Stephen Hawking is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem.
January 19, 2015 7:32 AM   Subscribe

The equations on the blackboard may be the problem. Mathematics, the language of science, may have misled the scientists. “The idea,” says physicist Lee Smolin, “that the truth about nature can be wrestled from pure thought through mathematics is overdone… The idea that mathematics is prophetic and that mathematical structure and beauty are a clue to how nature ultimately works is just wrong.”

Lee Smolin thinks that time is real. If that strikes you as unusual, you haven’t spent much time with theoretical physicists, who tend to think that the passing of time is either an emergent property of the universe, or, perhaps, an illusion.

And in an essay published last week in the science journal Nature astrophysicists George Ellis and Joe Silk say that the wild claims of theoretical physicists are threatening the authority of science itself.
posted by leotrotsky (88 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
some more links debating the Nature essay.

The book.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:33 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great stuff. The more voices out there speaking against scientism and it's ridiculous claims, particularly from scientists and mathematicians, the better.
posted by shivohum at 7:36 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Actually the articles here seem to support a more rigorous adherence to the scientific method in certain limited domains, but if you have a bone to pick by all means let's talk about that instead.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 7:46 AM on January 19, 2015 [34 favorites]


You have to respect Smolin. And I think his cautionary point about mathematics is well taken, if a bit overblown. But if you actually ever talk to scientists about their field, they are almost universally the first ones to say how they could be wrong, and point out limitations to the theories, so the hand wringing along with this article makes it seem a bit click-baity and the issue seems more with science journalism rather than scientists.
posted by sfts2 at 7:51 AM on January 19, 2015 [16 favorites]


The idea that mathematics is prophetic and that mathematical structure and beauty are a clue to how nature ultimately works is just wrong.

So much the worse for nature.
posted by escabeche at 7:52 AM on January 19, 2015 [17 favorites]


Relaying on mathematics is demonstrably absurd because it makes two unprovable assumptions – that maths can accurately describe the universe and, even if that is true, that our maths at this particular moment is good enough to do it.

From where I'm sitting, the first of those is inevitably true and the second isn't something a mathematician or physicist would claim has been achieved, but rather something for which they are striving.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:52 AM on January 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable. Only then can we defend science.

I agree with this.
posted by valkane at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's worth reading the comments on that Bryan Appleyard article since they'll save us some of the work of pointing out the errors, misrepresentations and bloody great strawmen he's putting forward.
posted by sobarel at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [12 favorites]


Oh god, Brian Appleyard. ("...the difference is, God knows he's not Brian Appleyard")

I remember him from the last - or one before that - bout when intelligent design got some traction with people who should know better. He spouted the most egregious bollocks about how science should be more humble and certainly can't claim to know the things it claims to know, and... mercifully, I forget the details. But he was either deliberately or through ignorance mis-stating what science was and then proceeding to attack it, and I see from this piece that his wardrobe still has some strawmen left to drag out.

Seriously - this seems on first reading to be him sticking to that MO. You know - theoretical ideas are fanciful and not related to reality; when science has an idea and sets out to check it and it doesn't check out then SCIENCE IS WRONG; when science is right but difficult then it's anti-human... and there is a Greater Truth In Humanity that science Does Not Understand but instead Undermines.

Geez. He is not good for my blood pressure.
posted by Devonian at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [29 favorites]


String theory by the way has one obvious advantage over many other unification approaches in that it is NOT OBVIOUSLY WRONG. Unification is an incredibly constrained problem, and since we are probing scales of 10 to the minus fuckton the fact that no experimental evidence has YET been achieved is not something I would think should be used as an argument against continued research in that area.
posted by sfts2 at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Scientists don't usually argue that time isn't real though do they? Only that our experience of time as unidirectional movement is an illusion. There are particles that move backwards through time. If particle phycisists thought time didn't exist at all, how would that be possible? The idea isn't really that time doesn't exist, but that time as we experience it doesn't really exist. The space-time continuum of Minkowski space isn't an argument that time doesn't exist, it's an argument that time and space are different dimensions along the same continuum and that time as a real physical property of the universe isn't strictly unidirectional and linear as we experience it. We have instruments sensitive enough now to detect the relativistic effects the theory predicts, and we are in fact detecting them--sorry I need to do more than skim the article and see what Smolin's really getting at. Hopefully he's not just tilting at strawmen here. I think a little more epistemological skepticism about mathematical modeling would definitely be prudent; I'm just not sure whether it's the scientific community or the general public who need to hear the message most.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:58 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ah--on review, maybe he is just tilting at strawmen here.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:59 AM on January 19, 2015


For example, contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion – springs from twentieth century physics and has, most recently, infected neuroscience.

