We had the world on a string

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I'm madder than a quark that's been mistaken for a lepton by the strong force! What's got my neutrinos in a bind? The backlash against string theory, that's what. Not that I have any attachment to this theoretical hocus pocus, but I'm going to be pretty steamed if what was supposedly the dominant physical theory of the last two decades turns out to be as short-lived as a 12-minute neutron. Over the years I've read at least a dozen articles hatin' on string theory and lamenting that you can't have a career in physics unless you subscribe to it. And I've read exactly zero articles claiming that string theory is just jake. Maybe that's just selection bias on my part, but I'm beginning to think this is one of these so-popular-nobody-likes-it things, like the way serial music supposedly dominates all musical composition.

With the double publication of Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law and Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, we seem to have reached a turning point for the theory of vibrating strings harmonizing the g-forces of the universe (or is it g-strings harmonizing the vibrators of the multiverse?). But this is a backlash that's been bulding up strong force for some time. Slate, a regular anti-string theory clearinghouse, has been covering the problems with the theory for years. Case Western Physics chairman Lawrence M. Krauss has been talking smack about string theory, and he can expand for half-hours about what a mathematically ingenious dead end it is.

What does it all mean? I never understood the concept in the first place, and passages like this one from Jim Holt's recent string-cutting don't inspire confidence:

At the latest count, the number of string theories is estimated to be something like one followed by five hundred zeros. "Why not just take this situation as a reductio ad absurdum?" Smolin asks. But some string theorists are unabashed: each member of this vast ensemble of alternative theories, they observe, describes a different possible universe, one with its own "local weather" and history. What if all these possible universes actually exist? Perhaps every one of them bubbled into being just as our universe did. (Physicists who believe in such a "multiverse" sometimes picture it as a cosmic champagne glass frothing with universe-bubbles.) Most of these universes will not be biofriendly, but a few will have precisely the right conditions for the emergence of intelligent life-forms like us. The fact that our universe appears to be fine-tuned to engender life is not a matter of luck. Rather, it is a consequence of the "anthropic principle": if our universe weren't the way it is, we wouldn't be here to observe it. Partisans of the anthropic principle say that it can be used to weed out all the versions of string theory that are incompatible with our existence, and so rescue string theory from the problem of non-uniqueness.

Copernicus may have dislodged man from the center of the universe, but the anthropic principle seems to restore him to that privileged position. Many physicists despise it; one has depicted it as a "virus" infecting the minds of his fellow-theorists.

spockbeard.jpg

I'm opposed to anything that increases man's importance in the universe, but there's one aspect of string theory that I'll be sorry to lose: the many universes. This one obviously sucks, but it was always nice to think there might be a better model out there (up there? over there? in there?) somewhere. What I'll regret most is that one of these egghead ideas will die out before I ever had a clue what it was about, undoubtedly to be replaced by another egghead theory I can't figure out. Hey, you knucklehead experimental physicists! Do some explaining. Is string theory out? Was it ever in? Does it matter?

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  1. Schrodinger’s Cat is dead. Get over it.

  2. When string theory helps me find a copy of the “War of the Superbikes” CD for under 20 dollars I’ll care.

    So, as a practical matter, I would think that the truth or falsity of string theory has zero effect for non-grant-grubbing non-physicists.

  3. I bring good news! You don’t need string theory to support a multiverse. See, e.g.,
    The Fabric of Reality
    .

  4. Apostate Jew,

    Is this what you’re speaking of? If so, then you kinda owe string theory an apology., because I never would have looked for it for you if it weren’t for this page about string theory.

  5. Thanks a lot, Tim.
    I wish you had told me this a month ago, before I started reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe.

  6. I don’t really understand string theory. But this mind-bending flash animation is the best I can offer; if nothing else, it’s very interesting.

    Imagining the Tenth Dimension

  7. One thing is certain: Brian Greene is a dillhole.

    That PBS series was lightweight fluff and reeked of B.S. How many friggin’ times in ten minutes can you repeat the same goddam thing? “Newtonian physics works only on the large scale. Quantum physics works only on the small scale. What we need is a theory of everything…” over and over and over…

  8. String theory lacks elegance, despite what its proponents say. My gut tells me that if and when string theory becomes useful (i.e., can be tested by experiment), it’ll also get much simpler.

    I’ll publish my unified field theory right after I patent my cold fusion process.

  9. I would think that the truth or falsity of string theory has zero effect for non-grant-grubbing non-physicists.

    String theory is irrelevant even for 99% of grant-grubbing physicists.

