Philip Ball

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With his Ph.D. in physics and degree in chemistry, his columns and contributions in everything from science journals to high level daily newspapers and his endless string of bestselling science books, Philip Ball is undeniably not just one of the brightest and most prolific science writers of our time, he is also one of the most versatile.

In his latest volume, Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, Ball addresses an issue that the quantum community (if not the general public) often prefers to steer clear of: the role, and the behavior, of scientists in the Third Reich. The book has been shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Science Book Prize.

One of the tenets at the heart of this work is that the “pure and objective science” which we scientists often elect to present as truth (even to ourselves), is a fiction. Science, in Ball’s eyes, is shaped by its environment just like everything else is. For our blog, Philip Ball expands on this idea, carefully treading the fine line of upholding science’s claim to objectivity while at the same time accepting that science is always also influenced by the views and positions of the scientists who shape it, which in turn cannot be isolated from the social and political environment of their times.

Thank you, Philip for this insightful, inspirational and challenging piece.

Science and society: a two-way street

By Philip Ball

Science shapes culture. This is an idea with which we are all familiar, and it is one that pleases many scientists, who understandably like the notion that their theories and experiments resonate beyond the laboratory. It is, moreover, undoubtedly true.

But might it also be the case that culture shapes science? That idea, in contrast, has been resisted by many scientists, who see in it the looming shadow of relativism: the proposition that science’s alleged “truths” are just cultural artifacts, and no more valid as a way of seeing the world than are the myths of pre-scientific civilization or of contemporary cultures that have not embraced technological modernity.

But we can accept that this second proposal is also true without wholly abandoning science’s claim to objectivity. And I believe that we must accept it. There is strong evidence that scientists often shape their ideas – unconsciously, on the whole – to fit the social and political climate of their times. This isn’t a criticism or a flaw, but it is important that we recognize it as a part of the normal scientific process. And while it might sometimes limit or even distort science, on occasion it might in fact work to science’s advantage by aiding the assimilation of new ideas, suggesting novel connections, and providing a pool of fertile and illuminating metaphors. The challenge, of course, is to distinguish one from the other: to spot when our context is misleading us, and when it is feeding us.

The Newtonian moment

Perhaps the most dramatic example of science shaping culture came in the wake of Isaac Newton’s theories of motion and mechanics in the late seventeenth century. The historians Betty Dobbs and Margaret Jacob have remarked that the Newtonian worldview provided

the material and mental universe – industrial and scientific – in which most Westerners and some non-Westerners now live, one aptly described as modernity.

This was a universe governed by mechanical law, where one thing led predictably to another. Many scientists and philosophers believed that such laws would gradually manifest themselves in all phenomena, from the movements of the planets to the workings of the human body and society. René Descartes, whose mechanistic philosophy in fact preceded and informed Newton’s, stopped just short of making the human being a mechanical automaton; the eighteenth-century French writer Julien Offray de la Mettrie took that final step in his book Man a Machine (1748), which excited such controversy and condemnation that la Mettrie had to flee the Netherlands. Yet despite the accusations of materialism that such ideas incited, some political philosophers of the eighteenth century were convinced that there were Newtonian laws that governed society, as exemplified by Jean Théophile Desaguliers’ The Newtonian System of the World: The Best Model of Government, an Allegorical Poem (1728). The Scottish philosopher David Hume aspired to be the Newton of the social sciences, and his colleague Adam Smith posited his economic theory on a Newtonian model of invisible forces, which later became known as “market forces”.

In the nineteenth century it was the ideas of Charles Darwin that instead came to supply the dominant metaphor for thinking about society; crude notions about the “survival of the fittest” in the business and economic spheres still persist. Early Darwinism offers perhaps the most obvious and instructive example of why we should be wary of extending scientific ideas beyond their reach. Naïve applications of natural selection to social engineering in the form of eugenics led to many thousands of people being forcibly sterilized in the early twentieth century because they were considered to be of poor breeding stock and therefore likely to degrade the human gene pool. But the Newtonian model has done damage too. By the nineteenth century, many people were confident that economics was as rigidly law-bound as the cosmos. As the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson put it:

The laws of nature play through trade, as a toy-battery exhibits the effects of electricity. The level of the sea is not more surely kept, than is the equilibrium of value in society by the demand and supply: and artifice or legislation punishes itself, by reactions, gluts, and bankruptcies… The basis of political economy is non-interference. The only safe rule is found in the self-adjusting meter of demand and supply. Do not legislate. Meddle, and you snap the sinews with your sumptuary laws.

