The Monotheism of the Physicists: The New Yorker on String Theory

Tue 10/03/2006 3:37 pm. In the 10/2/06 New Yorker, an intelligent fellow named Jim Holt reviews some anti-string theory books — and I must say, the man blows the gaffe on institutional physics! ... To summarize the article, string theory is an incomprehensible very very smart-person mishmash which Holt and others think is a pointless but unfortunately influential dead-end. Holt provides much amusing and weird info to support this theme, which is shared by the reviewed books.

There Can Only Be One

... But one thing really stood out for me: apparently, there can only be one theory of the physical world! ... He concedes that “perhaps ... there will prove to be no end to the succession of deeper and deeper theories” but that’s as close as he’s willing to get to the idea that physics might be subject to simultaneously-valid interpretations from different points of view — like everything else we run into in life....

And he suggests “a new generation of seers” will do better physics — implying that the physicist/seer must somehow perceive equations the rest of us can’t see, and somehow these equations are stronger than other hum-drum equations, they’re special. ... And beautiful; he discusses and seems to endorse the “beauty” standard for physics. ... The implicit idea — shared by many popular and other treatments — is that somehow the equation will be connected directly with eternal truth, instead of the inevitable approximations of other equations and most human knowledge. ... The equation, instead of being a map of reality, somehow becomes reality itself....

Description and Prediction

Stephan Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science was much too big and heavy a book for me to get very far with, but I did learn an amazing thing: that science is supposed to describe natural phenomena and provide predictive power. ... I think his point was that if you could do that with weird complicated little computer programs — i.e. as opposed to fancy traditional equations — so what? ... If it works, it works. ... Thus dispensing with special equations or even equations at all, if something else is just as good or better. ...

My money’s on description and prediction.

Another Country

Monday, November 13, 2006 9:37 am. And then I saw Über Atheist Richard Dawkins on C-Span, blathering on about the mysteries of quantum physics with every bit of transcendent wonder as the Catholic channel on transubstantiation! ... His point seemed to be that it was so mysterious and incomprehensible, it must be wonderful! ... In which case my plumbing is definitely touched by the infinite.