A detective story

So why isn’t the future what it used to be? I think it’s something of a detective story, one where you have to look back at the history. In 1831 Michael Faraday was doing his ground-breaking experiments, showing how electricity and magnetism were interrelated. Then in 1865 James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory, and in 1880 we had light bulbs courtesy of Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison. In 1905 Einstein gave us E=mc², saying there was an awful lot of energy in matter. Then in 1934 Leo Szilárd patented the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and in 1945 we had atom bombs courtesy of the Manhattan project. Science has shaped the modern world, but it takes a while for a fundamental physics discovery to change the world for the better. However in the last fifty plus years, there haven’t been any fundamental physics discoveries. There’s been some great progress in biochemistry and medicine. We have brilliant drugs along with keyhole surgery and stem cell therapy. Advances in electronics and computing and communications have delivered your internet and phone and flatscreen TV. Meanwhile astronomy and cosmology has given us the stunning pictures from the Hubble telescope, and news of exoplanets and an expanding universe. The list goes on.

Hubble image of the Sombrero galaxy courtesy of NASA 

But fundamental physics isn’t in the list. Some say the world wide web was invented at CERN, but that’s just an addressing convention. It isn’t what the internet is. Or was, because the ARPANET is where it all began. Some will point to PET scans and MRI, but PET scans date back to the 1950s, and MRI dates back to Isador Rabi in 1938. When people try to come up with the benefits of theoretical physics, all too often they’re talking ancient history, because there’s nothing new in the pipeline, and hasn’t been for a long long time. All too often they end up making unjustified claims, such as quantum mechanics gave us the transistor, when it didn’t.

Fundamental physics has stalled

All in all, when physicists are asked about the benefits of physics, they struggle. They point to some contentious spin-off which cuts no ice. Or to the “discovery” of this particle or that, which is totally unconvincing. The charmed quark was discovered in 1974. The bottom quark was discovered in 1977. The W boson was discovered in 1983. And so on. But not one of these particles leaves an actual track. There’s nothing to see. All you get is a bump on a graph. Their existence is inferred from decay products. They have a lifetime of a picosecond or less, a trillionth of a second. Some particles have a lifetime of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second, and their existence is inferred from other particles that are in themselves inferred. These “discoveries” haven’t delivered any benefits to the world at all. Or anything that offers any hope of any benefit. The truth is that the pipeline dried up long ago. Fundamental physics has stalled.

The Standard Model of particle physics

The strange thing is that the more you look into the matter, the more you realise that it’s a strange state of affairs. That’s because one of the things you learn, is that the Standard Model of particle physics doesn’t fit in with other physics. Such as optics, wave mechanics, or topological quantum field theory. Or even relativity. In his E=mc² paper Einstein said “the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content”, and referred to “electron” and “body” on the self-same line. However the Standard Model says the mass of the electron is a measure of its interaction with the Higgs field, which is totally different. The Standard Model doesn’t fit with electromagnetism either, because it says the photon is an excitation of the photon field, and the electron is an excitation of the electron field. That’s unpicking Maxwell’s electromagnetic unification. Despite what you might hear about grand unification, the Standard Model isn’t unifying the fields, it’s giving us more fields instead. Moreover it’s the epitome of fundamental physics, but it says absolutely nothing about the fundamentals. It doesn’t tell you what a photon is. Or an electron. Nor does it explain how light interacts with light to turn high-energy gamma photons into electrons and positrons. Pair production was discovered in 1933, but here we are eighty five years later, and the Standard Model offers no explanation of what actually happens in pair production. How do gamma photons turn into electrons and positrons? How does the reverse occur in electron-positron annihilation? And where do the quarks and gluons go in low-energy proton-antiproton annihilation to gamma photons? The Standard Model just doesn’t say. Instead it sweeps it all under the carpet with creation and annihilation operators which explain precisely nothing.