    String theory is an effort to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity. Quantum mechanics works astoundingly well at making testable predictions concerning all sorts of microscopic phenomena. And general relativity works pretty well at describing gravitational phenomena on very large scales.

    The motivation for string theory is that the theories make contradictory predictions for gravitational phenomena on very, very, very short length scales. So there’s a contradiction between two theories that both seem to work. Naturally, some physicists want to sort out that contradiction.

    The problem is that the contradictions come about under circumstances that are way, way, way, WAY beyond what experiments can probe for now (and for the foreseeable future).

    Most physicists don’t give a crap about string theory. I spend my days on optics and biophysics. I have friends who spend their time on colloids, fluid dynamics, quantum computation, semiconductor materials, and lots of other things that you can actually study in, like, real experiments.

    Yet somehow everybody acts as though string theory is THE frontier of physics. First, it’s not even really physics, since it isn’t amenable to experimental tests. And even if it was somehow testable, it would be only one of many frontiers.

    Some of the critics, like Lee Smolin, are just as guilty of exaggerating the importance of string theory. The reality is that if the string theorists all quit and did something else the rest of us could go about our careers quite nicely. There are plenty of other people who are perfectly capable of teaching quantum field theory and general relativity, and we could all use the extra office space.

    Also, keep in mind that many of the critics (like Lee Smolin) are working on other theories of quantum gravity that are just as difficult to test. Now, I’ll admit that Lee Smolin strives mightily to make his theories testable, which is more than can be said for a lot of the quantum gravity people. And a few of the quantum gravity people are awful even by the standards of quantum gravity (e.g. the people who talk about the “landscape” of possible theories and suggest that we abandon falsifiability).

    Still, at the end of the day, quantum gravity is irrelevant to the rest of physics.

    Now, I should back-pedal a bit: A little bit of experimental work has been done on quantum gravity. People have studied neutrons falling in gravitational fields, and verified that their wavelengths decrease as they speed up, as predicted by quantum mechanics. (They do this with interference of waves.) They have studied neutrons bouncing above a surface in a gravitational field, and verified that the energies and frequencies of the bouncing motion are exactly what quantum mechanics predicts.

    However, these experiments, while very, very cool (the measurements are quite delicate and hence impressive), don’t have any real bearing on string theory. These experiments probe length scales of millimeters or longer, typically. Quantum mechanics and general relativity (which reduces to Newton’s theory of gravity under the conditions of these experiments) are quite compatible on these scales. You have to get down to the scale of the Planck length (10^-35 meters, or less than a millionth of a billionth of a billionth of the radius of a hydrogen atom) for string theory to matter.

  10. Isildur…great animation.

    I don;t pretend to understand the details, but I take it that all the dimensions are multiples of our well-worn three…with folding every third the key feature of the 4th, 7th and 10th?

    …and that when you get to a point that encompasses every infinite time-space-folding possibility for every possible time-space-folding, well, you reach a deadend…so God must be yucking it up in the 10th dimension.

  11. Is string theory related to conspiracy theory? Does it have anything to do with looking for strings (threads) that link events that many (the duped)think are just coincidentally (ha!)associated in time? All this current debunking of string theory makes me think there’s almost certainly something to it. Always be suspicious when powerful people start insisting that something doesn’t make sense. Making sense is a big bugaboo.

  12. I wouldn’t say that the people lining up against string theory are all that powerful.

    The problem is not that string theory doesn’t make sense. Lots of things in physics don’t make sense, like, say, relativity and quantum mechanics. But relativity and quantum mechanics are both supported by a whole bunch of data.

    The problem with string theory is an absence of data.

  13. But without string theory, how will Buckaroo Bonzai have his many adventures across the 8th dimension?

  14. Thoreau:

    Your serious, respectful reply to my contention that powerful people are opposed to string theory is completely bonkers. Welcome aboard.

  15. We share the same biology
    Regardless of ideology
    What might save us, me, and you
    Is that the Russians love their children too

  16. So how does the Time Cube fit into all of this?

    just askin’…

  17. It’s turtles all the way down.

  18. Oh, relax, Kansas. String theory isn’t real science. You guys would love it!

  19. “I’m opposed to anything that increases man’s importance in the universe”

    Did I just come across the parallel universe hitandrun?

  20. Anyone who suggests abandoning falsifiability should be strung up by their thumbs until the furious shambling corpse of Sir Karl can deal with them… and while zombie-Popper is roaming the Earth exacting his vengeance, he can take care of the anthropic principle people too.

