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.