Toward the resubstantiation of modern physics
(April 10, 2013: I have, through a curious set of circumstances, become aware that I am guilty of some unfortunate self plagiarism, in that I have incorporated without prior intention, some language from a prior post, the one titled “Serious Conversations” from about a year ago, in the following longer piece. I hope this does not either bore my readers or put them off, thinking, “he must have only one thing to say, he repeats himself so often.’ To some extent that may be true, but I hope you find it all somewhat interesting, even at that. On the other hand, there is sometimes value in repeating one’s self.)
I have, for the last two or three years, participated in online forums having to do with cosmology and modern theoretical physics, some with experts, Nobel laureates, and the like I came to those forums with curiosity and stayed in them with wonderment. Each discussant, even the rank amateurs like myself, seemed to bring a searching intellect and a desire to resolve reality, observations, experiments with theory, established mathematics and the language of quantum theories and relativity. In some instances, of course, the discussions wandered off into obscure details and what some would call crackpot theories, but typically they maintained serious intent and thought. Occasionally someone seems to have arrived at a new formulation that seems to make sense, but that on further study its cracks and crevices overwhelm its apparent rationality. The most recent of these requires the existence of a new, too tiny to observe particle that makes up all magnetic fields. In spite of this, however, we should remember that not every idea that digresses from accepted dogma is necessarily labelable as crackpot.
But even in groups such as these it is difficult for many to step far enough away to see the whole and its contradictions as well as to grasp any new approach when our minds and hands are full of a hundred years of accepted theories and conclusions. Ether or no ether; particles or, as Einstein suggested, just condensations in the field; distortions in an electromagnetic field, or dark energy, dark matter; empty vacuum or some other kind of vacuum, and so on. I went back to Einstein and Infeld’s “The Evolution of Physics” (1938) to remind myself of what they had to say about a total field theory and found it convincing and consistent with my own intuitions. Unfortunately, much of modern physics retains conceptual fragments of ancient physics, in particular, those fragments that have to do with the idea that the only way to describe the smallest conceivable element of what we call matter is that of a tiny, irreducible thing called a “particle.”
Sometimes an elegant mathematical expression so grabs our hearts and minds that we exclaim, as Einstein did with General Relativity, “This is so elegant, it must be true!” And, while sometimes that mathematical model, that shorthand description, actually is correct, actually is consistent with observed reality, it may not be complete, not as all-inclusive as it first seemed. Sometimes it needs a new look to be sure its basic assumptions were correct or that it didn’t leave out some key question. And sometimes its full implications are not realized or the fact that it might be inconsistent with an observation in some other part of its discipline. We forget that the vision of divine perfection of Plato and his contemporaries is what kept a geocentric model of the solar system in place for nearly 2000 years, until better observations so illuminated its inconsistencies that a new model had to be designed. In ancient times, when observations didn’t quite match the ideal model we were wedded to, we filled in the chinks and gaps with little exceptions, like stuffing pebbles to fill the holes in a dry stone wall, like Ptolemy did by adding epicycles to his model of the solar system. In regard to GR and the various quantum theories, we have spent a hundred years or more doing just that to minimize or explain away the apparent contradictions and paradoxes that are not completely explained in the theory or seem to contradict its conclusions. We have invented “dualities” to explain contradictory behaviors, We have posited probabilities as a substitute for actualities to show that some things are impossible to really know. Physics has almost become a “faith-based” discipline in some minds. We even hear that quantum theory is “the most successful model ever invented” and we must accept it because it is so “almost correct.” But then again, maybe it’s time for another Copernican revolution
Then sometimes, if we’re lucky, an elegant and universally accepted mathematical expression reinforces physical observations and results in a changed vision of reality. I have been looking for that, for expressions that we think we understand but that might or might not be so. Now it occurs to me that I may have found a way out of the wilderness of paradox and contradiction in a couple of ways. One is to look hard at the assumptions underlying the accepted theories and to assess the reality of their assertions, like “what are the actual substances Einstein bases his equations on?” and “what, exactly, is a quantum.” For instance, “What is this substance Einstein calls space and the other he calls time? Are they actually perceptible, measurable, manipulable? Are they “real”? And isn’t a quantum actually just a unit of measurement, not a thing in itself? Isn’t treating it as if it were something real just making it into one of Jean Beaudrillard’s simulacrae, a pretense of reality? If the answer is yes, the big question becomes, “Hasn’t modern physics left reality behind and become just a word game like, for example, Zeno’s Paradox?”
