Has Physics Been Stagnating?

I just read an interesting article in Nautilus titled “The Present Phase of Stagnation in the Foundations of Physics is Not Normal.”  This is an incredibly thought-provoking article and I highly recommend it.

The basic premise of this article is that nothing new has happened in our basic understanding of physics since the 1970’s.  Essentially, physics has gone from a field that comes up with better understandings about how the world works to a field that is more interested in dotting each i and crossing each t.  As opposed to changes in the early/mid 20th century, experimentalists are now “poking in the dark” because there are no new predictions to test.  Sure, we’ve got the concept of dark matter, but as the author states, this is just a placeholder for a phenomenon we don’t understand.  Her assertion that physics involves a lot of “blathering about naturalness and multiverses” seems to make sense, based on what little we’ve heard from the world of physics lately.

I think there’s a lot of truth to what Dr. Hossenfelder says in her article.  I’ve heard about experiments with the Large Hadron Collider and we still hear predictions of doom from the late Stephen Hawking, but they haven’t really told us much that’s new.  I like new particles as much as everybody else, but I’m not sure they’re doing anything but keeping particle physicists out of the unemployment lines.

There are, in my mind, three main points that we should consider.  And all of them lead to a hopefulness that’s not present in this article.

  1.  We’ve heard this before.  Michelson famously said in 1894 that there was nothing left in physics to discover.  As a species, we’d pretty much figured out everything that classical physics had to tell us.  We were dotting each i and crossing each t as we are now.  Of course, this turned out not to be true.  Not only were quantum mechanics and relativity on the horizon, but Michelson himself had performed a famous experiment disproving the aether seven years before he made his famous comment! Clearly, physics was getting ready to do something.
  2. Innovation isn’t constant.  There have been large blocks of time in which no really innovative stuff has been discovered.  This is true not only for physics, but for all sciences and areas of study.  The reason is this:  The world’s supply of genius isn’t constant.  Sometimes we get a whole bunch of geniuses like Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, and the Curie family, but in other periods we end up with less awesome intellects.  Sure, every age has brilliant people, but most brilliant people don’t have the insight to invent truly new ideas.  Hence we get Dr. Hawking’s nonsensical rantings about space aliens and God alongside his brilliant astrophysics work.
  3. We don’t know what to ask.  We can only solve problems that we know actually exist, and at this point we don’t have any of those.  Consider the classic book Flatland, which posits a world of two-dimensions.  Even if the inhabitants of this 2-D world see weird stuff happening, there’s no way for them to imagine what a world of three dimensions is like.  We’re living in a similarly limited universe, and to imagine something fundamentally different will require an imagination and creativity that we haven’t seen in a long time.  We’ll have to wait.

So, is innovation in physics gone?  Right now, yes.  I’ll agree wholeheartedly with the author that nothing much is happening and that lots of money is being spent on pointless papers.  However, it only takes one of these physicists to think in a wildly different direction to spark the next revolution.  I hope it happens in my lifetime.

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