Catholic World News News Feature
Discovering Science and Discovering Truth August 12, 2002
It is rare that a scholar's doctoral dissertation has an impact beyond fulfilling the requirements for the PhD. Anthony Rizzi's case was exceptional. His doctoral thesis, completed at Princeton University in 1997, solved a problem that had been vexing physics for over 80 years, and his solution gained him immediate, international recognition as a world-class theoretical and experimental physicist. But Rizzi is extraordinary in other ways as well. On the acknowledgement page of his PhD thesis, one finds not only the normal words of thanks to his thesis director, but also thanks to his wife Susan, "who supported this work by much encouragement and many prayers." And "Most especially" (Rizzi's acknowledgment continues) "I express my thanks to God who has 'ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.'"(Wisdom 11:20) Is this a world-class physicist and a man of faith? Indeed it is. Moreover, Rizzi's faith is not some kind of vague theism. Rather, his is a full-bodied, orthodox Catholicism, which he discovered by reading about the real meaning of the Mass, and throughly studying the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. In discovering the perennial philosophy found in St. Thomas (which in turn was based in large part on Aristotle), Dr. Rizzi found solid philosophical grounds for his own work as well. For him, St. Thomas and Aristotle are not archaic thinkers of interest only to historians of philosophy; they are guides to true wisdom: the wisdom about the nature of things underlying all true science--even and especially the science of today. So convinced is Rizzi of the wisdom of Aristotle and St. Thomas, that he is writing a book called The Science before Science, focusing on the perennial wisdom which must undergird all scientific endeavors. His book is aimed both at scientists and those interested in science. Dr. Rizzi has received funding from both the Earhart Foundation and Discovery Institute to write The Science before Science.
THE VEXING PROBLEM What problem in physics did Anthony Rizzi solve? He discovered the first satisfactory definition of angular momentum in general relativity. The problem is, oddly enough, not as difficult to understand as the solution. Angular momentum is one of the three most important concepts in physics, explains Rizzi--the other two being energy and linear momentum. To focus on the simplest concept first, hit a baseball with a bat and the ball moves with linear momentum. But spin a top, and the top moves with angular momentum. The harder you hit the ball, the harder it is to stop. The same is true with the top. The faster it spins, the more difficult it is to stop. Now add mass. Imagine trying to stop a bowling ball going with the same speed as the baseball. Now imagine trying to stop a wrecking ball, or a meteorite. For objects moving at the same speed, but having different masses, the higher the mass, the higher the linear momentum. The higher the linear momentum, the harder such objects are to stop. The same is true for angular momentum. Imagine you are out in space and you are trying to stop, not a spinning top, but a truck that is spinning like a top. That would be much more difficult, now that the mass has been increased. What about a spinning planet? Naturally that would be far, far more difficult. Note one final thing. If you are out in space and grab hold of the spinning truck, you will start spinning. This effect is due to what physicists call the law of conservation of angular momentum. To stop an object from spinning, the spin has to be "absorbed" into something else. You can stop the truck only if you absorb its spin--that is, only if you absorb its angular momentum. Can we calculate how hard is it to stop an object from spinning? Before Einstein, in the universe according to Newtonian mechanics, it was relatively easy to solve that question. But after the publication of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity in 1916, the universe suddenly appeared as far more complex, and a solution to the problem of angular momentum became far, far more difficult to find--so difficult, in fact, that it took over 80 years before it appeared. It is no wonder that physicists the world over greeted Rizzi's solution to the problem with eager acclaim. [INTERVIEW] Could you give us a bit of background leading up to your discovery of the first satisfactory definition of angular momentum in General Relativity? Dr. Anthony Rizzi: Yes. The problem is very interesting and has an interesting history. In 1982 a prominent physicist, Roger Penrose (known popularly for his book the Emperor's New Mind), named 14 unsolved problems in general relativity. He listed finding a satisfactory definition for angular momentum as #10. Demetrios Christodoulou (my thesis advisor) and his colleague S. Klainerman had established a new mathematical formalism (including a major proof in advanced mathematics of Relativity) in the early 1990s, and that turned out to provide just the tools needed for me to solve the problem. After obtaining my PhD, I continued my work in angular momentum as a post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University. I spent a large part of that year expanding my understanding of the result. I did this mostly by giving talks, in a wide range of places, about my new definition. The first such talk was in Israel at a major relativity conference that happens once every three years. There I was given a lengthy time slot because of the importance of the result. The penetrating questions of my colleagues at these talks helped me to sort out