Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Elephants in the Room - Problems with Physics


The Elephants in the Room


Kenny A. Chaffin

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Kenny A. Chaffin

Maybe I’m getting crabby or frustrated or impatient but it seems that physics has forgotten its basics. Let’s start with gravity. We become aware of gravity even before we are born and even more when we begin to make our way in the world, rolling, crawling and walking. We are constantly aware of the ‘pull’ of gravity. Examination of gravity rationally and scientifically began with Galileo (though certainly many had thought about it before). He was the first we know of to conduct and record experiments to determine the force of gravity and he supposedly tested dropping balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa though the majority of his experiments were done using inclined planes and rolling balls. He was able to determine that the acceleration of gravity was constant.
Now let’s jump to Newton. He took our knowledge a step further, to actually mathematically determine the pull of gravity and to show that its action was the same on Earth as in space by describing mathematically how planets and stars interacted. Still he was at a loss as to what the force actually was and how it worked.
Einstein took another giant leap by equating gravity and acceleration and ultimately describing gravity as not a force, but as a curvature of space due to mass. This theory predicted that light would be ‘bent’ when passing near a massive object. We’ve actually seen and measured this as well as observing the effects of gravitational lensing wherein galaxies bend the light of stars around themselves.
Quantum mechanics has another approach. According to the Standard Model there should be a particle – a gravitron – that mediates the gravitational force (note that gravity is a force here not curved space) which appears to be a direct contradiction with Einstein’s General Relativity and its description of curved space.
String theory attempts to take a slightly different angle in an attempt to move beyond quantum mechanics by adding dimensions to space and ultimately trying to define quantum loop gravity (in an attempt to unify relativity and quantum mechanics) as something like a ‘hidden’ dimension of reality. String theory has become extremely mathematically intensive and has yet to meet the true standards of prediction and testability required by science.
Now maybe this gravity issue is just an ‘unanswered’ question of physics. Certainly that is what it seems to be given the contradictory explanations between Relativity and Quantum. But hold this in mind for a bit.

In Special Relativity Einstein ‘set’ the speed of light as constant and invariant due to various properties that physicists had observed – primarily the Michelson-Morley experiment. He pushed this idea further than anyone and developed his Special Theory of Relativity (prior to the General Theory) with its unique results and predictions about light, its behavior and ultimately about time changing depending on the observers position and movement due to the fact that the speed of light must always be invariant regardless of the motion of the observer. This results in some very non-intuitive results, including the ability to (in a manner of speaking) travel into the future. It all seems to be true based on tests conducted with clocks of various types moving at various speeds. The question for me though is why is the speed of light constant and why if photons are massless do they have a finite speed? This is the elephant in the room as is the curvature of space.
Now maybe as opposed to Marvin the Android my tiny brain just can’t comprehend these concepts, but it seems something is missing. It seems that perhaps we need to slow down, back up and rethink. That is a bit what the bad boy of physics Lee Smolin is attempting to do in his approach. He worked for decades in researching and developing String Theory before declaring it the wrong approach. This is detailed in his book “The Trouble with Physics” and continues in his latest release “Time Reborn.” In it he revisits the fundamentals of physics including light, space and time. He has taken the radical approach of declaring Time the fundamental component of reality. In essence he is setting time as real and invariant similarly to what Einstein did with the speed of light. At one point in the book he states that this approach is really just another way of looking at Relativity.
After reading about Special and General Relativity myself for decades (but without any of the mathematical abilities to examine it in detail) I’ve often wondered myself about whether one could simply choose a component of reality as we know it – like the speed of light, time, or space – set it as invariant and work the math required to develop an alternative view of reality just as Einstein did. Now Smolin’s book and view on time is written for the popular reader and he admits that he has not followed through with the mathematics but is putting the idea forward as an alternative possibility in the hopes of someone taking it and running with it.
Along these same lines now comes Dark Matter and Dark Energy to explain a couple of anomalies we seem to observe in the cosmos. Dark Matter is the proposed solution for the aberrant movement of galaxies and stars which appear to be acting as though there were more mass in the universe than is evident from the stars and reflected light we see. It certainly seems possible there is ‘unseen’ matter that might cause this gravitational effect. Another possibility could be that our observation is somehow affected by space or time or other laws of the universe we simply don’t understand yet.
This brings us to Dark Energy, the proposed solution to the recently discovered accelerated expansion of the universe. We’ve known (or assumed we have) that the universe is expanding since Hubble measured and proposed it in 1929. We can measure the red-shift of distant stars with spectrographic instruments and have determined that not only are they all moving away from us (thus implying expansion) but that that expansion is accelerating. This has been confirmed by recent cosmic microwave background measurements. We don’t know why this is happening yet Dark Energy has been anointed as the reason by creating a kind of anti-gravity force ‘pushing’ space apart while at the same time being a force that is undetectable, unmeasurable, and invisible other than through the observation of the foresaid acceleration of universal expansion.
I don’t know about you gentle reader, but this is all a bit unsettling for me. There are many unknowns here and of course as Feynman says that’s okay, it is much better for science to say I don’t know than to create unsupportable, unsubstantiated solutions. I ‘believe’ in science, I trust it to eventually find the answers to the reality of the universe around us but at times I wonder if perhaps we haven’t gotten off the path, I wonder if perhaps we are not seeing the elephants in the room and if perhaps we should not stop, regroup, and reexamine some of our basic assumptions about the world around us.


About the Author

Kenny A. Chaffin writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction and has published poems and fiction in Vision Magazine, The Bay Review, Caney River Reader, WritersHood, Star*Line, MiPo, Melange and Ad Astra and has published nonfiction in The Writer, The Electron, Writers Journal and Today’s Family. He grew up in southern Oklahoma and now lives in Denver, CO where he works hard to make enough of a living to support two cats, numerous wild birds and a bevy of squirrels. His poetry collections No Longer Dressed in Black, The Poet of Utah Park, The Joy of Science, A Fleeting Existence, a collection of science essays How do we Know, and a memoir of growing up on an Oklahoma farm - Growing Up Stories are all available at He may be contacted through his website at

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