Between Rigor and Reality: Many-Body Models in Condensed Matter Physics

In Brigitte Falkenburg & Margaret Morrison (eds.), Why More Is Different: Philosophical Issues in Condensed Matter Physics and Complex Systems. Springer. pp. 201-226 (2015)

Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin
The present paper focuses on a particular class of models intended to describe and explain the physical behaviour of systems that consist of a large number of interacting particles. Such many-body models are characterized by a specific Hamiltonian (energy operator) and are frequently employed in condensed matter physics in order to account for such phenomena as magnetism, superconductivity, and other phase transitions. Because of the dual role of many-body models as models of physical sys-tems (with specific physical phenomena as their explananda) as well as mathematical structures, they form an important sub-class of scientific models, from which one can expect to draw general conclusions about the function and functioning of models in science, as well as to gain specific insight into the challenge of modelling complex systems of correlated particles in condensed matter physics. In particular, it is argued that many-body models contribute novel elements to the process of inquiry and open up new avenues of cross-model confirmation and model-based understanding. In contradistinction to phenomenological models, which have received comparatively more philosophical attention, many-body models typically gain their strength not from ‘empirical fit’ per se, but from their being the result of a constructive application of mature formalisms, which frees them from the grip of both ‘fundamental theory’ and an overly narrow conception of ‘empirical success’.
Keywords scientific models  philosophy of physics  complex systems  condensed-matter physics  model-building
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