The following is a list of notable unsolved problems grouped into broad areas of physics.
Some of the major unsolved problems in physics are theoretical, meaning that existing theories seem incapable of explaining a certain observed phenomenon or experimental result. The others are experimental, meaning that there is a difficulty in creating an experiment to test a proposed theory or investigate a phenomenon in greater detail.
There are still some questions beyond the Standard Model of physics, such as the strong CP problem, neutrino mass, matter–antimatter asymmetry, and the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Another problem lies within the mathematical framework of the Standard Model itself—the Standard Model is inconsistent with that of general relativity, to the point that one or both theories break down under certain conditions (for example within known spacetime singularities like the Big Bang and the centres of black holes beyond the event horizon).
Cosmology and general relativity
- Problem of time: In quantum mechanics time is a classical background parameter and the flow of time is universal and absolute. In general relativity time is one component of four-dimensional spacetime, and the flow of time changes depending on the curvature of spacetime and the spacetime trajectory of the observer. How can these two concepts of time be reconciled?
- Cosmic inflation: Is the theory of cosmic inflation in the very early universe correct, and, if so, what are the details of this epoch? What is the hypothetical inflaton scalar field that gave rise to this cosmic inflation? If inflation happened at one point, is it self-sustaining through inflation of quantum-mechanical fluctuations, and thus ongoing in some extremely distant place?
- Horizon problem: Why is the distant universe so homogeneous when the Big Bang theory seems to predict larger measurable anisotropies of the night sky than those observed? Cosmological inflation is generally accepted as the solution, but are other possible explanations such as a variable speed of light more appropriate?
- Origin and future of the universe: How did the conditions for anything to exist arise? Is the universe heading towards a Big Freeze, a Big Rip, a Big Crunch, or a Big Bounce? Or is it part of an infinitely recurring cyclic model?
- Size of universe: The diameter of the observable universe is about 93 billion light-years, but what is the size of the whole universe?
- Baryon asymmetry: Why is there far more matter than antimatter in the observable universe? (This may be solved due to the apparent asymmetry in neutrino-antineutrino oscillations.)
- Cosmological constant problem: Why does the zero-point energy of the vacuum not cause a large cosmological constant? What cancels it out?
Estimated distribution of dark matter and dark energy in the universe
- Dark matter: What is the identity of dark matter? Is it a particle? Is it the lightest superpartner (LSP)? Or, do the phenomena attributed to dark matter point not to some form of matter but actually to an extension of gravity?
- Dark energy: What is the cause of the observed accelerated expansion (de Sitter phase) of the universe? Why is the energy density of the dark energy component of the same magnitude as the density of matter at present when the two evolve quite differently over time; could it be simply that we are observing at exactly the right time? Is dark energy a pure cosmological constant or are models of quintessence such as phantom energy applicable?
- Dark flow: Is a non-spherically symmetric gravitational pull from outside the observable universe responsible for some of the observed motion of large objects such as galactic clusters in the universe?
- Axis of evil: Some large features of the microwave sky at distances of over 13 billion light years appear to be aligned with both the motion and orientation of the solar system. Is this due to systematic errors in processing, contamination of results by local effects, or an unexplained violation of the Copernican principle?
- Shape of the universe: What is the 3-manifold of comoving space, i.e. of a comoving spatial section of the universe, informally called the "shape" of the universe? Neither the curvature nor the topology is presently known, though the curvature is known to be "close" to zero on observable scales. The cosmic inflation hypothesis suggests that the shape of the universe may be unmeasurable, but, since 2003, Jean-Pierre Luminet, et al., and other groups have suggested that the shape of the universe may be the Poincaré dodecahedral space. Is the shape unmeasurable; the Poincaré space; or another 3-manifold?
- The largest structures in the universe are larger than expected. Current cosmological models say there should be very little structure on scales larger than a few hundred million light years across, due to the expansion of the universe trumping the effect of gravity. But the Sloan Great Wall is 1.38 billion light-years in length. And the largest structure currently known, the Hercules–Corona Borealis Great Wall, is up to 10 billion light-years in length. Are these actual structures or random density fluctuations? If they are real structures, they contradict the 'End of Greatness' hypothesis which asserts that at a scale of 300 million light-years structures seen in smaller surveys are randomized to the extent that the smooth distribution of the universe is visually apparent.
- Extra dimensions: Does nature have more than four spacetime dimensions? If so, what is their size? Are dimensions a fundamental property of the universe or an emergent result of other physical laws? Can we experimentally observe evidence of higher spatial dimensions?
