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It’s the end of fundamental physics. Again.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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After Isaac Newton's discoveries of the laws of gravitation and motion, nothing comparable came out of science for more than a hundred years (Image: Wikipedia)

Fellow Scientific American blogger John Horgan is at it again. This time he is heralding the end of fundamental physics based on the increasing time lag between Nobel Prizes awarded for fundamental discoveries. There’s actually a grain of truth in his analysis; for instance the prizes awarded for quantum mechanics in rapid succession in the twenties and thirties tell us how fast these fields were growing, a scenario that’s unlikely to repeat itself.

The analysis is also a little deceptive.

To see why, let’s imagine the Nobel Prize being established much before, in 1700 instead of 1900. For his working out of the laws of motion and gravitation, Isaac Newton would have surely gathered his prize for his monumental work Principia, published in 1687. But what then? There were certainly great scientists like Hooke, Huygens, Boyle and Cavendish in the 18th century and many of them might have rightly received the prize. Perhaps Coulomb would have received it for his law of electrostatics, formulated in 1798 and Benjamin Franklin might even have received it for demonstrating that lightning is a form of electricity. The prize might have been awarded to Count Rumford (Benjamin Thomson) for his very important discovery of the relationship between mechanical work and heat.

But very few of these scientists made discoveries that were as fundamental as Newton’s and very few of their discoveries are of the stature of Dirac’s equation for the electron, special relativity or the uncertainty principle. So if you charted the list of Nobel Prizes between 1700 and 1800 you might feel rather despondent about the future of fundamental physics, as John seems to be feeling right now. In fact it would be fair to say that a discovery as fundamental as Newton’s came more than a hundred years later when Faraday discovered his law of electromagnetic induction. After that fundamental discoveries seem to have been more frequent; among 19th century developments we would undoubtedly include Maxwell’s formulations of the equations for electromagnetism as well as the working out of the laws of thermodynamics by Clausius, Joule, Kirchhoff and others. All of these discoveries were more than Nobel-worthy. But the point is that whether you think there is a correlation between increasing time lags for Nobel Prizes and fundamental discoveries depends as much on the time period you choose to analyze as it does on other factors.

When you extend the analysis to greater time periods you realize that the history of science often consists of relatively fallow periods punctuated by upheavals. This was in fact the view propagated by Thomas Kuhn when he wrote about “normal science” and “paradigm shifts”. Now let me be clear that I actually agree with John that discoveries of the kind made during the heyday of nuclear physics or quantum mechanics are indeed singular; you can only discover the atomic nucleus once. But I also think that correlating the frequency of Nobel Prizes with the potential for fundamental discoveries in physics can be an endeavor fraught with temporal complexity. It is as conceivable to imagine that we are now in a fallow period and at the cusp of an upheaval as it is to imagine that we are running out of fundamental things to discover.

The other reason why people like me constantly feel like breathing a sigh of resignation when I read articles like these is because our reaction inevitably is, “So what?”. The fact is that the majority of the world’s scientists don’t work on fundamental laws, and those of us who work on the application of those laws are as happy working out the consequences of the laws as their progenitors were in discovering them. The illusion that almost every physicist must be obsessed with fundamental laws is one that has been created by a hype-happy media and a rash of biased popular science books on topics like quantum mechanics and cosmology. In addition, what’s called “fundamental” depends on the field of science. For a chemist, a theory of (emergent) chemical bonding is as fundamental as the theory of quantum electrodynamics would be to a physics. For an ecologist, a theory of the rise and fall of predator and prey populations is as fundamental as Maxwell’s equations are to an electrodynamics expert. Neuroscience seems to be on the cusp of discovering a lot of fundamental principles in its own domains. What’s applied to one kind of scientist may well be fundamental to another kind, so the boundaries between the two are never sharply drawn.

One thing that we should not forget is that even if in principle we stopped discovering fundamental laws, 99% of the world’s scientists would still go on happily plying their trade without batting an eyelid. It’s not that we don’t care about fundamental laws or don’t appreciate their significance and beauty – we very much do -  it’s just that for us the word “science” encompasses so much more than the quest for universal principles. Discovering a drug for cancer, working out human ancestry, building an artificial leaf to harvest solar energy, building the Giant Magellan Telescope, watching non-Newtonian fluids flow, even communicating science to the public – all these activities are as fascinating, important and gratifying as unifying quantum mechanics with gravity. So even if we discover fewer and fewer fundamental laws, science will continue to offer more and more to beguile and intrigue our minds. Fundamental or not, it will always be a source of progress and intellectual stimulation. What more could we want?