Disregarding the evidence

It gets worse. Because when you talk to physicists who aren’t particle physicists, you learn that the Standard Model disregards hard scientific evidence too. The particle physicist will tell you that electron spin is not some classical rotation, and that it’s a quantum phenomenon instead. However the electromagnetic physicist will tell you about the Einstein-de Haas effect which “demonstrates that spin angular momentum is indeed of the same nature as the angular momentum of rotating bodies as conceived in classical mechanics”:

The Einstein-de Haas effect, image from Frontiers in physics, mechanical generation of spin current

He’ll also tell you that electron magnetic moment is where the electron “indeed behaves like a tiny bar magnet”. Then when you delve further, you learn that a bar magnet is somewhat like a solenoid, which features current going round and round. You also learn that conduction current is not the only current. Then when you do some digging and read chapter 27 of The Feynman Lectures on Physics Volume II, you find this: “Suppose we take the example of a point charge sitting near the center of a bar magnet, as shown in Fig. 27-6. Everything is at rest, so the energy is not changing with time. Also, E and B are quite static. But the Poynting vector says that there is a flow of energy, because there is an E x B that is not zero. If you look at the energy flow, you find that it just circulates around and around. There isn’t any change in the energy anywhere – everything which flows into one volume flows out again It is like incompressible water flowing around. So there is a circulation of energy in this so-called static condition. How absurd it gets!”

Lies to children

Only it isn’t absurd, not in the least. Not when you understand it. What’s absurd is all the lies to children. You can find them everywhere you look. For example see the Wikipedia two-photon physics article which talks about gamma-gamma pair production. The article is in line with what the particle physicist says. It says this: “from quantum electrodynamics it can be found that photons cannot couple directly to each other, since they carry no charge, but they can interact through higher-order processes. A photon can, within the bounds of the uncertainty principle, fluctuate into a charged fermion-antifermion pair, to either of which the other photon can couple”.

Feynman diagram of electron-positron pair production from Rod Nave’s hyperphysics

However you don’t have to know much physics to know that a 511keV photon doesn’t spend its life magically morphing into a 511keV electron and a 511keV positron. That’s in breach of conservation of energy. You don’t have to know much physics to know that an electron and a positron don’t magically morph back into a single 511keV photon. That’s in breach of conservation of momentum. You don’t have to know much physics to know that a photon travels at the speed of light and electrons and positrons don’t. Or to know that that photons don’t fluctuate into electrons and positrons and back again. Or that virtual particles are virtual. As in not real. The clue is in the name. They aren’t short-lived real particles that pop in and out of existence like magic. Instead they only exist in the mathematics of the model. That’s why hydrogen atoms don’t twinkle, and magnets don’t shine. And why the vacuum fluctuations of the Casimir effect are something different altogether. And why charged particles don’t move the way that they do by lobbing photons back and forth:

   Electron-positron pair production image from CERN

Most importantly, you don’t have to be some hotshot sleuth to spot the tautology in the given explanation. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that pair production does not occur because pair production occurred, spontaneously, like worms from mud.

Back to the future

So, why does it occur? I think you can play detective and work it out. However as you do, I think you come to appreciate why fundamental physics has been going nowhere for fifty years. And that whilst we’ve been waiting to get back to the future and tomorrow’s world, too many physicists have taken the Standard Model on faith, then put their faith into things like supersymmetric SUSY. The moot point is this: how can anybody talk sensibly about the selectron when they don’t even know what an electron is? How can anybody talk sensibly about squarks when they don’t know what a quark is? Especially when they’ve never even seen a free quark:

                                                                                  SUSY image from the university of Glasgow

How can anybody talk sensibly about quantum gravity when they don’t even know how gravity works? Or talk sensibly about string theory when there’s no evidence for it, but there’s evidence instead for the wave nature of matter? Physicists promote theories for which there is no evidence, whilst sidelining theories for which there is. Such as classical electromagnetism and relativity. Yes, it’s a strange a strange state of affairs indeed. An absurd state of affairs. So much so that something must be done. Because it isn’t just physics that’s withering on the wine. It’s our future too.