The other clue for me for finding a way out of paradox was reading a description in simple English of the implications of Maxwell’s equations numbers 3 and 4, expressed in this way: Maxwell 3: An electric field is created by a changing magnetic field. Maxwell 4: A magnetic field is created by a changing electric field. A recursive, self reinforcing system would seem to be the result. The only other requirement would seem to be a minimum level of energy to generate and maintain a self-sustaining system.
Daniel Fleisch, In his book, A Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations, (Cambridge University Press, 2008), puts it this way
“—The key concept here is that a changing electric field produces a changing magnetic field even when no charges are present and no physical current flows. Through this mechanism electromagnetic waves may propagate through even a perfect vacuum, as changing magnetic fields produce electric fields and changing electric fields induce magnetic fields.”
Here then might be that substance, that all-pervasive medium we have been afraid to call an ether. Here, then, is a medium that, contrary to quantum field theory, does not require existence of a particle in order to exist. Here is a medium whose underlying frequency and structure might be shown to control the speed limit of light and all other electromagnetic radiation. Here is a medium whose structure could be shown to give us our observed constants like the speed of light (c), Planck’s Constant (h), and values for permeability and permittivity in wave mechanics. And here is the medium from which, through random reverberations, reinforcements and resonances could have arisen coherent, stable distortions of the field that have become all those “fundamentals” that we have, in the “matter-centric” mindset we have carried down from Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, identified as “particles.”
So, what if it is just a field and not something like a fine grained dust storm of particles? What if our not-so-fine-grained organs and tools of perception have, for all these centuries, aided and abetted by our 5th century BC mindset about matter, fooled us into thinking we were seeing particles when all we were actually seeing were tight little knots in the fine grain of the energy that surrounds and permeates us? Would this explain some of the apparent paradoxes and contradictions of our previously accepted models and theories? Would this be a way out of the Slough of Despond we have slowly been sinking into? It seems to me that it might.
So let’s take a leap and assume the existence of such an electromagnetic field, a field that we won’t call infinite, since that is just a mathematical expression, but one that is essentially limitless by our puny human standards of measurement. Let’s assume it has a high frequency of vibration, something like 1/h, but that it is not precisely uniform but like everything else in the real world, exhibits a measure of turbulence, that characteristic that we here in the zone of middle dimensions often find frighteningly fearsome. Here then, might be the medium out of which could arise, via phase transitions and other mechanisms, perhaps like those of cellular automata, by the application of a few simple laws or rules what we describe as atoms, molecules, on up to what we can see, feel taste, hear, and smell—and detect with our telescopes and other instruments. Here then is that mysterious substance we call dark energy, making up 74% of the substance within our finite universe and 100% of that outside of this and perhaps other universes. Here is the source of the high energy but still invisible distortions we call dark matter, distortions that surround the still higher energy distortions we see as galaxies, stars and planets. Here is the energy source that fuels the growth and expansion of the universe even as the balance of polarities that we detect as gravity maintains a measure of internal order within it. Here is a medium that pervades all of what exists.
This is the heart of the model I have explored and outlined in a very simple way in my book, “the picnic at the edge of the universe” and in the posts on my blog at enquiriesnw.com. It is a model that can replace the contradictions and paradoxes of all of the so-called “quantum” disciplines that take their name from what is simply a unit of measurement, with reality. It can lead us to see that General Relativity is a play on words like “spacetime” made up of terms that are, again, just descriptors, not real substances that can be observed, described or measured. It can be a way to lead physics back to its roots as a discipline meant to explain reality, not to be a mathematical substitute for it, what Beaudrillard describes in “The Precession of Simulacrae”
What does this imply? Well first, if this is true, then nearly everything you have been taught and thought you knew about modern physics and the structure and origin of the universe is wrong.