This insistence on Newtonian laws and equilibria of forces was more than just an analogy. Early economic models were predicated on a picture derived from the mechanics of physical theory, particularly as it was applied to statistical ensembles by James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann. When Paul Samuelson established the fundamentals of microeconomics in the 1940s, he took as his inspiration the statistical mechanics of Maxwell, Boltzmann and in particular J. Willard Gibbs. It is now clear that the deterministic, equilibrium picture of economics is the wrong one, and yet much economic theory is still caught in this trap, easily distorted and misused by ideologues who take Emerson’s prescription to argue that any interference in the “free market” will result in inefficiencies and verges on being immoral. We are living today with the consequences of that attitude, and not even the catastrophic crash of 2008 has done much to dislodge it.

Of course, when Samuelson was developing his ideas, Newtonian thinking had already been eclipsed in microphysical theory by quantum mechanics. Despite some early joking that the Uncertainty Principle might be used to understand the Great Crash of 1929, quantum theory always looked like more of a metaphor than a mathematical blueprint for describing wider society. It seemed to offer an appropriate picture for the modern age: uncertain, fuzzy, confusing. Sometimes the harder we look, the less we seem to know or discern. As philosopher and historian of science Robert Crease says,

The contemporary world does not always feel smooth, continuous, and law-governed, like the Newtonian World; our world instead often feels jittery, discontinuous, and irrational.  That has sometimes prompted writers to appeal to quantum imagery and language to describe it… [This] may be scientifically incorrect, but writers and poets have found it metaphorically apt.

In his current book with Alfred S. Goldhaber, The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty (Norton, 2014), Crease explains that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle transformed the public response to quantum theory, which had until then been fairly muted. “Newspapers and magazines treated [quantum theory] as something of interest because it excited physicists, but far too complicated to explain to the public”, he says:

Even philosophers didn’t see quantum physics as posing particularly interesting or significant philosophical problems.  The uncertainty principle’s appearance in 1927 changed that.  Suddenly, quantum mechanics was not just another scientific theory.  The uncertainty principle was “Exhibit A” in the case that the quantum world worked very differently from the everyday world.

Crease says that, just as Arthur Eddington had helped to communicate Einstein’s theory of general relativity to the public after helping to verify it by astronomical observations in 1919, now he did the same for the Uncertainty Principle, devoting a section to it in his book The Nature of the Physical World (1928).

Political science

But just as Newtonian mechanics suited an age increasingly concerned with imposing order and regularity on a rapidly changing society, so the neat fit of quantum theory to the uncertain times of the inter-war period is surely at least in part a consequence of the fact that its pioneers shaped it that way. For early quantum theory had a character that suited its times, and indeed the theory’s very openness of interpretation lent itself to ‘political’ or philosophical readings.

Both Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle seemed to insist on aspects of quantum theory that verged on the metaphysical. For one thing, they placed bounds on what is knowable. This appeared to throw causality itself – the bedrock of science – into question. Within the blurred margins of quantum phenomena, how could we hope to distinguish cause and effect? Schrödinger’s theory seemed to be saying that an electron could turn up here, or alternatively there, with no apparent causal principle deciding which it will be.

Moreover, the observer now seemed to intrude ineluctably into the previously objective, mechanistic realm of physics. Heisenberg illustrated this with the “microscope” thought experiment by which he tried to offer an intuitive picture of the Uncertainty Principle, suggesting that the act of bouncing a photon off a quantum particle to observe it changes its behaviour. (This heuristic picture is currently under debate – it has been recently proposed that the relationship between measurement error and disturbance that Heisenberg postulated is too restrictive and needs to be modified.) Some people wondered how, if the very act of observing a system changes the outcome, one may claim to speak about an objective world that exists before we look.

