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Last week, a young woman came by my physics lab. She demonstrated the telekinetic ability to rotate things from a distance. We did some quick tests, but we couldn't find any previously known phenomena which could explain this.

Now, she had to run off to do some sort of superheroics, but she promised to return for more research. I'm not looking for you to provide an explanation for me (I do have to find something to publish, after all), but I'd like to know how I could use her power to discover new physics.

Of course, there are some constraints. She seems resistant to being dissected (even for science), and she strongly dislikes needles and other medical equipment. Using her power does take energy, and it's not terribly strong. We have plenty of lab space, but grants are hard to come by, so we can't get too much expensive equipment.

What experiments could I perform with her that would be most useful for developing new physics? I'm looking for the most direct route from "person with (these) superpowers" to "revision of the current model of the universe".

Edit: To narrow the scope a bit, here are the results from some of the tests that have already been suggested:

  • While it's possible to use her to study other things, I have an unexplained phenomenon literally asking me to study it, so I'd prefer to study the physics of her powers.
  • She has difficulty moving sufficiently small things ("Have you ever tried grabbing an atom?").
  • She can spin things behind glass with minimal difficulty.
  • She can rotate things from where she can see them to where she can't, and so long as she doesn't "let go," she can rotate them back. However, she hasn't been able to turn things she can't see to begin with.
  • She can rotate two or three things at once with difficulty, but she can't focus on more than that. If she loses focus on anything, it just stops spinning.
  • Her power decreases with distance, but not as fast as the inverse-square.
  • We can't measure when she starts using her power precisely enough to check for a speed of light lag.
  • She does have to rotate herself (at least her hands) a bit to get an object to start turning or to change its speed, but once it's going, it only requires focus.
  • She can rotate non-rigid objects and parts of objects.
  • She cannot turn herself.
  • There's no noticeable effect from applying electric or magnetic fields.
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    $\begingroup$ @Gryphon The most direct route from "person with superpowers" to "revision of the current model of the universe". $\endgroup$ – user53026 Jul 17 '18 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ Is 'new physics' a joke or deliberately stylised phrase that I'm just not getting? Because in my mind there is no such thing as 'new' or 'old' physics, there is only physics (and our ever changing understanding of it). (I get that OP likely means 'new understanding', I'm just curious about the specific wording.) $\endgroup$ – RyanfaeScotland Jul 18 '18 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanfaeScotland There's no hidden meaning there. It's a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in the lab I work in (in real life), so I assumed it was fairly common usage. A lot of what we do involves describing the behavior of particles in specific situations, and we call it "new physics" because there's no model for it yet. $\endgroup$ – user53026 Jul 18 '18 at 13:06
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    $\begingroup$ I don't get it. You are a physicist, working in a physics lab, and you have just made a repeatable experiment showing that momentum is not a conserved quality after all. In my opinion this is plenty new physics right here. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jul 18 '18 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP It's absolutely a starting point, but the question is about what comes next. It's great to learn the old model is wrong, but how do we build a new one? Particularly when there's only one such person, so we can't repeat the experiment elsewhere. $\endgroup$ – user53026 Jul 18 '18 at 19:24
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Test her limits.

  1. Can she move more than one thing at once? If so, how many?
  2. How large of a thing can she move, both by weight and by volume?
  3. Is there a minimum size an object has to be, or could she move individual atoms if she wanted to.
  4. How fast can she make an object move?
  5. Are there any range limits on her telekinesis?
  6. Can she move an object she cannot see? A coin in a box right in front of her? A coin on the other side of the planet? What if she has a line-of-sight to the object but the room is too dark? What if she has a view of the object via webcam, but not in person? What if she can only see the object's reflection in a mirror?
  7. If no to the previous test, are any materials transparent to her telekinesis or are all opaque?
  8. Can she move a subset of a collection of objects? Like some of the water in a pool, or some of the sand in a pile of sand?
  9. Can she directly control how hot or cold an object is by controlling how quickly its constituent atoms vibrate?
  10. Can she use it on herself?

Test if she violates any known laws of physics.

