Welcome to the tenth episode of Electric Chapter Lab. Today we shall continue our review of The Ascent of Man.
World within World
In Chapter Ten, Dr. Bronowski discusses pre-1920s atomic physics. My review here is a little longer than usual, as I do have some criticisms, but I close on one of his strongest theses in the book.
Bronowski opens the chapter by discussing Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic relation amongst the elements. But inside this interesting story is a small point of irritation: Bronowski refers to Mendeleev as a “prophet” and uses the phrase “Mendeleev prophesied”. I know he is trying to convey Mendeleev’s genius through analogy, but this language has the potential to confuse people. A prophesy is an invalid truth-claim based on zero evidence, which is not what Mendeleev was doing; he was guessing that a certain pattern would continue, based on quite a bit of evidence–an incomplete picture of a pattern. The danger of abusing language like this is that some people get the impression that Biblical-style prophecy is just as legitimate as scientific conjecture because they are somehow the same thing (which they are not).
Later on, Bronowski tries to connect late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century visual art with physics. He claims that the artists are trying to depict the structure of the world, just as physicists are trying to study it. I think Bronowski sees what he wants to see here. I could as easily say that the artists of the time were denying the structure of the world, since it was over-simplified and flattened into two dimensions.
There is another comparison, between paintings and scientific papers, that Bronowski makes and which I think is totally backwards and wrong. He writes: “There are two clear differences between a work of art and a scientific paper. One is that in the work of art the painter is visibly taking the world to pieces and putting it together on the same canvas. And the other is that you can watch him thinking while he is doing it. … In both those respects the scientific paper is often deficient.” The kind of painting he describes sounds like the work of an amateur, unless the painter is using a very specific stylistic filter, like Impressionism. But normal realist art is opaque to technique, which is a very measure of skill. On the second point, it is the job of the scientific paper to “take the world into pieces”, or analyze, and lay it out in a logical way to make it clear. In other words, good painting is representative and illustrative, whereas a good paper is analytic and lucid. But you might not think that if you saw enough clumsy paintings and read enough obfuscatory papers.
Bronowski, when discussing the discoveries of Niels Bohr, makes another mistake. He says that Bohr “made the modern image of the atom.” The problem is that the Bohr model hasn’t been our image of the atom since 1925.
In an earlier episode of Electric Chapter Lab, I disagreed with Bronowski’s portrayal of theories as analogies. In this chapter, Bronowski makes the claim again in regard to atomic theories. He says “… when it comes to atoms, language is not describing facts but creating images.” If that were true, we would merely have atomic art rather than atomic theories. Fortunately, we have the language of mathematics and a surrounding cloud of technical English (or German, or whatever) which can and does describe facts. Bronowski continues: “When we step through the gateway of the atom, we are in a world which are senses cannot experience.” But there is nothing particularly special about this “gateway”–his statement holds true for Earth’s interior, the center of stars, distant galaxies, events in history, and almost everything else. Much of the information we obtain is through tools which augment our senses. He goes on: “… we only try to picture it [inside atoms] by analogy …. But all our ways of picturing the invisible are metaphors …. The models are meant to show, by analogy, how matter is built up.” I would say that metaphors and analogies are inaccurate by definition; sometimes so inaccurate that the picture they produce can lead you astray. When the Rutherford Model of the atom was proposed, I believe that scientists thought atoms really could be like tiny planetary systems, that there were literally small spheres orbiting some heavier central sphere. Of course they understood this was a model, but they were hoping it was an accurate model. Now we have a better one which is tested to extreme degrees of accuracy, demonstrating that the model contains facts, not a collection of image-based metaphors. I will agree with Bronowski in one respect though: that atoms are bizarre objects completely different from the larger scale objects we encounter in everyday life; but that does not mean drawing an accurate picture of them is impossible or inconceivable to our senses–it does mean that using analogies in science education can lead to significant misconceptions in the mind of the learner.
But let us move on to an important and interesting section of the chapter. Ludwig Boltzmann defined viewed entropy as a measure of disorder, whereas previously it had been viewed by Rudolf Clausius as energy inaccessible for work. Boltzmann’s equation, S = K log W, expresses a simple relation: entropy is the logarithm of the probability of a state multiplied by a constant (Bronowski does not indicate what the constant, K, is). Here, probability refers to a kind of logical possibility (rather than credence or frequency). There are vastly many more possible disordered states than ordered ones, so we express this by saying that ordered states are “improbable”. Boltzmann discovered a “statistical law” which says that “order tends to vanish”. This is an important concept in contemporary physics, and Bronowski goes on to make a further point which is quite important for biology as well. He says that although the probability of any particular complex arrangement of atoms, such as Bronowski’s body, is so small as to be basically impossible when the whole Universe is the sample space, this conception gives the wrong impression. Bronowski correctly points out that we should be considering a more restricted, relevant sample space: the previous causal steps. “The stable units that compose one … stratum are the raw material for random encounters which produce higher configurations, some of which will … be stable. So long as there remains a potential of stability which has not become actual, there is no other way for chance to go.” He calls this concept stratified stability, and it explains how improbably ordered states can arise in anti-entropic islands over time.
Recent episodes of Electric Chapter Lab:
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Nine
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Eight
The Ascent of Man, Chapter Seven