Intelligent Design

A Nobel Prize in Chemistry is that!

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Dodecahedral crystalIf the Physics Nobel went for a metaphysical theory weakly supported by data, the Chemistry Nobel went for strongly supported data that undermined a bad metaphysical theory. The two prizes could not have been more different than night and day.

First let’s try to understand the metaphysics that underpins chemistry, and its subtle message about materialist reductionism. (I”m a physicist, so I’m bound to get the nuance wrong since I don’t work in a chemistry but I had organic chem in college and a course on solid state physics taught by a crystallographer in grad school, and since the topic of the Nobel is crystallography, I thought at least I’d get the physics right). Let’s start with the history.

Now as the Medieval synthesis of Aristotle and Aquinas began to crumble in the Renaissance, the Greek atomism of Democritus and Epicurus began to gain a hearing. Long before physicists would believe in the metaphysical atom (which being unobservable remained a ideal, not a datum), the chemists were finding that chemical reactions had specific amounts: two parts hydrogen plus one part oxygen = water. Whether or not atoms existed, chemistry was most easily explained as the reaction of individual atoms. Later on, physicists found that the gas laws of Charles and Boyle could be best explained by atoms, Maxwell even found velocity distributions for these atoms, and Boltzmann demonstrated that statistics on these atoms could explain all of thermodynamics.

The metaphysics was clear–all of life was reducible to smaller units so that the macroscopic behavior was merely the accumulation of microscopic behavior.

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9 Replies to “A Nobel Prize in Chemistry is that!

  1. 1
    material.infantacy says:

    “Cue to Dawkins claiming life began on the backs of crystals.”

    Wasn’t this Ruse, from the movie Expelled?

  2. 2
    rhampton7 says:

    Would you say that quasicrystals are irreducibly complex?

  3. 3

    No, the quasicrystals have long range order, but that is quite another thing from irreducibly complex. For one thing, there isn’t any CSI going on here. What makes a mousetrap IC is that it has a high level function that can’t operate if any of its parts isn’t present. There is no high-level function, that I know of, in quasi-crystals.
    Further, the long-range order is spread over many different spatial scales. It would be more correct to say that quasi-crystals are fractal, which means the pattern exists at all scales even when large chunks are removed, so it is quite the opposite of IC.

  4. 4
    Dunsinane says:

    Small typo “Then along comes Shlechtman.” (sounds like Badman in German)
    Should be Shechtman

  5. 5
    Charles says:

    Robert Sheldon:

    In your linked article you progress thru several statements:

    Because such a [Penrose/5-fold symmetrical] system would have no repeating pattern, yet still have an overall pattern. It would have long-range order without short-range order. …

    On what basis do you assert that 5-fold symmetrical systems have no short-range order?

    Then along comes Shlechtman. And he had no commitment to the metaphysics of materialism. If long-range order exists and he finds it, he is going to report it. And if five-fold symmetry is observed, then it will be evidence for the long-range order,

    Yes, evidence of long-range order in 5-fold symmetric materials, but I don’t see that Shlechtman (or anyone else) argued that quasicrystals also lack short-range order, right?

    But what exactly does it mean that interactions are non-local?

    Where has Shlectman or anyone else inferred non-local interactions in quasicrystals? Further, short-range order still exists in quasicrystals, right?, which short-range order is a consequence of the material’s local chemical bonds, and hence there are still local interactions (the chemical bonds themselves), right?

    So, how do you progress from asserting no short-range order to non-local interactions, and conclude:

    It means that integer dimensions do not capture reality, but we live in fractional spaces, in fractal geometries that have information at all scales from the galaxy down to the subatomic nucleus.

    Yes, the evidence of the fractal composition of nature is compelling. But…

    If ever there was a rebuttal of materialism, if ever there were a way to convince a Darwinist that he can never recover the reductionist purposeless of Darwin, it would be this Nobel prize.

    How does a fractal nature of quasicrystals rebut materialism? Reductionism to some extent perhaps, but materialism more broadly?

    Lastly you note:

    It hardly says that crystals are now an intelligently designed inanimate object, but it does say that the geometry of space is intelligently designed.

    Local interactions and both short and long-range order are all present in crystals and quasicrystals (long-range order absent only from amorphous materials), right?

    So, did you mean to argue that the fractal appearance of quasicrystals is compelling evidence for design?

  6. 6

    1) Short range order implies, like the salt crystal, that I can specify a unit cell and say (unit_cell)_n = crystal. The short range order is what is found in the unit cell. However there is no unit cell for a quasi-crystal, and therefore by definition, there is no short-range order.

