Thursday, July 26, 2018

The End of Physics

Science is maybe only three times as old as Eli (Eli is very old, has he mentioned that recently) maybe 5 if you count back to Newton.  About a month and a half ago, the Bunny pointed out that physics was the simplest science, the one where you could most easily combine and contrast observations with theoretical descriptions in useful models.  It is also the science where humans have gone the farthest.  That raises the interesting question as to whether we have reached the end of physics or if a lagomorph prefers, the end of physics that a bunny can understand or do or use for other ends.  Comes to the same thing

There is little doubt that progress on foundations of physics finds itself in a traffic jam of a multitude of unprovable theories.  String theory, the multiverse, and other attempts to break out have not been very successful, one could say not at all for more than a few decades.  Astronomy, confronted with the issues of dark matter or modified gravity may not be far behind.

Attempts to go beyond the current paradigms for gravity and quantum behavior have become increasingly fanciful.  Peter Woit, on his blog, Not Even Wrong, has chronicled the search.  Sabine Hossenfelder, on her blog Backreaction and book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray grapples with these issues.  Both are optimists in that they think that further progress is possible.  Eli maybe not so much. 

John Horgan, in 2012, wrote about an interview he had with Thomas Kuhn.  There is much of what Kuhn says that Eli disagrees with but perhaps more on that later.  For example, Kuhn appears to miss much of the interplay between observations and theory and models.  He also appears to fall into the philosophers trap of what does a thermometer measure, however there is a disturbing for us thread in the interview.

Kuhn described normal science as the working out of puzzles within an accepted framework or paradigm.  IEHO, for some areas it is almost certain that humans have approached the point where no further changes are likely.  Paradigm shifts in those areas are jogs not car crashes, and most often the new is simply an extension of the old to more extreme, smaller, or larger conditions.  Extension rather than revolution is something that the follow on to physics sciences are now experiencing. 

In that sense it is to be expected, that for example in chemistry, many new, exciting and useful puzzles will be solved in new ways but don't expect the hydrino revolution.  Ain't happening folks.

New foundational science can end.  It might have already done so in physics


Victor Venema said...

Somehow I fail the feel enthusiasm about astronomy. Maybe because I have always lived in a city and hardly ever see more than a few stars. Still looking at the lack of scientific progress in physics, I would look to astronomy. They still have large problems to solve with matter and energy, but also bringing together quantum mechanics and relativity in black holes. I would argue that solving real problems brings scientific progress, not developing theories of everything out of the blue.

EliRabett said...

Agree, but the situation that physics and astronomy now find themselves in pretty much limits ideas to coming out of the blue. We may have reached the end of the rope.

Hank Roberts said...

But how about the octowhatzits?

Peel them and weep?

Ken Fabian said...

Diminishing returns may look frustrating but achieving a solid understanding, that isn't going to be overturned - because it's essentially a correct understanding - must be seen as a great achievement. I don't subscribe to the exponential view of how progression of knowledge and technology must play out, suspecting that in aggregate, progress follows the S-curves of it's individual components; from the steepest part of that curve the view ahead can be deceptive and S-curves can be hard to distinguish from exponential ones when viewed from somewhere on the steepest slopes of that curve.

My comprehension of physics is basic - so, will a better understanding of dark matter (for example) lead to refinements to existing understanding or does it have the potential to seriously upset it? Like our understanding of climate processes, what we know with high confidence does not get set aside readily, so my guess (not knowing) is that it may lead to modifications but will not overturn fundamental understandings that are already in place.

jrkrideau said...

I had never heard of John Horgan the science writer. I was amazed that Premier John Horgan of British Columbia was doing this.

Hank Roberts said...

PS, Woit mentions Aron Wall, who combines physics and theology on his blog.

Reminds me of my personal notion: The Diety created the universe, set us up with enough biodiversity to fill it, and took a hike.
Some day she will come back, look at Earth and say "You stupid monkeys, I gave you enough life to fill the universe, and you _burned_ it. Go to hell."

Wall also mentions the 'universe is so big and we is so small' argument against religion having any special place for Humans.

I think it's more like a prankish being amused by putting an enormous universe within our sight but too far away for us to reach. If the universe were built for us, there'd be portals or wormholes to get at it. Instead we are dancing and grabbing while the universe dandles above our heads and we hear a whisper: "Jump, little monkeys, jump. Higher! You're so cute when you try to reach the stars ...."

EliRabett said...

IEHO physics may really be at the end of the rope and that is a very different challenge for the princes. Motl may have seen this in his retreat to Cezchia.

Jan Galkowski said...

Kuhn's Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity: 1894-1912 is, in my opinion, significantly different than his Structure book, more mature, and chronicles the self-doubt and self-torment that theorists feel when wrestling with new ideas and data. Even though that period is a scientific revolution, you wouldn't know it from Kuhn's history.

I try to point this out when random denialists point to Structure as support for consensus climate science being wrong.

EliRabett said...

Thanks Jan, never read that, will have to find it.


Russell Seitz said...

John Horgan marked the beginning of the end of Endism with a book, The End Of Science less memorable than John Maddox's rejoinder, What Remains To Be Discovered

Like Kuhn, Horgan reifies the principle that what Ghandi said about European Civilization goes double for the history of science.

