Think Pieces

Illuminated Cables & the Laws of Physics Page 2

The laws of physics also lie. According to philosopher of physics Nancy Cartwright, "really powerful explanatory laws of the sort found in theoretical physics do not state the truth" (footnote 2). This is because they are about ideal entities that behave, according to the laws in question, in ideal ways. Anything you might stub your toe on, however, or any component you might listen to, is not ideal—it's real. As a result, the laws of physics will lie about it.

Take one cornerstone of Newton's physics, the First Law: "Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it." In other words, any body that is not changing its state of motion has two options: A body at rest will remain at rest; a body in motion tends to remain in motion. This law clearly implies that material bodies can be in such a state of "uniform motion."

But it's not true, and Newton's physics itself exposes the lie: There will always be forces impressed on any real (massive) object—gravitational forces arising from other massive objects in the universe, for example. If the universe were otherwise empty, or if all other bodies were arranged in some exactly symmetric way (so that these forces would cancel out), then Newton's physics would exactly describe a body to be in this state. But since our universe never corresponds exactly to either of these conditions, no body will ever move in this way. Of course, an object can be nearly in this ideal state of uniform motion—think of Pioneer 10, the satellite that left our solar system a few years ago. It's cruising through space without changing its speed or direction...much. But a lie is a lie (footnote 3).

Whatever that satellite is actually doing, whatever the electrons and fields in your cables are really doing, whatever anyone was thinking when they wore bell-bottoms—these are the "truths" that the laws of physics lie about. But this doesn't mean that these laws are not powerful. They are powerful because they don't speak about this, that, or some other specific truth.

"You've got to come over and hear my system!"

"Why? What'd you do to it? New cables? New preamp? Throw out those evil Kenny G. CDs?"

"Nope. I'm going to pour maple syrup over my amp. I figure that the electrons, being from Vermont, will feel more at home and move around better."

"Hmmmm. I have some bad news for you: According to the laws of physics, your amp won't work at all if it's swimming in liquid."

"Well, that may be so with the laws of physics at your place, but over here I don't think there'll be any problem."

This poor guy has forgotten that the laws of physics are universal and general. You can't open a physics book and find "Chapter 6: Bob's House." For the same reason, there are no chapters (or laws) about CDs and green ink or illuminated speaker cables, either. If the laws of physics were specifically about these things, they wouldn't be laws. Instead, they'd be like recipes or rules of thumb, holding true only for certain kinds of objects under certain conditions. But the laws of physics apply to all things, in all places, at all times.

Since the laws of physics don't just tell us nature's secrets, the trick is to make them talk. That satellite, we know, will not sail uniformly off into infinity. What exactly will it do? The laws of physics will tell us, but only after we've taken all the specifics into account—how much cosmic dust it will encounter; the masses, distances, and positions of nearby stars and galaxies; and so on. At this point, however, we're no longer talking about ideal masses moving through ideal, empty space. Instead, we've built a model out of all the little details—those little "truths" that the laws of physics overlook.

The same goes for the PAD cables: To answer the question at hand, you've got to build a model of the cable that takes into account the relevant particulars: the specific conductors, their size and geometry, impurities, dielectrics, optics, the spectrum of light used, the heat generated, and so on. Of course, you can attempt to predict the outcome of an analysis like this, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Only with such a model in hand are we in a good position to determine what the laws of physics say about these cables (footnote 4).

Footnote 2: Nancy Cartwright, How the Laws of Physics Lie. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, p.3.

Footnote 3: Of course, there's another way Newton's physics lies—it's false, having been replaced by relativistic and quantum-mechanical physics. Cartwright's thesis is different, and applies to laws of mathematical science in general.

Footnote 4: As Cartwright puts it, "Fundamental laws do not govern objects in reality; they govern only objects in models." (p.18)

 ARTICLE CONTENTS

X