10 physics facts you should have learned in school but probably didn’t

By Sabine Hossenfelder

[Image: Dreamstime.com]
1. Entropy doesn’t measure disorder, it measures likelihood. Really the idea that entropy measures disorder is totally not helpful. Suppose I make a dough and I break an egg and dump it on the flour. I add sugar and butter and mix it until the dough is smooth. Which state is more orderly, the broken egg on flour with butter over it, or the final dough? I’d go for the dough. But that’s the state with higher entropy. And if you opted for the egg on flour, how about oil and water? Is the entropy higher when they’re separated, or when you shake them vigorously so that they’re mixed? In this case the better sorted case has the higher entropy. Entropy is defined as the number of “microstates” that give the same “macrostate”. Microstates contain all details about a system’s individual constituents. The macrostate on the other hand is characterized only by general information, like “separated in two layers” or “smooth on average”. There are a lot of states for the dough ingredients that will turn to dough when mixed, but very few states that will separate into eggs and flour when mixed. Hence, the dough has the higher entropy. Similar story for oil and water: Easy to unmix, hard to mix, hence the unmixed state has the higher entropy.

2. Quantum mechanics is not a theory for short distances only, it’s just difficult to observe its effects on long distances.

Nothing in the theory of quantum mechanics implies that it’s good on short distances only. It just so happens that large objects we observe are composed of many smaller constituents and these constituents’ thermal motion destroys the typical quantum effects. This is a process known as decoherence and it’s the reason we don’t usually see quantum behavior in daily life.

But quantum effect have been measured in experiments spanning hundreds of kilometers and they could span longer distances if the environment is sufficiently cold and steady. They could even span through entire galaxies.

3. Heavy particles do not decay to reach a state of smallest energy, but to reach a state of highest entropy.

Energy is conserved. So the idea that any system tries to minimize its energy is just nonsense. The reason that heavy particles decay if they can is because they can. If you have one heavy particle (say, a muon) it can decay into an electron, a muon-neutrino and an electron anti-neutrino. The opposite process is also possible, but it requires that the three decay products come together. It is hence unlikely to happen. This isn’t always the case. If you put heavy particles in a hot enough soup, production and decay can reach equilibrium with a non-zero fraction of the heavy particles around.

4. Lines in Feynman diagrams do not depict how particles move, they are visual aids for difficult calculations.

Every once in a while I get an email from someone who notices that many Feynman diagrams have momenta assigned to the lines. And since everyone knows one cannot at the same time measure the position and momentum of a particle arbitrarily well, it doesn’t make sense to draw lines for the particles. It follows that all of particle physics is wrong! But no, nothing is wrong with particle physics. There are several types of Feynman diagrams and the ones with the momenta are for momentum space. In this case the lines have nothing to do with paths the particles move on. They really don’t. They are merely a way to depict certain types of integrals.

There are some types of Feynman diagrams in which the lines do depict the possible paths that a particle could go, but also in this case the diagram itself doesn’t tell you what the particle actual does. For this you actually have to do the calculation.

5. Quantum mechanics is non-local, but you cannot use it to transfer information non-locally.

Quantum mechanics gives rise to non-local correlations that are quantifiably stronger than those of non-quantum theories. This is what Einstein referred to as  “spooky action at a distance.” Alas, quantum mechanics is also fundamentally random. So, while you have those awesome non-local correlations, you cannot use them to send messages. Quantum mechanics is indeed perfectly compatible with Einstein’s speed-of-light limit.

6. Quantum gravity becomes relevant at high curvature, not at short distances.

If you estimate the strength of quantum gravitational effects, you find that they should become non-negligible if the curvature of space-time is comparable to the inverse of the Planck length squared. This does not mean that you would see this effect at distances close by the Planck length. I believe the confusion here comes from the term “Planck length.” The Planck length has the unit of a length, but it’s not the length of anything. Importantly, that the curvature gets close to the inverse of the Planck length squared is an observer-independent statement. It does not depend on the velocity by which you move. The trouble with thinking that quantum gravity becomes relevant at short distances is that it’s incompatible with Special Relativity. In Special Relativity, lengths can contract. For an observer who moves fast enough, the Earth is a pancake of a width below the Planck length. This would mean we should either long have seen quantum gravitational effects, or Special Relativity must be wrong. Evidence speaks against both.

7. Atoms do not expand when the universe expands. Neither does Brooklyn.

The expansion of the universe is incredibly slow and the force it exerts is weak. Systems that are bound together by forces exceeding that of the expansion remain unaffected. The systems that are being torn apart are those larger than the size of galaxy clusters. The clusters themselves still hold together under their own gravitational pull. So do galaxies, solar systems, planets and of course atoms. Yes, that’s right, atomic forces are much stronger than the pull of the whole universe.

8. Wormholes are science fiction, black holes are not.

The observational evidence for black holes is solid. Astrophysicists can tell the presence of a black hole in various ways.

The easiest way may be to deduce how much mass must be combined in some volume of space to cause the observed motion of visible objects. This alone does not tell you whether the dark object that influences the visible ones has an event horizon. But you can tell the difference between an event horizon and a solid surface by examining the radiation that is emitted by the dark object. You can also use black holes as extreme gravitational lenses to test that they comply with the predictions of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. This is why physicists are excitedly looking forward to the data from the Event Horizon Telescope.

Maybe most importantly, we know that black holes are a typical end-state of certain types of stellar collapse. It is hard to avoid them, not hard to get them, in general relativity. Wormholes on the other hand are space-time deformations for which we don’t know any way how they could come about in natural processes. Their presence also requires negative energy, something that has never been observed, and that many physicists believe cannot exist.

9. You can fall into a black hole in finite time. It just looks like it takes forever.

Time slows down if you approach the event horizon, but this doesn’t mean that you actually stop falling before you reach the horizon. This slow-down is merely what an observer in the distance would see. You can calculate how much time it would take to fall into a black hole, as measured by a clock that the observer herself carries. The result is finite. You do indeed fall into the black hole. It’s just that your friend who stays outside never sees you falling in.

10. Energy is not conserved in the universe as a whole, but the effect is so tiny you won’t notice it.

So I said that energy is conserved, but that is only approximately correct. It would be entirely correct for a universe in which space does not change with time. But we know that in our universe space expands, and this expansion results in a violation of energy conservation.

This violation of energy conservation, however, is so minuscule that you don’t notice it in any experiment on Earth. It takes very long times and long distances to notice. Indeed, if the effect was any larger we would have noticed much earlier that the universe expands! So don’t try to blame your electricity bill on the universe, but close the window when the AC is running.