Reflections on Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek

During a long career at the frontiers of physics Frank Wilczek has earned many honours, including a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004. Fortunately for general readers he is also a gifted writer with a facility for explaining complex topics in (relatively) simple terms.

Perhaps you have, as I do, an amateur fascination with topics such as quantum  electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and questions such as “To what extent do the laws of physics work the same running forward in time or running backward in time?” If so I heartily recommend Wilczek’s latest book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. (Penguin Random House, January 2021)

Wilczek shares with us the sense of wonder and beauty that has kept him excited about his work for the past 50 years. You might realize, as I did, that with Wilczek’s help you will understand aspects of particle physics, cosmology, and the nature of time better than you ever thought you might.

Yet from the opening pages of the book, Wilczek drops in assertions about history, society and the role of science that I found both troubling and worthy of a more focused examination.

What makes western science so great? (Or not.)

In Fundamentals Wilczek spends most of his time discussing scientific developments during the 20th century, particularly developments that weren’t even mentioned in high-school textbooks the last time I took a course in physics. But he grounds his discussion in a celebration of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

“The seventeenth century saw dramatic theoretical and technological progress on many fronts, including in the design of mechanical machines and ships, of optical instruments (including, notably, microscopes and telescopes), of clocks, and of calendars. As a direct result, people could wield more power, see more things, and regulate their affairs more reliably. But what makes the so-called Scientific Revolution unique, and fully deserving of the name, is something less tangible. It was a change in outlook: a new ambition, a new confidence.” (Fundamentals, page 4)

In subsequent centuries, the applied science that grew from this scientific revolution led to internal combustion engines, electric motors, all manner of telecommunications, digital cameras, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and the Global Positioning System – to name just a few of the technologies that have transformed ways of life.

I count myself a fan of the scientific method, and I haven’t personally known anyone who is either ready, willing or able to live without any access to any of the technologies Wilczek cites as outgrowths of this method. But can these technological successes be credited solely to a new and superior approach to inquiry?

In the opening pages Wilczek states that “prior to the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technologies was haphazard.” (page 3) He then slips in an observation that to him requires no elaboration, presenting a graph of GDP growth with this comment:

“This figure, which shows the development of human productivity with time, speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” 

Graph from Fundamentals, by Frank Wilczek, page 3.

The graph speaks for itself? And just what does it say? Perhaps this: when at long last humans learned to extract ancient deposits of fossil energy, laid down over millions of years, and learned how to burn this energy inheritance in a frenzy of consumption, with no worries about whether successive generations would have any comparable energy sources to draw on, only then did “economic growth” skyrocket. And further: it’s not important that a great deal of wealth – from accessible fossil energy reserves to biodiversity to climate stability – has gone down as fast as that graph of GDP has gone up. It doesn’t matter, since in GDP’s accounting for economic growth there is no need to distinguish productivity from consumptivity.

As you might guess, what I glean from that GDP graph may not match what Wilczek hears, when he hears the graph “speak for itself.” But I think the relationship of science to the larger human enterprise, including the economy, deserves further scrutiny here.

That GDP is a crude economic indicator should become clear if we reflect on the left side of Wilczek’s graph as much as the right side. He credits the scientific revolution with leading to an explosion in productivity – but his graph shows a barely perceptible change in world GDP per capita for the period 1500 – 1800. Significant growth in GDP per capita, then, didn’t arise for at least a century after the scientific revolution, until about the time fossil fuel exploitation began in earnest.

Can this be taken as evidence that there were no fundamental changes in the world economy during the centuries immediately preceding the fossil fuel economy? To the contrary, some of human history’s most epic changes began about 1500, as western European nations colonized the Americas, instituted the slave trade on a massive scale, colonized large parts of Africa and Asia, and began a centuries-long transfer of ecological wealth from both land and sea around the globe, at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives. Global economic wealth per capita may not have changed much during those centuries – but the distribution of that wealth, and the resulting wealth of a small slice of educated European elites, certainly did change. And it was from these elites that, with few exceptions, came the men (again, with few exceptions) who worked out the many discoveries in the scientific revolution.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these new understandings would come from people who had the economic security to get good educations, acquire expensive books, set up laboratories, make patient observations for years or decades, and test their theories even if any practical applications might be so far in the future as to be unforeseeable. A well-rounded assessment of the scientific revolution, then, should look not only at the eventual technological outcomes that might be credited to this revolution, but also the ecological and sociological factors that preceded this revolution. And a balanced assessment of the scientific revolution should also ask about blind spots likely to accompany this worldview, given its birth among the elite beneficiaries of a colonialism that far more of the world’s population were experiencing as an apocalypse.

