Has Physics Gotten Something Really Important Really Wrong?
by ADAM FRANK
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Sometimes the most important step one can take in science is back.
When the path towards progress in a field becomes muddied, the best response may be to step away from all the technical specifics that make up day-to-day practice and begin pulling up the floorboards. In other words, rather than continuing to push on the science, it may be best to ask about the unspoken philosophies supporting that research effort.
This week, I have the immense privilege of attending a workshop asking about this approach in the storied domains of foundational physics and cosmology.
Two of the workshop organizers, physicist Lee Smolin and philosopher Roberto Unger, published a book last year called “The Singular Universe and The Reality of Time“. It represented their own attempt to rewire the philosophical underpinnings of physics. As the workshop gets underway, I thought it might be useful for 13.7 readers to get an overview of its main ideas (I’ll eventually do a post on the meeting and its discussions as well).
To begin with, it’s important to understand how much cosmology and physics has gotten right. Our ability to map out the history of the universe back to a fraction of an instant after its inception is a triumph of the human intellect and imagination. And because that history could not be told without a detailed description of matter and forces at a fundamental level, it’s clear we’ve done something remarkable — and remarkably correct.
It’s the next steps down into reality’s basement, however, where the trouble seems to begin. Some researchers now see popular ideas like string theory and the multiverse as highly suspect. These physicists feel our study of the cosmos has been taken too far from what data can constrain with the extra “hidden” dimensions of string theory and the unobservable other universes of the multiverse. Of course, there are many scientists who continue to see great promise in string theory and the multiverse. But, as Marcelo and I wrote in The New York Times last year, it all adds up to muddied waters and something some researchers see as a “crisis in physics.”
Smolin and Unger believe this crisis is real — and it’s acute. They pull no punches in their sense that the lack of empirical data has led the field astray.