|Image: Leah Saulnier.|
The internet loves lists, among them the lists with questions that allegedly keep physicists up at night. Most recently I spotted one at SciAm blogs, About.com has one, sometimes it’s five questions, sometimes seven, nine, or eleven, and Wikipedia excels in listing everything that you can put a question mark behind. The topics slightly vary, but they have one thing in common: They’re not the questions that keep me up at night.The questions that presently keep me up are “Where is the walnut?” or “Are the street lights still on?” I used to get up at night to look up an equation, now I get up to look for the yellow towel, the wooden memory piece with the ski on it, the one-eyed duck, the bunny’s ear, the “white thing”, the “red thing”, mentioned walnut, and various other household items that the kids Will Not Sleep Without.
But I understand of course that the headline is about physics questions...
The physics questions that keep me up at night are typically project-related. “Where did that minus go?” is for example always high on the list. Others might be “Where is the branch cut?”, “Why did I not run the scheduled backup?”, “Should I resend this email?” or “How do I shrink this text to 5 pages?”, for just to mention a few of my daily life worries.
But I understand of course that the headline is about the big, big physics questions...
And yes, there are a few of these that keep coming back and haunt me. Still they’re not the ones I find on these lists. What you find on the lists in SciAm and NewScientist could be more aptly summarized as “The 5 questions most discussed on physics conferences”. They’re important questions. But it’s unfortunate how the lists suggest physicists all more or less have the same interests and think about the same five questions.
So I thought I’d add my own five questions.
Questions that really bother me are the ones where I’m not sure how to even ask the question. If a problem is clear-cut and well-defined it’s a daylight question - a question that can be attacked by known methods, the way we were taught to do our job. “What’s the microscopic origin of dark matter?” or “Is it possible to detect a graviton?” are daylight questions that we can play with during work hours and write papers about.
And then there are the night-time questions.
- Is the time-evolution of the universe deterministic, indeterministic or neither?
How can we find out? Can we at all? And, based on this, is free will an illusion? This question doesn’t really fall into any particular research area in physics as it concerns the way we formulate the laws of nature in general. It is probably closest to the foundations of quantum mechanics, or at least that’s where it gets most sympathy.
- Does the past exist in the same way as the present? Does the future?
Does a younger version of yourself still exist, just that you’re not able to communicate with him (her), or is there something special about the present moment? The relevance of this question (as Lee elaborated on in his recent book) stems from the fact that none of our present descriptions of nature assigns any special property to the ever-changing present. I would argue this question is closest to quantum gravity since it can’t be addressed without knowing what space and time fundamentally are.
- Is mathematics the best way to model nature? Are there systems that cannot be described by mathematics?
I blame Max Tegmark for this question. I’m not a Platonist and don’t believe that nature ultimately is mathematics. I don’t believe this because it doesn’t seem likely that the description of nature that humans discovered just yesterday would be the ultimate one. But if it’s not then what is the difference between mathematics and reality? Is there anything better? If so, what? If not, what does this mean for science?
- Does a theory of everything exist and can it be used, in practice (!), to derive the laws of nature for all emergent quantities?
If so, will science come to an end? If not, are there properties of nature that cannot be understood or even modeled by any conscious being? Are there cases of strong emergence? Can we use science to understand the evolution of life, the development of complex systems, and will we be able to tell how consciousness will develop from here on?
- What is the origin and fate of the universe and does it depend on the existence of other universes?
That’s the question from my list you are most likely to find on any ‘big questions of physics’ list. It lies on the intersection of cosmology and quantum gravity. Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, inflation and eternal inflation, the nature and existence of space-time singularities all play a role to understand the evolution of the universe.
I saw that Ashutosh Jogalekar at SciAm blogs also was inspired to add his own five mysteries to the recent SciAm list. If you want to put up your own list, you can post the link in this comment section, I will wave it through the spam filter.