The Effective Field Theory of Everyday Life, Revisited

For some reason Nature News was inspired to tweet about my old blog post on Seriously, The Laws of Physics Underlying Everyday Life Are Completely Understood. Which I mentioned on Facebook, which led to an interesting comment, which I then mentioned on Google+… but now it’s substantive enough that I feel like I am neglecting our loyal blog readers! So here is a copy of my G+ comment, and a lament that I suck at proper use of the internet.

Not sure what brought this back to life. Like the Lord of the Rings, this is part of a trilogy; don’t miss the first installment, or the exciting conclusion.

As Michael Salem points out on an alternative social-media site (rhymes with “lacebook”), some of the resistance to this really quite unobjectionable claim comes from a lack of familiarity with the idea of a “range of validity” for a theory. We tend to think of scientific theories as “right” or “wrong,” which is hardly surprising. But not correct! Theories can be “right” within a certain regime, and useless outside that regime. Newtonian gravity is perfectly good if you want to fly a rocket to the Moon. But you need to toss it out and use general relativity (which has a wider range of validity) if you want to talk about black holes. And you have to toss out GR and use quantum gravity if you want to talk about the birth of the universe.

Just because there is something we don’t understand about some phenomenon (superconductivity, cancer, consciousness) does not imply that everything we think we know might be wrong. Sometimes we can say with confidence that certain things are known, even when other things are not.

Not only do theories have ranges of validity, but in some cases (as with the Standard Model of particle physics) we know what the range is. Or at least, we know where we have tested the theory and where we can be confident it is valid. The Standard Model is valid for all the particles and interactions that constitute our everyday existence.

Today we think of ourselves and the stuff we see around us as made of electrons, protons, and neutrons, interacting through gravity, electromagnetism, and the nuclear forces. A thousand years from now, we will still think precisely that. Unless we destroy the planet, or are uploaded into computers and decide that the laws of physics outside the Matrix aren’t that interesting any more.

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72 Responses to The Effective Field Theory of Everyday Life, Revisited

  1. Jean Spoto says:

    The universe is interesting for containing emergence and phase transitions. Perturbative physics fails outside its interval. As with economics, mensicus and continuous fluid are two extremes of bottle washing and button sorting. Critical opalescense is the big ride! Scintillate, for the universe wants to be explained.

    You cannot manage discovery, you can only manage to end it. Imagination is intelligence having fun. Mourn the dead, fix the problem, and get on with the job.

  2. jpd says:

    ok, except that a proton isn’t a proton, its three quarks.

  3. Julien says:

    Our everyday existence includes consciouness, and we have no idea whether our “effective field theory of everyday life” can explain it. The problem is not that we do not understand it all. The problem is we may come to understand behavior without gaining any understanding of counsciousness. That makes this hard problem very different from, say, superconditivity and cancer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hard_problem_of_consciousness

  4. Georg says:

    “”Like the Lord of the Rings, this is part of a trilogy; “”

    Any good trilogy has a forth, maybe fith part,
    eg the Hitchhikers Guide…..

  5. Moshe says:

    I am late for all that, but I am confused about the precise statement. My confusion is that you are not making claims about the EFT relevant to everyday life’s scales, but on that “underlying” it, and I am not sure what makes an EFT “underlie” another one. Do you mean that we have a complete understanding of the effective field theory in distance scales just below that of those relevant to daily life? why is that a privileged length scale? In other words, in what way are we “made of” protons instead of quarks?

    Hard to make prediction for the far future, but FWIW: one possibility for how we describe things around us a thousand years is that we may have a different idea of what “things are made of” means, we may not even be using that language anymore. In strongly coupled QFTs it is already very hard to make precise this Russian doll picture of bigger things made of smaller ones. In different physical regimes you have different excitations, some small and some large, and there is no universal way in which some of them are “made of” others. The EFT relevant for each physical regime is unambiguous, but that “underlying” it may not be. Again, hard to make predictions but this is one way in which our description of the physics underlying everyday life can fundamentally change in the future.

  6. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    “Underlying” is a crucial qualifier. Seems impossible, though, to avoid the debate about the existence of other “fundamental” laws of emergent phenomena not reducible to the SM and relativity. I tend to be highly doubtful that any such fundamental laws are there to be discovered, but am less sure the matter is resolved. Hence, I’m not sure there is no controversy. It may be mistaken controversy, but, as of yet, it seems impossible to say with much certainty one way or the other.

