Notes and Quotes: Frank Wilczek’s FUNDAMENTALS: TEN KEYS TO REALITY

Frank Wilczek is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, whose earlier book A BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: Finding Nature’s Deep Design (2015) I have but have not yet read. (It looks fascinating – the kind big picture book, that tries to understand history or reality in the broadest possible terms, that I find especially compelling.)

His new book is FUNDAMENTALS: TEN KEYS TO REALITY, just published earlier this month. And partly because it’s relatively short, and partly because of my resolution to keep up on significant books as they are published, I read it right away, within the week after it was published.

It’s short and written in deceptively simple prose, some 228 pages of largish type in a book somewhat smaller than the standard hardcover. But that’s because the concepts he describes are often abstruse (as reality is, compared to mundane human understanding). It wasn’t a fast read; I found myself rereading paragraphs to make sure I understood his point.


There are ten chapters for the “ten keys” though they don’t precisely align. Some of the keys are things, like space and time, while others are processes, or properties: complexity, complementarity. The book is about what we know and how we know it, with a bit of speculation about what we might yet discover. His take on “complementarity” is useful, and parallels Sean Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” and various writers’ discussions of emergent properties and levels of complexity as escapes from the trap of material reductionism.


Preface: Born Again

⦁ “This is a book about the fundamental lessons we can learn from the study of the physical world.”
⦁ The deliberate title is meant to suggest that these ideas offer an alternative to traditional religious fundamentalism.
⦁ And understanding these ideas requires a kind of being “born again,” i.e. unlearning intuitive notions learned as a child.


⦁ A baby learns to detect patterns and construct its concept of the world, and understand that there are others who perceive the world in the same way.
⦁ Understanding how to control and interact with the world is necessary for survival.
⦁ Methods for survival become technology.
⦁ Development of technology has been haphazard throughout most of human history. The modern method emerged in Europe in the 17th century. The Scientific Revolution entailed a change in outlook, and arose from the study of objects in the sky, in particular the sun, moon, and planets.
⦁ Ptolemy’s synthesis was magnificent but ugly, and inaccurate. Then followed Tycho, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, who developed simple rules to explain complex situations: analysis and synthesis.

The first part of the book considers what there is.

1, There’s plenty of space

⦁ A key theme is abundance. The universe is enormous, and ancient.
⦁ The universe is huge compared to the standards of everyday life; and we are similarly huge compared to the size of atoms
⦁ We observe the same natural laws everywhere, and things are arranged more or less evenly
⦁ We know the size of space via the “cosmic distance ladder,” where one technique scales the next: parallax, “standard candles” to determine distances to galaxies and clusters; Cepheid variables.
⦁ And we know the microcosm via microscopy, x-ray diffraction, scanning microscopy, and alpha particles.

2, There’s plenty of time

⦁ What is time? Repetitions in nature. Time is what clocks measure.
⦁ We measure historical time via radioactive dating and stellar astrophysics.
⦁ Inner time, the processing time of signals in the brain, suggests we experience about 100 billion distinct scenes in a lifetime
⦁ Measuring time has moved from sundials, hourglasses, and pendulum clocks to vibrating crystals and then atomic clocks.

3, There are very few ingredients

⦁ All the many things in the world are made up from a handful of basic building blocks: atoms.
⦁ And atoms are themselves made up smaller elementary particles, that operate according to basic laws that 1) describe change; 2) are universal; 3) are local; and 4) are precise.
⦁ These principles enable us to ask what happens next, to perform experiments, to make local predictions, and to derive descriptions that are brief yet complete and accurate.
⦁ We can imagine other principles, as in games where everything we can imagine is true.
⦁ Atoms have mass, charge, and spin; that’s it. The particles they’re made of are particles of construction, particles of change, and bonus particles. The first group has just five kinds: the electron, the photon, the u quark, the d quark, and the gluon.

4, There are very few laws

⦁ There are very few fundamental physical laws, and they are the same everywhere.
⦁ Newton’s idea of natural laws operating on particles gave way to the idea of fields acting at a distance; particles are the avatars of fields.
⦁ There are just four forces: electromagnetism (QED), the strong force (QCD), gravity, and the weak force.
⦁ QED: colors revealed by spectroscopy reveal how atoms work.
⦁ QCD: about the strong force that holds atoms together. (The author’s work on this theory earned him a Nobel Prize.)
⦁ Gravity: oddities of Newton’s gravity were explained by Einstein’s general relativity.
⦁ Weak force: feeble, but controls how heavier quarks transform into lighter ones, and so how atoms of one element transform into those of another.
⦁ These four have been thought to be complete since 1929. Modern computers have solved once-difficult problems.
⦁ There’s still no evidence that transformation among the forces is possible (i.e. a grand unified theory).