In particular, it should be no surprise that among the class of people who do the lion’s share of consumption, the dominant faith in economics has conveniently assured them that their consumptivity equals productivity.

How much energy is enough energy?

Wilczek spends much of Fundamentals illuminating energy in many guises: the energy charge of an electron, the energy that holds quarks together to form protons, the gravitational energy of a black hole as it bends space-time, the dark energy that appears to be causing the universe not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating pace. His explanations are marvels of clarity in which he imparts the sense of wonder that he himself felt at the outset of his lifelong scientific journey.

When he turns to the role that energy plays in human life and society, unfortunately, his observations strike me as trite. He titles one chapter, for example, “There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy”.

Here he gives us the unit AHUMEN, short for Annual Human Energy, which he calculates at 2,000 calories/day, which over a year comes to about 3 billion joules. With this unit in hand, he notes that world energy consumption in 2020 was about 190 billion AHUMENs, or about 25 AHUMENs per capita. He draws this conclusion:

“This number, 25, is the ratio of total energy consumed to the amount of energy used in natural metabolism. It is an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically ….” (p 127, emphasis mine)

If tomorrow we consume twice as much energy as we consume today, then by this “objective measure” we will have progressed twice as far economically. This sounds to me like neither clever physics nor clever economics, but mere mis-applied arithmetic.

Wilczek adds that Americans consume roughly 95 AHUMENs per person, without pointing out what should also be obvious: if the global average is 25 AHUMENs per capita, and Americans consume 95 per capita, that means hundreds of millions of people in our advanced global economy are getting only a few AHUMENs each.

Proceeding with his argument that “there’s plenty of energy”, Wilczek says that if we consider only “the portion of solar energy that makes it to Earth, then we find ‘only’ about 10,000 times our present total energy consumption. That number provides a more realistic baseline from which to assess the economic potential of solar energy.” (page 127)

Indeed, there is and always has been a vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth. That energy has always been enough to fry a human caught unprotected for too long in the desert sun. It’s always been enough to electrocute a human, when solar energy is incorporated into lightning storms. That abundant solar energy can even freeze us to death, when increasingly unstable weather systems push arctic air deep into regions where humans are unprepared for cold.

That energy has always been enough to kill crops during heat waves or to flood coastal cities when storms surge. With each passing year, as our geoengineered atmosphere holds in more heat, there will be more solar energy theoretically available to us, but immediately active in global weather systems. That will make our economic challenges greater, not simpler.

For that abundant solar energy to represent “economic potential”, we need to have technologies that can make that solar energy useful to us, and manageable by us, in cost-effective ways. Wilczek both recognizes and dismisses this concern in a single sentence:

“Technology to capture a larger fraction of that [solar] energy is developing rapidly, and there is little doubt that in the foreseeable future – barring catastrophe – we will be able to use it to support a richer world economy sustainably.” (page 140)

Wilczek himself might have little doubt about this, but I wish he had included some basis on which we could be confident this is more than wishful thinking.

While this discussion may seem to have veered a long way from the core concerns of Wilczek’s book, I suggest that the relationship of societal energy consumption to the needs of the scientific enterprise may soon become a critical issue.

ATLAS detector being assembled at Large Hadron Collider, 2006. Photo by Fanny Schertzer, 27 February 2006. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The energy demands of big science

The work of 20th century physics has come with a high energy price tag. Famously, some of the major steps forward in theory were accomplished by brilliant individuals scribbling in notebooks or on chalk boards, using tools that were familiar to Newton. But the testing of the theories has required increasingly elaborate experimental setups.

The launching of a space telescope, which helps reveal secrets of the farthest reaches of our universe, is one energy-intensive example. But likewise in the realm of infinitesimally small, sub-atomic particles – where Wilczek has focused much of his work – the experimental apparatus has become increasingly grand.