  7. Sean says:

    jpd– The fact that protons are made of quarks does not mean that protons do not exist. And what protons are made of is completely irrelevant to our everyday life.

    Julien– There is zero evidence that consciousness involves physics beyond the Standard Model. That doesn’t mean that it certainly doesn’t, but the evidence in favor of quantum field theory as it is understood is so overwhelming that you need to do much better than point to something complicated and say “well explain that.”

    Moshe– We could argue about the precise definition of the “everyday life regime,” but I doubt that would be much fun or very enlightening. Regardless, I feel confident that the effective theory of atomic nuclei plus electrons interacting via gravity and E&M is sufficient to account for what a reasonable person would judge to be “everyday life.” The point is that it doesn’t matter what lies beneath. There is no question you can ask about everyday phenomena that cannot in principle be addressed within that theory.

    LMMI– The known laws are mathematically complete; either they are incorrect, or they suffice to say we understand what underlies everyday life. There can also be emergent laws that are fascinating in their own right, but that is not an incompatibility with the underlying description.

  8. jpd says:

    the fact that protons exist is irrelevant to 99% of the population of the planet

  9. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    OK, I see the distinction when put in those terms.

  10. rob says:

    sure Sean, but WWDCS?

    (what would deepak chopra say?)

    p.s. good post. i liked rereading your older trilogy too.

  11. Julien says:

    >you need to do much better than point to something complicated and say “well explain that.”

    Sean, my post was precisely to point that the hard problem of consciousness is not of the “well explain that” kind. Did you take some time to read the link? Another one:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_zombie

  12. Moshe says:

    Sean, I was trying to make a different point, related to the imprecise nature of the word “underlying”, not that of “everyday life”. To give an analogy: is the physics underlying the quark-gluon plasma that of quarks and gluons interacting via the QCD lagrangian (which is in principle the complete story but in practice not all that useful), or is it that of 5 dimensional black hole in asymptotically AdS space?

    I would say that neither, or both, and in any case “underlying” in that context is not a very precise, unique or ultimately useful concept. Same may well hold for everyday phenomena that are “in principle” described by your effective field theory.

  13. Lord says:

    Until we discover wormholes permeate our everyday life without our knowing about it.

  14. Physicalist says:

    @ Julien:

    The “hard problem of consciousness” is based on philosophical confusion and gives us no reason to question the sort of physicalism that Sean is advocating. Philosophers just need to get a better understanding of what’s involved with understanding.

    Likewise, the common intuition that (phenomenological) zombies are possible is based a failure to conceive of all relevant physical facts. The arguments against physicalism just don’t hold up.

  15. nick herbert says:

    “[Before one can apply quantum theory] the existence and general nature of macroscopic bodies and systems IS ASSUMED AT THE OUTSET. These facts are logically prior to the interpretation and are not expected to find an explanation in it”–Wendall Furry on the measurement.

    If Sean claims that quantum theory can “explain the world” when it has to assume “the existence and general nature of macroscopic bodies” is to really stretch the meaning of the word “explain”.

    Until physicists can come up with a convincing narrative about what happens in a measurement, quantum mechanics may be a useful tool but it does not “explain the world” on any scale.

  16. Physicalist says:

    quantum mechanics may be a useful tool but it does not “explain the world” on any scale.

    Quantum mechanics explains the stability of atoms and molecules regardless of one’s interpretation of QM or one’s solution to the measurement problem.

    The predictive/formal accuracy of QM is enough for us to say that we have in hand the physics that is relevant for all neural processes. We therefore have very good evidence that all mental states are physical.

  17. Julien says:

    @Physicalist

    Always glad to learn something. Please let me know where I’m wrong:

    If consciousness can in principle be explained by some EFT, then computationalism is right (we can describe ourselves as binary vectors, got uploaded in some Matrix, etc). If that’s true, as I also tend to think, then all we can do could be done in principle using a coin and a lot of chance. This coin tossing, I call it a philosophical zombie. Don’t you?

    The point is, if philosophical zombies are possibles in principle, then we have the problem of deciding what computation is or is not conscious, and this is hard because we can’t rely on behavior.

