Learn English – Is it possible to “defy the laws of physics”


Assuming that it's impossible to circumvent the laws of physics, is it possible to defy them?

That is, in order to defy something, do you necessarily have to have some success in resisting it, or can your defiance be totally futile?

Best Answer

First, let's take a look at the definition of defy:

  1. archaic : to challenge to combat
  2. : to challenge to do something considered impossible : dare
  3. : to confront with assured power of resistance : disregard <defy public opinion>
  4. : to resist attempts at : withstand <the paintings defy classification>

— source: Merriam-Webster

In most cases, the idiom defying the laws of physics appears to be using the second sense of the word. Consider these examples:

this superliminal spaceship defies the laws of physics

In this case, it appears that the phrase is to describe something which defies the conventional notion of physical reality. If it truly were possible to build such a spaceship, it wouldn't violating the fundamental nature of the universe, but it would change our understanding of it.

this gymnast's performance defies the laws of physics

In this case, it's a bit of hyperbole. It's well understood that the gymnast is not doing something truly physically impossible—unless she's levitating—but is merely presenting a performance that is so physically demanding, the speaker was amazed.

There are also contexts where it might be using the third sense of the word, for example:

my new model of quantum theory defies the laws of physics

Here, the speaker is means that his model presents a substantial challenge to the currently accepted laws of physics. In the future the new model might be accepted in favor of the current laws. Of course, the model is just an idea with no physical form, so it cannot do any defying by itself.

the action scenes in that movie defy the laws of physics

Here, the action scenes are described pejoratively as too unrealistic to be believable. The director is simply disregarding the laws of physics for the purpose of entertainment.