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Posted by Daniel Johnson on October 18, 2002 03:22:51 UTC

Why do the simple equations of physics, the "maps" of physical law drawn in the language of mathematics, work so well? In fact, in most cases, the maps have been proven faulty. Gravity is proportional to the product of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance. This is still a profoundly beautiful relationship that works well enough that it lets us reach the moon, or to predict where the moon will be at any moment for millennia. For two centuries Newton's gravity seemed perfect. But it was a faulty map. It is demonstrably wrong, certafably wrong, it is false. Yet its simplicity makes it beautifl and I love it--such simple elegance, so very nearly right. It is close enough to tell us where the Moon was each night of Newton's life. It was close enough for sailors to know their longitude at sea when their lives depended on it, before accurate clocks existed.
Why do the equations explain so much? That is fundamentally unanswerable in any absolute sense. In order to know whether the physical universe is "real" we would have to perceive it directly. We perceive only our perceptions directly. Most of us have the belief that there is an underlying set of genuine physical laws governing a genuine physical universe, and that we are approaching those laws ever more closely with each generation of new physics theories. I believe that most of the time. Having some basic comprehension of those laws as I look through my telescope helps me feel connected with the universe, with the mystical purpose of it all. I see galaxies 50 million light-years distant and know that some of the stars that produced that light have long since vanished; I know that my telescope can focus their light with a resolution of half an arcsecond. How wonderful to live now, and to understand these things, rather than to have been a hunter-gatherer 20,000 years ago. But why does physics work? If there is a God, ask Him. I simply assume that He does not lie, and that He has made a set of laws that we approach ever more closely through trial and error and endless iterations.

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