Evaluating twentieth century physics
Modern theoretical physics, physics post 1900, is badly flawed.
It started out with a set of bold ideas:
Everything is relative
Light is a particle
Light travels at the same constant speed for all observers.
These appeared at the time to have the potential to solve the serious problems that existed in the wake of the theoretical analysis of Maxwell and the experimental observations of Michelson.
It is now clear that each of these ideas is incorrect:
They conflict with observational evidence, as detailed across this site and summarised below
They are as a consequence illogical.
Several dozen physicists have examined the analysis in these pages, in whole or in part. Some have dismissed it as not agreeing with what they believe, a few errors were identified and removed, but the core has survived. And this analysis condemns modern physics as illogical, inconsistent, wilfully unscientific, and defensive to the point of repeatedly lying to outsiders.
As a result, those further theories that are built on this foundation are questionable at best, and it is unsurprising that they often appear somewhat bizarre.
Status of the three theories
Special relativity is based on a clearly stated principle that has been abandoned for all practical purposes, except in the classroom and fringe usage. It is derived in an imagined spacetime of simplicity and purity that doesn’t exist, and its supposedly validating observations occur in situations and ways that run directly counter to those assumptions. Clocks in motion, for example, do not exhibit relativism in any recognisable form, and clearly indicate a preferred frame of reference denied by relativity.
Quantum theory is an excellent set of mathematical descriptions of particle and sub-atomic behaviour, but the verbal depictions, explanations and discussions that accompany them are flawed in more ways than will fit in a paragraph, ranging through contradictory, deliberately vague, metaphysical and unphysical. The descriptions (but not the mathematics) are based on conclusions about the nature of light that have not been properly substantiated.
General relativity is mathematically flawed in a variety of ways. Some of the components of the Schwarzschild metric have been validated, while others have not, and two core assumptions are very easily demonstrated to be false, namely the equivalence principle and the use of a single metric for the motion of both light and matter.
There is a further problem afflicting modern theory that goes beyond arguments about the flaws just described. This is that the discrepancies between quantum theory and general relativity are a certain indication that there are more basic assumptions than can be accommodated in one theory. Regardless of whether you accept the individual criticisms of the theories, there are more assumptions in modern physics than can in principle be true, and yet modern theorists carelessly use any and all when constructing further theory.
This is a certain recipe for theoretical chaos and scientific disaster, and means that none of the more recent theories based on this core can be considered reliable or even scientific, and that is the reason why we have not examined them here in more detail.
Science is at its best when it tells us something we didn’t expect
Most established ideas in modern physics are nonsensical on first hearing, but then so were evolution and continental drift (plate tectonics). My sense of the world is that I am a special creature, different in nature to other animals, stationary, on a flat world, on ground that will last forever, but science has revealed that none of this is true.
At the start of the twentieth century, physics took this a step further, concluding from determinist analysis that determinism itself had failed, and you can see on this site the disgraceful theoretical and pedagogic consequences of that conclusion. One of the central unspoken beliefs of science is that it is a superior method of enquiry that will overcome assumption and prejudice, and it will – eventually. But at present theoretical physics is an unscientific mess.
Some of the wild ideas that have been shown for what they are:
Particle light: unable to explain key properties
Constant light speed: contradicted by key observations
Duality: waffle, not model; and light cannot be both localised and non-localised at the same time
Entanglement: poor reasoning from invalid assumptions
Black holes: both the physics and the mathematics have been abused
The big bang: holds the record for the most irrational, a-causal, ad hoc add-ons in science
Inflation, expanding space, dark energy, dark matter …
The physical is no more than mathematics
This idea keeps coming back whenever a theorist with sufficient profile has an idea they can only express in mathematical form.
The thinking, such as it is, is as follows. The mathematics of special relativity, general relativity and quantum mechanics works, in the important sense that it correctly models reality and that it correctly predicts events, but the associated ideas do not. We should therefore learn from this that the mathematics, and not the physical, is the reality.
