Tag Archives: Quine

A meditation on physical units: Part 1

[Preface: A while back, Michael Raymer, a professor at the University of Oregon, drew my attention to a curious paper by Craig Holt, who tragically passed away in 2014 [1]. Michael wrote:
“Dear Jacques … I would be very interested in knowing your opinion of this paper,
since Craig was not a professional academic, and had little community in
which to promote the ideas. He was one of the most brilliant PhD students
in my graduate classes back in the 1970s, turned down an opportunity to
interview for a position with John Wheeler, worked in industry until age
50 when he retired in order to spend the rest of his time in self study.
In his paper he takes a Machian view, emphasizing the relational nature of
all physical quantities even in classical physics. I can’t vouch for the
technical correctness of all of his results, but I am sure they are
inspiring.”

The paper makes for an interesting read because Holt, unencumbered by contemporary fashions, freely questions some standard assumptions about the meaning of `mass’ in physics. Probably because it was a work in progress, Craig’s paper is missing some of the niceties of a more polished academic work, like good referencing and a thoroughly researched introduction that places the work in context (the most notable omission is the lack of background material on dimensional analysis, which I will talk about in this post). Despite its rough edges, Craig’s paper led me down quite an interesting rabbit-hole, of which I hope to give you a glimpse. This post covers some background concepts; I’ll mention Craig’s contribution in a follow-up post. ]

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Imagine you have just woken up after a very bad hangover. You retain your basic faculties, such as the ability to reason and speak, but you have forgotten everything about the world in which you live. Not just your name and address, but your whole life history, family and friends, and entire education are lost to the epic blackout. Using pure thought, you are nevertheless able to deduce some facts about the world, such as the fact that you were probably drinking Tequila last night.

RM_hangover
The first thing you notice about the world around you is that it can be separated into objects distinct from yourself. These objects all possess properties: they have colour, weight, smell, texture. For instance, the leftover pizza is off-yellow, smells like sardines and sticks to your face (you run to the bathroom).

While bending over the toilet for an extended period of time, you notice that some properties can be easily measured, while others are more intangible. The toilet seems to be less white than the sink, and the sink less white than the curtains. But how much less? You cannot seem to put a number on it. On the other hand, you know from the ticking of the clock on the wall that you have spent 37 seconds thinking about it, which is exactly 14 seconds more than the time you spent thinking about calling a doctor.

You can measure exactly how much you weigh on the bathroom scale. You can also see how disheveled you look in the mirror. Unlike your weight, you have no idea how to quantify the amount of your disheveled-ness. You can say for sure that you are less disheveled than Johnny Depp after sleeping under a bridge, but beyond that, you can’t really put a number on it. Properties like time, weight and blood-alcohol content can be quantified, while other properties like squishiness, smelliness and dishevelled-ness are not easily converted into numbers.

You have rediscovered one of the first basic truths about the world: all that we know comes from our experience, and the objects of our experience can only be compared to other objects of experience. Some of those comparisons can be numerical, allowing us to say how much more or less of something one object has than another. These cases are the beginning of scientific inquiry: if you can put a number on it, then you can do science with it.

Rulers, stopwatches, compasses, bathroom scales — these are used as reference objects for measuring the `muchness’ of certain properties, namely, length, duration, angle, and weight. Looking in your wallet, you discover that you have exactly 5 dollars of cash, a receipt from a taxi for 30 dollars, and you are exactly 24 years old since yesterday night.

You reflect on the meaning of time. A year means the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun, or approximately 365 and a quarter days. A day is the time it takes for the Earth to spin once on its axis. You remember your school teacher saying that all units of time are defined in terms of seconds, and one second is defined as 9192631770 oscillations of the light emitted by a Caesium atom. Why exactly 9192631770, you wonder? What if we just said 2 oscillations? A quick calculation shows that this would make you about 110 billion years old according to your new measure of time. Or what about switching to dog years, which are 7 per human year? That would make you 168 dog years old. You wouldn’t feel any different — you would just be having a lot more birthday parties. Given the events of last night, that seems like a bad idea.

You are twice as old as your cousin, and that is true in dog years, cat years, or clown years [2]. Similarly, you could measure your height in inches, centimeters, or stacked shot-glasses — but even though you might be 800 rice-crackers tall, you still won’t be able to reach the aspirin in the top shelf of the cupboard. Similarly, counting all your money in cents instead of dollars will make it a bigger number, but won’t actually make you richer. These are all examples of passive transformations of units, where you imagine measuring something using one set of units instead of another. Passive transformations change nothing in reality: they are all in your head. Changing the labels on objects clearly cannot change the physical relationships between them.

