(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Books about economics do not usually begin with a discussion of quantum physics, but George Gilder’s Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology breaks more than one convention. Quantum physics has shown that subatomic particles do not operate in the same way as ordinary physical objects. By using and extending the concepts of quantum physics, computer pioneers developed the microchip computer, and Gilder thinks that the microchip will radically alter the pattern of industry. Large corporations will decline, the United States will triumph over Japan on the world market, and a system of general prosperity lies ahead.

As the expression “the material world” suggests, the environment appears to consist of solid objects that are governed by the law of cause and effect. Nineteenth century physicists thought that materialism and determinism applied universally. Even atoms—which, according to nineteenth century science, were minute, solid particles—were governed by rigid laws. This view of the physical world was reflected in the economics of Europe and America. Physical force dominated production: Powerful machines and large accumulations of capital were the order of the day. Unless inventors could secure access to massive sums of money, their plans proved fruitless. Further, since resources on the scale required for extensive production were limited, a struggle among nations for control of these resources ensued.

Developments in twentieth century physics have radically altered the picture.

Atoms, in fact, are not impenetrable but consist of subatomic particles ensconced in empty space. Gilder maintains that, properly understood, the new physics should alter our whole way of looking at the world. Since most of an atom is empty space, and since physical objects are made of atoms, physical objects are largely empty space. Contrary to appearance, ordinary objects are not solid at all.

Cause and effect also goes by the board in subatomic physics. Here the pioneer was the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, who, despondent over the rejection of his theories, committed suicide in 1906. In his view, many small-scale phenomena are governed not by fixed causal laws but by the rules of probability. What a single atomic particle will do can not be predicted, but if there are enough particles present in one location, the outcome is fixed.

The pioneers of quantum mechanics, who included Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg, extended Boltzmann’s ideas. As research on subatomic particles continued, it became apparent that the nineteenth century concept of matter did not work at all. Scientists debated whether subatomic particles were really waves or fields of force. The particles appeared to have some of the properties of both particles and waves. More and more, Boltzmann was vindicated: The laws of quantum mechanics are probabilistic.

Gilder maintains that the application of these new ideas to the building of computers has revolutionized the field; even more important, the changes in computer technology will radically alter the world’s economic and social systems. This is the principal theme of Microcosm; before turning to it, however, Gilder’s account of physics must be examined with critical attention.

First, it seems questionable whether nineteenth century physicists held the rigid view of matter that Gilder attributes to them. True enough, they did think that atoms were small, solid particles. Yet they thought that atoms, like everything else, were contained in the “ether.” This was a mysterious substance that occupied all of space: It lacked almost all normal physical properties but was nevertheless regarded as real. Gilder is aware of the concept of ether and knows that Albert Einstein’s relativity theory led twentieth century physics to abandon the idea. He fails to see, however, that to some extent ether undermines his picture of nineteenth century physics. When ether is included, it is apparent that physicists even in the nineteenth century did not think that matter consisted entirely of solid particles. The ether is every bit as mysterious as the quantum phenomena discovered by twentieth century science.

Gilder also radically overstates the role of determinism in nineteenth century physics. He is correct in stating that scientists believed that everything was subject to deterministic laws, whereas most twentieth century experts in quantum mechanics no longer believe this. Scientists never maintained, however, that they could show how ordinary physical events were determined, down to their smallest details. For example, a phenomenon whose exploitation, according to Gilder, played a key role in creating the microchip computer is diode breakdown. This consists of certain “jumps” of subatomic particles. Faced with this occurrence, a nineteenth century scientist would not necessarily have claimed that there was a fixed law governing its appearance. It might be the outcome of a number of deterministic laws interacting. In brief, nineteenth century scientists did not think that everything had a causal law of its own. Rather, they believed that the laws of physics, when taken in combination, could in...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)

Microcosm Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Business Week. September 11, 1989, p.14.

The Economist. CCCXII, September 16, 1989, p.94.

Library Journal. CXIV, September 15, 1989, p.120.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 3, 1989, p.4.

National Review. XLI, October 27, 1989, p.50.

The New Republic. CCI, November 20, 1989, p.38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, October 15, 1989, p.15.

Time. CXXXIV, October 23, 1989, p.102.

The Wall Street Journal. September 13, 1989, p. A16(W).

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, September 10, 1989, p.1.