  21. Whoa! Best. Thread. EVER!

    I am however compelled to take issue with Tim’s contention. The multiverse thesis, is the ugliest, stupidest, lamest piece of theoretical shit ever put forward by respectable scientists. It’s noting but a plea for external validation from the mathematically illiterate insipions that populate the planet. Straight out of science fiction, the multiverse serves no ends other than to say, “Look, science is cool” to people too ignorant to grasp Newton’s laws of motion. Worst of all, it’s all vanity. There’s no need to make science cool, because science is already cool. Anyone who doesn’t think so isn’t going to change their mind over evil Spock.

    Another nit:
    Lots of things in physics don’t make sense, like, say, relativity and quantum mechanics.

    I understand all those words, but that sentence makes no sense. Both relativity and quantum mechanics make near perfect sense. That’s why they work so well at modeling nature. At most, you can say that they are counter intuitive to people who don’t think very hard.

  22. Pro Liberatate:

    “String theory lacks elegance, despite what its proponents say. My gut tells me that if and when string theory becomes useful (i.e., can be tested by experiment), it’ll also get much simpler.”

    Let me just say that I have never, ever, understood these arguments from elegance. I mean, I appreciate stories about Einstein and Maxwell’s equations as much as the next guy, but theoretical particle physics is just damn ugly. The Standard Model – which is the undisputed theory all of these guys are trying to extend — is the one of the hackiest things in physics. But it works. It works really well. When theories are new most people think they’re ugly — then a generation down the line we start teaching undergraduates the theory and suddenly all sorts of simple models and elegant arguments emerge. Consider where quantum mechanics stood in the academic curriculum in 1900 versus 2000.

    thoreau:

    “String theory is irrelevant even for 99% of grant-grubbing physicists.”

    and later

    “Most physicists don’t give a crap about string theory. I spend my days on optics and biophysics. I have friends who spend their time on colloids, fluid dynamics, quantum computation, semiconductor materials, and lots of other things that you can actually study in, like, real experiments.”

    No offense, thoreau, but my guess would be that 99% of physicists also don’t give a crap about biophysics. The fact is, given the breadth of physics specialties these days, it is very easy to find a rich vein of research and work it for a whole career — which is fine. But your statement really has to do with specialization, not with string theory per se. It’s equivalent to an art history major suggesting that 99% of art historians don’t give a crap about Japanese prints or Canadian art. That doesn’t mean Hokusai or the Group of Seven aren’t worthy of study.

    I should be clear — I, too, am a working scientist and, without a doubt, string theory has absolutely no significance for anything I’m doing. But so what? As you noted, “[s]tring theory is an effort to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity.” You know what? That sounds like physics to me. Now I’m certainly not going to claim it is necessarily good physics, but it is an attempt to resolve a knotty fundamental problem in theoretical physics, not a massive scientific Sokal hoax.

    And I don’t mind that sometimes you have a theory that can’t (currently) be tested experimentally, any more than I mind experimental results that can’t (yet) be explained theoretically. Theory and experiment area rarely in perfect sync. My prior reading of Woit is that he feels string theory is pretty much divorced from experiment at this point, which is why he has suggested it should just turn itself into a branch of mathematics — an interesting branch, too. But then I read reviews of his book like Aaron Bergman’s (to be found at:http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/string/archives/000898.html) and I think that at least some string theorists are working with an eye towards experimental results. But such a reconciliation takes time.

    And that is why, in the end, this is all about institutional resources. Woit and Smolin feel that string theory has run its course, and funding and jobs need to be opened up to other theories. They feel it is monopolizing resources and driving graduate research to a degree out of proportion with its merits. I will note that Sean Carroll makes a nicely libertarian response to that argument at:http://cosmicvariance.com/2006/06/19/the-string-theory-backlash/. Namely, maybe a whole bunch of people are working on string theory because it is actually a promising theory. I mean, knowing something about academic politics, I’m willing to believe that academic fiefdoms certainly exist, but taken to its limit Woit and Smolin’s arguments could begin to look like Vast String Conspiracy. What is interesting to me is that the physics subcommunity we’re talking about is so small that such a conspiracy is not implausible — particularly because of the arxiv oriented publishing habits of the string theorists, of which I heartily disapprove — but still, are theoretical physics grad students really being brainwashed into pursuing string theory? I have yet to hear from any physics grad student who felt peer pressured into pursuing string theory as opposed to (say) loop quantum gravity.

