Nostalgia Just Became a Law of Nature – Issue 21: Information

John Ruskin called it the pathetic fallacy: to see rainstorms as passionate, drizzles as sad, and melting streams as innocent. After all, the intuition went, nature has no human passions.

Imagine Ruskin’s surprise, then, were he to learn that the mathematics of perception, knowledge, and experience lie at the heart of modern theories of the natural world. Quite contrary to his stern intuition, quantitative relationships appear to tie hard, material laws to soft qualities of mind and belief.

The story of that discovery begins with the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, soon after Ruskin coined his phrase at the end of the 19th century. It was then that science first strived, not for knowledge, but for its opposite: for a theory of how we might ignore the messy details of, say, a steam engine or chemical reaction, but still predict and explain how it worked.

Boltzmann provided a unifying framework for how to do this nearly singlehandedly before his death by suicide in 1906. What he saw, if dimly, is that thermodynamics is a story not about the physical world, but about what happens when our knowledge of it fails. Quite literally: A student of thermodynamics today can translate the physical…
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