bold statement, that is always true. “My laws must bind all, high or low, or they are not laws at all.”

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