Journal of RELIGION & SCIENCE
VOLUME 31, NUMBER 3 - Sept. 1996
by John R. Albright
Abstract. For the
basic areas of physics -- classical mechanics, classical field theories,
and quantum mechanics -- there are local dynamical theories that offer
complete descriptions of systems when the proper subsidiary conditions
also are provided. For all these cases there are global theories from
which the local theories can be derived. Symmetries and their relation
to conservation laws are reviewed. The standard model of elementary
particles is mentioned, along with frontier questions about them. A
case against reductionism in physics is presented.
field theory; classical mechanics; collective phenomena; conservation
laws; determinism, dynamical theory; Lagrangian mechanics; Maxwell's
equations; Newton's laws; parity; phase transition; physics; quantum
mechanics; quark; reductionism; Schrödinger equation; standard
model; symmetry; teleology; uncertainty principle; wave function.
Physics is the subject in which we consider the simplest systems and then
attempt to analyze them completely. Such a description of physics may
seem not entirely serious in view of the reputation for difficulty that
the subject has earned. But the systems are really chosen by physicists
for their inherent simplicity; the difficulty comes with the attempt at
completeness of description, since it has been found that mathematics
is the descriptive vehicle that most clearly summarizes what is happening.
In view of this definition, I will examine various fields of physics that have achieved a certain amount of success at the program of complete analysis and understanding. For each special area of physics, certain questions are considered:
This set of questions emphasizes
the importance of the theoretical structure of physics. It must be remembered
that physics also is an experimental science, and that theories are
not just ideas that have been made up by antisocial recluses who wear
baggy sweaters and no socks. Theories are not valuable if they cannot
make any connection with the real world. In this essay I shall limit
the discussion to theories that have been tested often, with considerable
sensitivity, and that have passed the tests: that is, they have been
exposed to the risk of falsification and have survived. I shall not
be able here to summarize the experimental basis of these theories.
I shall also not attempt to survey all of physics, but instead I will
concentrate mainly on those theories that Roger Penrose (1989, 152)
called "superb" because of their wide-ranging applicability,
their accuracy, and their beauty. Some attention will be paid to theories
that are not yet complete in the same way that the superb theories are.
Because of space limitations I shall not consider cosmology in any detail.
The oldest superb theory
in all of science is classical mechanics, the macroscopic theory of
motion from the seventeenth century -- the theory of Galileo Galilei,
René Descartes, and Isaac Newton. It does a remarkable job of
describing systems whose size corresponds to human scale; only for the
very smallest and very largest systems do we need a better theory. Classical
mechanics is useful as the basis for mechanical engineering. It enables
the precise calculations of the orbits of everything in the solar system;
it makes possible the prediction of the motions of the planets years
in advance of when they actually happen. Its principles govern much
of what we encounter in our daily lives.
A system in classical
mechanics is construed as a set of points -- each with its own mass
-- that are in motion; a complete description is achieved by
getting a set of equations that tells us the space coordinates of each
point as it evolves in time. These equations constitute the trajectory
of system. This description is complete in the sense that it enables
calculation of the past and future motion of the parts of the system.
Given enough mathematical prowess, this information can be used to calculate
other quantities of interest, such as the velocity, the acceleration,
the energy, the momentum, and the angular momentum. Since the time dependence
is completely specified, the system is deterministic, with all the connections
to religion and philosophy that are implied by that term.
The dynamical basis for obtaining the trajectory of a classical system is the set of equations obtained from Newton's laws, the equations of motion. They are differential equations of the second order, so that calculus is needed to set them up and to solve them for the trajectory. Here lies part of the reason why physics has a reputation for difficulty. The differential equations form a local theory, since they are applied to the system at a specific point in space and time. The opposite would be a global theory, in which all points in space and time are considered together.
To find the relevant solution
to the equations of motion, we need to specify initial conditions.
Like most differential equations, the equations of motion in classical
mechanics have an infinite number of possible solutions, only one of
which corresponds to the actual motion of the system. It is the initial
conditions that render a solution unique and make determinism a possibility.
The initial condition for a single point mass is usually a specification
of the position and the velocity of the mass at a starting time. At
this point it must be made clear that we do not need to know how to
solve differential equations in order to teach the relation between
science and religion. But it would help if -- in a private setting --
we made use of a computer to follow a simulation of a relatively simple
system that evolves according to Newton's laws, starting from a given
initial state. By changing the initial conditions, we would see a different
time evolution pattern. Some systems are so stable that a slight change
in the initial conditions leads to an almost imperceptible change in
the development of the system. Others are so unstable (the technical
term is chaotic) that their evolution is drastically different
if the initial conditions are altered even a little.
Alternate formulations of
Newton's laws were developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries by Moreau de Maupertuis, Leonhard Euler, Joseph Louis Lagrange,
and William Rowan Hamilton. I will describe here the approach of Euler
and Lagrange. We begin by writing the Lagrangian for a given
system. For certain simple and important examples, the Lagrangian depends
only on the positions and the velocities of the particles that make
up the system; it is calculated by subtracting the potential energy
from the kinetic energy. Next we construct the sum of all Lagrangians
for all the points between (1) an initial point in space and time and
(2) a final point. This summation is called the action.
