Sunday, November 06, 2011

[Science] You Don't Know What You Don't Know

You Don't Know What You Don't Know: The 20th century was a watershed century in physics. It brought us the Copenhagen Model, Quantum Mechanics, and of course, Relativity. These theories proved to be remarkably accurate as models and enabled tremendous practical advances, to the point where they began to be thought of as more than just models. They began to be thought of as reality; as if anything that violated the model (conceptually, if not measurably) would in time be explained away.

Now it's beginning to look like the 21st century is going to slap down any notion that we had possibly zeroed in on reality. First there was the hullaballoo over a faster than light neutrino. Relativity makes it quite plain that nothing whatsoever can go faster than the speed of light. IF something actually has gone faster, it doesn't nullify relativity as a measurement and prediction tool, it just means it wasn't the real answer -- accurate but wrong.

Of course, we are a long way from verifying faster-than-light neutrinos. There are a handful of tests for verification set up for 2012, so we'll see. More interesting is my recent discovery that there is a small, but steadfast cadre of physicists who don't really buy into relativity at all, even if the speed limit is valid. One book that piqued my interest is Questioning Einstein, by Tom Bethell. I need to order this and once I read it you'll get a report (here's an author summary), but I gather the argument is that Special relativity is unnecessary and General Relativity is outright wrong. In light of the neutrinos, no wonder there are no cheap copies floating around.

An equally troubling development is that no one can seem to find the Higgs Boson. Tritely described as "the God Particle" the Higgs boson is the thing that, in broadly accepted theories, endows things with mass. It is what allows there to be tangible things in the universe. And the flagship project of CERN was to locate the Higgs boson. They had it all lined up. And they began marching through the various possible energies where it might be located and now, after marching through a good number of them, it's not looking good (curiously, Stephen Hawking had bet the search would fail).

We are probably as wrong as Newton. Maybe as wrong as Aristotle. For some reason, the older I get the more comfort I take in seeing that we aren't really any better/smarter/wiser than ever. I guess I see a corollary being that we probably aren't any worse/dumber/more foolish either, which is what's comforting. All of our best-of-times-worst-of-times histrionics are just sound and fury. I don't know. I don't really understand why I like the idea that everything we know is wrong or at least mis-imagined, but I do. Maybe it makes me feel better about getting so much wrong in my own life.

The upside is despite their existential errors, the theories still yield tremendous practical benefits and lead to some astounding technological advances. So no complaints and sneering. Just be happy to pay $80/month for Angry Birds.