X-Message-Number: 19153
References: <>
Date: Sun, 26 May 2002 13:19:37 +0200
From: David Stodolsky <>
Subject: Re: Why no fundamental advances in physics?

At 9:00 AM +0000 2002-05-26, CryoNet wrote:
>Why no fundamental advances in physics lately?

It could be argued that the advance of physics is accelerating, as it has
thru its entire period of development. The question of what is a
*fundamental* advance, however, depends upon your point of view.

Last year it was announced, "Time is dead, Space is dead". In other words,
as far as the theorists are concerned, these concepts have dropped out of
the field. Does this mean that time is just a figment of our imagination?
Not quite. (However, it does suggest that discussion of the concept
requires about 20 years of education in physics and its foundations, if it
isn't to be a waste of time.)

When you eat a cherry, you find that it is sweet. However, from the
physicist's point of view it is just atoms. Your perception assigns the
sweetness to the cherry, the laws of physics have nothing to say about
sweetness. Eating the wrong thing could kill you, but that has nothing to
do with physics. Also, the passage of time could result in your death, but
again, that has nothing to do with physics.

One recent paper argued that successful industrial civilizations will
eventually create black holes (baby universes). See "Possible Implications
of the Quantum Theory of Gravity, An Introduction to the  Meduso-Anthropic
Principle" by Louis Crane.
The theoretical ability to create universes "in the lab" strikes me as a
pretty fundamental advance, or could certainly lead to one.

>1. Our current physical theories are a frighteningly close approximation of
>the behavior of the universe, at least the bits of it we can get at. Physics
>advances by noting discrepencies between experiment and theory. No
>discrepencies, no advance. Based on this, physics should pick up again when
>we can get at those bits of the universe we can't currently observe. It
>will, unfortunately, take us a while to get the tools to do that.

This is fundamentally a political question. To investigate the unification
of gravity with the other fundamental forces requires an increase in energy
in experiments of about 20 orders of magnitude. This means big bucks for
*big* machines. However government funding for physics, and basic research
in general, is dropping.

Political leadership today seems to have about a two year vision, the time
to the next election. You can't do physics today on this kind of time line.
This is also why the Soviet Union beat the vastly more technically advanced
USA into space. Probably it will be the Chinese next time, they aim to be
on the Moon permanently by 2010.

The time line for market driven development is even shorter and dropping.
After the Enron collapse, investors are looking for very fast returns. They
want to make sure their money comes back, and with the extensive
deregulation that has taken place, the chances of that have dropped for the
longer term.

Another unfortunate development is in the field of science studies, where
social constructionism has become a dominate force. (Some in this field
recently were bragging that they had stopped the funding for the big new
accelerator to be built in the USA.) Social constructionism, in its most
extreme form, argues that there are no ultimate authorities, that is, the
Bible is just as valid as a physiology text book, etc. Political leaders
really like this, since they can choose an "authority" that supports the
policy they want to pursue.

>2. WE'VE GOT MONKEY BRAINS! No, seriously, it's remarkable we've gotten this
>far with brains evolved for a primative hunter-gatherer lifestyle. And that
>fact that we HAVE gotten this far has relied on a tiny minority of
>anomolously intelligent people, way out at the end of the probability
>distribution. I really think we're reaching the limits of what unaided human
>brains are capable of. Hopefully, improving those brains will prove to be

This notion was firmly rejected at a recent physics lecture at the Univ. of
Copenhagen, "A theory of everything." New graduate students in physics are
not having any more problems understanding the latest theories than their
predecessors did.


David S. Stodolsky, PhD    PGP: 0x35490763    

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