Taking approximations seriously: The cases of the Chew and Nambu-Jona-Lasinio models

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 93 (C):82-95 (2022)
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Abstract

In this article, we offer a detailed study of two important episodes in the early history of high-energy physics, namely the development of the Chew and the Nambu-Jona-Lasinio models. Our study reveals that both models resulted from the combination of an old Hamiltonian, which had been introduced by earlier researchers, and two new approximation methods developed by Chew and by Nambu and Jona-Lasinio. These new approximation methods, furthermore, were the key component behind the models’ success. We take this historical investigation to support two philosophical theses about the manner in which scientific modelling operates in high-energy physics. Both of these theses run counter to a view that is commonly accepted among philosophers of science: the view that all approximations can be embedded within an equivalent idealized system, and that whatever role the former might play in scientific modelling is therefore parasitic on the much more substantial work performed by the latter. Our first thesis, which we call “Distinctness,” states that approximation methods constitute an independent category of theoretical output from idealized systems. We thus believe that approximations and idealized systems constitute two independent types of objects, both of which are essential to the practice of modelling. Our second, more radical thesis is called “Content Determination.” Our claim here is that approximation methods can in fact be essential to assigning determinate physical content to the idealized systems with which they jointly operate. As we show, this is due to the fact that quantum field theory allows for a very thin characterization of idealized systems only, making the use of approximations necessary to supply additional content. We conclude the paper with a few reflections about the manner in which our two theses can be used to articulate David Kaiser’s views on the “vanishing of scientific theory” in physics after WWII.

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James Fraser
University of Wuppertal

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References found in this work

The strategy of model-based science.Peter Godfrey-Smith - 2006 - Biology and Philosophy 21 (5):725-740.
Models in physics.Michael Redhead - 1980 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 31 (2):145-163.
Asymptotics and the role of minimal models.Robert W. Batterman - 2002 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 53 (1):21-38.

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