We have to start with time

As to what’s to be done, let’s take it one step at a time. Take nothing for granted, and remember the famous line: when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Where do we start? We start with time. Because understanding time is like pulling a thread with Einstein’s name on it, and out comes a string of pearls. Because when you understand time you can understand the speed of light. Then when you understand the speed of light you can understand how gravity works. Then when you understand how gravity works, you can understand what gravity is not, and what electromagnetism is. Then you can understand the photon, and the electron, plus other things too. And it all starts with time.



This Post Has 23 Comments

  1. I’ve split my introductory post into two. It seemed a little long, and it had two major elements anyway. I hope it reads better.

  2. 511keV photon doesn’t spend its life magically morphing into a 511keV electron and a 511keV positron
    That’s because a 511eV electron and a 511eV positron is equivalent, in terms of energy, to a 1.022Mev photon.
    But nit-picking aside, pair production only happens when photons have specific energies corresponding to the masses of the matter-antimatter particles, give or take a bit of kinetic energy. This is real physics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics is verified by experiment with no known deviations that I am aware of.
    You might complain that the theory “doesn’t explain anything”, however what the theory does do is make predictions that are confirmed by experiment perfectly, with no known deviations.

  3. “mathematics of the model.” – QED is not a “model”. A model is a mathematical system designed to try to match an experiment (like the Liquid Drop model of the atomic nucleus). QED is a scientific theory, just like Enstein’s relativity is a “theory” (As you know, “theory” in science language is different from “theory” in normal language). A scientific “theory” makes precise, testable predictions that are, if the theory is correct, then confirmed by experiment. QED is a theory that has been proven to be accurate with no known exceptions.

  4. “too many physicists have taken the Standard Model on faith” – that’s incorrect. What has happened is that the Standard Model makes perfect predictions that have been proven over and over at higher and higher energies, with no known verified exceptions. Scientists are actually desperately trying to break the Standard Model, to uncover deeper physics!
    The Standard Model leaves much unexplained, for sure. But as a theory it is extraordinarily successful. It has been called, justly, the Theory of Almost Everything.

  5. Supersymmetry is now a joke. It’s a scientific theory that made predictions and those predictions have been proven, for all intents and purposes, wrong. The media hypes supersymmetry spurred on by some superstrings fanatics. But most physicists accept that supersymmetry is a failed theory. As indeed they accept that String theory is also a failure – but for a different reason. It says nothing about actual physics and is inherently untestable.

  6. The problem, I feel, with your post here is that you are saying that Supersymmetry has failed and therefore you imply that therefore the Standard Model is, likewise, a failure. But you are giving the reader a highly misleading impression. The Standard Model is so good it is considered to be almost TOO GOOD. This is beacuse all experiments have failed to invalidate it, including at the LHC. The Standard Model is an awsome success of physics, it’s stunning actually.
    You really have to admit this as a fact.
    The predictions that the SM makes are so perfect that new generations of colliders have been unable to refute it.
    The only genuine violation of the Standard Model was found by neutrino oscillations, and even those can be incorporated by extending the standard model in a fairly natural way. Neutrino phyisics is where a lot of action is nowadays. There are clues there, but the experiments are so difficult it’s taking time to figure out what exactly is going on.
    If you want to refute the SM, then tell me an experiment that refutes it. If you can perform such a reproduceable experiment then congratulations. You get a Nobel Prize.

    1. The standard model is a moveable feast Jim. But take a look at this. I would venture to say it isn’t all correct. But I’d also venture to say it isn’t all wrong either.