There are many ways to calculate
the action for a particular pair of points, depending on the path taken
between the beginning and the end. The path that extremizes the action
is the one actually used by the system for its motion. The calculus
of variations is the branch of mathematics that we use to go from
an extremized action to a set of equations, which turn out to be identical
to those obtained directly from Newton's laws (Yourgrau and Mandelstam
1968). This Lagrangian procedure is a global approach to mechanics,
since it requires (in principle only -- we never really have to calculate
all possible action quantities) calculating the action through all possible
paths in space and time. As mentioned earlier, a local approach calculates
quantities at a single point and uses them to figure out what will happen
next. Nevertheless, the global approach leads to the same complete description
that we get from the local approach. Global approaches are sometimes
referred to as "modern teleology" (Barrow and Tipler 1986)
because the system seems to act as though it knows it has to minimize
(sometimes "maximize" should be used instead) the action,
just as water acts as is it is supposed to minimize its potential energy
by flowing toward the sea.
CLASSICAL FIELD THEORIESIf instead of a collection of massive points we consider a physical quantity (e.g., pressure, electric field, magnetic field, height of water above or below the mean level) that can be defined for each point in space and time, then this field quantity can be treated in a way analogous to the displacement coordinate of classical mechanics. Theories of acoustics, electricity, magnetism, light, and fluid flow all can be considered in this way. To be specific, I will use James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electro-magnetism as an exemplar for this section. The experiments of Benjamin Franklin, Charles Augustin de Coulomb, Alessandro Volta, Hans Christian Oersted, Michael Faraday, and Joseph Henry all helped guide the way to a synthesis in which electric and magnetic forces are described by field concepts. The electric field is defined at each point by a vector with three components corresponding to x, y, and z, the three space coordinates; the magnetic field has a similar set of three components. Experiments by Oersted, Faraday, and Henry showed conclusively that the electric field and magnetic field are not independent of each other whenever either one of them is changing in time. Maxwell synthesized a theory of both electric and magnetic fields and showed that these inseparable fields can propagate together as waves traveling at the speed of light. They are light. Maxwell's theory describes light considered as any electromagnetic wave, visible or not. Whether the human eye can see the wave depends entirely on the wavelength. X rays, ultraviolet, infrared, microwaves, and radio/television signals are just as much light as visible light. Practical application of Maxwell's electromagnetic theory includes much of electrical engineering -- telephone, radio, television, radar, microwave ovens, and the lighting that allows us to see when it is dark.
A complete description of
an electromagnetic system requires that we know the three components
of the electric field and the three components of the magnetic field
as functions of space and time for all points. The dynamical theory
that governs such systems is the set of four equations (as written in
their usual vector form) called Maxwell's equations. They constitute
the local theory, since all four are valid at each point of space and
time. As in the mechanical case, they have an infinite number of solutions,
and so the physical description of the fields requires additional conditions,
analogous to the initial conditions of classical mechanics. These are
called boundary conditions, since they often involve knowing
the properties of the fields on a surface that surrounds an interior
region; the fields are known on this surface but are unknown in the
interior volume. With the given conditions and with Maxwell's equations
it is possible to arrive at the complete description.
The Lagrangian approach
works for electromagnetism. The Lagrangian must be replaced by a Lagrangian
density (i.e., the amount of Lagrangian per unit volume), which is then
turned into an action by summing over both space and time. The calculus
of variations is next used to extremize the action to a maximum or a
minimum. It should be no surprise to learn that the result of all this
is the reappearance of Maxwell's equations (Jackson 1975, 597). Once
again, the global theory contains the local one.
The general features of
electromagnetic theory presented here are typical of other classical
field theories. A feature that often appears in such theories, including
electromagnetism, is the propagation of waves governed by a wave equation
that results from the theory. In all these cases there also is a global
form of the theory.
In 1925 and 1926, Werner
Heisenberg, P.A.M. Dirac, and Erwin Schrödinger invented three
different approaches to quantum mechanics, a new theory of matter in
the small. It was quickly recognized that these formulations were consistent
with one another. A fourth consistent approach was invented later by
Richard Feynman. Quantum mechanics rapidly became the method of choice
for describing systems the size of molecules or smaller. The theory
is not outrageously difficult, but it is unfamiliar to those who are
used to classical physics. It has proved to be extremely practical,
since without it there would be little or no understanding of atomic
physics: lasers would be a total mystery. Those working in physics of
the solid state would have been unable to make the progress that has
led to transistors, integrated circuits, chips, and the associated technology
of computers and communication. Nuclear technology also depends on quantum
mechanics to provide the basis of understanding.
When we use the methods
of Schrödinger, the complete description of a quantum mechanical
system resides in the wave function, psi, which is a field quantity
very similar to those described in the preceding section. If we know
psi as a function of time and the space coordinates, we know all that
is knowable about the system. It happens that quantum mechanics does
not permit us to know some of the things that classical mechanics allows.
The celebrated example is that of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle,
which states that we cannot know simultaneously both the position and
the momentum of a particle to arbitrary accuracy. The best we can do
is to calculate probabilities of finding the position within a certain
range or the momentum in its range. It follows that Newtonian determinism
is impossible in quantum mechanics, since the initial conditions required
in classical mechanics to compute the trajectory are made unavailable
as a result of the uncertainty principle. It must be emphasized that
the uncertainty principle is not a starting point for quantum mechanics.
It is a consequence of the basic assumptions of the theory. Heisenberg
began by seeking a theory that would emphasize those aspects of atoms
that could be directly observable; he was then led to a set of assumptions
that constitute the theory. Not until two years later did he find that
these assumptions implied the uncertainty principle, and the logic is
inexorable. If the uncertainty principle is wrong, then quantum mechanics
must be abandoned.