    It seems to me that Woit and Smolin are physicists who have written polemics, when what is required to make a convincing argument about the string theory monopoly (if it exists) is an institutional history written by historian of science or, even better, a sociologist. I’m not even sure how one would parse the numbers to determine whether string theorists are receiving more than their “fair share” of funding, but again, this is exactly the type of debate libertarian types would like to leave to the marketplace of ideas.

    With all that said, polemics are fun, and they are a valid way to shake things up in a community. But it is strange to have all these string theory books out there — and selling relatively well. And this leads me to my final observation. First you suggest that:

    “Most physicists don’t give a crap about string theory.”

    only to follow a moment later with

    “Yet somehow everybody acts as though string theory is THE frontier of physics.”

    Who is this “everybody” you refer to? It’s surely not physicists, according to you. It’s just ordinary folks. And if they’re interested in string theory, more power to them. If the debate if overblown maybe people will learn that and start spending their time reading about biophysics instead; in the same vein I hope one day people will realize that Foley-gate was less important than the detainee act. But people’s understanding of science is always going to be partial, and it is always going to be oriented towards cool things, even if those things are not representative of the field as a whole — a really large number of physicists don’t work on anything involving the words/prefixes “string”, “quantum”, or “nano”, for example. While I am always willing to correct people’s skewed views of physics whenever the issue comes up, I don’t feel the need to lecture people on what’s “really” important. Which is why I do not understand why people who have no personal or professional stake in theoretical particle physics get so worked up over string theory.

    Apologies if my arguments goes incoherent. I’m all high on cold medicine at the moment.

    Anon

  23. Warren:

    “Both relativity and quantum mechanics make near perfect sense. That’s why they work so well at modeling nature.”

    They don’t make perfect sense at all scales. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?

    Anon

  24. peachy:

    “Anyone who suggests abandoning falsifiability should be strung up by their thumbs until the furious shambling corpse of Sir Karl can deal with them… and while zombie-Popper is roaming the Earth exacting his vengeance, he can take care of the anthropic principle people too.”

    I don’t really disagree with this, but I have often wondered when Popper became so important to some physicists. Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend all offer alternative visions of scientific progress, several of which are much closer to the working practice of real scientists. And I’m not even that aware of the work of more recent philosophers of science like Peter Galison, Stephen Toulmin, or Lisa Simp-, er, Nancy Cartwright. Most working scientists don’t think about Popper at all, but the small number that do tend to think about him a great deal — but I’ve never understood why he’s that much more enticing than, say, Feyerabend.

    Anon

  25. Anon,

    Well yes, that would be the overarching point of this thread. But I don’t think that was the context thoreau was using it. I understood him to mean the ideas didn’t make sense even where they worked extremely well. Which is self-contradictory to my mind.

    Also, I think you are missing one of the more important aspects of string hate. It’s not just that it’s untestable, it’s that it doesn’t look like science. It looks like philosophy dressed up as science. But of course the history of science makes that a feature. What are the great triumphs of theory if not ideas deemed heresy by the establishment on first publication?

    I’m nowhere near educated enough judge the merits of string theory, but I’m throwing in with the naysayers. There’s something about the smug of the proponents that rubs me wrong.

    Another theory I never liked, Birds evolved from dinosaurs. I know that ten years ago there was an active backlash to this one. Has it become official dogma? Are there still respectable dissenters?

  26. I’ll believe whatever Art Bell tells me to believe on this issue.

  27. For an alternative to string theory and standard Quantum Mechanics, see the theory of Classical Quantum Mechanics at: http://www.blacklightpower.com/ .

    A sampling of CQM’s claims:
    – Physics took a wrong turn about 100 years ago. We need to go back and take a different path.
    – Hydrogen can be a major (non-nuclear) source of energy.
    – Negative gravity is possible and can be harnessed to drive starships.
    – There was no Big Bang. The Universe oscillates in size with a period of about one trillion years.

    BlackLight Power has raised $25 million of venture capital to develop the theory and applications of CQM.

  28. “I understand all those words, but that sentence makes no sense. Both relativity and quantum mechanics make near perfect sense. That’s why they work so well at modeling nature. At most, you can say that they are counter intuitive to people who don’t think very hard.”

    That statement reminds me of those professors that write an impossibly long equation on the board the first day of class as if they’re saying, “Look what I teach now, Mommmy.” Meanwhile, every student in the class is thinking “Most of those variables will be constants, and if they’re not, ode45 will do the legwork. Nice try, douchebag.”

