Buzz Blog

Have We Reached the End of Human Scale Physics?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Barenaked Ladies: It's All Been Done

Every physics student has heard the story about how some prominent thinkers at the end of the 19th century were convinced that we had discovered all there was to know about physics. Only a few years later, all those physics pessimists were proven to be utterly, completely, unbelievably wrong as blossoming quantum mechanics and relativity theories combined to make up Modern Physics. Over the next century, lasers, transistors, GPS, MRI machines, PCs, cell phones, fission bombs, fusion bombs and countless other wonders were the direct result of this whole new branch of physics.

In the years since, the tale of the rise of modern physics has helped to squelch most murmurings that maybe, just maybe, we're getting to the point of knowing it all. The most concise summary of the argument I know of is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke.

If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Up until  now, that's been good enough for me.

Then, yesterday, I happened to read a fascinating post about futurism (check it out, it's worth your time) by Tom Murphy on his blog Do the Math. Although this wasn't the main point of his piece, something he wrote convinced me that we're back to the point where it looks like there's nothing to do but add decimal places to the fundamental constants, at least as far as physics that makes a concrete difference in our lives is concerned.

As Murphy put it:

A key element here is that we know a heck of a lot more about fundamental physics now than we did 200 years ago. Undoubtedly we have much yet to learn. But the frontiers 200 years ago pertained to everyday time, length, and energy scales. Today’s frontiers are at 10−18 m scales on one end, and at cosmological scales on the other. Ultra-high energy frontiers are increasingly hard to access, requiring monster machines like the LHC at CERN. The chances that new physics will intercede at human-familiar scales are increasingly slim as the boundaries of our knowledge push out. Most technological developments of the last 50 years have been based on incremental progress in manipulation of matter, rather than on fundamental breakthroughs in physics like electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, or general relativity from roughly a century ago.

In other words, we know just about all there is to know about the physics of anything that we can touch, see, hear, smell or taste. Sure, cell phones will get more powerful, gasoline cars will go the way of the fossil fuels that power them, and we'll all soon have Google Glass style enhancements that make us more than human. But all those advances will likely rely on incremental improvements in existing technology, based on science we already know inside and out.

There will be no more game changers of the order of what we saw with the rise of Modern Physics.

There's plenty to learn about the universe and the insides of subatomic particles, and plenty of reason to be excited about physics. Still, I'm a little sad to have missed the last tangible physics revolution, particularly if there isn't going to be another one in the near future.

Here's to hoping Tom Murphy's eulogy for human scale physics is premature, and that Arthur C. Clarke's quote applies to him. To tell you the truth, though, I'm betting on Murphy on this one.

A key element here is that we know a heck of a lot more about fundamental physics now than we did 200 years ago. Undoubtedly we have much yet to learn. But the frontiers 200 years ago pertained to everyday time, length, and energy scales. Today’s frontiers are at 10−18 m scales on one end, and at cosmological scales on the other. Ultra-high energy frontiers are increasingly hard to access, requiring monster machines like the LHC at CERN. The chances that new physics will intercede at human-familiar scales are increasingly slim as the boundaries of our knowledge push out. Most technological developments of the last 50 years have been based on incremental progress in manipulation of matter, rather than on fundamental breakthroughs in physics like electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, or general relativity from roughly a century ago. - See more at: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/10/futuristic-physicists/#sthash.UhOqfG27.dpuf
Posted by Buzz Skyline

24 Comments:

Nicole Sharp said...

I don't think any physicist or engineer who deals with fluid dynamics would agree with this sentiment. We don't understand the transition from laminar to turbulent flow well enough to predict it in practical circumstances. Turbulence itself is certainly not understood. This is physics at the human scale and progress in the field will make a difference in our daily lives. Will someone have a revolutionary epiphany and "solve" turbulence? Who knows. But we're certainly not just adding digits to fundamental constants.

Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 8:54 PM


Buzz Skyline said...

You're right, if it turns out we're nothing more than a simulation running in an incredible computer, then the possibilities are mind numbing.

Some researchers have proposed a test of the idea - http://www.washington.edu/news/2012/12/10/do-we-live-in-a-computer-simulation-uw-researchers-say-idea-can-be-tested/

If it's true, I'll retract everything I've said. I will also eat the underwear I have on the moment I get word that it's proven that we're living in a software cosmos. How's that for an apology?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 12:20 PM


Joey said...

You and I have different definitions of not very interesting...

Jack's point is that as long as there are things we know we don't know, it's silly to dismiss their possible results and applications.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 11:15 PM


Joey said...

The periodic table also explained the behavior of the elements well before quantum mechanics, albeit in a less satisfying way. There are a lot of these less satisfying explanations floating around in physics today (superconductivity is a GREAT example cited above, and I am talking about the low-temperature kind) and any day could lead to the discovery of a new, more rigorous model for one or all of them.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 11:02 PM


Buzz said...

There may be a shadow universe. But the whole point of dark matter is that we can't interact with it except through gravity. It's difficult to do anything with gravity until you have at least moon-sized pieces of things to play with, and then all you can do it make things orbit each other. We already have things we can orbit, so that's not very interesting.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:18 PM


Buzz said...