some remaining issues so that I could publish my results in a clear and concise form in the physics journal Physical Review Letters. To this day, I continue to expand from that initial kernel that I found in my thesis work. To name one aspect, I am currently attempting to use angular momentum as well as energy and linear momentum to help in our attempt to detect gravity waves. Were you working on the angular momentum problem for a long time? Rizzi: No, I worked on the problem for only about a year and a half. I have had a 20-year on-and-off history of studying gravity waves, and I wanted to contribute both to our understanding of gravity waves, as well as our ability to detect them. The problem of angular momentum fit into my research in gravity waves, although I felt for a while that I might be wasting a couple years of my life, because I was not sure until the end that I could solve the problem--or indeed that it was solvable. It was quite worrisome at points. You have intellectual interests beyond physics. Unlike many other scientists, you've spent quite a bit of time studying philosophy and theology as well. Were you always interested in these other fields? Rizzi: No. As a child and a teenager I was always fascinated by science--all science, but in particular the physical sciences. I especially enjoyed electronics and space sciences. I liked to build things, and still do! When I was 12 or 13, for example, I made a robot that could "talk" and "walk" and move its arms. As for my education, once I was put in go-at-your-own pace school programs--which I am very thankful for--I quickly advanced in mathematics, science, and English, the areas where we were allowed to be self-driven. Very soon, I advanced beyond the curriculum planned, and my teachers, who were very kind and helpful, let me pick the next books that I would use. In 9th-grade math, for example, I picked a calculus book used by my math teacher's wife. The point is, that I was quite advanced in my knowledge of science and secular subjects and I did quite well in all my subjects, but I had no exposure to or knowledge of philosophy or theology. You came from a Catholic family. What about your education in the faith? Rizzi: Although I had devout parents who taught us right from wrong and the fundamentals of the faith, I grew up in the post-Vatican II church. I have no memory of a Mass in Latin, though I must have gone to one when I was very young. (My father was in the Air Force, and the changes seemed to arrive sooner there than off-base). I was well educated in secular subjects but that also comes with its little bits of history slanted away from the Church. We all know what they are! Those of us who grew up in the post-Vatican II Church know how little the life of the mind in religion was respected. It was as if, implicitly, we were being taught that the world leads the Church in the life of the mind, so that we should look to the world and not the Church for our thinking. As a result, I had no knowledge whatsoever of philosophy, let alone theology. If I thought of philosophy at all, I thought of it as somewhat subjective. I did not have the deep disdain that I later found in most of my colleagues--largely because they were exposed only to modern philosophy--but I did not think philosophy important enough to study or to investigate. I gradually adopted the only thinking about religion with which I had come in contact: that the Church was mostly a negative force and that it largely did not make any sense. In CCD, for the most part, we made collages and talked about how we felt. So I had evidence, it appeared, that Catholicism was just about feeling. On the other side, however, my father was an example for me of a very intelligent and educated man who believed, and that kept me intellectually interested in the Faith. At about the same time--and I'm shortening the story--I discovered a couple things: an old history book talking about what the Middle Ages was really like, and an old book (pre-Vatican II) that described, in clear and intelligent language what the Mass was about and included illustrations of the traditional Mass. The new rite had made the Mass somewhat opaque to me; I thought that it was a celebration, a meal. Well, if that's all it was, I had more fun celebrating by playing football or baseball and eating afterwards! This old book taught me otherwise; it both explained the sacrificial nature of the Mass and revealed a depth to the Church that I had begun to think was very shallow. As I continued to attend the new rite, I began to see that it was indeed just what was described in that old book. The greatest discovery, however, was that of the existence of St. Thomas. I started reading him more closely in college. From being on the verge of leaving the faith, I moved to wanting to learn more and more about it. I went from thinking God, like the other things in the faith, was just a feel-good invention like the collages we made in CCD, to realizing that God's existence was necessary if we are not to abandon our reason completely. St. Thomas's proofs of God's existence were irrefutable, once they were understood. More than that they opened out into the larger world of thinking and being that had been closed to me. At this point, my family background in the faith and the safe and loving environment provided by my mother--these things cannot easily be overestimated--as well as my secular knowledge bore fruit in that I was able to absorb very quickly the truths laid out. Having seven brothers and sisters (especially the ones I have) was (and still is) quite a good thing for many reasons, including the environment it gave me as a