Can We Break
the Laws of Physics?

10 September 2015

Bad Guy \(but not **bad guy**\) Gru steals the Moon. Universal Pictures
Bad Guy (but not bad guy) Gru steals the Moon.

One of the assumptions most scientists have about the universe is that there are absolute physical laws that describe or govern the behavior of the cosmos. They’re often referred to as the laws of physics. Of course the scientific theories we’ve developed over centuries of experiment and observation are also referred to as the laws of physics. The two aren’t necessarily the same, which is why you sometimes hear of some new discovery as “breaking the laws of physics.”

While I’m not particularly fond of the term, it does raise an interesting question. Can the laws of physics be broken? If you take the position that there exist some absolute set of physical laws, then the answer would be no. Any violation of the scientific theories we’ve developed would simply show that our “laws of physics” are not the real laws of physics and must therefore be modified accordingly. If, however, you take the position that our known laws of physics are the only knowledge we have of the universe, then clearly the laws of physics can be broken. Our goal as scientists is then to develop a set of physical laws that aren’t violated.

While it seems reasonable to presume that there is some set of absolute physical laws, we have no way of proving it. The idea is a metaphysical assumption we can never test. We might discover the absolute rules of the universe through scientific study, but we could never be certain that there isn’t some rule-violating process we haven’t yet observed. We may also reach a point where we have no way to distinguish between competing models. For example, the idea of early cosmic inflation would explain things such as why the universe appears to be uniform. As BICEP2 found, the presence of dust in the universe can obscure evidence of early cosmic inflation, assuming it occurred. What if it’s impossible to prove that early cosmic inflation occurred?

Of course it’s possible that there are no absolute physical laws. There may only be approximate rules that we can discover, like a game of twenty questions. One of the strengths of science is that it works even if absolute laws don’t exist. Our theories are only as good as the evidence, and are always open to improvement.

That’s why we love finding some new phenomena that “breaks the laws of physics.” It means we can learn something new about the universe.