  18. Loki says:

    Sean, i have a question to you
    You often remark that we don’t have any idea how consciousness works, that this problem is probably beyond our current methods and such. This is puzzling. You either didn’t read the literature on the subject, serious researchers and philosophers like Dennett, Ramachandran, Pinker, Mynsky etc. (An excellent book “Consciosness Explained” by a prominent 100% materialist philosopher Dennett is 20 years old!). Or you did read, but find all their models and arguments not just unconvincing but kind of empty ..

  19. Sean says:

    Moshe– There are certainly interesting questions of principle here, but I don’t see how they are relevant to this claim in practice. By “the laws of physics underlying everyday life” I mean “the theory of nuclei and electrons interacting via E&M and gravity.” Maybe there is some other dual description of that physics, but even if so it wouldn’t change the claim. As long as there is one description that works, we’re okay. Unless you are suggesting that there are some everyday phenomena that really don’t fit into that description because of some subtle nonlocalities or strong-coupling issues.

  20. Physicalist says:

    @ Julien

    Computationalism about the mental may or may not be correct, but it does not follow directly from physicalism. Physicalism (at the level of EFT) says that anything that is *physically* identical to you will also be identical with respect to its mental properties.

    However, a Matrix-computer process is not physically identical to the complex system of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen (etc.) atoms that is your brain.

    Philosophical zombies are not possible in principle. Physics is not only about behavior, it is also about the *causes* of behavior — specifically the forces, charges, and laws that *produce* behavior. The reason many philosophers erroneously believe that zombies are possible is that they conceive of physical behavior, but they don’t take proper account of the causes of behavior.

    Look at it this way:
    a) A physically identical world has to be causally identical to this world.
    b) Our conscious experiences (qualia) cause some behavior (my saying “ouch”).
    c) So any physically identical world has to include that cause; there has to be a conscious experience there; there cannot be a zombie.
    d) When you *think* you’re imagining a zombie, you’re really imagining a being that behaves like you, but that does not have the same causal-dynamical features that you have. So you’re not imagining a physically identical being.

  21. Loki says:

    Julien. i think the answer to your question is in the old say: “If it looks like a cow and moos like a cow, than it is probably a cow”. If there is no way to find a difference between a zombie and a “conscious” human – than zombie is a conscious human. We are incredibly complex biological machines and consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. As Dennett puts it: “- Yes, we have a soul. And it is made of thousands of tiny simple robots.”
    It’s like color vision – you have no doubt about your color 3D vision, right? Yet is is easy to check with just a deck of cards that what you actually see in color (and any decent detail) is dime-sized spot right ahead. All the colorful world around is a creation of small and fast automatic modules in your brain that you have no conscious access to.
    Same with consciousness. Lots of small modules work incessantly. Some on higher level formulate phrases and an urge to speak out ir write in this chat. All demand attention. The one that has the most strong signal at the moment gets attention of others, and so on. Imagine a big crowd of people on the town square. Some are silent, some murmur to the neighbours, some shout. What you feel like “You”, is not an observer of this crowd, but the most loud person at any particular moment!

  22. Moshe says:

    I think we both agree about the facts, but I an a bit uncomfortable with the language which seems stronger than the claim one can make. One can certainly envision a scenario where the best description of some everyday phenomena involves microscopic ingredients and mechanisms currently unknown, especially if the current ingredients become strongly coupled at the relevant physical regime. Even if such future description is consistent in principle with the current one, I suspect future physicists would claim the simpler description “underlies” that particular everyday phenomena, if they still use that language.

  23. Julien says:

    @Physicalist

    1) I did not say computationnalism follows from physicalism. I said computationnalism must follow from current EFT (from QM, in fact).

    2) it seems your vision of physicalism is non standard. More precisely, it does not includes supervenience: the fact that two pictures can be be identical despite not physically identical. Was it for clarity purpose?

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/

    3) there are several evidences that most of the time you say “ouch” before your brain construct the conscious interpretation that you decided to say “ouch”.

    4) your right I’m extending the philosophical zombie notion to something that present identical behavior, not physically identical being. So I’m not arguing against physicalism, I’m arguing against the idea that we can have a great confidence that ” The Laws of Physics Underlying Everyday Life Are Completely Understood.”

    @ Loki

    “If it looks like a cow and moos like a cow, than it is probably a cow”

    Well said. 😉

    So, will you accept to provide citizenship to any computer program that statistically can’t be differentiated from a significant proportion of humans, or will you restrict it to the computer programs whose inner computations are closes enough to the human way?

