Is certainty the proper aim for science - or a misleading vanity?
PROBLEMS IN STANDARD PHYSICS
The human mind seems to have a tendency to always try to understand everything to the level to which comprehension reaches. The natural laws which govern the behavior of everything in universe and the experiences gained by mankind out of the pursuit to understand that behavior summed up and eventually came to be known as Physics.
It is perhaps both the beautiful inquisitive nature of human mind as well as its frailties that paved way for the beauty of theoretical physics. Mind is equipped with faculties of inquisitiveness and understanding but its power of understanding has its own limits to which limitations in our abilities to expalin and communicate must be added in turn.
The dismissive, 'no-no' attitude of much of modern physics towards innovative ideas and the discipline's alienation from pure philosophy has added to this inherent defect. Every intellectual pursuit in physics is a question (or a set of related questions) built upon certain understandings and theoretical explanations. Worse, as the human mind seeks to answer one question, another appears ready to confront and to confound; more complex than the original one and more difficult to address.
Many physicists have made valiant attempts to tackle such questions and solve these ever-growing mysteries but known and unknown factors alike have instead contributed to the great asymmetries that the physics of today suffers from. This problem is made much worse because the world of physics seems to have closed its doors to genuine philosophers and other thinkers who could potentially contribute in much needed domains of this subject.
We are told instead that a physicist’s guess is a great pearl of wisdom while the same guess by someone else is an unworthy idea. This attitude is stalwartly discouraging and may in the long run prove fatal to this beautiful science particularly as many of these 'guesses' are beyond the bounds of conventional logic, thereby making of physics an illogical trade. With such guesses, logical asymmetries cannot but keep on increasing and have now precipitated serious problems in physics - even at the most basic level. The questions arising from the predictions made beyond the boundaries of standard logics need to be answerered.
Physics as recursive analysis
Physics is justifiably considered to be one of the most fundamental yet complex sciences but this science proves to be an incomplete description or reality at the fundamental level. In physics, we have been earnestly inquisitive to reach the smaller and smaller sizes of the scale. This has helped us to know and identify a plethora of elementary particles with postulation of many previously unknown forces and interactions. But so far we have not reached the smallest particle despite a lot experimentation and artistic work of fiction build to explain the observed phenomena.
Physics deals with many physical and fundamental quantities but it is interesting to note that a satisfactorily complete definition of any physical quantity has not been identified. This seems to be weird but it is true. Mass is defined as matter and matter is defined as mass. Time is defined as period (or something related) and period is defined as time. Definitions in physical quantities are just verbal synonyms. This is the example of limits of explanation which in a circular manner limits our understanding. It is a typical linguistic problem but precipitates great hitches in physics. Imperfections in understanding lead to miscommunication which creates problems into domains of explanation which in turn lead to further weaknesses in understanding.
The term “Loop amplification” has been used for such phenomena. Physics is incapable of defining any physical quantity (of which it boasts to be the complete explanation) unless and until it takes the route of and help from its properties. What is that? An example should work here. For instance, if I ask what a “brick” is; what will be the answer? It seems to be simple that a brick is a somewhat red, cuboidal, hard substance used in construction of houses. The definition seems to be fairly good and has a nice face value but we have invited many questions to our mind by this definition. We have defined brick by only relating its properties to it. The definition mentions its colour but not what it is. The definition says that a brick is cuboidal in shape but still does not make it clear that what a brick is. So the definitions tend to give all the properties of a physical quantity (a brick in this case) but are not able to tell what that physical quantity is.
It seems to be linguistic game but is not so. The following discussion will reveal that. In order to understand a brick, first one has to understand all the properties mentioned in its definition. In order to find the definition of one property it gives rise to many more terms which in turn are to be understood and process carries on and our idea of understanding a brick becomes complex in consequence. The same is the case with physics or, should we say, throughout the whole of science. While answering one question many more questions arise which are more difficult to answer and our intention of understanding any scientific point remains stuck at its place and is paralyzed. Our notions in physics to fabricate complete definition of physical quantities are still very far from being practical. The difficulties in our definitions pose as greater hurdles in our understandings and communication which in a “Loop amplificative” manner create more difficulties. These difficulties have grown with time and have concealed the mechanism and exact status of many facts in universe. We are still very eager to know the answer of the question as; how and by what means the present state has been achieved by the universe. Many ideas (some including terrifying mathematics while others complex theoretical basis) have been put forward but even today none is satisfactory to the extent it should have been. And the tradition of plugging the holes with new supporting hypotheses rather than revisiting the previous one has added fuel to the fire.
Gravity as ungrounded postulates
Newton’s universal law of gravitation is a blazing idea which although doesnt prove but explains why an object when dropped freely falls to earth. Not only this, the law also explains the planetary motion et cetera.