5, There’s plenty of matter and energy

⦁ There are four fundamental understandings: the universe contains overwhelming riches; only a tiny fraction of that is available to us; that fraction is plentiful; and that we are far from fully exploiting what is available.
⦁ A human uses about 2000 calories a day. The sun can supply 500 trillion times the energy consumed by a human in a year.
⦁ Human purposes require little energy; they are matters of dynamic complexity, how we transform complex materials over time.
⦁ The sun-powered making and breaking of chemical bonds leads to enormous results, via combinatorial explosion, and provisional stability.
⦁ The latter is the balance between stability and changeability, e.g. how the surface of the earth is an interface between high and low temperatures.
⦁ The former is how human purposes are expressed. Our conditions are very rare in the universe, but we can create dynamic complexity through electronics and photonics.
⦁ Thus the the future is boundless, unless something goes wrong: plagues, catastrophes, cosmic debris that hits the earth; and two man-made failure modes: climate change through burning fossil fuels; and nuclear weaponry.

The second part of the book considers how things got the way they are.

6, Cosmic history is an open book

⦁ The process of science is learning to ask the right questions. [[ This was Weinberg’s point as well. ]]
⦁ Our modern creation story began with Hubble in the early 20th century, who observed (via redshifting of spectrum lines) the expansion of the universe.
⦁ We project the expansion backwards and conclude what we call the Big Bang. We can deduce how the universe expanded, cooled, became transparent.
⦁ We know all this because scientists have surveyed the sky, compared observations to predictions, about redshift, about the relative abundance of the simple elements.
⦁ The idea of inflation in the early universe solves the issue of space being flat, but inflation is not a consequence of the fundamental laws.
⦁ There are ideas for other forces and fields, but no evidence. Dark matter might be an afterglow of some speculative particle, which author has dubbed axions.
⦁ And there perhaps was no such thing as a beginning of the universe… as St. Augustine thought.

7, Complexity Emerges

⦁ The rich get richer; gravity causes dense regions to become more dense.
⦁ Why was the early universe not completely even? Perhaps because of the quantum uncertainty of quantum fields.
⦁ Small changes at the beginning can lead to dramatic difference, as we see e.g. in the study of exoplanets.
⦁ Simple algorithms can generate complex results.
⦁ Eventually there may be a “heat death” of the universe, but not for billions of years.

8, There’s plenty more to see

⦁ Is there more to the world that what we sense? Plato, Blake have suggested so.
⦁ Other animals live in distinct sensory universes from humans. Our vision is a narrow slice of the EM spectrum.
⦁ We expand human perception with science and technology.
⦁ Two examples. First, the Higgs particle, as evidence of the Higgs condensate, anticipated and discovered in 2012.
⦁ Second, gravitational waves, extremely small, but detection solved through technical details in 2015.
⦁ And in the future, virtual reality feedback might provide expanded experiences.

9, Mysteries remain

⦁ Three great questions have been mentioned: what triggered the Big Bang? Are there patterns among the fundamental particles and forces? and How does mind emerge from matter?
⦁ Here are two more. First, time reversal. the equations of physics have time-reversal symmetry, but we experience time in one direction. Why? Perhaps that’s just the way it is. Or perhaps because evolution over time has reduced the quantum fields to 0.
⦁ Second, dark matter and dark energy. They refer to observed motions with no apparent cause. The first imply there is lots of mass where not much light is emitted–six times as much of what is visible. Dark energy is in effect the mass of empty space, implying a negative pressure, discovered in 1998 through the observation that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing.
⦁ Author has theorized about “axions” that enable dark matter, but they have yet to be detected.

