Expositions of why theoretical attempts failed

  • #1
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,664
1,500
Summary:
Are there expositions of why various theoretical attempts by prominent physicists failed?
Are there expositions of why various theoretical attempts by prominent physicists failed? - or is it mostly the case that they told people they were making such attempts and never published anything?

For example in the thread: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/on-the-relation-between-physics-and-philosophy.982427/

From the time on when Einstein lost interest in phenomenological approaches, even his genius couldn't discover new laws. As with his soulmate Schrödinger, all his as well as Schrödinger's sophisticated attempts to invent a "generalized field theory" failed.

Edit: For that example, perhaps there are papers like: https://www.nature.com/articles/167648a0 although I can't access it and probably wouldn't understand it if I could.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
12,809
6,690
Isn’t it usually because some idea/theory ran up against an experimental fact or logical absurdity that it couldn’t continue further.

Look what Einstein did with the cosmological constant. Mathematically it wasn’t a necessary addition to his GR equations but then Einstein felt the universe was static and so added the constant. Later it was discovered that the universe was expanding so then the constant was removed and then it was added back to cover dark energy which is an example of an experimental truth reshaping the theory.

edited post to reflect @vanhees71 correction below.


https://www.space.com/9593-einstein-biggest-blunder-turns.html
 
Last edited:
  • #3
vanhees71
Science Advisor
Insights Author
Gold Member
17,797
8,764
It was the other way around. Einstein found out that with ##\Lambda=0## there are no static universes and thought about how to "cure this shortcoming" and found out that nothing hinders the introduction of ##\Lambda##, which from Hilbert's approach with the action principle is completely natural (as you could also add further terms, which however are subleading in an expansion in terms of energy scales; see Weinberg, Gravitation and Cosmology for the detailed argument). What Einstein did not see at the first attempt was that his static universe is unstable anyway.

Today we consider the cosmological constant (a) necessary, because the Hubble expansion is found to be accelerating instead of decelerating, which can be achieved within GR only with a cosmological constant and (b) the greatest enigma in contemporary physics, because it's by about 100 orders of magnitude smaller than one would expect from the renormalization of the vacuum of the Standard Model of elementary-particle physics, i.e., one needs fine-tuning in the subtraction of this "vacuum energy".
 
  • #4
Vanadium 50
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
26,936
10,740
Can you explain what "failed" means? It seems to be "tried something that ended up not working", but is this failure? Perhaps more to the point, do you expect common features among things that don't work? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
 
  • #5
Stephen Tashi
Science Advisor
7,664
1,500
Can you explain what "failed" means? It seems to be "tried something that ended up not working", but is this failure? Perhaps more to the point, do you expect common features among things that don't work? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

If that question is addressed to me, I am indeed referring to passages in articles that say a theory was attempted and ended up not working. Authors often used the word "failed" in that context. I don't assume such attempts aren't worthy or informative. I also don't assume the failure was made manifest in the same way. For example, revelation of the not-working aspect could occur in various ways:

1) The scientist told others about work on the theory but never got it to the stage of publication

2) The scientist published versions of the theory and other people published papers pointing out problems with it.

3) The scientist published versions of the theory, but from the perspective of current knowledge, it is straightforward to show the theory has problems - i.e. it's failure is something that would be explained in a textbook but not remarkable enough to publish in a journal.

As a reader, it's my wish that authors who write that a theory failed, would give also a hint about which of the above happened.

For example, from lecture notes: http://hitoshi.berkeley.edu/221A/pathintegral.pdf

You will see that Feynman invented the path integral with the hope of replacing quantum field theory with particle quantum mechanics; he failed. But the path integral survived and did mighty good in the way he didn’t imagine.

I don't "see" how the path integral "failed" in those complicated notes. Am I supposed to?
 
  • #6
Vanadium 50
Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Education Advisor
26,936
10,740
Today,
1) Is rare.
2 & 3) Happen all the time.

The great theory that swallows up all theories thabe have come before it is a rare beat indeed - you see this once every century maybe. What theories do today is explain or describe behavior in a limited range of validity, or a special case, or (fairly rarely) show how a family of theories with a set of inputs behave.
 

Related Threads on Expositions of why theoretical attempts failed

Replies
5
Views
2K
Replies
10
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
7
Views
2K
Replies
5
Views
1K
  • Last Post
2
Replies
42
Views
15K
Replies
4
Views
726
Replies
18
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
4
Views
1K
Replies
12
Views
7K
Top