Skip to main content

String Theory Defended (I Told You I'd Get Back to It)

Image result for sheldon cooper

Happy New Year!

On Christmas Eve Day, I mentioned a recent book, Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon. I said I'd discuss its philosophical significance this week. Here we are, at the start of a new year, and we can start 2017 off with something weighty.

String theory is often presented as a "theory of everything" or ToE. This is both its charm and (in many minds) its downfall. These fundamental strings winding through X dimensions might allow for a geometrical description of all the particles, and the forces, enumerated in modern physics courses. The bestiary of different subatomic particles has become confusing and crowded -- the strong demand of human minds for conceptual order requires some clean-up work there.

As to forces, the "force left out" is always gravity. The other forces -- strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, have all made their peace with one another through the magic of quantum mechanics. Gravity remains aloof. One big goal of string theory is to bring gravity in line. This is the answer to the "why" question that serves as Conlon's title.

And yet string theory has become a brick wall against which some of the brightest minds in the world keep hitting their heads, making no dent. The problem is that the "theory" remains frustratingly vague, capable of explaining 'everything' only because it could explain ANYTHING. Thus without falsification, without verification. As one critic says, it is "not even false."

Conlon responds to all this, it seems to me, by abandoning the grand claims for string theory and looking at it NOT as a theory of everything, not even really as a theory at all, but as a source of inspiration -- as a fireworks display, which is aesthetically appealing itself and which can throw unexpected illumination over a lot of different areas.

Thus, he says, what string theory meant in 1970 when it got its start was not what it meant in 1985, and that again not what it meant in 2000 or 2015.

That's good. Lets hope it keeps changing, like the Martians in a Ray Bradbury story, who changed until then couldn't change any longer, and then died.

For in the philosophy of science, I have to stick with the construction Susan Haack calls the "shadow Popper." It is an understanding that can't accurately be traced to Popper himself -- that is in important respects contrary to what the historical Popper argued, but that is often attributed to him in order to have a Big Name behind it., Furthermore, it is an understanding of the world and of scientists' interaction with (the rest of) the world that works fairly well.

The fireworks show is not a sustainable substitute for reliable illumination, and when the right ideas HAVE been inspired (from whatever source) string theory will have become obsolete from the perspective of this defense thereof.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.



We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…

Cancer Breakthrough

Hopeful news in recent days about an old and dear desideratum: a cure for cancer. Or at least for a cancer, and a nasty one at that.

The news comes about because investors in GlaxoSmithKline are greedy for profits, and has already inspired a bit of deregulation to boot. 

The FDA has paved the road for a speedy review of a new BCMA drug for multiple myeloma, essentially cancer of the bone marrow. This means that the US govt has removed some of the hurdles that would otherwise (by decision of the same govt) face a company trying to proceed with these trials expeditiously. 

This has been done because the Phase I clinical trial results have been very promising. The report I've seen indicates that details of these results will be shared with the world on Dec. 11 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology. 

The European Medicines Agency has also given priority treatment to the drug in question. 

GSK's website identifies the drug at issue as "GSK2857916," althou…