Models of the World and Quantum Physics

When I was a kid I used to build models. Cars, airplanes, a few ships, even some famous buildings, like the Empire State building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. I never built any models of ships or boats, but I had few friends that did. One thing about some of the models I built, (especially ones that took a long time,) was the incredible amount of detail that each model had. All the way down to some of the movable engine parts of some of more intense models.

Despite how accurate they appeared, they were only models of the real thing. The planes couldn’t fly, the cars wouldn’t drive, and the buildings wouldn’t hold any little people. They were only approximations of something larger and functional. And they were always built after the real thing. There weren’t ever any models of things that hadn’t been built yet.

Not all models are like this, however. In the early days of the twentieth century, physicists were trying to wrap their minds around something called Black Box Radiation. They had this black material, and when they heated it to very high temperatures, they would measure the spectral characteristics of the light it emitted as it cooled down. At first they thought they understood the physics behind what was happening. They came up with a model, and it worked.

The problem is, their model didn’t work at all levels. At first it only worked at the higher temperatures, but it broke down completely as they cooled off. They kept trying to update and change their model, and although they got a little bit closer each time to approximating the actual behavior, it still didn’t work at all levels.

Many famous scientists of the day were involved in this project. Bohr, Einstein and others were among those that tried and failed to accurately model the behavior of this mysterious phenomenon.

The interesting thing about models is how easily some people can be convinced that they are undisputed truth. Anytime there is an approximation of the physical world around us, it is only a model. Which is fine so long as people understand that it will always need to be updated and expanded on, or even discarded completely if somebody comes up with a better one.

The basic structure of our world and our solar system is a prime example. Long ago, people used think the world was flat. Those that claimed it was round were burned at the stake. Until Magellan circumnavigated the globe, the concept of a round Earth was foreign to most people.

The sun is another example. Those in authority used to believe, until fairly recently if you compare to the length of human history, that the Earth was the center of everything, and the sun and all the stars moved about the Earth. It wasn’t until Copernicus posited his theory of the Sun being the center and the Earth revolving around it did people start to see things in a different light.

It’s only when you take your model as unshakeable truth can you get into trouble. Burned at the stake, being held under house arrest for life, and other punishments are what has happened to people in the past for questioning the model of reality held by those in authority.

Sometimes one’s model of reality is held so tightly as absolute truth that people will fight, even die to protect it. The crusades are a prime example of this. The streets literally ran with the blood of heathens simply because they did not buy into the currently held model of the status quo.

Models are a great way to approximate and refine your view of reality, so long as you realize that they are just models, and should be readily exchanged with those that offer a better description of what we think is going on outside of our heads.

And this guy Max Plank, then a young twentyish something physicist stepped forward and offered his idea of this black box radiation. He said that instead of emitting energy in a continuous stream, the energy was being emitted in discreet entities, or quanta. They tried his model, and sure enough, it described the phenomenon beautifully. And so was the beginning of quantum physics.

The problem that baffled Einstein and his contemporaries was solved by young, almost unknown physicist. Had the older, established physicists been unable to realize that their models were only models, where would we be now?