A theoretical crisis

My chances to speak with brilliant minds seems to be increasing… I am sure there is a way I can isolate the variables and model this – were my differential equation skills less rusty. Maybe in the future. Anyhow – I managed to speak with a wonderful mind at the end of the undergraduate programme at a large London university, who alerted me to an article which would be of interest to me – it most certainly was so I thought I would share the article and share my thoughts. The article is published by CERN and is titled In Theory: Is theoretical physics in crisis? 

This title really grabbed my intention – my career in crisis? All of us young scientists with stars in our eyes…how could this be so? One of the issues the article highlights is the fact that this is a relatively quiet patch in theoretical physics, with the sexy stuff happening for the experimentalists which may well naturally distort the current generation to favour experiment. I have to say, I am not sure I see this as a huge problem depending on the extent. I recently spoke with a Professor from Queen Mary university who warned me of the ultra competitive nature of trying to carve a career in theoretical physics. Internet research shows he is quite right – it is cut throat. In my opinion the exodus that we would need from the pool of potential theorists to experimental disciplines is so large it seems unlikely. We might end up with a slight skew – but does that not sound like a natural order? Did more people not get charmed by theory in the great string revolution? All of the great leaps cannot be synchronous  between theory and experiment. The lure of the disciplines must be cyclical with a lag.

One really good point that was raised however is the stale ground of fresh ideas in theory at the moment. It is certainly true that there seems to be less low hanging fruit in the field at the moment – and when giving your career the boost it needs in its tentative years, is this really the environment you want to be in? When there are particles to be smashed together to make real things. You need to look at the career choice pragmatically… maybe you want to be a theorist, but if you want to be a theorist you would also love experimental work too they are hardly discrete. So if you can only have one or none then the choice is easy?

There is a great Feynman quote in there (although is there a bad Feynman quote?) which goes;

“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

I love Feynman’s words they are always pure gold – that’s why you will find him pinned to my Twitter. Once again he is on the money – why did you start this whole thing in the first place? Sometimes, when I sit here late at night on a week day, with 5 hours sleep ahead of me before a 10 hour day at work followed by yet more degree work I think what is the point. Even the very best scientists have moments of doubt – and these are where we need to remember why we do this. We do it, because like sex it brings pleasure – although I hope of a different nature. If not, keep that one to yourself. Theoretical physics is still buzzing with opportunity but it is a lower buzz… this about this:

Does the quantum world fit with relativity yet? No

Does string theory work yet? No

Do we know for sure if there are more than 4 dimensions? Debatably. Do we know how many there are? Not even close.

Do we know what dark energy is? No

Do we know what dark matter is? No

These questions are all in the field of biggest questions in the universe.. I see no reason to be disheartened by quiet when we still have the grandest questions of all flirting with us on the horizon.

The article makes great points and it is an amazing read – I would recommend anyone who is considering a career in the field to give it a read. It is really important to get a perspective on these things. There is no point running around thinking you will solve the Theory of Everything in total naive dumfounded ignorance. The road is hard that we tread and we should be prepared for that. I remain however, the eternal optimist and devoted entirely to science.

If the wonderful mind that recommended the article is reading -then a special thank you goes to you.

20 responses to “A theoretical crisis

  1. I’m always curious about the “what’s up and coming” in science. It seems like it gets to a point though, where the methodology needs to be inverted. This is because the results cannot be observed purely in particulate, but in outcomes. It moves into actions and recourses to those actions, all unseen, but visibly quantifiable in the everyday interplay.

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  2. You mentioned something in one of your posts about education – something to the effect that we don’t teach children everything at once.

    In everything that is worth discovering, we will happen upon a plateau. This sometimes means that just one, tiny SOMEthing must be either answered or discarded, before work can progress, but then there might come a blast OF progress!

    When it comes to (what little I know of) physics, I can afford to be patient. One, or a group, of scientists is going to one day have an, “ah HAH!!” moment and we will all benefit.

    Until then, I will read, learn and dream…something that wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of established or student physicists from the past or present…or future!

    Great post, as always, Joe 🙂

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  3. What a great post. I think there is a crisis due to the fact that is experiment does not fit with theory, we invent a new bit of theory to explain the experiment, rather than perhaps reconsidering if out theory is correct. For example, dark matter and energy. Perhaps this is an approach scientists should reconsider to get out of this crisis?
    I actually have a blog post coming soon about Feynman (one of my favourite scientists) so check it out if you’re interested 🙂

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    • How well versed are you in differential equations? All we are saying here is the rate of change of the product is equal to some constant times the number of prey less the product of a second constant times the product or prey and predator. Where you go from there depends on your preferred choice of solving DEs – you are going to have to eliminate some unknowns, but in truth it will all come down to your initial conditions – which mean for a system you either need it to be small or make an estimation

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      • I do not know how to solve DE; did OK i Calculus I but crashed in Integrals (Calculus II). That said, I think that the predator / prey models could be adapted to model the inputs / outputs of various members of a supply chain. Not sure, but I think that COULD be a useful model (depending on other factors). That said, did you actually mean to say “constant times the prey less a second constant times the predators”? That makes sense to me, but your entry as it stands is unclear. And are you saying something like this: rate of change-1 (K1 * prey) – rate of change-2 (K2 * predator) = solution? If so, would that then imply rate of change-1 (K1 * prey) = rate of change-2 (K2 * predator)? [Hope I have not muddied the water.] You have my curiosity up, so I went and found this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww4SOwqfJgI

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      • Integrals are just key to the whole problem with a differential – because often you need to “undo” the differential. I will warn you though, what puts a lot of people off is the solution does not always look like one. What do you mean by supply chain? Like Economics? If so then there are plenty of differentials in this area – infact econometrics is literally hell! When I said “times prey” I meant the derivative of prey with respect to time (i.e. rate of change) I was being sloppy. Are you sure you can set those two equations as equivalent? I think they were simultaneous if I remember correctly and would need a little reworking to create an equivalence

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      • Yes, advanced Econ is notoriously mathematically difficult. For some reason, “regression” (even the advanced stuff as long as no calculus) “makes sense” to me, but the advanced Calculus is like thick soup. You are right: they are simultaneous. (The video clarified that for me.) Members of supply chains (yes, Economic!) function as producers (“prey”) and consumers (“predators”), especially in terms of inventory (almost always the main consideration though I think it could apply to services). If Manufacturer produces a single unit of “A” (equivalent, in a sense, to prey that will be consumed), then Wholesaler should consume that same unit of “A” (equivalent, in a sense, to a predator); Retailer “consumes” the unit of “A” that Wholesaler provides, and customer “consumes” the unit of “A” that retailer provides (which ultimately either is recycled or goes into the landfill). This is a simple model that does not account for recessions, shortages, multiple manufacturers / wholesalers / retailers / consumers etc. It is just an idea I have been playing with and it might not go anywhere at all.


  4. Interesting. I would not give up if I were you. Perhaps God will reveal in time the answer to you in time.

    .King Solomon would advise you this

    Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. (Eccle 11:6)

    That is perhaps, If your reason is a meaningful endeavor…….

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

    Liked by 2 people

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