    Having trouble thinking of some smart person who didn’t think quantum made any sense? How about Albert Einstein?

  29. That blacklightpower site is actually … pretty f’ing cool. I’m not really capable of understanding all the cosmology stuff, but I used to do energy research and can see what’s going on there. Basically, they claim to have developed a catalytic process to drop the H electron to a (theoretically impossible) lower energy state, thereby releasing heat. Apparently, a university in the Netherlands has validated some results. Of course, I’m still skeptical.

    Thoreau and anon, I’d be interested to know what your take on it is.

  30. Something “making sense” is a developed skill. Someone with no physics training can predict, qualitatively, the answer to a classical mechanics problem, because everyone’s used to the idea of forces and masses from their everyday life. If I tell you that you throw two balls, and you throw one harder than the other, it makes sense to you that the faster one goes further because you’ve *done* this 10,000 times during baseball games or whatever so your brain absolutely knows it’s true. This isn’t true of quantum mechanics–you have no experience with the quantum mechanical world so your brain hasn’t had the opportunity to develop any intuition.

    Quantum mechanics makes its own kind of sense. You run the equations, you get correct answers. It’s just not sensible to people who haven’t worked with it. However, after you do a few years of quantum mechanics and deal with quantum mechanical systems regularly you develop that same intuition about quantum mechanics that non-physicists have about classical mechanics and it all starts to “feel” right and sensible, and you can make a statement about quantum mechanics like “of course an impurity in the crystal will trap an electron with quantized hydrogen-like energy levels” and it makes just as much sense to you and everyone around you as if you’d said “of course if you throw the ball harder it will go further.”

    (Solid state physicist btw)

  31. vinc, can I put you on to work on making sense of that blacklightpower site?

    I used to work with a couple people that had the requisite knowledge to make sense of it in a reasonable amount of time, but no more.

  32. Warren:

    Another theory I never liked, Birds evolved from dinosaurs. I know that ten years ago there was an active backlash to this one. Has it become official dogma? Are there still respectable dissenters?

    There is no body with the power to make it “official dogma” but it now appears to be the overwhelming consensus among paleontologists, especially those who are experts in dinosaurs.

    The case has been increasingly bolstered by recent discoveries from China especially, of fossils that have both dinosaurlike and birdlike features (often including feathers) to such a degree that it is difficult to definitely classify them as one and not the other.

    In fact, there is now a theory that the family (I use this term loosely) of dinosaurs that includes Velociraptor (famous from Jurassic Park, although the movie got the shape of the head wrong and depict the animal as two to four times bigger than the real Velociraptor ever got) are actually flightless birds.

    The reason for this is that Velociraptor and its closest relatives have several anatomical features that make them more like modern birds than the first recognized bird, Archaeopteryx — even though Archaeopteryx lived earlier in time than Velociraptor.
    Also, several of the more-birdlike features possessed by Velociraptor and its relatives seem to be related to flying ability.

    No one is suggesting that Velociraptor could fly itself, but rather that a flying descendent of Archaeopteryx, more birdlike but still retaining its teeth and foreclaws, lost its ability to fly and gave rise to the Velociraptor.

    One of the most vociferous and vocal opponents of the “birds are dinosaurs” theory is Alan Feduccia. He is an ornithologist, not a paleontologist — knows lots about birds, maybe not so much about dinosaurs.

    Lots of paleontologists and lay students of paleontology hang out at the Dinosaur Mailing List of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History ( dml.cmnh.org ) and they periodically criticize Feduccia’s reasoning and research. I’m not a pro in the field, but they’ve convinced me.

  33. No lies, the multiverse theory seems to me to be no more nor no less valid an explanation than Intelligent Design.

  34. Anon; I’m familiar with Popper and not the others because – unlike pretty much everyone else in this thread – I’m a humanities geek rather than a scientist of some variety. Besides, I think “zombie-Popper” has a bit of a ring to it, you know?

  35. “double publication”

    Is that anything like double penetration?

  36. Regarding stuff making sense: You took my statement a bit too seriously. My point was that even if something is hard to understand conceptually, if it works then, well, it works.

    Regarding experiments, it’s not just that string theory is beyond current experimental capabilities. It’s that string theory is beyond even conceivable experimental capabilities.

    Still, that might be a forgivable sin if string theory at least remains testable in principle. But now some of the leaders in the field (e.g. Susskind) start talking about the multiverse and hint that falsifiability shouldn’t matter. That’s when you cross the line from highly speculative science to non-science.

