February 2, 2013


Is Scientific Truth Always Beautiful? : A mathematician says the quest for elegance leads too many researchers astray (Christopher Shea, 1/28/13, Chronicle Review)

Does science have a "beauty" problem? David Orrell, a mathematician and consultant, argues that it does--or, at least, that some of its practitioners are in thrall to ideals involving "elegance," "symmetry," and "unity" that are beckoning them down false paths. [...]

His book arrives at a vulnerable moment for physics: during the "Higgs Boson Hangover," as Slate dubbed it. The discovery of the Higgs boson particle helps to complete and confirm the existing Standard Model of physics, but the Large Hadron Collider that produced it has not provided any evidence for the newer theories in physics that have been vying for attention.

Today the grandest quest of physics is to render compatible the laws of quantum physics--how particles in the subatomic world behave--with the rules that govern stars and planets. That's because, at present, the formulas that work on one level implode into meaninglessness at the other level. This is deeply ungainly, and significant when the two worlds collide, as occurs in black holes. The quest to unify quantum physics (micro) and general relativity (macro) has spawned heroic efforts, the best-known candidate for a grand unifying concept presently being string theory. String theory proposes that subatomic particles are not particles at all but closed or open vibrating strings, so tiny, a hundred billion billion times shorter than an atomic nucleus's diameter, that no human instrument can detect them. It's the "music of the spheres"--think vibrating harp strings--made literal.

A concept related to string theory is "supersymmetry." Physicists have shown that at extremely high energy levels, similar to those that existed a micro-blink after the big bang, the strength of the electromagnetic force, and strong and weak nuclear forces (which work only on subatomic levels), come tantalizingly close to converging. Physicists have conceived of scenarios in which the three come together precisely, an immensely intellectually and aesthetically pleasing accomplishment. But those scenarios imply the existence of as-yet-undiscovered "partners" for existing particles: The electron would be joined by a "selectron," quarks by "squarks," and so on. There was great hope that the $8-billion Large Hadron Collider would provide indirect evidence for these theories, but so far it hasn't.

Like other critics of string theory and its variants, Orrell argues that it is basically unfalsifiable.

You can hardly blame physiocists for wanting to be freed from the constraints of science, the way their biologist brethren have been. Posted by at February 2, 2013 9:36 AM
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