A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design
April 19, 2015 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Frank Wilczek: Physics in 100 Years [pdf] - "Here I indulge in wide-ranging speculations on the shape of physics, and technology closely related to physics, over the next one hundred years. Themes include the many faces of unification, the re-imagining of quantum theory, and new forms of engineering on small, intermediate, and large scales."

also btw...
posted by kliuless (11 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Also: Leonard Susskind on the World as a Hologram

Also also: Sean Carroll on Dark Matter vs. Modified Gravity
posted by Dumsnill at 1:26 AM on April 19, 2015

Nice to see Wilczek sticking with The Official Font of Science™ for his diagrams.
posted by alby at 1:59 AM on April 19, 2015

For those looking for the TL;DR version:
  • Proton decay will be observed. Study of baryon number violating decay modes will become a rich and fruitful field of empirical science.
  • Axions will be observed, as a cosmic background. The study of that background will become a rich and fruitful branch of cosmology and fundamental physics.
  • Supersymmetric partners will be observed. Their study will open up a new golden age for particle physics.
  • The unification of gravity with the other forces will become more intimate, and have observable consequences.
  • Gravity waves will be observed, and will evolve into a routine tool for astrophysical and cosmological exploration. Many sources will be identified, and our knowledge of neutron stars and black holes will reach new levels of detail.
  • Infinitesimals, or some other unconventional number system, will play an important role in the description of space-time.
  • The fundamental laws will no longer admit arbitrary initial conditions, and will not take the form of evolution equations.
  • Fundamental action principles, and thus the laws of physics, will be reinterpreted as statements about information and its transformations.
  • Quantization and fundamental symmetry will not appear as separate principles, but as two aspects of a deeper unity.
  • Crick’s “Astonishing Hypothesis” will continue to be valid and fruitful.
  • Biological memory, cognitive processing, motivation, and emotion will be understood at the molecular level.
  • Calculation will increasingly replace experimentation in design of useful materials, catalysts, and drugs, leading to much greater efficiency and new opportunities for creativity.
  • Calculation of many nuclear properties from fundamentals will reach < 1% accuracy, allowing much more accurate modeling of supernovae and of neutron stars. Physicists will learn to manipulate atomic nuclei dexterously, as they now manipulate atoms, enabling (for example) ultra-dense energy storage and ultra-high energy lasers.
  • Capable three-dimensional, fault-tolerant, self-repairing computers will be developed. In engineering those features, we will learn lessons relevant to neurobiology.
  • Self-assembling, self-reproducing, and autonomously creative machines will be developed. Their design will adapt both ideas and physical modules from the biological world.
  • Bootstrap engineering projects wherein machines, starting from crude raw materials, and with minimal human supervision, build other sophisticated machines – notably including titanic computers – will be underway.
  • A substantial fraction of the Sun’s energy impinging on Earth will be captured for human use.
  • We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
  • Artists and scientists will work together, to create new works of extraordinary beauty.
  • Measurement of entanglement, and measurement exploiting entanglement, will become major branches of physics.
  • Quantum computers supporting thousands of qubits will become real and useful.
  • Quantum intelligence will open up qualitatively new possibilities for the life of the mind.
posted by alby at 2:06 AM on April 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

For those looking for the TL;DR version:

or even shorter:

every big research project, especially the ones in particle physics, of the last 30 years will be completely successful and will be shown to have deeper implications.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:44 AM on April 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

there's kind of a real problem with applying for grants to do theoretical research in math and physics (as explained to me by my phd advisor) which is that if you already have a good idea, then you hardly need the money for research. all theoretical grants are essentially:

you will give me money (to get my graduate students out of the undergraduate education salt mines and for me to go travel to visit my friends) and maybe someday down the road someone will have a good idea.

which, needless to say, is rarely an impressive proposal for the people who control the purse strings of science. so, theoretical grant proposals tend to be some variant on:

here is some research which we have done which everyone likes, here is why we hope that this research direction will continue to popular with other people, here are some vague "ideas" about how we continue to do research which everyone likes which we are experts on because it is based on the research we've already done.

this paper by Wilczek reads a lot like a research grant proposal for very conservative theoretical particle physics. which is kind of strange since "predicting" the future in physics in this context should be an opportunity to indulge in all sorts of totally unfundable and basically unlikely ideas.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:56 AM on April 19, 2015

The nature article is paywalled here and google search for (proton neutron mass difference wilczek site:arxiv.org) does not pull anything on the first page. Suggestions?
posted by bukvich at 7:02 AM on April 19, 2015

The Nature article is not a paper, it's a commentary for non-specialists on another paper, which is Ab initio calculation of the neutron-proton mass difference, Borsanyi et al. 2014.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:07 AM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

A very interesting article but I feel like it left out one important question of physics:
Why is it we can use mathematics to describe the universe so accurately?

Maybe that is more of a philosophical question, or maybe the answer is obvious to those who've descended deeper into the physics rabbit hole than I. But I think there is much insight to be gained in learning not just how to use these mathematical tools, but why they work and are able to describe the universe.

Why is it that we can describe pretty much all the physics of the universe in terms of differential equations, integral expression and sums? Is it because energy is countably discretized in many fundamental systems? Is it because we can (as far as I know) associate properties to matter with integer numbers of subatomic particles? For other reasons all together?

There are times in the development of most of the major equations of physics where things get spooky: you just kind of mix some physical premises together, let the math carry through and end up with some expression which describes a physical phenomenon with startling accuracy and clarity. It takes a lot of work and thought to develop these "physical premises" of course, but for any successful physical theory the result is the same. You end up with a mathematical statement whose output matches experimental measurement. There is no reason the math should have taken you to that statement and often it doesn't directly (extraneous solutions and what not) but that the mathematical system can in any way lead to measurably verifiable description of the physical world is very spooky.

I think we ought to have some understanding as to why this is the case (if we don't already) and would definitely hope to have attained it in the next 100 years.
posted by TimeStove at 2:23 PM on April 19, 2015

Here's a good wikipedia page on the subject, TimeStove.
posted by Valued Customer at 3:59 PM on April 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think they work because of effective field theory, more or less. I was going to try to give a nice explanation of effective field theory here, but it's not easy to do. So instead I'm gonna post a link to Sean Carroll's recent talk for philosophers about this, and go back to sorting papers (which is what happens when you have too many open research projects and can't find anything anymore).

(very basic summary: quantum field theories have parameters in them (e.g. what is the value of the electron's charge?). These parameters can change as you vary the energy you probe at -- I suppose a little bit like cornstarch+water is liquidy when you probe it mildly but hard when you try to poke it fast. But quantum field theories also tell you, themselves, how they change as you poke them harder.

One of the things you learn is that you can understand what goes on at low energies, e.g. where we mostly live, by starting with some theory and "integrating out" the effect of what happens at high energies. And in the end, you end up with some low energy "effective theory" that works very well at the energies we live at, and for physics where we are, it doesn't matter where it came from.

So.. why does this lead to thinking the math is mostly simple for a good range of physics? Well, start with something complicated and the "effective theory" you get that's relevant for your energy scale... well it's generally pretty simple.)
posted by nat at 8:38 AM on April 21, 2015

@Tom_Siegfried summarizes @FrankWilczek's visions of the future, from quantum gravity to quantum AI: "A century from now, when biologists are playing games of clones and engineers are playing games of drones, physicists will still pledge their loyalty to the Kingdoms of Substance and Force..."

also btw... posted by kliuless at 11:01 AM on May 6, 2015

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