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List of Unsolved Problems in Physics
Some of the major unsolved problems in physics are theoretical, meaning that existing theories seem incapable of explaining a certain observed phenomenon or experimental result. The others are experimental, meaning that there is a difficulty in creating an experiment to test a proposed theory or investigate a phenomenon in greater detail.
The following is a list of unsolved problems grouped into broad areas of physics.
General physics/quantum physics
Theory of everything: Is there a theory which explains the values of all fundamental physical constants, i.e., of all coupling constants, all elementary particle masses and all mixing angles of elementary particles? Is there a theory which explains why the gauge groups of the standard model are as they are, and why observed spacetime has 3 spatial dimensions and 1 temporal dimension? Are "fundamental physical constants" really fundamental or do they vary over time? Are any of the fundamental particles in the standard model of particle physics actually composite particles too tightly bound to observe as such at current experimental energies? Are there elementary particles that have not yet been observed, and, if so, which ones are they and what are their properties? Are there unobserved fundamental forces?
Arrow of time (e.g. entropy's arrow of time): Why does time have a direction? Why did the universe have such low entropy in the past, and time correlates with the universal (but not local) increase in entropy, from the past and to the future, according to the second law of thermodynamics? Why are CP violations observed in certain weak force decays, but not elsewhere? Are CP violations somehow a product of the second law of thermodynamics, or are they a separate arrow of time? Are there exceptions to the principle of causality? Is there a single possible past? Is the present moment physically distinct from the past and future, or is it merely an emergent property of consciousness? What links the quantum arrow of time to the thermodynamic arrow?
Color confinement: Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) color confinement conjecture is that color charged particles (such as quarks and gluons) cannot be separated from their parent hadron without producing new hadrons. There is not yet an analytic proof of color confinement in any non-abelian gauge theory.
Dimensionless physical constant: At the present time, the values of the dimensionless physical constants cannot be calculated; they are determined only by physical measurement. What is the minimum number of dimensionless physical constants from which all other dimensionless physical constants can be derived? Are dimensional physical constants necessary at all?
Problem of time: In quantum mechanics time is a classical background parameter and the flow of time is universal and absolute. In general relativity time is one component of four-dimensional spacetime, and the flow of time changes depending on the curvature of spacetime and the spacetime trajectory of the observer. How can these two concepts of time be reconciled?
Dark energy: What is the cause of the observed accelerated expansion (de Sitter phase) of the universe? Why is the energy density of the dark energy component of the same magnitude as the density of matter at present when the two evolve quite differently over time; could it be simply that we are observing at exactly the right time? Is dark energy a pure cosmological constant or are models of quintessence such as phantom energy applicable?
Dark flow: Is a non-spherically symmetric gravitational pull from outside the observable universe responsible for some of the observed motion of large objects such as galactic clusters in the universe?
Axis of evil: Some large features of the microwave sky at distances of over 13 billion light years appear to be aligned with both the motion and orientation of the solar system. Is this due to systematic errors in processing, contamination of results by local effects, or an unexplained violation of the Copernican principle?
Shape of the universe: What is the 3-manifold of comoving space, i.e. of a comoving spatial section of the universe, informally called the "shape" of the universe? Neither the curvature nor the topology is presently known, though the curvature is known to be "close" to zero on observable scales. The cosmic inflation hypothesis suggests that the shape of the universe may be unmeasurable, but, since 2003, Jean-Pierre Luminet, et al., and other groups have suggested that the shape of the universe may be the Poincaré dodecahedral space. Is the shape unmeasurable; the Poincaré space; or another 3-manifold?
The largest structures in the universe are larger than expected. Current cosmological models say there should be very little structure on scales larger than a few hundred million light years across, due to the expansion of the universe trumping the effect of gravity. But the Sloan Great Wall is 1.38 billion light-years in length. And the largest structure currently known, the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall, is up to 10 billion light-years in length. Are these actual structures or random density fluctuations? If they are real structures, they contradict the 'End of Greatness' hypothesis which asserts that at a scale of 300 million light-years structures seen in smaller surveys are randomized to the extent that the smooth distribution of the universe is visually apparent.