When Newton put forth the idea of gravitation he tried to escape the difficulties by certain postulates which were taken to be true as such and without any argumentation. For example; if gravitation exists and everytime it is attractive then universe should fall to a single point, which doesn’t happen. This thing would have put universal law of gravitation to rejection as soon as it was hypothesized but Newton supported his ideas with other supporting postulates. He escaped this difficulty by saying that for such a fall there should be a centre of gravity where all the stars should fall but there is none and the centre of gravity is uniformly distributed throughout the universe. This postulate is neither true nor false. This is an over complex concept requiring far greater amount of mathematics and comprehension physics has yet reached to. So everyone agreed to universal law of gravitation in the disguise. This additional postulate masked the weaknesses and asymmetries in the universal law of gravitation.
Many properties of gravitation have been theorized as the gravitational force is a long range force; this force is always attractive etc. But one question spoils all the knowledge we have about it. The question is; where from does this force come? What is the origin of this force and what is the mechanism of its generation? Coming back to the origin and mechanism of generation of gravitational force; this problem has not been adequately addressed yet. Of course, the origin of this force i.e. the gravitational force is said to be a particle called graviton but unfortunately graviton is an act of faith and here is an example when science becomes religion. The graviton is a hypothetical particle assumed to be existing but has not been observed to date.
The unexplained quantitization of charge
Robert Andrew Milikan has been one of the greatest experimentalists of all time. He is thought to have estimated the fundamental value of charge by his famous oil drop experiment. Many experiments alongwith Milikan’s oil drop experiment revealed that charge cannot have any arbitrary value except the integral multiples of its fundamental value. The fundamental value of charge was found to be 1.6x10-19 coloumbs. This meant that charge is quantized. The concept of quantization of charge is unproblematic but classical as well as the concepts of modern physics have not been able to explain as why is charge quantized. Milikan postulated the granularity of charge on the basis of his experiment but there was always a chance that his experiment was limited with a certain degree of scale for observation beyond which he could not achieve any results.
Smaller quantities of charge were not probably observable by his experimental setup but his findings were never revealing of the postulate that charge cannot have any smaller value. As soon as he observed his charge quantities the multiples of 1.6x10-19 coloumbs, he took no time in postulating that charge cannot have any smaller value. This was a presumptuous hypothesis and we know in the modern day physics that even smaller quanta of charge do exist. Our experimental setups and our power of observation has its limits beyond which we need to be careful in deducing and explaining things.
Maybe we might reach to smaller and smaller quantas of charge but it does not mean that the smallest we observe today is really the smallest. There is room for observation of even smaller quantas. And why quantization at all? Why not a smooth distribution of charge without any granularity? There is another problem other than this “why granularity”; an exception to the concept of quantization of charge has arisen. Assumption of the existence of particles called quarks has violated the symmetry of the concept of quantization itself. The concept of quantization of charge may be bolstered by many phenonema like structure of atom, thermionic and photoelectric emission, Milikan’s oil drop experiment etc. But the existence of quarks makes the concept asymmetric. Now there are two problems with the concept of quantization of charge. One that modern as well as classical physical has not been able to explain why charge is quantized. And second that the same concept is not perfectly symmetric due to the existence of quarks.
In case of photoelectric effect (explaining which fetched a Nobel Prize to Einstein) electrons are ejected by the incident photons. The photoelectric equation can be written as:
hν = φ + KE
where “h” is Plank’s constant, “ν” is frequency, “φ” is the work function of the metal and “KE” is the kinetic energy of the ejected electron.
Now the question is; if ‘ν’ is the frequency which a quantum object can have and ‘KE’ is the kinetic energy (1/2mass X velocity2) which only a classical object can posses (because it contains mass in its mathematical expression) then how do we relate quantum and classical mechanics.
Problems with photons
The photoelectric equation given above is unable to tell us whether the photon is a particle or a wave. If the photoelectric effect is instantaneous (which it is) then the incident photon is a particle because the whole bunch of energy hits the electron at once instantaneously and the electron is ejected without any delay. We should, therefore, regard a photon as a particle. But the double slit experiment does not allow us to do that because of the fringes of constructive and destructive interference observed (typical of wave behaviour). The photoelectric effect does not allow us to consider photons as waves while the double slit experiment does not allow us to consider photons as particles.
What exactly are photons? Everytime we go through the concepts and arguments, we see physicists thinking in terms of either particles or waves without realizing that a third possibility is not forbidden. The mind of physics as a whole seems to be closed to a third possibility. Both double slit experiment and photoelectric effect are practical facts but antagonistic to each other. What actually a photon is? This question still remains. This question is a mystery and clearly reveals the asymmetry of both the practical facts both as regarding the photoelectric effect and as regards the double slit experiment. This reveals that somewhere inconsistency lies in our understanding of the nature of existent things in the universe.
