The lure of mathematics, for many, has been its esthetics, the innate beauty. It has been called the Queen of the Sciences. Mathematics is the lingua franca with which Physics has been used to create an increasingly accurate model of the physical world in which we find ourselves. Math, Physics and Chemistry are the diamond hard pillars that Human Action has created to understand reality. A continuum exists of less rigorous disciplines like Medicine, Biology, Economics, and Law until we approach the vapid gruel of Political Science, Literary Criticism, Religious Studies and Sociology. The value of a science is the accuracy of the theoretical model with respect to making correct predictions as are verified by independent experiment. A science that cannot make predictions is not a science at all, but a faith.
Like so many things in the contemporary world, hard science, in some sectors has become a "political science." Political Science is a discipline where resources are allocated not based upon achievements, a meritocracy, but rather upon relationships, connections, and friendships: what Ayn Rand called the "Aristocracy of Pull."
A brief synopsis of millions of man-years of human effort in physics and math with respect to modeling the physical world is in order. Sir Isaac Newton’s famous three laws are the basis of Classical Mechanics. Classical mechanics was found to be inaccurate under certain conditions: large mass, high velocity or small size. This limitation gave rise to Quantum Mechanics as a method to make better predictions under some of these conditions. Quantum Mechanics was extended to Quantum Field Theory by incorporating Special Relativity. The General Theory of Relativity was created to take into account gravitation with the precepts demanded by Special relativity. The Standard Model of Quantum Chromodynamics was developed to extend quantum mechanics to the nuclear level. All of these theories provide increasingly accurate models of physical reality within their domains that have been verified to high levels of accuracy by many independent investigators.
These theories provide predictions (laws) that are as true in Iran, and North Korea, as they are in the United States, even though our political models and systems of government based resource allocation (politics) are not. The beauty of these sciences is that their predictive power is independent of the political structure. For many, this is one, if not the fundamental allures of the disciplines: the pursuit of truth and beauty without the attendant degradation inherent in the political process.
Einstein was one of the first to search for a Grand Unification Theory (GUT) where a single law or set of mathematical relationships can be ascertained that predict all observable natural phenomena. He failed, as have all who followed in his footsteps, but not for any lack of genius or trying. Hermann Weyl, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, was one of the first to recognize that symmetry was a powerful tool to use in physics specifically in quantum mechanical investigations. One of the great successes of this was the Eightfold Way of Murray Gell-Mann in elucidating particle physics data in QCD. The depth and beauty of these successes has led many others to seek to use these tools in the search for a GUT. In the intervening years we have had many flavors of GUT’s: supersymmetry, string theory, m-theory and d-branes just to name a few. These theories are posited to be elegant because of the fact that their beauty that derives from group representation theory, Riemannian geometry and topology. Symmetry properties, it is exposited, being natures’ most fundamental aspect and thus a milestone on the march toward a theory of everything (TOE)
History is replete with romantic imagery of the great genius working alone to plumb the depth of nature’s secrets in the physical world. Nonetheless mathematics and physics have become team activities, where many of the great breakthroughs of the second half of the twentieth century have come from large groups with massive amounts of funding working in concert. The nucleus in the small, and cosmology in the large have required copious resources (hundreds of billions of dollars to date) to collect the experimental data required by the theorists to get us to our current state of knowledge. Virtually all of this has come from the public fisc via taxation with the majority of it coming from the taxpayers of the United States, the European Union and Japan.
The problem is that in the past 20 years faith has crept in dressed up as science. Faith is belief in the absence of proof. The theories of supersymmetry, string theory, m-theory and d-branes have no experimental data to back up their assertions, and there is none on the foreseeable horizon either according to Peter Woit. Dr. Woit has written an excellent and readable book, for the layman, called Not Even Wrong wherein he discusses this issue at length from the perspective of an expert in the field.
In addition to the lack of experimental verification of the theory it has developed into a cult of personality where devotees follow thought leaders irrationally. The most highly regarded of these is Dr. Edward Witten, a Fields Medal winner and Professor at the Institute of Advanced Study (Einstein’s old gig). Dr. Woit’s critique of Witten’s influence:
"The fact that Witten took up superstring theory with such enthusiasm in 1984 had a lot to do with it becoming so popular, and his continuing belief that it remains the most promising idea to work on has huge influence. A major reason for this is that many people rely on his judgment because they find the state of string theory so difficult to comprehend that they are not able to reasonably form their judgments of the situation.
