Arthur Compton

Arthur ComptonOn this day in 1892, the great physicist Arthur Compton was born. He was primarily interested in high energy particles and light and how they interacted with matter. For example, he showed that JJ Thomson was right and that x-rays scattered by the first 16 elements of the periodic table were polarized. He did extensive work on cosmic rays, showing that there were more at the poles than elsewhere. He correctly deduced that they were charged particles being changed by the earth’s magnetic field. He was also very important in the Manhattan Project.

Compton is most known, of course, for the Compton Effect. This is very similar to the Photoelectric Effect. What Compton noticed and explained was that x-rays scattered by free electrons change wavelengths — reducing their energy. This is notable because it showed that photons were acting like particles. Generally, light is absorbed or not. Similarly, a particle can have part of its energy reduced by a collision. The Compton effect shows that light can do the same thing.

After the war, Arthur Compton went on to head Washington University in St Louis where he oversaw the liberalization of the school. Under him, the university was desegregated in 1952. But it is unclear how much credit he should get for that. He retired at 62 and died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 69.

Like a lot of scientists of his time, he was very interested in the subject of free will. He pushed the idea of free will as a two stage process and thought that quantum indeterminacy made actions “free.” This is nonsense. I don’t believe in free will at all, and I find attempts to prove it pathetic. The two-stage model is just a fancy way to tap dance around the issue. But in this way, Compton is like Newton: outside of the confines of science, he was lost in a sea of magic thinking. This is not to put him down. The fact that he grappled with these questions at all makes him much more serious than most people — scientists especially.

Happy birthday Arthur Compton!

4 thoughts on “Arthur Compton

  1. We talked about eliminative materialism in one of my college philosophy courses. And I know Sam Harris has written about free will. I haven’t read him on it. Or rather, the decision making widget that provides the artifact of my consciousness with the simularcum of free will has yet caused me to read Sam’s work. What do you actually mean when you say there is no free will?

    • It’s hard to write about this stuff without trivializing it. There are a number of factors to it. First there is empirical work that indicates that our decisions are more like involuntary muscle reactions than any higher brain function “decision making.” We seem to use our higher brain functions to justify our decisions.

      Next there is the fact that our brains are just neurochemical machines. My brain works the way it works. What is it that I have going on that can change the neurochemical reactions? I am a materialist on the micro-scale, so any way I might have to change the chemical processes going on in my body would be… More free-will-denying chemical processes!

      Another issue is that I have become convinced that my consciousness is an illusion: a evolutionary result that assures my survival. And yes, I am very much a follower of Schopenhauer. We know more now than we did when he was writing, but I think he was basically correct. I think the very idea of free will comes out of that illusion.

      There is much more to this, but these are the major things. The second one is the classic argument. And I have never heard an argument against it that I find compelling. By the way, I have read Harris’ book. It is the kind of book that Harris should stick to. It is short and simple but very clear. (He really is an excellent writer.) Of course, it is more of a magazine feature bound as a book.

  2. Good thing Compton went into science – you can see from the photo that otherwise he would have been an ax-murderer.

    I’ve given up on hashing out opinions on free will and determinism. I have not read Harris on these matters, but what I’ve heard about his work on ethics makes it sound exceedingly sophomoric and question-begging (in the old-fashioned sense). A kind of bullshit empirically-based utilitarianism; and defenders on the Web mostly just claim that H’s critics are ignorant of science.

    Anyway, also disinclined to support a torture-supporter. Yeah I know, makes no difference to whether his arguments are good. When I see his defenders lay them out, they look plus ungood.

  3. Compton suffers from narrow lips. Someone should have told him, “Your mustache makes you look like Hitler.”

    The funny thing about Harris is that at times he has a very compassionate take on things. His ideas about abortion have to do with when the fetus can feel pain. He sees, for example, pedophiles as victims of their brain chemistry. But when discussing Islam, he seems to lose all sense. But I’ve gotten rather used to compartmentalizing people in general and people in the New Atheist movement especially.

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