Are there any truly dumb questions in physics?

I trade thoughts and correspond occasionally with other interested amateurs and some highly qualified professionals  on an internet forum on theoretical physics. While most of the topics raised there are serious, intelligent and thoughtful questions involving complex interpretations of concepts, math, and experiments, sometimes there are queries posed that your initial reaction to is “not this again!”  or, “didn’t we cover that subject the last time?” But if you take a few minutes to think about it, you realize that what might seem like a dumb question often turns out to be a smart question, because it leads you to think about an old issue in a new way, or to re-think old assumptions that you may have left unchallenged for too long. A couple of recent ones on our forum are like these.

My first response to one of these questions,  “Does a photon have mass?” was dismay, and I posted a (too) quick response. In many ways this question is a nonsensical one. A photon has energy, else how could it displace another “particle” from a plate of another material per the photoelectric effect? And if you accept E=mc2, then energy = mass in that conceptual universe of thought, and of course a photon has mass. But if the question is about the classical notion of “rest mass”, then we’re in another quandary, because a photon is never at rest.

So, one thinks that this mass/energy duality might be akin to that other mysterious duality of modern physics, the “wave/particle duality”, except that in the case of mass and energy, at least both qualities can be measured.

In this thinker’s conceptual model, the answer to this question lies outside the quantum physics model of the universe. If what we designate as a photon carries energy but no “rest mass” then we must abandon the notion of it as a “particle” as it is considered in the QT universe. Instead we should see it as something more like a coherent wrinkle or distortion in the background fabric of the cosmos of which many of us are convinced that our universe is a part. If one sees the so-called “empty” cosmos as made up of an extremely high frequency electromagnetic field, our “photon” can be seen as simply a small but significant distortion of that field. Its apparent “velocity, c, then, is not seen as the passage of a particle “through” a medium but as a wave-like distortion of the medium itself, and its apparent velocity is a constant, constrained by the fine grain, the ultra high frequency of the medium, just as the apparent velocity of the passage of an ocean wave does not represent any forward movement of the medium itself, only the passage of a distortion. Think of cracking a whip.

A second “dumb” question is a little more complex. It goes like this: “Please explain to me the Quantum theory called “superposition.” Well, the answer is also complex. Superposition is often assumed to mean the presence of two entities such as electrons occupying the same space at the same time. This is a false assumption and we can all agree that two substantive things, two particles, say. cannot occupy the same space at the same time. (Note here for further reference however, that two (or more) wave conglomerations can, in fact, occupy the same space at the same time.)

The accepted definition of superposition is more of a mathematical construct and according to Wikipedia, it goes like this:

Quantum superposition is a fundamental principle of quantum mechanics that holds that a physical system—such as an electron—exists partly in all its particular, theoretically possible states (or, configuration of its properties) simultaneously; but, when measured or observed, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations (as described in interpretation of quantum mechanics).       Mathematically, it refers to a property of solutions to the Schrödinger equation; since the Schrödinger equation is linear, any linear combination of solutions to a particular equation will also be a solution of it. ”

In simpler terms, what this means is this: that you cannot know or predict at any time, what state any given electron might be in. It’s an easy out for a theory that purports to explain how everything works in nature, but is strangely unsatisfying as an explanation of some observed behavior. Physicists seem to accept it though,  however much it sounds like religious dogma about the eternal mysteries.

A third question has come up more recently, about yet another mystery,  something called “quantum entanglement.” Quantum dogma has it, and this has supposedly actually been observed, that two quantum entities can become “entangled,” so that if they are then separated by any distance, even as much as at both sides of the universe, if the state of one of them changes, say from a left spin to a right spin, or from a positive to a negative value, the other entangled entity is automatically, instantaneously, changed as well. Now, Einstein challenged this idea, both as presuming instantaneous action at a distance, without any known force being involved, as well as violating the principal that no action in the universe can exceed the speed of light.

Here is a way out of having to deal with both of these quantum conundrums, these paradoxes and contradictions that are somehow easily supported in the language of mathematics but not in the domain of observable reality. It requires only a simple conceptual adjustment, that we accept the notion that what physicists since perhaps the time of Democritus have assumed to have the nature of a “particle” is, in fact simply a very small, coherent, organized, higher concentration of energy in the field of the cosmos. It is a distortion of the field, and because of its concentration of energy, it generates a companion field in its local region. Back to entanglement for instance, if, for example we postulate a tightly bound energy field as the cosmos one might infer behavior something like what happens when you pull at a corner of a bed sheet to eliminate a wrinkle only to have the same wrinkle miraculously appear in the opposite corner

If taken seriously, it can be seen that this model enormously simplifies our conceptual vision  from the microscopic world of physics out to the macro-macro model of the cosmologist. There is a place here to explain mystical phenomena from the “double slit experiment” out to the mysterious substance called “dark matter” which can then be seen as large, broad scale distortions in the cosmic field surrounding truly high energy concentrations such as stars, galaxies, and clusters. And “dark energy,” that other mysterious unseen substance can be seen as simply the substance of the field itself.

This doesn’t throw out all of the work of the last century. Much of the math will still apply as long as the mathematicians are willing to give their claim that “the math is the reality.” What the rest of us have to give up is something very tiny, and which no one has ever seen, anyway, that hypothetical little billiard ball that has hypnotized scientists and philosophers for a couple of thousand years.

The collection of assertions that make up what is collectively known as quantum theory has, for almost a hundred years, been considered the principal body of knowledge that underlies modern physics. Unfortunately, it remains after all that time a body full of contradictions, paradoxes, and uncertainties. It has frustrated all attempts at reconciliation with the dogma at the other end of its chain, the theory of general relativity, itself contradicted by the insubstantiality, the actual reality,  of its two principal elements, space and time. QT must be seen, not as a body of knowledge, but as a body of supposition, that would have been abandoned early had it not been called on to fill an intellectual vacuum, and had it not had such a corps of vociferous supporters speaking a language most could not understand, that of the highest and most impenetrable mathematics.

The challenge we are trying to meet here is to replace those troubled, damaged, incomplete, and ontologically challenged models with one that is more complete, more consistent, that explains conceptually more observable phenomena.

It is difficult, we know, to mentally conceive  a cosmos that is a 3-dimensional field of vibrating energy, with bundles of vibrations, perhaps the things we call photons, electrons, and the like, that are simply coherent distortions of the field itself, not foreign bodies moving through it; or the concept that everything that exists in the universe is made of those distortions, from the tiniest entities out to and including the stars—but it should not be more difficult than swallowing the thorny paradoxes and contradictions of quantum theory.

So, I’ll end with one more dumb question. “Is the Sun around which we annually circumnavigate a real tangible object , or is it perhaps just a truly bright spot out there in the sky?” As you might guess from my thoughts above, I’m leaning strongly toward the second notion.

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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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One Response to Are there any truly dumb questions in physics?

  1. pallsopp42 says:

    Happy Christmas Eve, Chuck.

    Nice posting!! You’re right. Those “dumb questions” aren’t dumb at all. I agree that thinking about them over time can refine ideas and create new insights into what answers might be.

    I agree with you about the sun being a bright spot – a big one for sure!!

    All the very best

    Phil

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