Besides raising a huge barrier to entry to the subject, the difficulty of superstring theory also makes it hard for researchers to leave. By the time they achieve some real expertise they typically have invested a huge part of their careers in studying superstrings, an investment that is psychologically and professionally difficult to give up."
~ P. Woit Not Even Wrong p. 201 Basic Books 2006
Legions of theoretical physicist’s and their graduate student thralls are devoting their professional livelihoods to following these thought leaders on a program that has been both a failure to date, and has no prospect of change based upon experiment. Failure is not a bad thing. It tells us when something is wrong and a course correction is required.
"Recognizing failure is a useful part of the scientific strategy. Only when failure is recognized can dead ends be abandoned and useable pieces of failed programs recycled. Aside from possible utility, there is a responsibility to recognize failure. Recognizing failure is an essential part of the scientific ethos. Complete failure must be recognized eventually."
~ D. Friedan; "A Tentative Theory of Large Distance Physics "
Another critic has said that:
"A few diehards dedicated to truth rather than practicality will practice physics in a non-empirical, ironic mode, plumbing the magical realm of superstrings and other esoterica and fretting about the meaning of quantum mechanics. The conferences of these ironic physicists whose disputes cannot be experimentally resolved will become more and more like those of that bastion of literary criticism, the Modern Language Association"
~ J. Horgan; The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge
in the Twilight of the Scientific Age Addison Wesley, 1996, p. 91
From the perspective of experts in the field Dr. Woit is not alone. Nobel Laureate (Physics 1979) Sheldon Glashow wrote a paper more than 20 years ago predicting the current fiasco entitled "Desperately Seeking Superstrings" where he discussed the current dilemma with prescience.
Literary criticism is about as watery a gruel that academia can promulgate and still be called academic. Are any Experimental results known here by anyone? Literary criticism is a Higher Superstition where words are strung together sequentially and thus stripped of all meaning. It is deeply disheartening to recognize that some of the mathematics and physics community have gotten themselves into a position where this can be reasonably said of their work, irrespective of their educational credentials and how zealously they prosecute it.
The brutal history of the 20th century is testimony to the disasters that can occur when dogma masquerades as science with the power of the state behind it. Communism was purported to be scientific, but was in fact a religion. The experimental results of its theories killed a hundred million while failing to achieve the advertised workers’ paradise.
Keynesian economics has all the trappings of science yet it is a faith practiced by the privileged elite, politicians and their doyens, the academic economists. I do not consider business cycles, banking failures, inflation, fiat currency or deficit spending to be experimental verification of a theory, but rather the lack thereof.
The current Iraq mess is another example of a political process where a defective theory was coupled with experimental results that contradict said theory and result in a disaster for all involved.
Citizens and taxpayers should be alarmed at the huge effort of a privileged minority in masquerading their religion as a science. The current state of string theory is that it is on an equal footing with creationism, intelligent design, and scientology in being unable to provide any experimental verification of the "truths" posited. This worry is two-fold, first that alternative lines of thought are not being pursed, like loop quantum gravity, because of the power of this privileged elite and secondly, that this all is being pursued as publicly funded scientific research.
Belief in the absence of proof is the basis for religious thought, and all individuals should be free to pursue their beliefs privately. In the United States we have a history of separating the church and the state. Yet it is clear to this taxpayer that String Theory has become a political science where connections (pull) matter far more than results. Given the tremendous filtering capability of the tenured elite to squelch dissenting views, science thus enters the territory of diminished (vanishing) returns because of the taint of the political process. Science is degraded as a result of this confluence.
Once physical reality becomes the province of the political we all suffer. When physical problems are to be solved politically then the down side becomes unbounded and that is a danger that concerned citizens need be aware of!
Dr. Woit’s Blog is an excellent read for all concerned.
George Giles [send him mail] reads, writes and thinks in Nashville Tennessee.