According to quantum mechanics,
a system wherein the energy does not depend on time will get into a
stationary state and stay there until it emits a photon (a small package
of electromagnetic energy) and makes a sudden transition into a state
of lower energy. There may in fact be several such states of lower energy
into which the transition may occur. Quantum mechanics says that for
any single example of a transition, it is not possible to predict into
which state the system will jump; what is possible is to calculate
the probabilities for jumping into the various states. If the experiment
is repeated often enough, the frequencies of jumping agree statistically
with those predicted by quantum mechanics. Again, the explicit denial
of determinism is unavoidable.
The dynamical equation that we use to find the wave function is either the Schrödinger equation or its relativistic generalization, the Dirac equation. These equations have both been remarkably successful at enabling the calculation of the properties of atoms and molecules. They have been somewhat successful but less impressive in the analogous task for nuclei and elementary particles. In any event, we need to have boundary conditions in order to find the relevant solution (and discard the irrelevant ones) of the Schrödinger equation or the Dirac equation. The procedures bear a close resemblance to those of classical field theories; mathematical methods devised by Lord Rayleigh for analysis of classical light waves or sound waves have been taken over by quantum mechanics with little alteration. Furthermore, the Lagrangian formalism works in quantum mechanics in a way that resembles classical field theory. We might have expected such a property of the Schrödinger equation or the Dirac equation, since they are specific types of wave equation, mathematically akin to classical field theory.
SYMMETRY AND CONSERVATION PRINCIPLES
Physicists are very fond of
conservation laws. If we can be sure that a certain physical quantity
remains unchanged even though the rest of the system is changing drastically,
then we say that the quantity is conserved. Such laws appear both in classical
and in quantum physics. An important reason for stressing the Lagrangian
in the preceding sections is that it is the best way to see the connection
between symmetries and conservation laws. Noether's theorem states that
if the Lagrangian has a specific type of symmetry, there will be a corresponding
conservation law for the system described by that Lagrangian. Already
in the case of classical mechanics we can see examples of this truth.
If the Lagrangian does not depend explicitly on time, then the energy
will be conserved. The symmetry is one of time translation: as time passes,
the Lagrangian remains unchanged; therefore, it is symmetric in time.
A similar principle arises for each space coordinate: if a change in the
x coordinate leaves the Lagrangian unchanged, then the x
component of the linear momentum will be conserved. In other words, invariance
or symmetry under space translation leads to conservation of momentum.
Invariance under rotation through an arbitrary angle implies the conservation
of angular momentum.
A more subtle type of symmetry,
called gauge invariances, arises in Maxwell's electromagnetism.
The invariance already is present in the local form of the theory; if
we perform a special type of transformation (a gauge transformation)
on the electric and magnetic potentials, the electric and magnetic fields
will remain unchanged, and there will be no observable physical consequences
of the transformation, since the fields contain a complete description
of the system. But if the transformation is done on the Lagrangian,
it leads to conservation of electric charge, one of the most revered
principles in all of science.
The great respect that physicists
have developed for conservation laws might lead one to think that nearly
every physical quantity obeys such a law. Such a belief would be mistaken,
since there are many complicated combinations of physical quantities
that are not conserved. They are unrelated to any symmetry of the Lagrangian.
There are three discrete
(as opposed to continuous) symmetries that have been studied in great
depth in the second half of the twentieth century: parity (P), charge
conjugation (C), and time reversal (T) (Zee 1986). Parity refers to
the transformation in which all three space coordinates (x, y, z) have
their algebraic sign changed. This transformation incidentally changes
the left hand into the right. Charge conjugation changes a particle
into its antiparticle (electron into positron, proton into antiproton,
and so on). Time reversal, as the name implies, causes the clock to
run backward (Sachs 1987).
All of the theories considered
above exhibit invariance under C, P, and T separately
or in any combination. It was once thought that all of physics had to
be invariant under all three symmetries, but the carefully constructed
suggestion of T.D. Lee and C. N. Yang in the 1950s led to several experiments
that demonstrated conclusively that P is not conserved in the
weak nuclear interaction. It was and is still believed that physics
is invariant under the product CPT; efforts to construct a theory
without this invariance have failed. So it follows that if P
is violated, then at least one of the other two symmetries must also
be violated. The correct answer is C; when p is violated,
C is also. The combination of CP (and therefore T)
is conserved most of the time, but in the 1960s an experiment was performed
that was the first in a sequence to show that a small violation of T
These discrete symmetries
and their violations may seem unimportant, but they point to large cosmological
issues: why is it that we are made of protons, but antiprotons are so
rare? Is there an imbalance of matter over antimatter in the universe?
Or is the imbalance just a local effect that is averaged to equal amounts
of matter and antimatter if we looked at more of outer space? If the
imbalance is global, then how did the universe get this way?
Another example of the breaking
of a discrete symmetry occurs in biological systems, where a specific
preference for right-handed or left-handed molecules occurs in apparent
violation of parity. Sugars, amino acids, and DNA all exhibit this effect.
On a larger scale, handedness appears in the development of flounders
and in the bicameral human brain.