Ok Mr. Smarty Pants, you go and design an experiment that proves we have free will.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:00 AM on January 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


Math can be elegant, but it can serve error just as well as truth: It wasn't the math that led us to abandon phlogiston, or planetary epicycles.
posted by tyllwin at 8:00 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


The Appleyard article is problematic, as the commenters (worth reading!) point out.

Smolin's point is well-taken, but from the beginning, the string-theory people have acknowledged the need for testable hypotheses. And in fact, that has driven much of the math, trying to find predictions that will work at the scales we can operate on.

As far as scientists working on dead end problems, that part of the process. Kepler tried to get the planetary orbits to fit inside regular polygons for years. It was a dead end, and it had nothing to do with the elliptical orbits he eventually discovered, but science is a human endeavor and humans are fallible. Kepler was attracted to regular polygons because of his personality. I suspect some modern scientists are the same way - they choose to work on a theortical problem becuase it appeals to them. The fact they don't know in advance the best direction to work on doesn't invalidate the work. It comes with the territory.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:01 AM on January 19, 2015 [17 favorites]


I can't see atoms, therefore they must not exist. I should not even consider the idea that they exist because I have no way to test whether or not they exist. Apparently.
posted by tempestuoso at 8:03 AM on January 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


In climate science, for example, mathematical models have repeatedly been proved wrong – most spectacularly in their failure to predict the pause in global warming over the last two decades.

Of all the many aspects of the debate over climate change to call a "spectacular failure," this is a pretty weird choice.

I mean, what, besides mathematical modeling, would this guy want us to use as a way of thinking about global climate?

The true queen of the sciences should be history – the biography of the cosmos... They insist on three principles – there is only one universe, time is real and mathematics is limited – that would, if accepted, not only cause a revolution in physics but in the whole of science. Most importantly, they would displace physics as the queen of the sciences. Instead the real, experimentally and observationally demonstrable, history of the cosmos would become science’s new gold standard.

Let me see if I've got it straight. The climate has never in history changed so much in a century as to threaten large chunks of the biosphere -- so it probably won't happen now! I guess I showed those mathematicians a thing or two!

(Note that Appleyard doesn't actually think this about climate change: when it comes down to it, he seems willing to accept that the math climate scientists do is actually worth doing.)
posted by escabeche at 8:05 AM on January 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Show me the scientist who thinks otherwise, Tyllwin. That's the basic error in Appleyard's piece: he's pretending science and scientists do not see what he - in his enlightened majesty alone - can see. Whereas science is different from mathematics precisely because they do.

Appleyard's been playing this shtick for decades. I really must learn to ignore him more thoroughly, but this is my playground he's filling with monkey poo. It's hard.
posted by Devonian at 8:06 AM on January 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


It should be pointed out that all three essays are fundamentally different in points of view. Mr. Appleyard seems to not believe in empiricism, the nature physicists are arguing that empiricism is a fundamental value and cannot be pushed aside, and Mr. Smolin is arguing that no empirical evidence exists to support a popular line of questioning in modern physics. Honestly, I see nothing wrong with the later two essays, but I'm forced to conclude that Mr. Appleyard has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

Mr. Appleyard is explicitly rejecting empiricism, with choice quotes such as:

If everything is subject to time and, therefore, change, then these laws can evolve. They suggest the idea that these laws are eternally fixed is a supersition caused by mathematics – all the insights of maths are timeless and maths is only a human creation. In fact, two of the greatest physicists of all time – Richard Feynman and Paul Dirac – both accepted the possibility that the laws of physics evolve through time. Yet eternal, immutable physical laws, somehow detached from our physical universe, remain one of the primary superstitions of our age.

He's correct in saying that the invariance of the laws of nature is a very human assumption, but there is nothing we have observed that would lead us to believe otherwise. Dirac and Feynman are simply being intellectually honest by stating that it's a possibility.

Where he definitely loses me is an apparent disdain for mathematics as applied to physical sciences:

Relaying on mathematics is demonstrably absurd because it makes two unprovable assumptions – that maths can accurately describe the universe and, even if that is true, that our maths at this particular moment is good enough to do it.

