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Daily Inspiration — The Zeroth Law of Science

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Josh Mitteldorf       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   13 comments

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It's not that old. It was only about 150 years ago that scientists adopted the hypothesis that:

Nature obeys fixed laws, exactly, no exceptions, and the laws are the same everywhere and for all time.

Within a few decades, this went from a bold land-grab by the scientists, to a litmus test for whether you really believe in science, to an assumption that everyone made, a kind of synthetic a priori that "must" be true for science to "work". (Feynman put this particular bogie man to bed in his typically succinct and quotable style*.)

I call it the Zeroth Law of Science, but once it is stated explicitly, it becomes obvious that it is a statement about the way the world works, testable, as a good scientific hypothesis should be. We can ask, "Is it true?", and we can design experiments to try to falsify it. (Yes, "falsification" is fundamental to the epistemology of experimental science; you can never prove a hypothesis, but you can try your darndest to prove it wrong, and if you fail repeatedly, the hypothesis starts to look pretty good, and we call it a "theory".)

Well, the Zeroth Law only lasted a few decades before it was blatantly and shockingly falsified by quantum mechanics. The quantum world does not obey fixed laws, but behaves unpredictably. Place a piece of uranium next to a Geiger counter, and the timing of the clicks (that tell us that somewhere inside it an atom of uranium has turned to lead) appears not fixed, but completely random.

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So the Zeroth Law was amended by the quantum gurus, Planck, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac:

The laws of physics at the most fundamental level are half completely fixed and determined, and half pure randomness. The fixed part is the same everywhere and for all time. The random part passes every mathematical test for randomness, and is in principle unpredictable, unrelated to anything, anywhere in the universe, at any time.

Einstein protested that the universe couldn't be this ornery. "God doesn't play dice." Einstein wanted to restore the original Zeroth Law from the 19th Century. The common wisdom in science was that Einstein was wrong, and that remains the standard paradigm to this day.

If we dared to challenge the Zeroth Law with empirical tests, how would we do it? The Law as it now stands has two parts, and we might test each of them separately. For the first part, we would work with macroscopic systems where the quantum randomness is predicted to average itself out of the picture. We would arrange to repeat a simple experiment and see if we can fully account for the quantitative differences in results from one experiment to the next. For the second part, we would do the opposite--measure microscopic events at the level of the single quantum, trying to create patterns in experimental results that are predicted to be purely random.

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Part I -- Are the fixed laws really fixed?

First Part: In biology, this is very far from being true. I worked in a worm laboratory last year, participating in statistical analysis of thousands of protein abundances. The first question I asked was about repeatability. The experiment was done twice as a 'biological replicate'. One week later, same lab, same person doing the experiment, same equipment, averaging over hundreds of worms, all of which are genetically identical. But the results were far from identical. The correlation between Week 1 and Week 2 was only R=0.4. The results were more different than they were the same. People who were more experienced than me told me this is the way it is with data from a bio lab. It is routine procedure to perform the experiment several times, then average the results, though they are very different.

This is commonly explained by the fact that no two living things are the same, so it's not really the same experimental condition, not at the level of atoms and molecules. Biology is a derived science. A better test would be to repeat a physics experiment. On the surface, everyone who does experiments in any science knows that the equipment is touchy, and it commonly takes several tries to "get it right". It is routine to throw away many experimental trials for each one that we keep. This is explained as human error, and undoubtedly a great deal of it is human error, in too many diverse forms to catalogue. But were there some real issue with repeatability, it would be camouflaged by the human error all around, and we might never know. Measurement of fundamental constants is an area where physicists are motivated to repeat experiments in labs around the world and attempt to identify all sources of experimental error and quantify them. I believe it is routine for more discrepancies to appear than can be accounted for with the catalogued uncertainties. Below is an example where things work pretty well. The bars represent 7 independent measures of a fundamental constant of nature called the Fine Structure Constant, α ~ 1/137. The error bars are supposed to be such that ..." of the time the right answer is within the error bars, and 95% of the time the right answer is within a span of two error bars. The graphs don't defy this prediction.

The Zeroth Law of Science
The Zeroth Law of Science
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Image by scientific journal)   Permission   Details   DMCA

(The illustration is from Parker et al, 2018)

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Here, in contrast, are measures of the gravitational constant.

The Zeroth Law of Science
The Zeroth Law of Science
(
Image by scientific journal)   Permission   Details   DMCA

(from Rothleitner & Schlamminger, 2017)

In the second diagram, the discrepancies are clearly not within expected limits. There are 14 measurements, and we would expect 10 of them to include the accepted value within their error bars, but only 2 actually do. We would expect 13 of 14 to include the accepted value within two error bar lengths, but only 8 of 14 do. Clearly, there are sources of error here that are unaccounted for, but in the culture of today's science, no one would adduce this as evidence against the Zeroth Law.

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Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)
 

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Daniel Geery

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Random thoughts: I would need to read this article several times to say, "I think I understand it." I intend to if time permits, as they are subjects that fascinate me, particularly randomness, which is such a large part of evolution over unimaginable timescales. At what point do we take something to be "random"? Could that simply be a limitation of the human brain?

