Science with Richard Bleil
The American Chemical Society’s weekly news publication, Chemical and Engineering News, published an error. On the front page, it stated that chlorine from chlorofluorocarbons was catalytically disrupting the ozone equilibrium in the upper atmosphere. The problem is that catalysts cannot disturb equilibrium, and chemists should all know that. So I took it to one of the inorganic professor’s office to discuss it with him. His statement to me was that perhaps the laws of equilibrium don’t apply on a scale as large as the earth’s atmosphere.
Well, they had BETTER apply, or why are we studying them? Or…do they?
With the laws of thermodynamics well-established, Heisenberg came along and managed to prove that these laws simply do not, and cannot, apply to systems that are too small, specifically, subatomic. These laws that never presupposed scale simply failed, giving rise to a brand-new branch of theoretical science, namely quantum mechanics (although there are other theories as well). So, does quantum theory prove that scientific laws don’t apply universally?
No, not really. See, any new set of laws have to be consistent with laws that have previously been established. This is actually the role of a branch of theoretical science in which my degree is in, namely Statistical Thermodynamics. The role of this branch is to prove how a large enough number of these subatomic particles all following a set of laws (quantum) that we cannot possibly understand still act according to the laws of classical thermodynamics when we have enough particles in the collection. In short, with enough particles, the errors introduced by Heisenberg are insignificant and can be ignored on the macroscopic scale.
There are two important lessons to the story so far. First of all, while laws are indeed universal, there does exist the possibility that they do not apply depending on the scale. Second, the laws must be internally consistent. The laws of subatomic particles are consistent with those of classical thermodynamics as demonstrated by statistical thermodynamics.
Today, there is a new limit that is causing enough head scratching to make male-pattern baldness look insignificant. The cosmological behavior of distant objects don’t seem to follow the current laws of physics. The expansion of distant galaxies don’t fit what the models seem to say they should be. To explain these odd behaviors, physicists have proposed “hidden” things called “Dark Matter” and “Dark Energy”, but there are also other theories that are being examined, although they don’t seem to be getting the same amount of attention.
Now, personally, I do not accept the idea of “hidden” matter and energy. The history of science is filled with theories of invisible forces and matter to explain what could not be otherwise explained, and always the theories have been disproved. Phlogiston, for example, is the “glue”, an invisible material that held atoms together. “Polywater” was used to explain odd behaviors of water especially in capillary tubes. Introducing invisible forces and materials is an easy way to explain behaviors that don’t seem to make sense, and can almost be thought of as “placeholders” until better theories replace them.
The biggest issue with dark matter and energy is that, to date, scientists cannot make the laws that arise from it with other already established laws. If this sounds vaguely like the “Grand Unification Theory”, you’re not wrong. Everything has to connect, somehow.
Now, as a scientist, I accept that I might be wrong and Dark Matter and Dark Energy is real. But all scientists should be able to accept the possibility that I am correct. I’m actually wondering if a form of cosmic momentum could explain the problems. In an explosion, the velocity of all pieces from the explosion start at a velocity of zero, and the laws of physics tell us that, on the macroscopic scale, the particles will accelerate until they reach their final velocity. Perhaps galaxies and distant objects just haven’t yet reached their terminal velocity, meaning that their current acceleration is perturbed from what it should be based on the forces exerted by the acceleration of the big bang.
One last component of scientific theories that should be mentioned is utility. Theories that explain behaviors are pretty much useless if they cannot be used to make predictions. These predictions are both a way to utilize scientific laws into practicable applications, and also serve as evidence of the foundation of the theories. Every prediction that quantum mechanics has made have been tested (those that can be) and every time there arises evidence, sometimes very creepy evidence, that the law is valid. The computers that we, you and I, are using to write and read this have electronic components that work based on electron spin, a concept that we didn’t know until quantum theory. These components are both at once a practical application of quantum theory and evidence (not proof) of the concept.
We see this playing out in the idea of dark matter and dark energy. There are predictions from these theories in how they interact with the matter with which we are familiar. These predictions form the foundation of the experiments that physicists are performing to try to find evidence of dark matter and dark energy. It’s not enough that the theory explains what it has been developed to explain. For a theory to be considered to be valid, it’s important that its predictions beyond that which it explains can be demonstrated. If not, the entire theory is suspect.