Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Decline of Theoretical Physics

Progress in fundamental theoretical physics now seems to have been on hold for quite a while.

I thought that the situation was summed up quite nicely by one of the characters in "The Big Bang Theory" (an improbably funny TV sitcom about sciencey people).
Penny (cheerfully as a conversation-starter):
"So, what's new in the world of physics?"

Leonard (momentarily suprised and slightly amused that anyone would ask such a question):

Penny (taken aback):
"Really, nothing?"

"Well ... with the exception of string theory, not much has happened since the 1930's ... and ya can't prove string theory, at best you can say, 'Hey look, my logic has an internal consistency-y!' "

"Ah. Well, I'm sure things will pick up."

Leonard unhappily picks his nails, broods briefly, decides that there's nothing positive he can say, and then changes the subject.

And I think that just about sums things up.


Steven Colyer said...

Physics has been a victim of it's own success. The Discovery of the Quantum Field Theoretical equations that lead to Asymptotic Freedom (how quarks and gluons interact) in 1973 by Politzer, Wilczek, and Gross was the last truly BIG advancement in Physics. That quickly led to The Standard Model of Particle Physics.

There has been improvement in terms of tightening up the equations a bit, and Experimental advancements, such as the confirmation of the Top Quark. Almost every thing else has been speculative, including String Theory, AdS/CFT Correspondence, Loop Quantum Gravity, Causal Dynamical Triangulations, and speculative theories of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

What's on the table for the next few years is the LHC, which will confirm or deny the existence of the speculated Higgs boson and Supersymmetic particles, and the great Astronomical observatories which will tighten or change our views of the 2 Relativity theories, so the age of the Experimentalist will likely crowd out the Speculators in the coming decade.

Which is why Physics disappoints me at the moment, so I've decided to let it go for the time being in favor of Mathematics. :-)

ErkDemon said...

You're not alone. I took it as signifiant when John Baez baled out on mathematical physics a few years back and went back to pure math.

Most of the people I know who have a physics background, who I consider bright, no longer do physics. They decided that they wanted to spend their energy creating things rather than writing grant proposals and wrestling with office politics, and started bands, or internet startups, or small businesses, instead.

From what I can see, math academia seems to have a more open, more friendly, less egocentric, more positive vibe than physics academia, and seems to be a much nicer working environment.

Anonymous said...

Even "confirming the existence of the speculated Higgs boson" would be nothing new, just like finding the top quark was nothing new. Of course confirming what we expect is an important part of science. Still, there's nothing new in particle physics since the 1960's.