Five Problems in Physics without the Definite Article

By Fendley, Paul | Science News, July 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Five Problems in Physics without the Definite Article


Fendley, Paul, Science News


In a 2006 book that garnered much press for its silly attacks on string theory, author and physicist Lee Smolin provides a list of "The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics." There are many offensive things about this list, starting with the use of the definite article in the title, which implies that people not working on these problems (the majority of theoretical physicists) are working on less-than-great problems. But to me the most offensive thing is that only one of the five problems, I believe, could eventually be resolved by experiment.

Most physicists don't consider a phenomenon to be understood until there are both repeatable experiments displaying it and a quantitative theoretical description. The only physics problems without both aspects are those unrelated to experiment. We have a name for such problems: mathematics.

The book's list, however, did inspire me to come up with my own list. Here are my "Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics," without the definite article:

1. Explain the dark matter and energy in the universe

This problem is the one of Smolin's five that stands a shot at being resolved in my lifetime. It's actually two related problems. Astronomers have observed that the gravity we theoretically understand does not describe how galaxies rotate--unless there's a lot of matter out there that we don't see. This is known as dark matter. Similarly, at staggeringly long-distance scales, astronomers observe that light is overall not bent, even though gravity does indeed bend light. The only way this is consistent with Newton and Einstein is for the universe to possess a precise energy density. Dark energy is our name for this extra energy. For both dark matter and energy, we need to figure out what this stuff is or we need to figure out how to extend the work of Newton and Einstein.

2. Explain high-temperature superconductivity

Even ignoring possible real-world applications, superconductivity is one of the coolest (literally and figuratively) phenomena in quantum physics. It's hard not to be impressed with experiments that let current flow for years without a battery. We understand theoretically what characterizes a superconductor: Electrons of opposite momentum form an unusual quantum state of zero energy called a Cooper pair. But this long happened only at excruciatingly low temperatures, hard to achieve outside a lab. Thus the physics version of mass hysteria occurred in the late 1980s when materials that super-conduct at high temperatures were found. …

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