Sunday, January 29, 2012

Giving up on theoretical physics?

No I am not! But it seems some of our colleagues are.

Alan Lightman has a rather disappointing article The accidental universe: science's crisis of faith in the last issue of Harper's from 2011.

[It was reprinted this week as the lead article in a weekly section of the Australian Financial Review, Review: Your Guide to the world of issues, ideas, and opinion. I thank an economist friend from church for bringing it to my attention, ``Is this really what you theoretical physicists believe?"]

Here are a few choice from Lightman's article quotes I found debatable:
Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles...
Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.... 
Theoretical physicists are Platonists. Until the past few years, they agreed that the entire universe, the one universe, is generated from a few mathematical truths and principles of symmetry, perhaps throwing in a handful of parameters like the mass of the electron. It seemed that we were closing in on a vision of our universe in which everything could be calculated, predicted, and understood.... 
We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.... 
The most striking example of fine-tuning, and one that practically demands the multiverse to explain it, is the unexpected detection of what scientists call dark energy.
Perhaps rather than giving up on theoretical physics better options may be to
  • give up on Platonism, 
  • give up on reductionism, 
  • give up on unbridled philosophical speculation
  • be a little humbler and be open to the idea that there may be some new physics to be discovered in the particle physics Desert which covers 12 orders of magnitude in energy!


  1. I wasn't aware the temperature of boiling water was fully explained.

    1. Sure it has. It's the gyrations!

      Gyres, dude. That's it.

  2. hahah, give up on unbridled philosophical speculation. Thanks Ross, very entertaining!

  3. I don't think you should take anyone very seriously when they write that "Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion." Experimental physics is real science - theory is always provisional (with perhaps the 2nd law as the only posible exception, with its range of validity) and is a fundamentally parasitic enterprise, stealing the real work of experimentalists.

    That said its lots of fun.

    I think its ultimately a good thing that people with this kind of arrogant high-energy-theory-centric world view are find it is untenable. Hopefully, they will eventually be forced to good old-fashion empiricism.