Envy of physics is something from the last century

NRC Handelsblad, feb. 24, 2018

Physics envy - the impossible desire to explain everything on the basis of elementary building blocks. Occurs among social and humanities scientists. Sometimes leads to an inferiority complex. Symptoms are an unreasonable awe for data and formulas, see also figure rfetis jism. This envy among colleagues finds its origin in the successful search of the natural sciences into fundamental building blocks in the last century. Physicists and chemists found the particles, atoms and molecules that make up the matter; biologists the genes, proteins and cells that make life possible; and computer scientists the bits, algorithms and networks that form the basis of information and intelligence. It is indeed jealous that we can describe so much with just a handful of ingredients. Seventeen elementary particles are sufficient to build up all matter. The genetic code in our DNA uses a molecular alphabet of four letters. And computers have enough to 0 and 1. Now our alphabet has only 26 letters and the number of words fits into a single dictionary. But language is not a bead chain, strung from individual words. Not only is the meaning of a word determined by the place in the sentence, the text itself can only really be understood if we know the time and environment of writer and reader The humanities are an inextricable knot of objects and contexts. Everyone and everything is unique, ambiguous and non-reproducible. There is little room for reductionism. Also in the social sciences the environment exceeds every possible universal human behavior. Correlations are generally weak and predictability is limited. Seen in this way, the desire for the relative simplicity of the betas is understandable. Behavior and culture consist of particles, nucleotides or bits. But there is no "DNA of our culture" nor a "software of society". But, dear alphas and gamma's, do not despair. You are not alone in your struggle with the environment. Physicist time is like that last century. In the exact sciences the context is back again.
Envy on physics is like something from the last century
To begin with in physics itself. Quantum theory not only brings a microscopic concept of matter, but also a counterintuitive worldview. It turns out to be impossible to view objects separately. Two particles remain intertwined, even if they are miles apart. Knowledge of each particle separately is not the same as knowledge of the whole. Einstein discovered this phenomenon in 1935 and called it a "ghostly effect at a distance". Information is not recorded at one point, but is everywhere and nowhere. This entanglement also ensures that the experiment and the observer can not be strictly separated. This has led to a lot of metaphysical "floating", but it is crystal clear mathematics and totally trendy. Quantum computers make grateful use of entanglement. Because all information is interlinked, these machines can do many calculations at once and that makes them more efficient and powerful than traditional computers. The environment is also completely back in biology. The idea that all information is contained in our DNA has proved extremely naïve. The genome is not so much a blueprint as a catalog. After all, what determines which genes are activated when? How does a cell know that it wants to be part of our liver, eyes or brain? The epigenetics -all hereditary information outside the DNA-is at least as important as genetics. It is crucial what the molecular composition of the cell is, where the cell is in the body and how it communicates with other cells. Environment and behavior can influence gene expression. Furthermore, our body contains nearly ten times more microbes than cells, which together form one ecosystem. But can we still understand computers in terms of zeros and ones? Unfortunately not. One of the important lessons of recent years is that computer science is not about computers, but about the internet and other digital networks. Not the bits are central, but the way in which information and algorithms are used and shared. And that is what people determine, with all their emotions and shortcomings. It is a painful lesson for technology companies that social media show all the noise and ambiguity that characterizes human interactions. Becoming more and more entwined with their environment, betas are becoming more and more like alphas. However simple the alphabet with which they are written, in terms of complexity, there is little difference between the interpretation of a DNA molecule, the Facebook algorithm or the collected work of Shakespeare.

Robbert Dijkgraaf is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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