Friday, February 12, 2016

Gravitational Waves, the Higgs Boson, and the State of Physics.

Hey, very cool that physicists have finally detected gravitational waves, almost exactly a century after Einstein published the theory that predicted them. Just like it was cool when the LHC detected the Higgs boson, 45 years after Higgs and Englert predicted it.

So Einstein's general relativity is confirmed again, still passing every test we can put to it. And the Standard Model of particle physics is confirmed again, still passing every test we can put to it. And they remain completely unreconcilable, not just mathematically but in their underlying philosophy; in relativity, everything is 100% predictable, but in quantum mechanics nothing is 100% predictable.

We're missing something, somewhere.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I'm reminded of the theory of Phlogiston.

See, the theory itself made a decent amount of sense. People observed that a burning object deprived of fresh air would stop burning. They also observed that people smothered to death when enclosed in an area with fire.

So how to explain that? They had no notion of oxygen, nor it's importance in regards to both human respiration and material conflagration. But they knew something was different between air that had been exposed to fire, and air which hadn't. Phlogiston was the attempt to explain that, and it held up pretty well. The idea was that if people are dying in the presence of fires, the fires must be releasing something which causes such deaths (other than smoke).

Phlogiston was supposed to be that something. As an object burned, it was theorized to release phlogiston, which was then absorbed by the air. Air which had absorbed too much phlogiston became unbreathable, thus explaining suffocation. Additionally, air could only absorb so much phlogiston before becoming saturated - at which point, burning objects could no longer release further amounts of phlogiston, thus explaining self extinguishing without fresh air.

Functionally, phlogiston theory described oxidation, just in reverse. Instead of a lack of oxygen in the air, the problem was an abundance of phlogiston. When you introduced fresh air, you weren't bringing in fresh oxygen to be consumed, but rather removing excess phlogiston from the system. It all made logical sense and meshed with our empirical observations.

Until experiments in other areas began to challenge our understanding, the theory was able to pass every test we could throw at it. It started to buckle when it was demonstrated that certain metals gained mass when they burned, as opposed to losing it as would be expected from their releasing phlogiston into the air. It fully collapsed once it was demonstrated that combustion required the gas which we later would determine to be oxygen.

You're absolutely right that we're missing something. But it may be quite a while until we figure out what - phlogiston theory prevailed for over a century, and it was comparatively simple to contest via direct measurement. I imagine we're stuck here until we make breakthroughs similar to the discovery of oxygen - find some fundamental aspect of existence we've been completely ignorant of until this point.

Personally, I don't mind waiting.