25 October 2002

We can Avoid War in Iraq

If we are to believe the press, Iraq continues to attempt to develop weapons of mass destruction. The United States and many other countries perceive this as particularly dangerous, because Iraq does not have a government. Iraq has a family-owned and operated extortion/protection racket, namely Saddam Hussein and his mob, that masquerades as a government. As part of its War against Terrorism, the United States wants to deal definitively with this threat, citing the aid Saddam Hussein is known to give to terrorists of various sorts.

Well, the stated goal of US policy is the disarmament of Iraq. It is a worthy goal, which we can achieve without war. But we cannot achieve it without credibly threatening war, because that threat is the only thing in the Universe that seems to get Saddam's attention.

The Congressional resolution authorizing the President to use force was an essential first step. A United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force to enforce its previous binding resolutions, which Iraq has flouted, is an essential second step. It is not necessary in terms of whether the United States can credibly threaten Iraq with war, but it is necessary in terms of the future relations of the United States with the rest of the world in general, and Europe in particular.

Suppose the resolution passes. We can still avoid war. We can adopt a modest proposal I call "The Iraqi Site Preservation Plan," or ISPP for short.

The ISPP works like this. The UN inspectors attempt to enter Iraq to inspect one or more sites. Either they are allowed to inspect the sites, or they issue a notice to evacuate the areas around whatever sites they are denied access. As soon as reasonably practical thereafter, allowing some time for civilian and personnel evacuation, the site or sites get bombed to rubble. Either way, the UN gets to check the site or sites off the list, and progress toward disarmament is made. The choice of which sites get preserved is left to Iraq.

There are other details to work out, such as providing armed protection to the inspectors to prevent their being taken hostage, whether we can have enough confidence in such an inspection regime to lift economic sanctions against Iraq (which Saddam's propaganda machine has played against the US, despite Iraq's currently selling more oil than it did before the Gulf War), etc. It is not my purpose to present a complete solution, only to sketch a possible line that may lead us to a desired outcome without a major war. But it will not be possible to pursue this line without being willing and able to threaten and wage war, to back it up.

Given who we are dealing with, this is probably as peaceful as we can get. The removal of Saddam Hussein's ability to threaten his neighbors with mass destruction will not solve the problems of the Middle East, but it will improve the region's politics. Maybe it will give the world a moment to catch its breath, and think about that other family-owned and operated business failure, North Korea.

22 October 2002

In the Mind's Eye

Atheist physicist implies the existence of God?
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
in the forest, in the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame they fearful symmetry? — William Blake
Steven Weinberg, whom I had the privilege to know when I was a graduate student, is an atheist. He believes the vast weight of evidence gathered from 300 years of science since Newton points to the inescapable conclusion that God, as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or anyone else might conceive of God, does not exist.

Prof. Weinberg shares the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics with Abdus Salaam and Sheldon Glashow for their key contributions to what has become the "Standard Model" of elementary particle theory and cosmology, namely their unification of the electromagnetic and weak-nuclear forces. As such, Weinberg is eminently qualified to write the three-volume graduate level text, The Quantum Theory of Fields. As if this were not enough, he writes with a grace and clarity that make it a relative delight to read what, in lesser hands, can be a tedious subject. It is a "must read," if you are a theoretical physicist. Short of that, however, there is still a revelation in it that I must tell you about.

To begin, Weinberg admits that we believe that Quantum Field Theory (QFT) is only an approximation to a more exact theory that may grow out of current attempts at String Theory. Therefore, he emphasizes those aspects of QFT that he thinks will stand the test of time, and will continue to be features of a more advanced theory. The most fundamental of those aspects is symmetry — the way the properties of a particle stay the same (or not) under certain transformations of space-time. These transformations are rotations (spinning around), translations (standing at different places) and boosts (which are shifts to a frame of reference that is moving at a high, but constant, velocity). Together, these transformations are called the inhomogeneous Lorentz group.
Now there are a number of mathematical ways to represent the Lorentz group. Any set of symbols and rules to manipulate them will do, provided that the symbols and rules behave the same way the Lorentz group does. Those representations, that cannot be decomposed into subgroups that also represent the Lorentz group, are called irreducible representations of the Lorentz group.

And now the point of all this mumbo-jumbo: Weinberg writes on page 63 of Volume I, "It is natural to identify the states of a specific particle type with the components of a representation of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group which is irreducible...."

I'm stunned by that statement. What it means is that the irreducible representations of the basic symmetries of our universe give rise to the possibilities of all the sub-atomic particles, and thus to all the matter, in the universe. This is the closest thing you are ever likely to see to a Platonic Form in actual existence and effect.

In case you skipped that part of the college experience, the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, a student of Socrates, believed that things existed in reality only because their ideal, perfect Forms existed in the realm of the mind. For example, a circle could be drawn on the ground only because of the existence of the ideal Form of a circle in the mind.

Now we know that Platonic Forms are hogwash, because our minds are not powerful enough to make anything exist, just by thinking. One can think very clearly of things that do not and cannot exist, and even draw pictures of them, like the art of M. C. Escher. And yet, there it is — the irreducible representations of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group are the Forms of elementary particles, and thus, of all matter that exists.

To me, it begs the question: In whose mind can the irreducible representations of the inhomogeneous Lorentz group give rise to reality? This is probably as close as theoretical physics has ever come to postulating the existence of God, and we have been brought here by an atheist.

Who knows? God may have planned it that way, just for the irony.