For the pioneers of quantum theory these questions were profoundly – and rightly – disturbing. Indeed, to some extent they remain so today: the precise role of the observer is still being debated, and there is now clear evidence for an irreducible randomness at the heart of quantum events, beyond reach of completely causal description. But one could argue that some of the early quantum theorists were too eager to leap beyond the facts in order to reconstruct our entire notion of the physical world. Causality, for example, is not lost; rather, it must be considered more as an emergent than a fundamental property. When Heisenberg said that, via the Uncertainty Principle, “the meaninglessness of the causal law is definitely proved”, he seemed in contrast to be asserting it as a general law of nature.

In any event, while quantum theory worked as a mathematical formalism (whether Schrödinger’s wave equation or Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics), its interpretation seemed – and still seems – to be largely a matter of taste. Many physicists (albeit perhaps not as many as Heisenberg later implied) were content with the prescription devised by Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr between 1925 and 1927, which became known as the Copenhagen interpretation. This demanded that centuries of classical preconceptions be abandoned in favour of a capitulation to the maths: at its most fundamental level, the physical world was unknowable and in some sense indeterminate. For Bohr, the only reality worthy of the description is what we can access experimentally – and that is all that quantum theory prescribes. To look for any deeper description of the world is meaningless. Yet to Einstein and some others, this seemed to be surrendering to ignorance.

These debates weren’t limited to the physicists. But if they did not fully understand quantum theory, how much scope there was for confusion, distortion and misappropriation as they disseminated it to the wider world. Here, it must be said, the scientists (including Bohr and Heisenberg) often did not help matters. They had a tendency to throw caution to the wind when generalizing the narrow meaning of the Copenhagen interpretation in their public pronouncements. For Bohr, a crucial part of this picture was the notion of complementarity, which holds that two apparently contradictory descriptions of a quantum system can both be valid under different observational circumstances. Thus a quantum entity such as a photon or an electron can behave at one time as a particle, at another as a wave. Bohr’s notion of complementarity is scarcely a scientific theory at all, but rather, another characteristic expression of the Copenhagen spirit that “this is just how things are”. It is not that there is some deeper behaviour that sometimes looks ‘wave-like’ and sometimes ‘particle-like’, but rather, this duality is an intrinsic aspect of nature.

That was all very well, perhaps, but Bohr did not leave it there. He extended of the complementarity principle to biology, law, ethics, religion and psychology. He wrote of the latter, for example, that

this domain… is distinguished by reciprocal relationships which depend on the unity of our consciousness and which exhibit a striking similarity with the physical consequences of the quantum of action. We are thinking here of well-known characteristics of emotion and volition which are quite incapable of being represented by visualizable pictures. In particular, the apparent contrast between the conscious onward flow of associative thinking and the preservation of the unity of the personality exhibit… analogy with the relation between the wave description of the motions of material particles… and their indestructible individuality.

Eventually more or less every sphere of human thought was refracted for Bohr through the lens of complementarity. He wasn’t alone in this. Max Born, for example, saw a political dimension in Bohr’s idea, writing that:

The thesis ‘light consists of particles’ and the antithesis ‘light consists of waves’ fought with one another until they were united in the synthesis of quantum mechanics… Only why not apply it to the thesis Liberalism (or Capitalism), the antithesis Communism, and expect a synthesis, instead of a complete and permanent victory for the antithesis? There seems to be some inconsistency. But the idea of complementarity goes deeper. In fact, this thesis and antithesis represent two psychological motives and economic forces, both justified in themselves, but, in their extremes, mutually exclusive… there must exist a relation between the latitudes of freedom and of regulation… [but] I must leave this to a future quantum theory of human affairs.

Meanwhile, Pascual Jordan, who worked with Bohr and Heisenberg on the Copenhagen interpretation, applied Bohr’s notion of ‘complementary’ quantum states to the psychoanalytic notion of ‘split personality’ – the supposed coexistence of ‘selves’.

