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flutherother's avatar

Is science coming to the end of the road?

Asked by flutherother (21765 points ) September 25th, 2010

Science used to be simple. You observed what happened, say an apple falling from a tree, and from this you deduced the simple rules that govern the universe. Today physicists are probing the atom and the quantum reality that underpins the world and none of it makes any sense. Is this the end of physics?

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59 Answers

loser's avatar

I believe science is just entering a whole new phase.

cockswain's avatar

My gut screams not even close.

Vortico's avatar

You say “none of it makes any sense.” We’re doing exactly what we’ve been doing for the past 500 – 2000 years, the scientific method. Quantum theory makes a lot of sense, but it requires scientists to have more specific fields.

Rarebear's avatar

Sorry, I had to laugh. You wrote: “Science used to be simple. You observed what happened, say an apple falling from a tree, and from this you deduced the simple rules that govern the universe.” That’s simple? I see your point, though, and I’ll give you a GQ for it. The answer is absolutely not. As long as there are questions about the natural world, there is a need for science.

But your use of physics as an example is interesting. Lee Smolin, who is a theoretical physicist and a proponent of loop quantum gravity, wrote a book called, “The Trouble With Physics.” where physics has had a love affair for 20 years with string theory (because that’s where the funding goes), a theory he thinks is a dead end. Of course, he has a competing theory and an ulterior motive, but it’s still an interesting example you used.

flutherother's avatar

What I meant was that science used to be comprehensible and scientific laws could be understood by anyone willing to take the time to study them. It is different with quantum theory, which though it is an extremely successful theory cannot be said to be properly understood even by those who developed and are developing it. Science used to simplify the world now it makes it more mysterious than ever.

Rarebear's avatar

@flutherother That may be true with physics and quantum theory, but there is plenty of science out there that is comprehensible by the lay person.

Vortico's avatar

@flutherother It seems like your definition of “science” is information about the world which can be understood by the layman. If so, don’t worry, because you’re not alone. There’s a huge distinction between scientific journals and popular science magazines.

flutherother's avatar

No I meant understood by anyone, even scientists. They may know the maths that works but I don’t believe anyone understands quantum theory or ever will.

Rarebear's avatar

@Vortico I think that the good science magazines have excellent science writers, though. Scientific American, American Scientist, and Sky and Telescope are all ones I subscribe to and are fantastic.

@flutherother If you’re interested, I can point you to a couple of books that explain quantum theory really well.

ucme's avatar

God I hope not. I mean where would we be without geeky geniuses. Einstein, Hawking, Gates, Timberlake…...err, no scratch that last one. Long live science say I :¬)

Qingu's avatar

It does make sense, it’s just hard for our brains to grasp. Just like it would be hard for an ant to grasp that a force equals mass times acceleration.

Actually, quantum mechanics and relativity aren’t that hard to understand… they’re just very different from the level of reality we operate on. It’s amazing how much humans understand about how stuff moves and behaves on Earth, without even really studying it.

Qingu's avatar

@flutherother, maybe it would help if you pointed out what exactly you think is incomprehensible about quantum theory? (Not that I’m an expert…)

Dutchess_III's avatar

Trust me..gravity is NOT a simple concept to understand!

And don’t listen to @Rarebear! There is no telling where you’ll end up! Driving your car at the speed of light where you can’t see damn thing because your headlights will be shining behind you and driving backward won’t make a damn bit of difference! And dogs falling out of trees and landing in the past…crazyness.

But here is your very own planet to play with! Just plug in numbers and see what happens to the orbits. It gives you a whole new appreciation for how stable our universe is. I wrecked my planets so many times God was about to fire me.

gasman's avatar

”...none of it makes any sense. Is this the end of physics?”

As long as none of it makes sense, science will actively investigate and flourish. The “end of science” might come long after everything makes sense and all that’s left is to catalogue the tedious details into a well-understood framework.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

The reason science used to be so “simple”, is because we understood less about how things function. It’s true that there are even more questions now – but all of those arose from the things science taught us. As long as there are questions, there will always be science.

jaytkay's avatar

Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s law of gravitation were mind-blowing and impossibly complex for most people in the 1600s.

Austinlad's avatar

Farm far from it. We don’t even know what we don’t know yet.

the100thmonkey's avatar

Science used to be simple?

No it didn’t; our understanding of the principles was rudimentary. Do not confuse the two.