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Lacota 2:23 pm 04/16/2014

    Agreed. My reaction to Horgan’s article was, “what’s the point?” What does Horgan accomplish by predicting the end of fundamental physics? What affect does this have on science in general? Some people seem to enjoy telling science, “see you don’t know everything.” His article seemed to be more about reveling in the limitations of science instead of celebrating how much we must have discovered to be at the point where new discoveries are becoming more difficult. Horgan seems to have a love hate relationship with science that I can never understand.

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  2. 2. Francis Higgins 2:58 pm 04/16/2014

    Lacota 2.23 pm 04/16/2014.
    I’ve also had difficulty understanding where the author of the article stands. Even long respected conclusions and explanations of ‘fundamental physics’ have gone out the window in recent times. He says we can only find the atomic nucleus once, as if anyone can understand exactly what the nucleus consists of and how it behaves. I wish I could summarily dismiss the need to question again, and again, that which I ‘know to be true’.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 4:10 pm 04/16/2014

    “…all these activities are as fascinating, important and gratifying as unifying quantum mechanics with gravity. So even if we discover fewer and fewer fundamental laws, science will continue to offer more and more to beguile and intrigue our minds. Fundamental or not, it always be a source of progress and intellectual stimulation.”

    Yes, exactly! That is why I think that all science is really “normal science” and that what new ‘fundamental’ discoveries eventually lead to a “revolution” or a “paradigm shift” is not always obvious. Sometimes what is necessary is for a new generation to come along and look at the existing evidence in a new and original way. Also, it always takes time before a new advance is widely accepted and understood. That is another reason I dislike the common notion of scientific revolutions because those who frequently write about such things love to use emotionally charged words like ‘sudden’ and ‘dramatic’ and love to imply, or explicitly state, that the entire scientific world and the lay public immediately embraced the new findings.

    Your counter factual is very interesting. It does present the very fascinating thought exercise of who, before 1900, might deserve the honor. Since you rightly bring up Newton your exercise causes me to reflect on how much opposition existed in Europe to his theories at the time. I doubt that in that time of monarchies, intense nationalism and frequent wars between the nations of Europe, that an international science award could have been created. But, if one could have been organized, it would require the participation of the leading scientists of Europe and many of those would have been found in France in the 18th century. It is very interesting to follow the acceptance of Newton in France. Basically Cartesian physics dominated in France but a small group of French mathematicians and physicists championed Newton’s ideas. In part it was necessary to translate Principia Mathematica into French. This was done in 1749 by a most remarkable female French mathematician and physicists named Émilie du Châtelet (the common shortening of her name from Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet). (She deserves her own post) Du Chatelet was part of a small group of Newton champions centered around Voltaire. Another member, mathematician and astronomer Alexis Clairaut, used Newton’s concepts to calculate the orbit of the moon (a difficult prospect because the moon is largely under the gravitational influence of both Earth and the sun – Newton couldn’t do it!) and he recalculated the expected arrival of Halley’s Comet. At that time the prominent physicists and astronomers were arguing about the shape of Earth (sphere, oblate spheroid or prolate spheroid) and Newton had calculated oblate spheroid. To settle the matter the French Academy of science decided to actually take measurements of meridian arcs at both the equator and in Lapland. The results of this work were published in 1743. The Principia was available to the French speaking word in 1749 and Halley’s Comet returned in 1759 on Christmas day, within one month of the prediction by Clairaut. This not only gained acceptance of Newton in France but also provided indirect proof that Earth rotated on its axis once in 24 hours (thus the oblate spheroid shape) and overcame one of the primary challenges to acceptance of the Copernican / Kepler model of the solar system. So, in the 18th century Newton would have needed to wait for a nomination, and since you would need to be alive to be nominated for a Nobel Prize, Newton would not have made the list. He died in 1727.

    Both science and history provide me with endless entertainment and fascination and of course intellectual stimulation and to too would say, “What more could we want?”

