Theory is splendid but until put into practice, it’s valueless
James Cash Penney
Theory, in ancient Greek θεωρία (theōría), is to look and observe, and also to speculate.
The range of ”theory” is widely used in all sciences, however, reflecting back to ancient Greece, this word has a philosophical sense.
Thales, a pre-Socratic philosopher, and considered one of the first proponents of philosophy in ancient Greece, was the first to use the concept of a scientific hypothesis to explain a certain phenomenon. While other philosophers of his time relied on mythology and Gods, he went steps further, and introduced a rational approach.
In his cosmological model, Thales argued that everything is originated from water, assuring that ”the nourishment of all things is moist and that even the hot is created from the wet and lives by it”. His work, reaching us by many of his ancestresses, ranged from geometry, to philosophy, following the basic scientific reasoning.
Following Thales, Thousands of years of philosophical and mathematical evolution along trillions of ideas sprang back and forth through the minds of the many greats. Through these ideas, science went into branches, each holding its own subtitles, and along these subtitles, mini-subtitles existed.
In the late five hundreds, and early six hundreds, Sir Francis bacon set up the basics of the scientific method, the latter was really effective in the development of these sciences and their subs. It is to be noted that the scientific method was already used in the ancient times as well.
A vital component of the scientific method is experimenting, which leads to the data, that usually causes the build up of a certain mathematical model. Or vice versa, by describing a phenomena mathematically and creating an experiment as a later proof.
This takes me back to the foundations of quantum mechanics, with the ultraviolet catastrophe. In the nine hundreds, an experimental-theoretical disagreement occurred, as data didn’t match a mathematical model created. In details, physicists tried to explain the distribution of the radiation emitted by the black body, which was impossible by the given means of classical mechanics. While some scientists (Rayleigh and Jeans) succeeded in describing this distribution on long wavelengths of light, their model failed horribly as the wavelengths approached zero, as it predicted that energy approaches infinity as the wavelength tends to zero.
Hence, in an ” act of desperation” as he called it, Max Planck postulated the quantization of energy, that is, in simple terms, it travels in packets. A simple mathematical trick that turned out to be revolutionary. The mathematical model he created was in complete harmony with the data, thus starting a new era now known as the quantum one.
Between the theoretical-experimental disagreement that occurred in the nine hundreds, many followed. Experiment is considered the ultimate test for any theory, at which the model collapses or persists. But what if a theory is un-testable? what if building the necessary experiment for the theory seems impossible in a reasonable amount of time? Who’s on fault, a theorist, or an experimentalist, or neither?
I know that the dilemma is deeper than what this question reflects. It goes into the very foundations of science, but here, I want to tackle my field only, that is, physics. The question is whether theoretical physics is stuck and why. How can we break this curse of repeated approaches? Are physicists stuck, and why? What’s wrong with theorists? what is wrong with physics? And is it physics, or physicists?
The Aesthetic argument:Physics is based on observations of natural phenomena, that happens to be counter-intuitive sometimes, and in other cases, defying our own logic. However, our own logic is not a scale of truthiness. Through this, one can easily deduct that our scale of beauty isn’t a scale either. However, it worked in certain research areas. In biology, for example, James Watson (who postulated the helix form of DNA), said that the idea of such form was too pretty not to be true.
Many are the theorists arguing in vein about their theories, fighting for this eternal life-death debate, in order to prove their beauty standard right, and the standard surely differs from one to another.
Albert Einstein argued of the relation between the physical reality of our universe and quantum theory, and along his two colleagues, Podolsky and Rosen, they proposed a thought experiment, that argued against the whole interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Mainly, they proposed a counter-argument to the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, stating that if two particles are connected together, they are mathematically related, thus, the momentum and position of one can be determined simultaneously, and thus, disproving the uncertainty principle. The paper concludes that an action taken on the first particle, cannot reasonably affect the other particle, since this effect would be transferred almost instantaneously, thus breaking a vital part Einstein’s relativity.
The real challenging part for Einstein, was the non-locality that quantum mechanics poses, that, didn’t fit the Einsteinian view of the universe.
In details, Einstein argued of the pre-observed spin of a particle: Quantum mechanics stated that the spin of the particle is in a probabilistic state, Once an observation is made, a definite value of the spin is determined, in that I mean a definite direction. As for Einsteinian interpretation, it assumed that the spin is definite in the pre-observation state, and our results yield this actual definite value of particle.
