Vanity and formalism

During my series on Transcending the impasse, I wrote about Vanity in Physics. I also addressed the issue of Physics vs Formalism in a previous post. Neither of these two aspects are conducive to advances in physics. So, when one encounters the confluence of these aspects, things are really turning inimical. Recently, I heard of such a situation.

In an attempt to make advances in fundamental physics, the physics community has turned to mathematics, or at least something that looks like mathematics. It seems to be the believe that some exceptional mathematical formalism will lead us to a unique understanding of the fundamentals of nature.

Obviously, based on what I’ve written before, this approach is not ideal. However, we need to understand that the challenges in fundamental physics is different from those in other fields of physics. For the latter, there are always some well-established underlying theory in terms of which the new phenomena are studied. The underlying theory usually comes with a thoroughly developed formalism. The new phenomena may require a refinement in formalism, but one can always check that any improvements or additions are consistent with the underlying theory.

With fundamental physics, the situation is different. There is no underlying theory. So, the whole thing needs to be invented from scratch. How does one do that?

Albert Einstein

We can take a leave out of the book of previous examples from the history of physics. A good example is the development of general relativity. Today there are well established formalisms for general relativity. (Note the use of the plural. It will become important later.) How did Einstein know what formalism to use for the development of general relativity? He realized that spacetime is curved and therefore need a formalism that can handle curved spacetime metrics. How did he know that spacetime is curved? He figured it out with the aid of some simple heuristic arguments. These arguments led him to conceive of a fundamental principle that would guide him in the development of the theory.

That is a success story. Now compare it with what is going on today. There are different formalisms being developed. The “fundamental principle” is simply to get a formalism that can handle curved spacetime in the context of a quantum field theory so that the curvature of spacetime can somehow be represented be the exchange of particles. As such, it goes back to the old notions existing before general relativity that regarded gravity as a force. According to our understanding of general relativity, gravity is not a force. But let’s leave that for now.

There does not seem to be any new physics principles that guide the development of these new formalisms. Here I exclude all those so called “postulates” that have been presented for quantum mechanics, because those postulates are of a mathematical nature. They may provide a basis for quantum mechanics as a mathematical formalism but not for the physics associated with quantum phenomena.

So, if there is no fundamental principle driving the current effort to develop new formalisms for fundamental physics, then what is driving it? What motivates people to spend all the effort in this formidable exercise?

Recent revelations gave me a clue. There was some name-calling going on among some of the most prominent researcher in the field. The proponents of one formalism would denounce some other formalism. It is as if we are watching a game show to see which formalism would “win” at the end of the day. However, the fact that there are different approaches should be seen as a good thing. It provides the diversity that improves the chances for success. More than one of these approaches may turn out to be successful. Here again an example from the history of science can be provided. The formalisms of Heisenberg and Schroedinger both turned out to be correct descriptions for quantum physics. Moreover, there are more than one formalism in terms of which general relativity can be expressed.

So what then is really the reason for this name-calling among proponents of the different approaches to develop formalisms for fundamental physics? It seems to be that deviant new motivation for doing physics: vanity! It is not about gaining a new understanding. That is secondary. It is all about being the one that comes up with the successful theory and then reaping in all the fame and glory.

The problem with vanity is that it does not directly address the goal. Vanity is a reward that can be acquired without achieving the goal. Therefore, it is not the optimal motivation for uncovering an understanding of fundamental physics. I see this as one of the main reasons for the lack of progress in fundamental physics.

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How far away is that star?

On a clear night, far away from the city lights, one can look up and enjoy the beauty of the starry sky. This display must have enticed people for as long as people existed and I’m sure the question has often come up: how far away are those stars?

Well, there is an interesting tale of discovery related to the progression of measuring sticks that give the ability to determine the distances to astronomical objects. Part of this tale is how Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding.

The realization that we live in an expanding universe complicates the answer to the question of how far away astronomical objects are. Apart from the fact that the distances change, there is also the issue of what distance we observe at a given point in time. If I use the apparent brightness of a star with a known absolute brightness, then one may think (at least I would have) that the implied distance is between us (the earth) and the location of the star at the time the light was emitted. This is not the case.

Diagram of light from a star or galaxy propagating to be observed on earth

The above diagram tries to explain what happens. The black dots represent a star or galaxy (the source of the light) at different locations in an expanding universe. The blue dot is the earth which is kept it at a fixed location in the expanding universe. The red circles represent the expanding sphere of light after being emitted by the source at some point in the past. Assuming that the universe expands uniformly, we see the source would always remain at the center of the expanding sphere. Moreover, since the observed apparent brightness is given by the total emitted power divided by the total surface area of the sphere, the associated distance is the distance from the earth to the current location of the source. This is called the proper distance to the source.

Amazing, we are able to know the distance to an object at its current location even if we cannot see that object now. Who knew?