Of course, one might make the argument that it should be simple, but that would take a scientist with a compelling argument to put forth,

Dutchess_III's avatar

@jaytkay You said, “Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and Newton’s law of gravitation were mind-blowing and impossibly complex for most people in the 1600s.” It’s still mind blowing when you get deeper into it all…..go look at the link of the planetary motion I posted in my comment above. Make a planet run right! Bet you can’t do it!

Qingu's avatar

That orbit website is bawesome. :)

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Dutchess_III holy shit….i cant stop playing with that orbit thing….

jerv's avatar

According to the foreword in Worlds in Collision, it was thought that we knew all of the basics in science as of 1950, and that there was nothing that we could possibly discover that we hadn’t already discovered by then.

Any intelligent person can see how wrong it is to assume you know everything, and I think we’ve only just begun.

Rarebear's avatar

@Dutchess_III But what if the dog falls out of the tree at the speed of light?

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

No. There is still too much we don’t understand. Besides the fact if physicists keep using our irrelevant measurement of time in their equations, they will be at it for a long time.

Jabe73's avatar

No, not even a small fraction of a single %. Quantum theories are still in their infant stage yet and that will most likely be the future of physics. There will never be a theory of everything. The Universe seems to be set up in such a way that knowledge capacity is probally close to infinite. There are opposing scientific views on many issues. Some are opposed to researching quantum mechanics, some think the Theory of Relativity is flawed and some even think the Big Bang model is wrong. This is good for science however for in order to learn about anything there should always be skepticism and an agenda for true knowledge, not propaganda.

Rarebear's avatar

@Jabe73 Actually, there are two well described theory of everythings, string theory and loop quantum gravity. They have yet to be experimently verified.

roundsquare's avatar

It wasn’t simple in the past… we’ve just learned to make it simple. Essentially we’ve gotten better at explaining things through improved teaching and finding new ways to think about things. Calculus used to be ultra-advanced and now its something we teach bright high school students. Why? Other areas of math evolved and calculus evolved with them and we found out how to combine them into easier and easier explanations.

Also, you should be careful in how you view “old” science. Newton didn’t say “what goes up, must come down.” He described the exact way in which these things move when subject to gravity. He came up with equations after observing things. This was rough going.

Also, I think you are correct that no one really “gets” quantum mechanics the way they “get” newton’s laws… but I’m fairly sure that it took centuries to really “get” those laws as well.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Rarebear If a dog fell out of a tree at the speed of light, he would be instantly neutered and you could save that trip to the vet’s office. Right answer?

Rarebear's avatar

@Dutchess_III Sort of. If the dog fell out of the tree towards a black hole, it’d be spaghettified and the gonads would be ripped away from the body from gravitational tidal forces.

flutherother's avatar

DutchessIII Sorry, I got hooked on the solar system simulator site. But to get back to my original point, the mathematics of Newton and Kepler and even Einstein had a connection with the real world that scientist and even laymen could appreciate. e=mc2 does mean something and we have an intuitive grasp of what its symbols mean. Quantum theory on the other hand has no obvious connection with the real world. It works, but there is something airy fairy or mystical about it. It doesn’t quite seem like real science and it is impossible to understand other that through mathematics.

Rarebear's avatar

@flutherother For what it’s worth, I agree with you.

El_Cadejo's avatar

“even laymen could appreciate. e=mc2 does mean something and we have an intuitive grasp of what its symbols mean” I would have to disagree with you there, sure most people know e=mc2 but most dont know wtf that actually means at all. they only know it because its something theyve seen a million times.

“Quantum theory on the other hand has no obvious connection with the real world” how so? It explains how energy and matter interact. Seems like a pretty obvious connection to the real world to me

Vortico's avatar

@uberbatman Haha, yes. So true. The only reason E = mc^2 is so famous is because newspapers during the mid 00’s couldn’t fit the Lorenz factor, Lorenz transformation, or the real E^2 = m^2 c^4 + p^2 c^2 equation in print. Even after knowing what the original variables mean (energy = mass x speed of light^2), it still means just as much to us as the Planck-Einstein equation E = hc/λ, a fundamental in quantum mechanics This might have actually been discovered before E = mc^2, correct?