This argument isn’t considered a scientific one (by me at least), given the fact that we are trying to pull up a conclusion over an un-testable theory. Nevertheless, the argument was resolved by Bell, who in his famous paper, introduced a method of experimentation that proves the probabilistic distribution of the spin.
Einstein’s argument was based solely on a philosophical view, backed up by his belief of a local universe, which would make sense. I mean, surely I won’t pass through a portal now and bump onto the other end of some place (God, I wish), but the non-locality here is quantum-based, describing the behavior on barely seen particles.
What’s wrong the logical-aesthetical argument? Well, everything: It’s not basic science, it contradicts the scientific method, and it depends on the subjective view of a scientist. When choosing a research area, or suggesting a theory, we can’t just assume that our universe would fit a beauty standard, not even a mathematical beauty standard.
Is the success of the beauty scale through some theories, an enough evidence about its efficiency? I don’t know, and I honestly still haven’t understood how could huge physics giants follow a certain theory just because of its alluring behavior. I understand mathematical beauty, or coherence, or harmony, you may call it what you want, but, is it efficient? The answer surely lies in the progress done through many current theories, but a mathematically coherent theory with no actual data supporting it can never impress me enough.
The issue of theorists:As you progress through physics and math, you’ll often get to meet un-provable conjectures or un-testable theories. In physics, many are these, starting with supersymmetry, the latter promised a lot of results, but none are yet observed. Physics currently in this race against particle accelerators, which is mainly used in proving or detecting any yet-to-be-detected particles, by colliding two particles, and analyzing the data of the collision (mainly the residual parts of the collision). I actually feel that theorists are in this race of ”who can suggest the hardest un-testable theory ever?”.
The issues of theorists are a lot, but mainly, they’re related to the approach. Suggesting a mathematical model based on a universe made of Qbits ( Xiao-Gang Wen universe model) as the fundamental unit is actually an amazing approach, and I’m solely in love with the idea, but, the issue persists: Does this model describe our universe? Is the math consistent WITH our universe? The math must match the experiment, and if a theory is un-testable, it’s useless. No matter how much math you can integrate into a theory, if its inconsistent with data, it doesn’t reflect reality.
On the other hand, we have multiverse theorists, or string theorists suggesting the parallel universe approach, which feels like saying: ”I’m giving up on physics, all answers are correct”. Having infinite amount of universe is just a no for me. I cannot, and will never accept this theory, even if I fail to supply actual evidence on its faults.
Many are the models, many are the approaches, but which one is the most efficient? It’s a question, I fail to answer.
An obsolete approach:When you’re a little kid getting introduced to the world of quantum and theoretical physics, you tend to imagine a physicist as someone standing in front of a green board, with a chalk in hand, and a lot of un-readable equation.
The way we do physics involves a lot of math, and I truly mean it, whether you went to experimental or theory, chances are, at one point, you’ll need both.
At one end, a theory with no actual evidence by an experiment would remain a mathematical model representing a universe, but surely not ours. Experimental part comes in handy in order to prove the existence of this model and its ideal description of our universe, or a part of it at least.
As for experimentalists, they need theorists, mainly because data with no mathematical model wouldn’t be much of help, it’s like eating a cake with your hand (I don’t know if I captured the analogy but I hope you get the gist out of it).
Between weird mathematical approaches lies down a new world of programming, that shortens down the time done in complex calculations, while also generating detailed results.
Katherine Johnson helped launching the Apollo 13 mission by calculating the trajectory of the mission, with no complex computers on her desk, and that’s actually revolutionary. Nevertheless, today, we have a software to do so, one that surely generates correct and detailed results.
The work area of theoretical physics is shifting, and I actually don’t really know in which direction, however, I surely know that residing to the 20th century approaches aren’t going to give much to physics.
Today, we are met with new mathematical approaches, new generation of computers that might be able to solve great conjectures, and I may quote Einstein’s words here and say: ”It’s a marvelous time to be alive”, in fact, it’s a quantumy marvelous time.
Quantity and Quality:Science is becoming a vital part of our lives, one we meet over many sectors. The amount of research fields currently found is huge. Each field has now its own subfield, which has its own subfield, it’s such a series of n(subfields).