ELEMENTARY PARTICLESThe notion that all matter is made of many copies of a small number of building blocks can be traced to Democritus in ancient Greek culture. In the nineteenth century, the advances of chemistry led to the idea that atoms really exist and that they are the fundamental building blocks. The discovery of the electron and of the nucleus of the atom changed all that. The nucleus itself -- after 1932 when James Chadwick discovered the neutron -- is known to consist of a certain number of protons and neutrons. Nuclear physicists saw their task as the elucidation of the forces that hold the neutrons and protons together. To gain insight into the situation, they bombarded nuclei with projectiles, using ever-increasing energy in the mistaken hope that they would get the resolution to "see" the structure of the nucleus. Instead, they saw a great variety of species of particles -- enough to threaten exhaustion of both the Latin and Greek alphabets to find symbols to designate the discoveries. Clearly, not all of these new particles could be fundamental in any meaningful sense.
A consensus has been achieved, called the standard model, in which the fundamental building blocks are called quarks. There are six types of quarks (up, down, charmed, strange, top, and bottom), and only the first two types are needed to explain conventional nuclear physics. A proton is not really an elementary particle; rather, it is made of three quarks (two up-quarks and one down-quark). A neutron is made of two down-quarks and one up-quark. Quarks are held together by gluons (there are eight species). Also fundamental are leptons, of which the six types are parallel to the six types of quarks. Both quarks and leptons obey the Dirac equation of quantum mechanics; therefore, each species has a corresponding antiparticle that has the opposite sign for its electric charge and various other properties as well. Mesons are particles once thought to be elementary but which are now understood to consist of a quark and an antiquark held together by gluons.
The standard model answers certain questions about fundamental particles but leaves others to be answered by future research. For example, why are there exactly six species of quarks? Why do the quarks and leptons have the masses that are observed? Are all these particles really fundamental, or is there a deeper layer for us to probe? Will we learn that there is a much smaller number of really fundamental particles, and that the ones we see are only composites?
Physicists often are accused
of being reductionist -- believing that physics could in principle explain
all the more complicated sciences, if only the time and the funds to figure
out how were available. Dirac (1929) expressed such a vainglorious view:
"The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory
of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely
known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these
laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble." Such
an attitude is not likely to make a physicist popular with colleagues
from other departments. But it is misguided for other reasons, since physics
contains within itself strong weapons to use against reductionism. Three
Exchange symmetry or antisymmetry
is the first example of how reductionism is misleading. We can study
the properties of a single isolated electron and feel that we have achieved
the kind of complete understanding so desired in physics. Such study
does not prepare us for what happens when two electrons are in the system.
Their wave function is antisymmetric: it must change its algebraic
sign every time we exchange the two electrons -- a fact that does not
follow from the one-electron theory but which has profound significance
for the rest of science. Nuclear bonding, atomic structure, and molecular
bonding are all possible because of the exchange antisymmetry of electrons.
A second example is the
more general category of collective effects. When large numbers of atoms
get together, we can observe phase transition -- solids melting to liquids,
liquids boiling to gases, and so on. The sharp discontinuities from
these phase transitions are not predictable from the one-atom theory.
Condensed matter physics is replete with other examples of phase transitions
involving order versus disorder: feromagnetism, superconductivity, superfluid
helium, and so on.
A third example is that
of symmetry breaking. The parity violations seen in various organic
molecules are not derivable from the single-atom theory. Inorganic molecules
can show such effects at a simpler level: the water molecule has an
electric dipole moment (i.e., one end of the molecule has a positive
charge, the other a negative charge), a fact that appears to violate
both parity and time-reversal invariance if we know only the properties
of hydrogen and oxygen by themselves. Collective interaction yields
qualitatively new phenomena. For all of its beauty, elegance, intricacy,
practical worth, and closeness to the Mind of the Creator, physics does
not necessarily hold the only key to the universe.
Barrow, John D., and Frank J. Tipler. 1986. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Dirac, P.A. M. 1929. "Quantum Mechanics of Many-Electron Systems."
Proceedings of the Royal
Society A, 123: 714-733.
Jackson, John David. 1975. Classical Electrodynamics. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.
Penrose, Roger. 1989.
The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws
of Physics, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Sachs, Robert G. 1987.
The Physics of Time Reversal. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Yourgrau, Wolfgang, and
Stanley Mandelstam. 1968. Variational Principles in Dynamics
and Quantum Theory. Philadelphia, PA.: Saunders.
Zee, Anthony. 1986.
Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics. New
by Allen R. Utke
Abstract. The general
knowledge and understanding that every teacher of religion and science
should have relative to chemistry can be found in the answers to three
major questions. In my own response to the first question, How did chemistry
emerge as a discipline? I trace the origins, establishment, and subsequent
historical significance of cosmology. I contend that chemistry is "the
obvious, oldest science" and, as such, has played a key role among
the sciences in age long human efforts to understand reality. In my
response to the second question, How do chemists currently view (cosmic)
reality? I outline three prominent examples in support of my contention
that chemistry, despite being "the obvious, oldest science,"
is seen by some as playing only a tacit role in current efforts to (re)integrate
religion and science. In my response to the third question, How do chemists
currently view ultimate reality and meaning? I argue that "unifiers"
in chemistry can also now play a key role in a reality revolution that
is pointing humankind not only toward a possible historical (re)integration
of religion and science but also toward a return to cosmology.
of cosmology; chemistry; cosmology; IRAM; reality; (re)integration of
science and religion; return to cosmology; URAM.
It can be argued that we
humans are conceptual as well as perceptual reality seekers and that
this is the most significant difference between ourselves and all other
forms of life. However, our seemingly ageless, apparently innate human
need to know about reality can be viewed as reducible to two fundamental,
polarized, and yet complementary conceptual questions. The first question,
How does reality function? is at the heart of our universal, timeless
quest to understand immediate reality and meaning, a quest that
I designate IRAM. The second question, Why does reality exist? is at
the heart of our complementary universal, timeless quest to understand
ultimate reality and meaning, a quest I designate URAM.
