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.
There are still some deficiencies in the Standard Model of physics, such as the origin of mass, the strong CP problem, neutrino oscillations, matter–antimatter asymmetry, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Another problem lies within the mathematical framework of the Standard Model itself—the Standard Model is inconsistent with that of general relativity, to the point that one or both theories break down under certain conditions (for example within known spacetime singularities like the Big Bang and the centers of black holes beyond the event horizon).
Unsolved problems by subfield
The following is a list of unsolved problems grouped into broad areas of physics.
General physics/quantum physics
- 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?
- Interpretation of quantum mechanics: How does the quantum description of reality, which includes elements such as the superposition of states and wavefunction collapse or quantum decoherence, give rise to the reality we perceive? Another way of stating this question regards the measurement problem: What constitutes a "measurement" which apparently causes the wave function to collapse into a definite state? Unlike classical physical processes, some quantum mechanical processes (such as quantum teleportation arising from quantum entanglement) cannot be simultaneously "local", "causal", and "real", but it is not obvious which of these properties must be sacrificed, or if an attempt to describe quantum mechanical processes in these senses is a category error such that a proper understanding of quantum mechanics would render the question meaningless.
- Grand Unification Theory/Theory of everything: Is there a theory which explains the values of all fundamental physical constants? 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? Do "fundamental physical constants" 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 fundamental particles that have not yet been observed, and, if so, which ones are they and what are their properties? Are there unobserved fundamental forces?
- Yang–Mills theory: Given an arbitrary compact gauge group, does a non-trivial quantum Yang–Mills theory with a finite mass gap exist? This problem is also listed as one of the Millennium Prize Problems in mathematics.
- Physical information: Are there physical phenomena, such as wave function collapse or black holes, which irrevocably destroy information about their prior states? How is quantum information stored as a state of a quantum system?
- 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?
- Fine-tuned Universe: The values of the fundamental physical constants are in a narrow range necessary to support carbon-based life. Is this because there exist other universes with different constants, or are our universe’s constants the result of chance, or some other factor or process?
- Quantum field theory: Is it possible to construct, in the mathematically rigorous framework of algebraic QFT, a theory in 4-dimensional spacetime that includes interactions and does not resort to perturbative methods?
Cosmology and general relativity
- 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?
- Cosmic inflation: Is the theory of cosmic inflation in the very early universe correct, and, if so, what are the details of this epoch? What is the hypothetical inflaton scalar field that gave rise to this cosmic inflation? If inflation happened at one point, is it self-sustaining through inflation of quantum-mechanical fluctuations, and thus ongoing in some extremely distant place?
- Horizon problem: Why is the distant universe so homogeneous when the Big Bang theory seems to predict larger measurable anisotropies of the night sky than those observed? Cosmological inflation is generally accepted as the solution, but are other possible explanations such as a variable speed of light more appropriate?
- Origin and future of the universe: How did the conditions for anything to exist arise? Is the universe heading towards a Big Freeze, a Big Rip, a Big Crunch, or a Big Bounce? Or is it part of an infinitely recurring cyclic model?
- Size of universe: The diameter of the observable universe is about 93 billion light-years, but what is the size of the whole universe? Does a multiverse exist?
- Baryon asymmetry: Why is there far more matter than antimatter in the observable universe?
- Cosmological constant problem: Why does the zero-point energy of the vacuum not cause a large cosmological constant? What cancels it out?
Estimated distribution of dark matter and dark energy in the universe
- Dark matter/Galaxy rotation curve: What is the identity of dark matter? Is it a particle? Is it the lightest superpartner (LSP)? Or, do the phenomena attributed to dark matter point not to some form of matter but actually to an extension of gravity?
- 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?
- Vacuum catastrophe: Why does the predicted mass of the quantum vacuum have little effect on the expansion of the universe?
- 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?
- The cosmic censorship hypothesis and the chronology protection conjecture: Can singularities not hidden behind an event horizon, known as "naked singularities", arise from realistic initial conditions, or is it possible to prove some version of the "cosmic censorship hypothesis" of Roger Penrose which proposes that this is impossible? Similarly, will the closed timelike curves which arise in some solutions to the equations of general relativity (and which imply the possibility of backwards time travel) be ruled out by a theory of quantum gravity which unites general relativity with quantum mechanics, as suggested by the "chronology protection conjecture" of Stephen Hawking?
- 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 relate to quantum entanglement? How does this elucidate the proper interpretation of the fundamental nature of quantum physics?
High-energy physics/particle physics
- Hierarchy problem: Why is gravity such a weak force? It becomes strong for particles only at the Planck scale, around 1019 GeV, much above the electroweak scale (100 GeV, the energy scale dominating physics at low energies). Why are these scales so different from each other? What prevents quantities at the electroweak scale, such as the Higgs boson mass, from getting quantum corrections on the order of the Planck scale? Is the solution supersymmetry, extra dimensions, or just anthropic fine-tuning?
- 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 even compared to the Higgs 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.
- Magnetic monopoles: Did particles that carry "magnetic charge" exist in some past, higher-energy epoch? If so, do any remain today? (Paul Dirac showed the existence of some types of magnetic monopoles would explain charge quantization.)
- 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?
- Supersymmetry: Is spacetime supersymmetry realized at TeV scale? If so, what is the mechanism of supersymmetry breaking? Does supersymmetry stabilize the electroweak scale, preventing high quantum corrections? Does the lightest supersymmetric particle (LSP or Lightest Supersymmetric Particle) comprise dark matter?
- Generations of matter: Why are there three generations of quarks and leptons? Is there a theory that can explain the masses of particular quarks and leptons in particular generations from first principles (a theory of Yukawa couplings)?
- Neutrino mass: What is the mass of neutrinos, whether they follow Dirac or Majorana statistics? Is the mass hierarchy normal or inverted? Is the CP violating phase equal to 0?