This is never stated this clearly, in deference to colleagues who are still selling the failed ideas, but this is the underlying reasoning whenever this claim is made.
One of the unstated and perhaps unintended effects is to deflect attention from the obvious failings in the original ideas. Furthermore, while the ideas are undoubtedly flawed, and mostly incorrect, there are also problems with some of the core mathematics, detailed here.
Bell and von Neumann
John von Neumanni and John Bellii both produced famous ‘proofs’ of the non-existence of a physically describable reality that they called ‘hidden variables’. One is mathematically simple and the other hugely complex. The mathematical ‘proof’ is only as good as its initial assumptions, and both are flawed. Von Neumann’s ‘proof’ is long and highly mathematical, but his error was exposed by Bell.
Bell’s error was a simple one. He assumed that light is particulate, and his ‘proof’ only relates to light corpuscles that have key properties of simple macroscopic particles. The possibility for wave light does not feature in his key work and neither does the ‘duality model’.
Milonni correctly observes that modern theory of the photoelectric effect ‘allows Einstein’s relation to be deduced without photons: Once electrons are described by the Schrödinger equation, it follows that a classical light wave of frequency ν can induce an electron to change its state…’iii
The physicist mind
The focus of theoretical physics in the twenty-first century, for professional practitioners and critics alike, is on a cacophony of new and novel theories each based on the assumption that some core part of the originating theories of the early twentieth century is true. As stated above, it is abundantly clear that this cannot be assumed.
The original theories are still taught as if valid, and such is the confusion in theoretical physics that even abandoned or comprehensively modified parts of these theories are taught uncritically. Examples are the original formulations of the relativity principle, the particle photon and the expanding universe.
What we have in physics is a huge community of individuals who have studied science, are recognised and qualified as scientists, who for most of their working day do real, valuable science and yet abandon – feel forced to abandon – their scientific rationality when dealing with fundamental theory.
Reasoning illogically is something we all fall prey to at times, but in theoretical physics this is endemic and entrenched. When it extends to a deliberate lack of clarity, known falsehoods as required and obfuscation as a way of life – as it too often does – it amounts to a crime against science and against education.
We need to understand that most physicists really have no alternative. To express one’s doubts and criticisms publicly is career suicide, and you could lose a lot of friends. There are no longer any experts, no one to approach with one’s doubts, to re-evaluate established belief. So individuals survive and prosper, while science and education are knowingly corrupted.
I like physicists. Many are my friends. I understand their dilemma and their often-subconscious decisions. From this tolerance I exempt those who conspire with broadcast and print media to propagate nonsensical ideas. Some of what they proclaim they know is false, and others they should know, if only they asked some simple and obvious questions, such as those posed on this site; in other words, if they behaved as a scientist should, checking their facts and reasoning before telling untruths to others.
Some of this is sociological, pressure to conform, the threat of excommunication, a fate that has befallen a number. Some of it is psychological, the reasonable belief that those who taught them understood that which they do not. Some is philosophical, a preference for anti-scientific metaphysics over scientific training, for a chaotic, incomprehensible universe over a deterministic one.
But mostly it is the abrogation of proper scientific enquiry and debate, the shameful inaction of an entire profession.
In spite of considerable efforts to have the ideas and reasoning checked, it is of course possible that some of the ideas, arguments and criticisms expressed may still contain flaws, but the problems exposed are so numerous, so fundamental, and the sloppy thinking in physics so blatant, that it is not possible that any current theory is fundamentally correct, or indeed that theoretical physics overall can properly be considered a functioning science.
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i. John von Neumann, 1903 – 1957, Mathematische Grundlagen der Quanten-Mechanik (Springer-Verlag, Berlin 1932). The English translation is: Princeton UP, NJ, 1955
ii. John S. Bell, 1928 – 1990, On the Problem of Hidden Variables in Quantum Mechanics, Reviews of Modern Physics, Volume 38:3 (July 1966) 447-452; quote on page 449
iii. P.W. Milonni, Los Alamos National Laboratory, in Am. J. Phys. (January 1997)