Things get interesting when we consider active transformations. If a passive transformation is like saying the length of your coffee table is 100 times larger when measured in cm than when measured in meters, then an active transformation would be if someone actually replaced your coffee table with a table 100 times bigger. Now, obviously you would notice the difference because the table wouldn’t fit in your apartment anymore. But imagine that someone, in addition to replacing the coffee table, also replaced your entire apartment and everything in it with scaled-up models 100 times the size. And imagine that you also grew to into a giant 100 times your original size while you were sleeping. Then when you woke up, as a giant inside a giant apartment with a giant coffee table, would you realise anything had changed? And if you made yourself a giant cup of coffee, would it make your giant hangover go away?

Kafka
Or if you woke up as a giant bug?

We now come to one of the deepest principles of physics, called Bridgman’s Principle of absolute significance of relative magnitude, named for our old friend Percy Bridgman. The Principle says that only relative quantities can enter into the laws of physics. This means that, whatever experiments I do and whatever measurements I perform, I can only obtain information about the relative sizes of quantities: the length of the coffee table relative to my ruler, or the mass of the table relative to the mass of my body, etc. According to this principle, actively changing the absolute values of some quantity by the same proportion for all objects should not affect the outcomes of any experiments we could perform.

To get a feeling for what the principle means, imagine you are a primitive scientist. You notice that fruit hanging from trees tends to bob up and down in the wind, but the heavier fruits seems to bounce more slowly than the lighter fruits (for those readers who are physics students, I’m talking about a mass on a spring here). You decide to discover the law that relates the frequency of bobbing motion to the mass of the fruit. You fill a sack with some pebbles (carefully chosen to all have the same weight) and hang it from a tree branch. You can measure the mass of the sack by counting the number of pebbles in it, but you still need a way to measure the frequency of the bobbing. Nearby you hear the sound of water dripping from a leaf into a pond. You decide to measure the frequency by how many times the sack bobs up and down in between drips of water. Now you are ready to do your experiment.

You measure the bobbing frequency of the sack for many different masses, and record the results by drawing in the dirt with a stick. After analysing your data, you discover that the frequency f (in oscillations per water drop) is related to the mass m (in pebbles) by a simple formula:

HookeSpring
where k stands for a particular number, say 16.8. But what does this number really mean?

Unbeknownst to you, a clever monkey was watching you from the bushes while you did the experiment. After you retire to your cave to sleep, the monkey comes out to play a trick on you. He carefully replaces each one of your pebbles with a heavier pebble of the same size and appearance, and makes sure that all of the heavier pebbles are the same weight as each other. He takes away the original pebbles and hides them. The next day, you repeat the experiment in exactly the same way, but now you discover that the constant k has changed from yesterday’s value of 16.8 to the new value of 11.2. Does this mean that the law of nature that governs the bobbing of things hanging from the tree has changed overnight? Or should you decide that the law is the same, but that the units that you used to measure frequency and mass have changed?

You decide to apply Bridgman’s Principle. The principle says that if (say) all the masses in the experiment were changed by the same proportion, then the laws of physics would not allow us to see any difference, provided we used the same measuring units. Since you do see a difference, Bridgman’s Principle says that it must be the units (and not the law itself) that has changed. `These must be different pebbles’ you say to yourself, and you mark them by scratching an X onto them. You go out looking for some other pebbles and eventually you find a new set of pebbles which give you the right value of 16.8 when you perform the experiment. `These must be the same kind of pebbles that I used in the original experiment’ you say to yourself, and you scratch an O on them so that you won’t lose them again. Ha! You have outsmarted the monkey.

Larson_rocks

Notice that as long as you use the right value for k — which depends on whether you measure the mass using X or O pebbles — then the abstract equation (1) remains true. In physics language, you are interpreting k as a dimensional constant, having the dimensions of  frequency times √mass. This means that if you use different units for measuring frequency or mass, the numerical value of k has to change in order to preserve the law. Notice also that the dimensions of k are chosen so that equation (1) has the same dimensions on each side of the equals sign. This is called a dimensionally homogeneous equation. Bridgman’s Principle can be rephrased as saying that all physical laws must be described by dimensionally homogeneous equations.

