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What will be the next big thing in physics?

  1. Jul 2, 2013 #1
    No major advances seem to have happened in physics since Einstein's theory of relativity and the photoelectric effect (the start of quantum mechanics).

    They discovered the Higgs Boson in 2012 but it doesn't seem to be that big of a discovery.

    What do you think will be the next major advancement in physics? Something that everyone will know about?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 2, 2013 #2
    There have been many, many big things in physics since 1905.
     
  4. Jul 2, 2013 #3

    HayleySarg

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    Blatant copy-pasta from Wikipedia

    1911 Equivalence principle
    Discovery of the Atomic nucleus: Rutherford
    Superconductivity: Kamerlingh Onnes
    1913 Bohr model of the atom: Bohr
    1916 General relativity: Einstein
    1919 Light bending confirmed
    1922 Friedmann proposes expanding universe
    1923 Stern-Gerlach experiment
    Matter waves
    Galaxies
    Particle nature of photons confirmed
    1925–7 Quantum mechanics
    1925 Stellar structure understood
    1927 Big Bang: Lemaître
    1928 Antimatter predicted: Dirac
    1929 expansion of universe confirmed: Hubble
    1930
    1932 Antimatter discovered: Anderson
    Neutron discovered: Chadwick
    1933 Invention of the electron microscope: Ernst Ruska
    1937 Muon discovered: Anderson & Neddermeyer
    1938 Superfluidity discovered
    Energy production in stars understood
    1939 Uranium fission discovered
    1944 Theory of magnetism in 2D: Ising model
    1947 Pion discovered
    1948 Quantum electrodynamics
    1955
    1948 Invention of the Maser and Laser - Charles Townes
    1956 Electron neutrino discovered
    1956–7 Parity found violated
    1957 Superconductivity explained
    1959–60 Role of topology in quantum physics, predicted and confirmed
    1962 SU(3) theory of strong interactions
    Muon neutrino found
    1963 Quarks predicted = Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig
    1967 Unification of weak and electromagnetic interactions
    Solar neutrino problem found
    Pulsars (neutron stars) discovered
    1968 Experimental evidence for quarks found
    1968 Dark Matter theories - Vera Rubin
    1970–3 Standard model of elementary particles invented
    1971 Helium 3 superfluidity
    1974 Black hole radiation predicted
    Renormalization group
    Charmed quark found
    1975 Tau lepton found
    1977 Bottom quark found
    1980
    1980 Quantum Hall effect
    1981 Theory of cosmic inflation proposed
    1982 Fractional quantum Hall effect
    1995 Bose–Einstein condensate found : Wolfgang Ketterle
    1995 Top quark found
    1998 Accelerating expansion of universe found
    1999 Slow light experimentally demonstrated : Lene Vestergaard Hau
    2000 Tau neutrino found
    2003 WMAP observations of Cosmic microwave background

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_fundamental_physics_discoveries

    What's next? Hmm. I think we have a few pretty nice things pop up in the news every week or so. I imagine what's "big" will depend on your field of interest.
     
  5. Jul 2, 2013 #4
    This topic has been brought up many times in this forum and I do think its relevant because a lot of people have this perception that nothing "big" has happened since the Einstein epoch. And to be honest, I'd have to a agree in a way. Sure many great advances have been made, but nothing on par with the "showstoppers" that Einstein fed us. If you look at HayleySarg's list, the majority of these advancements were either "evolutionary" in their impact, and/or were accomplished by committies of scientists or collaborations of some sort. What distinguishes the Einstein's, Newton's, Galileo's, Maxwell's, etc. is the "revolutionary" and/or "lone wolf" character of their contributions. Looking at it that way, I think the OP may be right in that we haven't seen that since Einstein.

    So, my prediction and hope is that the next Einstein is going to be the lone wolf that somehow finds the bridge to unify GR and quantum mechanics. This is a very real possibility because it's not gonna take a large hadron collider to do it. It's gonna be all math and concept, pencil and paper baby. Any one of us could be the one. That's what makes physics exciting for me :biggrin:
     
  6. Jul 2, 2013 #5

    WannabeNewton

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    Einstein gets a lot of rather undeserved fame for GR when his real beautiful discoveries lie in statistical mechanics IMO. Anyways, there were people before Einstein (e.g. Nordstrom) who had already started to work with the idea of geometrical theories of gravity so he wasn't alone in his ventures. His formulations also borrowed heavily from previous mathematicians/physicists. He didn't bootstrap the theory from the ground up. His derivation of the Einstein equations wasn't even the most elegant derivation; that belongs to Hilbert who derived them from a variational principle (now called the Hilbert action). Einstein just gets a lot of attention with regards to GR because of all the dang popular science shows about his theory.
     
