Modern Physics’ 21st Century Dry Spell

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Modern physics has achieved many breakthroughs since the early 20th century — the theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. But some physicists are concerned that since the turn of the century, the field has been suffering from one long dry spell.

Even the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012 and gravitational waves in 2016 are based on theories developed much earlier. And promising ideas such as string theory have yet to be verified.

Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, told NBC News that theoretical physics’ lack of successful predictions since the 1970s is a “very shocking state of affairs.” The work that is being done, he said, isn’t enhancing our understanding of the universe the way earlier work did.

This doesn’t mean that physicists aren’t doing any research, because they are. You have only to look at the physics journals and pre-press websites, and the large number of conferences held each year, to see how prolific physicists are. But Turok is concerned about the lack of successful predictions, which for him is the true goal of the field.

Adding to the field’s lackluster performance are several recent well-publicized experiments that haven’t turned up any new discoveries. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) failed to show evidence of supersymmetry (after its success with the Higgs Boson). The Sanford Underground Research Facility has yet to find dark matter particles. And the string and multiverse theories continue to resist experimental verification.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a physicist at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies in Germany, argues in her book “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray” that in recent years physicists have been chasing “beautiful” or “elegant” equations that don’t have relevance for the real world.

She also says that theoretical physicists are no longer trying to explain what is observed the way earlier generations of scientists did. Instead, she writes, “now they try to explain why they can’t explain what was not observed.”

Many physicists have long sought mathematical elegance or simplicity in their theories, such as explaining many concepts using only a few hypotheses. But MIT physicist Frank Wilczek told NBC News that there’s no guarantee that this approach will work. He thinks another problem with physics today is that earlier successes produced such good models that physicists have had a hard time improving on them.

As for the future, some physicists remain optimistic. Wilczek told NBC News that it’s too soon to write off supersymmetry and the dark matter particle. Turok also thinks that bold new discoveries may happen soon — all it will take is for some new physicist to come along and see how everything fits together.

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