Quantum gravity: Can quantum mechanics and general relativity be realized as a fully consistent theory (perhaps as a quantum field theory)? Is spacetime fundamentally continuous or discrete? Would a consistent theory involve a force mediated by a hypothetical graviton, or be a product of a discrete structure of spacetime itself (as in loop quantum gravity)? Are there deviations from the predictions of general relativity at very small or very large scales or in other extreme circumstances that flow from a quantum gravity theory?
Black holes, black hole information paradox, and black hole radiation: Do black holes produce thermal radiation, as expected on theoretical grounds? Does this radiation contain information about their inner structure, as suggested by gauge-gravity duality, or not, as implied by Hawking's original calculation? If not, and black holes can evaporate away, what happens to the information stored in them (since quantum mechanics does not provide for the destruction of information)? Or does the radiation stop at some point leaving black hole remnants? Is there another way to probe their internal structure somehow, if such a structure even exists?
Extra dimensions: Does nature have more than four spacetime dimensions? If so, what is their size? Are dimensions a fundamental property of the universe or an emergent result of other physical laws? Can we experimentally observe evidence of higher spatial dimensions?
Locality: Are there non-local phenomena in quantum physics? If they exist, are non-local phenomena limited to the entanglement revealed in the violations of the Bell inequalities, or can information and conserved quantities also move in a non-local way? Under what circumstances are non-local phenomena observed? What does the existence or absence of non-local phenomena imply about the fundamental structure of spacetime? How does this elucidate the proper interpretation of the fundamental nature of quantum physics?
Planck particle: The Planck mass plays an important role in parts of mathematical physics. A series of researchers have suggested the existence of a fundamental particle with mass equal to or close to that of the Planck mass. The Planck mass is however enormous compared to any detected particle. It is still an unsolved problem if there exist or even have existed a particle with close to the Planck mass. This is indirectly related to the hierarchy problem.
Neutron lifetime puzzle: While the neutron lifetime has been studied for decades, there currently exists a lack of consilience on its exact value, due to different results from two experimental methods ("bottle" versus "beam").
Proton decay and spin crisis: Is the proton fundamentally stable? Or does it decay with a finite lifetime as predicted by some extensions to the standard model? How do the quarks and gluons carry the spin of protons?
Anomalous magnetic dipole moment: Why is the experimentally measured value of the muon's anomalous magnetic dipole moment ("muon g-2") significantly different from the theoretically predicted value of that physical constant?
Pentaquarks and other exotic hadrons: What combinations of quarks are possible? Why were pentaquarks so difficult to discover? Are they a tightly-bound system of five elementary particles, or a more weakly-bound pairing of a baryon and a meson?
Koide formula: An aspect of the problem of particle generations. The sum of the masses of the three charged leptons, divided by the square of the sum of the roots of these masses is , to within one standard deviation of observations. It is unknown how such a simple value comes about, and why it is the exact arithmetic average of the possible extreme values of (equal masses) and 1 (one mass dominates).
Diffuse interstellar bands: What is responsible for the numerous interstellar absorption lines detected in astronomical spectra? Are they molecular in origin, and if so which molecules are responsible for them? How do they form?
Supermassive black holes: What is the origin of the M-sigma relation between supermassive black hole mass and galaxy velocity dispersion? How did the most distant quasars grow their supermassive black holes up to 1010 solar masses so early in the history of the universe?
Rotation curve of a typical spiral galaxy: predicted (A) and observed (B). Can the discrepancy between the curves be attributed to dark matter?
Kuiper cliff: Why does the number of objects in the Solar System's Kuiper belt fall off rapidly and unexpectedly beyond a radius of 50 astronomical units?
Rotation rate of Saturn: Why does the magnetosphere of Saturn exhibit a (slowly changing) periodicity close to that at which the planet's clouds rotate? What is the true rotation rate of Saturn's deep interior?
Large-scale anisotropy: Is the universe at very large scales anisotropic, making the cosmological principle an invalid assumption? The number count and intensity dipole anisotropy in radio, NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS) catalogue is inconsistent with the local motion as derived from cosmic microwave background and indicate an intrinsic dipole anisotropy. The same NVSS radio data also shows an intrinsic dipole in polarization density and degree of polarization in the same direction as in number count and intensity. There are several other observation revealing large-scale anisotropy. The optical polarization from quasars shows polarization alignment over a very large scale of Gpc. The cosmic-microwave-background data shows several features of anisotropy, which are not consistent with the Big Bang model.
