Home Science The dark side of science that people rarely know about

The dark side of science that people rarely know about

by Sangam Adhikari

The general public realizes how far modern physics has strayed from what was regarded as “good science” 100 years ago and how little progress has been made as a result. Physics is stalled and in danger of becoming irrelevant.

In her recent book, Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argues that the idea of mathematical beauty has replaced correlation with reality as a primary value among physicists. To quote from her book:

“After twenty years in theoretical physics, most people I know make a career by studying things nobody has seen. They have concocted mind-boggling new theories, like the idea that our universe is but one of infinitely many that together form a “multiverse.” They have invented dozens of new particles, declared that we are projections of a higher-dimensional space, and that space is spawned by wormholes that tie together distant places. These ideas are highly controversial and yet exceedingly popular, speculative yet intriguing, pretty yet useless. Most of them are so difficult to test, they are practically untestable. Others are untestable even theoretically. What they have in common is that they are backed up by theoreticians convinced that their math contains an element of truth about nature. Their theories, they believe, are too good to not be true.”

In a similar vein almost a decade earlier, physicist Peter Woit wrote in his book Not Even Wrong about string theory:

“Lindley and many other physicists see superstring theory as based on pure mathematics, relying on aesthetic judgments to measure progress. They accept the claim of superstring theorists that the theory is a beautiful and elegant one, and criticize this reliance on mathematical beauty as somehow keeping theorists from connecting their ideas with anything experimentally observable. In this book I have tried to show that this is a misguided point of view, one that is based on not looking closely enough into why superstring theory has not been able to make any predictions. The beauty and elegance of superstring theory lies in the hopes and dreams of its practitioners, hopes and dreams that are vanishing as every year it becomes more and more unlikely that they are ever to be realized. Superstring theorists would like to believe that someday a simple equation, beautiful physical idea, or fundamental symmetry principle will be found that will explain the intricate structures they have been studying. The present situation of the field is that no such thing is actually in sight despite more than twenty years of effort looking for it. Those who have eloquently described the elegance and beauty of superstring theory are quite right that these are characteristics that a successful fundamental physical theory almost surely will have, but they often fail to distinguish dreams and reality.”

Both of these practicing scientists feel that modern physics has lost its way into a realm of speculation based on purely mathematical constructs. This started around 1980 with the idea of the inflationary multiverse. Then came string theory, M theory, the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and other ideas that cannot be verified experimentally but exist in some form of abstract mathematics. Mark Tegmark, MIT physicist, has said that we should believe that all realities exist that are permitted by any correct mathematics. All realities permitted by math exist? Really? To me it sounds like Tegmark has left science behind and is now on a religious quest with God respelled M-A-T-H.

So for the last 40 years or so, no real progress has been made in physics. Ideas rise and get elaborated to explain anything and everything. (e.g., There are over 190 models of cosmic inflation and even worse, 10^500 solutions to the string landscape.) The one element of progress one might argue is the confirmation in July 2012 of the Higgs Boson, dubbed the God Particle by scientist Leo Lederman who was actually referring to how hard it was to find experimentally. (“That goddamn particle” was what he actually wanted to call it but his publisher wouldn’t let him.) Listen to the hype and you think it is a profound breakthrough that explains everything – I mean it is called the God Particle for goodness sake. However, the truth is way more boring. The search for the Higgs Boson had an experimental cost of over $13 billion and it was not the breakthrough the press presented it as. The Higgs Boson was predicted in the 1960’s and is a necessary component of the Standard Model that itself goes back many decades before that. Other than completing the Standard Model, the LHC has found nothing interesting and especially found nothing novel.

In my view, once we abandon experimental confirmation and potential falsification as a criteria, and lose the connection to the observable physical world, anything becomes possible and physics has entered the realm of fantasy. It is just story telling and one story is as good as another. And if every actual small advance requires $13 billion in funding, the end of progress regarding our knowledge of the universe will come swiftly.

Physics is not alone in this by the way. There is an analogy in biology as it relates to research into the origin of life. No real progress has occurred in this field since the 1950’s even though one model after another has been put forth. Show me the chain of chemical reactions that starts with organic chemicals and ends with a living cell. Can’t do it despite 70 years of trying.

The dark side of this is that the public has no idea what is going on. If you read the popular (gullible) press you would think breakthroughs are happening all over the place. Perhaps the most profound discovery of science in the last few decades is the power of the press release and TV interview. “Scientists discover the God Particle,” “scientists uncover the origin of the universe,” and “scientists find that life may be common in the universe” scream the headlines. None of it is true.

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