child. Also, a family friend's example of living the faith was very important to me. From there, theology and philosophy were added to the list of my self-driven education that I have followed since the 8th grade. Would you say that your philosophical education has contributed to your work as a physicist? In fact, did it have anything at all to do with your giving the first satisfactory definition for angular momentum in general relativity? Rizzi: Yes. I would say it has in an indirect and general way. If not for my philosophical education, I would have been confused about what were the proper things to include in physics. I would have attempted, as is common, to give physics more ontological content than it has. In so doing, one can miss important mathematical connections. Do you mean that physicists generally misunderstand what they are doing? Do they invest more reality in their mathematical constructs than they should, or too little? Rizzi: I mean that physics, as it is practiced today, is formally mathematical and materially physical. That is, for the most part, it attempts to explain physical things insofar as they can be described mathematically. You stress "insofar." Are you saying, then, that mathematics does not capture all of reality, even all of physical reality? Rizzi: Right. Technically, modern physics is focused on physical beings (that is, changeable beings), and then only insofar as they are quantitative. Hence, modern physics by its very methods leaves much of reality behind. For example, to understand the operation of a wheel, I as a physicist might think of it as a circle and do calculations and get results about how a car behaves. However, if I then forgot all the realities my initial abstraction left behind and proceeded to conclude that a wheel is nothing but a circle, I would quickly draw seriously erroneous conclusions. So, to sum things up, the mathematics of physics and its complex connection with measurement can hide as much as it illuminates. These issues are in fact very complex; I spend several chapters in my book on them. To return to the earlier point, without philosophy, I would have no understanding of this and the proper place physics has--and thus what place it should have in my life. One must put things in their proper order; that is essential to a good life. What place should physics have? Rizzi: Physics in its broadest sense tries to understand physical reality, not all of truth. But we are made for truth, all truth. In doing physics, we do contribute to the goal of understanding given to us by God in our nature. How does that fit into a good life? Rizzi: A good life is one that accomplishes what we are meant to do, in the way we are meant to do it. In the good life, we become what we are meant to be. Everyone is given different gifts and talents to make different contributions, but all activity should be oriented toward helping us to grow in truth. Growth in truth, insofar as it really is truth, can only lead to growth in love of God, who is Truth. Truth is infinitely attractive; the more we know of it, the more we are attracted to it. Of course, when it comes to persons, such as God or our fellow man, knowing about them cannot and should not substitute for knowing them. You are writing a book on philosophy for scientists and anyone interested in science called The Science before Science. What prompted you to throw yourself into such a project? Rizzi The book is, as you say, not just for scientists, but also for anyone with an interest in science--which I think, to some degree, includes most everyone. It is especially targeted to scientists and engineers. However, it's written at a level accessible to any educated person, and hence it's really for anyone who wants to learn sound philosophy presented in the context of our current scientific culture. Having started with the background I explained to you above, I am keenly aware of the philosophical insensitivity--which boils down to an insensitivity to the life of the mind--that is rampant in our culture. And as I explained, the Church, the source of our respect for the intellect, has not manifested this respect in a clear way since Vatican II. A discussion I had with a priest about a doctrinal issue can bring this point home. In response to my assertion that truth is important, he said, "What is truth?" To this, I replied, "that's what Pilate said." His response? "Well, Christ never gave us an answer to that." He is not to be singled out; he was really articulating what is common in a confused way in the thinking of our culture as a whole. Even though there are now large pockets of resistance to this attitude, it will take much time and effort to undo it. Of course, that attitude is the opposite of the true attitude of the Church, which spawned Augustine and Aquinas and Galileo, and in fact whatever is good in our cultural milieu. I have grown more and more aware throughout my life that these problems need to be addressed head on and without fear. Your book is, then, an attempt to wake up scientists, to make them aware of the problem with subjectivism? Rizzi Not only scientists, but all of us! There is a deep-seated subjectivism in our culture that could ultimately destroy science at its root. We have become so used to thinking only pragmatically to get the ends we want. Among Catholics who really believe, there are large strains of fideism because of the vacuum created by the absence of sound philosophy. There is thus the twin problem of rationalism (forgetting the limited nature of our intellect and the struggle that it takes for us to obtain truth) and fideism. Both lead to subjectivism. Explain what you mean by "fideism." Rizzi I mean the idea that all knowledge is really, at bottom, merely belief. In particular, fideists think, implicitly or explicitly, that all spiritual and moral questions can only be answered by faith. Hence, a "Catholic" fideist (who is both capable and has the occasion) would not try, for example, to understand a proof of God's existence because he would feel the proof is unnecessary and/or a matter of opinion. He may think the proof, for example, has more to do with one's physiological disposition than with matters of fact, and that in the end, everything is open to doubt. For the fideist, thinking isn't about truth; thinking is just a tool for one's will. These attitudes are, of course, not accepted by the Church, which is always defending the natural as well as the supernatural. And so we need to be willing to contemplate truth, both in regard to science and in regard to our faith, for that is what man is made for. I hope and ask for your prayers that this book can help contribute to the filling of the void. All of us, whether we realize it or not are profoundly impacted by science, both its technologies and its ideas. We have it in our cult now; that is to say it is at the center of our culture. Hence, a book that introduces philosophy, and which is addressed to that mindset, is what is needed. In The Science before Science, you argue that Aristotle and St. Thomas are the proper guides to philosophy? Are they the proper philosophical guides for scientists and those with an interest in science? Won't it make scientists, in particular, skeptical of your book if you point them to an ancient Greek and a medieval monk for intellectual guidance? Rizzi You point implicitly to three deeply ingrained cultural prejudices: (1) chronological snobbery (so described by C.S. Lewis); (2) anti-Catholicism--what G.K. Chesterton called the only acceptable form of anti-Semitism; and (3) an anti-medieval attitude, whereby one defines the "medieval" to mean backward, cruel and ignorant. "That's Medieval!" becomes an irrefutable criticism. First, though the tendency is somewhat less in scientists with respect to previous scientists, the modern mind tends to think and feel that those in the past knew nothing compared to what we know today. It's in our bones as an almost reflexive reaction. Even so it is, in general, not true. The illusion is created by the progress of science and technology. Because much progress has been made in these fields, because these fields dominate the practical aspects of our lives, and because it is implicitly and explicitly taught that they are the ground of all other fields, we think all knowledge has expanded in the same way. However, the top-level understanding of things, especially things we have intimate contact with like our own human nature (which we view "from the inside"), do not depend on the advanced mathematics and experimental techniques found in technology and science. For example, one does not need Newton's law to know that killing an innocent person is wrong. Again, one does not need it to know that things exist. If you doubt that things exist, in fact you have removed the reason to do science. In short, philosophy has not advanced in any essential way because the principles are general and irreformable. It's just a matter of understanding them. Of course, because we are human, and hence limited, we always find new depths as we learn more. But achieving new depths does not obviate or change what we already know; it reveals and augments and fills it in, and by so doing reinforces its truth. Because of this effect, our modern knowledge in science and technology gives us more ways to see the truths of philosophy. These topics will obviously be part of my book. And the cultural anti-Catholicism? Rizzi Catholicism is the root of our civilization. Everything we have from music to art to law to politics and science has either been mediated to us by the Catholic Church, or born from it. This includes all the secular and non-Catholic subcultures that grew in and from its milieu. However, our culture in many ways and for many reasons has ceased to acknowledge this. Renowned physicist and historian of science Pierre Duhem discovered, to his shock, the Catholic and medieval roots of modern science. For example, the concept of inertia, the most important concept in Newtonian physics and in Einstein's general relativity physics, was in fact clearly articulated in the Middle Ages and passed on and matured, until finally it was given its complete formulation by Newton. Most still are not aware of such facts. That leads us to the third point, our anti-medieval attitude? Rizzi Yes, the Middle Ages were the beginning of the modern period--they were the first to call themselves "modern," by the way. It was then that the first universities were started. The Middle Ages were of course Catholic, so these first universities of the world were Catholic universities. There were problems of course, even problems of a severe nature, but there always are and always will be as long as man's fallen nature is involved. But this does not take away from the point that the Middle Ages were a period of great technological and scientific achievements, as well as achievements in nearly all other fields. Father Stanley Jaki's books are highly recommended in this area. Even knowing about all these prejudices, it seems it would be a difficult task to get St. Thomas a fair hearing today. Rizzi St. Thomas says that truth is received according to the mode of the receiver and, respecting that, I try to take these cultural prejudices into account in the presentation in my book. In the end, I think that despite