We have equations that describe it very well. We don't know why it fits those equations, but finding out why won't change the equations we already know about. So nothing would change, practically speaking, if we discovered gravitons, for example.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:14 PM


Buzz said...

Not until now. But how can a better way to calculate scattering amplitudes have a technological benefit to everyday life? It helps us understand why things are the way they are. I'm not sure it has an application in the human scale real world.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:11 PM


Buzz Skyline said...

We encourage open discussion, but I will delete off topic comments.

Thanks,

Buzz

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:05 PM


Anonymous said...

Oh goody, the cold fusion trolls have arrived.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:03 PM


Anonymous said...

Did ya RTFA? Nitwit.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 9:32 PM


Anonymous said...

Your learning/acceptance of new things is limited to what you read in science or nature (if i should believe your own words when you tried to butcher LENR science in that other blog, but basically made yourself look like an idiot). In computer science we have a saying: If the manual and reality are in disagreement, reality takes precedence. I feel sorry for you being at the end of your journey and not having arrived anywhere exiting, oh wait, no i'm not ... It's your own fault for giving up on the interesting stuff before you even looked at it...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 8:35 PM


Buzz Skyline said...

I hope you're right. Otherwise, it's gonna be pretty boring.

The thing is, while quantum mechanics often is associated with small things, it affects all sorts of macroscopic and nearly macroscopic things. One of the phenomena that started it all is black body radiation. Without quantum mechanics, we couldn't explain the color of light emitted by stars (or even light bulbs, I believe).

QM also explains the behavior of the elements because of the quantized energy levels that dictate their chemical behavior.

Once you start going below atoms, though, to quarks etc., there's nothing more (I think) that you can learn about how atoms interact. So it's interesting to know about quarks, but they don't help you to DO anything.

Again, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't think so.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 3:55 PM


Anonymous said...

A complete understanding of something doesn't necessarily mean you get the unobtanium you want. It could very well turn out that your room temperature superconducting wire is impossible!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 at 10:35 AM


Joey said...

I would say that quantum mechanics is very much outside of "human scale," though we can exploit its effects. I don't see why there couldn't be another realm of physics that hasn't been noticed, underlying emergent phenomena that we have mistaken as fundamental. Then it would only be a matter of technology bringing that new physics to the human scale.

Monday, September 23, 2013 at 11:21 PM


Zephir said...

We actually didn't even reach one half of it. In AWT there is still a dual portion of physics less or more hidden in scalar waves, antigravity drives and beams, magnetic motors, water clusters and psychic phenomena. And I'm not still talking about anomalous physics outside the human scale, like the cold fusion.

Monday, September 23, 2013 at 6:03 PM


Jack said...

If dark matter turns out to be an entire shadow universe - or, given it's 5 times more matter than the matter we can detect, 5 shadow universes - there could be a heck of a lot more human scale physics to come. Unlike the end of 19th century, when they thought there were just a few seemingly minor issues not yet figured out, we DO know that our current model of nature is dramatically incomplete. We just haven't yet figured out the experiments that will show us new stuff.

Monday, September 23, 2013 at 7:08 AM


bbbl67 said...

Actually, I think the next frontier is to bring the physics of the very small (quantum mechanics) and the very large (relativity) to human scale! We haven't exhausted the human scale yet.

Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 7:01 PM


Anarch said...

What about gravity? Do we understand this force yet?

Sunday, September 22, 2013 at 6:02 PM


Ray Vazquez said...

It is about time that the physics community face the end of open-ended mathematical speculation without the rigor or likelyhood of experimental conformation.

Roger Penrose acknowleged a long time ago that human consiouness is the new frontier of fundenmental science.

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 8:58 PM


Anonymous said...

Wave Mechanics is the answer. Google Milo Wolff to begin to understand.

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 11:01 AM


Hugh Matlock said...

One example idea that could lead to a fundamental change in human-scale physics would be strong evidence that the physical world arises as a result of a simulation (as suggested by philosopher Nick Bostrom). A realization that we live in a "virtual reality" would impact our understanding of physics at all scales.

The current essay contest over at the Foundational Questions Institute, fqxi.org, is called "It From Bit or Bit From It?" and takes up the topic of whether physical things arise from information or vice-versa. The "Software Cosmos" essay there describes the evidence and the implications for cosmology of the simulation paradigm. Link:

http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1863

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 5:47 AM


Anonymous said...

Have you heard about the amplituhedron?

Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 3:12 AM


Buzz Skyline said...

Low temperature superconductivity is pretty well understood. Understanding high temperature stuff has a way to go. But I don't see it leading to game changing physics or technology. It could improve some existing technology, I suppose, and reduce energy losses and expenses. That's nice - it's just not going to make the world in 100 years as different from today as today is from 100 years ago.

Friday, September 20, 2013 at 4:11 PM


Andrew Palfreyman said...

So we understand superconductivity? So where's the room temperature wire?

Friday, September 20, 2013 at 3:59 PM