It is far easier superficially
to define the word reality (e.g., everything that is, the way things
are, and so on) than it is to answer the two penetrating questions about
reality just posed. One reason for this is that every attempt to understand
reality begins with a serious misunderstanding. For, throughout history,
everyone has begun with the obvious "given" perception that
matter is the seen, visible, visualizable, tangible, foundational
"stuff" of reality. Unfortunately, the perception that unseen,
invisible, nonvisualizable energy, space, and time are also major parts
of reality has usually been far less obvious to most. In fact, humankind
has begun to understand the roles of energy, space, and time significantly,
in a seemingly materialistic reality, only in the last two hundred years
HOW DID CHEMISTRY EMERGE AS A DISCIPLINE?
A scientist might be defined
as someone who specializes in attempting to answer the question of how
reality functions. A chemist might be defined as someone who specializes
in attempting to define the role matter plays in the functioning of reality
but within the context of the related roles that energy, space, and time
also play. Thus, chemistry might be defined as what chemists do within
science. (Note: The words chemist and chemistry are modern
derivatives of the words Al Khyma, used by Arabian alchemists over
a thousand years ago to denote metal working and metal workers. The words
science and scientist were apparently coined by William
Whewell in 1840. Before the mid-nineteenth century, scientists were usually
called natural philosophers.)
Extrapolating current terms
and definitions just outlined back through human history, one might
ask, Who were the first "scientist" and "chemist"?
Interestingly enough, today's terms and definitions argue against the
presence of any "scientists" and "chemists" in human
history before 10,000 B.C.E. The discoveries of weapons, clothing, utensils,
fire, and the wheel were apparently pragmatic solutions to the problem
of survival rather than conceptual answers to the question of how reality
functions. In fact, survival was such a critical problem (as evidenced
by short average life spans) in the first 4 million or so years of human
history that the more prominent of the two reality questions asked by
early humans was probably why reality exists. And thus it was that early
religious conceptual thought (as evidenced in primitive art, ritual,
and burial of the dead) apparently characterized early human history
rather than early scientific conceptual thought.
From about 10,000 to 500
B.C.E., there apparently were no "scientists" and "chemists"
either. It is true that a warmer global climate, coupled with an evolved
brain, enabled humans in this period to alter their materialistic reality
dramatically with an array of collective societal discoveries, ranging
from metallurgy (the consecutive use of gold, silver, copper, tin, lead,
bronze, and iron) to medicine and surgery. However, these tremendous
accomplishments were pragmatic rather than theoretical in nature and
thus did little to answer the question, How does reality function? But,
by making life much easier than formerly in terms of survival, the accomplishments
did provide human beings with increased time to think about why reality
That increased time, coupled
with the unique human ability to use "revealed" myths, fables,
legends, and symbols to turn a limited understanding of why reality
exits into formalized concepts of ultimate reality and meaning, led
to the general development of religious animism, mysticism, idolatry,
polytheism, monotheism, and Hinduism prior to the sixth century B.C.E.
And in Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Lao-Tzu, and the Jewish prophets,
religious thought subsequently reached an anomalous zenith point in
the sixth century B.C.E., a zenith point in terms of Judaism, which
also later played a major role in the subsequent development of Christianity
Of course, once such religious
thought had been widely established through prophecy, revelation, and
scripture, it usually was verified and codified through faith and ritual.
And thus, prior to 500 B.C.E., once the question of why reality exists
had seemingly been satisfactorily answered, the answers were invariably
deductively extrapolated to also answer the complementary question of
how reality functions, if, when and where that question was asked.
There was, however, one
place in the world where the rapid general ascendency of religious thought
in the sixth century B.C.E. was not only checked but also dramatically
altered. That place was known as Ionia. The Ionians originally inhabited
Attica in mainland Greece. However, in 1104 B.C.E., a nomadic, barbarous
Iron Age people known as the Dorians invaded and conquered Bronze Age
Greece. For the next several hundred years Greece remained under the
brutal yoke of the Doriann in a reality-shattering period of time known
as the Dorian Captivity. About 1000 B.C.E., the Ionians who survived
the Dorian Captivity emigrated to the Asia Minor shores of the Aegean
Sea, now part of Turkey. By 550 B.C.E., Miletus, the southernmost of
the cities known as the "Ionian Twelve," had become an industrialized,
wealthy port and center of trade (for both goods and conceptual ideas)
of the known world. A highly sophisticated, urbane, educated leisure
class had arisen, who were well acquainted with the most recent knowledge
to come out of Egypt, Lydia, Babylonia, Phoenicia, and elsewhere.
The time was ripe for an
anomalous, fresh reappraisal of the overall nature of reality. About
550 B.C.E., the Ionians became the first people in history to holistically
seek both the overall mechanism of reality (how it functions) and also
its underlying basis (why it exists) without relying on prior religious
thought, myths, poetry, and so on for help and answers.
The Ionians sought the interrelated
oneness of reality; their search was undergirded by the conviction that
universal reality is a single, integrated reality system, unified and
controlled by universal principles and laws, and that all things in
universal reality (including humankind) purposively share in a common
"good" order. Such a reality system was called the Cosmos
by the Ionians, and the study of the cosmos became known as cosmology.
