Why So Little Progress in Physics?

In an interview with Joe Rogan, Sean Carroll claims that of all the physicists on earth, there are perhaps one hundred who will admit to being interested in what the equations of quantum mechanics imply about what actually exists and the nature of physical reality. Showing too much interest can jeopardize a physicist’s career, and render him nearly unemployable if he specializes in that area.

The remaining physicists are happy to use the equations of QM without worrying about what they actually mean. Thus, they have memorized a set of algorithms and they become living proof of the truth that an algorithm, a set of instructions to answer well-defined questions, can be followed with no real understanding. This, unfortunately, is the case in the majority of mathematics classes, where students mechanically follow the equations while failing to understand what they actually doing or what the equations really mean. Students who never develop beyond this are incapable of making new discoveries or becoming real mathematicians. Just as someone could hypothetically follow driving directions, getting to the programmed destination, while having no idea where he was doing to end up.

Could this failure of imagination and interest be why nothing much has happened in physics for nearly a hundred years, compared with the early twentieth century and the rise of relativity and QM? Things like Higgs Boson, the God particle, were postulated long ago (1964) and merely experimentally confirmed with the collider.

24 thoughts on “Why So Little Progress in Physics?

  1. There is very little progress in Any science over the past 30 plus years, but physics declined first because it was first down the path of Big Science -which is not science at all (just a branch of The System, the One Bureaucracy).

      • Yes. Big is bad! Real science is done by individuals or sometimes pairs, working in small groups “invisible colleges”. When people set up systems to generate results, and systems to fund, and systems to hype… It is something different from real science.

      • @Bruce – I agree. I like the heuristic to avoid complex systems whenever possible. They often produce exactly the opposite of their stated goal, and generate new problems. E.g., systems for increasing literacy in children, often do the opposite.

  2. The failure of imagination is entirely Carroll’s. He, himself, is a leading anti-intellectual, anti-physics activist. He has missed the whole of the last 30 years of physics, which includes the numerous breakthroughs in string theory. Go read Lubos Motl for the gory details.

    • Thanks, bob sykes. I don’t know that it’s entirely Carroll’s problem. “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit would seem to concur about string theory. Carroll himself, however, I did not find very appealing philosophically. I’m not a fan of the notion that every time an electron, or whatever, could go left or right it does both and an entirely different universe is generated each time just seems ridiculous. He can’t believe in God, but he can believe that? Religion is SUPPOSED to be faith based, but I want my physics to be physical evidence based.

      • This multiple universe theory is just a ruse to avoid facing up to the implications of the observer being outside the bounds of the quantum equation, isn’t it? Non-material consciousness must not be allowed put a foot in the door?

      • Hi, mickvet: I”m not sure. Probably. Multiverses are certainly used to avoid the implications of the fine tuning argument, namely that the exact strength of the four forces of physics, strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravity have to be exactly what they are for life and universe as we know it to exist. How did that come to be? We live in one of the infinite number of universes where the numbers happened to come out right. The worst part is that if any evidence of another universe did surface, it would have to be via communication between the two universes, which would mean they are linked, which would mean they are now one universe. At least according to the physicists themselves.

        Theories in physics that cannot be proved even in principle should not be considered science IMHO.

      • mickvet: This is arguably true, so long as one does not imagine that observers are necessarily some special kind of object. The “cut” between system and its outside (where observers dwell) may well be arbitrary although necessary to formulate the theory. This would suggest that scientists must abandon hope for a description of the world not tied to some particular perspective; physics may allow nothing above these perspectives. The many worlds interpretation is one drastic tactic to recover a view from nowhere, albeit a very bizarre one. It has difficulties of its own such as how to identify a natural branching criterion, and although its advocates keep claiming that they can recover the Born rule, I’m not convinced. I suspect that we are being called to an even more radical metaphysical re-evaluation.

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  4. …not to mention: once folks fail to distinguish mindless application of algorithms from actual thinking, it then begins to strike them as feasible that mind could be explained by brain chemistry, and that artificial intelligence could actually be intelligent and conscious, etc…

  5. It turned out that the new theories in physics coul only be validated by experiments that required a level of technology that is not possible in the foreseable future. The experiments done with the current technology have only validated the standard model but things such as string theory need much more.