All this looks now like a quasi-mystical perspective on quantum theory, which we might be inclined to see as uncharacteristic of these otherwise rigorous thinkers. But they were surely responding to deeper cultural currents – specifically, to the growing rejection, in Weimar Germany in particular, of what were viewed as the maladies of materialism: commercialism, avarice and the encroachment of technology. Science in general, and physics in particular, were apt to suffer from association with these degenerate values, making it inferior in the eyes of many intellectuals to the noble aspirations of art and ‘higher culture’. While it would be too much to say that an emphasis on the metaphysical aspects of quantum mechanics was cultivated in order to rescue physics from these accusations, the scientists weren’t blind to that possibility.

In fact, the historian Paul Forman has argued that the quantum physicists explicitly accommodated their interpretations to the prevailing social ethos of the age, in which (as Forman puts it) “the concept – or the mere word – ‘causality’ symbolized all that was odious in the scientific enterprise.” In his 1918 book Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West), the German philosopher and historian Oswald Spengler more or less equated causality with physics, while making of it a concept that deserved scorn and stood in opposition to life itself. Spengler saw in modern physicists’ doubts about causality a symptom of what he foresaw as the moribund nature of science itself. Here he was thinking not of quantum theory (which was barely beginning to reach the public consciousness at the end of the First World War) but of the probabilistic microscopic theory of matter by Maxwell and Boltzmann, which renounced claims to a precise, deterministic picture of atomic motions.

Spengler’s book was read and discussed throughout the German academic world. Einstein and Born knew it, as did many other of the leading physicists, and Forman believes that it fed the impulse to realign modern physics with the spirit of the age, leading theoretical physicists and applied mathematicians to “denigrat[e] the capacity of their discipline to attain true, or even valuable, knowledge.” They began to speak of science as an essentially spiritual enterprise, unconnected to the demands and problems of technology but, as Wilhelm Wien put it, arising “solely from an inner need of the human spirit.” Even Einstein, who deplored the rejection of causality that he saw in many of his colleagues, emphasized the roles of feeling and intuition in science.

In this way the physicists were attempting to reclaim some of the prestige that science had lost to the romantic spirit of the times. Only once we have “liberation from the rooted prejudice of absolute causality”, said Schrödinger in 1922, would the puzzles of atomic physics be conquered. Bohr even spoke of quantum theory having an “inherent irrationality.” And as Forman points out, many physicists seemed to accept these notions not with reluctance or pain but with relief and with the evident expectation that they would be welcomed by the broader public. Yet it would be wrong to see this as a blatant attempt to ingratiate physics to a potentially hostile public. Rather, it is apparently an unconscious adaptation to the prevailing culture.

Equally, the fact that both quantum theory and relativity were seen to be provoking crises in physics was consistent with the belief that crises pervaded Weimar culture – economically, politically, intellectually and spiritually. “The idea of such a crisis of culture”, said the French politician Pierre Viénot in 1931, “belongs today to the solid stock of the common habit of thought in Germany. It is a part of the German mentality.” The applied mathematician Richard von Mises spoke of “the present crisis in mechanics” in 1921; Hermann Weyl (one of the first scientists openly to question causality) claimed there was a “crisis in the foundations of mathematics”, and even Einstein wrote for a popular audience on “the present crisis in theoretical physics” in 1922.

One has the impression that these crises were not causing the physicists much dismay, but rather, reassured them that they were in the same tumultuous flow as the rest of society. This was, however, a dangerous game. Some outsiders drew the conclusion that quantum mechanics pronounced on free will, and it was only a matter of time before the new physics was being enlisted for political ends. Some even managed to claim that it vindicated the policies of the National Socialists; Forman argues that the Nazi sympathies of Pascual Jordan contributed inspiration to his important work on second quantization.

Moreover, if physics was being in some sense shaped to propitiate Spenglerism, it risked seeming to endorse also Spengler’s central thesis of relativism: that not only art and literature but also science and mathematics are shaped by the culture in which they arise and are invalid and indeed all but incomprehensible outside that culture. And there one can see a presentiment of the ‘Aryan physics’ propagated by Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s, which contrasted healthy Germanic science with decadent, self-serving Jewish science.