I found this of interest, which I read or saw somewhere not long ago: "Niels Bohr was an atheist and Einstein disavowed religion and supernatural beings. Einstein famously remarked "God does not play dice" and Bohr replied "Einstein, stop telling God what to do"." click here

This one from Feynman has never sat right with me, when he was mocking people making big deals of coincidences:

"You know, the most amazing thing happened to me tonight... I saw a car with the license plate ARW 357. Can you imagine? Of all the millions of license plates in the state, what was the chance that I would see that particular one tonight? Amazing!"

I have had so many experiences of serendipity and synchronicity that go so far beyond mathematical probability that the times I've tried to keep track of them, I literally didn't have time (particularly when teaching elementary school). I think most people have had similar experiences; Rupert Sheldrake, a "scientific outlier," has done seriously objective experiments on this in several areas, such as telepathy and crystallization, for example, that they must be taken seriously from a scientific standpoint. He noted that, "When you have enough anecdotal experiences, you need to call it evidence," [paraphrased, I think].

My other observations that go beyond "objectively repeatable" are so subjective that I don't trust anyone who would believe me. But a great many people I've talked to have reported similar things, for example, particularly around experiencing the death of a loved one. Ditto on psychedelic experiences that truly seem "more real than reality" as experienced in everyday life.

Rob Kall reviewed a book that I can't for the life of me remember, written in first person, where the author had something like 40 or more appearances in his life of "The Queen of Hearts," that was working to tell him he needed to make a big change in his life. Maybe someone here such as Rob remembers that one? It struck me as a non-fictional version of "The Alchemist."

If I'm actually trying to say something here, it's that this is a great article and there is far more that we don't know about the universe than what we do know. And do agree with I think I understand about the "Zeroth Law of Science."

Submitted on Wednesday, Oct 31, 2018 at 12:47:43 AM

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Daniel, I dreamt last night of a pending serendipitous experience you are about to have. I dreamt of you fortuitously running into a most wonderful person that is a part of OEN, on Monday in Salt Lake City.

:)

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 4:33:02 AM

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Daniel Geery

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Funny but I had the same dream. Except I dreamt she would come in late Saturday and leave Monday evening. I dreamt she had a visit with you too! Hmmm....

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 5:43:09 PM

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Really? Kind of weird having the same dream on opposite sides of the Rockies. I can only guess that me dreaming Moday and you dreaming Saturday was due to quantum something. Whoever she is, I am thinking she must be capable of special action at the distance between Salt Lake City and Denver. What do you think? You probably think I just screwed up the day. :)

Submitted on Friday, Nov 2, 2018 at 6:39:41 AM

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I think she lives in Florida, raising the IQ of that state 10 points or so. :-)

Submitted on Friday, Nov 2, 2018 at 8:05:39 PM

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Sorry. I cannot create paragraphs using my phone. Well, it just did.

Darn it Josh, you have my brain working overtime about things I will never understand. I don't mean the Quantum part. I understand quantum mechanics quantum physics and how and why there is spooky action-at-a-distance. And I'm tired of hearing about Einstein saying God does not play dice. How does he know? You can't prove a negative. I know I am just saying stupid things but I do have some pertinent things to say and questions to ask. At least think do. But I read this article a little while ago had leave and now I need to go back and read it again. I know just barely enough about what you are writing that it intrigues me and it is fun to read. After having said that the repeatability issue with experimentation can be solved very easily. All that need done is use number zero. Take the zeroth law of science and either divide it by zero or raise it to the zero power. The results will be immensely different between two but just pick one or the other and stick with it. The results will always exactly repeat. sorry i thought would say more stupid thing.

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 3:40:30 AM

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Sorry for the missing words in my comment. Guess I am not very good at dictating.

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 4:01:43 AM

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Josh I have not reread your article yet. But I remember one thing I want to ask. Regarding Feynman's quote and the average of 4 photons being reflected for every 100, would it be possible to run an experiment with a human subject "thinking reflect" or "thinking don't reflect?"

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 4:10:52 AM

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I don't know anyone who has done this particular version, but Dean Radin and before him Robert Jahn have done rigorous experiments with equivalent systems, demonstrating that "quantum randomness" can indeed be affected by human intention.

Stuart Kaufmann and Henry Stapp have speculated that the brain is "operated" by a non-material mind-soul, and that the brain is "designed" (by natural selection) to be triggered by quantum events that can be influenced by abstract intention.

Submitted on Monday, Nov 5, 2018 at 3:23:23 PM

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Josh, what you say in your comment is beyond intriguing. "Quantum randomness can indeed be affected by human intention." Operated by a "non-material mind - soul" that allows the brain "to be triggered by quantum events that can be influenced by abstract intention." Absolutely wonderful to think about. Thank you very much...

Submitted on Wednesday, Nov 7, 2018 at 8:19:08 PM

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One more stupid thing. Given that I am the only person alive or who has ever lived that understands quantum mechanics, I therefore for strongly disagree with what Richard Feynman said when he said, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." :)

Submitted on Thursday, Nov 1, 2018 at 4:20:11 AM

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Maybe you'll explain it to me some time...

Submitted on Monday, Nov 5, 2018 at 3:24:02 PM

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Josh, that's the problem! I am so damn smart that I understand it, but I am not smart enough to explain it. Sorry, wish I could be of help. :)

Submitted on Wednesday, Nov 7, 2018 at 8:04:05 PM

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