Time for Physics to Get Real

Time for Physics to Get Real

Part I of The State of Modern Physics series

by John Best

The title of this article is more than just a trite play on words. It is time to restore physics to the realm of reality. Much of modern physics has become highly abstract. It has descended into an ever-deepening morass of extremely complex, even bizarre, theories that few outside of their authors can truly understand. Among the amazing things we are told, is that most of the substance of the universe is composed of “dark matter”, something that no one has ever seen or touched, that there are abundant amounts of something called “dark energy”, but no one can find it, and that gravity waves which no one has ever felt, ripple through a universe of a rubber-like something that exists in the past and future called “spacetime”. One could hardly be blamed for thinking that such ideas came from imaginative science fiction writers rather than serious physicists.

Most technological achievements that we see in our daily lives have come from experiment and engineering, rather than theory. Textbooks used to train undergraduate engineers in how to design things that work, typically contain little or no mention of the most cherished theories of modern physics, such as the Einsteinian relativity theories.

Neal Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute, one of the most prestigious organizations dedicated to theoretical physics, was quoted as saying: “We’ve been given these incredible clues from nature and we’re failing to make sense of them. In fact, we’re doing the opposite: theory is becoming ever more complex and contrived. We throw in more fields, more dimensions, more symmetry – we’re throwing the kitchen sink at the problem and yet failing to explain the most basic facts.”1 A good place to start toward remedying the maladies of contemporary physics, is contained in the last sentence of the quote: Before attempting to explain every aspect of the universe in minute detail, physics should first provide logical explanations for “…the most basic facts”.

Take for example the phenomenon of circular motion, which also is known as rotation, spin, or orbital motion. We have all encountered this phenomenon in our daily lives since the invention of the wheel. It is so commonplace that nobody gives it much thought. The mere idea that something so simple is not completely understood seems absurd. Let’s think about it a moment though, just make sure that we really do understand this phenomenon:

Ask yourself one simple question: How do we know how fast something is rotating? Simple, you might answer; just count how many times a point or feature of the rotating object passes a direction identified by something external to it, in a period of time. If it is a motor for example, it could be how many times a point on the motor shaft passes a point on the motor housing over the course of a minute. All we need to do is look at the nameplate of the motor for its rated rpm and we know how fast the motor shaft is rotating, right? Not necessarily. What if the motor is mounted vertically on a turntable? If the turntable is one of those ancient devices that played phonograph records at 45 rpm, now the shaft is rotating either 45 rpm faster than the rated speed of the motor, or 45 rpm slower, depending on which direction the turntable is rotating. Now how about if the turntable supporting the motor is mounted at the center of a merry-go-round? The rotational speed of the merry-go-round would have to be added or subtracted to the speed of the turntable, and the rated speed of the motor, to know how fast the motor shaft is rotating. Suppose that the merry-go-round that supports the turntable that supports the motor happens to be located exactly at the North pole of the earth so that the base of the merry-go-round is rotating at the speed of the earth’s rotation? Now the rotation of the earth would need to be added to the rotation of the merry-go-round and the turntable and the rotation of the motor shaft relative to its housing, and this still does not include the rotation of the earth due to its orbit around the sun, etc. How about if the rotation is taking place in outer space; say on the space wheel in the movie 2001? How could we measure its rotation? You get the idea. How can we really know for sure how fast something is actually rotating? One way is by measuring the force that the rotation produces.

As we all know, there is force associated with rotation. If you twirl a rock tied to a string around in a circle, sort of like the sling used by David in the legend of David and Goliath, the string pulls against your hand. The force your hand feels as you twirl the rock is called centripetal force, and is mathematically expressed by the equation, Fc=mrω2, where ω is the angular velocity or rotational speed, m is the mass of the rotating object (considered to be concentrated at a single point), and r is the radius of the circular path. A commonly used measure of angular velocity is revolutions per minute or rpm.