The Ionians, on the basis
of today's definitions, developed the first science, the first philosophy,
and the first natural theology, and subsequently combined them with
various religious concepts to practice the first cosmology. However,
they also practiced the first chemistry, by today's definition. For
their first major conceptual question about how reality functions was,
Is there a fundamental element or "stuff" at the heart of
all matter that serves as the underlying, fundamental basis of the material
It is generally acknowledged
that Thales of Miletus was the first scientist, chemist, philosopher,
natural theologian, and thus cosmologist, in history. On what is his
nomination based? About 550 B.C.E., he proposed that water was the fundamental
universal form of matter, he discovered magnetism and static electricity,
he discovered Thales' Proposition (the earliest principle of occidental
mathematics), he hypothesized that reality is permanent, and he hypothesized
that God is immanent in reality!
In the next seven hundred
years, Thales of Miletus was followed by such Greek cosmologists, philosopher-scientists,
and philosophers as Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Parmenides,
Heraclitus, Leucippus, Democratus, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Diogenes,
the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sophists, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle,
Ptolemy, and many others.
A detailed discussion of
the reality-shattering, conceptual accomplishments of these Greek scholars,
and their subsequent impact on human history, is beyond the scope of
this essay. However, it would be misleading to summarize that impact
broadly, as many have, by saying only that Greek thought helped both
to set the historical stage and to write the script for the scientific
revolution and the development of the scientific method in premodernity
(before 1600-1650), the subsequent development of modern science and
technology since then, and the currently unfolding play of modernity.
Such an oversimplified depiction of history leaves three very important
First of all, the nature
of the fundamental material element, or "stuff," of reality
remained a central question at the heart of Greek thought. The nomination
of water as the fundamental element eventually evolved into the four
elements (fire, water, earth, and air) and four qualities (hot, cold,
wet, and dry) of Aristotle's and others' theories. Democritus was the
first "scientist" and "chemist" in history to propose
that atoms were the fundamental form of both matter and reality (atoms
plus the "void"), but his atomic theory was rejected by most
other Greeks. The four element and four quality theory was subsequently
employed in a two-thousand-year pragmatic quest to turn the base metals
into gold and silver. That quest, which overall became known as alchemy,
was practiced as Eastern alchemy from about 300 B.C.E. to 600, then
as Arabic alchemy from about 600 to 1200, and finally as European alchemy
from about 1200 to 1600.
Second, it was Eastern and
Arabic alchemy that subsequently kept early Greek "science"
and cosmology alive (after the Greeks were conquered from without by
the nonscientific Romans, the Romans were conquered from within by the
nonscientific Christians, and the Christians passed through the Dark
Ages) until they were rediscovered by Europeans in Arabic lands during
A subsequent medieval attempt
to unite Greek thought with Christian belief became known as Scholasticism
and was carried out after about 1100 in the first newly established
European universities. However, the incorporation of experimentation
into early Greek science by Roger Bacon, about 1250, and subsequently
by others (e.g., Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus,
and Francis Bacon) created a rift and then a widening chasm between
"early empirical science" and religion over the next five
hundred years. But, buttressed by other major contemporary intellectual
and social developments, beleaguered science gradually matured and grew
in acceptance, influence, and power. Despite the fact that it lost the
early conceptual reality battles with religion, it finally won the overall
war about 1600-1650 and helped usher in the modern age.
Third, the evolving, accelerating,
exponential success and power with which modern science increasingly
has been able to answer the question of how reality functions now stands
in sharp contrast with the traditional, seemingly static answers that
religion and philosophy continue to give to the question of why reality
exists. This increasing dualism and polarity, and resultant decreasing
complementarity, has already resulted in the breakdown and fragmentation
of Ionian cosmology in our age. In other words, that which the Ionians
holistically put together in a premodern age that increasingly emphasized
URAM has now been reductionistically rent asunder in our own modern
age, which increasingly emphasizes IRAM.
In summary, I have now answered,
even if briefly, the question, How did chemistry emerge as a discipline?
However, beyond that, I also have attempted to superimpose and briefly
defend my unusual hypothesis that chemistry is "the obvious, oldest
science" and, as such, has played the longest and perhaps even
the key role among all of the sciences in human attempts to understand
reality. And, of course, overall, I have also attempted to "set
the stage" for asking the remaining two questions, which follow.
HOW DO CHEMISTS CURRENTLY VIEW (COSMIC) REALITY?Space limitations in this paper preclude, not only a detailed answer to this question, but even a broad overview. The story of the interrelated, accelerating growth of an increasingly specialized chemical view of reality, within the context of a similarly growing and yet increasingly fragmented modern scientific view of reality, is so extensive and so complex that by necessity it must remain largely untold here. However, three perspectives in particular illuminate current developments in scientific thought about the nature of immediate reality and meaning (IRAM).
Holism. First of
all, it should be pointed out that an increasing number of scholars,
from diverse backgrounds, have been contending in the latter half of
the twentieth century that they have discovered a "new reality"
within modern reductionistic science. In that "new reality"
the universe is viewed as being a single, orderly, integrated, holistic
reality system, unified and controlled by universal laws and principles,
within which humankind plays a significant role. In other words, more
and more scholars are beginning to realize that the Ionians were right!
In support of the aforementioned scholars, and out of respect and admiration
for the Ionians, I will hereafter refer to the universe as the cosmos
and the "new reality" as cosmic reality.
