Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.
Typically, when discussing the most challenging unresolved issues in physics leads to talks about a grand unified theory, dark matter and dark energy, the big bang, and so on. While those are certainly worth discussing, I will be going for something a little bit more on the philosophical side but still maintaining that physics core. I also want to talk about some of the ones you don’t hear as often, yet should be given some consideration. Sometimes, the biggest problems are those we cannot see as such, even if we are looking straight at them. So, with that said, let’s get going down the rabbit hole.
Trusting the Results
How much weight should you put into physics results? I would hope you would feel comfortable with placing much stock into the scientific results you hear about. But…but…there may be an underlying rot that undermines the science we are finding. Oftentimes, the statistics and methodology of certain studies is not properly applied or interpreted. Now new studies build upon those and have the same issues with their results, and before you know it we have a chain of potentially useless science that contradicts other findings yet seems to be significant. Sometimes it’s also the theory itself that is wrong and yet is mistakenly thought (or assumed) to be true, then is built upon. At least experimentally, one possible problem point we can examine is p-values, which are used to see if a finding is statistically significant. Most use a probability of a result happening by chance at 5% chance as a good starting point for believing in the result, but why? Because at the beginning of such practices it was deemed appropriate and never really challenged thereafter. But, this means we arrive at confidence intervals that may not be true, and so that slippery slope of bad results start to trail from here (O’Grady, Denworth).
So where is the line for truly understanding, and therefore trusting, results? How can you fully weed out the inconsistencies? Some argue that the theories need to be better defined and calibrated before being experimented on, but sometimes experimental results do inform the theory, as is often the case in particle physics and social sciences. Also, some theories are so wild as to be virtually impossible to verify experimentally, so why pursue if it has no real meaning for us? Maybe we should use a more stringent p-value, like 0.5% instead to further justify confidence in results, use a more theory-data hybrid, constantly updating and retesting until converging on a result. Maybe the level of replication to verify results needs to go up as opposed to testing further in the hopes of uncovering something unique. There is no shame in verifying a prior result if you go about it in a unique way. In fact, you have given further reason to trust the results. Perhaps more emphasis on cross-disciplines connections should be made too, building up a framework of scientific rigor (Ibid).
In physics, chaos is a great topic that helps give many topics some air to fly with. To see this behavior of a system is challenging because of the many nuanced interactions that can give rise to such behavior, so oftentimes we take pieces of it and analyze it, looking for some insights into it. But is this actually appropriate? After all, we could be oversimplifying and thus failing to see some hidden feature that escapes us from our limited viewpoint. We try to bring order to tiny pieces of reality while failing to see truly chaotic patterns around us. Therefore, it could be argued that physics as a whole fails to ever uncover the truth of a system and instead merely approximates it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we can acknowledge and build upon the work we have to accommodate this. Obviously, more work will be needed to see this, but just remember that we may not be able to gain that insight, since we ourselves are a part of the system we try to study (Metere).
Emergence vs. Reduction
The above idea is really about wholes vs. parts and what we can infer about them. Large scales reveal emergent behavior as the pieces collectively act in unexpected ways as minute interactions stack up in unexpected ways. But the flip side is true too, where we reduce down to look at the pieces and see simple processes occurring that are also unexpected. Physics is often like this, taking a section of something and analyzing it before reinserting it back into the big picture. But this has limitations, like in particle physics and cosmology. It’s not terribly useful to examine individual objects in an attempt to understand collective behavior. Instead, somehow, both need equal consideration. How this would be achieved is anyone’s guess, but possible renormalization methods used as averaging techniques might be a potential route (Dijkgraaf).
If identifying the above behavior weren’t tough enough already, then consider the possibility of non-constant universal values. Values such as the mass of an electron and the gravitational constant are just that, values which cannot be found via theory but instead though experimentation. But what if these values actually do change and in fact reflect new physics we are not aware of? Perhaps if experiments give different values, like the proton mass dilemma, then we could have a springboard from which to investigate further. Or we may find a way to theoretically derive their values instead (Yiu).
I hope these kept you interesting and thinking about science in a new way. If you would like to hear more topics, leave a comment and I will gladly look into it!
Denworth, Lydia. “A Significant Problem.” Scientific American Oct. 2019. Print. 63-7.
Dijkgraaf, Robbert. “To Solve the Biggest Mystery in Physics, Join Two Kinds of Law.” Quantamagazine.org. Quanta, 07 Sept. 2017. Web. 20 Feb. 2020.
Metere, Alfredo. “Is nature really chaotic and fractal, or did we just imagine it?” cosmosmagazine.com. Cosmos, 28 Jun. 2018. Web. 20 Feb. 2020.
O’Grady, Cathleen. “The replication crisis may also be a theory crisis.” Arstechnica.com. Conte Nast., 16 Feb. 2019. Web. 24 Feb. 2020.
Yiu, Yuen. “Could Fundamental Constants Be Neither Fundamental nor Constant?” insidescience.com. AIP, 21 May 2019. Web. 24 Feb. 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Leonard Kelley
Leonard Kelley (author) on February 05, 2021:
Thanks Umesh. Its going to be very fascinating when we uncover the transition from quantum to classical...if it even exists at all. That is why physics is great: It admits it can be wrong and is open to new ideas.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 04, 2021:
Interesting analysis. Physics tries to explain what we have in nature and it uses different methods and theories at different levels. What applies at quantum level may not be true in normal sized body mechanics and then same may not hold good in the space and galaxy level. I think we are still at the beginning. You have made the point precisely.