Presented by the New York Academy of Sciences
Reported by Don Monroe | Posted October 3, 2016
During the second quarter of 2016, the Academy hosted a series of evening panel discussions boldly titled "The Physics of Everything." With grant support from The John Templeton Foundation, the six panels addressed how physics is addressing grand questions and the potential limitations on what we may be able to learn using physics to address those questions.
The first session posed the question "What Does the Future Hold for Physics: Is There a Limit to Human Knowledge?" Three physicists explored the frontiers of cosmology and quantum physics. There may always be limits to our understanding in areas such as string theory, dark matter, and multiverses. But the panelists agreed that it is best to proceed as if explanations based in physics can be found.
The second session asked "Where Do Physics and Philosophy Intersect?" The panelists argued that philosophy has much to offer physics, in contrast to the assertions of some prominent physicists. In such areas as the role of observations in quantum mechanics and the experimental validation of theory, the panelists illustrated the power of a critical, interdisciplinary approach to understanding not only the facts but the significance of physics ideas.
Physics has achieved its success in part by selecting problems that can be addressed by reducing them to simple parts following simple laws. Less amenable subjects were discussed in the third session, "Complexity: A Science of the Future?" Biology, ecology, and social phenomena such as cities are all not easily described with simple equations, but still show amazing regularities. The panelists, including two physicists, a philosopher, and a computer scientist, sketched their hopes for unifying principles that explain these regularities.
One complex phenomenon that has so far evaded physical analysis was the topic of the fourth session, "The Rise of Human Consciousness." Two of the panelists, a neuroscientist and a roboticist, did not even regard consciousness as a distinct phenomenon but rather as a byproduct of systems that model themselves. In contrast, a philosopher and a physicist felt that this behavioral description misses something essential about what consciousness "feels like." Both groups expressed hope for experimental tests of their views.
The fifth session addressed the question, "Are We Alone in the Universe?" Recent experimental observations of thousands of planets orbiting other stars bolster the expectation that ours is not the first civilization. The panelists explored how we might look for others and why we have not encountered any yet. One troubling possibility is that civilizations that achieve global scale inevitably encounter challenges such as climate change that they fail to overcome.
The sixth session was entitled "Did Einstein Kill Schrödinger's Cat? A Quantum State of Mind." Two physicists and a computer scientist discussed amazing developments at the intersection of quantum gravity (as manifested in black holes) and quantum information. Trying to reconcile these disparate observations has overturned the traditional view of black holes, with no clear resolution so far. At the same time, an abstract connection between gravitational models and quantum models in one fewer dimension is providing insight into both fields, including new methods for error correction in quantum computing as well as benchtop tests of black hole physics.
The wide ranging discussions of the six panels illustrate the power of physics to explain the universe as well as the vast frontiers of that universe that still remain to be explored.
Use the tabs above to find session summaries of and references for this series.
Grant Support from
The opinions expressed in this eBriefing are those of the panelists and authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
How to cite this eBriefing
The New York Academy of Sciences. The Physics of Everything. Academy eBriefings. 2016. Available at: www.nyas.org/PhysicsofEverything-eB