General · TV

Pieces on the gameboard

In the history of science, physicists have appeared to know everything & nothing — having all the answers or few, if any (like politicians, eh). Some have ventured into philosophy and religion; others have “retreated” into math as the only explanation (making it inaccessible to a general audience). Some physicists you might want to have a beer with; while others you’d probably rather never meet [1].

It’s interesting when there’s a balance of excitement (about new discoveries and knowledge) and humility (that there’s so much more yet). Excitement that there are things that we know are foundational (particularly for advancing technology). Humility and wonder that there’re limits, and there’ve been awful blunders in the past — statements that closed off possible “immensely richer” deeper understanding. The “halo effect” of any celebrity or singular authority.

So, how best characterize the state of modern physics and limits of our knowledge? Sean Carroll talks a lot about this topic, particularly regarding the concept of an effective theory (discussed in other posts). Following his 2012 Faraday lecture, in the audience Q&A (~16′ into video) Carroll uses the analogy that we know the pieces on the chessboard but remain novices at playing the game.

It’s the difference between knowing how the knight moves on a chessboard and being a grand master chess player. We now know the rules of chess — in terms of the fundamental workings of our little corner of reality. We’re not very good at playing the game of putting those underlying laws to work in explaining things like the origin of life or other interesting questions.

That reminded me of this hilarious March 4, 2017, SNL video “Youngblood” in which an old man (Kenan Thompson) attempts to school a young man (Pete Davidson) in chess while his friend (Octavia Spencer) looks on. The skit illustrates the folly of assumptions and when even the pieces of a game are a mystery.

Messed up chessboard
Youngblood – SNL SEASON 42 | EPISODE 15 | March 4, 2017

[1] Newton’s personality is an interesting case in point: “Isaac Newton was not a pleasant man.” — Hawking, Stephen (2011-05-04). A Brief History of Time. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Profile before Appendix.