Space roar: Why is space roar six times louder than expected? What is the source of space roar?
Age-metallicity relation in the Galactic disk: Is there a universal age-metallicity relation (AMR) in the Galactic disk (both "thin" and "thick" parts of the disk)? Although in the local (primarily thin) disk of the Milky Way there is no evidence of a strong AMR, a sample of 229 nearby "thick" disk stars has been used to investigate the existence of an age-metallicity relation in the Galactic thick disk, and indicate that there is an age-metallicity relation present in the thick disk. Stellar ages from asteroseismology confirm the lack of any strong age-metallicity relation in the Galactic disc.
Fast radio bursts: Transient radio pulses lasting only a few milliseconds, from emission regions thought to be no larger than a few hundred kilometres, and estimated to occur several hundred times a day. While several theories have been proposed, there is no generally accepted explanation for them. The only known repeating FRB emanates from a galaxy roughly 3 billion light years from Earth.
Singular trajectories in the NewtonianN-body problem: Does the set of initial conditions for which particles that undergo near-collisions gain infinite speed in finite time have measure zero? This is known to be the case when N N.
Amorphous solids: What is the nature of the glass transition between a fluid or regular solid and a glassy phase? What are the physical processes giving rise to the general properties of glasses and the glass transition?
Metal whiskering: In electrical devices, some metallic surfaces may spontaneously grow fine metallic whiskers, which can lead to equipment failures. While compressive mechanical stress is known to encourage whisker formation, the growth mechanism has yet to be determined.
Plasma physics and fusion power: Fusion energy may potentially provide power from abundant resource (e.g. hydrogen) without the type of radioactive waste that fission energy currently produces. However, can ionized gases (plasma) be confined long enough and at a high enough temperature to create fusion power? What is the physical origin of H-mode?
Solar cycle: How does the Sun generate its periodically reversing large-scale magnetic field? How do other solar-like stars generate their magnetic fields, and what are the similarities and differences between stellar activity cycles and that of the Sun? What caused the Maunder Minimum and other grand minima, and how does the solar cycle recover from a minima state?
The injection problem: Fermi acceleration is thought to be the primary mechanism that accelerates astrophysical particles to high energy. However, it is unclear what mechanism causes those particles to initially have energies high enough for Fermi acceleration to work on them.
Proton radius puzzle (2010-2019): Solved using 'electronic' hydrogen as well as its 'muonic' variant, the radii of each concord within the expected range for the electric charge of the proton hence no discrepancy.
Existence of time crystals (2012-2016): In 2016, the idea of time-crystals was proposed by two groups independently Khemani et al. and Else et al. Both of these groups showed that in small systems which are disordered and periodic in time, one can observe the phenomenon of time crystals. Norman Yao et al. extended the calculations for a model (which has the same qualitative features) in the laboratory environment. This was then used by two teams, a group led by Christopher Monroe at the University of Maryland and a group led by Mikhail Lukin at Harvard University, who were both able to show evidence for time crystals in the lab-setting, showing that for short times the systems exhibited the dynamics similar to the predicted one.
Perform a loophole-free Bell test experiment (1970-2015): In October 2015, scientists from the Kavli Institute of Nanoscience reported that the failure of the local hidden-variable hypothesis is supported at the 96% confidence level based on a "loophole-free Bell test" study. These results were confirmed by two studies with statistical significance over 5 standard deviations which were published in December 2015.
Existence of pentaquarks (1964-2015): In July 2015, the LHCb collaboration at CERN identified pentaquarks in the channel, which represents the decay of the bottom lambda baryon into a J/? meson , a kaon and a proton (p). The results showed that sometimes, instead of decaying directly into mesons and baryons, the decayed via intermediate pentaquark states. The two states, named and , had individual statistical significances of 9 ? and 12 ?, respectively, and a combined significance of 15 σ - enough to claim a formal discovery. The two pentaquark states were both observed decaying strongly to , hence must have a valence quark content of two up quarks, a down quark, a charm quark, and an anti-charm quark ( u u d c c ), making them charmonium-pentaquarks.
