Suppose aliens land on our planet and want to learn our current scientific knowledge. I would start with the 40-year-old documentary Powers of Ten. Granted, it’s a bit out of date, but this short film, written and directed by the famous designer couple Charles and Ray Eames, captures in less than 10 minutes a comprehensive view of the cosmos.
The script is simple and elegant. When the film begins, we see a couple picnicking in a Chicago park. Then the camera zooms out. Every 10 seconds the field of vision gains a power of 10—from 10 meters across, to 100, to 1,000 and onward. Slowly the big picture reveals itself to us. We see the city, the continent, Earth, the solar system, neighboring stars, the Milky Way, all the way to the largest structures of the universe. Then in the second half of the film, the camera zooms in and delves into the smallest structures, uncovering more and more microscopic details. We travel into a human hand and discover cells, the double helix of the DNA molecule, atoms, nuclei and finally the elementary quarks vibrating inside a proton.
The movie captures the astonishing beauty of the macrocosm and microcosm, and it provides the perfect cliffhanger endings for conveying the challenges of fundamental science. As our then-8-year-old son asked when he first saw it, “How does it continue?” Exactly! Comprehending the next sequence is the aim of scientists who are pushing the frontiers of our understanding of the largest and smallest structures of the universe. Finally, I could explain what Daddy does at work!
Powers of Ten also teaches us that, while we traverse the various scales of length, time and energy, we also travel through different realms of knowledge. Psychology studies human behavior, evolutionary biology examines ecosystems, astrophysics investigates planets and stars, and cosmology concentrates on the universe as a whole. Similarly, moving inward, we navigate the subjects of biology, biochemistry, and atomic, nuclear and particle physics. It is as if the scientific disciplines are formed in strata, like the geological layers on display in the Grand Canyon.
Moving from one layer to another, we see examples of emergence and reductionism, these two overarching organizing principles of modern science. Zooming out, we see new patterns “emerge” from the complex behavior of individual building blocks. Biochemical reactions give rise to sentient beings. Individual organisms gather into ecosystems. Hundreds of billions of stars come together to make majestic swirls of galaxies.
As we reverse and take a microscopic view, we see reductionism at work. Complicated patterns dissolve into underlying simple bits. Life reduces to the reactions among DNA, RNA, proteins and other organic molecules. The complexity of chemistry flattens into the elegant beauty of the quantum mechanical atom. And, finally, the Standard Model of particle physics captures all known components of matter and radiation in just four forces and 17 elementary particles.
Which of these two scientific principles, reductionism or emergence, is more powerful? Traditional particle physicists would argue for reductionism; condensed-matter physicists, who study complex materials, for emergence. As articulated by the Nobel laureate (and particle physicist) David Gross: Where in nature do you find beauty, and where do you find garbage?
Take a look at the complexity of reality around us. Traditionally, particle physicists explain nature using a handful of particles and their interactions. But condensed matter physicists ask: What about an everyday glass of water? Describing its surface ripples in terms of the motions of the roughly 1024 individual water molecules—let alone their elementary particles—would be foolish. Instead of the impenetrable complexities at small scales (the “garbage”) faced by traditional particle physicists, condensed matter physicists use the emergent laws, the “beauty” of hydrodynamics and thermodynamics. In fact, when we take the number of molecules to infinity (the equivalent of maximal garbage from a reductionist point of view), these laws of nature become crisp mathematical statements.
While many scientists praise the phenomenally successful reductionist approach of the past centuries, John Wheeler, the influential Princeton University physicist whose work touched on topics from nuclear physics to black holes, expressed an interesting alternative. “Every law of physics, pushed to the extreme, will be found to be statistical and approximate, not mathematically perfect and precise,” he said. Wheeler pointed out an important feature of emergent laws: Their approximate nature allows for a…