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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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A Tale of Two Tables*

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882 – 1944) was one of the leading astrophysicists and publicizers of science in the early to mid 1900’s. He measured how much the sun bends light rays and thus helped establish Einstein’s general theory of relativity. One the down side, he also proved the fine structure constant was exactly 1/136 and later exactly 1/137; consequently he was referred to as “Sir Arthur AddingOne.” His philosophy of science was also suspect, or at least wildly inaccurate.

In his Gifford Lectures of 1927, he talked about two tables. First, the table of everyday experience: it is comparatively permanent, it is coloured, and above all it is substantial. Second, the table of science: it is mostly emptiness with numerous, sparsely-scattered electric charges rushing about with great speed.  Eddington’s two tables have provided grist for the philosophical mill ever since. Are there really two tables? Susan Stebbing argued that Eddington was mixing everyday language and scientific language in an inadmissible way. But Eddington’s crime is much more heinous: he is using the language, appropriate at one scale, to a scale where it is inappropriate. And he is also taking the internals of the models far too seriously. Here is another example (Eddington, 1929):

I am standing on the threshold about to enter a room. It is a complicated business. In the first place I must shove against an atmosphere pressing with a force of fourteen pounds on every square inch of my body. I must make sure of landing on a plank travelling at twenty miles a second round the sun—a fraction of a second too early or too late, the plank would be miles away. I must do this whilst hanging from a round planet, head outward into space, and with a wind of aether blowing at no one knows how many miles a second through every interstice of my body. The plank has no solidity of substance. To step on it is like stepping on a swarm of flies. Shall I not slip through? No, if I make the venture one of the flies hits me and gives a boost up again; I fall again and am knocked upwards by another fly; and so on. I may hope that the net result will be that I remain about steady; but if unfortunately I should slip through the floor or be boosted too violently up to the ceiling, the occurrence would be, not a violation of the laws of Nature, but a rare coincidence…

Verily, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a scientific man to pass through a door. And whether the door be barn door or church door it might be wiser that he should consent to be an ordinary man and walk in rather than wait till all the difficulties involved in a really scientific ingress are resolved.

A complicated business? Only if you use an inappropriate description. A scientific man? Bah! Rather a fool who thinks reductionism is all there is to science. It is striking that twenty years after Einstein’s 1905 papers he is still talking about the aether (ether). The atmospheric pressure of the room balances between the front and back so we do not have to “shove” against it. The motion of the earth about the sun is quite irrelevant to the question of entering a room. You can make a poor choice of reference frame (heliocentric rather that geocentric), but do not call it science. The fly analogy is interesting for giving a simple microscopic description of behaviour at the atomic scale but it is a very poor model for describing the large scale. Even as a microscopic description it fails. The electrons in atoms are not moving (technically they are in stationary states) except for thermal motion. And on it goes. Personally, I keep my feet on the ground, and the earth is as solid as it ever was and in that frame the sun also rises. Verily, and in that frame, Joshua could even make it stand still (ie it is not logically excluded).

Eddington’s is the extreme reductionist’s view of the world. If commentating today, he would say all that is real about the elephant can be discovered at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)—at least until a higher energy accelerator comes along. But there is also emergence: the everyday table is the emergent table and the one I stub my toe on. It is every bit as real as the reductionist’s mostly-made-of-emptiness table. Perhaps even more so since the reductionists will always be chasing their elusive table to higher and higher energies, finding yet another new table at each new energy scale: the atomic table (Eddington’s), the nuclear table where the nucleus is resolved, the QCD table, the electroweak table, the Planck scale table… and we cannot even speculate intelligently beyond that. If you grant Eddington two tables, you have to grant him many, one at each energy scale. Either that or the one at infinite energy scale which we will never know,

In reality, there is just one table and we know it quite well. However, at each scale we have a preferred, largely self-contained model which we can calculate the table’s properties with. I was about to say ‘valid model’ but I guess a model can be considered valid even if it is too complicated to use in practice. We could, in principle, calculate planetary motion with quantum mechanics, but why bother? For this problem, Newton’s laws work as well as they did when he discovered them. Perhaps better, since we now know how to manipulate them more skillfully.  Now the mistake Newton—and more especially his disciples—made was to assume that classical mechanics was the ultimate theory of, if not, everything, at least of motion[1]. It may not be the theory of everything, but as a model of slow motion at scales from millimeters to astronomical units it is still valid, as valid as it ever was. Similarly, the everyday table is still a valid concept, as valid as it ever was.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

* Don’t worry. All the beheading is metaphorical.


[1] Does this remind anyone of the blind men and the elephant?

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