When is a Law of Nature Broken?

“Century-Old Physics Law Violated” declares Steven Mirsky in a recent report for Scientific American. But, as any philosopher of science will tell you, the laws of nature cannot be violated. At least not in the actual world, where the MIT researchers conducted their experiments (as opposed to some merely possible world). They discovered that when two bodies are brought to within ten billionths of a meter, the heat conducted between them is over a thousand times more than Planck’s theory of blackbody radiation predicts. Does this show that there are exceptions to Planck’s law of blackbody radiation? No. In the first place, “Planck was very careful, saying his theory was only valid for large systems,” explains Gang Chen, MIT’s Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering and director of the Pappalardo Micro and Nano Engineering Laboratories. “So he kind of anticipated this [breakdown], but most people don’t know this.” More importantly, laws, by their very nature, do not have exceptions (for an argument on why they cannot have temporal exceptions, see Marc Lange’s recent paper, “Can the Laws of Nature Change?”). The MIT researchers should conclude one of two things: either Planck’s theory of blackbody radiation does not describe (or name) a law, or that it is a law, but only in the large limit. Perhaps the best lesson to draw from all this is that scientists sometimes use the term “law” to mean what philosophers mean by “theory.”  So when MIT physicists report that experimenters are, “Breaking the law, at the nanoscale,” we should charitably reinterpret them.

Read more:

$1.99 - small Laws of Biology, Laws of Nature: Problems and (Dis)Solutions
By Andrew Hamilton , Arizona State University
(Vol. 2, April 2007)
Philosophy Compass

Quantum theory
From The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy

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