Science, Man and the International Year of Physics

Executive Secretary, OECD Global Science Forum*

The impact of science on society, though a much-discussed question, received special attention in 2005, which to mark the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s discovery of the Theory of Relativity, has been designated the International Year of Physics.

For government leaders in OECD countries, investments in physics and related fields have high priority, and serious attention is being given to a number of major projects, such as a new electron-positron collider or a giant radio telescope. But in a world of competition and tight budgets for research, a question scientists must ask themselves is to what extent they really have an impact on the hearts and minds of “ordinary” citizens.

The boundaries of modern physics are constantly expanding, and are never well-defined. In the early 20th century, the twin discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics transformed not only traditional physics, but also astronomy, biology, the earth sciences, materials research, information technology and other fields. It is this combined body of knowledge–and not just physics, narrowly defined–whose impact on society deserves to be assessed.

Modern physics (or rather modern science) has influenced two aspects of life in our society. First, consider the material, or practical, side of life: work, recreation, transportation, communication, industry, agriculture, warfare, health care, etc. The impact of 20th-century science in these areas has obviously been overwhelming. The familiar objects that surround us derive their essential properties from the results of advanced scientific research. Any contemporary electronic device, whether a portable telephone or a laptop computer, exists because, in 1947, three American scientists produced one of the century’s greatest inventions: the transistor.

Given the enormous influence of science in everyday life, it is remarkable that the average person knows so little about it. Ask the first person you encounter in the street: it is doubtful that he or she could say two things that are true about quantum theory or relativity. This widespread ignorance–the subject of much hand-wringing in policy circles–requires an explanation.

With this in mind, consider the other aspect of modern life, one that is less easily named, defined or understood. This is the abstract, mental, spiritual, emotional–in short, personal–side of our lives. This is what governs how we assign meaning and purpose to our existence. The claim can be made that, as regards this vital dimension of existence, the impact of modern science is essentially zero. It is as though Einstein had never lived, nor indeed the other greats of modern physics: Bohr, Heisenberg, Landau, Gell-Mann and the rest.This claim requires some qualification. Sure enough, there is a vague, omnipresent materialism (and its cousin determinism) in the modern sensibility: an acknowledgement that there is only one kind of real substance. Even thoughts and feelings are often viewed as simply reflecting physical goings-on in the body, exemplified by computer scientist Marvin Minsky’s quip: “The brain is just a computer made of meat”.

Popular attitudes towards nature have certainly changed in recent years, but this is mostly Darwin’s legacy, not Einstein’s. More problematically, attitudes towards other human beings may have evolved under the influence of science and technology. It could be, for example, that the ability to travel and communicate has reduced the prevalence of chauvinism, racial prejudice, religious intolerance or homophobia. These things aside, however, our mental and emotional worlds are still those of Moses and Mohammad, Aristotle, Galileo and Newton, rather than those of Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman.

Yet, modern science has revealed to us a physical universe that is mysterious, beautiful and deeply perplexing. It is a universe in which time and space, which may not even be among its most fundamental properties, are intertwined in a most unintuitive way; where future events can only be described in terms of probabilities; where there is no clear demarcation between living and non-living matter, or between human and non-human states of existence.

It is a universe that was born in a vast, chaotic nuclear detonation, but with exquisitely-tuned properties that apparently guaranteed the eventual emergence of almost infinite complexity and a delicate balance between stability and evolutionary change. Above all, the scientific description of reality does not support the nearly universal intuitive belief that the material world is simply a backdrop–a stage –for the most important events of all: the great human drama. Physicist Steven Weinberg starkly put the orthodox scientific view this way: “The more the universe seem comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Why are the accomplishments of modern science so poorly reflected in the emotional and spiritual life of society? A possible reason is that, despite the magnificent achievements of the last hundred years, science is not advanced or internally consistent enough to have great appeal for ordinary citizens. Scientists pose profound questions, but they are still far from providing satisfactory answers. They have earned the right to ask “why is reality the way it is, and not some other way?” but the socalled explanations provided to date–something about multiple universes or various forms of the Anthropic Principle–cannot be considered to be the final word.

In the prevailing reductionist vision of reality, in which biology is based directly on chemistry, and chemistry on physics, everything ultimately rests on the most fundamental theory of physics: the socalled Standard Model of Particles and Fields. While the Standard Model is a major and hard-won achievement of physics, it finds little resonance in the popular mind.

People are certainly interested in understanding the basic elements of reality, but they don’t like to be told that everything that exists or has ever existed consists of quarks, leptons, gauge bosons, and nothing else. The notion that our fantastically diverse reality, indeed Man’s own intelligence, is completely explained by a few physical concepts is unconvincing and of no value for most people. This sceptical group now includes quite a few physicists who are developing new ways to study complex phenomena, such as life itself, but their work is still in its earliest stages and far from being universally accepted by their peers.

Then there is the whole problem of the origin of life, which for scientists remains unresolved. Enormous progress has been made, and the modern synthesis of Darwin’s evolution with molecular biology is, surely, one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Biologists have made the startling discovery that the essential structures of living matter operate at the level of individual atoms, vastly smaller than the structures of even the most sophisticated man-made objects, such as computer memories and microprocessors.

But this discovery is also a trap, for it implies that the explanation of life’s origin, although not yet known in detail, will be reducible to standard physical and chemical phenomena. But are humans mere objects in the same sense as a lump of lead or a microprocessor? This proposition contradicts traditional views and is deeply offensive to many, provoking anger among some religious conservatives, parents and educators. Even many physicists, while defending their biologist colleagues in the ensuing cultural and political conflict, will, in their night-thoughts, often feel uneasy about the conventional scientific interpretation of the relationship between the living and the non-living.

Another impediment to the greater impact of physics is the guilty secret of the scientific community: the physicists themselves don’t understand what they have done. The theory of quantum mechanics, now nearly a century old and so immensely productive, is made up of elements whose nature is still a profound mystery. Embarrassing questions that were first formulated by Einstein remain unanswered to this day: for example, what exactly is the meaning of the theory’s most basic construct, the “wave function”? Is it a complete description of physical objects, or merely a computational tool? Or, for that matter, what is the nature of the theory’s most basic act, the measurement? Why does it contain a bizarre discontinuity? Does the human observer play a role in this act?

There are other factors one could cite to explain science’s low impact on the life of the human spirit. Will this state of affairs ever change? If the above arguments have any validity, further scientific progress will have to occur first, and the various branches of science will need to form a more unified, self-consistent whole. The author’s guess–and it is no more than that–is that such a transformation is probable, but certainly not in our lifetimes. A truly science-based spirituality or social awareness could emerge in the future, but its empirical study will probably not be possible until the two- or three-hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s miraculous discoveries.

*The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the OECD or its members, nor those of the Global Science Forum. The article is adapted from a presentation to a colloquium entitled La physique dans la société contemporaine à travers les objets, organised by the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers ( and the Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris, 24-26 Mai 2005.

© OECD Observer, No. 251, September 2005

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