The above equation shows that for every value of angular velocity there is a single unique value of centripetal force, and vice versa. So far as we know, the mathematical formula for centripetal force is universally valid, so the same numerical values for mass, radius, and angular velocity, will result in the same centripetal force, regardless of whether the circular motion takes place on earth, on the moon, or on some far-off planet in some other galaxy. For there to be a correct correspondence between the angular velocity and the centripetal force it generates; the reference point or direction that the angular velocity is measured relative to, cannot be rotating around the same axis as the rotation being measured. This requirement is necessary to ensure that a rotation that is measured as having an angular velocity of 45 rpm where we are, and one measured as 45 rpm somewhere far across the universe, both produce the same amount of centripetal force, for a given mass and radius. The only way that this way this requirement can be met is if all angular velocity anywhere in the universe is measured against universally static reference directions. That is to say that the reference direction that any rotation is measured from, cannot itself be rotating relative to the reference direction that any other rotation with a parallel axis is measured from. If this were not so, the same measured angular velocity, would produce differing amounts of centripetal force.

Attempts to find an answer in the literature of mainstream physics to the question of what rotation or angular velocity is relative to, may be met with a confusing confabulation of vernacular and mathematics. The only clear answer that this author has obtained from discussion with physicists, is that it is relative to “fixed stars”, an idea known as “Mach’s principle” after Edwin Mach. From a practical standpoint, this isn’t a bad answer, because if the stars are very far away, any rotation they might have about the same axis as the rotation whose angular velocity is being measured, would have a very long period. In other words, they would rotate only very slowly about the axis of the rotation being measured; perhaps imperceptibly slowly in human time frames. Therefore they could be regarded as almost “fixed”. However, for stars to truly be “fixed”, they would have to be at absolute rest; something not possible according to Einstein’s “principle of relativity”, which he stated in his 1905 paper, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, as: “…phenomena do not have any properties corresponding to the concept of absolute rest…”

Another example of a force associated with velocity is magnetic force. The magnetic force between electric charges is given by the Lorentz force law, F = q(vXB), where the v term represents velocity. The question is: What is this velocity relative to? This is not a trivial question to answer under Einsteinian relativity. Experiment shows that electric charges moving in the same direction experience magnetic force between each other. If the charges are moving in the same direction at the same velocity, there is no relative velocity between them, but there is magnetic force. Having failed to find a general definition of this velocity term of the Lorentz force law in any literature, this author posed the question to a number of practicing physicists at various institutions in an informal survey. The question was posed as: “What is the velocity term in the Lorentz force law in the case of two electric charges alone in space, traveling in the same direction at the same velocity?” It was suggested that defining this velocity presented a problem for Einsteinian relativity. Around seventy responses to this question were received, many from highly respected physicists, including department chairmen, and prize winners. The author’s expectation was that the responses would be some single mainstream answer to this simple question, with only minor variations. Instead, the result was a wide variety of answers, differing in very fundamental respects, with many of them ignoring the question of the definition of the velocity term. Here is a sampling of the responses, without giving any names:

“Any college book on E&M would explain this in gory details. ..”

“…the answer to your question is covered in the J.D. Jackson’s Classical electrodynamic (ISBN-13: 978-0471309321) this is covered in the first year of graduate Electrodynamics…See the E&M tensor section after the chapter in special relativity.”

“This is really not an interesting question anymore since it has been solved for nearly 100 years.”

“…the net force is gamma^3 times the repulsive electric force that the observer would see if the two charges were stationary. However, this augmentation of the net force by gamma^3 is exactly what is required by relativity for self-consistency. – Actually, what I sent you is slightly incorrect. The net force is e^2/(4 pi epsilon_0 r^2) /gamma”

“…m d^2 x^{\mu} / d\tau^2 = q F^\mu_\nu dx^\nu / d\tau which reduces to the lorentz force equation when you convert all of the taus to ts…This is the correct procedure…”

“Is it all moving along together in a vacuum? Then no. No relative speed, no Lorentz force.”

“…there is no magnetic force in the rest frame of the co-moving particles.”

“The velocity in special relativity is measured relative to the observer”

“The relevant velocity in the equation for the magnetic force is the relative velocity between the two particles…”

“So, the upshot of this is that the force you get does not_depend on the relativistic frame of reference you choose! Because any velocity gets you the same force, any frame will get you the same force too!”

“…The electric and the magnetic forces between them change, but the net electromagnetic force stays the same,..”

“You have forgotten that same-sign charges also experience an electric repulsion…”

“Observers in different reference frames see different electric and magnetic fields; a pure magnetic field to one observer will be a mixture of both fields to the other…”

“…the electric force in the rest frame manifests itself as a magnetic force in the moving frame (furthermore, the electric force in the moving frame will be less than the electric force in the rest frame, which can be understood in terms of clocks advancing at different rates in the two frames).”

