The Quandary in Physics and Cosmology

Physics and cosmology are at a quandary. Ask a layperson to name notable achievements in either field across history, and certain events may come up—the development of heliocentric theory (in which the solar system orbits around the sun), Galileo’s experiments, Einstein’s theory of relativity—but if asked to constrain their statements to the most recent decade or so, suddenly the list of milestones devolves into abstractness—dark matter, black holes, vague terms that seem more placeholders to account for a lack of current knowledge than explanations to fill those gaps. While astronomy is clearly making major advances in diverse knowledge, physics and cosmology are in stasis, and have been for 45, 93, or 133 years, looking back from 2020. The first two junctures represent major decision point branches where the field appears to have made a coordinated movement in favor of one outcome or another. Michelson-Morley, 1880s – there is no aether. Solvay, 1927 – quantum mechanics describes nature better than classical mechanics does. No matter which path was favored, the outcome in the end was the same: progress petered out in the mid-1970s. Since then, there have been no major discoveries in the fundamentals of the standard model or the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Why is that? Unfortunately, the wheels of progress and the organizations that propel those wheels move forward only, prohibiting a revisiting of past decisions. Is it possible that Michelson-Morley were wrong? That is a taboo question. Is it possible that classical mechanics may re-emerge at a smaller scale? How dare you question quantum mechanics?

In any hierarchical organization, whether that hierarchy is formal or informal, there is a fatal flaw due to a conflict of interest. Those well placed in the hierarchy are loath to admit that any prior decision accepted by them could be wrong, for such a statement would jeopardize everything that has been since constructed using that decision as a foundation. In a sense, it is akin to a game of Jenga—pulling out a piece near the bottom places everything on top of it in peril. It seems like this hierarchy failure pattern should be well-known, but we have never seen any remedies proposed for this maladaptive behavior; in fact, the topic is almost never discussed to begin with. Perhaps the hierarchy is an outdated concept. As clearly demonstrated throughout history, the formation of hierarchies is nearly inevitable in human societies, whether as a form of control or a form of organization, or both.

Frequently, said hierarchies are additionally co-opted to foster other institutions, such as a patriarchy that has arisen as a historical precedent. Yet in this age where diversity is encouraged, not to the exclusion of merit or competition, perhaps some new structure(s) of management and decision making should be considered. Must the management and decision-making structures be coincident? Many decisions are made outside of the management hierarchy. Perhaps management should be purely non-technical, with no input to decision making. Perhaps management should be an HR function based on EQ, IQ, and results input from co-workers. If one were to design an organization this way, agile teams would be the key decision makers for their domains, with various oversight teams applying some norms that are of value to the organization.

Unfortunately, the disease which has afflicted many other academic fields has spread to physics and cosmology, precluding an easy fix to the hierarchical issue. The spirit of competition has replaced that of collaboration, with professionals seeking to bring others down instead of elevating each other toward a common goal. As a result, new opinions from those who are less established in the community are quickly dismissed in favor of thoughts from those perceived as authorities. While it is often prudent to trust those who are renowned in a field, when taken to the extreme, such actions can stifle a diversity of ideas and contributors. If there is anything to conclude from this example, it is that a diversity of views, including outside perspectives, may often provide valuable alternatives that traditional schools of thought preclude the majority from seeing.

As discussed previously, the hierarchy begets a power spectrum, which in turn causes conflicts of interest to develop at many decision points. Does my response impact my ability to secure a Ph.D.? Does tenure allow for free speech? As a professor, am I consciously or unconsciously biased to favor students who are tribally or sexually compatible and who express fealty to any degree? As you can imagine, there are myriad complications interlacing the technical decision tree (IQ related) with the hedonist decision tree (EQ related).

It is, nonetheless, not entirely the fault of individual academic professionals. Rather, this affliction stems from the institution that is research funding. In a world marked by a “publish or perish” sentiment, scientists feel compelled to continue churning out publications in order to ensure a steady income capable of supporting not only their livelihoods, but also those of the many people employed in their research and other endeavors. Research cannot continue without money, and money cannot continue flowing without constantly publishing for profit of some kind. The hands of scientists are tied, and it is simply too risky to broach even the idea of publishing a work that may entail nontraditional theories; in turn, a journal may not want to take this risk either, lest they lose their reputation within their respective scientific community. In turn, the general public suffers as these publications are hidden behind paywalls. These paywalls become barriers to the entry of fresh ideas and perspectives, and thus the scientific community begins to stagnate as it entraps itself.

The fields are beset by a number of maladies, many of which have been covered in detail elsewhere, so we’ll only give a brief listing of self-reinforcing mal-adaptive dysfunctions.

  • pursuit of tenure,
  • lock-in the funding grant constraints,
  • political kow-towing to those in positions of power or influence,
  • increasing attempts to be inclusive and diverse at the entry points to the field, but nowhere to go—declining number of tenure positions in both an absolute sense and more concerning steeply declining relative to the population entering the field.
  • the boomer bubble at the top of the hierarchy, which is also a patriarchy

Such issues are additionally coupled with a general lack of overarching goals and objectives. What are the strategic goals of the fields? What is the plan to achieve those strategic goals? How is the effort to be parceled between the various universities and institutions? Where is the introspection? Where is the strategic maintenance that rightsizes or purges areas of research that have a low return on investment? Frankly the overall organization of the efforts in the fields of physics and cosmology is sorely lacking.

Overall, such issues make physics and cosmology a wholly inaccessible field to those within and without, professionals and enthusiasts. Enthusiasts are especially passionate about physics and cosmology, but lack academic tenure, integration with the professional community, or sufficient resources to conduct independent research. As a result, the novel ideas which come forth from these individuals are frequently fated to face Sisyphean battles; the world of physics becomes something unattainable. Thus enthusiasts are discouraged from mentioning their ideas in the first place, for what use is there if no one is willing or able to listen? While certainly it is the case that physicists desire fresh perspectives in the field, they remain in ivory towers constructed partially by themselves and partially by the institutions and systems which are double-edged swords, providing a livelihood at the cost of having to accept certain restraints. While non-academics do not encounter the same restrictions that their counterparts do, the barriers faced by both sides prevents vital two-way communication between the scientific community and the community at large.

Thus we must ask ourselves—do walls keep people out, or trap them in? Or both?

Perhaps the answer is both depending on the context, but it is clear that physicists have walled themselves into an echo chamber where correctness is a subjective measurement based on the statements of authorities and majorities. Yet to once again refer to the importance of alternative and diverse ideas, we have witnessed across history that new opinions are often necessary to push science beyond a plateau. However, the current prevailing theories simply build upon each other into increased degrees of vague complexity unrelated to nature, which is of no benefit to anyone. If physics is so fundamental to every interaction in our universe, why is it viewed by the general public as such an unapproachable and abstract field? Those who observe these failings have scant audience — talking among friends about the mathematical equations derived from this mountains-out-of-molehills tendency causes their eyes to begin to glaze over. Even so, most physicists would agree that physics is grounded in nature, that it can be witnessed by any person. The fallacy is that complicated math has been developed at a way station in scale, some 16 orders of magnitude above nature at the Planck scale, without a true understanding of the nature underlying such formulae, and thus the abstractness is founded on a castle in the air.

J Mark Morris : San Diego : California