The point is, whether it’s math, physics, or biological sciences, we are currently met with huge advancements, studies all over the world, stuff we didn’t hear about are becoming frequent and funded, it’s a race of science.
But not all races yield good results. Quantity and quality are usually inversely proportional, and that goes back to many reasons.
First, along a funded project, comes the stress of results, and while I’m still no researcher, but I don’t think a private company would accept an experiment running for years with no actual data or results. This stress causes an increase in the amount of published papers, some might yield out good results, while others might just be as frequent as many others.
A researcher is currently judged by both citations and papers published. But I honestly don’t still capture the connection between these two and the success of a paper or a researcher. Add to that, the number of papers published is directly correlated with the number of citations for a certain paper, especially if it’s a hit.
Okay, I see you questioning: What’s the scale here? What’s the efficiency meter used in order to determine the effect of a physicist?
To be honest, I don’t know, but, I do know that depending solely on citations and published papers is wrong, and that, I’ll leave you to find a good substitute for it.
As a young physicist thrives through his undergrad, he’s often asked about his future plans, his main study interests, and his experimental-theoretical view.
That I think, is limiting, and in physics, limiting is forbidden.
Overwhelming:Soon, I’ll be confronted to choose a certain area of interest, a certain program, experimental or theoretical. Living through these days, I feel like a teenager in the world of physics, with lots and lots of fields, and many things I don’t know, and many more I’ll probably won’t know, even if I spend most of my time invested in it.
Physics is big, it’s just too wide. When we say that physics is hard, I don’t think that the latter adjective captures the essence of it, in fact, physics is just overwhelmingly wide, too big, and having an 80 years life span isn’t enough.
The decision of following a certain area of interest seems kind of restraining, it’s like concrete molding into a certain shape, and as years pass by, you cannot move freely anymore.
If you ask me of my current interests, I’d probably tell you 5-10 fields, and if you ask me of my favorite, I’d give you a blank face.
Apart from the whole ”which field are you going to follow?” questions, there’s the experimental Vs theoretical dilemma, and that’s the worst of it all.
Between comparing your abilities, and finding the best fit, with a field that you feel connected to, and along promising results, I think it’s like trying to find a needle inside a stack of needles, or it’s like you’re in the middle of the sea, and you’re infinitely thirsty, except, the sea is sweet.
As you’re growing up in physics, sometimes you’ll feel that it’s too big for you, or that you’re just too small for such big old concepts. For me, doing the math is easy, the hard part is finding the right research area and the right math, and both must involve a cooperation between theoretical and experimental work.
What to do next?Getting in deep with these concepts, I feel like falling sometimes, drowning in this never-ending sea of knowledge, and to be honest, it scares me. I don’t know how one could fall in love with something so deep, yet, feel pure fear out of it. I also don’t know what’s next. All I know is that I should do what I’m used to do, read more papers, study more, research more, ask more, search and seek more. The universe might be finite, but the physics describing it is surely not.
The past 2 years taught me a valuable lesson, that is, I don’t know anything, and it’ll be impossible for me to know anything.
Maybe that’s the essence of being a physicist, to live in that superposition of knowing and not knowing, but the thing is, you’ll never collapse into a certain value. Once you go towards physics, you’re surrendering to uncertainty, and although we try our best to prove ourselves wrong, we’ll never will.
A short book review:One of the best books I’ve read through this year is ”Lost in math” by professor Sabine Hossenfelder. The book beats the sense into you, of how is life in the research areas, what is it like to be an actual researcher. Many are the conversations that Sabine does with many giants, but my favorite was with the theoretical physicist Nima-Arkani Hamed.
I do recommend the book, especially to new physicists going into the world of researching, struggling to know what’s wrong with physics. The title of the book actually captures a lot I’m going through. It’s not only being lost in math, but in physics, a lot of theories, a lot of math that takes a lot of time to be learnt, and even more ideas and models.
The world of physics is not endangered, but the way I see it, theorists need to fall onto a certain agreement, that our universe doesn’t even care of our beauty standards.
Niels Bohr said: ‘‘it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how Nature is. Physics concerns what we say about Nature”
I say, no, nature is not concerned with what we say about it, nature is concerned in only its true form. If our physics doesn’t match the nature around us, what’s the point of it all?