“You cannot just separate one defined aspect (such as what we call the Lorentz force) and think of that alone…”

“…after you first learn the right amount of advanced math. Not only the magnetic field changes when you go to another frame, the electric field changes too. So the electric force between the two charges also changes. In addition, the masses of the two particles also changes. So the final effect on the motion of the two charges is a complicated calculation, and cannot be lightly analyzed as you did. Furthermore, the meaning of length and time-duration also changes.”

“…Einstein’s special relativity. It is now firmly established to becorrect and there are no simple arguments like what you gave that couldprove it to be incorrect.”

“A lot of higher physics violates my sense of logic. Quantum mechanics is a doozy, for example. But, I trust mathematics more than my human-scale logic, and the math just plain works. “

“The formula you are using is non-relativistic. If you would like to invoke special relativity, you need to use Maxwell equations, which contain both magnetic and electric fields, as one transforms into the other under Lorentz boost….”

“This was solved once and for all in The 1920’s. You don’t need quantum field theory to understand it; it is understandable classically.”

“Force itself is also a relative quantity in relativity, so there is no incompatibility.”

“…your idea is flawed (in your case by the work of Ernst Mach)”

“This is actually related to “Mach’s principle”. For example, suppose you removed all of the matter from the universe except the earth and moon. Would the moon still “orbit” the earth? How can we measure their relative motion without an external frame of reference?”

The astute reader may note that only two real answers to the original question of what is the velocity term, v, in the Lorentz force law, are to be found in the above responses. Neither of which can possibly be correct. One of them is that the velocity is the relative velocity between the two charges, as seen in this response above: “Is it all moving along together in a vacuum? Then no. No relative speed, no Lorentz force.” There is no relative velocity between charges traveling in the same direction at the same velocity, however experiment has shown that there is magnetic force. The situation could be expressed differently by saying that the velocity is that with which one of the charges (represented by q in the equation) is traveling through the magnetic field of the other charge (represented by B in the equation). However, since the magnetic field of the other charge is produced by its velocity and moves with it; if the charges are moving in the same direction at the same velocity then there is no relative velocity between one charge and the magnetic field of the other charge (but there is force).

The other, and most popular answer, which can be found in Einsteinian relativity theory, is that there must be some third-party “observer” to which the velocity of the co-moving charges is relative. Some responses claim that the force between the charges is a mixture of electric and magnetic force, with the ratio of these forces depending on the observer. This cannot be correct because electric force is fundamentally different from magnetic force: Electric force does not depend on velocity but magnetic force does. Furthermore, magnetic force acts perpendicularly to the electric force in a transverse manner called curl. If different observers see different mixtures of electric and magnetic force, they are seeing different amounts of this transverse force. What if the transverse force activates a light switch? If the magnetic force that activates the switch depends on the velocity of some observer who is observing the velocity of the charges, this could mean that the light could be on, to an observer traveling at one velocity, but off to another observer traveling at a different velocity. Simply put, if force depends on velocity, and velocity depends on the observer, then force also depends on the observer, an idea totally contrary to experience and logic.

The reliance of velocity on the observer in Einsteinian relativity was expressed by Arthur Eddington, a leading early proponent of relativity theory, in his book, Fundamental Theory, as: “Relativity theory begins with a denial of absolute motion. An observed velocity of a physical entity is necessarily relative to another physical entity.”4 The second part of this statement is undeniable. How could we observe that something is moving without something else that we can see to compare its motion to? However, whether or not we are capable of observing the motion has no bearing on whether something is moving. Just because something doesn’t appear to be moving, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is not moving. Passengers sitting in an airliner with may appear motionless to each other, but all of them will splat if the plane crashes into a mountain.