Bridgman’s Principle is useful because it allows us to start with a law expressed in particular units, in this case `oscillations per water-drop’ and `O-pebbles’, and then infer that the law holds for any units. Even though the numerical value of k changes when we change units, it remains the same in any fixed choice of units, so it represents a physical constant of nature.

The alternative is to insist that our units are the same as before (the pebbles look identical after all). That means that the change in k implies a change in the law itself, for instance, it implies that the same mass hanging from the tree today will bob up and down more slowly than it did yesterday. In our example, it turns out that Bridgman’s Principle leads us to the correct conclusion: that some tricky monkey must have switched our pebbles. But can the principle ever fail? What if physical laws really do change?

Suppose that after returning to your cave, the tricky monkey decides to have another go at fooling you. He climbs up the tree and whispers into its leaves: `Do you know why that primitive scientist is always hanging things from your branch? She is testing how strong you are! Make your branches as stiff and strong as you can tomorrow, and she will reward you with water from the pond’.

The next day, you perform the experiment a third time — being sure to use your `O-pebbles’ this time — and you discover again that the value of k seems to have changed. It now takes many more pebbles to achieve a given frequency than it did on the first day. Using Bridgman’s Principle, you again decide that something must be wrong with your measuring units. Maybe this time it is the dripping water that is wrong and needs to be adjusted, or maybe you have confidence in the regularity of the water drip and conclude that the `O-pebbles’ have somehow become too light. Perhaps, you conjecture, they were replaced by the tricky monkey again? So you throw them out and go searching for some heavier pebbles. You find some that give you the right value of k=16.8, and conclude that these are the real `O-pebbles’.

The difference is that this time, you were tricked! In fact the pebbles you threw out were the real `O-pebbles’. The change in k came from the background conditions of the experiment, namely the stiffness in the tree branches, which you did not consider as a physical variable. Hence, in a sense, the law that relates bobbing frequency to mass (for this tree) has indeed changed [3].

You thought that the change in the constant k was caused by using the wrong measuring units, but in fact it was due to a change in the physical constant k itself. This is an example of a scenario where a physical constant turns out not to be constant after all. If we simply assume Bridgman’s Principle to be true without carefully checking whether it is justified, then it is harder to discover situations in which the physical constants themselves are changing. So, Bridgman’s Principle can be thought of as the assumption that the values of physical constants (expressed in some fixed units) don’t change over time. If we are sure that the laws of physics are constant, then we can use the Principle to detect changes or inaccuracies in our measuring devices that define the physical units — i.e. we can leverage the laws of physics to improve the accuracy of our measuring devices.

We can’t always trust our measuring units, but the monkey also showed us that we can’t always trust the laws of physics. After all, scientific progress depends on occasionally throwing out old laws and replacing them with more accurate ones. In our example, a new law that includes the tree-branch stiffness as a variable would be the obvious next step.

One of the more artistic aspects of the scientific method is knowing when to trust your measuring devices, and when to trust the laws of physics [4]. Progress is made by `bootstrapping’ from one to the other: first we trust our units and use them to discover a physical law, and then we trust in the physical law and use it to define better units, and so on. It sounds like a circular process, but actually it represents the gradual refinement of knowledge, through increasingly smaller adjustments from different angles. Imagine trying to balance a scale by placing handfuls of sand on each side. At first you just dump about a handful on each side and see which is heavier. Then you add a smaller amount to the lighter side until it becomes heavier. Then you add an even smaller amount to the other side until it becomes heavier, and so on, until the scale is almost perfectly balanced. In a similar way, switching back and forth between physical laws and measurement units actually results in both the laws and measuring instruments becoming more accurate over time.

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[1] It is a shame that Craig’s work remains incomplete, because I think physicists could benefit from a re-examination of the principles of dimensional analysis. Simplified dimensional arguments are sometimes invoked in the literature on quantum gravity without due consideration for their meaning.

[2] Clowns have several birthdays a week, but they aren’t allowed to get drunk at them, which kind of defeats the purpose if you ask me.

[3] If you are uncomfortable with treating the branch stiffness as part of the physical law, imagine instead that the strength of gravity actually becomes weaker overnight.

[4] This is related to a deep result in the philosophy of science called the Duhem-Quine Thesis.
Quoth Duhem: `If the predicted phenomenon is not produced, not only is the questioned proposition put into doubt, but also the whole theoretical scaffolding used by the physicist’.

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