We know a great deal about the properties of an electron, say it has particle as well as wave behavior. An electron has resinous i.e. negative charge equal to 1.6x10-19 coloumbs. We also know e/m or specific charge of an electron, we know all the quantum numbers belonging to it etc. Then why can’t we imagine the picture of an electron. As we know all the properties of an electron, we should be able to make a mental picture of the same. Most of the people think of electron as spherical ball having the tendency to attract positive charge. But this is the picture of a localized thing; a spherical ball. In imagining so, we clearly, put a gag on its delocalization property. We can’t even imagine both the properties that is wave and particle, simultaneously because it violates the logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does not allow us to do so. This argument clearly indicates that somewhere in discovering the properties of say an electron, an imprecise logical deduction clearly lies.
Unanswered questions on Motion
Motion is one of the most important and significant natural and physical phenomenon. Motion creates everything in the universe which includes even “time”. Newton’s laws of motion give a good insight into the understanding of motion. First law states, “every object in the universe will continue in its state of uniform motion or of rest for ever unless and until disturbed by some external force.” A simple question as; “who has seen ever?” poses a great problem to the integrity of this law. If we take this law as universally true then there is a problem with the existence of universe. What caused the Big Bang? Was it an external force? If yes then we need to reformulate the theories of evolution of universe. If no then Newtonian mechanics needs to be amended. Stephen Hawkings might be happy to discuss this because he seems consider big bang as the beginning saying that there is no significant before (in his book: The Theory of Everything).
The third law of motion, “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” says that action and reaction are simultaneous thereby violating the principles of relativity. The third law reveals that force signals travel at infinite speed which relativity does not allow. The antagonistic nature of the third law of motion and relativity reveals the problems in our understanding of the behavior of matter. We are not yet clear what reality actually is? This is one of the strong questions in the world of physics.
Physics (and mathematics) is the study of qualitative as well as quantitative measurements. One of the most fundamental aims of physics is to record the measurements and observations. Many rules have been constructed in order to record measurements. The concept of significant figures has proved to be a boon to scientists. This idea has provided a lot of help to scientists of all times. But there is a difficulty with it; no one in the world of science can record his measurements with hundred percent accuracy. No measurements and records are accurate, some degree of uncertainty lies in the measurements.
Coming back to motion, one of the paradoxes called the Zeno paradox does not allow motion. In the case of motion, an object is shifted from one place to another.
Zeno's aargument seeks to reveal that somewhere in our understanding of time and space the asymmetry has jumped in. Understanding matter, mass, energy, time, space is yet a dream and we are still far away to make this dream a reality. The laws of science allow us to divide a line segment into infinite number of points which makes any motion impossible.
There is probably a problem with our understanding of infinity. Maybe the number of points in a line segment (which forms the displacement of an object in motion) are infinite but this infinity is a “limited infinity” [ref] and it obviously has to be a “limited infinity” in order to be true because to cross and complete this infinity (in displacement from one place to another), it is merely a matter of few seconds. The infinite number of points in a length on a few meters can be completed in a few seconds. This means that the infinite points in a length of few meters are finite. Though this is an intellectual confusion but it is true. A similar concept was put forth by a great mathematician (who unfortunately was never recognized and had to spend the last days of life in a mental asylum) named Cantor in his continuum hypothesis in which he says that there are smaller infinities and then there are bigger infinities. This is the time to revisit his continuum hypothesis and adopt insights from his mathematical explanations to understand what infinity means and how can smaller and larger infinities be brought to conceptual and practical use.
Up until now many of the nuclear properties have been discovered and many intranuclear particles like photons, electrons, protons etc. have been observed. Many facts and properties belonging to these elementary particles have been deciphered. For examples photons have mass of zero million electron volts, leptons (including electrons, muons and neutrinos) have charge, spin etc.; mesons including pions and kaons and protons, neutrons, sigma hyperons, omega hyperons are all baryons. We know many properties belonging to above listed elementary particles. In addition to this, physics has 'discovered' many forces like gravitational forces, electrostatic forces, weak forces and nuclear forces and their properties and consequences inside the nucleus. In spite of all these discoveries made, a complete description of the structure of nucleus remains a challenging question.
Many attempts are being made to discover the actual facts involved in physical, chemical or biological phenomena. The origin of universe is still doubtful. The modern society is covered with scientific atmosphere yet science has not made us able to define say matter or mass. I am not anti-physics but I want to reveal the inability of human intellect and the closed attitude of physics towards imbibing inspirations and explanations from other potentially contributive sources. Physics, even in the modern day development still needs a philosophical paradigm and a subject of “philosophical physics” should find its establishment in at least some good universities and/or research centers in the world. Meetings should be organized for “interdisciplinary physics” where non-physicists from many areas will have their contributions and opportunities to comment.
Scientists deserve recognition and acknowledgement and that no one can deny them. But at the same time science should be guarded against becoming an act of faith where present theory is taken as heavenly law. Every theory is subject to revision, particularly if it does not give complete explanation (and how can any theory do that?) irrespective of the authority or brilliance of the scientist who propounded it.
The main and original text for this article is drawn from an essay by Muneeb Faiq. He is currently an ICMR Senior Research Fellow at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.