College of Liberal Arts & Science

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© 2017 Frank Wilczek, All Rights Reserved

Fundamentals_Proposals

 

Frank, very recently had the occasion to revisit Feynman's The Character of Physical Law, as MIT Press is re-issuing it and asked Frank to write the introduction to the new edition.


Re-reading this Feynman masterpiece was inspiring, and with Frank's introduction notes,  the book forms a worthy part of his legacy. That has also figured into Frank's thinking because Feynman has demonstrated through this, and other, books that there is a big market for a short, non-technical, but sophisticated discussion of central scientific issues by a leader in the field. 

 

What Frank had in mind is a project that he calls Fundamentals. (The joke is that it provides an antidote to fundamentalism.) 

 

The premise of the book is simple: Frank formulated ten basic propositions, which together convey the core of what every thinking person should know about science. 


In Fundamentals, the ten basic propositions support a series of interesting and connected chapters, which give historical and cultural context, outline the evidence, and draw out the implications.


This rough outline should give a clear sense of what Frank has in mind:

 

1. The World Is Very Big 

Our neighborhood (Earth, Solar System, Milky Way). The accessible universe. How we measure large distances. Consistency checks. The multitudes within.

 

2. The World Is Very Old 

The nature of time. How we measure the age of objects on Earth. What we mean by the age of the universe, and how we measure it. Consistency checks.

 

3. Matter Is Built From A Small Menu Of Ingredients, Which Exist In Vast Quantities 

Microscopy and its modern refinements. Matter from the bottom up—building from electrons, photons, nuclei (protons and neutrons) to everyday materials. How we analyze the chemistry of distant objects, like stars, and establish that they're made of the same stuff. Extraordinary objects.

 

4. The World Is Governed By Precise Mathematical Laws 

The astonishing success of reductionism. The character of physical law, with Newtonian gravity as an example. The other three forces. The nature of quantum theory: a transactional world. The limits of reductionism.

 

5. There Are Many Aspects Of The World We Do Not Perceive 

The expansion of perception, historically. (Special focus: the senses of time). Alternative realities in the biological world. Electromagnetic fields versus human vision. New opportunities to enhance perception further.

 

6. Understanding Empowers Us 

Technology informed by science: Microelectronics and information processing. Other quantum technologies. Grand projects: LHC, LIGO, the search for exoplanets (how they work, how they lean on deep understanding). Glorious future prospects.

 

7. Simple Rules Can Have Complicated Consequences 

Building the world: Hierarchies of structure. Iteration, chaos, and fractals. How rapid interactions and randomness in the small can look like equilibrium and stability in the large.

 

8. We Can Describe The Broad Outline Of Universal History 

Evidence for the basic big bang picture. How small seeds grew and spawned the structures we see today. Consistency checks. Looking to the future.

 

9. We Have Discovered Things That We Don't Understand 

(Known unknowns). Dark matter and dark energy. The physical basis of mind. Origins. Approaching these questions scientifically.

 

10. We Must Be Open To Surprises 

(Unknown unknowns). Historical examples of scientific revolutions, which shook up "well-established" theories—wave-particle duality, general relativity. The surprising comprehensibility of matter, and of cosmology—how science invaded religion and philosophy. What are we missing today?

 

 

 


 

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