Inevitably Arbitrary

Physics is universal…or at least, it aspires to be. Drop an apple anywhere on Earth, at any point in history, and it will accelerate at roughly the same rate. When we call something a law of physics, we expect it to hold everywhere in the universe. It shouldn’t depend on anything arbitrary.

Sometimes, though, something arbitrary manages to sneak in. Even if the laws of physics are universal, the questions we want to answer are not: they depend on our situation, on what we want to know.

The simplest example is when we have to use units. The mass of an electron is the same here as it is on Alpha Centauri, the same now as it was when the first galaxies formed. But what is that mass? We could write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms, if we wanted to, but kilograms aren’t exactly universal. Their modern definition is at least based on physical constants, but with some pretty arbitrary numbers. It defines the Planck constant as 6.62607015×10−34 Joule-seconds. Chase that number back, and you’ll find references to the Earth’s circumference and the time it takes to turn round on its axis. The mass of the electron may be the same on Alpha Centauri, but they’d never write it as 9.1093837015×10−31 kilograms.

Units aren’t the only time physics includes something arbitrary. Sometimes, like with units, we make a choice of how we measure or calculate something. We choose coordinates for a plot, a reference frame for relativity, a zero for potential energy, a gauge for gauge theories and regularization and subtraction schemes for quantum field theory. Sometimes, the choice we make is instead what we measure. To do thermodynamics we must choose what we mean by a state, to call two substances water even if their atoms are in different places. Some argue a perspective like this is the best way to think about quantum mechanics. In a different context, I’d argue it’s why we say coupling constants vary with energy.

So what do we do, when something arbitrary sneaks in? We have a few options. I’ll illustrate each with the mass of the electron:

  • Make an arbitrary choice, and stick with it: There’s nothing wrong with measuring an electron in kilograms, if you’re consistent about it. You could even use ounces. You just have to make sure that everyone else you compare with is using the same units, or be careful to convert.
  • Make a “natural” choice: Why not set the speed of light and Planck’s constant to one? They come up a lot in particle physics, and all they do is convert between length and time, or time and energy. That way you can use the same units for all of them, and use something convenient, like electron-Volts. They even have electron in the name! Of course they also have “Volt” in the name, and Volts are as arbitrary as any other metric unit. A “natural” choice might make your life easier, but you should always remember it’s still arbitrary.
  • Make an efficient choice: This isn’t always the same as the “natural” choice. The units you choose have an effect on how difficult your calculation is. Sometimes, the best choice for the mass of an electron is “one electron-mass”, because it lets you calculate something else more easily. This is easier to illustrate with other choices: for example, if you have to pick a reference frame for a collision, picking one in which one of the objects is at rest, or where they move symmetrically, might make your job easier.
  • Stick to questions that aren’t arbitrary: No matter what units we use, the electron’s mass will be arbitrary. Its ratios to other masses won’t be though. No matter where we measure, dimensionless ratios like the mass of the muon divided by the mass of the electron, or the mass of the electron divided by the value of the Higgs field, will be the same. If we can make sure to ask only this kind of question, we can avoid arbitrariness. Note that we can think of even a mass in “kilograms” as this kind of question: what’s the ratio of the mass of the electron to “this arbitrary thing we’ve chosen”? In practice though, you want to compare things in the same theory, without the historical baggage of metric.

This problem may seem silly, and if we just cared about units it might be. But at the cutting-edge of physics there are still areas where the arbitrary shows up. Our choices of how to handle it, or how to avoid it, can be crucial to further progress.

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