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Friday, October 19, 2012

Dyson on philosophy and the gravitational free lunch

Freeman Dyson in The NY Review of Books:
When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask. Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines. Until the nineteenth century, science was called natural philosophy and officially recognized as a branch of philosophy. The word “scientist” was invented by William Whewell, a nineteenth-century Cambridge philosopher who became master of Trinity College and put his name on the building where Wittgenstein and I were living in 1946. Whewell introduced the word in the year 1833. He was waging a deliberate campaign to establish science as a professional discipline distinct from philosophy.

Whewell’s campaign succeeded. As a result, science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. ...
He also tells the story of Gamow and Einstein crossing the street:
Quantum uncertainty allows the temporary creation of bubbles of energy, or pairs of particles (such as electron-positron pairs) out of nothing, provided that they disappear in a short time. The less energy is involved, the longer the bubble can exist. Curiously, the energy in a gravitational field is negative, while the energy locked up in matter is positive. If the Universe is exactly flat, then as Tryon pointed out the two numbers cancel out, and the overall energy of the Universe is precisely zero. In that case, the quantum rules allow it to last forever. If you find this mind-blowing, you are in good company. George Gamow told in his book My World Line (Viking, New York, reprinted 1970) how he was having a conversation with Albert Einstein while walking through Princeton in the 1940s. Gamow casually mentioned that one of his colleagues had pointed out to him that according to Einstein's equations a star could be created out of nothing at all, because its negative gravitational energy precisely cancels out its positive mass energy. "Einstein stopped in his tracks," says Gamow, "and, since we were crossing a street, several cars had to stop to avoid running us down".
Gamow's statement (at least as it appears above) is not quite correct. There are zero energy compact objects in general relativity, but they are quite special and not like ordinary stars. See here and also this blog post (2007):
... years ago I wrote a paper (unpublished) showing how to obtain a zero energy configuration in GR out of massive constituents. Particle theorists I discussed it with all thought I was crazy, but the referee was a very erudite relativist, who pointed out that a similar result (using different constructions) had been obtained by ADM, Novikov and Zeldovich, and others long ago.

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