  1. Does she violate Newton's Laws of Motion? If she picks an object up with her telekinesis, does she get pushed down?
  2. Does she violate the laws of thermodynamics? Does it cost her less energy to lift an object than it gains in potential energy? What about when moving a conductor through a magnetic field?
  3. Does she violate the laws of general relativity? By this I mean could her telekinesis be used to send information faster than the speed of light? Does it take time for the telekinesis to happen if the object being moved is some distance away, or does the object move instantly?
  4. Does she violate the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Can she place an object more precisely than the HUP would normally allow?

Test her biology.

  1. Do an fMRI on her while she uses telekinesis; see which areas of her brain light up while she does it.
  2. Get a DNA sample and see if there are any previously unknown genes in her genome.
  3. See how many calories she burns while using telekinesis. This is different than in the thermodynamics test, it tells you how efficiently she can transfer energy from herself to an object.
  4. Are her abilities affected by mind-altering substances?
  5. Can she use telekinesis while asleep? If she sleepwalks, could she sleep-telekinesis?
  6. Are her abilities affected by sleep deprivation?

Last, I would have her try to teach someone else how to do it. Maybe it's not unique to her?

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  • $\begingroup$ Most physics labs do not have an fMRI machine handy ;) $\endgroup$ – Nicol Bolas Jul 18 '18 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @NicolBolas No, but it would probably be possible to get a scan done with co-operation from a hospital, or even better, a research hospital/university that does have one. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Jul 18 '18 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for testing conservation and other basic laws. I would add a frame of reference test of some kind. What happens if she's on a moving train and picks up something not on the train? $\endgroup$ – DRF Jul 18 '18 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that the third item in your first set of tests may be limited not by the ability itself, but by her perceptual abilities. In other words, she may only be able to move things she's able to 'see' simply because she has to percieve something to affect it. $\endgroup$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Jul 18 '18 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ Another test would be can you fake her out, if she rolls something beyond her sight and lets go but you use sue illusion to make her think she can still see it can she grab it again. how many of her limits are just phycological. $\endgroup$ – John Jun 26 at 3:03
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  1. Try to determine how her power changes over distance. Does she have a maximum amount of weight she can move? Does this change with distance? Is the effect immediate or it propagates at the speed of light?
  2. Try to determine if the medium between her and the object influences the power.
  3. Try to determine if the object has to be in her line of sight.
  4. Try to determine if electromagnetic fields influence her ability.
  5. Try to determine the size range of the object she can move (can you use her to move nuclei to relativistic speeds? You know, cyclotrons are expensive...)
  6. Try to determine how her metabolic/mental conditions influence her ability.
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    $\begingroup$ 7: Try to determine how she fights supervillains or saves civilians from disasters by rotating things at a distance. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 17 '18 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk: Just rotate a villain's cochlear fluid. It's just a few mL, so the energy required should be pretty low. If she spins it fast enough, they get super dizzy, probably start puking and cease providing any meaningful contribution to the fight $\endgroup$ – Punintended Jul 17 '18 at 19:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Punintended I believe you are looking for "The Top" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_(comics) The Top’s spinning eventually gives him powerful telekinetic and telepathic powers due to the stimulation of his brain cells. Since his soul returned from Hell, he has developed a new mental ability that allows him to induce severe disorientation and vertigo in his victims $\endgroup$ – Crettig Jul 17 '18 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for #1 and #2. Inverse square law, Faraday cage. Julian May's novels "Surveillance" and "Metaconcert" deal with how humans learn to scientifically describe and measure psychic powers like ESP and telekinesis. $\endgroup$ – John Feltz Jul 18 '18 at 2:08
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    $\begingroup$ As a summary to your list: "Measure it in condition A. Create a condition B which is like condition A but different in one particular way (a way which you suspect but are not sure affects her power). Measure it in condition B. When you measure a difference, repeatedly measure in A and B until you're sure enough that it wasn't just a fluke." $\endgroup$ – Flater Jul 18 '18 at 9:42
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Exploration of the physical universe begins at it's boundaries. Long ago, we learned about fire, initially by discovering which objects burned and which ones didn't. Later we arranged the tested objects by how well they burned and thus determined what properties of each object was influential in its' combustibility.

