Thursday, June 6, 2013


     When I in college, the search was on for quarks. I recall an article appeared in, oh, Omni or Analog that reported a physicist had found quarks. He reported that quarks were several feet in diameter and colored purple and green and yellow. All that was needed to see quarks was a warm Caribbean beach, a fifth or two of whiskey, and a great willingness to see quarks. In the '70s, that was your basic quark detector.
     In the 19th century, Urbain Le Verrier calculated the orbit of Mercury using Newtonian mechanics. Unfortunately, the measurements of Mercury's passage differed slightly but measurably from Le Verrier's predictions. Le Verrier posited the existence of a small planet inside the orbit of Mercury to account for the difference in order to save Newtonian mechanics. He named this postulated planet "Vulcan". Lo and behold, astronomers came up with observations that purported to confirm the existence of Vulcan. One was awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his work. Le Verrier died happy, content in the knowledge that Vulcan existed. Except it didn't.
     Before Vulcan, chemists proposed the existence of phlogiston to explain combustion. Once it became possible to accurately measure the weights of materials before and after combustion, in order to explain the increase in weight of burned materials, some chemists proposed that phlogiston had negative weight. The old chemists did not give up phlogiston. They just died. A new generation grew up with newly discovered elements and the theory of oxidation. 
     When I was an undergraduate, my physics professors said that the equations for mass traveling faster than c yielded meaningless answers. We students replied, No, they yielded negative imaginary mass. The professors said, That's meaningless. We students replied, No, it is not meaningless; we just don't know what it means. I have waited many years for one of my fellows to ascribe meaning to negative imaginary mass. I still wait.
     Now I read that there is more Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the universe than there is . . . Light Matter and Light Energy, I guess. And that, like
String Theory, they are untestable. In the cases of DM and DE, they are untestable because we can't get handles on them using the tools of our world. Question: If we cannot observe or manipulate DM or DE, how is it that they interact with our world?
     A suggestion: Let's give DM and DE the dignity they deserve and call them phlogiston.
     Surely there must be a physicist or six who has thought similar thoughts. If modern physics require phlogiston to save the equations, perhaps the equations are not worth saving.

     "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

     The Einsteinian model is still useful, but so is Newtonian mechanics. You can plot a course to the Moon and back using only Newtonian mechanics. It is only at the boundaries of Newtonian physics that the model fails and we must use the Einsteinian model. But at its boundaries, the Einsteinian model requires contortions that are literally incredible.
     Perhaps as happened with phlogiston and Vulcan, advance will come when the current generation of physicists -- who have their careers invested in this model -- die. A younger generation will work up new theories to deal with the discrepancies at the boundaries. And those new theories will work until they find a new boundary. And then we shall begin the round again.

     "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity! . . . and there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:2 & 9

No comments:

Post a Comment