Eddington 1927: Insufficiency of Primary Law


This paper presents Chapter V (section 6) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Insufficiency of Primary Law

I daresay many of my physical colleagues will join issue with me over the status I have allowed to entropy as something foreign to the microscopic scheme, but essential to the physical world. They would regard it rather as a labor-saving device, useful but not indispensable. Given any practical problem ordinarily solved by introducing the conception of entropy, precisely the same result could be reached (more laboriously) by following out the motion of each individual particle of matter or quantum of energy under the primary microscopic laws without any reference to entropy explicit or implicit. Very well; let us try. There’s a problem for you— [A piece of chalk was thrown on the lecture table where it rolled and broke into two pieces.]

You are given the instantaneous position and velocity (Velocities are relative to a frame of space and time. Indicate which frame you prefer, and you will be given velocity relative to that frame. This throws on you the responsibility for any labelling of the frame— left, right, past future etc.) of every molecule, or if you like every proton and electron, in those pieces of chalk and in as much of the table and surrounding air as concerns you. Details of the instantaneous state of every element of energy are also given. By the microscopic (primary) laws of motion you can trace the state from instant to instant. You can trace how the atoms moving aimlessly within the lumps of chalk gradually form a conspiracy so that the lumps begin to move as a whole. The lumps bounce a little and roll on the table; they come together and join up; then the whole piece of chalk rises gracefully in the air, describes a parabola, and comes to rest between my fingers. I grant that you can do all that without requiring entropy or anything outside the limits of microscopic physics. You have solved the problem. But, have you quite got hold of the significance of your solution? Is it quite a negligible point that what you have described from your calculations is an unhappening? There is no need to alter a word of your description so far as it goes; but it does seem to need an addendum which would discriminate between a trick worthy of Mr. Maskelyne and an ordinary everyday unoccurrence.

Eddington is relating entropy to quantization. Quantization then is the number and organization of microstates in a system.

The physicist may say that the addendum asked for relates to significance, and he has nothing to do with significances; he is only concerned that his calculations shall agree with observation. He cannot tell me whether the phenomenon has the significance of a happening or an unhappening; but if a clock is included in the problem he can give the readings of the clock at each stage. There is much to be said for excluding the whole field of significance from physics; it is a healthy reaction against mixing up with our calculations mystic conceptions that (officially) we know nothing about. I rather envy the pure physicist his impregnable position. But if he rules significances entirely outside his scope, somebody has the job of discovering whether the physical world of atoms, aether and electrons has any significance whatever. Unfortunately for me I am expected in these lectures to say how the plain man ought to regard the scientific world when it comes into competition with other views of our environment. Some of my audience may not be interested in a world invented as a mere calculating device. Am I to tell them that the scientific world has no claim on their consideration when the eternal question surges in the mind, What is it all about? I am sure my physical colleagues will expect me to put up some defence of the scientific world in this connection. I am ready to do so; only I must insist as a preliminary that we should settle which is the right way up of it. I cannot read any significance into a physical world when it is held before me upside down, as happened just now. For that reason I am interested in entropy not only because it shortens calculations which can be made by other methods, but because it determines an orientation which cannot be found by other methods.

Entropy not only simplifies the calculation, but also determines the orientation of quantization.

The scientific world is, as I have often repeated, a shadow-world, shadowing a world familiar to our consciousness. Just how much do we expect it to shadow? We do not expect it to shadow all that is in our mind, emotions, memory, etc. In the main we expect it to shadow impressions which can be traced to external sense-organs. But time makes a dual entry and thus forms an intermediate link between the internal and the external. This is shadowed partially by the scientific world of primary physics (which excludes time’s arrow), but fully when we enlarge the scheme to include entropy. Therefore by the momentous departure in the nineteenth century the scientific world is not confined to a static extension around which the mind may spin a romance of activity and evolution; it shadows that dynamic quality of the familiar world which cannot be parted from it without disaster to its significance.

The world we are familiar with is much more complex than the scientific world. Not all variables of the familiar world are being dealt with by the scientific world. The scientific world is comparatively very simple and abstract. Since entropy deals with increasing complexity as quantization, it forms a link between the scientific to the familiar world.

In sorting out the confused data of our experience it has generally been assumed that the object of the quest is to find out all that really exists. There is another—quest not less appropriate to the nature of our experience to find out all that really becomes.

Our experience of the familiar world is much more complex than what science can deal with. That gap between the scientific and the familiar world needs to be filled.


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