In cases where velocity is associated with force, claiming that velocity is relative to who is observing it is tantamount to claiming that force is relative to the observer. Force is not influenced by observation. It makes real changes and can break things. Something cannot be broken to one observer but unbroken to another. The central idea of Einsteinian relativity colloquially expressed, is that What happens depends on who is watching. Another way of putting it is: How an event appears to an observer, and what actually happens, are one and the same. Physicists attempt to camouflage this idea with technical-sounding vernacular, but it is this simple, very unscientific idea that lies at the core of Einsteinian relativity. Einstein’s idea was that physical reality depends on what an observer must see (according to him), based on a constant velocity of light which is taken to be a cosmic speed limit. This is very evident from Einstein’s own writings such as his “thought experiments” involving things like moving trains and lightning flashes, that he used to explain and justify his theory of Special Relativity2. The idea that the reality of an event must be the same as how it is viewed by a person (or by a mechanical device such as a camera) is well beyond the domain of rational science, and could generously be described as metaphysical. The belief that how something appears to the human mind and senses, is necessarily how it is in reality, is one that an Einstein contemporary, Harry Houdini, would have disagreed with.

Some have claimed that Einstein’s “observer” was not necessarily human, but it is fairly clear from Einstein’s own writing, that he was referring to human beings as the observers, and this is largely how the concept of the observer has been interpreted in the mainstream of physics, particularly in quantum mechanics. Consider this quote from contemporary Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde: “The universe and the observer exist as a pair. You can say that the universe is there only when there is an observer who can say, Yes, I see the universe there. These small words — it looks like it was here— for practical purposes it may not matter much, but for me as a human being, I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers. We are together, the universe and us. The moment you say that the universe exists without any observers, I cannot make any sense out of that. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of everything that ignores consciousness. A recording device cannot play the role of an observer, because who will read what is written on this recording device? In order for us to see that something happens, and say to one another that something happens, you need to have a universe, you need to have a recording device, and you need to have us. It’s not enough for the information to be stored somewhere, completely inaccessible to anybody. It’s necessary for somebody to look at it. You need an observer who looks at the universe. In the absence of observers, our universe is dead.”7 Hmm… does this mean that if I close my eyes the universe does not exist because I cannot see it?

A third example of a relation between force and velocity that we are all familiar with, is acceleration, which is change in velocity. The magnitude of acceleration is the same to all observers, since it is change in velocity, rather than velocity itself. The manner in which force is related to acceleration is quantified by Newton’s second law: F=ma, which shows that force produces acceleration and vice versa. The centripetal force produced by circular motion that was discussed earlier in this article, is actually an example of this relation between force and acceleration: An object (or a point contained in a spinning object) that is following a circular path, is continually accelerating. In order to follow a circular path rather than continuing in a straight line, it must continually change direction, and this change in the direction of its motion is an acceleration, which requires force. In the case of circular motion, the force that causes the acceleration is called centripetal force.

A fundamental question that has been largely ignored by modern physics, is: Why is force associated with acceleration? The answer to this question involves a phenomenon which has no clear consensus explanation in modern physics: that of inertia. Inertia is the tendency of something with mass to maintain its state of motion (or rest) unless accelerated by an external force. This phenomenon was described by Isaac Newton as his first law of motion. It can be viewed as a deeper explanation of the relationship between force and acceleration. While much discussion of momentum, an energy-related concept derived from inertia, is to be found in modern physics, inertia itself has widely been viewed as something that just is, an inherent or intrinsic property of matter with no deeper explanation. Instead of pursuing exotic details of exotic things that we never experience in our everyday lives, maybe physicists should devote more attention to explaining something so fundamental as inertia.

Another velocity related concept of Einsteinian relativity, is the idea that the velocity of light is some fundamental cosmic speed limit – the claim that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light relative to anything else. How this can possibly be true? If we were to launch a rocket from the North pole of the earth that travels at three quarters of the speed of light, and another rocket from the South pole of the earth, also traveling at three quarters of the speed of light, this would mean that the two rockets would have a velocity of one and a half times the speed of light relative to each other. This is not possible according to the theory of Special Relativity, according to which, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light relative to anything else. Of course, an observer on one of the rockets would be unable to see the other rocket, since the rockets are moving away from each other at faster than the speed of light, but what difference does that make to the actual velocity?. Does our inability to see something traveling faster than light relative to us, mean that nothing can travel faster than light? What connection could there be between the velocity of the two rockets that would prevent them from each traveling at three quarters of the velocity of light relative to the earth and therefore at one and a half times the speed of light relative to each other? The idea that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light relative to anything else seems to makes no logical sense, yet it is a key assumption upon which the mathematics of Einsteinian relativity is based.2 If it is indeed true that nothing can travel faster than light, then the question of: Why not? demands more explanation. The only explanation for this claim that seems to make sense, is suggested in a post by Gerard Bassols in a thread on the Quora.com website entitled: “What is the fundamental reason why the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference?” In it he proposes that the speed of light should actually be thought of as the “information propagation constant”. The idea that information can only propagate at the speed of light makes sense if electromagnetic radiation is the conduit of the information. However, this places no “cosmic speed limit” on how fast objects can travel relative to each other, unless one believes that what is observed and what is real are one and the same. A devotee of Einsteinian relativity would say that since we cannot see or detect anything traveling faster than light, then nothing can travel faster than light. Prominent physicist and relativity advocate John Archibald Wheeler even suggested that reality is only information, with no real physical existence9, a view that has gained traction in recent years among quantum physicists. Such a view moves physics far away from being a physical science, well into the realm of the most esoteric philosophy.

