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Friday, July 8, 2011
Science ...

If you read up on the state of particle physics and cosmology these days, you might notice that there’s a lot more humility out there these days. Not too long ago, physicists often gave in to the temptation to get haughty, given how far they’ve come over the past 100 years in untangling the deep mysteries of how the universe is put together at the most fundamental levels. First there was Einstein with his sophisticated notions of how time, space, force and gravity interact on a grand (and not-so-grand) scale.

Then came Bohr and the quantum boys, who unlocked the strange mysteries of matter and energy at the tiniest levels. With better and better astronomical observations over the years, the physics people figured out that the universe had a “big bang” that began it all some 13 or 14 billion years ago. As particle accelerators grew more powerful, a unified theory about what the most basic building-blocks of matter and energy came together (i.e., the “standard particle model”). These concepts allowed physicists to come up with predictions that in many cases were verified by observations and experiments. It seemed like the final “theory of everything” was just around the corner.

But then things got strange. The universe wasn’t acting right. There was too much gravity around, pointing to some kind of matter that we don’t know about (“dark matter”). Even worse, the galaxies were flying away from each other at an expanding rate, indicating the presence of some kind of repulsive energy that doesn’t fit in our models (“dark energy”). An interesting mathematical concept called string theory showed promise in finding a way to weave it all together; but then that theory mutated into many different variations, until every phenomenon could be predicted by at least one version. But not all phenomenon could be predicted by one particular version. And thus, nothing was really predicted at all! It all got fuzzy.

Now I read that another sacred notion from the “modern synthesis” is under fire. According to quantum theory, there is a minimum length to anything in the universe; it’s sort of a fundamental building block. Theoretically, you can’t split anything up beyond this tiny fraction, i.e. 1 meter divided by ten multiplied by itself 35 times. This is called the “Planck length”, and is felt to be a pillar of the modern understanding of physical reality. But now, a satellite making observations of gamma rays from distant stars and galaxies seems to indicate that some kind of physical phenomenon is going on at an even smaller length (1 meter divided by ten to the 43rd power).

Scientists have spent years trying to figure out how gravity, described so well on large scales by Einstein’s relativity theory, fits in with quantum theory; i.e., how does gravity act when things are very tiny, e.g. at the core of an atom or the size of a light photon? They basically hoped that gravity would honor the Planck length, which all other matter and force particles appear to respect. Nothing at all seems to be going on within them at distances smaller than the Planck length. But now it looks like gravity might be the bad boy of quantum space, and many of the theories now being tested (i.e., some of the superstring variations, loop quantum gravity, etc.) just don’t work anymore.

So it’s back to the drawing board for the “Theory of Everything”. This is one of those little science findings that most people won’t notice, as it doesn’t make the front page of the papers or web sites. But it might be very significant in the long run. Just a hint, keep an eye on the “Integral” gamma ray polarization results. They could well shake things up even more in the world of super-abstract physics. For now, they clearly reinforce the case for humility!!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:32 am      

  1. Jim, I remember a time when I learned in school that the smallest thing was a molecule. (Yes, I am that old. Makes me wonder if I can possibly remember correctly.) Then, it was, no that wasn’t right; the smallest thing was the atom. After a while, it was: Oh, wait a minute, maybe the atom has some smaller things in it, etc., etc., etc. This type of thing has been going on for a l-o-n-g time among tghe physicists, is it? or is the scientists?

    I have long tho’t that any time I hear that “they” say have now discovered the “smallest” of anything it is just a matter of time until “they” discover that, no, that isn’t right; this other, newly discovered thing, is the smallest. It’s been going on for too many decades that I can remember now.

    Can’t take any of it seriously any more. I firmly believe that some day they will discover that, indeed, “they” were wrong about the fact some of the hard and fast “rules of the universe” such as the one that says one cannot go faster than the speed of light, that “they” have found the “smallest” of anything at all, etc. Anytime one of the scientists or physicists proclaims that the definitive of anything at all, it is just a matter of time until the definitive is proved to be wrong.

    I also have to say that I wonder just when the physicists particularly are going to come up against the concept that they are dealing with intangibles. Seems to me that past a certain point, which point might be the one that says that one can only know of the existence of a thing by the fact of its effects of having “been there” or when one gets to a “smallness” that can be defined as “1 meter divided by ten multiplied by itself 35 times”, one is dealing in intangibles. And then I say, get “intangible” enough, one might actually approach the spiritual. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 8, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

  2. Jim, I remember learning in school (oh, so many years ago!) that the molecule was the smallest thing. Then it was the atom that was the smallest thing. Then it was, oh, no, there was “stuff” inside the atom, and on and on. Now there’s a “Planck length” that’s “1 meter divided by ten multiplied by itself 35 times”! And I’d bet that wait a while, and there will be something still smaller.

    If I understand things correctly, some (all?) of these “smallest” things are not really observable as such; they can only bee inferred by the trace they leave of their presence. (Do I have that right?) Sounds to me like they are intangible.

    Then I find myself wondering just why scientists don’t admit they are dealing with intangibles that at some point will verge on the spiritual. Could these physicists and/or scientists (whichever name they prefer) have been dealing with the spiritual and refuse to acknowledge the fact? Just sets me to wondering. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 9, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

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