You will want to find some boundaries to your super heroine's telekinesis. Can she move objects viewed through clear glass. If so, what if the glass is only translucent? What if it is opaque? What if it is made of lead?

Continue to place boundaries between her mind and the object to be moved until you find someway to limit her power. Then, from the properties of those limiting barriers, you may be able to ferret out some previously unknown scientific premises.

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I would add to the other great ideas:

Attempt to trick, or deceive her power:

  • Apply variable resistance to the rotation and see what, if any, physiological response she has upon the application of resistance.

  • Lie about the nature of the object she is rotating and see if this affects her ability to rotate it.

  • Describe the location of an object to rotate but only allow her to see it through a video feed. Can she rotate it? What if the video feed is not actually of the object in the described location?

  • How does her power work on non-rigid objects? Can she rotate a string at a given point?

  • Can she rotate objects while she is being rotated? Can she rotate individual objects which is revolving around another object?

  • Try to break her focus while she is rotating in different ways? Will a sudden surprise or shock cause it to rotate faster or behave erratically, or does the force simply stop?

  • Can she fly by rotating air around her? Swim by rotating water? If not what devices could you create for her to utilize? Rotor blades to fly, etc. Could she capture villains simply by rotating their clothes around them? Or just throwing a rope at them and rotating it to ensnare them?

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As I understood the question, you are not interested in scientific research on her superpower per se, but want to use it as a tool to discover new laws of physics or falsify current theories or such like, i.e. your results should be independent of her, she is just a convenient tool to get at them.

For this, you would look at things that we are currently trying to accomplish and results are not yet perfect.

Can she accelerate very small things to considerable fractions of the speed of light? You say her power is not very strong, but what if you apply it to tiny things? That would allow you to do particle physics without the billion dollar accelerators. You might want to get some protective chambers around the experiment area, though.

Can she control plasma? If so, can you use her as a temporary containment field for a fusion experiment? We're currently doing not so well in that area, despite the task to be done ("keep the plasma in this area") being reasonably simple.

Then, of course, there are all kinds of experiments where being able to manipulate something without being exposed to it would be really, really useful. Think radioactive, toxic or both. You could discover new uses for Plutonium that we're not aware of because nobody wants to deal with the stuff. There are other substances from hell.

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MATH MATH MATH

Everything is about math. What you need is to find mathematical equations that describe her powers. Then you use those equations and compare them to what we have right now. Do they match to any theoretical work? It is very likely that her powers match up to something in theoretical physics. Something predicted but never observed. From there you may quickly be able to flesh out missing parts of physics and update our theories.

To go more into the math topics. As far as we understand we can describe reality with math. This means that if we come up with a mathematical model for something it may exist in our universe or it may not. We could have math describing other possible universes.
But nothing can happen that can't be described by math. So what theoretical physics does it they make up possible universes. Then the practical physicists do experiments to try to figure out which one of those universes is the one we live in. This is the hard part as it takes incredible amounts of energy to do these experiments, thus the LHC. There superhero experiments should quickly let us discard some models and support others, letting us make amazing breakthroughs.

So what I am really trying to say is that if her powers can be described by math, someone in theoretical physics probably already did it. They will be happy to know they is right.

If on the other hand her powers can't be described by math, then they would truly be magic. In that case we can probably just throw all our science books out.

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That she can't rotate herself is puzzling. Where does the angular momentum come from.

When she loses focus it stops? E.g. it didn't have any angular momentum? This implies that it was never moving but was teleported to a new location rotated from the previous one.

Is it easier to do two objects if they are rotated in opposite directions?

Does the mass of the object affect the speed of it's rotation?

Can she still not rotate herself if she is in a chair hung from a fine wire so that it takes very little energy to rotate?

Can she rotate things she sees in a mirror?

Can she rotate herself if she she sees herself in a mirror.

Repeat last two, but substitute video camera for mirror.

Does the effect go down with the real distance or the perceived distance.

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