The Great Debate

Last summer, I heard a great interview with Mark Miodownik, who had just written a book about Material Science called “Stuff Matters.” Finally, I thought, someone had wrote the Freakanomics of Condensed Matter Physics. Unfortunately, I had to wait almost a year for the book to make it across the pond from the UK. (For Raising Steam, American readers also had to wait an extra four months. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t take that long to change all the coulors to colors and lorries to trucks).

Anyway, I’ve finished the first chapter – on Metals – and it is pretty interesting so far. My favorite part is how much metallurgy was known by trial and error alone. Since the success of a society was strongly dependent on having better weapons than the next society over, this knowledge was a closely guarded secret, passed as lore from master to apprentice. Only recently has our knowledge of physics and chemistry allowed us to rationally explain and predict why adding just the right amount of carbon – but not too much – to iron makes steel, with is much more useful for architecture or warfare than either element alone. Using condensed matter theory, an advanced course in graduate physics, we can now understand why the methods used thousands of years ago were so successful.


This reminded me of another recent book, The Great Debate. This is an account of the very different philosophies of Edmund Burke, who wanted to reform society, but gradually and incrementally, with that of Thomas Paine, who thought that society should be totally remade according to the values of the Enlightenment. [Here is a good podcast] Political conservatives often agree with Burke, in the sense that we should be cautious when discarding systems that have worked so far, since we may introduce many unintended consequences by our rational changes – see, for example, the French Revolution. Paine was much more edger to “blow up” corrupt and oppressive regimes and start from scratch, a more liberal view today.

This tinkering vs. rational design debate, evolution vs revolution, comes up again and again in science. In some ways it is the old struggle between theorists and experimentalists, but the scientific method has made sure to anchor itself in reality (hopefully) by requiring all theories to be supported by experimental evidence. Hamlet said that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” But the solution is to make observations of the natural world to make sure that our philosophy doesn’t get off track.

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

-Richard Feynman

Author: lnemzer

Associate Professor Nova Southeastern University

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