When we first learn physics, it's often presented very 'discontinuously'. For example, pop quantum likes to talk about objects being "either" particles or waves, leading to a lot of confused questions about how things switch between the two. Once you learn about wavefunctions, the problem goes away; 'particle' and 'wave' are just descriptions of two extreme kinds of wavefunctions.

In general, further learning 'fills in' the knowledge holes that discontinuities cover up:

  • Phase transitions in thermodynamics. These are only truly discontinuous in the $N \to \infty$ limit, which doesn't physically exist. For large but finite $N$, we can use statistical mechanics to get a perfectly continuous answer.
  • Measurement in quantum mechanics. 'Copenhagen collapse' is not instantaneous, it's the result of interaction with an external system, which occurs in continuous time.
  • Optical decays. Without QED, the best model is to just have atoms suddenly and randomly emit photons with some lifetime. With QED, we have a perfectly continuous time evolution (allowing for, e.g. Rabi oscillations).

At this point I'm having trouble thinking of any 'real' discontinuities. Are there any theories (that we believe to be fundamental) that predict a discontinuity in a physically observable quantity?

To address several comments: I am not looking for a discontinuity in time, as this is associated with infinite energy. I am not looking for experimental confirmation of a discontinuity in time, since that's impossible.

I am asking if there is any measurable parameter in any of our currently most fundamental theories which changes discontinuously as a function of another measurable parameter, according to the theory itself. For example, if phase transitions actually existed, then phase as a function of temperature or pressure would work.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Even if they existed in principle, how would we be able to say that such processes were instantaneous? We'd need an infinitely high time resolution in our oscilloscope. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jun 8 '16 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank You're right; I refined the question to ask for 'in principle' discontinuities. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jun 8 '16 at 1:56
  • $\begingroup$ What about the event horizon of a black hole? That seems like a sharp boundary. $\endgroup$ – Jahan Claes Jun 8 '16 at 1:56
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    $\begingroup$ If we think that physical laws take the form of differential equations, then discontinuities -- more generally failures of differentiability -- in physical quantities are clearly problematic. Just how differentiable things need to be and what goes wrong when they aren't requires more mathematical sophistication than was common among physicists in my time, but is worth studying I think. There is also an important question of why and if requiring something to be $C^n$ (and perhaps $C^\omega$) is physically justified, which is too large a question for this margin. $\endgroup$ – tfb Jun 8 '16 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ One can obtain geometric "discontinuities" from perfectly continuous "physical laws". These are also called catastrophes (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catastrophe_theory). One can build some nice machines like the Zeeman catastrophe machine to illustrate this. $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Jun 8 '16 at 9:16

Any process that causes a physical quantity to become truly discontinuous in space and/or time by definition takes place over an extremely (in fact, infinitely) short time or length scale. From the usual uncertainty principles of quantum mechanics, these process would have huge energy or momentum, and would presumably result in both very strong quantum and gravitational effects. Since we don't have a good theory of quantum gravity, there's really very little we can say with confidence about such extreme regimes.

But even if we do one day come up with a perfectly well-defined and self-consistent theory that reconciles quantum field theory with general relativity and is completely continuous in every way, that still won't settle your question. Such a theory can never be proven to be "the final theory," because there will always be the possibility that new experimental data will require it to be generalized. The most likely place for this "new physics" would probably be at whatever energy scales are beyond our current experimental reach at the time. So we'll probably always be the least confident of the physics at the very smallest of length or time scales.

A similar line of thought holds for the possibility of absolute discontinuities in energy or momentum: ruling out, say, really tiny discontinuities in energy would require knowing the energy to extremely high precision. But by the energy-time uncertainty relation, establishing the energy to such high precision would require an extremely long time - and eventually the required time scale would become too long to be experimentally feasible.

So extremely long and extremely short time/length scales both present fundamental difficulties in different ways, and your question will probably never be answerable.

  • $\begingroup$ This is in line with the disappearance of the classical singularities in potentials once the underlying quantum mechanical framework is considered. $\endgroup$ – anna v Jun 8 '16 at 11:20

Although you've indicated elsewhere that you don't like this example, I'm posting it in case others like it more:

Balance a pencil on its point, at an angle $\theta$ ranging from $0$ (flat on the table) to $\pi/2$ (perfectly vertical). Let $f(\theta)$ be the angle of the pencil when it reaches equilibrium. Then for any $\theta<\pi/2$, we have $f(\theta)=0$, so $\lim_{\theta\rightarrow\pi/2}=0$. But $f(\pi/2)=\pi/2$, so $f$ is not continuous.

Of course any unstable equilibrium gives rise to a similar example.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't like this awnser because such perfect unstable equilibriums don't really exist. Fluctuations will always cause the pencil to fall apart at some point. Moreover, what kind of device are you using to be sure that the pencil is exactly vertical ? $\endgroup$ – Dimitri Jul 20 '16 at 8:55

The nearest discontinuous "instantaneous" process I know of is described in Interpreting attoclock measurements of tunnelling times where...

Resolving in time the dynamics of light absorption by atoms and molecules, and the electronic rearrangement this induces, is among the most challenging goals of attosecond spectroscopy. The attoclock is an elegant approach to this problem, which encodes ionization times in the strong-field regime. However, the accurate reconstruction of these times from experimental data presents a formidable theoretical task. Here, we solve this problem by combining analytical theory with ab initio numerical simulations. We apply our theory to numerical attoclock experiments on the hydrogen atom to extract ionization time delays and analyse their nature. Strong-field ionization is often viewed as optical tunnelling through the barrier created by the field and the core potential. We show that, in the hydrogen atom, optical tunnelling is instantaneous.


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