    So it was decided to jetisson experiments and made physics a discipline that is completely theoric, completely mathematic. Physics went back to the state of the Middle Ages, before Galileo introduced the experimental method. In that time, problems of physics were solved by appealing to logic without experiments. String theory is this kind of endeavor, which is not science but natural philosophy disguised under a mathematical cloak

    It is about making equations, epicyle over epicycle, to find a theory that tries to unify all the forces (a dogma of our time) while being compatible with observation. The way Ptolomean astronomy consisted in finding a clever way to reconcile the fact that the cercle should be the basis of the orbits (a dogma of that time) with the real phenomena.

    A “breakthrough” is finding a way to better fit this mathematical puzzle. It is not the breakthrough in science, which means an experiment validating or refuting a theory.

  6. Sorry for the length of this but: Quietly, on the fringes of the world (Sweden and America, actually), a group of physicists and engineers have been developing a RADICALLY different view of the universe. It is based on a combination of lab work, theory, and observation, and it is called the Electric Universe model (aka the Plasma Universe model). It’s a bit ragged and incomplete still, and a couple of its leading figures may be unsung geniuses, glorious weirdos, or both, but before you sneer it is well worth your time to investigate it.
    If you are curious, here are a few places to start from.

    http://plasmauniverse.info

    And on Evolution:

    The common version we are presented has hit a dead end, but what’s going on away from the cameras is a very different story.

  7. There is only so much a human mind can comprehend. It takes a while for new ideas to percolate through society, and more time for those ideas to be digested. Then we might get a few people thinking about them. Eventually a few of them will acquire a new insight into the nature of reality. Now we have to develop a way to describe this new insight to others. Since it is new and different, it will take a convincing demonstration to gain adherents. All these things take time. We’ll get there.

  8. I agree with Lee Smolin (https://www.quantamagazine.org/were-stuck-inside-the-universe-lee-smolin-has-an-idea-for-how-to-study-it-anyway-20190627/) that physicists are becoming more interested in interpretation and foundational issues than they used to be (although still not as much as they were in the early 20th century). Probably quantum computing / quantum information theory (and, to a much lesser extent, quantum cosmology) has a lot to do with this.

    • Bonald – Smolin agrees that physicists lost interest in foundational topics. We have a complete contradiction between Carroll and Smolin. Carroll says he gets at most 6 people turning up to conferences on the topic of what QM actually means, and can think of just 100 with any interest, period. Can Smolin or you name some conferences with better attendance on these topics?

      • Some topics closely adjacent to the interpretation of QM are fairly active: producing and maintaining entangled states (for quantum computing), quantum information theory (for quantum computing), the theory of indirect measurements (for photonics). Specializing only in ontological questions is still not a smart career move, but I think more physicists admit to being interested in the interpretation of QM, rather than feeling obliged to embrace what has been called the “shut up and calculate” interpretation.

        Part of the problem is that working on the interpretation of quantum mechanics was pretty strongly associated with working on the measurement problem, which was at least somewhat associated with advocating alternatives to standard QM based on philosophical prejudice. Most physicsists, if pressed, would agree that it is good to have some alternative on hand to any accepted theory, if only to have as plausible a straw man as possible to do as meaningful as possible check/verification of the standard theory. However, QM works so well, and there was no easily testable new regime to look at it in, that it didn’t seem worth investing a lot in. So there were a few people working on Bohmian pilot waves/stochastic hidden variables/etc, and that was thought to be enough. Now we are beginning to be able to test QM macroscopically. Also, it is becoming possible to monitor quantum transitions much more directly.

        I remember as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, the department was delighted when our own Tony Leggett won the Nobel Prize. He was invited to give an impromptu colloquium, and all of us went to see. Rather than discuss any of the work for which he was being recognized, he decided to announce that he had always been bothered by the meaning of quantum mechanics, and decided henceforth to devote his career to the problem. Leggett had short but memorable comments on Carroll’s favored many-worlds interpretation. After giving a summary of the position, he said that he recognized these sentences as grammatical English, but he could make no sense of them.

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  10. Hi, Bonald: for me, the many worlds theory is just desperate. I’m with Leggett. Why someone finds a belief in God completely unreasonable and then believes such a thing I find bizarre.

    Good on Leggett for devoting himself to the question of QM’s meaning. As I say, no further progress can be expected if the practitioners don’t know what they are doing and don’t even care.

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