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  4. 4. AndrewFrancisOliver 12:53 am 04/17/2014

    Might I comment that, depending on what kind of universe we live within, upper variations of the anthropic principle may mean one could argue there’s probably no possible full finite axiomatisation of the laws of physics, therefore no possible end of the possible discovery of more (and new to us) laws of physics …

    Essentially there’s two incompatible theories … one the cellular automata finite universal underlying computer theory of the universe, whose implications that our universe at the 10 to the minus 50 scale is a complicated version of Conway’s game of life or Gardiner’s isometric worms usually deterministic as well too!

    The other possible universe more believable to mathematical Platonists is one embedded in some kind of product of real function spaces (and perhaps other digital finite fields and looped spaces) and as a universe in which the real numbers really exist (think Dedekind cuts argument and every function has a rule and set theory with constant data items and functors) then the argument from Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems would be that the laws of physics being built upon the laws of mathematics therefore are not finitely fully describable in an inner model by the principle of interiority whence any finite list of finitely described laws of physics is of necessity incomplete …

    No end to the laws of physics possible then!!!!

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  5. 5. ssverma 10:12 am 04/17/2014

    There is no end to Fundamental Physics. It seems so when we see back to the fundamental discoveries in Physics in 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by great Physicists in comparison to 20th and 21st centuries. But still we do not have found answers to a large number of questions we encounter in every day life may be related to our life, well being or future or surroundings or many things. May be things in science have taken a different direction which seems to be more difficult not only to understand but also to pursue it further. Many more physics fundamental discoveries will come out with time but again it seems the path may be different.

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  6. 6. RobFromLoveland 6:09 pm 04/17/2014

    Too bad there’s nothing “fundamental” left to study. Most of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy, and those are so well understood that there are no possible big discoveries there. And of course we now know all about other universes and what happened before the big bang. What’s that?

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  7. 7. IdeaShopX 6:17 pm 04/17/2014

    What is time? Orthodox science treats time like a vector – when in reality it is a scalar. Can you point in the direction of five minutes? I think not. How many minutes is a kilometer? Something is seriously wrong here. Is time to be defined as the square root of a minus one? Perhaps, time is a fourth dimension; whatever that is. Do you believe in mutable universes? OK, where does the additional mass come from?
    What is mass? Is space a nonexistent void? Do mass-less virtual particles ‘pop out’ of nothing for a fleeting moment and disobey the Law of the conservation of energy? What is a particle? What is a wave? Exactly, what is an electron? What is a Peter Higgs Boson?
    Do you believe in a Hot Big Bang – where the total mass originated in a volume much smaller than a proton particle; and most everything is unknown; for example, dark matter and dark energy? How can nonexistent space expand into nothing? Does light precede, being much faster, than the expansion of matter?
    How does the quantum atom; which is based on Schrodinger’s probability function; emit exact line spectra. Does the quantum atom break the most fundamental law of physics – that an accelerated electron must emit electromagnetic radiation while zooming and zinging around inside the atom? Can one visualize this mathematically resented model? NO. What is vacuum energy?
    Does anyone believe, according to Einstein, that: “My watch is running faster than your watch and your watch is running faster than mine?” Are all inertial reference frames equivalent – when in fact the mass of different frames is accordingly different, in relation to the Lorentz transformation; – which dictates an absolute variance? Does acceleration create a gravitational field; – how? What is anti-gravity?
    Time, mass, distance, inertia, particles/waves (a duality?), motion, gravity, electromagnetic waves, the strong force, space itself and etc. are presently unknowns. Do you think physics and chemistry (The atomic model.) or for that matter Nature theory is nearly complete? I do not think so. We have a long way to go to get out of the scientific Dark Age. Hopefully, they will not run out of Nobel Prizes.

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 6:40 am 04/18/2014

    Ash

    IMO fundamental discoveries in physics are driven by technology and scientific instruments. Newton’s discoveries were in large part influenced by the invention of telescope by himself and Galileo. This enabled more accurate astronomical observations that confirmed Copernican theory.

    The discoveries of Faraday and Maxwell were largely influenced by Volta’s invention of electric battery. Without a steady source of electric current, Faraday could not had conducted his experiments and Maxwell formulated his electromagnetic theory.