  24. Physicalist says:

    @ Moshe

    What sort of strong coupling of current ingredients do you have in mind, and how would it undermine any of Sean’s claims? Are you suggesting that such couplings might occur in brain processes? Or are you just pointing out that if you slam together two electrons hard enough then current physics can’t predict what will happen?

  25. Physicalist says:

    @ Julien,

    1. I don’t see that computationalism follows from EFT. I’m not even sure what this would mean. What sort of computationalism are we talking about?

    2. By physicalism I do mean that all facts supervene on the physical facts. This means that if the physical facts are the same, then all other facts are the same also (which is what I tried to say above).

    3. Yes, I often say “ouch” before the qualitative feeling of pain really sets it. Which is why when I’m being careful, I instead talk about the action of my carefully and deliberatively describing a pain. In this case it seems clear to me that the feeling itself is playing a crucial causal role. I was trying to be brief in making my point that experiences obviously have physical effects.

    4. But once we accept physicalism, it seems that arguments about zombies and the so-called hard problem are completely irrelevant to the question of whether we understand the physics underlying life and cognition. For this question, the relevant points are the ones that Sean rightly points to: We know the domain of applicability of QED and Newtonian Gravity, and life and cognition are processes that lie safely within those domains.

  26. Loki says:

    Julien, it’s a moral and political question, and as such doesn’t have any “right” answer. Should we provide citizenship to a smart AI? To my big gray parrot (looks smarter than a dog and speaks!) ? How about 12-year olds? Clinical imbeciles? Criminals in jail?
    I don’t know … I think when they appear, smart computer programs, the world will change big time.
    I think the smart AI will not need our concept of “citizenship”. Besides, how can you infringe on its “rights” ? Good to know what are those in the first place :-) Take the right to exist: we have hard time dealing with stupid computer viruses! AI will have no problem making and storing as much copies of itself as it fancies.

  27. Julien says:

    @ Physicalists

    1. The idea that our mind is a computation.
    2. Physicalism means two physically identical systems share all the same properties. Supervenience means that some properties are the sames despite not physically identical. Do you agree with that?
    3. “Maybe” more than “obviously”. To me this is an experimental question for when we will be able to test it.
    4. If we accept supervenience, which is part of the standard physicalist point-of-view, then we have to decide what system are conscious, as we know we are. But at this point there is just no experiment we can do to test it. This why this is hard. Maybe one day we will understand this better, and provide a description of consciousness as an emergent properties. I would bet on that. Or maybe this will requiere to include some modification of QM, as Penrose think. I don’t know, but the lack of experimental ways to test for consciousness -even in principle- makes this problem fondamentally different from a simple lack of knowledge.

    @Loki
    Sorry, I did meant to ask for a legal issue. My question should have been: would you consider human any program winning a Turing test, or just those that are constructed to emulate humans both from the point-of-view of behavior and inner mecanisms?

  28. Physicalist says:

    @ Julien,

    1. But there’s no reason that accepting Effective Field Theories would imply that mental processes are nothing but computational processes. As I said above, one could accept that life and the mind are nothing but QED processes and still hold that something that is computationally equivalent (e.g., a computer simulation) is not mentally equivalent. This is because the QED descriptions of computers differs from the QED description of our brain.

    2. It seems like your account of supervenience is a bit fuzzy.
    (a) To say that some higher-level properties supervene on lower-level properties is just to say that the higher level properties cannot be different unless the lower level properties are different. Equivalently, if the lower level properties are the *same*, then the higher level properties have to be the same too.
    (b) Multiple realization is the claim that higher level properties can be the same even if the lower level properties are different.
    (c) The standard account of physicalism allows for multiple realization by saying that all higher level properties supervene on physical properties (it does not require that the higher level properties be *identical* to the lower level properties).

    3. Well, if the property dualists are right and consciousness has no physical effects whatsoever, then it’s going to be pretty hard to test. Fortunately, we have no reason to believe that they are right, and we can safely say that conscious states just are the brain processes that result in my saying, “There’s a tickling feeling in my left knee.”

    4. We do face a problem in that we don’t have a good science of mentality right now. But this set of problems is what Chalmers calls the “easy problem” of consciousness. Once we have an account of belief, desire, representation, memory, psychological awareness, etc., there won’t be some extra “hard problem of phenomenal consciousness” left over.
    (And Penrose’s reasons for thinking that quantum gravity comes into play in conscious thought are unconvincing, to put it mildly.)