Astronomy and astrophysics
- Solar cycle: How does the Sun generate its periodically reversing large-scale magnetic field? How do other solar-like stars generate their magnetic fields, and what are the similarities and differences between stellar activity cycles and that of the Sun? What caused the Maunder Minimum and other grand minima, and how does the solar cycle recover from a minima state?
- Coronal heating problem: Why is the Sun's corona (atmosphere layer) so much hotter than the Sun's surface? Why is the magnetic reconnection effect many orders of magnitude faster than predicted by standard models?
- Astrophysical jet: Why do only certain accretion discs surrounding certain astronomical objects emit relativistic jets along their polar axes? Why are there quasi-periodic oscillations in many accretion discs? Why does the period of these oscillations scale as the inverse of the mass of the central object? Why are there sometimes overtones, and why do these appear at different frequency ratios in different objects?
- Diffuse interstellar bands: What is responsible for the numerous interstellar absorption lines detected in astronomical spectra? Are they molecular in origin, and if so which molecules are responsible for them? How do they form?
- Supermassive black holes: What is the origin of the M–sigma relation between supermassive black hole mass and galaxy velocity dispersion? How did the most distant quasars grow their supermassive black holes up to 1010 solar masses so early in the history of the universe?
Rotation curve of a typical spiral galaxy: predicted (A) and observed (B). Can the discrepancy between the curves be attributed to dark matter?
- Kuiper cliff: Why does the number of objects in the Solar System's Kuiper belt fall off rapidly and unexpectedly beyond a radius of 50 astronomical units?
- Flyby anomaly: Why is the observed energy of satellites flying by planetary bodies sometimes different by a minute amount from the value predicted by theory?
- Galaxy rotation problem: Is dark matter responsible for differences in observed and theoretical speed of stars revolving around the centre of galaxies, or is it something else?
- Supernovae: What is the exact mechanism by which an implosion of a dying star becomes an explosion?
- p-nuclei: What astrophysical process is responsible for the nucleogenesis of these rare isotopes?
- Ultra-high-energy cosmic ray: Why is it that some cosmic rays appear to possess energies that are impossibly high, given that there are no sufficiently energetic cosmic ray sources near the Earth? Why is it that (apparently) some cosmic rays emitted by distant sources have energies above the Greisen–Zatsepin–Kuzmin limit?
- Rotation rate of Saturn: Why does the magnetosphere of Saturn exhibit a (slowly changing) periodicity close to that at which the planet's clouds rotate? What is the true rotation rate of Saturn's deep interior?
- Origin of magnetar magnetic field: What is the origin of magnetar magnetic field?
- Large-scale anisotropy: Is the universe at very large scales anisotropic, making the cosmological principle an invalid assumption? The number count and intensity dipole anisotropy in radio, NRAO VLA Sky Survey (NVSS) catalogue is inconsistent with the local motion as derived from cosmic microwave background and indicate an intrinsic dipole anisotropy. The same NVSS radio data also shows an intrinsic dipole in polarization density and degree of polarization in the same direction as in number count and intensity. There are several other observations revealing large-scale anisotropy. The optical polarization from quasars shows polarization alignment over a very large scale of Gpc. The cosmic-microwave-background data shows several features of anisotropy, which are not consistent with the Big Bang model.
- Age–metallicity relation in the Galactic disk: Is there a universal age–metallicity relation (AMR) in the Galactic disk (both "thin" and "thick" parts of the disk)? Although in the local (primarily thin) disk of the Milky Way there is no evidence of a strong AMR, a sample of 229 nearby "thick" disk stars has been used to investigate the existence of an age–metallicity relation in the Galactic thick disk, and indicate that there is an age–metallicity relation present in the thick disk. Stellar ages from asteroseismology confirm the lack of any strong age–metallicity relation in the Galactic disc.
- The lithium problem: Why is there a discrepancy between the amount of lithium-7 predicted to be produced in Big Bang nucleosynthesis and the amount observed in very old stars?
- Ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs): What powers X-ray sources that are not associated with active galactic nuclei but exceed the Eddington limit of a neutron star or stellar black hole? Are they due to intermediate-mass black holes? Some ULXs are periodic, suggesting non-isotropic emission from a neutron star. Does this apply to all ULXs? How could such a system form and remain stable?
- Fast radio bursts (FRBs): What causes these transient radio pulses from distant galaxies, lasting only a few milliseconds each? Why do some FRBs repeat at unpredictable intervals, but most do not? Dozens of models have been proposed, but none have been widely accepted.
Condensed matter physics
Magnetoresistance in a u = 8/5 fractional quantum Hall state.