    2 + 3) You object that atomic bonds are a “short range order”. Yes, but the atomic bonds multiplied by n do not give me quasi-crystals. Something else + atomic bonds + elements = quasi-crystals. THe problem we are addressing is the very definition of “crystallization”. You don’t say that Shakespeare is “crystallized” just because he reuses the word “the” frequently. Nor can you say that there are two indentical pieces of Shakespeare that repeat to make an entire work. Shakespeare has long-range order, but not in any sense, a crystalline short-range order. And this had been in the past, the distinction between crystals and liquids, or between crystals and life.

    We can get more sophisticated in our definitions of short and long-range order and start talking about the sharpness of the peaks in Fourier space. That is, suppose right before ice freezes, there are microscopic chunks of ice separated by liquid water. I can’t see the ice, but if I take a NMR or neutron diffraction of the mixture, out pops this peak in Fourier analysis that tells me there’s some definite order in the mix. Then we can begin to quantify some of these words about order and long-range in terms of the sharpness of the peaks in Fourier space and the distances between them. (Nice little story here on the peptoglycan antifreeze that enable bacteria to live in ice at -50C.)

    4+5+6) Fractals and materialism are related through the interactions. Let us suppose that long-range interactions exist. The Coulomb interaction, for example, extends to infinity. Then the thoughts in your brain, caused as materialsts believe by atomic interactions, could very well be planted there by an intelligent being on the other side of the universe via the Coulomb interaction. Such beings, entirely material of course, we can associate with great power and let us use the Epicurean epithet “gods”. Can the gods affect the weather and the lightning and the events of our life? Lucretius, speaking for Democritus and Epicurus, said “No”. The reason, he gives, is not that the “gods” don’t exist, but that there are no long-range interactions.

    So in classical materialism, no only is everything made of atoms, but atomic interactions must be purely local, lest we be subject to the whim of unseen global forces and not in complete control of our local environment. This is a metaphysical necessity and hence an assumption, not merely a materialist conclusion.

    Quasi-crystals demonstrate long-range ordering inconsistent with local forces. If such ordering exists, it says something about the geometry of space-time. It says that the local physical laws are structured in such a way that they possess global properties. And knowledge of those global laws will probably enable us to use them to create global (rather than local) changes. (It seems a safe bet to argue from knowledge to power, but I’m not going to demand it.)

    Thus there is something rotten in the state of materialism, there is faulty logic somewhere in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. The point of the book, the point of Hoyle’s defense of Democritus, is to free mankind from whims of the gods, and if long-range interactions exist, we are once again, enslaved to that influence. We are like the people who where tin-foil hats to protect their brains from remote control.

    Or, by contrast to Lucretius, if long-range ordering is possible and long-range forces required, then we are under remote control, and thus we must attach meaning to all of these phenomena. What is the meaning of the order? What is the purpose of the remote control? Which is to say, we find design in global properties expressed locally.

  7. 7
    Charles says:

    Robert Sheldon:

    Thank you for the detail and thoroughness of your answer. Would that everyone was so responsive.

    However there is no unit cell for a quasi-crystal, and therefore by definition, there is no short-range order.

    Ok, got it.

    Yes, but the atomic bonds multiplied by n do not give me quasi-crystals.

    That’s just a different way of saying quasi-crystals do not exhibit translation, right?

    So in classical materialism, no[t] only is everything made of atoms, but atomic interactions must be purely local,

    Agreed. Furthermore, atomic interactions such as chemical bonds are the result of the strong forces, not the weak, right?

    Quasi-crystals demonstrate long-range ordering inconsistent with local forces.

    What is the inconsistency?

    Long range order is evident in diffraction patterns, which are a function of the structural pattern of the quasi-crystalline material. While not translationally periodic (no unit cell), the structure nonetheless exhibits a “quasiperiodic” pattern, which in turn causes the diffraction pattern, right?

    And that structural pattern of quasi-crystals is the result of atomic/chemical bonds, bonds which repeat throughout the material although the resulting structural pattern neither translates nor has a unit cell. Regardless, the same chemical bonds are found throughout, which bonds are the result of the same strong forces, which forces are local to each bond and do not change. So even though the order is long-range, the bonding forces which establish the pattern are nontheless local at each bond and repetitive, right?

    So, what am I missing? What is the aforementioned inconsistency?

  8. 8

    The “strong force” is responsible for holding protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of the atom. The “weak force” is related to the composition of the neutron, the production of neutrinos, and other corrections to the strong force. The chemical bond is a consequence of the Coulomb force between electrons, and electron-protons. Due to the wave-like nature of electrons at these size scales, the bonds are Quantum Mechanical phenomena with spatial ordering–like the tetrahedral bonds of diamond.