  7. “All you get is a bump on a graph”
    These are bumps in the graph that the Standard Model predicts should be there, and it turns out that they are there, exactly where the Standard Model says they should be. And where the Standard model says there should be no bumps, then experiment has shown that, indeed, there are no bumps.
    (By contract, Sypersymmetry predicts bumps in graphs that physicists yearned to discover, but it turned out that none showed up, refuting SuSy).
    So you say “bumps in graphs” as if that’s a bad thing, but the opposite is true. The bumps prove that the Standard Model is correct for all energies reachable by experiments done so far.
    You criticise objects like W and Z and Higgs bozons for having an ultra-short lifetime and therefore that these do not exist as particles. The thing is, phycisists themselves do not claim that these are normal particles. The term that phycisists used to describe these bosons are “resonances” – which are excitations – “bumps in graphs” – they’re real, those bumps are real signals that are prected by the standard model and later discovered.

  8. “Especially when they’ve never even seen a free quark” – to see free quarks you need higher energies than our experiments can reach, this is in agreement with theory. There is no contradiction. We do know that quarks (and gluons) exist because of scattering experiments with protons. The history of quarks is that at first even the discoverers thought they were just abstrations. Even Gell Mann did not think of them as real particles. Feynman produced the “Parton” model, calling quarks “partons” but his parton model failed because it did not match experiment. Scattering experiments showed that the quarks really are real particles.
    Since then collider experiments have verified they are real via resonances of various hadrons. (Bumps in graphs). All of which are consistent with the predictions of QCD.

    1. There’s some good feedback there Jim. But I stand by what I said, and I will assert that the Standard Model has far more issues than you think. And I’m afraid to say it starts with QED. I used to think QED was fine, and the issues were in say QCD. But now I’ve dug into the history, and I don’t think that any more. Scattering experiments have also “shown that the electron is pointlike”. It isn’t. And note this. The gluons in ordinary hadrons are virtual. You will be interested to see some of the coming articles.

  9. Hi John, the Standard model has well known issues, firstly it needs 19 or so parameters plugging in before it makes (so far infallible) predictions: various particle masses, couplings and the like.
    Secondly there is the issue of incompatibility with General Relativity.
    Thirdly we cannot explain dark matter and dark energy and so on.
    But apart from that, it explains everything we see at the LHC – which, when you think about it, is miraculous. Compare that to SuSy, which was the oposite: it failed to predict anything that happened, instead it predicted stuff that did not happen.
    I’ve not read the more recent blog posts yet, but I have to say that, as per my comments, you’re misleading your readers in profound ways so far, definitely giving the wrong impression. Perhaps the biggest issue is that The Standard Model works miraculously and you fail to point that out. The issue you have is, if the SM is wrong, then you have to explain how the hell it is so incredibly spot on at predicting everything (unlike, say SuSy).

    1. I share your sentiments re SUSY. When it comes to the Standard Model, I note your concerns. But I don’t believe in miracles, and I see a lot of postdiction as opposed to prediction. As for the rest, ask yourself this $64,000 question: can you explain how gravity works? Or how a magnet works? I’m confident that once you can, and once you’ve read later posts, you will appreciate that there are far more issues with the Standard Model than you currently think.

  10. The predictions of the Standard model have all come true – so far. Everyone knows that there are issues with the Standard Model, it’s that very issue that is behind the current crisis of physics. My issue with your blog is that anyone reading your blog would think that the Standard Model is a failure – when in fact it is the greatest triumph in modern physics.
    One thing is for certain, you cannot explain how gravity works! No one can.
    As for how magnets work, just study Maxwell’s equations and the resulting science of electro-magnetism.

  11. When I say, no one can, obviously Newton did, then Einstein refined Newtonian physics with GR, but the issue is, we do not understand how gravity works in terms of a quantised field. We just get all these infinities, with gravity interacting with itself.

    1. Yes, the issues with the Standard ModeI are why there’s a crisis in physics. If it really was the greatest triumph in modern physics there wouldn’t be a crisis. I explained how gravity works. It’s straightforward. As for understanding it in terms of a quantized field, the thing you will come to understand is this: the field isn’t quantized. I’ve studied Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism, which is why I know how electromagnetism works And how a magnet works. Something else I know is that hydrogen atoms don’t twinkle and magnets don’t shine. Those virtual photons are virtual. As in not real. They only exist in the mathematics of the model. Which means the exchange model of photons popping into existence is lies to children, Sorry if all this is a lot to take in Jim. But it is necessary.