  29. Justin Loe says:

    Essentially this post states that current physics is true and complete at the scale of everyday life. I think this is an uncontroversial statement. Put differently, are there any advances in theoretical physics since 1980 [edit] that add to what previous theories held about everyday life? I’m not sure that there are any. [If there are, that would be interesting to know]

    It could probably also be said that the pace of advances in theoretical physics, in terms of theories that are testable or falsifiable, has been minimal since 1980. Perhaps, we’ve already reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of advances in new theories, that can tested by experimental evidence. [a speculative statement, and certainly one to be made cautiously, since Lord Kelvin’s famous quotation, paraphrasing, “there’s nothing left to discover.”]

    [I am not suggesting that something akin to the “End of Physics” has occurred]

  30. jpd says:

    since 1970 : chaos,
    sorry you just changed your cutoff to 1980
    i’ll get back to you if i think of anything

  31. Justin Loe says:

    @jpd: That seems like a reasonable example. Still it may be that since Mandelbrot’s work was accepted in the scientific community (~early 1980s?), there have been no advances since then in theoretical physics as applied to everyday life, and no apparently testable advances.

  32. Julien says:

    @ physicalist.
    1. You have no choice to accept computationalism once you accept current EFT.
    2. Sure. It contredicts your previous point, thought.
    3. As I said, we have experimental evidences that this issue is not as obvious as you may think.
    4. Well, thanks for the discussion, and let’s agree to disagree.

    @Justin

    Decoherence maybe?

  33. Justin Loe says:

    @Julien: At the moment, decoherence is a competing hypothesis, but unproven. So it’s not yet an established theoretical advance. Perhaps it has a better chance of experimental testability, though.

  34. Oleg says:

    @Justin: How would you define domain of “everyday life physics”? How did the set of questions about “everyday life physics” changed since 1900’s? Were any new questions added since then (don’t mind the answers) ?

  35. Justin Loe says:

    @Oleg: I think I’m just using the definition that Sean is using which is the domain of our scales of experience, i.e. essentially conceivable scientific applications in everyday life. Even if some alternative to relativity or quantum theory were developed, my understanding of Sean’s argument is that at the scale of our experience, such as engineering applications, chemistry, biology, and electronics, the predictions of that new theory would be empirically identical to existing theories. At different scales, a new theory would more accurate.

    I believe that was the intent of the analogy that Newtonian physics is true at a certain scale, and not true, clearly at relativistic speeds. That’s my interpretation.

    Of course, it is conceivable that some new theory could have an impact at our scale of experience, but that impact would likely not be significant.

    [Of course, predicting the course of science is a bit like predicting the weather 1,000 years from now]

  36. Oleg says:

    @Justin: How does second law of thermodynamics relate to all this? Imagine you already know quantum theory, standard model of particles and theory of relativity, but you don’t know thermodynamics. Will you still need second law to explain “everyday life” physics? And how can you a priori figure out what’s missing?

  37. Justin Loe says:

    [some amateur thoughts on your question]
    @Oleg: Well, we don’t see a broken egg reassemble itself; we don’t see high entropy states spontaneously converting into low entropy states. So, the other problem I’ve read about is that there is no arrow of time in quantum theory, the standard model, or relativity. We have experience of a succession of events, of remembering the past, and not remembering the future. If we want to account for our experience of time in this sense, the second law of thermodynamics has been invoked as an explanation, since the direction of events is from low entropy to progressively greater entropy. From my reading, there’s no arrow of time in quantum mechanics. In relativity theory there’s a block universe, and so the experience of the flow of time is an illusion, and the standard model, according to Baez, http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/time/time.html, has time reversal symmetry. So, as I read it, the arrow of time can’t be derived from the standard model or relativity theory.
    The textbook derivation of the 2nd law was by Boltzmann, but, apparently, the 2nd law can also be derived from quantum mechanical systems, which also increase their entropy over time [yet are time symmetrical].
    Yes, the second law is certainly required to explain “everyday life” physics or to explain why we don’t see a gas remain condensed in a small region of that space rather than spread throughout a given space, or why we perceive the flow of time from past to present to future.
    I believe you’re also asking how to derive the 2nd law? Well there’s a set of observations that a gas spreads throughout a given volume, that objects decay over time, etc. Without the second law it wouldn’t be possible to explain why don’t see high entropy -> low entropy changes, such as spontaneously growing younger.
    [It’s a little puzzling as to why it seems that the 2nd law can be derived from quantum mechanics and yet quantum mechanics is itself time symmetrical. I’m not familiar with this issue.]

