A few months ago I was telling high school students about Fermat's principle.
You can use it to show that light reflects off a surface at equal angles. To set it up, you put in boundary conditions, like "the light starts at A and ends at B". But these conditions by themselves are insufficient to determine what the path is, because there's an extra irrelevant stationary time path, which is the light going directly from A to B without ever bouncing off the surface. We get rid of this by adding in another boundary condition, i.e. that we only care about paths that actually do bounce. Then the solution is unique.
Of course the second I finished saying this one of the students asked "what if you're inside an elliptical mirror, and A and B are the two foci?" In this case, you can impose the condition "we only care about paths that hit the mirror", but this doesn't nail down the path at all because any path that consists of a straight line from A to the mirror, followed by a straight line to B, will take equal time! So in this case the principle tells us nothing at all.
The fact that we can get no information whatsoever from an action principle feels disturbing. I thought the standard model was based on one of those!
My questions are
- Is this anything more than a mathematical curiosity? Does this come up as a problem/obstacle in higher physics?
- Is there a nicer, mathematically natural way to state the "only count bouncing paths" condition? Also, is there a "nice" condition that specifies a path in the ellipse case?
- What should I have told that student?