all the prejudices, since man is made for truth, people can recognize and seek it from wherever it comes. In fact, we have no choice, for truth is where it is. Aristotle and St. Thomas have it, not of course all truth, but the essentials and the basis for all others. Scientists, in particular, pride themselves on looking for truth. It is, for the most part, why most scientists became scientists. You understand The Science before Science to be a kind of antidote to a lot of books by famous scientists, like Stephen Hawking, which are not really well grounded in philosophy. What are the dangers of such books? Rizzi: The danger of such books is twofold. First, they translate physics, which is now fundamentally mathematical, into layman's language, without being conscious of the implicit philosophic assumptions that are necessary in order to do the translation. In so doing, they can, and often do, say things contrary to reason, such as the oft-quoted statement, though in different forms, that quantum mechanics says that something can come from nothing. Such things can lead thinking men to their distrust in reason, which is, in turn, an attack on the bulwark of civilization. Although scientists, at least initially, probably will not distrust reason in their domain, sooner or later their dependence on the culture will cause them to be affected as well. The danger is--and it's already happening--that moral lines will be given less and less respect, and that mere scientific curiosity will become the sole rule of action. Second, such books include significant amounts of unexamined historical and religious prejudices that I mentioned above. On the theological plane, it can lead non-believers to harden their attitudes against the faith and believers to abandon it or become fideists. In the proposal for your book you argue that only a fellow scientist has the capacity and authority to convince those with an interest in science and also fellow scientists of the need for a "science before science." Could you explain? Rizzi: I argue that a scientist is the one who has the authority, because in some ways the scientist is the new high priest. Not that everyone responds that way, but we are acculturated to respect and value the work of scientists at least to the extent that we gratefully embrace all of the technology that springs from it. Most importantly, science is also one of the strongholds where truth is still respected in our culture. Very few will deny the validity of physical laws. Science is a giant flashing billboard in our subjectivist culture proclaiming the reality of truth. Hence the authority of the scientist. You also remark that your book can help "unwind the notions that have set the modern mind on a road of cultural and scientific suicide." What errors in particular do you see this book as correcting? Rizzi: There are, of course, major moral problems in our time. However, the major errors of our time are not only moral. The error of our time is the error among errors. As I implied above, it is our implicit and explicit denial of truth. Sooner or later this belief, if it is taken seriously, must destroy science because science has no existence if not to look for truth; it depends on the fact that the world is rational, that we can understand it, and that we should understand it. I hope to address our cultural belief in the non-existence of truth, because we can only go so long on accumulated inertia from our ancestors. I take it that reading St. Thomas awakened you to the problem of truth, a problem you hadn't seen clearly before? RIZZI: A quote from the great Thomist Jacques Maritain, is apropos here: â€¦ it remains true that this intuition [of being] is, as far as we are concerned, an awakening from our dreams, a step quickly taken out of slumber and its starried streams. For man has many sleeps. Every morning, he wakes from animal's slumber. He emerges from human slumber when intelligence is turned looseâ€¦ The first time one really sees real philosophy, the first time he understands it, is a revelation of the first magnitude. Maritain does not exaggerate; we need to awaken from our use of reason as a mere practical tool. We do not even use reason as mistress; we use it as bookend! We need to make it the Queen of our house that it's meant to be. We know, of course, who should be King. Picking up on that last remark, you're not just a practicing theoretical and experimental physicist and philosopher, but a practicing Catholic. How do see your work in physics and philosophy as connected to your faith? Rizzi: Physics and philosophy are both parts of the life of the mind. All things are meant to glorify God. St. Thomas says that a worm glorifies God in a way that even man, though much superior, cannot. The thing that makes us human is our intellect. Using that intellect to better understand God and His creation gives a better view of that glory. In the process, we, in turn, give glory to God in our correct use of his gifts. By giving the fruits of our labors to others, we also manifest God's glory by imitating his generosity. And that is what you hope fellow scientists and those interested in science will reap from The Science before Science? Rizzi: I hope my book will help all of us to understand and begin to utilize again the profound gift of intellect that God has given us. We must conform our minds to reality by seeking and finding truth. I also hope to help us remember that we are made for him who is Truth, who said "for this I was born for this I came into the world to testify to the Truth." [AUTHOR ID- EQUIVALENT] Dr. Rizzi's website can be found at http://www.phys.lsu.edu/dept/direct/rizzi.html