I object to the use of "demonstrably absurd" because he's not demonstrated absurdity. Furthermore, much better thinkers have thought about the validity of applying mathematics to the natural sciences (see The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics by Eugene Winger), and you end up in a place where, yes, there is nothing fundamental about either mathematics or physics suggesting a link between the two, but it works, and it works incredibly well (see: planes flying, computers working, LHC online). The secret sauce, so to speak, is empiricism: this works because we can see it working.

The truth is that empiricism is fundamentally unsatisfying. Mr. Appleyard seems to want there to be more metaphysical reasons for this belief, but there are none. It's either that or he's explicitly rejecting the capacity for humans to acquire knowledge, because we have absolutely no other way.
posted by Mons Veneris at 8:07 AM on January 19, 2015 [21 favorites]


I've dispensed with the linked article, just for all the same reasons as discussed here and in comments.

And I am just going to say this about anyone complaining about progress in physics or science in general for this reason. Fuck you. I see so many fantasies perpetuated in other aspects of human thought (religion, bigotry, throughout modern discourse in general) to even consider writing an article about this one is silly. I'll also go out on a limb and say in general, the example set by scientists in terms of collaboration, rationality, avoiding strong opinions in the absence of evidence, the entire human race could take as a very good model. If that is 'scientism' well, I'm a proponent.
posted by sfts2 at 8:13 AM on January 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Untestable science is not science, per se. "Philosophy," admittedly for reasons I can't explain, just seems an inadequate descriptor.
posted by basicchannel at 8:15 AM on January 19, 2015


Why does every clikky piece pick on Steven Hawking?
posted by sfts2 at 8:19 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Who the hell is Bryan Appleyard? (clicks About page.... checks Wikipedia...) Oh. he's a 63 year old author with a degree in English.

... *plonk*, as they say.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 8:23 AM on January 19, 2015 [18 favorites]


In climate science, for example, mathematical models have repeatedly been proved wrong – most spectacularly in their failure to predict the pause in global warming over the last two decades.

This means the models were incomplete or incorrect, not that mathematics failed. We learned from our models, in this particular case; that particulates can block sunlight enough to temporarily mask the increase in CO2.

Thanks to these "spectacularly failed" models, we asked more questions and now know more. It is so goddamn frustrating that the basics of science have to explained and re-explained every single time we learn something new, as if that invalidates all the science before it. But I shouldn't be surprised, after all, an adult used the term "scientism" in this thread.
posted by spaltavian at 8:25 AM on January 19, 2015 [15 favorites]


As a committed determinist, I find this entire kerfuffle inevitable.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:25 AM on January 19, 2015 [21 favorites]


Why does every clikky piece pick on Steven Hawking?

He's a theoretical physicist that people have actually heard of, presumably. And maybe people still feel aggrieved by getting A Brief History of Time for Christmas 20 years ago.
posted by sobarel at 8:26 AM on January 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


It's not like physicists don't want to test their ideas empirically. It's just colossally expensive to do so (see: the LHC), and nobody is writing those checks for the theorists to cash.

As for time and the reality thereof: Appleyard says that if time is real, then the laws of physics could change over time. It's not clear to me just what this means; what unstated premise does he also rely on so that the following claim isn't just as true: "If time is real, then the laws of arithmetic could change over time"?

In fact, finding constraints on the change in presumed physical constants over the lifetime of the observable universe is a kind of empirical physics we are busy doing. It's easy to do, compared to building a LHC. For example, wikipedia summarises empirical evidence about constraints on change in the fine structure constant. (spoiler: temporal and spatial variation not yet ruled out, and in fact )

Discovering that a presumed constant actually has varied over the history of the universe, or over location in the universe, or otherwise depending on local conditions, is no problem for the enterprise of physics, though confirming that some once-presumed constant varied would certainly be a notable achievement in physics and would result in any number of specific "laws" of physics being revised. (for instance, special relativity involved giving up the assumption that the passage of time itself was invariant for any observer)

(disclaimers: I am only an interested outsider to physics, and I only made it halfway through the Appleyard article before coming to say my piece, and I see on preview a lot of you are saying similar things)
posted by jepler at 8:26 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


err, my parenthetical spoiler was supposed to say something like: and in fact, some of the best expeirments seem to exclude the hypothesis that the fine structure value is constant.
posted by jepler at 8:28 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


So much the worse for nature.

