Foundations of reality

I haven’t ever been more interested in anything than physics and epic fantasy. So I thought it might be interesting to think about whether they complement each other.

Being a science writer writing about things like condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics has taught me a lot about these subjects. But more importantly, in the course of repeatedly interrogating new findings in these subjects and explaining them from the ground up, the vocation has allowed me a glimpse at what the foundations of reality might look like.

Many areas of scientific endeavour, theoretical and experimental, are way more precise than others. We know more about how a chemical reaction between two well-characterised compounds will proceed in different environments than what the wave-function defining their most fundamental constituents – individual particles – actually is. However, this disparity doesn’t usually prevent us from working with the objects to which their underlying theories apply.

Whether a wave-function is a mathematical object or not doesn’t matter to an engineer building a bridge. It’s not a useful way for them to look at the world. Put another way, science doesn’t provide – or hasn’t yet provided – a single, unified way to make sense of reality. Where we choose to draw a line in the sand between ‘true’ and ‘not yet true’ varies from one setting to another.

These lines aren’t always drawn simply according to the availability and quality of data, and that’s not a bad thing either. At their roots, our choices about could be ‘useful’ are guided also by whether what we’ve found is tractable in our theories, abides by conditions like falsifiability, corresponds well with older ideas used to study the problem, maybe even how far the finding is removed from subjective judgments of plausibility. Many physicists also use aesthetic tests like naturalness and beauty to determine if what they’ve found is the proverbial it.

Sheldon Cooper, one of the protagonists of the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, agonises over the perfect spot available to sit in his living room. He considers the glare from the TV, heat sources in winter, breeze from open windows and the distances he’d have to walk to the door and the kitchen. After optimising for all of them, he picks a spot, calling it his (0,0,0,0) – the origin of his coordinate system.

Imagine a world bereft of any of these requirements. How would you determine where your (0,0,0,0) is? Without the stronger, more certain constraints typical of the world dominated by the gravitational force, the world of the really small – ruled by the other three forces and the quantum mechanics of particles – doesn’t offer such easy grip. Objectivity alone doesn’t help draw the lines here. There could be many (0,0,0,0)s, and just as many paths to them.

Of course, there are some facts, fixed and immutable and holding up a guiding light for theories marching in the darkness. And some theories do rise up to meet them, like a tangled mass of fairy lights resolving into clearer view when they’re strung between hooks. Obviously there’s a line somewhere in between the wave-function and the bridge where reality starts to make more sense.

But on both sides of this line, perhaps one side more than the other, there’s some jugaad at work that keeps the daydreaming idealism of objectivity at bay. The world is what’s we’ve made work – not something that fell into our collective lap. And that it doesn’t simply condense out of the fog of war is much the way fantasy works, too, although many of us find that easier to believe about science than fantasy itself.

Dredge this ‘make it happen’ mantra up to the macroscopic realm guided by classical physics and apply it to everything you see around you. It should be obvious then. The objects populating our view of reality are there because we’ve made them work. They’re not unique, they’re not irreplaceable. We use them – certain avatars of them – the way we do because they’re just what we need to make the world work the way we want it to.

The base-10 number system is an illustrative example. You’re so used to counting in multiples of 10 and finding it easier to remember 160 and 1,800 instead of 162 and 1,794 that you often don’t stop to think there are other ways to measure things – maybe even easier ones. Look at base-6: you already use it to read the time and convert between inches and feet. Instead of involving all your fingers at once, it takes up only one hand and one finger from the other at a time.

It’s the Copernican principle all over again: just like Earth isn’t the centre of the universe, carrying special or significant value simply by virtue of its location, the ways we’ve developed to study the universe aren’t especially meaningful simply by virtue of our choices. This is uniquely – if not especially – true with research exploring the smallest constituents of reality.

Humans’ relationship with science is humans’ relationship with fantasy as well. Internal consistency and coherence matter in fantasy as much as they do in science – and ‘anything goes’ is equally antithetical to both. Their proponents ensure this is the case by following some rules, identifying those mechanisms that keep these rules from being broken, and deploying them over and over in the investigation of new possibilities.

Most of all, we use only that which we need and discard the rest because it’s important that we make do (à la the jugaad of the imagination) to make it work. Physics just happens to be a more useful way to study the natural real because one of its rules is to submit to information gleaned from empirical interactions with the natural real. But what we’ve seen thus far of the foundations of physics should remind us that that doesn’t make it more virtuous.

Physics’s guiding lights lead us through one darkness. Fantasy simply, yet importantly, assails another. The greatest thing about fantasy fiction, distinct from all other forms, is that it allows us to create new worlds completely divorced from our own, and lets us make of it what we want to. And in populating these worlds, we’re confronted with a variety of choices familiarly distanced from objectivism – a moment in which we begin a journey inward, into the maze of our memories, aspirations and the human condition that we inhabit, inasmuch as the fundament of physics beckoned us on a journey towards a truth that existed outside of us.

It’s only important that they’re invoked in their respective domains and not outside of them – at least not to the extent that they interfere with each other’s purposes. Some creative thinking is important in physics as well, especially when you’re looking for your (0,0,0,0) with no constraints whatsoever, a.k.a. groping in the dark. And some physics is important in fantasy as well. Otherwise, why would dragons flap their wings?

Life notes

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.