10, Complementarity is mind-expanding

⦁ This is how one thing can have different properties when viewed from different perspectives.
⦁ E.g. simple and complex, logical and weird, lawful and chaotic. First observed in quantum mechanics, how both position and velocity cannot be measured simultaneously.
⦁ Another example is the use of levels of description. You don’t describe everything in terms of atoms; you describe many things in terms of emergent properties like density, pressure, and temperature, or at human scales with models of psychology and economics. Thus there will never be a “theory of everything” or “the end of science.”
⦁ Wisdom is a kind of complementarity, how we understand both melody and harmony, how Picasso depicted different perspectives simultaneously.
⦁ We can use these ideas to think about conflicts between art and science, philosophy and science, religion and science or even different religions. In most of these one cannot claim to be uniquely correct. Yet among these science has a special status.
⦁ And in the future supercomputers and AI will change the kind of questions we can ask. and so human comprehensibility and understanding are complementary.
⦁ [[ Comment: As mentioned this theme is similar to Sean Carroll’s notion… And that different scientists can approach the same concepts through different perspectives and terminology is also a kind of complementarity. ]]


⦁ The fundamentals of science challenge our habits of thought, and they undermine faith in received beliefs and conventional wisdom.
⦁ Scientific insight can make nonscientific studies (including religion) stale, silly, pointless, hollow, and nonsensical.
⦁ Yet science doesn’t exhaust beauty, it’s not a complete guide to life. Thus we can consider science’s conclusion about the world, and choose, in a sense, to be born again, to view reality afresh. It’s not easy but it’s a matter of integrity.
⦁ We understand that minds are completely understandable as biological organisms. So there isn’t an internal vs an external world. We are not unique objects (souls) but dynamic patterns in matter.
⦁ Science doesn’t choose our goals for us. Yet it does imply a moral attitude. Views of morality have changed over time. The circle of empathy widens, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature. And understanding science is what helps us achieve those goals.


Introduction, page 4:

The method of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton combines the humble discipline of respecting the facts and learning from Nature with the systemic chutzpah of using what you think you’ve learned aggressively, applying it everywhere you can, even in situations that go beyond your original evidence. If it works, then you’ve discovered something useful; if it doesn’t, then you’ve learned something important. I’ve called that attitude Radical Conservatism, and to me it’s the essential innovation of the Scientific Revolution.

Page 64, in the section about the four principles of the basic laws about how the world works.

Over the bulk of human history, people have held many different views about how the physical world works. Ideas that contradict one or more of our principles have been recorded in folklore, in history, and — until recently — in the works of learned academics, philosophers, and theologians. Some, such as astrology, telepathy, clairvoyance, and witchcraft, bring in forces that act powerfully across big separations in space and time. Others, such as extrasensory perception, telekinesis, prayer-induced miracles, and magical thinking, assign prominent roles in shaping the course of physical events to mind and will. Most of those ideas are “reasonable” extensions of the world-models we build up as children, in which our mind is disembodied and our will controls our body. Historically, most people’s world-models have accepted many or all of them.

Only a tiny percentage of people over the course of human history have aspired to make precise predictions about what happens next under carefully controlled conditions, or even imagined that such a thing might be possible. Yet that possibility is the central message of our principles.

And the Afterword, page 224:

The fundamentals of science can undermine faith in received beliefs and conventional wisdom. In particular, they make it difficult to take mythological stories about natural phenomena seriously. It has become all but impossible to believe that Apollo pulls the Sun across the sky with his chariot.

That undermining process can go much further, beyond merely discrediting absurdities. Science understanding bears such abundant and delightful fruit that eating from its Tree of Knowledge can spoil one’s taste for other foods. Nonscientific literature can come to seem stale; nonscientific philosophy silly; nonscientific art pointless; nonscientific traditions hollow–and, of course, nonscientific religion nonsensical.

…[Yet] the fundamentals of science do not require you to make those corrosive applications of science.

Science tells us many important things about how things are, but it does not pronounce how things should be, nor forbid us from imagining things that are not. Science contains beautiful ideas, but it does not exhaust beauty. It offers a uniquely fruitful way to understand the physical world, but it is not a complete guide to life.

The child of our introduction, now an adult, may come to understand the fundamental conclusions that science, following its radically conservative method, reaches about the physical world. Then she is prepared to revisit the starting point of her adventure with reality, and to view it afresh, in the light of her knowledge. She can choose, in this sense, to be born again.

It is not a trouble-free choice. It is disruptive. But the choice is unavoidable, as a matter of integrity. You’ve seen in this book a small sampling of the evidence for the scientific fundamentals. That evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. To deny it is dishonest. To ignore it is foolish.

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