The Quark and the Jaguar
I recently finished reading The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex by Murray Gell-Mann (Amazon | Take 2). Some of you may recognize the author’s name – he won the Nobel prize for Physics in 1969 for discovering the quark, so is probably uniquely qualified to write a book about the little particle. For instance, I now know from the only supreme authority on the matter that quark is pronounce to rhyme with ‘cork’, and not ‘snark’. How can you argue with the person who did the actual naming?
Gell-Mann starts out by explaining the basics of complexity theory, then introduces the idea of a complex adaptive system: systems that evolve by utilizing acquired information. He then goes on to describe examples of these systems, from a child learning language, to biological evolution, to the process of scientific advance and creative thought. He also examines how it is that the simple can arise from the complex, such as the diversity of the universe from the simplicity of the atom, or the complexity of the biosphere from simple rules of evolution. There is no need for an intelligent designer or creator in Gell-Mann’s world – everything unfolds beautifully and wonderously from the same processes that create all the works of english literature from only 26 letters and a few rules of grammar.
The discussion in the book that I found most interesting was why the difference between simple and complex systems means that the macroscopic and microscopic worlds of physics do not behave in the same way. One of the consequences of this, and the one I was most interested in, is the fact that you can’t apply quantum mechanics to the world you experience while walking around being a human. The course graining at the level of complex objects like jaguars effectively washes out the various fine grained effects at the level of quarks, for reasons that Gell-Mann explains carefully and clearly (and which you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out). He even devotes a section to explaining exactly why it is that quantum mechanics cannot be used to ‘explain’ paranormal phenomena. Take that, Ramtha.