Thursday, May 21, 2009

Crazy Science

In his insightful book "The Trouble With Physics" Lee Smolin made the case that something has gone wrong with physics, the queen of science, over the last 40 years. In Smolin's view the last generation of effort in theoretical physics (at least those who study "fundamental physics") has stalled.

After centuries in which each generation uncovered some deeper and more elemental character of physical reality than the last (gravity, electromagnetism, statistical physics, relativity, quantum theory) the endeavor has lost its momentum. In the 40 years since the basic elements of the standard model of particle physics was put in place no deeper insight into the roots of the model have been discovered. Quantum Gravity, the holy grail of theoretical physics uniting the twin pillars of Einsteins' General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, remains elusive. Despite its elegance and mathematical insights String Theory has not yet lived up to its promise of a theory of everything. The values of the 20 constants, which the standard model demands be put in by hand, remain unexplained by a deeper law.

For Smolin the requirement of invisible higher dimensions, which form the hallmark of string theory ,is part of this failure. If you need to invent invisible realities to make a theory work then, he argues, you are not explaining, you are explaining away. The same point can be made about the ideas of the multiverse - the universe of unobservable other universes - which are now a standard feature in many cosmological models.

These "crazy" ideas of modern physics (extra dimensions, extra universes) make many physicists nervous. They sound so much like plot devises from a Star Trek movie. Where are the close ties to experiment that form the hallmark of empirical investigation? Shouldn't physics and all of science be about the facts of this world, not the mathematical imaginings of some other possible worlds?

These conundrums are part of the dissatisfaction that have led some scientists to step entirely outside the box and ask what are we missing? What basic cherished principle are we holding onto and, in the process, holding ourselves back. It is from this vantage point that some are asking if the idea of physical law itself must be revised. It is from this vantage point that some are willing to ask what would Law without Law look like?


  1. You'll have to help me out here- I'm working with a faint grasp on a bunch of this stuff.

    What if the unifying theory was centered on combining the way atoms work in mechanical systems and the way atoms work in living systems? Could the affect of livingness of a living system be involved at the quantum level more fundamentally than the 4 forces?

    I see the sciences of complexity et al as another attempt to get past the "wall" alongside others like string theorists et al who are trying to break through. And even in Complexity and Biology, I can see scientists who favor the aliveness aspect and speak of self-organization, while others are determined to keep things more Newtonian and mechanical.

    In either case, I see atoms that make up Michelangelo's David somehow behaving differently than the atoms that temporarily make up you and me.

  2. Adam, I think the last paragraph of your post is powerful. As I rummage around the links and the links of links, I've become amazed that in scientific culture, thinking "outside the box" can be lethal to one's career! It makes me wonder if Rationality is in the end, really a stalwart against fear and then posed as the Ultimate. How is it that any idea can be viewed as something threatening?

  3. Another way that I would parse some of the thinking that you are introducing through Smolin is to see an underlying question about a relationship between Math and Experiment: Or more to the point, how is a scientist who is willing to put his faith into Math different from a scientist who is only willing to put his faith into Experiment?

  4. Mike - Abandoning the idea of eternal timeless laws is definately in the heresy camp physics wise and I am not myself ready to sign on fully. I think we are definately in the position where we have to start questioning our metaphysics when it comes to these big of questions. The real issue is how to carry forward the scientific traditon if you don't buy into this particular metaphysical stance.

  5. Before us – if we are really going to accept an idea of a crisis in physics – is the need for a new definition of physics, and science. Physics, interestingly enough, seems to be bound to the twin sisters – and mistresses – of empiricism and verificationism. What is physics if it is doing more metaphysics? If new theories are more rooted in hypothetical ruminations – even if these ruminations are grounded in the contours of mathematics – can this truly be called physics/science?

    But perhaps we do need a paradigm shift. Perhaps we need to revisit what it means to be in the business of doing physics. I cannot imagine, however, such a paradigm shift that would allow for more metaphysical speculations in physics rather than hard, empirical investigations. Perhaps that is the problem itself: no doubt I need a paradigm shift in order to even entertain the notion!

    This is a mystery that seems to be caught betwixt our axiomatic understanding of what physics is and our lived out experience of everyday life. Physics, no doubt, seems to be rooted in the metaphysical project of ontology, nevertheless via empiricism. What does a physicist want more than to get at the root – and this is why physics in essence is radical (getting to the root) – and ground of reality itself? It is all about getting to the bottom of things; searching out the being and essence of all that is. But here is the mystery, and the conundrum: can we truly woo “physical” reality in such a way as to have it yield to us the mysteries we seek to elucidate? I guess a better question is what 'is' the physicist searching for when she/he is trying to understand the beginning and ending, the breadth and depth of the cosmos, if she/he is in fact “the universe thinking back on itself”? Perhaps the major issue is the dichotomies we fabricate when doing physics; perhaps there is no distinction, really, between experience and “physical reality.”

  6. What's wrong with simply saying we don't know enough and that therefore there are large gaps in our knowledge and that, as a consequence, the incomplete jigsaw puzzle of present knowledge does look rather crazy?

