Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Everything You Thought You Knew About Physics is Wrong

If you ever want to take a break from the concerns of daily life - economic inequality, political wrangling, wars, religious arguments - take a few minutes and contemplate Cosmology. Thought about long enough, this field really does put things in perspective.  Namely, how inconsequential most of our daily dalliances really are. 

At its very basic, we are a planet orbiting a very ordinary star near the far edge of a rather ordinary galaxy.  This galaxy we've called the Milky Way is set amidst thousands, millions even, of other clusters containing billions of stars each.  Though our most powerful telescopes can see billions of light years away, there is no known end to this ever expanding thing we call the Universe.

Since man first looked up at the stars and wondered from whence he came, theories have abounded about how we came to be.  They've been argued over, overturned and revamped.  And just when we think we have it licked, more questions than answers pop up.

Center of the Universe
Beginning in the 4th century BC, Aristotle put forth the geocentric theory of existence, whereby the earth stands in the center of the Universe, and everything takes place around our Planet.  In the third century, another Greek philosopher argued a heliocentric universe was more likely -- this sun centered theory was not widely accepted, however, until nearly 1800 years later when Copernicus fleshed it out further. 

Newton, in his revolutionary Principia, proposed the Static Universe, which implied a steady-state, infinite Space that was assumed accurate until Edwin Hubble showed that the Universe was not in fact static, and began the reign of the Big Bang.  This is what most of us have been taught -- but like his predecessors, Hubble's theory has been modified and argued over since its inception.

Add in a touch of Creationism, trying to stand alone as well as integrate itself into the fold of whatever passed for the Best Theory of the time, and you have a system that we just don't understand all that well. 

Following Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, things really started to get weird.  Superstring Theory, the multiverse model, Quantum Mechanics -- all in response to the crazy things that happen when we look at a super-macro or sub-atomic level.

The Golden Goose of Physics is the Unified Field Theory -- the quest for an elegant, relatively simple model that describes everything in the known universe.  Scientists currently think they have the solution, except that gravity is unaccounted for.  This, of course, is a problem.

And as new discoveries abound, Physicists are reexamining their most closely held beliefs.  The theory of the multiverse is causing much of this consternation -- primarily because it almost requires that the fundamental part of the explanation be taken on faith alone.

The theory goes something like this:  Because Life requires such a delicate balance of perfect requirements to exist, the mathematical odds of it occurring randomly are about as close to 0 as you can possibly come.  Thus, there must be an infinite number of universes in existence, in parallel with ours, with every possible outcome.  Among this mathematical milieu, one Universe would probably hold the correct Laws and that universe happens to be ours.  We know there is Life because, well, we are alive.

As Alan Lightman notes in his marvelous Harper's article about the challenge:
We have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove...Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.
It's All Greek to Me
Couple this with CERN's recent discovery that perhaps Einstein spoke too soon when he claimed nothing could travel faster than the speed of light, and you have a field ripe for Disruption.  At least one prediction is panning out as planned:  The Higgs Boson apparently really does exist. Now if we could just figure out the whole Dark Matter thing...

This is the exciting thing about the hard sciences:  There is always more to discover.  When new models appear that disprove the old, they are integrated and the disproven discarded.  Weird things happen that are never expected, and those who have advocated their particular theory are subject to defending their postulations with cold, hard facts. 

We as humans like to live in a world defined by static theories; we don't adapt to change very well.  But the very history and nature of science is an ever evolving inquiry into reality.  The past century has seen fundamental alterations to our beliefs in everything from biology and psychology to climatology and cosmology.  We can expect more of the same, and should never stop thinking we've figured it out.

We should also be careful to advocate policies based on ever-changing scientific consensus.  Orthodoxy caused the Catholic Church to imprison Galileo just after his greatest discoveries.  It would be a shame if we prevented free inquiry in order to satisfy ideological agendas. 

No comments:

Post a Comment