The examples discussed above are some of the more obvious ones where physics and reality have parted ways, but far from the only ones. Given the acceptance and adulation that Einstein’s theories received, later physicists have been given free reign to ignore logic in the creation of increasingly strange theories that make the tenets of religions seem rational by comparison. They justify these theories by claiming they are “proved” by mathematics and experimental evidence.

Mathematics is, or should be, merely a symbolic representation of logic, and it is based on assumptions. If the logic or assumptions on which it is based are invalid, so is the mathematical result, regardless of how beautiful or self-consistent the equations may be. Physicists sometimes claim that a particular physics theory can only be understood mathematically. If a mathematical result does not correspond to a physical reality that can be verbally described, of what value is it? Typically, modern physicists try to make the universe fit the math, rather than making the math fit the universe.

Experimental evidence, is in essence, measurements. Even if we have absolute confidence in the experimental procedures and apparatus used to obtain the measurements, the data is subject to interpretation. Almost unfailingly, experimental data which could be interpreted in multiple ways, has been interpreted as supporting currently-popular theories, or even as has been the case of Einsteinian relativity, as being tantamount to absolute proof of the theories. This notion is absurd, as is any claim that any theory or data is “proof” of anything.

Consider the following illustration: If a person is awakened in the middle of the night, by the sound of a violin coming through the wall from the apartment next door, he may interpret this as proof that the neighbor has his electronic sound system turned on, when in fact, the actual explanation is that the neighbor plays violin for the local symphony and is practicing. The conclusion of the neighbor who was awakened, that it was an electronic sound system he was hearing, was perfectly valid based on the information available to him, but it was incorrect. Based on the available data, just sound coming through the wall, there was no way to distinguish the correct explanation from the incorrect one. This same difficulty applies to the claims by physicists that experimental data confirms a certain theory to ridiculous levels of certainty. An example of this is the recent fiasco when experimental confirmation of relativistic “gravity waves” was claimed as being almost absolutely certain. This was until Neal Turok pointed out that the same data could have been produced by dust particles, and this was found to be the more likely explanation.5

Physicists try to give the impression that their experimental data and its interpretation according to their theories, is nearly infallible. Are we really to believe that physicists can calculate the total mass of the universe to a level of precision with seven zeros after the decimal place, when they have proven largely incapable of accurately forecasting what the weather will be tomorrow, right here on earth?

Any physical theory that is contrary to the evidence of our senses, our logical faculties, and untold generations of experience, should require extremely strong justification. Such strong justification does not exist for many of the theories that contemporary physics holds dear. The reasons why physics has gotten so far off the track of progress and has reverted to mystical concepts, will be explored in Part II of this series, entitled Physics and Mysticism – the Nexus.

1. “Physicists Launch Fight to Make Data More Important Than Theory”, New Scientist, July 2015
2. Einstein, Albert “Relativity The Special and the General Theory”, 1920
3. Weinberg, Steven “Particle physics, from Rutherford to the LHC,” Physics Today 64, no.8 (August 2011), 29-33, on 30.

4. Eddington, A.S. Fundamental Theory, 1949 Cambridge University Press
5. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2014/sep/22/bicep2-gravitational-wave-result-bites-the-dust-thanks-to-new-planck-data
7. http://discovermagazine.com/2002/jun/featuniverse
8. Einstein, Albert On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies, 1905
9. Wheeler, John A., Information, physics, quantum: The search for links 1990