The Morality Of Fundamental Physics : A Lecture by Prof. Nima Arkani-Hamed

You can watch the whole lecture here:

Here is a quick summary in the form of rough notes I took. I doubt if they are even a finite percentage of awesome thoughts above, so make sure to watch the whole video !

Introduction

  • Mathematics and Physics endow us with an objective sense of right and wrong. This leads to a moral order.
  • The day to day life of a Physicist includes interaction with something much larger, beyond human beings: The Natural Laws.
  • In Physics, the obsession is with discovering Truth.
  • In Humanism, we think that all morality is created by humans as per societal order. The morality imposed by Physics is NOT a social construct but follows from pursuit of Truth which is universal, human independent, impersonal.
  • Over centuries, discovering Truth is associated with “right” way of doing it. This leads to a “Intellectual Moral Code”.
  • This Intellectual Moral Code is independent of God or other human and social constructs.

1

Morally Correct Behavior

  • Be Honest:

To Yourself and Others

  • It doesn’t matter who you are, only content of your ideas are important.

This works both ways ! If you are famous but speak bullshit, then you stature won’t matter and it will be rejected. Similarly, if you are really young and new, but your ideas are good. Then you will be heard. There may be exceptions but in general, this is true of Physics.

“In Physics we have Heroes, not Prophets”

-S. Weinberg

  • We are never in possession of complete truth.

Hence

a) Never pretend to have complete certainty.

b) But above is not an excuse for laziness or timidity! Work hard and exhaust all you can.

  • Be Tolerant. Keep an open mind.

But there is an important caveat. It is necessary to be intolerant and harshly judgmental of ideas that are intellectually lazy or dishonest. (Especially your own!)

“It is important to keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out!”

-R. Oppenheimer

Morally Correct Understanding

  • Even the partial truths we have are “locally” perfect. They have a sense of (Ref: Dreams of a Final Theory- S. Weinberg.) In the given spacetime and science of the time, they were the best possible explanations of things.

Example: Classical mechanical understanding of our world was locally perfect, a peak of knowledge. Later we realized that there is more in the world and we got to Quantum mechanics, which is a higher peak. But the peak of classical mechanics remains, visible from the peak of Quantum Mechanics. It is not like there is monotonic increase of knowledge from classical to quantum. It is a jump from one peak to another, found by different paths.

2

Morally Correct Explanations

  • Same Truth can be explained in different ways: need to learn all of them!
  • Morally correct explanations are:
    • As close as possible to fundamentals.
    • Sense of inevitability.

3

Example:1

Total Energy E=Kinetic Energy + Potential Energy

is conserved in time !

Similarly when electron moves around a positive charge,

Total Energy =Kinetic Energy + Potential Energy + Electromagnetic Energy

is conserved.

We can always define an energy in various situations such that the total energy is conserved. This is a “clever” example.

Question is WHY can we always find such a quantity ?

Morally correct: Action Principle and Emmy Noether’s Theorem.

Symmetry implies Energy conservation

Simple+Deep. Eternally correct!

Truth is Ennobling

  • The Laws of the Natural are perfect, Humans are imperfect.
  • “Acting morally” is good way to discover Truth (hence even while working for “selfish” goals, morally correct way is the path to take.)
  • It doesn’t matter if you are smart or not. Interacting with Truth morally enhances your own abilities and drags you to right answer.
  • Sometimes Truth is contradictory: “Light is wave” Vs. “Light is particle”
  • Even if you hate it, you need to look at both sides to find the deeper truth. (Caveat, the contradictory Truth should not be lazy/dishonest )

 “The subject you hate most will be the one you need to learn in order to excel in your research!”

-Steve Shenker

Challenges In Path of Morality

  • FEAR!
    • Wasting time (practically)
    • Death! (fundamentally)
  • Two great examples are Einstein and Grothendieck who spent long times (8 yrs for Einstein) to discover something simple and deep.
  • Nima commented to clarify his position on above during Q&A that one needs to be practical as well. If one chooses a really hard problem, that one is not working on it at all, then it is no good! Nima “Good parameter is that one should always be in pain! Choose goals hard enough so that you work hard!”
  • Example of Beethoven:

His music has a sense of progression of notes as if one after another note is inevitable. To achieve it he wrote and rewrote multiple times, even listened to all versions to nitpick each note carefully! Constant  dedication for perfection. Bernstein comments on beauty of result of such work: “When you listen to such refined piece, you feel something is “right” in the world. This gives us hope!”

Conclusion

  • Truth (Physics or any Science) provides us with an invariant moral code.
  • The pursuit for perfection of Truth makes us better.
  • It allows us to transcend our mortality and achieve something eternal!

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