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But is it Science?

Entry 1697, on 2015-01-23 at 20:08:50 (Rating 1, Science)

This year marks a hundred years since Einstein's General Theory of Relativity was released. It was his second theory of the type, the Special Theory was presented to the world ten years earlier. The other great area of science Einstein worked on was quantum physics and he actually gained his Nobel Prize in this area rather than Relativity which he is better known for.

After 1915 Einstein started work on integrating those two great theories of physics but, like everyone else, he failed to come up with a solution. So even now a hundred years later physicists are still trying to come up with a "theory of everything".

But there are some candidates and the most prominent is String Theory. This theory posits the existence of one dimensional strings in 11 dimensional space. That sounds fairly obscure, perhaps even totally crazy, I mean what actually is 11 dimensional space anyway? But as the great physicist Niels Bohr (allegedly) said: Your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be true. Still, that is a rather trite response. The question is, is there any reality in String Theory.

One rather derogatory description of String Theory is that it is "not even wrong" meaning that it cannot be tested so it can't be said to be right or wrong. In many ways, showing that it is wrong would be preferable because then physicist could move on to other possibilities.

But although it is difficult (some say impossible) to test in the real world, String Theory is so beautiful from a mathematical, abstract perspective (at least according to maths experts) that it is difficult to ignore. So now some theoretical physicists want to re-define science, and that's where things get interesting...

They say that some areas of research deal with abstractions and maths which are difficult to test in the real world. And they might never be able to test some ideas, such as String Theory and the Multiverse. But they don't care, and argue that a theory being elegant and explanatory is as important as it being testable.

Needless to say old school physicists are alarmed at this because they think that it undermines science. I would have to say that my initial reaction was to agree. But untestable theories often become testable and there are numerous examples of this in the past. And if theories are elegant and explanatory I think they still have value.

Testability has been an important attribute of science (although not quite an absolute requirement as some people like to suggest) especially since the work of philosopher Karl Popper (who worked here in New Zealand during WW2) so we shouldn't ignore it. On the other hand, science had been proceeding for many years before Popper's analysis and limiting it to one methodology seems unnecessary.

Maybe another suggestion made by these theorists might be preferable, that is to call this type of research something else. Maybe it is pure maths, or mathematical theoretical cosmology. Maths isn't really science because it is not tested in the real world in the same way as science is, so maybe we should say that string theory and other speculative theories should be thought of more as maths or philosophy than science.

But in the end who cares? These are just labels and there is always overlap between areas of human endeavour anyway. There are examples of highly theoretical maths which has turned out to be useful. And we should never forget the famous concept: the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences (initially from an article published in 1960 by the physicist Eugene Wigner). For some reason maths seems to describe the real world. There doesn't seem to be any good reason why, but it's true.

And the concept of beauty in maths is well known. I think the best expression of this might be by one of my favourite philosophers, Bertrand Russell, who said "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry."

So yes, let the abstract theories continue. Let's not worry too much about practicality or unnecessarily limited definitions of science. Let's pursue these ideas for their own sake. But if anyone can think of a way to test them that would be great!


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