    Some string theorists are indeed trying to do physics, but if the field shows no potential for experimental testing, and a few leaders are starting to abandon falsifiability, well, you have to worry a bit.

    So I don’t give a damn about their projects, but I do give a damn about their standards.

  37. The idea that there are different outcomes (universes) that actually exist fits well with QM with or without string theory. If at the quantum level it’s all probabilities until fixed at measurement it’s perfectly reasonable that other parallel outcomes are happening and so on and so on.

    I am perfectly happy with the multiverse, thank you very much… It’s TIME I have a problem with.

  38. Warren said:

    “Also, I think you are missing one of the more important aspects of string hate. It’s not just that it’s untestable, it’s that it doesn’t look like science. It looks like philosophy dressed up as science. But of course the history of science makes that a feature. What are the great triumphs of theory if not ideas deemed heresy by the establishment on first publication?”

    First of all, the Bergman link above suggests testability is not out of the question. So does the Carroll link, if you follow it a little deeper. I know Woit would disagree, and I, like you, am not in a position to thoroughly analyze the competing claims.

    Second of all, you think string theory looks like the history of science? Based on reading what? String theory is one of the most equation-heavy scientific fields I know. I think you are confusing the popularizations (by Greene, for example) with the actual theory. In addition, there does seem to be a great deal of parallel discussion in the field (parallel to the equation generation) about what the equations might mean and how they might be interpreted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Quantum mechanics went through this same thing at a more drawn out pace, and it is no worse a theory for it.

    “I’m nowhere near educated enough judge the merits of string theory, but I’m throwing in with the naysayers. There’s something about the smug of the proponents that rubs me wrong.”

    See, here’s what I was getting at earlier. Just because someone is smug doesn’t mean they’re wrong. In fact, my guess is that thoreau would agree with me that a sad fact of graduate school existence is the realization that utter jackasses can still be capable scientists. It’s a sobering discovery. If you’re lucky it precedes choosing your advisor.

    Full disclosure: While poking around a few string theory links yesterday, I discovered that an old high school friend is now an up-and-coming string theorists. He’s one of the nicest guys I know. Do I get to believe the theory now?

    Anon

  39. The string theorists have become entranced by the siren song of their symbols and have lost their connection to the open sea. I see here no improvement over my theory.

  40. If all this wheel spinning with string theory leads us to some useful technological advance or at least a better understanding of the universe, fine. If, not, consign it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

    Just from a philosophical perspective and not a scientific one, I think we’ll find an underlying theory to explain the way the universe works. Our theories seem to have a hodgepodge nature to them because we’ve crafted artificial (i.e., “wrong” in ultimate explanation) constructs to deal with certain situations–constructs that usually work. String theorists probably believe the same thing, recalling that we still use Newtonian physics for many situations, even though it’s “wrong”. I guess what we’re really looking for is God’s algorithm 🙂 If the string theorists are at all correct, God is into really complicated math.

    Naturally, the universe may actually be a hodgepodge of laws that can’t be pinned down effectively. I don’t think that’s the case, but, of course, that’s just talk–who the heck knows? However, I do tend to believe that we’re nowhere near the “end of science” or even the “end of physics”.

    Thales, it’s not water, it’s air. Water–ha!

  41. Mick and Berry:

    BlackLight Power is a known purveyor of pseudoscience. Pay them no mind.

  42. thoreau’s brain is so big that I actually get a headache trying to envision the theoretical geographical area involved.

    Thanks for stopping in to answer Tim Cavanaugh’s challenge: “Hey, you knucklehead experimental physicists! Do some explaining. Is string theory out? Was it ever in? Does it matter?”

  43. Now I will say that if string theory gets me a working light saber, warp drive, and/or a transporter, well, I don’t care if they’re crazy.

  44. In fact, my guess is that thoreau would agree with me that a sad fact of graduate school existence is the realization that utter jackasses can still be capable scientists.

    It’s much easier when the jackasses are professors. It’s tough when they’re fellow students.

    Fortunately, nobody in my lab was an utter jackass, but there were a few people who definitely liked to run the show.

    Oh, you asked earlier who the “everyone” was that I was referring to. Yeah, it was mostly non-physicists. I was disappointed when a recent article in the Economist said that 90% of theoretical physicists work on string theory. Actually, most theorists work on things that have nothing to do with string theory. e.g. I work on image enhancement algorithms and models of blood vessel growth around tumors.