  38. Justin Loe says:

    EDIT: I just realized that the arrow of time is apparently a primary area of expertise for the author of this blog. Caveat: this is definitely not my area of expertise.

  39. I think it’s wonderful news that the laws of physics of everyday life are completely understood, but the reason science still fails, and religion wins, is pretty simple: physical laws of fields and particles don’t offer any narrative or guidance for everyday life — they’re utterly devoid of purpose.

    Atheism will never eradicate religion because religion provides a higher myth to live by, which is what people really crave. Until science can find an inspiring story, maybe something like what Carl Sagan offered but more overtly religious, it will continue to lose to the religious myth-makers.

  40. Justin Loe says:

    ref: Apparently Dr. Charles Bennett believes that quantum mechanics ” helps resolves the paradox or puzzle of the origin of the second law of thermodynamics”, see lecture: http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/500.

  41. Baby Bones says:

    After embarrassing myself with speculations predicated upon long-lived neutrons, I have to ask, IS there a standard model explanation for the stability of the neutron in an atomic nucleus?

    To me, there seems to be a scale gap in knowledge separating QCD and nuclear physics. I recently did editing work on a science paper that involved the accurate calculation of the half life of a certain popular element that was done on a ginormous computer. What was interesting to me was that no mention of the standard model was made by the authors, despite it being a fundamental study and despite it involving a number of calculations that is so stunningly high I would break my non-disclosure agreement with the authors’ institutions by mentioning it. The authors reasonably assumed that quarks and gluons are at such a high energy scale they would never affect the nuclear physics of atoms.

    But, I had to go only one step further in asking myself if the standard model accurately predicts the lifetime of the neutron outside as well as inside the nucleus.

    I fuzzily checked Wikipedia, and it doesn’t say for sure how the lifetime outside the nucleus is calculated in the standard model. Note also that measurements of the precise lifetime seem to have significant error associated with them, so I wonder if the standard model’s predictions are considered to be accurate enough in this regard. A quick glance seems to indicate to me that the standard model should be able to give a number for the lifetime.

    On the other hand, regarding the stability of the neutron inside the nucleus, all I could get from Wikipedia is “When bound inside of a nucleus, the instability of a single neutron to beta decay is balanced against the instability that would be acquired by the nucleus as a whole if an additional proton were to participate in repulsive interactions with the other protons that are already present in the nucleus” (citation needed).

    The above explanation neither mentions the standard model nor sounds very convincing. Another source mentioned that the Pauli Exclusion principle is the reason for the stability of the neutron in the nucleus. More convincing, to me, is when one calculates the energies of free particles making up the nucleus and compare that total with the energy of the bound system.

    But I have to contrast this cookbook binding energy calculation with the standard model picture. Does something in the standard model prevent a quark changing from down to up and undergoing subsequent beta decay when it is inside one nucleus, say a deuterium nucleus, but not another, say iodine 131?

    More generally, can the standard model account for the magic numbers of nuclear physics?

  42. Justin Loe says:

    @Baby Bones: Try posting that question at Physicsforums: http://www.physicsforums.com/. There’s a good mix of advanced graduate students and a few professors under pseudonyms there.

  43. Charon says:

    @jpd and Justin Loe: chaos isn’t fundamental, though. It’s emergent. It doesn’t involve any new fundamental theories of physics. (Not that it’s not interesting – most people, even most physicists, spend their lives studying things that are emergent.)

    @Oleg and Justin Loe: thermodynamics is reasonably easily derived from statistical mechanics, which is just an application of your underlying dynamics (classical or quantum). It’s only this last level Sean is calling fundamental. (The quantum version, anyway – the classical version can be derived by taking hbar -> 0. Except, sadly, general relativity.) Sean’s book about time/entropy/etc. is a pretty good read.