  7. Jul 2, 2013 #6
    I can't say I entirely agree, but I see your point. The greats of science get undeserved fame from the general populace because they give too much credit to the greats. But Einstein is considered one of the greatest physicists in history by, nearly, the entire physics community who are aware of the capacity in which he contributed to GR, SR, etc.
     
  8. Jul 2, 2013 #7

    WannabeNewton

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    I can't say I entirely agree with your disagreement. He had some great insights with regards to GR but he is just given way too much credit amongst the general public with regards to the development of the entire mathematical and physical framework of the theory. If it weren't for people like for example Ricci and Levi-Civita he would have been singing a different song.
     
  9. Jul 2, 2013 #8
    I still don't agree with your disagreement. Yes, he was not alone, I acknowledged that, and the physics community is aware of that. The issue is how pop. culture puts individuals on a pedestal and gives those select individuals credit for everyone's accomplishments. Even while Einstein was alive he was regarded as one of the most important physicists alive and certainly the community at the time was well aware of Ricci's, Civita's, Hilbert's, etc contributions. I don't think it is fair to suggest he is overrated.
     
  10. Jul 2, 2013 #9
    I agree with the agreements and disagree with the disagreements, and vice versa.

    @ wbn

    The question it comes down to is how do you quantify the importance of the contribution of being the one who places the keystone in an arch versus the importance of those who toiled to build the arch up to that point. Arguably the most famous example of this is the description of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick. There were many characters involved in the race to discover its structure, and practically ALL of them did more of the hard science to get there than W&C, and they were all close. But it was Watson and Crick with their cardboard cutouts, not X-ray diffractors, that finally got it, and not only got it, but instantly saw how it provided a mode for replication along with other implications. What is that worth? I say being the first to get there, recognizing the implications, and using your keystone to synthesize hitherto disparate ideas and fields is worth something. A lot. This is what I feel Einstein did and, although there were some extenuating circumstances for his fame outside science, he's deserves all the recognition he got, and still gets.
     
  11. Jul 2, 2013 #10

    WannabeNewton

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    Well Watson and Crick weren't exactly playing fair ;) but I'm talking about how ridiculously god-like Einstein is portrayed in the general public's eyes e.g. via those History channel documentaries. He, more so than any other scientist in history I know of, is made to look like the greatest scientist who ever lived and discovered all these counter-intuitive aspects of nature which is obviously not true. It gives people the impression that if a lone man doesn't come up with mind bending discoveries then discoveries aren't being made at all that have any worthy impact. It's ridiculous.

    What about all of the amazing advancements made in mathematical relativity during the 70s - 80s period by Penrose, Geroch, Wald, Ashtekar, Winicour and others? Those were amazing advancements in mathematical general relativity but the public never hears of them due to their rather esoteric nature however that does not warrant anyone's claim that "major" discoveries aren't being made. The step away from local geometrical properties to global topological and causal properties of space-time taken during this period was certainly an innovate thing.
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2013
  12. Jul 2, 2013 #11

    robphy

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    Hilbert, Ricci, and Levi-Civita were mathematicians who developed very powerful tools that Einstein could make use of. I don't think I would call Einstein a mathematician [as those above]... maybe an applied-mathematician. (To the general public, Einstein use of equations might have tossed him in with the mathematicians.)

    However, Einstein was a physicist... and he made use of what was available at the time [e.g. Ricci's calculus], and he [more-or-less alone] took rather bold steps in the way we view the world... and he made predictions (which challenged long-held beliefs) that turned out to be correct [more or less].

    I think it's fair to say that Special Relativity could have developed by others by the early 1900s. However, without Einstein [and Special Relativity in 1905], I don't think there was anyone who could have developed General Relativity and its predictions before 1920. (While the mathematics was around, was there a directed effort by others not influenced by Einstein to General Relativity? Hilbert's elegance may be nice... but most physical theories aren't born elegantly.)

    My $0.02... based on what [I think] I know. If I am wrong, I welcome corrections.
     
  13. Jul 2, 2013 #12

    D H

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    I agree completely. Einstein is vastly overrated. Yes, he had some amazing insights. So did many other physicists before and after Einstein. He is not the scientist-hero that the popular media makes him out to be, and he is not anywhere close to the smartest / bestest physicist of all time.

