Originally appearing at the Discover Blog: Sean writes that physics isn’t the mystery it’s sometimes made out to be.
Not sure why people don’t make a bigger deal out of this fact. Physicists (and scientists more generally) are infamous for making grandiose claims about how close we are to Figuring It All Out, only to be shocked by some sort of revolutionary discoveries soon thereafter. Personally I have no idea how close we are to a comprehensive theory of absolutely everything. But I do know how close we are to having a comprehensive theory of the basic laws underlying the phenomena we encounter in our everyday lives — without benefit of fancy telescopes or particle accelerators or what have you. Namely, we already have it! That seems to be worth celebrating, or at least remarking upon, but you don’t hear it mentioned very much.
Obviously there are plenty of things we don’t understand. We don’t know how to quantize gravity, or what the dark matter is, or what breaks electroweak symmetry. But we don’t need to know any of those things to account for the world that is immediately apparent to us. We certainly don’t have anything close to a complete understanding of how the basic laws actually play out in the real world — we don’t understand high-temperature superconductivity, or for that matter human consciousness, or a cure for cancer, or predicting the weather, or how best to regulate our financial system. But these are manifestations of the underlying laws, not signs that our understanding of the laws are incomplete. Nobody thinks we’re going to have to invent new elementary particles or forces in order to understand high-Tc superconductivity, much less predicting the weather.
All we need to account for everything we see in our everyday lives are a handful of particles — electrons, protons, and neutrons — interacting via a few forces — the nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetism — subject to the basic rules of quantum mechanics and general relativity. You can substitute up and down quarks for protons and neutrons if you like, but most of us don’t notice the substructure of nucleons on a daily basis. That’s a remarkably short list of ingredients, to account for all the marvelous diversity of things we see in the world.
A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.
You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm. Using the framework of quantum field theory — which we have no reason to doubt in this regime — we can classify the kinds of new particles and forces that could conceivably exist, and go look for them. It’s absolutely possible that such particles and forces do exist, but they must be hidden from us somehow: either the particles are too massive to be produced, or decay too quickly to be detected, or interact too weakly to influence ordinary matter; and the forces are either too weak or too short-range to be noticed. In any of those cases, if they can’t be found by our current techniques, they are also unable to influence what we see in our everyday lives. We have very little idea how big the region of our understanding is, compared to all that there is to be understood; but we know that it’s bigger than what we need to understand to make sense of the world we see with our unaided senses.
That’s pretty amazing. Science will certainly push forward along the frontier of phenomena that are too big or small or subtle to be detected without delicate instruments, as well as along the much more jagged and unpredictable frontier of how the basic laws play out in complicated ways. But getting the basic laws right is an extremely impressive accomplishment, especially for good old human beings who have only been doing science systematically for a few centuries. Way to go, human beings!