I’m sure you’ve seen the reports doing the rounds today that some person on some Nobel Prize Committee said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was very deserving of the vaunted peace prize, followed by less widely circulated reports that the person was misquoted (or dysquoted) and in fact that he never said such a thing. I don’t think highly of the Nobel Prizes and believe they should be dismantled.
This said, if Narendra Modi did win the Nobel Prize for peace, what would that mean? Would it mean that he and his companions would have infiltrated the prize-giving committees or that the committees had decided to give Modi et al. the concession of their prize’s prestige? Obviously it will be hard to say without access to the fundamental facts of the case, which brings the philosophy of the Planck units comes to mind.
Our common units of measurement, such as metre, kilogram, and second, help us make sense of the world around us in quantities that the human mind can readily grasp. However, the universe is both too vast and too small for these units to apply just as easily to cosmic problems. In 1899, the German physicist Max Planck found that combining four physical constants of our universe in different ways gave rise to values of distance, duration, mass, and temperature. That is, he found that these were the smallest values of these attributes that we can express using these constants (shown in the table here).
Both the combinations of the constants and the values hold special significance. The values have since been called the Planck scale: that is, when you measure an event that happens in some small multiple of the Planck time (5.391 x 10-44 seconds) or across a distance in some small multiple of the Planck length (1.616 x 10-35 metres), the event is said to be happening at the Planck scale. The forces at work in our universe are products of the constants, so they don’t reveal the universe’s workings happening at or below the Planck scale. This is why our theories of gravity and quantum mechanics are expected to break down, fail, at the Planck scale. Beyond this scale, nature is opaque to us.
The combinations are important because they allow us to ‘view’ the universe in a way that maintains its various proportions instead of skewing them to the human perspective. For example, the mass of the proton – the charged particle inside all atomic nuclei – has several contributions. One is from its gravitational binding energy, the energy required to gravitationally unbind this proton from other nearby particles. It turns out that this binding energy is extremely small, smaller than what physicists calculated it should be. Is this because the force of gravity is so weak or because the proton’s mass is so small? Which is the anomaly?
The anomaly is the proton’s mass because the strength of the gravitational force is determined by the gravitational constant G, one of the three universal constants in Planck’s combinations. That is, the strength of gravity is a fundamental fact of our universe, one of its many but finite defining characteristics, whereas the mass of the proton is a non-fundamental emergent value, and that’s the one that needs explaining.
Similarly, is there an essential equation, or argument, logic or sensibility, to which we can defer when we seek the real anomaly: that Modi has wrangled himself a Nobel Prize or that the prize-giving committee made that decision of its own volition? If there is, we will have our new overlord. If there isn’t, well, what else is new?