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Are our theories or are observations more advanced?

  1. Sep 12, 2011 #1
    Hi all,

    I was just watching an old Feynman clip. In it, he describes areas where our observations are ahead of our theories (e.g. quasars) as well as areas where our theories are ahead of our observations (e.g. black holes).


    I find it really interesting to think about this distinction. My question is if it's possible to say what characterizes physics today more. Lacking theories for which we have observations (e.g. dark matter) or lacking observations for which we have theories (e.g. the Higgs boson)?

    Related to this, is it possible to identify a movement in the history of physics, say, from Newton onwards? From absence of theories to explain the observed phenomena. Towards absence of observations to substantiate the theories.

    It would be great to get some thoughts on this!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 12, 2011 #2


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    Your point is well taken. It is a mixed bag. Observations with difficult theories: dark matter, dark energy. Theories without observations: string theory vs. loop quantum gravity, multiverse.
  4. Sep 12, 2011 #3


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    To my mind, the biggest theory without observation at the moment is the Higgs particle
  5. Sep 12, 2011 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    I would add to this list:

    Observations without any credible theory: wetting, friction/viscosity, living objects.
  6. Sep 14, 2011 #5

    Any view on what dominates today? Theoretical deficiency or empirical deficiency?

    It seems to me that the history of physics is characterized by a shift from the former to the latter. And if this continues it will be more and more normal that we don't have much evidence for what is considered the cutting edge. And perhaps we'll come to see that as completely acceptable.

    Practically, this would mean that we should be less concerned with criticism of, e.g., string theory by people like Glashow (e.g. in this interview)
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-glashow.html. Perhaps this could also influence how we think about funding of theoretical versus experimental research in physics.

    Philosophically, such a development could also be interpreted as support for Tegmark's mathematical universe hypothesis, or similar ideas that stress the mathematical rather than the physical nature of reality.

    What do you guys think?

    Last edited: Sep 14, 2011
  7. Sep 14, 2011 #6
    I don't think you can ever say theory is ahead of observation, because until the observation is made the theory is just a shot in the dark.

    For example, we haven't observed the higgs particle yet, and the reason may be because it doesn't exist... in which case no, theory was not "ahead" of observation.
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