1. The most well-known and generally accepted theory of modern physics, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, is wrong, not because there is something wrong with the mathematics, but because it is based on two faulty premises, that “space” and “time” its principal components, are improperly assumed to have the attributes of real, physical, discernable,, manipulable substances, which neither of them can be shown to possess. It is interesting to note that even the putative fathers of General Relativity, Poincaré, Minkowski, even Einstein himself knew that these were just mathematical expressions, not reality per se, and that such a mathematical luminary as Kurt Gödel, had proven that time could not exist in Einstein’s relativistic universe.
2. Quantum theory, quantum electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and their siblings, in fact all those entities with “quantum” in their given names, have nothing to do with the real world and hence are inherently false in their conception and application. A “quantum” is, by definition, a unit of measurement, a descriptor, two or three levels of abstraction beyond reality. You can intelligently say of something that it has so many quanta of some attribute or characteristic, but a “quantum” cannot be considered to be real in itself; reality of course, being the real basis of physics.
3. Mathematics is not reality. Mathematics is a man-made language, a shorthand of great power and flexibility and incredibly useful for describing actual entities, events, and phenomena. We should remember, however that it came about as a mechanism to enable an Arab trader to keep track of how many goats he had or had not sold in the marketplace that day. It is of great use as a quantifier and descriptor, but cannot be considered as reality itself. I commend to you George Lakoff’s book on this subject “Where Mathematics Comes From.”
4. The universe was not created as the result of a “big bang” generating everything we perceive from nothing. The arguments for it are increasingly unsupportable and the so-called” evidence, the cosmic microwave background radiation or CMBR, is better explained by numerous other models.
I have devoted the last several years to looking at the things and ideas, the theories and the concepts that we thought were true but which might or might not be so. These have ranged from the theories that seemed obviously paradoxical like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, wave-particle duality, the brain-mind controversies and others of their ilk. Ultimately it began to appear to me that many of these apparent contradictions, these Zen-like statements, even though broadly accepted might have more understandable explications. I have for the past year or so participated sporadically in a discussion group ion the internet concerned with theoretical physics. The group contains some highly educated individuals, even Nobel laureates, but seems mostly to consist of interested amateur thinkers like myself. This particular group has recently taken up discussion of a famous experiment that seemed to prove that light was of a particular wave-like nature, the so-called double slit experiment. When theorists, namely Einstein himself, suggested the notion that light, sometimes behaved as if it were made up of individual particles, a paradox arose, that light sometimes behaved as if it were waves, and sometimes as if it were made up of particles, a notion that has persisted to this day.
The paradoxical nature of this idea became highlighted for me once again when one of the recent participants in an online discussion began his comment with these words, “If a single photon passes though two slits at the same time….?”, my brain made a horrible leap. I immediately thought of the Zen quote in regard to “the sound of one hand clapping,” and Dr. Seuss’s assertion in “Horton Hears a Who” that, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” All three of these statements seem, on the surface, to be logical statements, but on a tiny bit of further thought reveal themselves to be wholly untenable as assertions of reality.
The issue of wave-particle duality can be easily disposed of except for one thing and that is that modern physicists for all their leaps of faith and acceptance of paradoxical and contradictory parts of their theories have been unable to abandon their matter-centric allegiance to the term particle, which is taken to mean a tiny irreducible unit of matter, like a miniscule billiard ball. It is OK that the Greeks, Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, thought that the universe could be reduced to something very small. It was a brilliant inference. But they were limited to seeing the smallest element of their world as a grain of sand, a dust mote perhaps, so we owe them a great scientific debt.
Science and physics in particular, has moved on from earlier explanations, from Ptolemy to Copernicus, from Newton to Einstein and Bohr. But the idea of the “particle” has persisted through it all. This in spite of the fact that many of these paradoxes and inconsistencies would simply melt away, disappear, if we were to accept a notion that it is all just waves (of energy, perhaps) and that in certain instances these can appear to us as if they were particles, and this appearance is directly the result of our inability to let go of the mental model we carry around in our heads. It seems long past time that we stepped back and looked at it in a different way. My favorite quote on this subject is from Janna Levin’s book “The Madman Dreams of Turing Machines”:
“There are faint stars in the night sky that you can see but only if you look to the side of where they shine. They burn too weakly or are too far to be seen directly, even if you stare. But you can see them out of the corner of your eye because the cells on the periphery of your retina are more sensitive to light. Maybe truth is just like that. You can see it, but only out of the corner of your eye.”