Thursday, December 15, 2011

Advent calendar #15: The end is nigh

In 1903, briefly before the dawn of Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, Albert Abraham Michelson offered his view on physics:
“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.”

~A.A. Michelson, Light waves and their uses, University of Chicago Press (1903)


  1. Good to think about at a time when people say that if we find the standard model Higgs, at a mass appropriate for vacuum stability till the Planck scale, then fundamental physics is effectively over.

  2. Hi Bee,

    This for me is indicative of a statement made by someone more impressed by answers than with questions.

    ”Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”


    ”To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.”

    -Albert Einstein



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  4. It reminds me of the historian who said in 1997 that History is essentially over. Four years later, nine eleven happened.

    This quote by Michelson, the first American Nobel Prize winner, is understandable given the times. Electromagnetism was less than fifty years old, and Statistical Thermodynamics was fresh.

    there was so much work to be done in THOSE fields that nobody cared for the most part why blackbody radiation was significantly off from what classical Newtonian dynamics predicted it would be.

    Except for one man, Max Planck.

    And Max ... changed ... everything.

    Arun, as you know, theoretical physics is far from done even if the Higgs exists at 125.6 GeV. We still haven't unified the electroweak and strong forces. Why aren't more people working on that, called Grand Unified Theory? The heck with quantum gravity and theories of everything, that's down the road.

    Why don't we have a GUT ?

  5. The greatest obstacle to understanding reality is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. "Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit," Albert Einstein, 1901. Then, he denied quantum mechanics.

    Do left and right shoes vacuum free fall non-identically? Do chemically and macroscopically identical single crystal bodies in enantiomorphic space groups violate the Equivalence Principle? Is the vacuum trace chiral toward fermionic mass but not toward massless boson photons? Somebody should look. The worst it can do is succeed.

  6. Michelson's foolish boast are a cautionary tale, and similar thoughts should not be indulged in now (especially with dark matter and dark energy: most of the universe, inexplicable contents!)

  7. Steven: We still haven't unified the electroweak and strong forces,

    Yes one needs a good comprehension of what it is all about?:)

    If you approach it the right way it leaves with a question Mark? You then have to proceed to grok it in it's entirety so it leaves such a place of wonder inside. Then one's search begins?


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  9. It's not really an ending but truly a beginning, you see.

  10. I DO see, and thanks for responding Plato, dear old friend. ;-)

  11. Michelson continues directly from that quotation, on pages 22-3 of A.A. Michelson Light Waves and Their Uses, 1903:

    "Nevertheless, it has been found that there are apparent exceptions to most of these laws, and this is particularly true when the observations are pushed to a limit, i.e., whenever the circumstances of experiment are such that extreme cases can be examined. Such examination almost surely leads, not to the overthrow of the law, but to the discovery of other facts and laws whose action produces the apparent exceptions. As instances of such discoveries, which are in most cases due to the increasing order of accuracy made possible by improvements in measuring instruments, may be mentioned: first, the departure of actual gases from the simple laws of the so-called perfect gas, one of the practical results being the liquefaction of air and all known gases; second, the discovery of the velocity of light by astronomical means, depending on the accuracy of telescopes and of astronomical clocks; third, the determination of distances of stars and the orbits of double stars, which depend on measurements of the order of accuracy of one-tenth of a second-an angle which may be represented as that which a pin's head subtends at a distance of a mile. But perhaps the most striking of such instances are the discovery of a new planet or observations of the small irregularities noticed by Leverrier in the motions of the planet Uranus, and the more recent brilliant discovery by Lord Rayleigh of a new element in the atmosphere through the minute but unexplained anomalies found in weighing a given volume of nitrogen. Many other instances might be cited, but these will suffice to justify the statement that 'our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals'."



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