    Quantum mechanics is much harder to comprehend than is relativity, involves much harder math than does relativity, and is of much greater benefit to humanity than was relativity. It took a cast of thousands to fully develop QM, and even then they didn't get it right the first time, or even the second. QM had to be reinvented from the ground up multiple times before arriving at the standard model.

    There's a problem here: It took a cast of thousands. A cast of thousands goes against the grain of the image of the scientist-hero that the popular media seems to want.
     
  14. Jul 2, 2013 #13

    WannabeNewton

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    I don't disagree with any of your points but it wasn't like Einstein was the first person to propose a metric theory of gravitation. His ideas were certainly elegant and his insights certainly profound but there a handful of people beside Einstein who considered the rather non-intuitive concept of a metric theory of gravitation before Einstein even published his classic paper on GR: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nordström's_theory_of_gravitation
     
  15. Jul 2, 2013 #14

    WannabeNewton

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    Yep I agree and I think this is the key point. It would be hard to make such a development appeal romantically to the general public.
     
  16. Jul 2, 2013 #15

    robphy

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    Above, I was trying to raise the question:
    would Nortdstrom have pursued that line of thinking when he did
    if Einstein were not in the picture?
     
  17. Jul 2, 2013 #16

    WannabeNewton

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    That's certainly an interesting question and I can agree with you that without the advent of SR, such motivations might not have been engendered. Needless to say the development of SR was not a one man job even if Einstein pieced it together in the end. I'm not saying Einstein shouldn't be given due credit for his amazing contributions to physics, I'm just saying that his portrayal as a god-like figure of physics in the eyes of the public leads to the unrealistic mind set that if it isn't a sole genius individual coming up with something that overturns the very face of physics then it isn't worth mentioning or glorifying. What about John Bardeen's accomplishments in the field of transistors? That was certainly revolutionary but the public doesn't exactly acknowledge that as much as it does Einstein's discoveries because the latter is so unfairly romanticized in the public sphere.
     
  18. Jul 2, 2013 #17

    robphy

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    These mathematical relativists did do amazing things... they showed us how to more clearly think about general relativity [beyond being merely as a set of nonlinear PDEs]... allowing us to formulate well-posed questions of the implications of GR, as well as the tools to answer these questions... which may someday lead to (point to) a successor theory.

    Ashtekar's new variables caused quite a buzz when they were formulated... and could have gotten billed as a "major" discovery [publicly persisting as such] if it directly led to a quantum theory of gravity [that we can test, or at least be convinced is probably correct]. However, that conclusion hasn't been attained yet.
     
  19. Jul 2, 2013 #18

    robphy

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    Getting back to the OP....
    I think "material science" (nano-....) has been the next big thing in physics....
    but we have taken a lot of what we already have for granted.
     
  20. Jul 2, 2013 #19
    And Schrodinger, dirac & Heisenberg weren't the first ones to consider quantization. There was Bohr before them. And before Bohr there was Einstein (and before Einstein there was Planck).

    Science is made by single individuals rewriting entire fields. Einstein made large contributions to GR/SR. It doesn't mean he did it alone or entirely based on his own creativity.
     
  21. Jul 2, 2013 #20
    Yeah, getting back to the OP's question. To not be impressed by the discovery of the Higgs boson says something important about the way the popular mind gets excited about science. I think the OP's question is less about the actual practical import of scientific progress and more about the romance of the subject. Man against nature. One man against the elements. Pythagoras against animism, Galileo against theology, Newton against aformalism, Einstein against orthodoxy. Sorry, but there's nothing sexy about 10,000 physicists grinding away on a 2 billion dollar machine trying to find a particle that was already expected to be found and predicted to exist 40 years prior.

    I think the next big thing is going to come, though, and soon. Next big thing in terms of what I think the OP considers it. I said it earlier. It's gonna be one guy, and its not gonna be Neil Turok or Lee Smolin (although Smolin may nab it). It's probably gonna be a younger guy (or gal) like it always is. They're gonna see some connection between GR and QM that nobody else saw because they are new to the game, its gonna explain dark energy and dark matter, and its gonna take the popular mind and the popular media by storm. We are right there, now. All the data is in, we are a pot of boiling water right at the boiling point, a chaotic system right at the point of bifurcation. All we need is one more grain of salt in the pot to set the boil rolling. Who's it gonna be, where are you? Maybe it's gonna be wbn in his junior year in college. We're counting on you wbn, make us proud :approve:
     
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