Friday, September 15, 2006

The String Unravels

Slate reviews a new book by former Yale and Penn State physicist Lee Smolin, which says that string theory is kaput. String theory has been the recent dominant theory of the smallest, fundamental particles of matter, popularized in books and PBS documentaries by Brian Green (The Elegant Universe) among others.

According to according to Gregg Easterbrook’s insightful review of Smolin’s book, The Trouble With Physics,
String theory became a media obsession about 20 years ago, with one of its proponents a cover boy of a New York Times Magazine article proclaiming string theorists were super-ultra geniuses cracking the ultimate riddles of creation. Smolin's book suggests that this caused string theorists to believe their media hype and to speak of their concepts as if they were proven…. Yet after decades of attempts, no experiment has detected any hint of additional dimensions, branes, or other core elements of string theory. Meanwhile string theory failed to predict the biggest astrophysical discovery in decades….
Now, see if this begins to sound like anything you’ve heard of before. And keep in mind, this is all happening in that empirical, objective, ultra-rational realm of science, which we are told contains all the answers to all life’s questions:
If you worry that even in the 21st century, intellectual fads have as much to do with university politics and careerism as with the search for abstract truth, The Trouble With Physics is a book you absolutely must read. "String theory now has such a dominant position in the academy that it is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field," Smolin writes. Yet since string theory became ascendant about three decades ago, "there has not been a single genuine breakthrough in understanding of elementary particle physics." Not only is string theory rife with malarkey about imperceptible dimensions, Smolin fears, it may be holding back legitimate science.
Hmmm. A scientific theory based on little more than suppositions and wishful thinking, which has been largely disproved by the evidence, but yet which cannot be safely challenged because of fear of reprisals from the level-headed and dispassionate scientific establishment, which blocks attempts to follow the actual evidence. Why, where have I ever heard of such a thing happening? I’m shocked, shocked.

Perhaps one day people will start to realize that scientists are--just like everyone else--biased by nonempirical philosophical and metaphysical presuppositions, career concerns, desire for professional prestige, and power, among other things. Is empirical science valuable? Of course it is. But we should always bear in mind that most of the scientific beliefs of any generation are overthrown by the next generation. Scientists are not inspired priests mediating all truth of the universe to us. They are people trying to secure grants and get promotions just like everyone else. The sooner we understand this and learn to weigh their opinions accordingly, the better off we—and science itself—will be.

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