QR 1.1.2. A Hollow Science

Quantum mechanics and relativity theory are the crown jewels of modern physics that have quite simply never been proved wrong. It all began with Maxwell’s wave equations in the 1860s, followed by Planck’s constant in 1900, Einstein’s special relativity in 1905, general relativity in 1915 and Schrödinger’s wave equation in 1925. Despite initial skepticism, these theories met every logical and experimental test their critics could devise and amazed even their advocates, as Fermi predicted the neutrino in 1933 before it was found in 1953 and Dirac predicted anti-matter before it too was confirmed. Yet a century later, the theory still doesn’t make any sense. As Ford says:

Its just that the theory lacks a rationale. ‘How come the quantum’ John Wheeler likes to ask. ‘If your head doesn’t swim when you think about the quantum,’ Niels Bohr reportedly said, ‘you haven’t understood it.’ And Richard Feynman … who understood quantum mechanics as deeply as anyone, wrote: ‘My physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it.’”(Ford, 2004) p98

For the first time in history, the scholars of a discipline don’t actually believe what their reigning theories say! They accept the calculations are correct but deny that they represent reality. This is, to say the least, an unusual state of affairs. The problem isn’t inexperience, as these theories are used in a host of technologies that define life today, from cell phones to space exploration, yet:

“… physicists who work with the theory every day don’t really know quite what to make of it. They fill blackboards with quantum calculations and acknowledge that it is probably the most powerful, accurate, and predictive scientific theory ever developed. But … the very suggestion that it may be literally true as a description of nature is still greeted with cynicism, incomprehension, and even anger.” (Vacca, 2005) p116

There are equations, tests and applications but what is described makes no physical sense, e.g. in Feynman’s sum over histories an electron travels all possible paths between two points at once but how can one electron do that? Theory usually increases understanding but in fundamental physics it seems to take it away, e.g. wave-particle duality lets waves morph into particles, which denies the very idea of what waves and particles are. Given a choice between meaning and mathematics, physics long ago chose the latter and the consequences can be seen today, e.g. quantum theory still isn’t taught in high schools as who can teach what makes no sense? Modern physics is a mathematical feast whose core is empty of meaning, a hollow science built on impressive equations about quantum states that everyone agrees don’t exist! And this way of no meaning is a deliberate strategy:

“… we have locked up quantum physics in “black boxes”, which we can handle and operate without knowing what is going on inside. (Audretsch, 2004) (Preface, p x).

The result is what some now call a fairy tale physics (Baggot, 2013), where virtual particles arise ex nihilo from invisible fields in empty space to fit equations that work but make no sense. When physics stopped trying to make sense of its findings, the result was an evident lack of progress:

How unusual it is for three decades to pass without major progress in fundamental physics? Even if we look back more than two hundred years…it is unprecedented.” (Smolin, 2006) p viii

The issue is not a few anomalies in an otherwise perfect vision. Quantum theory rules the micro-cosmic world from which reality emerges and relativity rules the cosmic world around it. These theories are the bedrock of physics which is fundamental to science, so for them to make no sense at all is not acceptable. Yet relativity and quantum mechanics contradict at their core. Each works in its domain, relativity for cosmic events and quantum theory for atomic events, but together they clash:

The problem … is that when the equations of general relativity commingle with those of quantum mechanics, the result is disastrous.” (Greene, 2004, p15)

This conflict tells us something is wrong. The barren desert of particle physics today began with the Copenhagen “shut up and calculate” policy that effectively banned discussions of meaning. It is time to return to the question that physics tried to ignore decades ago:

… the main reason for the existence of myths in QM {quantum mechanics} is the fact that QM does not give a clear answer to the question of what, if anything, objective reality is.(Nikoli, 2008) p43

This is the original “hard” question of physics – What is reality?