Jabe73's avatar

@flutherother All science means is “knowledge”, from the latin version I think. Anything can be considered science. There are social sciences as well. It just means to seek the truth of how something/or the natural world works/behaves. Most physicists (especially quantum physicists) do really get into some crazy math. Science itself does not have to be difficult to an average person but some fields will be more difficult so this is inevitable, not deliberate. There are some good books about science out there the average joe with a basic understanding of science and reading comprehension skills can understand. Magazines like Scientific American, Astronomy and Popular Science are a good read for an average science buff. I actually get these magazines myself.

@Rarebear I have to read more on those theories down the road, I am already overwhelmed with quite a few books I havn’t finished reading yet (when I get spare time).

Qingu's avatar

Something else to consider is that much of what we consider obvious and true mathematics today would be completely incomprehensible to an educated person living a millenium ago. They didn’t know algebra then, let alone logarithms calculus, calculators, imaginary numbers, negative numbers.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@uberbatman, when you think of E=MC^2 from a “logical” point of view it really makes NO sense. Nothing can go faster than the speed of light, much less the speed of light squared. @Rarebear ‘splained that it’s a mathematical calculation for determining how mass can become energy or something. I had sort of a subconscious intuitive (thanks Stu) grasp of it for just a moment, but then I got distracted by a pair of shredded gonads flying by, so I don’t remember what it was now.

Rarebear's avatar

@uberbatman It’s a question of intuitive grasp and understanding, and I get @flutherother‘s point. I can intuitively grasp Special and General Relativity. I can “feel” why time slows, mass increases, light “bends”, etc. But even though quantum mechanics is a wildly successful model of how the quantum world works, I just don’t “get” why one particle would interact with another particle instantaneously when they’re separated and don’t exchange photons.

roundsquare's avatar

@Dutchess_III What definition of logic are you using there? If you want, I can re-write the equation as sqrt(E) = sqrt(m)*c. Does that make it better? Just because c is a measure of speed and it squared in some equation, how would it follow from logic (of any sort) that something can go c^2?

Vortico's avatar

@Dutchess_III @roundsquare Or you could imagine a box with depth c, width c, and height m. The amount of water this box will hold represents the object’s energy.

roundsquare's avatar

@Vortico Thanks. I understand the equation, but I’m trying to understand what “logical” meant above. The only reason I gave my equivalent equation is to show that having a c^2 term in the equation was, in a sense, meaningless.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Rarebear so because you personally dont understand it then its inferior to the other stuff? And other stuff being stuff that most laypeople dont actually understand themselves?

Im not saying i understand quantum mechanics, im just trying to see what your getting at.

iamthemob's avatar

i’m coming to the end of the road with science….

Rarebear's avatar

@uberbatman That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that I don’t have quite a connection that I do with, say, relativity or evolution. I have a baseline intellectual understanding of it, but that’s it. I can say WHY and HOW something happens in a relativitistic time frame or WHY and HOW chimps and humans are related. I can’t say that for quantum mechanics. All I can say is WHAT happens.

El_Cadejo's avatar

@Rarebear ahhh i see I misunderstood. Couldnt one say that you cant say why or how quantum mechanics happen only because we as humans dont fully understand it yet though, much the same way people of 2000 years ago couldnt say why or how it rained but that it simply rained.

Rarebear's avatar

@uberbatman Sure, I’ll buy that.

cockswain's avatar

This raises the tangential point that as humans suffering from time as a scarce resource, there is no way the curious mind can learn everything about the universe that it would like to in a lifetime. As such, we must pick and choose in what we are/will become well-versed, and to an extent take a small leap of faith in what the “credible” experts in the other fields tell us. I don’t know diddly about quantum physics and can’t form arguments for or against what I hear. Every answer I get will eventually lead to either general acceptance (semi-skeptical of course, as any good agnostic would), or more questions to educate myself. But at that point I’m giving up the opportunity to learn more about something else.

What it means to me is to an extent we have to accept knowledge given to us with a minor leap of faith. I know a PCB makes the computer run, but if a wanted the finest details of a schematic I’m going to have to have a little faith the engineer describing it knows what he’s talking about. This raises a big problem in our society of “who do I trust to give me information?” Do I trust the news? Do I trust anyone purporting to be a scientist? A PhD in botany doesn’t suggest advanced knowledge in cryptology, but we might see someone cited on quoted in a news article about cracking codes as “John Smith, PhD” and think we’ve now heard credible info on code breaking.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@roundsquare I look at things too logically. Too concretely. To me, E=MC^2 is saying “Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.” If you put that in kindergarten terms, to me, it’s like saying “2500=25*(10^2)”..... (10^2 representing the speed of light squared in this example) but that’s a literal answer and it doesn’t literally apply to that equation. It’s a concept, and, like Rarebear, when I dwell on it, and people educate me, I begin to understand it intuitively. But I lose that understanding pretty quickly due to Other Things Encroaching (Life, in other words.)

