Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Are the Laws of the Universe “Inevitable”?

laws of the universe

Natalie Wolchover at Quanta Magazine has a thoughtful but misguided essay on the “inevitability” of the laws of nature. She writes:

Compared to the unsolved mysteries of the universe, far less gets said about one of the most profound facts to have crystallized in physics over the past half-century: To an astonishing degree, nature is the way it is because it couldn’t be any different. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics that we have,” said Daniel Baumann, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam.

She cites Baumann to describe the incredible interlocked intricacy of physical laws:

[L]aws essentially dictate one another through their mutual consistency — that nature “pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.” The idea turns out to explain a huge amount about the universe.

Almost Miraculous

Wolchover describes how the forces of nature seem to emerge almost miraculously (the word is chosen by physicist Adam Falkowski in a comment quoted by Wolchover) from the mathematics of quantum mechanics:

[P]hysicists determine how elementary particles with different amounts of “spin,” or intrinsic angular momentum, can consistently behave. In doing this, they rediscover the four fundamental forces that shape the universe. Most striking is the case of a particle with two units of spin: As the Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg showed in 1964, the existence of a spin-2 particle leads inevitably to general relativity — Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity. Einstein arrived at general relativity through abstract thoughts about falling elevators and warped space and time, but the theory also follows directly from the mathematically consistent behavior of a fundamental particle.

This beautiful simplicity of the laws of nature seem… almost inevitable.

“I find this inevitability of gravity [and other forces] to be one of the deepest and most inspiring facts about nature,” said Laurentiu Rodina, a theoretical physicist at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at CEA Saclay who helped to modernize and generalize Weinberg’s proof in 2014. “Namely, that nature is above all self-consistent.”

To Evade Design

What is inevitable here is not the mathematical beauty of physical law, but the circumlocutions scientists use to evade design in nature. If anything in the universe is “inevitable,” it is entropy and chaos. Nature falls apart, inevitably. Yet there is nothing inevitable about nature’s elegant harmony. Mathematical physics indeed reveals deep structure in nature, and most remarkably, that structure is beautiful, full of unexpected simplicity and poetic coincidence. Antimatter is hidden in Dirac’s relativistic wave equation, and oscillating bodies from galaxies to ocean waves  to quarks are described quite elegantly by the simple calculus of oscillating springs. Einstein’s metric tensor contains the Big Bang and black holes and an enormous but finite universe curved back in on itself. 

None of this splendor and precision is “inevitable,” any more than a Shakespearean sonnet or the Sistine ceiling are inevitable. The mathematical subtlety of physics is the work of a living Mind of inexpressible grace and power. 

The design of nature is not “inevitable.” Creation is from purpose, not decay. Those select scientists who are privileged to see and understand the intricate mathematical beauty of nature owe its Author a citation.

Photo: “Jupiter’s Cloud Tops: From High to Low,” by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt.