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The Nature of Reality

The Assumptions Physicists Make

18 Jun 2014, 19:29 UTC
The Assumptions Physicists Make Yannis/Flickr, adapted under a Creative Commons license.
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“Don’t assume,” they always say. Last month, Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard, published an essay on how mistaken assumptions have delayed the progress of astronomy.... Read Full Post

“Don’t assume,” they always say.
Last month, Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard, published an essay on how mistaken assumptions have delayed the progress of astronomy. In the same spirit, I wanted to find out how the course of physics has been influenced by assumptions, acknowledged or otherwise. Can lessons from the past help us be more aware of the assumptions we bring to physics today? Is it desirable—or even possible—to work without assumptions?
In the years after scientists came to accept light as a wave, brilliant researchers spent untold hours chasing after the “ether,” hypothetical stuff through which light waves were thought to propagate. Water waves are disturbances in water, sound waves are disturbances in air, and so light waves must be a disturbance in something, the reasoning went. When the sophisticated experiments built to search for the ether couldn’t find it, theorists got to work trying to explain away ether’s experimental no-show. It was only when Einstein published his theory of special relativity in 1905 that the solution became ...

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