    You aren’t missing anything. It is the nature of the long-range ordering that seems mysterious. In Penrose tiling, it is your eye that decides how to arrange the flower petals. But in quasi-crystals, there does not seem to be any “fifth” force between the Coulomb-force of the electron orbitals and the gravitational force of the planet that can arrange a quasi-crystal. Therefore such order must “emerge” from some hidden symmetry of nature. The fact that it is “hidden” is already proof that our reductionist approach to doing chemistry is failing, because there are manifestly symmetries we didn’t expect. Even more importantly, these symmetries exist at a spatial scale intermediate between atoms and stars, and this is the scale at which you and I live and move and have our being.

  9. 9
    Charles says:

    Robert Sheldon:
    I guess I’m still not clear on what is the inconsistency to which you referred.

    The “strong force” is responsible for holding protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of the atom. The “weak force” is related to the composition of the neutron, the production of neutrinos, and other corrections to the strong force. The chemical bond is a consequence of the Coulomb force between electrons, and electron-protons.

    Yes, I should have done my homework before commenting (sigh).

    I had assumed (somewhat blindly) that quasicrystals, being stable metals, would be explainable by their bonds being in the lowest energy state.

    So, having now dug a bit deeper into quasicrystalline bonds, I find that while crystal bonds are ionic (resulting from coulomb interaction), quasicrystal bonds instead are metallic (resulting from delocalized electrons and that such delocalization is best explained by quantum mechanics).

    In Quasicrystals John W. Cahn notes [emphasis mine]:

    To this date all quasicrystals have been metallic. In metallic structures interatomic distances are determined, but bond angles do not seem to matter. Local atomic configurations thus obtained often do not pack
    well into periodic structures. Even the simplest onecomponent metallic structures seem to favor regular tetrahedral arrangements that do not fill space. What other local configuration is needed to fill the gaps, and does that lead to the orientational order seen in quasicrystals and periodicity or quasiperiodicity? Structures are determined by a trade-off between low energy local packing and the occasional higher energy configuration that is geometrically necessary. In order to have a periodic space-filling arrangement, both the face-centered and hexagonal close packed structures, for example, introduce the octahedra, a configuration which one expects to have a higher energy. The stable quasicrystals and the approximants are made of two [38] or more chemical components, allowing irregular tetrahedra that have a better chance of filling space. Whether the adjustments happen to lead to a periodic approximant or to a quasicrystal often seems to hinge on small changes in composition or temperature.

    Cahn (earlier in that same paper) notes [again emphasis mine]:

    Much has been written about why quasicrystals exist. Although it could not be proven, it was taken as plausible by many eminent scholars that the lowest energy configuration of a set of identical atoms or molecules would be periodic. Similarly it was assumed that the lowest energy configuration of any mixture of atoms or molecules would be a periodic arrangement of identical unit cells forming a stoichiometric compound, or a mixture of such periodic structures. Radin has shown quite the opposite; for almost any assumed interaction between molecular units, the lowest energy is a quasiperiodic rather than a periodic structure (37). He has raised the question about whether periodic crystals exist because kinetics are too slow to reach the lowest energy state, or whether there is something special about the interactions obtained from quantum mechanics.

    Jacek Mi?kisz & Charles Radin’s paper is Why solids are not really crystalline, in which their introduction and conclusion are:

    Working with lattice-gas models, we give evidence that even at zero temperature matter does not always tend to form crystals; unit cells may tend to go out of phase. In particular, our results imply that noncrystalline equilibrium materials such as quasicrystals and incommensurate solids are not aberrations, but rather should be expected.

    In conclusion we note that our basic result, that the noncrystalline ground states of materials such as quasicrystals and incommensurate solids are not aberrations but quite natural, should lead to a better understanding of all solids.

    Mi?kisz and Radin further cite an earlier paper of Mi?kisz’s (behind a paywall) How low temperature causes long-range order for which the abstract states:

    “The author shows that for almost all interactions, that is, generically, ground states of classical lattice gas models must have either long-range order or be completely uniform.”

    Radin’s publications are at:
    Mi?kisz’s publications are at:

    Mi?kisz and Radin’s find that the ground state (lowest energy) of quasicrystals naturally is a quasiperiodic structure which exhibits long-range order, while you suggest that is “inconsistent with local forces”, though quasicrystal bonds are metallic and not due to coulomb interaction.

    Perhaps if you would elaborate on:

    But in quasi-crystals, there does not seem to be any “fifth” force between the Coulomb-force of the electron orbitals and the gravitational force of the planet that can arrange a quasi-crystal. Therefore such order must “emerge” from some hidden symmetry of nature.

    In what way is the coulomb force involved in quasicrystal metallic bonds, and why isn’t the quasiperiodic structure the result of seeking the lowest energy state? And what specifically was the inconsistency to which you referred, please?

    I’m pressing because I am very much interested in evidence of hidden symmetries.

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