Wilczek tells us about Paul Dirac, a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics who wrote in 1929 that “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” Yet much subsequent progress in the field had to wait:

“When Dirac continued, ‘And the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved,’ modern supercomputers were not even a dream.” (page 120)

The theoretical framework for the Higgs particle was proposed decades before it could be confirmed, and that confirmation carried a huge energy cost. “In the years prior to 2012, Higgs particle searches came up empty,” Wilczek writes. “We know now, in retrospect, that they simply didn’t bring in enough energy. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, finally did.” (page 176)

It’s not just that this collider involved the construction of a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference, nor that while operating it draws 200 MW of electricity, comparable to one-third the electricity draw of the city of Geneva. The power allows experimenters to smash protons together at speeds only 11 km/h less than the speed of light. And these collisions, in turn, result in nearly incomprehensible quantities of data being captured in the Atlas detector, which sends “all this information, at the rate of 25 million gigabytes per year, to a worldwide grid that links thousands of supercomputers.” (page 176)

When the tunnel had been bored, the superconducting magnets built and installed, the Atlas detector (itself twice the size of the Parthenon) assembled, the whole machine put into operation, and the thousands of supercomputers had crunched the data for months – then, finally, the existence of the Higgs particle was proven.

Wilczek doesn’t go into detail about the energy sources for this infrastructure. But it shouldn’t escape our attention that the experimental-industrial complex remains primarily a fossil-fueled enterprise. Fossil fuels fly researchers from university to university and from lab to lab around the world. Fossil fuels power the cement plants and steel foundries, and the mines that extract the metals and minerals. Many individual machines are directly powered by electricity, but on a global scale most electricity is still generated from the heat of fossil fuel combustion.

Wilczek cites the vast amount of solar energy that strikes the earth each day as a vast economic resource. Yet we are nowhere close to being able to build and operate all our mines, smelters, silicon chip fabrication facilities, intercontinental aircraft, solar panel production facilities, electricity transmission towers, and all the other components of the modern scientific enterprise, solely on renewable solar energy.

And if someday in the not-too-distant future we are able to operate a comparably complex industrial infrastructure solely on renewable energy, will this generate enough economic surplus to support tens of thousands of scientists working at the frontiers of research?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit as the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer on June 8, 2018. “With a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—or 200 petaflops, Summit will be eight times more powerful than ORNL’s previous top-ranked system, Titan. … Summit will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, advanced materials and artificial intelligence (AI), among other domains, enabling scientific discoveries that were previously impractical or impossible.” Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one clue

Wilczek cites a famous quotation from equally celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. During a lecture in 1961 Feynman offered this question and answer:

“‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.’” (Feynman, quoted in Fundamentals, page 61)

And Wilczek proposes this revision:

“Instead of ‘all things are made of atoms,’ we should say that ‘all things are made of elementary particles.’” (page 62)

This may seem nothing more than an intellectual parlor game, with scientific knowledge today increasing at an accelerating pace. Wilczek doesn’t sound worried about the death of scientific knowledge, when he says that “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” (page 171)

But as we roar ahead into the climate crisis, I think it would be helpful and appropriate to revise Feynman’s question, replacing the “if” with “when”:

If When, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be is destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

We can’t know for sure, of course, whether the climate cataclysm will destroy scientific knowledge. But what we can see is that we are on a so-far unwavering path to climate catastrophe, and that most governments around the world aren’t pledging (let alone fulfilling pledges) to make carbon emissions reductions that are even close to sufficient. With each passing year the challenge of transforming our civilization into a sustainable civilization grows more urgent, time grows shorter, and the consequences of failure grow more threatening not only to individual lives but to the very survival of our species. These threats are being documented and communicated in great detail by our scientific enterprises. And yet the greatest beneficiaries of our supposedly productive global economy (individual examples notwithstanding) lead the charge to the cliff.

So perhaps it’s time to consider seriously “What one sentence of information might be most useful to our survivors?”

Suppose we project our thoughts, right now, into a climate-ravaged future. Earth’s surviving inhabitants contend with a violently unstable climate. They struggle to gather enough food from deeply impoverished ecosystems, they try to build sufficiently robust shelters, they yearn to raise healthy children, and they face these challenges without any useful energy boosts from polluting fossil fuels (fuels which in any case will be hard to extract, since we’ll have already burned up the easily accessible reserves). Our digital networks of knowledge may well have gone dark, and our libraries may have flooded or burned.

In this future, will it be helpful to tell our descendants “All things are made of elementary particles?” Perhaps it will be many generations further on, if all goes well, before they can again support a scientific elite, armed with elaborate experimental apparatus, capable of making sense of these “elementary particles”.

I can’t help but wonder if, in this future, the best advice we might offer would be a simple warning: “Don’t do what we did.”

Photo at top of page: Grappling the Hubble Space Telescope. An STS-125 crew member aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope after it was grappled by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. Credit: NASA. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.