By making science – and physics in particular – something disconnected from technological materialism, something more abstract, remote and perhaps even more spiritual, the physicists encouraged a disengagement from the political realities that surrounded them, even while at the same time making their science more susceptible to political interpretation and manipulation. They aligned their ideas with the Zeitgeist at the fateful moment when the Zeitgeist was in the process of spawning one of the most dreadful political regimes of the modern age. Faced with the ugly truths of Nazi rule, Heisenberg and his contemporaries withdrew into a fantasy of “apolitical physics”, and they were powerless to mount any serious resistance to the forces that overwhelmed Germany.

Today and tomorrow

It is the habit of science to say “That was then; we don’t do things that way any more.” This is what Newton and his colleagues said in relation to the Aristotelian teleology of the medieval universe; it is what the modern physicists felt about the excessively mechanistic and reductionistic view of the Newtonians. “Our science is the only truly objective one,” each generation tells itself. We’d doubtless like to see the over-reaching of Bohr, Born and Heisenberg as a product of their times but not ours. But how likely is this, really?

One can only hope to see in retrospect quite how science accommodated itself to the climate of its times. Yet we can, perhaps, make out a few areas in which this sort of social shaping plays a role. A somewhat trivial (perhaps) example are the fantasies spun from the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory. Hugh Everett’s original idea in the 1950s that the collapse of the wavefunction can be avoided by affording some kind of reality to all the probabilistic solutions is neither trivial nor fantastical – it leads to some valuable and fertile ways of thinking about experimental measurement, decoherence and other issues. But the interpretation it is now afforded by some of its adherents, in which each of those solutions is dressed in an entire replica universe, complete with copies of ourselves – as Max Tegmark of MIT pus it, “the act of making a decision causes a person to split into multiple copies” – departs from any formalism to construct a picture based on contemporary science fiction narratives of alternative worlds and multiple selves. Since we have no agreed model of consciousness in the classical world, let alone the quantum one, it goes without saying that any attempt to “people” Everett’s mathematical description is an act of pure imagination – and one, moreover, that becomes quickly incoherent in logical terms once considered in any detail.

More importantly, genomics is currently being clothed in the narratives of our age. The image of DNA as a digital database of instructions for building a human is the equivalent of de la Mettrie’s “clockwork man” – an appeal to the most powerful technology of the times as an attempt to understand life. This computational metaphor is misleading in all kinds of ways – some of them purely technical but some with potentially troublesome social implications. Genetics is already finding itself hoist by its own petard, beleaguered with popular ideas about a “gene for” – a gene for intelligence, musicality, homosexuality, criminality. This excessively deterministic picture, drawing on the idea of an all-powerful digital source code, is raising unnecessarily complex legal issues about moral responsibility and predestiny, arrogating to the genome questions that should more properly be addressed in a socioeconomic framework. We already know that the body’s chemistry “at the surface” – the composition of metabolites in the bloodstream, say – is strongly shaped by environment and lifestyle, and yet (to take just one example) the $70m project to understand ageing and longevity recently launched by the biotechnology entrepreneur Craig Venter expects to find the key answers primarily in the genome we each have from birth. If nothing else, this “blueprint” narrative derived from information technology is likely to instigate a considerable misdirection of resources.

One has to wonder, then, if the “informational” orientation of current work on the foundations of quantum theory shares something of this same obeisance to the Zeitgeist. But of course the interplay between science and society can work the other way round too: a fertile idea might arise in science when the cultural climate is right for it. On current showing, trying to make sense of quantum theory by viewing it as a theory of information might be what we needed all along. Perhaps the field’s early focuses – black-body radiation, models of the atom, theories of light and quantized fields – were simply what the preoccupations of the early twentieth century dictated, and only now are we getting to the core of the matter.

That remains to be seen. But nevertheless, if the past is any guide (and it is often the best we have), it seems inevitable that today’s science will seem tomorrow as much “of its time” as the ether, catastrophe theory or S-matrix theory. We needn’t lament this – it is just the way science works. But it is as well to recognize that science, just like biological form and function, is shaped by its environment.