Tuesday, 10 May 2011

How Principled is Physics?

I believe that some of the established physical laws, that are normally regarded as being cast in stone, need to be subject to critical review. Exploring the farthest reaches of the universe (inwards and outwards!) is exciting, but just how much can we rely on any conclusions we make?

While early scientists, such as Boyle and Newton, were undoubtedly brilliant, and also meticulous in their work, the fact is, that they actually knew very little, compared with current knowledge.

In Boyle’s and Newton’s time, the seventeenth century, they still believed that everything was made from earth, fire, air and water.  The point being, that their imaginations, and therefore their ability to interpret scientific observations, were limited, by their relative lack of knowledge.  True, their deductions have apparently stood the test of time, but has anybody really asked the questions?

Newton’s laws of motion and gravity are regularly reaffirmed by their use in space missions, apparently, but I wonder whether the gravitation law is in fact a summary of the situation: why, for instance, do the dimensions of the force of gravity not correspond with those of the factors within the mass/distance function? (It is surely not valid to ascribe physical dimensions to a constant without identifying the underlying basis).  The gravity equation was derived from orbital data supplied by Kepler et al, not by empirical calculation from fundamental entities, and we can’t just go up to a planet and weigh it!

The laws of thermodynamics lean heavily on the original work of Boyle, Charles, Kelvin, et al.  The idea that the presence of heat excites molecules in varying degrees, to represent solid, liquid and gaseous states, was the best idea they could achieve in those times of relative ignorance, before the subatomic particles and their binding fields and forces were known.  Again, these ideas seem supported by modern practice, but are they really?  And what is the underlying basis for entropy?

Surely, the advent of particle physics and quantum theory beg the question as to whether these long-held “beliefs” are still valid.

To further underline the point: around 1850, the world’s scientists believed they knew how everything in the universe worked.  Then some silly chap called Rutherford had to spoil everything by splitting the atom, and opening up a whole new can of worms!

While the above-mentioned theories have been subject to peer review, in the past, the peers were in the same knowledge state as the theorists.

Equally importantly, how much are we still in the dark? And what future revelations might completely overturn current theories?

Will we ever be able to say, truly, that we know how everything in the universe works?

It seems to me that we need to establish a programme to routinely audit the longer-established physical laws; to make sure they are still in keeping with the latest theories. 

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