Photon underproduction crisis (2014-2015): This problem was resolved by Khaire and Srianand. They show that a factor 2 to 5 times large metagalactic photoionization rate can be easily obtained using updated quasar and galaxy observations. Recent observations of quasars indicate that the quasar contribution to ultraviolet photons is a factor of 2 larger than previous estimates. The revised galaxy contribution is a factor of 3 larger. These together solve the crisis.
Existence of ball lightning (1638-2014): In January 2014, scientists from Northwest Normal University in Lanzhou, China, published the results of recordings made in July 2012 of the optical spectrum of what was thought to be natural ball lightning made during the study of ordinary cloud-ground lightning on China's Qinghai Plateau. At a distance of 900 m (3,000 ft), a total of 1.3 seconds of digital video of the ball lightning and its spectrum was made, from the formation of the ball lightning after the ordinary lightning struck the ground, up to the optical decay of the phenomenon. The recorded ball lightning is believed to be vaporized soil elements that then rapidly oxidize in the atmosphere. The nature of the true theory is still not clear.
Hipparcos anomaly (1997-2012): The High Precision Parallax Collecting Satellite (Hipparcos) measured the parallax of the Pleiades and determined a distance of 385 light years. This was significantly different from other measurements made by means of actual to apparent brightness measurement or absolute magnitude. The anomaly was due to the use of a weighted mean when there is a correlation between distances and distance errors for stars in clusters. It is resolved by using an unweighted mean. There is no systematic bias in the Hipparcos data when it comes to star clusters.
Numerical solution for binary black hole (1960s-2005): The numerical solution of the two body problem in general relativity was achieved after four decades of research. In 2005 (annus mirabilis of numerical relativity) when three groups devised the breakthrough techniques.
Long-duration gamma-ray bursts (1993-2003): Long-duration bursts are associated with the deaths of massive stars in a specific kind of supernova-like event commonly referred to as a collapsar. However, there are also long-duration GRBs that show evidence against an associated supernova, such as the Swift event GRB 060614.
Cosmic age problem (1920s-1990s): The estimated age of the universe was around 3 to 8 billion years younger than estimates of the ages of the oldest stars in the Milky Way. Better estimates for the distances to the stars, and the recognition of the accelerating expansion of the universe, reconciled the age estimates.
Nature of quasars (1950s-1980s): The nature of quasars was not understood for decades. They are now accepted as a type of active galaxy where the enormous energy output results from matter falling into a massive black hole in the centre of the galaxy.
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^ abWang, Qingdi; Zhu, Zhen; Unruh, William G. (2017-05-11). "How the huge energy of quantum vacuum gravitates to drive the slow accelerating expansion of the Universe". Physical Review D. 95 (10): 103504. arXiv:1703.00543. Bibcode:2017PhRvD..95j3504W. doi:10.1103/PhysRevD.95.103504. This problem is widely regarded as one of the major obstacles to further progress in fundamental physics [...] Its importance has been emphasized by various authors from different aspects. For example, it has been described as a "veritable crisis" [...] and even "the mother of all physics problems" [...] While it might be possible that people working on a particular problem tend to emphasize or even exaggerate its importance, those authors all agree that this is a problem that needs to be solved, although there is little agreement on what is the right direction to find the solution.
^Wolchover, Natalie (13 February 2018). "Neutron Lifetime Puzzle Deepens, but No Dark Matter Seen". Quanta Magazine. Retrieved 2018. When physicists strip neutrons from atomic nuclei, put them in a bottle, then count how many remain there after some time, they infer that neutrons radioactively decay in 14 minutes and 39 seconds, on average. But when other physicists generate beams of neutrons and tally the emerging protons -- the particles that free neutrons decay into -- they peg the average neutron lifetime at around 14 minutes and 48 seconds. The discrepancy between the "bottle" and "beam" measurements has persisted since both methods of gauging the neutron's longevity began yielding results in the 1990s. At first, all the measurements were so imprecise that nobody worried. Gradually, though, both methods have improved, and still they disagree.
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