Not Even Wrong

The title is from a famous quote attributed to Wolfgang Pauli.

Since it first burst upon the scene in the 1980s, String Theory has been controversial. Popular, perhaps, but controversial (and maybe it’s raised eyebrows because of it’s popularity. Lately it’s been said that one cannot get a tenured position in physics without being a string theorist). From whence comes such acceptance? From Sharon Begley of The Wall Street Journal

String theory, proponents said, could reconcile quantum mechanics (the physics of subatomic particles) and gravity, the longest-distance force in the universe. That impressed particle physicists no end. In the 1980s, most jumped on the string bandwagon and since then, stringsters have written thousands of papers.

But read the entire thing.

Now there appears to be a backlash. String theory has not ‘discovered’ anything (yet). In over 20 years, it has not provided any answers to questions previously posed, nor made testable predictions (testable even in theory).

So can we say that String Theory is science? If you think it is, then what do you think about the Anthropic Principle (and before you answer, you may want to read this.), or Intelligent Design, for that matter? Equally untestable? Equally lacking in results, even in theory?
Isaac Asimov once mocked pseudo-science (in 2nd Foundation from The Foundation Trilogy) by having one of the more despicible characters define science as (I paraphrase) “…Reading the giants of the past, and deciding whom amongst them has the best arguments.” Note that there is nothing at all about the cycle of hypothesize-predict-observe mentioned there, the hallmark of true science.

There’s another point to be considered. All the aspects above, String Theory, Anthropic Principle and Intelligent Design, attempt to glean information about (or from) something that is intrinsically unobservable; strings in 10 (or 11) dimensions, multiverses that do not connect with our own, God. These are unobservable even in principle. So IS IT SCIENCE??? Where can we begin the observe-hypothesize-predict cycle that defines science? Newton answered that question by not answering it “To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age.” (G Simmons Calculus Gems (New York 1992)).

After all those questions and all that speculation, I’ll weigh in with my opinion. String Theory feels right to me. Always has. But I suspect that it represents the limits of mathematics in understanding the universe. If we’re going to know more physics, it probably won’t be through mathematics. The Anthropic Principle feels right too, but it has annoying aspects, and seems to play fast and loose with concepts in the realm of probability (but in truth, I suspect that this is a difficulty with the concepts of probability and statistics, not with the Anthropic Principle). Intelligent Design is probably not science, but it is a wonderful tool that demonstrates science has stuck it’s nose into places it does not belong (and that such places exist).

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6 Comments on “Not Even Wrong”

  1. island Says:

    …what do you think about the Anthropic Principle?

    Misunderstood, commonly abused, dogmatically ignored, and assumed to be a complete statement, when, in fact, nobody ever claimed that it was.

    Anthropic Principle… attempt to glean information about (or from) something that is intrinsically unobservable… multiverses.

    Ah… no, this is only one lame interpretation and I submit that there is a lot of important information about the physics for the AP that people don’t bother to look for which exposes the commonly used arguments against it for the stupiditiy that they actually represent.

  2. Joe Says:

    Well, then we are in almost complete agreement, Island. Tipler in particular strongly states that AP (especially in its strong form) is not complete.

    But, I can see that I was not as clear as I might be (after all, I don’t expect to be read by ‘hardly anyone’ here, Island — and thank you very much for reading, btw!). Multiverses come out of quantum theory, of course, and out of AP. But the example I should have used there was ‘branes, which are not accessible to us (I was thinking in terms of multi-dimensions, actually. 10 or 11 dimensional space, and it came out ‘multiverse’. My error).
    In the same way, AP has led many to search for some “prime mover”. Tipler and Barrow use Human (with a capital H) as that prime mover, and others immediately jump to God.

    But that’s the jump that Thomas Aquinas made first. That’s not new physics. It’s a shame that this is also the point where most people stop with AP.

    And you’re absolutely correct: there’s more to be learned about our physical universe using the accepted scientific method as it applies to AP. They (Tipler and Barrow, 1986) go to great lengths to demonstrate this (in the Cosmological Anthropic Principle, of course), even to the point of noting some predictions that have already *not* panned out (as well as some that cannot yet be demonstrated, but could be in principle).

    I always thought that *that* was pretty impressive.

    Thanks again for reading and for taking the time to comment.
    Joe

  3. island Says:

    No, it is my pleasure to finally meet somebody that doesn’t auto-dismiss the AP for all the wrong reasons. I’m into my fourth year strictly studying the anthropic principle, and I can tell you many things that I have learned that are not commonly known, but are quite apparently true when they are noted.

    This stuff is easy to find, as I said, people simply don’t bother to look, except when they are motivated for pre-prejudiced resons, so even they don’t find obvious relevant facets to the physics that carry predictive capabilities.

    “Many Worlds” is one interpretation, but an implication that we are not here by accident doesn’t most naturally fall from many worlds, which rationalizes how we can be. Quite to the contrary, if we are indeed the mechanism that constrains the forces, then there should be a good physical reason for it that follows the least action principle, where the odds for intelligent life are *necessarily* 1.

    There is…

  4. island Says:

    I’m disappointed that you failed to continue our conversation, Joe.

  5. Joe Says:

    It’s my pleasure too, Island.
    Apologies, btw. I have been busy, and not being a professional writer, blog mostly occasionally.

    Now, you’ve brought up several good points (and it’s certain that you probably have more to teach me about AP than I could teach you), but one in particular interests me…

    “Many Worlds” is one interpretation, but an implication that we are not here by accident doesn’t most naturally fall from many worlds, which rationalizes how we can be.

    My understanding is that “Many Worlds” expressly indicates that we *are* here by accident. We observe our universe because, for no particular reason, it’s the one we’re in. And isn’t that the heart of the dissatisfaction with “Many Worlds”? — that one can get *any* result out of it? Ok, by putting that in the form of a question, I’m cheating, ’cause I’m not explicitly stating that *I’m* dissatisfied, but I am. If I’m reading the literature correctly, I’m not the only one.
    Worse, there’s growing dissatisfaction with String Theory for essentially the same reason. Both seem to allow one to ‘build’ any desired universe without giving any deeper understanding.
    I think that Feynman was dissatisfied with quantum for the same reason.

    They all seem curiously able to answer the question without answering them.

    We’ll have more to say about this, I’m sure!

    Thanks again for the discussion.

  6. island Says:

    Now it is me who has been remiss, as I lost this page and just found it again.

    Joe, I don’t disagree with you, but John Barrow and the templeton foundation support the many-worlds interpretation.

    Now, I know that these guys don’t believe that we’re here by accident, so I’m not sure where their logic is at… but… ?

    Unfortunately, the attack against the multiverse by LQG theorists is typically contained within an attack against the anthropic principle, rather than this particular “abuse” of it.

    The “scientists” at Peter Woit’s blog, “Not Even Wrong”… are extremely biased against the AP for all the previously mentioned wrong reasons.


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