Sean Carroll has some characteristically level-headed things to say on the aftermath of the string theory backlash over at Cosmic Variance. And yet I feel there’s more to be said. Could the blogosphere be ready for JR’s take on the String Wars? Hmm.
The irony is that a major point of the anti-string books was that the public hype concerning string theory didn’t paint an accurate picture of its more problematic features — which was true. But the backlash books gave the public a misleading impression in the other direction, leading to the somewhat amusing appearance of my own piece in New Scientist explaining that the theory was for the most part chugging along as before. Hype cuts in every direction, and it feeds on drama, not on accuracy.
I basically agree. I’ve tried to absorb the lesson of science sociologist Harry Collins — that scientists are experts who will always be in a better position than the dude on the street to know how to approach a research problem, within their field of specialty of course. Hey, sorry old folks, the young people coming up will tend to have the edge on the prior generation when it comes to judging impartially what looks most promising among the given options. And a lot of the smart young people in particle physics have chosen string theory. The fact they haven’t cracked it doesn’t really mean anything other than unifying physics is a damn hard problem.
Still I think Sean glosses over something important when he says the backlash fed on “drama, not accuracy.” I think the “drama” is telling us something really, really important about what we as a culture have come to expect from science and how that expectation is changing. That’s ultimately the point I take from John Horgan’s The End of Science, which gets dissed by a hypergenius in the article Sean is responding to.
Commenting to New Scientist on the books that fueled the string theory backlash, Ed Witten, the dean of string theory, compared them to End of Science: “Neither the publicity surrounding that book nor the fact that people lost interest in talking about it after a while reflected any change in the intellectual underlying climate.”
Maybe not for the actual scientists. But for those of us who take science a little too seriously, Horgan put his finger on something that does seem to have changed. In a nutshell, we used to think we could count on Science for The Answer, never mind if it wasn’t quite The Answer We’d Been Looking For. But although plenty of cool scientific challenges remain, it sure seems like we’ve picked most of the low-hanging fruit like natural selection, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics etc. Aside from string theory, the big epistemological drama we’re left with in the physical sciences is climate change, and the discourse around it tells us something about how people are handling the clash of values amid uncertainty.
In the case of fundamental high-energy physics, we may never know the truth about string theory, or quantum gravity more broadly. Maybe we’ll never build a particle accelerator or telescope powerful enough to observe string-y effects like a particle decaying at a slightly unexpected rate or some telling subtlety in the cosmic microwave background.
That doesn’t mean string theorists are puling this stuff out of thin air. If nothing else, the last 100 years of physics would seem to put some rather tight constraints on what you can say about physics without contradicting known stuff like the mass of this or that particle. Nor does it mean we should stop searching. In my own inexpert judgment, I can easily imagine string theory or something that subsumes it is the right description of nature. If you believe scientists are voting with their feet, then there just aren’t any equally compelling ideas out there.
I’m also completely open to the idea we may never know for sure. Whether or not future physicists want to keep plugging away will be entirely up to personal taste. I for one would like them to continue chipping at it. It’s interesting to me. It’s Something To Do, after all.
But that’s a bitter pill to swallow if you’re a Dude who’s come to rely on science to cut through all those icky feelings and give you The Unassailable Truth, with which you can beat the Poets and Philosophers over their soft heads. No wonder Pops Minkel gagged on string theory. Why, two decades with nothing to show? They must be on the wrong track, he told me. Feynman was skeptical, remember, and you know what a genius Feynman was. Ya well, Feynman can suck it. So can my dad. They both seemed to think it was their duty to know everything, and that they could in principle know everything if they tried hard enough. For my dad, anyone who didn’t know it all – himself included – was therefore Not Trying Hard Enough and subject to scorn.
That’s a crummy way to live your life. So I propose the following to the science faithful. 1) Let’s not expect another Einstein to come along and wrap up the universe in a bow for us. And 2) let’s not demand that the coming of another Einstein be the standard by which good science shall be judged. Maybe then we can relax.
Update [4/17/09]: Interesting comments from Horgan and Sci Am editor George Musser. Plus: Won’t you help me gather up the all-time classic Lubos Motl posts?