Here in Frugal Science, we are about to begin a new exploration where we are going to examine the most famous Superheroes’ powers. I can’t predict exactly where this exploration is going to take us but I suspect that we will be talking a lot about Physical Laws.
But, what are Physical Laws, anyways? Can we rely on them as the ultimate bastion of Truth?
Questioning Physical Laws is a difficult task, especially for someone like me who feel a caring sense of gratitude for them. Is like questioning your parents or your school teacher.
And what is there not to like? They are the ground basis for technology and progress; they represent the genius of mankind; they provide clear, undisputable answers to common problems…
The way a set of words or a simple algebraic algorithm can predict, with complete precision, what is going to happen to you if you are exposed to a sudden change of speed, pressure or temperature has always amazed me.
Thanks to Physical Laws you can estimate your survival possibilities in any scenario (except if you are the Schrödinger Cat, in which case you’ll get a reassuring 50% chance).
There is also beauty in the simplicity of Physical Laws. One of my favorites is the (romantic form of the) Law of Conservation of Energy: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” You can’t beat that (literally).
Physical Laws produce a series of effects on our minds; they give us the sensation of that everything can be explained. Because of this, they are the best antidote against superstition and they reduce the fear to the unknown.
We don’t like fear – who likes it? –, and we are very grateful for that, but that’s when problems start to appear: we hate fear so much that, sometimes, we avoid questioning that what we rather not change.
But this blog is about exploring. Exploring is about learning; it’s about keeping our eyes open and questioning everything. Today we will question physical laws.
Have you ever asked yourself: what is a Physical Law?
What are Physical Laws?
A Physical Law is (according to the Oxford English dictionary):
“… a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts, applicable to a defined group or class of phenomena, and expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present”
A “model for reality” is a good way to think about them too: we run the model (algorithm) and we get an outcome (how reality works).
For all matters, a Physical Law is a human product set within the attempt to describe reality the best possible way. It just happens that this human attempt has brought unbelievable benefits to mankind – protection, mobility, communication and hot water baths, to name a few.
What Physical Laws are Not
The most common mistake we assume with Physical Laws is considering them real.
Just like the name of the person is not the person, the Physical Law is not the discovery itself, nor the fact; it’s only the description (of the fact or discovery); as a map is not the treasure but the pointer of the treasure.
Sometimes we forget this; we are so used to see the principle as part of our lives that we forget that it’s not real. It’s an abstraction.
Moreover, because Physical Laws provide reassurance, sometimes we treat them as safe heavens. Our reverence to Physical Laws is such that –from time to time – we even give them the status of deity.
For instances: I had a discussion with a dear friend – whom I consider a very intelligent person – that claimed that God doesn’t exist because the creation of the Universe can be totally explained by Physical Laws.
(Suppose I am a great programmer, I told my friend, and I make a virtual world on a computer using algorithms known only by me; then suppose a hacker comes into the computer and breaks the code I used to create my virtual world. Does that mean I don’t exist?)
As in any human creation, Physical Laws can fail too. Because they represent what happens in a common situation – and in reality, situation often vary – they can produce wrong estimates.
That is the case of probably the most commonly known set of physical principles: the Newton’s laws of motion.
These laws govern accurately the motion familiar things – like a rocket, a baseball or a suicide executive -, but is incomplete when you try to apply it to bigger things (planetary scale) like the oceans or the planets.
In those cases you must include other elements – like Coriolis or Planetary Vorticity – that affect the motion of physical bodies when their masses are too big.
Another example is the case of the classical gravity formula – one of the finest physical Laws ever – which resulted not appropriate within the frame of the Relativity Theory.
Physical Laws are virtual gems that the entire human kind own, but in order to explore new things, we must accept the possibility that they could be wrong or – at least – inadequate. What do you think?