Friday, July 26, 2019

Are We Approaching The "End Of Physics"? Not Even Close

"The end of physics" has been a theme that's been circulating in the parochial memosphere at odd times since the late 19th century.   And not too long after each invocation (e.g. before the dawn of quantum theory and Planck's contributions) it was found wanting and skewered. In no uncertain terms.  Somewhat like Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" the meme almost always has embodied a typically human arrogance that we've now come to know everything we need to, or that the truly rich and varied events (or findings) have by now been exhausted.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

One of the more recent incarnations of the theme emerged recently in a WSJ Review piece by Frank Wilczek ('Have We Come To The End Of Physics',  July 6-7, p. C2)   He basically summarizes the relevant memes as follows:

"Physicists, bewitched by mathematical beauty, are failing to solve new problems"......"High class physicists no longer care about physical reality - nor should they"...."Science is over."

The last is especially idiotic given there are hundreds of fronts on which science now advances and for which more research is needed, from CRISPR -CAS9 gene splicing, to the genetic basis for cancers and appropriate therapies, to nuclear fusion, to halting viral outbreaks, from Ebola to the next flu pandemic.  Then there is perhaps the most significant relevant physics at this time, that of atmospheric physics as it relates to climate change and greenhouse  gas warming.

But Wilczek ties the latest memes to three recent books:  'Lost in Math' by Sabine Hoseenfelder, 'String Theory and the Scientific Method', by Richard Dawid,  and 'The End of Science' by John Horgan.  As Wilczek correctly notes:

"For theoretical physicists they are kind of a reproach, since they argue that today's physics has gotten itself into a dead end."

But as usual the fallacy of composition is rife, in the cited authors conflating all of physics to what is actually practiced by perhaps 1 percent, if that.   Hence, it makes no sense to judge the research of the 99 percent from the 1 percent, say doing string theory,  multiverse conjectures or quintessence in conjunction with dark energy.  Any perusal of  Physics Today  archives over the past year would  quickly kibosh the notion that "physics is at an end". These include a host of empirically validated discoveries, which seldom make the news like string theory or multiverse speculations.  These have included:

'Dark Matter Detector Observes Rare Nuclear Decay' (July, 2019, p. 14)

Role of piezoelectric crystals for long range transmission of EM waves'.(Op. cit, p. 19)

'Heterogeneous Catalysis', Op. cit. p. 38)

'Isotope Measurements Help Pin Down The Ancient Rise Of Oxygen' (June, 2018, p. 16)

'First direct views of attosecond electron-nuclear coupling' (Op. cit., p. 17)

'QED experiment detects two distinct photons simultaneously resonant with an optical cavity'  (and with one of two electronic transitions of the same atom)  (August, 2018, p. 14)

'Use of Xenon isotopes to track volatile recycling in Earth's mantle' (October, 2018 p. 14)

'Acoustic metasurface creates quiet locations in a room' (August, 2018 p. 18)

Granted, none of these are especially 'sexy'  or exotic but all give the lie to Horgan's claim that physics has somehow become "unmoored"   from empirical evidence.

Indeed, as Wilczek pointedly observes:

"Opinions may differ on the current health of physics, but no reasonable person can dispute that it has been a hugely successful enterprise"

Correctly noting that without the revolutionary  breakthroughs in 20th century physics - namely quantum theory and relativity - we'd never have seen or used nuclear power, lasers, rockets (such as the Saturn V moon rocket), GPS technology, cell phones or the quantum computers now coming onto the scene.  In other words, without physics our civilization would still be at the level of the Victorian horse and buggy phase.  

Seeing the vast spectrum of current physics research in the PT issues cited above, one quickly comes to the conclusion that Horgan's contention that "physicists' time is past" and "they should do something else instead" (ibid.) borders on the imbecilic. And if physicists acceded to Horgan's wishes who would expand our current frontiers say of climate research, or the prediction of  the next asteroid strike or coronal mass ejections - with the potential to reduce our civilization to Dark ages' life quality?  I mean, seriously? 

I suspect much of the problem - such as for Mr. Horgan (and I believe much of the general public) - is that physics' "fancy" mathematics irritates them, galls them - because well, they can't do it!  Most of the public - even those who read Scientific American- probably halted their math courses at Calculus, if they even took that.  And from what I've read in a few education journals, barely 1 in 1000 Americans ever see the inside of a physics lab in connection with a college level General Physics course.   So it is little wonder there is an existing impatience with theoretical physics and its "gibberish" equations and material.   No one - least of all any upstanding American (with an opinion on everything else)  - wishes to be made to feel like a  dummy when confronted perhaps by a tensor equation, e.g

ds2   =  g mn dx m dx n
   = g 11 dx12    + g 22 dx22    + g 33 dx32    + g 44 dx42                           
+   2 g 12 dx1 dx+   2 g 13 dx1 dx3 +   2 g 14 dx1 dx4
+   2 g 24 dx2 dx+   2 g 34 dx3 dx4 +   2 g 41 dx4 dx1
+   2 g 42 dx4 dx2 +   2 g 43 dx4 dx3

Hence, Wilczek's reference to the late 20th century's  articulation of the so-called 'Standard Model' is germane.  As he notes it "reached a very high plateau"  and also offered "well tested equations for the behavior of ordinary matter under ordinary conditions "    Also, acknowledging that "the theoretical framework of the Standard model was in place by the 1970s."  It also "predicted and enabled spectacular discoveries such as the Higgs boson".

As for Horgan and his contentions, I had dealt with them before, pertaining to an article appearing  last year under the banner 'Serious Doubt On Serious Earth' in the WSJ Review section (p. C12, Oct. 20-21).   It dealt with two books, one by the late Stephen Hawking ('Brief Answers to the Big Questions') and by Martin Rees ('On the Future').   What I showed in an October, 2018 post is that Horgan basically didn't know what he was writing about. 

Frank Wilczek, by contrast, mostly does know what he's writing about  Especially in ending:

"The plateau we've reached is a good place to be. In fact, physics is especially exciting these days, because we're learning how to use our understanding of 'ordinary matter' to make machine assistants...that will amplify our thoughts, do useful things."

Well said, but let's also bear in mind there will always be a major role in physics for theoretical research which may not deliver anything with "nuts and bolts"  - or  sensors- say to make lives more comfortable and convenient.   

To get an idea of the sheer expanse of pure research merely  in astrophysics, check out the papers in the link to  this Astrophysical Journal issue below:

Even if you are unable to grasp the content in the specific papers, it is instructive to peruse the span of topics just from this single issue .

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