Simon Williams explains why finding nothing can be more interesting than finding something.
One of the most commonly used phrases in the news about physics is: “the discovery that could rewrite physics”, or at least words to that effect and this got me wondering; does it take a discovery to rewrite physics? Can we only think again if we find what we were looking for? Or do we truly have to think of something new if we don’t make this discovery? What happens if what we were looking for wasn’t there, does this mean that the Universe is more boring than we thought, or is it just vastly more complex than we could even imagine? In this article I shall endeavour to convince you that the fun really starts when we get everything wrong.
Our Universe is governed by some unique set of laws that are more wacky, more ridiculous than you could ever intuitively think of. The fact is, not a single human has come anywhere close to understanding these laws, or even refining them at all. The great physicist Max Tegmark suggests that this might be evolutionary; if a caveman was thinking too deeply into the true reality of the Universe, they might not notice the huge sabre tooth tiger behind them! However physicists, with their somewhat meagre human minds when compared to Mother Nature, attempt to describe these laws of nature, and understand them using mathematics. Given the intricacies of the laws, it would be an awfully arrogant idea to suggest that we got it right first time. History is littered with new discoveries that change how we think. But what happens if there are no discoveries? If we look for something and it isn’t there, can we really learn from this?
This is when theoretical physicists have a ball. If the thing that we had predicted to be somewhere isn’t there, then that means our theory is wrong. So theorists venture into the realms of unknown physics and mathematics. Often having to create new mathematics to try and understand the true nature of physical law. The possibilities are endless, and where within this playground of a mathematical world will the answers lie? This is when we can truly rewrite physics, the old theory can be discarded; replaced with new theories of the unknown!
Humans are known to be the most creative when they don’t understand what is happening in the world around them. At night, we hear a knock that is perfectly explainable in the daylight, but seems to carry some ominous meaning in the dark. Imagine the true character of physical law as walking out into the dark, and the beauty of mathematics, and it’s simplicity are the stars. It is reaching for these stars with their minds that allows theoretical physicists to see deep into the depths of nature. Perhaps one day, the dark will become light, and we can have a true understanding of the Universe and our place within it. And perhaps we will only do this by learning from our mistakes; not from some big discovery.