      1. “I explained how gravity works.” – John, you haven’t. Believe me, you haven’t. Show me how gravity interacts with quantum particles and I will say, well done, John, you win a nobel prize. So where is your mathematical theory of how gravity reacts with matter on the quantum level? (Or level that unifies gravity with quantum field theory).
        Maxwell’s equations are a start, but to understand how electromagentism works in terms of subatomic physics, you have to read Dirac, who figured that out with his famous Dirac Equation that was revolutionary. Guys like you do not mention Dirac, but he was, in some ways, as revolutionary in how he changed our knowledge of Nature, as Einstein was.
        “hydrogen atoms don’t twinkle and magnets don’t shine” – which quantum equation are you saying is wrong here?
        As for “virtual particles” – you have to be very careful before saying things like, they’re not real. Because physics experiments exist that measure the effects of virtual particles directly. Phycisists call them virtual because they’re not real in the sense a normal particle is “real”. But on the other hand a) the physics behind virtual particles has been proven in agreement with experiment to an accuracy so incredible, way beyond millions of millions of millions to one, that it does make sense to discuss “virtual particles” as a correct description of physics. This is related to trying to find an “intuitive” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

        1. Virtual particles, in one sense, are an obvious consquence of the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, which says that random variance in quantum fields must occur. These are what we call virtual particles.

        2. I don’t have a mathematical theory. But I have ample references to Einstein, and to the nature of the electron. As for Dirac, I’ll come on to him in later articles. For now, I would say he didn’t understand the electron, or how electromagnetism works. Have you ever actually read a theory of electrons and protons? That’s where space consists of an infinite number of negative-energy electrons per unit volume, some of which have infinite negative energy.
          As for virtual particles, it was a physicist who said they only exist in the mathematics of the model. The clue is in the word virtual. Space is not full of short-lived particles popping into existence like magic, and then obligingly popping out of existence. Which are of course undetectable. If you think they are, I’m afraid to say virtual particles are not the same thing as vacuum fluctuations. The electron doesn’t move helically in a magnetic field because of vacuum fluctuations. Nor does the positron. But the positron motion does have the opposite helicity. Same field, different motion. There’s a clue in that.
          As for accuracy, I asked you for a QED prediction as opposed to a postdiction. I can’t find one, can you?

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  13. John, you are absolutely correct that the physical world does not require many of the artefacts that the mathematical world does, and hence the theoretical world, imposes on it. There is a firmly held conviction that the maths is the reality, and hence, each mathematical artefact must have a real equivalent. I do not think that is the case. Maths is a tool, not reality. I am aware you are an IT guy by profession. Bizarrely, I think the roots of many of the problems in maths, and therefore the mathematical applications in physics, actually stem from the philosophical problems that Kurt Goedel posed by undermining the idea of a base truth in mathematics. I think this problem can be resolved through the proper application of UML. I believe I can show through a non-standard application of UML that you can define, a self-starting system of definition, that shows why Goedel, while incredibly clever, was wrong. As people don’t like reappraising the fundamentals, it is always going to be a hard sell but, shy bairns get nowt, so you have to try.

    1. I like to say maths is a vital tool for physics, but it isn’t what physics is. Hence I empathise with Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Maths. That’s kind of what happened to Kurt Gödel. He was a clever guy, Einstein used to enjoy talking to him about things like time in Princeton. But in the end he went crazy and starved himself to death. He weighed 65lbs when he died. Yes, people don’t like reappraising the fundamentals, and yes it is a hard sell. That’s because you can lead a physicists to knowledge, but you can’t make him think. Shy bairns get nowt, LOL. What’s UML?

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