Physics has become boring (by )

A common trope in contemporary science fiction is a small team in a lab somewhere (be it academia, industry, or just a hobbyist in a basement) fiddling around and discovering some new science - usually, some way of travelling to other universes or something (and then a whole load of plot unfolds as they accidentally unleash some terrible evil or whatever).

But... that kind of thing just doesn't happen any more. Sure, back in the 1600s, you might sit in a lab and discover electricity; back then, many of the fundamental forces that bind the Universe together were ripe for the discovering. As the centuries passed, the easy stuff was cleaned up bit by bit; in the early twentieth century, relativity and quantum theory cleared up the last mysteries that were easily recreated on a hobbyist budget. There was some fun to be had in nuclear physics, which could be experimented with if you had institutional-level funds to build particle accelerators and atomic piles; but since then, all the really cool peeling-back-the-mysteries physics requires vast financial resources.

What, then, for the nerd in a basement? Not only is exciting physics beyond their grasp, but the escapism of science fiction is dulled by the difficulty of suspending disbelief when our plucky heroes rewire a microwave oven to generate a disruption field that prevents the formation of a super-wormhole to R'lyeh. There's no shortage of fun things that can be built to demonstrate known physics, such as a desktop fusion reactor; but that's just an engineering challenge. There's no new science. Wikipedia's excellent List of unsolved problems in physics is sadly short of things that can be explored from one's bedroom; they're mostly highly theoretical problems, for a start. Perhaps a better-funded amateur could tinker with high-temperature superconductors, but the others on that list seem to either require vast machinery, or just pondering mathematical solutions to problems...

1 Comment

  • By John Cowan, Thu 4th Jan 2018 @ 2:58 am

    IIUC there is still a lot of solid-state physics left to figure out, and it's not even on the Arxiv.

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