The Comprehensible Cosmos

Where Do The Laws of Physics Come From?

Prometheus Books 2006

The laws of physics were not handed down from above. Nor are they somehow built into the logical structure of the universe. They are human inventions, though not arbitrary ones. They are not restrictions on the behavior of matter. They are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior. In order to describe an objective reality, those descriptions cannot depend on the point of view of observers. They must be "point-of-view-invariant." When point-of-view invariance is implemented, the laws of physics follow with few additional assumptions. We live in a comprehensible cosmos.

In a series of remarkable developments in the twentieth century, elementary particle physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists have removed much of the mystery that surrounds our understanding of the physical universe. They have found that the cosmos is, on the whole, comprehensible. Of course, no one can claim to understand or explain every facet of the structure of reality. However, we now have theories--mathematical models--that describe the general character of that reality. At this writing, these theories are consistent with all observational data, including measurements of incredible precision. While they will undoubtedly be superseded by better theories as science continues to advance, the great success of current schemes makes it likely that they are on the right track. The broad picture that is drawn by modern particle physics and cosmology is very probably the way nature is, and what we have yet to learn may be expected to fit comfortably on its foundation--just as these sciences fit comfortably on the foundation of Newtonian physics.

We now have a deep and revolutionary understanding of the true nature of the mathematical quantities and theories of physics. We have realized that they are basically human inventions, including the notions of time and space. The quantities of physics are defined by how we measure them. The laws of physics are not, as usually assumed, restrictions on the behavior of matter--handed down from above or somehow built into the logical structure of the Universe. Rather, they are restrictions on the way that physicists may formulate their theories.

Of course, the theories of physics must agree with observations. But, beyond that, they are formulated in such a way as to assure that they do not depend on any particular point of view. Otherwise they cannot be expected to faithfully describe an objective reality. Stenger calls this principle point-of-view invariance, although it is known technically as gauge invariance. When this requirement is met, the most basic principles of physics, as we know them, appear naturally.
 
Not everything in the Universe is thereby "explained." However, the structural details of the Universe, including basic facts such as particle masses and force strengths, can be understood as following from an accidental process known as spontaneous symmetry breaking. The origin of this structure may be likened to the origin of biological structure, the combined result of tautological necessity, random chance, and even some natural selection.

In the main text of this book, the arguments are laid out without mathematical details so that general readers can grasp the gigantic conceptual changes that have taken place over the last century. Mathematical supplements at the undergraduate level of sophistication are appended showing precisely how the basic principles of physics--from Newtonian mechanics through relativity, quantum mechanics, and the standard models of physics and cosmology--follow from gauge invariance. A scenario for the natural creation of the universe based on these well-established models is presented, along with an explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.

Paper 

Paper based on book.


Slideshows

General audience

Technical audience


Table of Laws

A list of the laws of physics and their sources.



Errata

Reviews

Excerpts

Chaotic Inflation. Excerpts from Mathematical Supplement G on cosmology.

How the superposition principle, which is responsible for quantum interference, follows from point-of-view invariance.

Quantum Mechanics Is Just a Theory of Transformations.



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