    The missing pieces will be filled in, given enough time and effort. And when that happens we will look at the resulting picture and say, ah yes, how simple, obvious and elegant. The mystery and the craziness will no longer be there.

    I am not arguing against speculation and conjecture. They are the necessary creative source of new hypotheses that we can test against reality. What I am against is elevating speculation and conjecture into some mysterious insights into reality that we can never test against reality.

    One could argue that we are inadequate observers that can never fill in some of the gaps so must resort to intelligent conjecture. That as a consequence our endeavours will reveal a world that looks crazy and mysterious. That may be so although I am of the opinion we are privileged observers.

    Whatever the case we have no choice but to behave as though we were privileged observers and persist in the belief that eventually our endeavours will reveal a world that makes sense to us.

  7. @joesph - I think you are dead on there. How much of the world do we get to know. Physicists are often naive realists and think our methods give us perfect transparency between what we can know and what truly exists (epistemology = ontology). Ever since quantum that link has been more suspect.

    How much do we need to include the observer in our thinking about the world?

  8. @Occastional - I like this line "That as a consequence our endeavours will reveal a world that looks crazy and mysterious. That may be so although I am of the opinion we are privileged observers."

    what do you mean "privileged observers".

    When you think about the details getting filled in with time, do you see it as an asymptotic process. Are there limits in our ability to describe?

  9. @Joeseph, occasional and Adam,

    I like the use of the word woo by Joseph: it made me think of the efficacy of things like poetry and art when it comes to understanding reality, and these disciplines don't even make the grade of "soft Science", "hard" science's durogatorily named sibling. There is something to talk about here that is larger than the scope of experimental method.

    Since being involved in this dialog over the past months, I'm coming to see a dynamic that seems fundamental to our understanding of reality: It's the invisible that gives form to the visible.

    Whether space; time; a molecular bond; evolution; a belief; or a group's beliefs that make a culture, without these formative invisibles, the visibles might not be able to matter. Or at least not matter as much as they do.

    The flip side though, is that the invisibles would remain invisible were it not for the visible to reveal them.

    I see our culture as being centered around science's cultural bias toward the material and counting the invisible as immaterial- a word that our culture uses to denote irrelevance. I think scientific method needs to remain robust; science just needs to recognize that reality is comprised of the invisible and visible existing in a polar tension: a structure common to all dynamic systems. Remove one of the poles and the system fails doesn't it? Or at least disease ensues.

    I like Adam's use of the phrase, "spiritual endeavor". I would like to see it as the name to encompass the invisible portion of reality which may or may not include ideas of god. And then in recognition of the visible portion, as the companion in this polar tension, I'd like to see the phrase, "scientific endeavor" put in use.

    The unifying structure in this is the "human endeavor", and a breakdown of its underlying dynamic structure of the scientific and spiritual endeavors in their polar tension, will result in a breakdown of the human endeavor.

    It just seems to me that if we felt ourselves existing in a privileged state of woo rather than as landed conquerers, we might better see into the nuances, and ask, "what kind of seeing does a thing require of us", as opposed to, "how can we force a thing to be seen in a way that we want to see?"

  10. Adam, the quick answer to 'privileged observers' is that the way we think is the way the universe works. This is what we mean, for example, when we prefer simple, elegant solutions; because they are usually right. It need not have been that way and it is hard to understand how a bunch of hunter-gathers acquired such powerful cognitive machinery. Of course if we are indeed privileged observers that raises a whole new set of questions about the why of it.

    Yes, I do see the filling in of the details as an asymptotic process, but only at the boundaries. We are only now beginning to perceive what we think might be the boundaries. I think the scientific world is going to have a great deal of trouble accepting that there are boundaries. Examples of what could be boundaries are 1) the Big Bang, we cannot see past it. It may be a genuine information horizon (please excuse my naive use of the term), 2) the origin of our laws of science, 3) that we have fine tuning that we cannot explain (in the verificationist sense).

    I fully expect that further science will reveal and delineate the outer boundaries of what it is possible to know. But there is more knowledge beyond that boundary that will forever be inaccessible to us, not because we can't understand it but because that is the way the universe is.

    I distinguish between boundary knowledge, which will be asymptotic, and interiour knowledge, where we will progressively fill in the gaps. For example I see the failure to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity as an internal gap problem waiting for Einstein's successor.

    Another point of view is that there is another, deeper level of reality that is only vaguely, dimly and occasionally accessible to us when we plumb the depths of our own consciousness and experience. The very thought of it is anathema to the Western tradition of rationality. And yet there is a consistency and persistence in mystical experiences that make it unwise to reject the possibility out of hand.

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  12. It could be that what is amiss is not physics as such but epistemology, the theory of knowledge being use or relied upon, in particular the prominent role "logical possibility" or "conceivability" plays in theories. (Another clue is wherever you see the term "might be" deployed.) I agree that it would be much better to admit to ignorance or partial knowledge than doing all this concocting of near fantasy science. (Just watch and listen to some of the programs on the Science Channel about black holes or the big bang and you'll see what I mean.)