    I wrote a letter setting them straight.

  45. Yeah, it was mostly non-physicists. I was disappointed when a recent article in the Economist said that 90% of theoretical physicists work on string theory.

    Since the hot story these days seems to be the decline and fall of string theory, what you’re seeing is a journalistic tactic I call the Theoretical Consensus Fallacy. In order to make your story seem more exciting and revolutionary, you start off by positing that there’s a conventional wisdom around some position, so popular that nobody’s challenging it. Then about 20 percent of the way in you say, “But wait, the conventional wisdom [which in fact you have just invented for the purposes of your story] may be wrong!” Not having read Woit or Smolin, I’d say they, Krauss and others have a natural incentive to exaggerate the universality and tyranny of string theory. (Not that they do exaggerate it, just that they have a motive.) I know all about the Theoretical Consensus Fallacy because, well, I’ve used it myself a few times.

  46. Comment by: vinc at October 6, 2006 03:37 AM
    I agree completely. Well said.

    Berry,
    Having trouble thinking of some smart person who didn’t think quantum made any sense? How about Albert Einstein?

    Good point. However, Einstein’s opposition to quantum was philosophical (or theological even). He didn’t want it to be true, but he understood it quite well. Ironically Einstein played a major roll in quantum’s development. First in it’s inception (the work he got the Nobel Prize for) and in his later career as a foil. Einstein’s opposition inspired him to become quantum mechanics greatest critics. He exposed inconsistencies and weaknesses, thus helping quantum theorists to focus their efforts more productively.

    Stevo,
    Thank you for the update. Good to know.

    Anon,
    …you think string theory looks like the history of science?

    No. What I’m saying, is that string theory does not look like more established theories. But also noting that those established theories didn’t look like the science of the day when they were first introduced.

    The equation heavy aspect of string theory looks to me like trying to disguise some philosophical mumbo-jumbo under a bunch of equations. This is no doubt the result of my thinking I understand the mumbo-jumbo (and don’t like it) and not having bothered trying to decipher the equations.

    Just because someone is smug doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
    Of course. I thought I made this point explicitly.

  47. A further small follow-up to Warren:

    I should also note that, as someone who enjoys old textbooks, I actually miss the days when science and the history of science read more similarly. These days too many books just start on page 1 with equations and don’t stop until the end. It’s nice to have paragraphs mixed in with your math.

    Anon

  48. In my theory, the whole of existence is bound together with tiny, tiny noodles lightly coated with a spicy marinara sauce.

    Go ahead, disprove it. I dare ya.

    Don’t hate the theory, hate the lack of evidence, suckas!

  49. Good point. However, Einstein’s opposition to quantum was philosophical (or theological even). He didn’t want it to be true, but he understood it quite well.

    I don’t object to quantum theory as a theory that does an amazingly good job of predicting the outcomes of measurements (including the measurements that Einstein was hoping might disprove the theory, but instead validated it). However, the textbook interpretation has a bunch of baggage that has nothing to do with the testable consequences, and basically amounts to:

    “Look, it’s all, like, weird and stuff. So just take this interpretation that some Danish guys came up with while drunk, and run with it. Now, back to calculations.”

    I’d be fine if they took out the middle sentence.

  50. Oh thoreau,
    I can’t agree. I belong to the school of thought that says the narrative is important. We believe that scientist like Einstein and Schrodinger are among those that were productive when they were focused on some physical interpretation of their work but became unproductive when (and because) they focused on calculation.

    I do agree that the narrative is not science. I’m only saying that it is important to scientists. I think arguing about the narrative is useful but one could make a strong case against that. Schodinger never did come to grips with his own equation. The ideas that led Faraday to the electric field were really wacky. It just occurred to me, that one could argue that Tesla’s narrative led him to madness.

  51. Warren-

    In the field of quantum mechanics, Einstein was most productive when he tried to understand or predict experimental results: The photoelectric effect, stimulated and spontaneous emission, Bose-Einstein statistics, and the EPR paradox (which has been experimentally observed despite his hopes, but at least served to stimulate important research).

    I’m not saying that we should shut up and ignore the things that we don’t understand, but we shouldn’t always let those things get in the way of what we do know and can observe. If we let conceptual issues in quantum mechanics get in the way of progress we wouldn’t have quantum electrodynamics, quantum computation, computational chemistry, atomic clocks, lasers, semiconductor devices, or numerous other advances made possible by quantum physics.