Some scholars are even now
maintaining that cosmic reality can, or even should, serve as a basis
for a historical reappraisal of the current relationship between science
and religion, a possible reintegration of the two, and perhaps even
a "return to cosmology." Growing evidence for cosmic reality
(and the associated dramatic contentions it is prompting) is currently
being drawn from twentieth-century science, particularly the "new
physics," biology, genetics, and the neurosciences. The "new
physics" is a term applied collectively to relativity, quantum
theory, and recent discoveries about the origin, nature, and functioning
of the cosmos, as provided by astronomy, astrophysics, and particle
Chemistry generally seems
to be relegated to a supportive role in most of the evidence currently
being presented for cosmic reality. That's odd, because if chemistry
really is "the obvious, oldest science" as I have claimed,
doesn't it also have its own unique story to tell about cosmic reality,
and shouldn't it possibly have a bigger role in this regard in the evidence
Entropy, and Negentropy. As another facet of the largely untold
story of how chemists and scientists in general interrelatedly view
cosmic reality, it might be pointed out that not only have chemists
always viewed matter as being the obvious major part of reality, but
they currently also view it as being the only hierarchical major part
or the only major part that consists of parts within parts within parts
From that unique chemical
perspective, the unfolding, overall account of cosmic reality as it
is currently being related by the "new physics," biology,
genetics, and neurosciences takes on a chemical essence that may have
been previously unclear or even overlooked. The present account, ranging
from the Big Bang to the historical appearance of human beings capable
of conceptually seeking cosmic reality, clearly becomes more than merely
a depiction of a cosmos that continually becomes more disorderly and
less informational (more entropic) in terms of energy, in accordance
with the second law of thermodynamics. The account also becomes a depiction
of a cosmos that, in a counter trend sort of way, also becomes more
orderly and more informational (more negentropic) in terms of matter,
in accordance with what might be termed the cosmic evolution of matter.
Thus, the existence of hierarchical
matter (electrons, quarks, neutrons, protons, atomic nuclei, atoms,
molecules, objects, and living objects) clearly reveals the presence
of a complementary, evolutionary, dual directionality in the cosmos
as a major answer to the question of how reality functions. Furthermore,
it can then be pointed out that DNA is the most orderly informational
molecule known in the cosmos (there may be as much as 100,000 volumes
of information stored in the DNA of a human fertilized ovum). It also
can be pointed out that the human brain is the most orderly informational
object known in the cosmos (the 100 billion information-processing,
conceptualizing neurons present in the human brain can be connected
in more possible ways than there are atoms in the universe). And thus
it can be argued that the emergence of life and human conceptual thought
may actually be the ultimate purpose of the functioning of the evolving
cosmos. At a minimum, the hierarchical nature of matter raises the provocative
question, Why is the human brain the only object known in the cosmos
that is aware of the cosmos?
Matter, Energy, and
Periodicity. As a third facet of the aforementioned, largely untold
story of how chemists and scientists interrelatedly view cosmic reality
today, it might be pointed out that very few scholars and lay persons
outside of chemistry seem currently to have a clear understanding of
how matter and energy are complementary cosmic partners in the periodic
law and the periodic table. In order to see why such a lack of understanding
is so significant, it's necessary first to review several related segments
of chemical history.
In 1649, Robert Boyle, the
"skeptical chemist," dramatically refined and redirected Ionian
thought and also historically sealed the coffin of alchemy by postulating
that iron, sulfur, copper, and other substances are actually the fundamental
elements of matter, rather than fire, water, earth, and air -- which
had been considered the fundamental elements for the previous two thousand
In 1869, Dmitry Mendeleev
discovered that every such element belongs to one of seven "families"
of elements, and each family is characterized by similar physical and
chemical properties. In fact, Mendeleev furthermore found that each
family was divisible into an A and a B subfamily. This summarization
of the nature of matter became known as the periodic law, and Mendeleev's
graphic representation of the periodic law became known as the periodic
table. Like the Ionians, Mendeleev never knew how all matter was related,
for the underlying basis of the periodic table, the electron, wasn't
discovered until the end of the nineteenth century by J. J. Thomson
In 1912, Lord Rutherford
conducted his famous gold foil experiment, and on this basis formulated
the solar system model of the atom, in which electrons revolve around
a nucleus composed of protons. In 1932, the nucleus was found also to
contain neutrons. In 1913, one of Rutherford's students, Niels Bohr,
in a single stroke of conceptual genius, combined all previous understanding
of matter with all previous understanding of energy to propose the existence
of a complementary universal pattern of quantized (set) energy levels
around the nucleus of every atom in the universe. Bohr further postulated
that each electron in an atom, in violation of the laws of classical
physics, remains in its own place in the pattern in one of the energy
levels unless it is promoted to a higher level with an injection of
energy from outside the atom. However, when the electron strangely "jumps"
back down to where it belongs, in what might be described as a "cosmic
dance," it emits the energy it previously absorbed as light of
a certain set wavelength and frequency. In other words, Bohr discovered
that light originates on earth and often elsewhere through electron
"jumps" in atoms!
In the 1920s, Bohr and many
other investigators, notably P. A. M. Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, and
Erwin Schrödinger, developed quantum mechanics, a mathematical
extension of Bohr's work. In one application of quantum mechanics, one
can calculate the "address" and shape of every "electron
orbital" in any atom. Overall, it can then collectively be seen
that Bohr's originally proposed electronic pattern actually consists
of intricate energy levels within levels within levels, and thus order
within order within order.
