Latent Laws

We have discovered that the particular, regular arrangement of silicon and oxygen atoms that we call quartz will change shape if we apply voltage to it. That is, in the environment of an electric charge, the arrangement that is quartz behaves by deforming. We have also found that the reverse is true: if we put quartz in an environment where we apply pressure, it will produce a voltage. We call this the piezoelectric effect.

Discovered in the late 1800s, we have since used this behavior to control frequencies in millions and billions of devices from watches to radios to computers and more. The lawfulness of the Universe means that every time we make a crystal oscillator with quartz it exhibits the same behavior. Or, perhaps better, the fact that we observe the same behavior every time is evidence that the Universe is lawful.

Quartz has other behaviors. Depending on its environment’s temperature, its crystal structure can shift. At high enough temperatures, it melts. Glass will not scratch quartz, while a diamond will.

Though we did not know about the piezoelectric behavior of quartz before its discovery in 1880, we expect that had someone deformed quartz while measuring its electric charge in 1879 the result would have been the same. Or in 1079. Or 10 million years ago. In fact, this behavior “existed” even in the early days of the Universe, before atoms of silicon or oxygen had ever formed in star-hearts.

Like the quartz crystal exhibiting piezoelectric behavior, every particular arrangement will exhibit a particular behavior in a particular environment. Water is liquid at temperatures between 0 °C and 100 °C, solid below. Beneath a foot, an ant-arrangement changes from a living behavior to that of a proteinaceous goo. A white cedar log may last centuries buried in a swamp, but will turn to ash and smoke in a fire.

Until a particular arrangement is put in a particular environment, these behaviors are latent; unexpressed and unknown. The expanse of latent behaviors is a library enormous beyond comprehension, and we can see our adventures in tinkering and experimenting as an expedition among its vast landscape of shelves, opening the books and cataloguing what we find between their covers.

Our explorations have yielded wondrous capabilities from steam engines to automobiles to aircraft, from pencils and paper to the unimaginably complex arrangement of charges, wire, and glass that is the computer on which I write these thoughts. Our observations, and our reasoning about them, have allowed us to answer questions we have asked since we were able to ask at all: the nature and origins of living things; the composition of matter; the history, size, composition, and structure of the Universe; and the workings of our own minds. We live in a unique and amazing time, one our predecessors could only dream about if they could imagine it all.

I am fascinated by the existence of an endless sea of behaviors of which we know only a small portion. By our growing ability to predict what behaviors lie out among the waves as with our prediction of the Higgs Boson so many decades before we could create the arrangement and environment we predicted would coax it to surface. By the “existence” of stable, lawful, latent features of our Universe which seem outside of time and space and matter, but which are only revealed by them.