Just what major insights have physicists

 stumbled on in the last 20 years?

Hardly any, says Robert Matthews, except that

 there’s a whole lot they don’t understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 C LIMBING MOUNTAINS IN SEARCH OF AN AWE-INSPIRING VIEW CAN BE A DISAPPOINTING EXPERIENCE. TOO OFTEN,  the peak seems forever out of reach, always disappearing over the next crest. It’s a feeling that must be shared by physicists, who have spent much of the last century trudging up a seemingly endless slope in search of truly cosmic vistas. It is proving a long and difficult climb.

There have been some tantalizing glimpses of the summit along the way. In the late 1980s, physicist and writer Paul Davies persuaded a team of top-flight physicists to describe what they could see from their particular vantage points. The resulting col-lection of essays was published in 1989 under the title The New Physics, and for authority, clarity and breadth, it had no rivals. The book’s central message was up beat and confident, with talk of “breathtaking” developments and “exhilarating” advances towards solving such mysteries as identifying the ultimate building blocks of matter, the cause of the big bang, and the long-sought “theory of everything”.

This wasn’t just book-jacket hype. During the 1970s and 1980s there had indeed been major advances across the board. Theorists were coming to grips with the new world of superstrings, a breakthrough that suggested that all particles and forces are manifestations of tiny, vibrating strings. Cosmologists were explor-ing a brand-new theory called inflation, which appeared to resolve earlier problems with the big bang. In the laboratory, experimentalists had recently confirmed the reality of quantum entanglement, the spooky connection between subatomic particles once dismissed by Einstein as nonsense. Meanwhile, applied physicists were racing to understand newly discovered high-temperature superconductors, ceramic-like materials that lose all of their liquid nitrogen — and which promised to revolutionise everything from power generation to transport.

Now, almost 20 years on, the publication of a second edition of The New Physics provides an opportunity to discover how all  those exhilarating advances have panned out. To judge by the accounts assembled by new editor Gordon Fraser, the short answer is: they haven’t. Indeed, the impression is one of physicists not so much approaching a beckoning peak as wandering about in a thick fog.

Can things really be this bad? Or have the contributors to the new edition simply not done justice to the developments of the past 20 years? The short answer is yes, and yes. Many of the contributors fail to convey the nature, significance or even the existence of key insights that have emerged since the late 1980s. Instead, they write at length about their pet interests, while giving short shrift to develop-ments outside the narrow confines of their specialties.

Despite this, it remains hard to escape the conclusion that there just hasn’t been much progress towards answering the Big Questions since the publication of the first edition. That is not to deny that some very significant discoveries have been made. But all too often these discoveries have shown that physicists are far from reaching their summit, and in some cases maybe on the wrong path altogether.

Take the opening chapter, which reports on developments in cosmology. Written by Wendy Freedman and Edward Kolb, two world leaders in the field, it is a masterly exposition of the state of our knowledge about the universe. At the time of the first edition of The New Physics, cosmologists were still locked in a decades-long dispute over the age of the universe: one camp claimed the evidence pointed to 10 billion years while the other insisted the figure was more like 20 billion. Now, thanks to data sent back by NASA’s WMAP satellite in 2001, we know beyond reasonable doubt that the answer is pretty much smack in the middle: 13.7 billion years, give or take 0.2 billion.

It is not just the resolution of this long manner in which it was accomplished, via a measurement of stunning precision. Nor is it the only cosmic parameter to be pinned down so well. Freedman and Kolb provide a whole table of them, covering everything from the density of matter in the universe to the overall cosmic temperature.

The determination of these key parameters is undoubtedly a landmark in cosmology, but the implications, as Freedman and Kolb are quick to point out, are disquieting to say the least. Put simply, the measurements point to a universe filled with a kind of matter we have never seen and propelled by a force we do not under-stand. Such a revelation is progress of a sort, but it hardly suggests that the peak of Mount Enlightenment is just over the next hump.

The story is similar at the other end of the size spectrum, in the sub-atomic world, where two breakthroughs have made headlines in the last two deca- des. The first was the discovery of particles that completed the so-called standard model of the subatomic world. The second was the discovery that neutrinos have mass, which shows that even the complete standard model is missing something big Contributor Chris Quigg sums up the period as one of “consolidation, rather than revolution”, while insisting that the achievements are by any measure impressive”. Not by the measure of the previous 20 years, they aren’t. There has been nothing to rival the discoveries of the 1970s and 1980s, which included the development and confirmation of an entire unified theory of two of nature’s four fundamental forces.

For sheer stagnation , look no further than the chapter on superstring theory, authored by one of its originators, Michael Green. Over the last 20 years, super-string theory has transmogrified into something called M-theory, which is even more mind-boggling than its forebear. But it is still no closer to being a genuine scientific theory, capable of generating unequivocal predictions with some hope of confirmation. At a recent conference, another superstring pioneer let slip a possible explanation, admitting, “We don’t know what we’re talking about” (New Scientist, 10 December 2005, p 6). Sadly, this revelation came too late for inclu-sion in the book.

The authors of other chapters have no such excuse. Key events such as the discovery of extrasolar planets, the dcmonstration of quantum decoherence and the first production of nuclear fusion power are mentioned only in passing or not at all. Instead, we get whole chapters devoted to fields like superfluids, in which nothing much has happened for years, and hopelessly dated accounts of developments in applied physics.

Gone is the confident optimism of the first edition—though with such little progress on a range of problems from the cause of high temperature superconductivity to the nature of mass, perhaps it is only to be expected. Some leading physicists argue that we should all be a bit more paticnt, insisting that the challenges now facing physics are unprecedented in their scale and difficulty. Who knows, perhaps physicists are about to reach the broad sunlit uplands of cosmic insight. Don’t hold your breath, though.

This latest edition of The New Physics suggests too many of them are stumbling about with their eyes aimed straight at their boots. •

                                                   Robert Matthews is visiting reader in science

                                                             at Aston University, .Birmingham, UK


NewScientist Magazine

27 May 2006, (pgs. 52-53)

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