Jan Galkowski said...

@Russell Seitz,

What did Ghandi say, and why would it apply to Science?

David B Benson said...

Science started with the first astronomical observatories, which just determined the date of the summer solstice. Ask archaeologists how long ago that was.

Astrophysics, at least, maybe I should say astronomy, is clock-a-block with interesting discoveries. These have already upset the old order and so there is plenty for the theoreticians to posit about.

In its own way as vital as a century ago. The so-called Standard Model of Physics is but Ptolemic epicycles for the future.

Russell Seitz said...


When, on first arriving in London, Ghandi was asked by a Times reporter:

"What do you think of Europen civilization ?"

the homespun clad guru replied:

"I think it would be a good idea"

Russell Seitz said...

David B Benson inquires:

"Science started with the first astronomical observatories, which just determined the date of the summer solstice. Ask archaeologists how long ago that was. "

About 39 days I should say.

Elizabeth said...

Gandhi. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Spell it right.

FixedCarbon said...

Evolution, Darwin, physics fixation?

Old_salt said...

There's plenty of physics left at the solid-state level. However, many people call this chemistry. Depends on your point of view.

Supernaut said...

Funny title: you must be joking.

John said...

The end of physics?? From a physicist.

Here are some examples:
In 1964 Val FItch and James Cronin observed anomalous decay of Kaons (K mesons). Neutral Kaons that decay into positrons decay faster than those that decay into electrons. Why?? Not understood.
In principle this explains why the universe has more matter than antimatter. However it's off by a factor of a billion or so.

Here's an example in condensed matter. Superconductivity was observed by Kamerlingh Onnes in 1911, but not understood until 1957, "only" a half century later. Bardeen, Cooper and Schreiffer (BCS) won Nobel prizes in 1972. It's all understood, right? But in 1986, researchers found a new "high temperature" superconductivity.
"HIgh" is a bit of a misnomer because it's T=130K instead of 30K for conventional superconductivity.
High temperature superconductivity was not understood in 1986 when it was discovered. Now, after publication of tens of thousands of manuscripts, it's still not understood.

Still not understood (astronomy & cosmology)
- the acceleration of the expansion of the universe.
- the nature of dark energy

One last-minute observation - hot fusion is very unlikely to be a practical energy source.

EliRabett said...

The issues raised by Einstein about quantum mechanics have never been resolved, so we are left with spooky action at a distance and the ability to calculate on the quantum level without really understanding why we have this ability.

At the pointy edge we have even lost the ability to calculate. The attempts to resolve this with string theory, etc. appear to be blind alleys.

Which leads, IEHO to the proposition that physics may have reached its end.

That, as John and the Old Salt say, does leave us with normal science, puzzles on the atomic level and above that we can solve and understand and even are useful.

But. . .

Supernaut said...

RabettRun - (you must be a fan of Updike; so am I). There are still several fundamental Physics problems to solve. Therefore, any talk of about the supposed end-of-Physics reminds me, at best, of the chatter about the end of Physics from the late 19th century ('we understand everything, all we need is to capture more digits for whatever parameter...'). At worst, it sounds, well, uninformed.

EliRabett said...

Supernaut, this feels a bit different. Before 1900 there were puzzles but comprehensible puzzles. There are still, of course puzzles, as was pointed out condensed matter physics is full of them, but they are puzzles we can comprehend. In so called foundational physics the puzzles themselves are incomprehensible and may not be within our ability to understand let alone solve.

Supernaut said...

Thanks for your follow up comment. Well, but before 1900 those puzzles didn't 'feel' comprehensible, until they were solved (I'm thinking of the early quantum work of Planck -blackbody radiation-, Bohr -hydrogen atom/spectra- and Einstein -photoelectric effect-; others)! Many important puzzles to solve in fundamental Physics (what's Dark Energy/Matter? How do you combine quantum mechanics with GR? Etc. etc. etc. However, it's becoming increasingly clear that String theory leads nowhere, so must find something else). So, I disagree with your conclusion.

David B Benson said...

As do I. Need to replace the epicycles of the so-called Standard Model of Physics.

Alastair said...

For the ancient Greeks there were four elements: earth, water, air and fire. We now use element to mean a chemical element, but what the Greeks referred to are what we now call examples of the four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. So both paradigms are correct.

However, in the case of the Sun, Moon, and stars orbiting the Earth, although it is obviously true, we now know it is false. The Copernican Revolution is an excellent example of a paradigm shift. There are other cases of where the ruling paradigm has been proved wrong e.g. quantum mechanics.

As I see it where Kuhn and Popper differ is that Popper believes that scientists are slowly moving closer and closer to the truth, whereas Kuhn is pointing out that sometimes the inherited science is wrong.

Nobody likes being told they are wrong, and with the group think that accompanies an established paradigm, it takes a long time for a new paradigm to be established. As Max Planck said "Science only progresses one funeral at a time."

Fourier's model of the greenhouse effect operating like the heat travelling along a bar of iron is a case in point. The idea that the radiation from the Earth surface balances the incoming radiation is wrong. It is (obvious) that it is the radiation from the upper atmosphere which does that. But tha tis considered blasphemy, or even worse, idiocy.

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