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LATEST DIALOGUES On the Edge of the Known

Physics’ Split Personality: Is the Dark Side Winning?

By Deepak Chopra, MD, and Menas Kafatos, PhD

For some time now most of the universe has gone dark. This startling news was brought to popular attention in a June Op-Ed piece in the New York Times called “A Crisis at the Edge of Physics.” It began, “Do physicists need empirical evidence to confirm their theories?” In other words, once you work out a theoretical explanation for how Nature works, do you need evidence to prove it?

The answer seems like an obvious yes. If someone had a theory that unicorns live at the center of black holes, no one would believe it without evidence. But for a hundred years, ever since the quantum revolution, mathematics has often substituted for empirical data. The quantum world is too far removed from the everyday world for empiricism to guide the way. There have been famous validations of arcane theories, as when astronomers used a total solar eclipse in 1919 to verify Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity that light can been bent into a curve by strong gravitational forces.

But in the last half century or so, a great many theories either cannot be proven through gathering evidence or barely can be. A professional cosmologist will never observe what occurred in the first instant of the Big Bang, the so-called Planck era, which lasted for trillionths of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, because matter and energy as we know it didn’t exist yet, nor perhaps the very laws of nature, along with space and time. The Planck era is an example of a sharp divide between the known universe and another, unknowable state.

Other candidates for unknowability are the centers of black holes, thought to contain infinite gravity. At the most basic level, since black holes swallow up all matter and energy–they are sometimes called the vacuum cleaners of the universe–no particles or energy can escape from them, either,  except for  radiation around the periphery. In order for the barely knowable to deliver usable empirical data, huge billion-dollar particle accelerators are built to blast exotic subatomic particles out of the vacuum, and even then the evidence of their existence, as in the much ballyhooed “God particle” (the Higgs boson) is extremely fleeting and requires teams of mathematical physicists to analyze it in order to understand exactly what happened.

The crisis referred to in the Times piece is about breaking away from centuries of science where empirical evidence was a must. At the cutting edge of modern physics, evidence is a maybe or a never. A variety of theories that have become popular, such as the multiverse and superstring theory, are based entirely on mathematics that may say nothing about reality. Concepts like supersymmetry and the collapse of the wave function describe processes that will never be witnessed directly.

But probably the biggest obstacle is the dark matter and dark energy that has caused most of the universe to wander out of reach. These two entities are called dark in the ordinary sense–they emit no light and cannot be seen. But they may also be radically dark, meaning that in the case of dark energy its structure could bear no resemblance to atoms, molecules, and the four fundamental forces of nature, except for gravity or actually its opposite. The existence of dark matter and energy has been deemed necessary because of actual observations having to do with the galaxies accelerating as they fly apart from one another, along with related calculations of how much ordinary mass and energy exist in the universe.

Darkness would qualify as a niche subject except for how much of it exists. The current best calculation holds that the cosmos is 4.9% regular matter, 26.8% dark matter, and 68.3% dark energy.  In that 4.9% is included all luminous matter contained in billions of galaxies plus a huge amount of non-luminous matter in interstellar dust. So the barest fraction of creation is offering empirical data. Physics has been dealing with the cherry on top of the sundae, the tip of the iceberg, or the grin of the Cheshire Cat after its body has vanished–pick whatever metaphor you like. Most of the universe is at the very least quite exotic.

Given that the situation is what it is, how should future science proceed? It seems intellectually naive or futile to keep acting as if empiricism still rules the roost. Arcane mathematics dethroned it long ago, and in their candid moments, theoretical physicists will concede that to believe that Nature acts the way these theories predict is largely a matter of faith. Actually many of the founders of quantum mechanics held the view that theories are really about our interactions with nature, not how things are. It seems realistic to face the fact that at the cutting edge of physics and cosmology, physical validation either isn’t possible or hangs on by a thread.

The crisis in physics  is as much philosophical as scientific. We haven’t solved three big mysteries that Greek philosophers began to struggle with over 2,000 years ago.  Where did the universe come from? What is it made of? How do we know if our knowledge is reality-based? Most working scientists can chug along with their research not having to face these cosmic riddles. But in the quest to answer the, two camps have emerged. One camp says “Hold on a little longer. We’re almost there.” The other camp says, “We haven’t even begun to find the answers.”

For decades the first camp has held sway. The crisis in physics comes down to a loss of credibility in “We’re almost there.” In the next post we’ll offer the reasons for why the “We haven’t even started yet” camp could be dead right.

(To be cont.)

originally published on SFGate
Both authors will be speaking at SAND15 US

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Dr. Menas Kafatos is The Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics and Director of Excellence at Chapman University. He received his B.A. in Physics from Cornell University in 1967 and his Ph.D. in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1972. After postdoctoral work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, he joined George Mason University and was University Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences there from 1984-2008. He has authored and co-authored numerous books including The Conscious Universe, The Non-local Universe and Principles of Integrative Science. He is a recipient of the Rustum Roy Award from the Chopra Foundation, which “honors individuals whose devotion and commitment to their passion for finding answers in their field is matched only by their commitment to humanity” and the IEEE Orange County Chapter - Outstanding Leadership and Professional Service Award. He has been interviewed numerous times by national and international TV networks, newspapers and radio programs.

5 Responses to “On the Edge of the Known”

  1. July 28, 2015 at 10:56 pm, Eric Mcoo said:

    The most likely explanation is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the standard model. Particularly the rather convenient discovery of the Higgs Bozo.

    • August 17, 2015 at 1:37 am, Neil Creamer said:

      Exactly. What has happened to skepticism? ‘Dark’ is a euphemism for unknown and it just means that our theories are bad ones.

  2. July 28, 2015 at 10:59 pm, Eric Mcoo said:

    This is Petr Chylek on global warming. Another (possibly) convenient solution for incomplete science.

    “To blame the current warming on humans, there was a perceived need to “prove” that the current global average temperature is higher than it was at any other time in recent history (the last few thousand years). This task is one of the main topics of the released CRU emails.

    Some people were soeager to prove this point that it became more important than scientific integrity.The next step was to show that this “unprecedented high current temperature” has to be a result of the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

    The fact that the Atmosphere Ocean General Circulation Models are not able to explain the post-1970 temperature increase by natural forcing was interpreted as proof that it was caused by humans. It is more logical to admit that the models are not yet good enough to capture natural climate variability (how much or how little do we understand aerosol and clouds,and ocean circulation?), even though we can all agree that part of theobserved post-1970 warming is due to the increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration.

    Thus, two of the three pillars of the global warming and carbon dioxide paradigm are open to reinvestigation.The damage has been done. The public trust in climate science has been eroded. At least a part of the IPCC 2007 report has been put in question. We cannot blame it on a few irresponsible individuals. The entire esteemed climate research community has to take responsibility.

    Laboratory Fellow, Remote Sensing Team Leader, ISR-2 MS-B244

    Los Alamos National Laboratory

  3. August 03, 2015 at 12:27 pm, MJA said:

    At the cutting edge of physics is a single absolute, much more simple than thought. And the proof is =.

  4. August 28, 2015 at 11:38 pm, Pieter van Vliet said:

    Schould we really go into finding answers, or just be with the appearence of the current issue in awareness? In the synthesis of non-duallity and science there still seem to be al lack of unity…

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