  44. Charon says:

    @Baby Bones: it’s been a long time since I’ve taken nuclear physics, but as I recall, you can derive the magic numbers from the nuclear shell model. This was approximate the way we did it in undergrad, but presumably the actual hardcore method is better. A quick google scholar search turned up this review, although that may not be much use to you if you aren’t at a university that provides a subscription to that journal, and don’t have a PhD in physics, perhaps. It does at least tell you (in the abstract) that we have a fair but imperfect understanding of this.

    And on the lifetime of the free neutron, this article has an equation for the Standard Model prediction. (Which they say is from this paper, though a little manipulation is involved.) There are parameters in this equation that have to be measured experimentally, and others that can be calculated to high precision. The Standard Model has a lot of input that it needs… can’t predict everything. (Although note that this is not my area of expertise – I only care about electrons, and, well, I guess protons too. And dark matter. But forget neutrons.)

  45. Justin Loe says:

    @Charon: What’s your opinion on the fact that the arrow of time is only found in the 2nd law of thermodynamics but not relativity, or quantum mechanics or the standard model? Admittedly, this wasn’t really the topic of Sean’s post, but is it correct to state that the arrow of time, i.e. the experience of time that we have, is currently only a result of the 2nd law as derived from statistical mechanics but not the three fundamental theories? (that is, the three fundamental theories all exhibit time reversal symmetry?

    Essentially, then is the 2nd law of thermodynamics required to account for our experience of the flow of time, or is the flow of time found in fundamental theories?

    Or, is it possible that the flow of time is itself an illusion as Julian Barbour, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Barbour, has advocated?

    Thanks for the responses.

    EDIT:
    Barbour’s take on the arrow of time is to dismiss that the universe formed from a “special” low entropy state, and to suggest that, instead, it is eternal, and has passed thru an infinite number of states, and that accounts for the particular low energy state that gave rise to our particular universe, at least as I read his interpretation.

  46. Loki says:

    Julien, sorry for late reply, i live in a wildly different time zone.
    Off course, i won’t consider “human” any AI, whether it emulates human behavior or not. No more than my parrot is human when it pronounces “Nice bird Pushy!”. It is a different animal anyway :-)
    Doesn’t mean i’d feel ok to offend it. No more than hit a dog.

  47. Justin Loe says:

    @Charon: Let me summarize, briefly: is it troubling that all the fundamental theories, which seem to explain all of “everyday” life, do not explain the arrow of time, and our experience of it?

    [I had another edit on the above post, but I ran out of time…]

  48. Justin Loe says:

    EDIT of previous post:
    Apparently this question has already been asked as Loschmidt’s paradox: “objection that it should not be possible to deduce an irreversible process from time-symmetric dynamics. This puts the time reversal symmetry of (almost) all known low-level fundamental physical processes at odds with any attempt to infer from them the second law of thermodynamics which describes the behaviour of macroscopic systems. ”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loschmidt's_paradox (for some reason the link isn’t working, but I’m just referencing the wikipedia article on Loschmidt’s paradox)

  49. Oleg says:

    @Justin: There are two points which are troubling me.
    The first point is ambiguity of the dividing line that separates laws of physics from mere boundary conditions. For example, it is clear that exact value of the distance between the Earth and the Sun is not a law of physics: the Earth’s orbit could be 1 million km closer or 1 million km farther from the Sun, and no law would be violated. I cannot see how the fact that the Big Bang had very low entropy differs from billions of other facts about our Universe. Still it is necessary to know boundary conditions of our universe in order to explain the arrow of time (and second law). The similar thing is dark energy versus matter/antimatter gravitational repulsion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_interaction_of_antimatter) explanations of expansion of the Universe. How can we discriminate between the “law of physics” (lambda-CDM model) and “boundary condition” (living in a Universe where matter and antimatter have already clustered in separate galaxies) before measurments of gravitational interaction of antimatter? Of course, this is far beyond the realm of “everyday life” physics, but I wonder, how can we prove that laws of physics known today are not an emergent properties of our specific Universe?

    The second thing that is troubling me is that once we know all reversible laws of dynamics, we don’t really need second law of thermodynamics. We could have said that we already understand the laws of physics underlying everyday life, and this statement would be correct. Moreover, the question “why a table is solid?” has a simple, plain and correct answer “because it is made of wood”, so we don’t really need relativity, standard model of particles and quantum mechanics to generate correct explanations of “everyday life”. In general, I think that Sean’s statement cannot be falsified.