How about we discuss something simple like, “If you had a pole that was the speed of light long, and you wiggled one end of it, how long would it take for the wiggle to translate to the other end.” Yeah. Something simple. Like that. (sigh)

As for @Vortico… you said, “Or you could imagine a box with depth c, width c, and height m. The amount of water this box will hold represents the object’s energy.” Thank you for that. I’ve been thinking about it, but I’ll think about it some more because at this point all I can come up with is…..DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH FREAKING WATER THAT WOULD BE??? .....

Vortico's avatar

@Dutchess_III Haha! Of course you could use natural units and set c to 1. There, small box.

Dutchess_III's avatar

To answer the question, science used to be simple….well, not really. It never was “simple,” but until recently the geniuses didn’t have the TIME to puzzle on it all. Now it’s gotten to the point where people with IQ’s of 200+ are trying to explain things to us folks with IQ’s of 120 or 130, and it’s hard to grasp. It would be like an adult with trying to explain, literally, why the sky is blue to a 3 year old.

@Vortico K. So then you’d have E=m * 1^1….THAT WON’T WORK! Give me a 2 for c and I’ll raise you a universe. Then I’ll have E=m*2^2…but I need a number for m….

Vortico's avatar

@Dutchess_III Measure E in Planck energy and m in Planck mass. All I’m doing is redefining the units.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Vortico Jebus!! I’m going to bed now! To have nighmares about monster Man-Eating Planck Plankton, I’m sure!!

flutherother's avatar

Einstein’s equation means that energy and matter are like ice and water. One can be converted into the other. The equation also tells us how much energy you can get from matter and the answer is it is one hell of a lot, that is why the hydrogen bomb is so enormously powerful. This is new and difficult to understand but quantum theory is not just difficult to understand it is impossible to understand. Science is going beyond where human minds can follow.

roundsquare's avatar

@Dutchess_III Sorry, I guess I’m really caught up on one of my pet peeves. What your talking about isn’t logic, but something else (not sure what that word is, but oh well).

In any event, what is saying is in fact literal. If you take a gram of wood, it is actually equivalent to some amount of energy, How much? To find out, multiply its mass (1 gram) by c^2 to get the amount of energy (some huge amount btw). The fact of the matter is that no one is talking about things “moving at c^2.” In fact, you can’t move a c^2. Not because c^2 is bigger than c, but because c^2 is not a “speed.” If c is measured in m/s, then c^2 is m^2/s^2.

Anyway, for this whole big box/small box thing, just remember your units. I’m (about) 6 feet tall, only 2 yards tall, about one “doubleyard” tall. (I just made that last one up). But no matter how you say it, I’m the same height.

Dutchess_III's avatar

..I see a glimmer…..can’t put my finger on it…..Thanks @roundsquare and @flutherother…and BennyMattson. (Cause you’ve explained this before…)

rithak15's avatar

Science used to be simple, only when there will be end of questions. Science is advancing beyond human thoughts so it is important to pin ourself with science to proceed to the future technologies.There is no end to science.

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Varient's avatar

Science has grown so broad that the age of being a “Jack” has been over for decades. Science has been exposed as being very deep and humanity has just reached ankle depth. We have a clue,.. but IMHO are limited by our imagination.

I guess I’m trying to say “no.”

talljasperman's avatar

In the early 90’s my high school in Alberta was busy phasing out “Science” after grade 10 and replacing it with ( Math, Calculus, Biology, Chemistry and Physics) specific full classes. I wonder what has changed since. I do know however that if you want to continue with a science degree that one typically needs all of most of the classes to continue in any university level classes… and you need three or more just to take business classes.

Barbs666's avatar

As long as there are questions we should keep trying. Physics is as constantly evolving as the universe. As long as we can evolve and adapt we can eventually break through the individual barriers that are faced us.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Kids, Stay in school. There’s still a lot to learn.

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