    Fundamental discoveries in thermodynamics in the 19th century were enabled by the invention of the steam engine. Carnot, the founder of thermodynamics, started this science by studying steam engines. Other physicists expanded Carnot’s work.

    Fundamental discoveries in nuclear physics were enabled by inventions of particle accelerator and Geiger counter. Experiments, observations and technologies are the real drivers of physics. Theorists explain what experimenters discover. Today’s theoretical physics is different. Theorists make up all sorts of wild theories without a shred of evidence.

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  9. 9. Francis Higgins 3:02 pm 04/18/2014

    Dr.Strangelove. 6-40am 04/18’2014.
    Yes, and it astonishes me that some of the ‘brightest’ physicists are taken seriously when they say they subscribe to ‘Time Travel’ as a possibility. Completely impossible logically.
    Work it out for yourself. You approach your T.T. machine, put in the keys and then realise that if you HAD traveled back in time, to correct some misadventure, you wouldn’t need to go back in time. The need to correct the misadventure wouldn’t exist.

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  10. 10. Dr. Strangelove 7:49 pm 04/18/2014

    The lack of fundamental discoveries in theoretical physics is because it has been taken over by mathematicians. It’s not physics anymore but mathematics. The proof of this is Edward Witten – string theorist, founder of M-theory and considered by many as the brightest theoretical physicist today. He is the only physicist in history to win the Fields Medal, the Nobel-prize equivalent in mathematics for his work in theoretical physics. Yet no physicist ever won the Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on string theory, M-theory, multiverse and the like.

    In short, mathematicians recognize their work as important in mathematics but not in physics. Their bizarre theories are science fiction in mathematical form.

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  11. 11. heilprin 9:06 pm 04/18/2014

    As I stated elsewhere, the issue here is deeper than the prospect that science is “scratching the bottom of the barrel in fundamental science” or “running out of fundamental discoveries” and is qualitatively different from the myopic predictions made by some 19th century leading scientists – it’s the realization that’s been dawning on quite a few for several decades now, that less than five hundred years after the birth of the scientific method, it can be categorically concluded that we live in a reality that ultimately lays beyond our capacity to either examine or comprehend. This realization must be heartbreaking to anyone who put his or her trust in science.

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  12. 12. z34aa 12:04 pm 04/19/2014

    @heilprin

    How is your view qualitatively different from the myopic predictions of 19th century scientists? I’m not asking to be sarcastic, I really want to know what difference you see.

    When we look back at individuals in the past we easily see the lack of information and blind spots that lead to their incorrect assumptions. Many people seem to have a feeling of superiority because they have knowledge that has been gained by succeeding generations since that long ago scientist. I’m sure many of us can remember in grade school snickering as we were told about some of the ‘silly’ things people used to believe. How could people have been that dumb?!

    I think it’s important to consider that in a couple hundred years from now those future grade school children might be snickering at some of our beliefs, and wondering how we could be so stupid.

    As for the prediction of the end of fundamental scientific discoveries, it seems to be a bit illogical. Fundamental discoveries for the most part are unpredictable by their very nature. If you could predict a new finding in science that resulted in a readjustment in our fundamental understanding it wouldn’t really be a “new” discovery, would it?

    In the end saying that because I can’t think of any new great discovery that could happen, it must mean no more will, is a bit like saying that if I can’t see something it must not exist.

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  13. 13. GregRobert 7:42 pm 04/23/2014

    I find using the Nobel prizes as any sort of Scientific dataset simply because it does not award them posthumously. It therefore provides no useful data with regard to either the historical time line of science, or even its content.

    Surely it horribly misrepresents Einstein. A man who received but one award but easily deserved 3, though I personally would that number at a minimum 8f five: proof that atoms exist (on Browning motion) simultaneously vesting statistics as a proper tool for physicists to employ. Special Relativity followed shortly by E=MC^2, then General Relativity, the concept of four dimensional space-time, and the reality of Plank’s constant (which Plank himself denied)
    and thus kicking off quqntum mechanics. I

    Along the way he explained why rivers meander. Just for fun.

    Like Newton, he was no slouch, but the Nabel rules deprived him of his due.

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  14. 14. zankaon 3:49 pm 05/24/2014

    A counter example to the ‘end of new fundamental physics’ , see
    https://sites.google.com/site/zankaon

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