When one fits into Bohr's
pattern the differing number of electrons (one to ninety-two) that each
of the ninety-two natural elements in the universe has in its atoms,
one sees another amazing repetitive pattern emerge. Eight families (each
comprising A and B subfamilies) of elements arise, with all of the atoms
of the elements in any particular family having the same number of outer-level
electrons, albeit in a different outer energy level for each element.
Since all of the families also are related by sequential numbers of
outer-level electrons, ranging from an "extreme" of one electron
to an "extreme" of eight, every element in the universe has
a unique but related role to play, relative to all of the other elements.
In other words, by revealing the underlying basis of the periodic table
and the periodic law (discovered in 1869 by Dmitri Mendeleev), quantum
mechanics actually revealed the cosmic blueprint underlying all matter
in the universe.
What's the overall significance
of the periodic law, the periodic table, and periodicity (the many orderly
trends present in the periodic table)? I believe that it's only when
one significantly understands the universal electronic energy blueprint
based on light underlying all matter, as briefly outlined, that one
can truly appreciate the "awesome" complementary way in which
matter and energy function in the cosmos. For example, one then understands
how the cosmic evolution of matter in general and the cosmic evolution
of the elements takes place in the cosmos. One also then understands
why carbon is the "cosmic elemental star" (the most unusual
element) in the periodic table and the only element that can produce
life and allow the evolution of life within the larger scheme of cosmic
An understanding of the
periodic law, the periodic table, and periodicity also enables one truly
to appreciate as well as simply to explain both the orderly way in which
the cosmos unites atoms through the formation of chemical bonds to form
molecules and the subtle chemical "tricks" the cosmos plays
to bestow peculiar properties on certain molecules -- "tricks"
involving hydrogen, multiple and coordinate covalent bonds, bond angles,
molecular geometry, molecular polarity, and so on. For example, "tricks"
involving carbon allow the formation of carbon dioxide, amino acids,
proteins, and DNA and thus the formation of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial
life. In this regard, carbon dioxide and DNA might be called "cosmic
However, water could be
viewed as being the biggest "cosmic molecular star" of all,
and an understanding of the periodic law, the periodic table, and periodicity
enables one to understand why. In that regard, whenever and wherever
two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen atom to form a molecule (particle)
of water, the uniqueness of the resulting molecule is synergistically
greater than the sum of the uniqueness of each of the two elements.
The unique electron pattern in oxygen atoms dictates that water molecules
are bent in terms of their two intramolecular chemical bonds rather
than linear. And hydrogen's elemental uniqueness dictates that water
molecules have a much greater intermolecular attractability than might
be expected because of a rare type of chemical bond that only hydrogen
atoms can form (with only three elements, including oxygen), known as
a hydrogen bond. The remarkable story of chemical bonds, one of the
four forces that hold the cosmos together, and the role of light in
those bonds will unfortunately have to be omitted here because of space
Working in unison, the bent
shape and unusually high attractability of water molecules produce liquid
water rather than gaseous water at room temperature and also more than
twenty other highly unusual properties of water, properties that, when
added to those of carbon, make possible life in the cosmos.
In summary, I have been
able to outline only briefly three isolated fragmentary facets of the
vast, still largely untold story of how chemists and scientists currently
interrelatedly view cosmic reality. However, I nonetheless hope that
the reader has at least caught some significant glimpses of the important
and yet often overlooked contributions that chemistry can make to the
HOW DO CHEMISTS VIEW ULTIMATE REALITY AND MEANING?Ironically, chemistry ("the obvious, oldest science") has played a major role both in the establishment of cosmology about twenty-five hundred years ago and also in the polarization of science and religion and the breakdown and fragmentation of cosmology in our own modern age. Is it possible that the pendulum of history is now swinging back toward a (re)integration of science and religion and even a "return to cosmology"? And is it possible that chemistry could once again play a major role in such a historic swing?
The answers to these two
questions depend, of course, on how a chemist (or any scientist) views
the question of ultimate reality and meaning (URAM). Some chemists (and
other scientists) might be called scientific diversifiers in this regard,
for they largely are interested only in the polarized, reductionistic,
immediate reality and meaning side (IRAM) of chemistry (or science)
and thus only in the question of how reality functions. However, other
chemists (and other scientists) might be called scientific unifiers,
for they are also interested in the URAM side of science. They view
the questions of how reality functions and why it exists as complementary
polarities in the human need to know about reality.
The currently unfolding
account of cosmic reality seems to be defining an increasingly mathematical,
nonvisualizable, holistic, interrelated, complementary, unified, systematic,
finely tuned, informational, lawlike, recursive, temporal, nonlocalized,
dynamic, creative, evolving, and even mindlike cosmos in which humans
play a significant role and may even be its purpose. It's a cosmos much
as the Ionians generally viewed it However, if the overall holistic
oneness of the cosmos increasingly is being revealed, is the oneness
itself ultimate reality and meaning, or does the oneness actually point
to deeper reality and meaning, a One?
still tend to agnostically or atheistically view the cosmos just outlined
as being a random, accidental, anthropic "universe." However,
scientific unifiers tend to see a planned, designed, theistic, anthropic
cosmos. Overall, it's an exciting time to be alive, for the scientific
unifiers seem to be gaining in number and conceptually gaining historical
ground. In fact, the questions of a possible (re)integration of science
and religion, and even of a possible "return to cosmology,"
seem now to be coming into increasingly sharp focus on the frontiers
of thought. And once again, chemistry seems to be playing a major role
in a "reality revolution" that is pointing us toward the future.
The Ionians were right!
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