    There’s a time and a place to shut up and calculate, and there’s a time and a place to worry about conceptual issues. A time to love, a time to hate. A time to cast away stones…

  52. No, that’s “War of the Superbikes 2”, although I see from another check that the original “War of the Superbikes” can be had for about 20 dollars.

    String theory still does not address the “Rock and Roll Juggernaut” paradox, which is how the hell can people can charge 75 dollars for a Meatmen CD.

  53. A J,

    The web page says that it includes both albums on one cd. Is that inaccurate?

  54. A J,

    The web page says that it includes both albums on one cd. Is that inaccurate?

    Try shopping for feelies cds. That’s ridiculous, too.

  55. I was having a discussion with my father, a high powered mathematician who knows this stuff much better than I, about this string theory…

    It led to a discussion about a different way to look at these things.

    What if space-time itself is quantized? In other words not infinitely divisible. Apparently, I am not a mathematician, this gets rid of many of the contradictions that string theory is attempting to solve…There are people working along these lines I believe.

    Any thoughts from the phyicists?

  56. MSM-

    I think you’re referring to Loop Quantum Gravity.

    But since I’m not that sort of physicist, I don’t know much about it.

  57. Thoreau,

    Maybe, but the term LQG never came up.

    I guess quantized gravity = quantized space-time if we think of gravity as warps in space time, so LQG would be a version of what we were talking about (based on my quick look at the Wikipedia entry)…

    A side comment. Despite the terrible PBS special, Brian Greene’s book on string theory is great. Anyone who can make this stuff clear to non-physicists gets props from me. I’ll have to check out Smolin’s book to see if he can do the same for LQG.

  58. MSM,
    If Space is quantized and I’ll bet it is, then a foundational axiom of geometry is false.

    I wonder, has any mathematician conceived of a geometry that doesn’t rest on having a point existing between any two given points?

    Here is an example of quantized space: For an electron, there is no locality between the shells (orbits) of an atom. It exists in one or another, there is no in-between.

    Here is an example of quantized time: I can arrive at work 5 minutes early or 5 minutes late, but there is no time of departure that will time my arrival at 8:00 am. I’m sure this is corelated to having a college nearby with a stream of students in cars filling a boulevard that I must cross (no light, just a stop sign.) I suspect that the over stimulated brainwaves from grande caffeinated brains is causing this temporal quantization of ten minutes to occur in my region of the space-time continuum.

  59. After reading this string, [pun intended], I am starting to wonder if libertarians aren’t ‘idea addicts’, ready to poke their noses into anything that is intellectually challenging.

    [Or maybe ‘argument addicts’, ready to argue about anything.]

    BTW: mea culpa.

  60. [Or maybe ‘argument addicts’, ready to argue about anything.]

    Are rabbis all libertarian?

  61. There’s a perfectly cromulent explanation why there seems to be a rush away from string theory.

    Superboy-Prime punched reality.

    Kevin

  62. “MSM,
    If Space is quantized and I’ll bet it is, then a foundational axiom of geometry is false.

    I wonder, has any mathematician conceived of a geometry that doesn’t rest on having a point existing between any two given points?”

    The answer to that would be “yes.” My father the mathematician, would be one example. That is what generated my question. LQG may be an example of how it plays out in physics.

  63. “After reading this string, [pun intended], I am starting to wonder if libertarians aren’t ‘idea addicts’, ready to poke their noses into anything that is intellectually challenging.”

    I will offer a more benign explanation. Maybe there are some physicists and a former engineer who took over-ambitious college electives that read Reason.

    “BlackLight Power is a known purveyor of pseudoscience. Pay them no mind.”

    What I wanted to know (and I still want to know) is what laws they are breaking. If their H ideas are correct (which I would bet everything against), how significant would it be to quantum theory? I know the energy game pretty well, and they’re not in violation of the 1st and 2nd thermo laws. Normally engineering breakthroughs once thought impossible became possible not by disobeying proven laws, but by exercising a previously unknown 3rd possibility. Is that what they are doing here, or is there a fundamental principle they claim to disobey?

    Thoreau, thank you for explaining my Einstein point. I thought his reluctance to accept it as anything more than an equation that happens to work a lot was pretty well known, but I guess not.

  64. Do you guys have some aversion to Amazon?

    http://tinyurl.com/pncfk – is for the meatmen cd

    http://tinyurl.com/mntot – is for the feelies cd’s

  65. I pondered M-space once. It hurt my brane.

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