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IMO: Breaking the Laws of Physics

by Mike Weaver

August 7, 2014

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Donate This new technology breaks the laws of physics! That, or something similar, is such a common refrain in both popular culture and in fiction. There seems to be something secretly delightful in knocking down such an arrogant target as a so-called physical law. Your science can't hold back the truth! Laws are made to be broken! Perhaps.

What are physical laws? We can go to Wikipedia, which quotes the Oxford English Dictionary:
[A physical law] is a theoretical principle deduced from particular facts, applicable to a defined group or class of phenomena, and expressible by the statement that a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions be present.
The Wiki goes on to note that, according to Paul Davies and Richard Feynman, all physical laws are:
  • True, at least within their regime of validity. By definition, there have never been repeatable contradicting observations.

  • Universal: they appear to apply everywhere in the Universe.

  • Simple: they are typically expressed in terms of a single mathematical equation.

  • Absolute: nothing in the Universe appears to affect them.

  • Stable: unchanged since first discovered (although they may have been shown to be approximations of more accurate laws)

  • Omnipotent: everything in the Universe apparently must comply with them (according to observations).

  • Generally conservative of quantity.

  • Often expressions of existing homogeneities (symmetries) of space and time.

  • Typically theoretically reversible in time (if non-quantum), although time itself is irreversible.

Some examples include conservation of mass, energy, and momentum, thermodynamics, and many others. So, these things we call laws of physics are, simply, descriptions of how we observe how the Universe works. We make enough observations and patterns start to emerge. Enough thought and analysis and those patterns produce predictions. Test those predictions, improve the pattern, and repeat. Eventually, a stable form of the pattern is identified, generalized, and, after suitable contemplation and testing, becomes an identified law of physics.

Physical laws aren't created, they are discovered. As we investigate the world around us, we learn how things work—how moving things seem to have energy proportional to their mass and velocity, how heat flows through objects, how a magnet passing through a wire coil creates an electrical current. Physical laws simply describe how things are.

Since those laws are descriptions of how things work, it doesn't make sense to talk about breaking them, in my opinion. One cannot simply break a physical law (or walk into Mordor). If a phenomenon, an observation, seems to violate existing physical laws, to my thinking, one of two things must be true: either the observation is in error or our understanding of the law is in error.

Consider the case with Newton's law of gravity. In general, it says that the force due to gravity between two objects is directly proportional to the mass of the two objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is a pretty good description of gravity and it passed every test we could throw at it for quite some time. Eventually, however, we made observations which seemed to break this law of physics.

The motion and behavior of objects in extremely strong gravitational fields does not show the same gravitational field strength as predicted by Newton's law. Oh dear, we appear to have broken a law of physics! Not to worry, Einstein's theory of relativity will save the day. It wasn't that a law of physics was broken, it was that we didn't fully understand the law. We only knew the "average" case of gravity. It took better observations and theories to dive into how things behave for very large values of gravity. We still don't have good idea what happens to gravity in the very small case—quantum gravity.

Whenever a claim is made by someone that their invention or observation breaks the laws of physics, it serves as a pretty good red flag that maybe something isn't quite right. It might be the case that we don't fully understand some of the laws (in fact, I would judge that this is highly likely) and those laws will need to be updated to account for the new evidence. Or, perhaps, the claim or observation is wrong.

Be well.


by Mike Weaver

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