- Colour confinement: Why has there never been measured a free quark or gluon, but only objects that are built out of them, such as mesons and baryons? How does this phenomenon emerge from QCD?
- Strong CP problem and axions: Why is the strong nuclear interaction invariant to parity and charge conjugation? Is Peccei–Quinn theory the solution to this problem? Could axions be the main component of dark matter?
- 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?
- Proton radius puzzle: What is the electric charge radius of the proton? How does it differ from gluonic charge?
- 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?
- Mu problem: problem of supersymmetric theories, concerned with understanding the parameters of the theory.
- 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 1/3 (equal masses) and 1 (one mass dominates).
Astronomy and astrophysics
- Astrophysical jet: Why do only certain accretion discs surrounding certain astronomical objects emit relativistic jets along their polar axes? Why are there quasi-periodic oscillations in many accretion discs? Why does the period of these oscillations scale as the inverse of the mass of the central object? Why are there sometimes overtones, and why do these appear at different frequency ratios in different objects?
- 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?
- Flyby anomaly: Why is the observed energy of satellites flying by Earth sometimes different by a minute amount from the value predicted by theory?
- Galaxy rotation problem: Is dark matter responsible for differences in observed and theoretical speed of stars revolving around the centre of galaxies, or is it something else?
- Supernovae: What is the exact mechanism by which an implosion of a dying star becomes an explosion?
- p-nuclei: What astrophysical process is responsible for the nucleogenesis of these rare isotopes?
- Ultra-high-energy cosmic ray: Why is it that some cosmic rays appear to possess energies that are impossibly high, given that there are no sufficiently energetic cosmic ray sources near the Earth? Why is it that (apparently) some cosmic rays emitted by distant sources have energies above the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin limit?
- 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?
- Origin of magnetar magnetic field: What is the origin of magnetar magnetic field?
- 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 other several 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.
- The lithium problem: Why is there a discrepancy between the amount of lithium-7 predicted to be produced in Big Bang nucleosynthesis and the amount observed in very old stars?
- Ultraluminous pulsar: The ultraluminous X-ray source M82 X-2 was thought to be a black hole, but in October 2014 data from NASA's space-based X-ray telescope NuStar indicated that M82 X-2 is a pulsar many times brighter than the Eddington limit.
- 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.
- Nature of KIC 8462852, commonly known as Tabby's Star: What is the origin of unusual luminosity changes of this star?
- Fermi paradox: Do extraterrestrial civilizations exist? If so, why do we not see them?
- Nature of Wow! signal: Was that a real signal and, if so, what is the origin of it?
- Planetary systems: How does accretion form planetary systems? Where did Earth's water come from?
Atomic, molecular and optical physics
- Singular trajectories in the Newtonian N-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 ≤ 4, but the question remains open for larger N.
Condensed matter physics
Magnetoresistance in a
fractional quantum Hall state.
- 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?
- Coronal heating problem: Why is the Sun's corona (atmosphere layer) so much hotter than the Sun's surface? Why is the magnetic reconnection effect many orders of magnitude faster than predicted by standard models?
- 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.
- Solar wind interaction with comets: In 2007 the Ulysses spacecraft passed through the tail of comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught) and found surprising results concerning the interaction of the solar wind with the tail.
Problems solved in recent decades
- Origin of short gamma-ray burst (1993-2017): From binary neutron stars merger, produce a kilonova explosion and short gamma-ray burst GRB 170817A was detected in both electromagnetic waves and gravitational wave GW170817.
- Missing baryon problem (1998-2017): proclaimed solved in October 2017, with the missing baryons located in hot intergalactic gas.
- 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.
- Existence of gravitational waves (1916–2016): On 11 February 2016, the Advanced LIGO team announced that they had directly detected gravitational waves from a pair of black holes merging, which was also the first detection of a stellar binary black hole.
- 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 Λ0
b→J/ψK−p channel, which represents the decay of the bottom lambda baryon (Λ0
b) into a J/ψ meson (J/ψ), a kaon (K−
) and a proton (p). The results showed that sometimes, instead of decaying directly into mesons and baryons, the Λ0
b decayed via intermediate pentaquark states. The two states, named P+
c(4380) and P+
c(4450), had individual statistical significances of 9 σ and 12 σ, respectively, and a combined significance of 15 σ — enough to claim a formal discovery. The two pentaquark states were both observed decaying strongly to J/ψp, hence must have a valence quark content of two up quarks, a down quark, a charm quark, and an anti-charm quark (
), 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.
- Higgs boson and electroweak symmetry breaking (1963–2012): The mechanism responsible for breaking the electroweak gauge symmetry, giving mass to the W and Z bosons, was solved with the discovery of the Higgs boson of the Standard Model, with the expected couplings to the weak bosons. No evidence of a strong dynamics solution, as proposed by technicolor, has been observed.
- 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.
- Faster-than-light neutrino anomaly (2011–2012): In 2011, the OPERA experiment mistakenly observed neutrinos appearing to travel faster than light. On July 12, 2012 OPERA updated their paper by including the new sources of errors in their calculations. They found agreement of neutrino speed with the speed of light.
- Pioneer anomaly (1980–2012): There was a deviation in the predicted accelerations of the Pioneer spacecraft as they left the Solar System. It is believed that this is a result of previously unaccounted-for thermal recoil force.
- 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.
- Solar neutrino problem (1968–2001): Solved by a new understanding of neutrino physics, requiring a modification of the Standard Model of particle physics—specifically, neutrino oscillation.
- Create Bose–Einstein condensate (1924-1995): Composite bosons in the form of dilute atomic vapours were cooled to quantum degeneracy using the techniques of laser cooling and evaporative cooling.
- 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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