Friday, 29 September 2006

The rules of theoretical physics

The New Yorker has a discussion of new books by Lee Smolin and Peter Woit here. Both authors discuss the problem with String Theory - that it isn't a theory at all, in the conventional scientific sense of making predictions that, if false, disprove the theory.

Both authors suggest part of the problem is that the game of physics is currently set up to reward mathematical dexterity over physical veracity, so we have a generation of theoretical physicists growing up who are fabulous mathematicans but who have no incentive to produce better physical theories. Of course once a community gets established and so acquires some power, this becomes self-perpetuating. They define physics as what they do, despite the evidence to the contrary.

(I'm not saying this is bad work, academically, and neither are Smolin or Woit: just that it is not science because it isn't falsifiable. One should never underestimate the ingenuity of the experimentalists, so perhaps one day some of these theories will be testable, but no one appears to have any idea how to do that today.)

This, then, is a great example of a game labouring under an unhelpful historical precedent. Particle physics used to be over-funded partly because it was glamourous science (a theory of everything my arse - a theory of everything that matters to a small number of theoretical physicists more like) and partly because it was seen as useful for building bigger bombs. Now we don't need bigger bombs and particle physics hasn't had much to say about the Universe since the neutrino mass debacle of 1985 or so. So maybe it's time for the rest of physics - all those people doing useful and interesting atmospheric, solid state, and statistical* physics - to rise up against the particle people and take some of their funding. Because, in science as in finance, that is one way of keeping score.

*Quantum computation is looking seriously interesting at the moment...

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