Where is physics headed?

Ref. New York Times Book Review, Sunday, October 9,2011. “Disturbances in the Field”, p. 14

If we start with the increasingly logical assumption the universe –our universe– is finite, that is, that it has a boundary out there somewhere, then the implications of that model are many. We know that it is expanding, even accelerating, but into what? Is what lies inside that boundary the same substance, medium or whatever, that lies outside? If new stars are forming, where is the energy coming from? What is fueling the expansion, some leftover impetus from an event some hundreds of billions of years ago? Or is new energy flowing in, fueling the expansion, creating new stars, speeding up the growth.

At the other end of the size spectrum, are the tiny “particles” that we know only by their tracks actually tiny clumps of “something?” or can their existence –or not– be explained in some other, simpler way? We certainly haven’t seen them. Could they just be  figments of our mathematics, like Einstein’s metaphor of time as a measurable, discernable substance?

Jim Holt’s review of yet another book trying to explain the findings and the contradictions of the Standard Model, Lisa Randall’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, in today’s NYT Book Review actually raises some of these questions, saying “But other physicists insist that an entirely new framework must be found, one that would transcend the Standard Model by putting all four (fundamental) forces (strong weak, electromagnetic, and gravity) on the same theoretical footing.”

The important question Holt’s article raises is “Where is physics headed?’

 “So where is physics headed? Before grappling with this question, it might be wise to ask first where physics is. And the cynical answer is, about where it was in the 1970s. That was when the finishing touches were put on the so-called Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model describes, in a single mathematical framework, the basic constituents of nature and three of the four known forces that govern their interactions: electromagnetism; the “strong” force, which holds the nucleus of the atom together; and the “weak” force, which causes radioactive decay. The Standard Model is not particularly elegant; indeed, it’s something of a stick-and-bubble-gum contraption. But in the decades since it was formulated, it has predicted the result of every experiment in particle physics, and with terrific accuracy.”

The answer to the question both in this review and in Lisa Alexander’s book, seems to be more and more detailed, expensive researches into the nooks and crannies, into the obvious cracks in the “established theories” starting with General Relativity almost a hundred years ago, to the Standard Model, with us since the 1970’s, and fanciful ones like “string theory” the now thirty-year old flight into multi-dimensional fantasies that has yet to lead to any testable hypotheses.

What is missing is any attempt to step back and look at the fundamental assumptions we have been basing all of these efforts on. For example, particles exist because we have seen their tracks. Time has substance and affects space (which also has substance because it can be distorted). Light travels at 299,792,458 meters per second in a (hypothetical) vacuum. Magnetism is generated by a magnetic field. These have become as accepted as Euclid’s axioms in plane geometry, that is, no explanations needed, they just are.

Just a few questions, but ones no one seems to be trying to answer except by pouring more and more time, money, and intellectual resources into just filling in the cracks.

What I’ve tried to do in “the picnic at the edge of the universe” is to step back and take a peek around and beyond the basic, accepted  assumptions and mental models that seem to be barriers to moving forward in any but this piecemeal way. Hopefully, it will be seen as a push into a different way to think about the questions. It certainly has made me see the world in a new way.

About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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