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    The problem with physics
    Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2007 @ 22:09:09 MST by vlad

    Science by Peter Woit

    Physics has become obsessed with strings, branes and multiple dimensions, yet the big questions remain fundamentally unanswered. Has the time come to admit these wild conjectures have failed, and move on?
    What neither my fellow student nor I would ever have guessed during our graduate student days was that, in our middle age some 25 years later, we'd be no closer to answering any of these questions, and ever more speculative attempts to find such answers would have taken on some of what used to be the characteristics of the fringes of science.


    FUNDAMENTAL PHYSICS now finds itself in a historically unprecedented situation. The multi-decade dominance of string theory, along with its extremely speculative research into the implications of exotic scenarios far removed from any hope of testability, has changed the subject in dramatic and fundamental ways.

    What used to be considered part of the dubious fringes of science has now become institutionalised within the mainstream. In physicist Lee Smolin's recent book, The Trouble With Physics, he characterises the current sociology of the field as dominated by 'groupthink', with too few physicists willing to admit how far off the tracks things have gone. The nearly infinite complexity of string theory, M-theory, branes, higher dimensions and the multiverse has led to a vast number of possible challenging calculations for people to do to keep themselves busy, all embedded in a mathematical structure far too poorly understood to ever lead to definitive, falsifiable predictions.

    The problems of the Standard Model that faced my colleague and I a quarter of a century ago continue to inspire new generations of young theorists to devote their lives to work that might some day lead to real progress. But these problems remain extremely difficult ones, and we have little in the way of promising ideas, with far too much effort going into the evasion of difficulties and the pursuit of the chimera of unification through ever more complex higher dimensional constructions inspired by string theory.

    The hopes of particle theorists now rest on the efforts of experimentalists hard at work at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva. Perhaps within the next few years they will report new results that will finally provide the right hints about how to move forward in the right direction, leading most people to abandon unsuccessful ideas. If the Standard Model continues to hold, particle physicists will be in a difficult spot, one that will require them to find ways to both acknowledge the failure of some well-entrenched speculative research programs, and encourage ambitious young theorists to take chances and try to find new, more promising ones.

    Whole article: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/node/1756



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    "The problem with physics" | Login/Create an Account | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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    Re: The problem with physics (Score: 1)
    by Veryskeptical on Wednesday, December 19, 2007 @ 12:46:34 MST
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    I can only say amen to your comments on the state of physics! I was discussing some of the ideas which can be found on this website with a high school teacher and one of his retired colleagues last night. In speaking with them I came to the conclusion that they have totally confused physics with mathematics! I could not believe it. Physics for them seems to be mathematical description totally divorced from physical reality. The current climate in physics would seem to be doing extreme harm to education in the sciences generally.

    It is not that there are no competing simpler descriptions of physical reality around than string theory. Rather, it is a refusal to consider them in the circles who seem to get the greatest funding and the most media attention. Why should ambitious young theorists have to take chances if proposing something new? Why shouldn't proponents of ideas like process theory, classical quantum mechanics and the like have to be publicly presented and criticized with respect to string theory? Why cannot it be required that proponents of string theory, branes and the like be required as part of their job description to address such alternatives publicly with clear reasoning and not dismissive invective?

    Why shouldn't more emphasis be placed on experimental results from every source for some time to come? Theory without sufficient facts to guide is mere head spinning. Why not encourage more aspiring physicists to take up experimental work?

    As for the remaining theorists one useful idea might be to encourage the discovery of cheaper ways to test theoretical propositions. An economic codicil should be written into the scientific method explicitly. Theories have to be testible and subject to rejection should be changed to read theories have to be cheaply testible and subject to rejection for very practical reasons. Really expensive testing if required by a theory is equivalent to untestability because no one can afford the price. Encouraging the excess of theorists to revamp their theories to allow table top testing might be a useful redirection of their talents.

    In any case public funding for these excessively mathematical excursions and extremely expensive experimental tools should be cut back. This should force physicists to reconsider the direction of their discipline.


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