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The Game Of The Gods Keeps Us Watching

If you didn't know the rules, could you figure them out just by watching the game?
Michael Steele
Getty Images
If you didn't know the rules, could you figure them out just by watching the game?

The famous American physicist Richard Feynman once made an interesting comparison between games and the laws of nature (here adapted to soccer to keep up with the spirit of the Word Cup):

"We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes 'the world' is something like a great soccer game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics."

According to this analogy, the laws of nature are like the rules of a game and the physicist's role is to figure them out. This we do by methodically observing what happens in the world, using our instruments and intuition in tandem with our deductive ability.

Feynman's analogy illustrates several aspects of scientific thinking, the most obvious being our perennial blindness: what we see is only part of the whole story. Our worldview is by necessity incomplete.

To see this, we can think historically. For, say, Columbus, in 1492, the cosmos was a very different than for Newton in the late 17th century. In turn, Newton's cosmos was very different from ours. In the early 1500s, the universe was finite, closed up like a sphere, with the Earth fixed at the dead center of creation. To Newton, the cosmos was infinite, its mechanisms described by precise quantitative laws, as if nature knew mathematics. To find the laws of nature was to read the mind of God, The Great Geometer. Today, we don't know (and can't know) if the universe is infinite or not; but we do know that it is expanding, the distances and speeds between galaxies growing.

The laws of nature are how we organize the regularities and behaviors that we can observe. Some regularities are easy to identify, like the phases of the moon, the tides or the seasons, all explained well with Newtonian physics. Others are harder to figure out, like the energy spectrum of the hydrogen atom or the precession of Mercury's orbit or superconductivity. If we continue with Feynman's analogy, the gods play a very subtle game of soccer, mixing visible and invisible moves. To see at least some of this invisible side of reality we need to amplify our vision with special tools: telescopes, microscopes, mass spectrometers, particle accelerators, sensors and detectors of all kinds.

Without tools of exploration, science is rendered useless.

New instruments have the potential to reveal new, often unexpected, laws. Sometimes the novelty is revolutionary and forces us to rethink some fundamental aspect of reality: the structure of space and time, the relationship between matter and energy, the properties of a star, the origin of the universe or of life. Science is the sum total of our effort to figure things out, an ongoing process, always incomplete. The more we learn about the subtleties of this god-like soccer game, the more we realize we have to learn. Who knows, maybe the laws form an infinite labyrinth, without beginning or end, and the best that we can do is catch glimpses of it here and there.

Marcelo Gleiser's latest book is The Island Of Knowledge: The Limits Of Science And The Search For Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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