Of course, we live in a fast-paced world; it doesn't seem to come as a surprise to us when our society comes to a new understanding of some technology or science.
Textbooks in science can practically be rewritten yearly (and some come close to that much, to the chagrin of college students) to include new discoveries that have been made. Yet a complete change, the kind of change that shakes the foundation of a science, does not happen all that often.
Physics is a case in point. Isaac Newton was a towering figure in physics. He managed to create an understanding of the world that had not been accomplished before him. He put all of the pieces together, and added new pieces when necessary to gain a complete model of the world. No major changes were made to Newton's ideas about mechanics for more than 200 years.
Other fields of physics were explored during that time period, but by the late 1800s there were some who believed that the major work in physics was complete. Only a few small pesky problems were still left to be solved, and physics would be a finished field. Sir William Thomson (also known as Lord Kelvin) is quoted as saying, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
Lord Kelvin could not have missed the mark more. Physics, in just a few short years after this quote, was going to go through its first major shift since the time of Newton. Albert Einstein in 1905 (commonly known as his miraculous year) wrote five papers that changed physics forever. He managed to launch two new fields of physics from these papers: relativity and quantum mechanics.
The key was in those few pesky things that physicists could not solve at the time, such as why were electrons so sensitive to the frequency of light in metals? (This was known as the photoelectric effect, and Einstein's explanation of this effect won him his Nobel Prize.) There were other problems as well, many of which Einstein helped to solve, but in the process he opened up whole new fields of questions.
This leads me to wonder if we are again on the brink of another major shift in the world of physics. Many of the major fields in physics are more than 60 years old now, and some extend much older. No one would dare make the same claim now as Lord Kelvin did, but we certainly seem at an almost stagnant point. Relativity and quantum mechanics have still not been combined into a single theory that many have hoped for, the standard model (the model that explains the veritable zoo of particles that we have discovered) confirms its predictions quite frequently, cosmologists are making better and better measurements of dark matter (even if we don't know what it is), and so on.
Every once in a while, we do get a surprise. One of those surprises came recently with the discovery of a problem with our model of the proton (or perhaps a problem with our understanding of the measuring process). While attempting to get a better measurement, one research group has repeatedly gotten the "wrong" answer for the radius of the proton. They checked equipment and repeated the experiment, and still the same results.
The problem here is that our most accurate model is the model used to predict the radius of the proton, so what gives? It is too early to tell, but perhaps we are getting a glimpse of new physics to come. The same is true with dark matter. What is the stuff? Some question if it is even there at all, but still there is no theory that can explain its existence if it is there. Is this a signal of new physics?
Perhaps neither of these will be the true marker. Perhaps something that seems too small to be anything major will turn out to be, well, major. Who knows? But I certainly believe that sometime in the near future, we will see a major change in the broad field of physics.
Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and Clarkson University graduate student.