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I would like to migrate this Math Question into physics. The question is:

  • Are there conjectures in Physics which have been disproved with extremely large counterexamples? If yes, i would like to know some of them.
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Because this is a Physics and not a maths forum there is a slight ambiguity in the question. By "conjectures" does one mean mathematical conjectures (like the Poincare conjecture) or physics conjectures (like existence of quark matter, Higgs Boson)? As for the counterexample, mathematically it will be a large construction (in some measure of proof size) or if physical counterexample what counts as "large"? –  Roy Simpson Feb 25 '11 at 14:23
Its ambivalent in mathemtics also what extremely large counterexamples means, in practice it has to do with computer powers, which again is gowerned by physics :) –  user1708 Feb 25 '11 at 14:49

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

One of the better examples of such a reversals is the "Steady-State Hypothesis" of Hoyle and Narlikar. Increasing depth and precision in cosmological measurements in the 1960s and 70s, however, emphatically refuted this idea.

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+1 because the universe is pretty big. –  coneslayer Feb 25 '11 at 15:19

Lots of properties that were found to hold locally (in space and time) turned out to be only local approximations.

Flat earth hypothesis - long journey.
Galilean transformations - breaks at large velocities.
Global curvature of spacetime, locally it is flat - large distances.
Spacetime is not expanding - breaks at large distances (Hubble's law)
Classical mechanics - breaks also at extremely small scales (QM).

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You can also add all those conjectures from the math thread, since they are just large in the sense that a physical computer would take 'long' time to find them. –  user1708 Feb 25 '11 at 15:44

The equivalent in Physics of a counterexample in Mathematics would be a failed experiment. For example: the Michelson Morley experiment is a counterexample to the ether conjecture. But was it big? Can any experiment be "big" in the same sense as Mathematics? Possibly not.

I make a conjecture: "any physical conjecture can be disproved with a fairly straightforward experiment."

Actually it's not a conjecture, it's a simple request that any valid physical theory must be disprovable through experiment (which is pretty much an agreed to principle).

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Dear @Sklivvz. I suggest to use the word falsifiable instead of disprovable. –  Qmechanic May 20 '11 at 15:52
@qme: could you elaborate on the difference? –  Ebenezer Sklivvze May 20 '11 at 16:01

There have been conjectures and implicit assumptions in physics that have been disproved with extremely small counterexamples.

But for the spirit of the mathematical question, I think an equivalent would be computationally costly simulations that find unsuspected stable configurations, or accelerator experiments at high energies that shatter conjectures in particle physics.

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