Fuckin' a, dude.
posted by busted_crayons at 8:30 AM on January 19, 2015


Math can be elegant, but it can serve error just as well as truth: It wasn't the math that led us to abandon phlogiston, or planetary epicycles.

While I'm not 100% about the actual history behind those ideas, I am fairly certain that math (or at least its close cousin, logic) probably did play a pretty strong role in their abandonment.
posted by surazal at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Can someone explain how math and physics interact? So political scientists and economists use math to make their intuition, logic, and conclusions from premises airtight. They view these equations as very gross abstractions from the real world. Is this in anyway similar to how physicists use math? or is it that they believe their formulas aren't models?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2015


And maybe people still feel aggrieved by getting A Brief History of Time for Christmas 20 years ago.

No, guilt is what usually makes people mean. They feel guilty because they got A Brief History of Time 20 years ago and never got around to reading it (though they had time to watch all of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, and secretly watched every season of Survivor).
posted by aught at 8:32 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, in 1988 you just might have preferred to get the latest New Order LP and maybe something cool to watch on the Betamax.
posted by sobarel at 8:41 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


surazal: Math can be elegant, but it can serve error just as well as truth: It wasn't the math that led us to abandon phlogiston, or planetary epicycles.

While I'm not 100% about the actual history behind those ideas, I am fairly certain that math (or at least its close cousin, logic) probably did play a pretty strong role in their abandonment.
I believe his point was that physical data overturned both of those ideas. If I am incorrect, then his examples are wrong.

However, that data had to be channeled through a lot of math to prove anything, so, yes, math played a vital role. As it does in every hard science
posted by IAmBroom at 8:41 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


They say whenever you hear someone speak of "patriotism", you should clutch your pocketbook tightly.

Corrolary: Whenever someone suggests that "Math doesn't hold all the answers!", clutch your textbooks and separation of Church and State tightly.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:43 AM on January 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


Maths is the native language of physics, and physics is the model we make of how the world works. Sometimes, physics discovers things that really need new mathematics to describe them and sometimes mathematics describes something that hasn't been observed but that physicists then know how to look for. Lots of maths has nothing to do with physics; sometimes it seems to have nothing to do with physics and then, many years later, someone finds that it does. It's all pretty fascinating, and I'm not sure I know how it works.

The king of this is the world. If there are things happening that physics can't explain, then physics is wrong (or at best, incomplete. Physics is always incomplete, and frequently wrong). If the maths suggests something that really isn't the case, then the maths isn't necessarily wrong - it's a language, you can say things in it that don't correspond to actual things that actually exist - but it just doesn't apply in that case.

The power of science comes from the idea that you can make models, and then do things in those models, that you can translate back to reality. Mathematics is the best way to make and manipulate those models in a checkable way. Early man discovered that the seasons came around regularly and that if you counted the days, there were always so many days between the seasons - and that the lights in the sky moved to the same pattern. Thus, if you build some sort of calendar that lets you count the days to come, or has a marker where a known light in the sky will touch at a particular time in the year, you can predict when's the best time to sow your crops, or make your journey, or start storing stuff.

Things have got a bit more complex since then, but that's still the general idea.
posted by Devonian at 8:45 AM on January 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


mathematical models have repeatedly been proved wrong – most spectacularly in their failure to predict the pause in global warming over the last two decades.

And climatologists acknowledge that their models are not perfect. Which means that mathematics as a practice is working as it should, including people figuring out how to build better models, and climatologists figuring out how to build better instruments to get better data.
posted by carter at 8:46 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


surazal: Math can be elegant, but it can serve error just as well as truth: It wasn't the math that led us to abandon phlogiston, or planetary epicycles.


I think what you mean is that empirics, not theory, let us to abandon phlogiston.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:47 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


For example, contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion – springs from twentieth century physics and has, most recently, infected neuroscience

yo dude I hate to trip up your high horse there, but you might wanna google Spinoza and check on the clear lineage of those he's directly influenced (including Einstein, who wrote poetic odes to his conceptually beautiful philosophical thought) before making wild claims like this.
posted by Chipmazing at 8:51 AM on January 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


I can't wait to see the fight between Smolin and Tegmark.
posted by symbioid at 8:53 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I believe his point was that physical data overturned both of those ideas.

Yes. I was just trying to say that in the lack of hard physical data, the mathematical models could be tortured into coughing up the right answers based on the wrong theory.
posted by tyllwin at 8:59 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Chipmazing: For example, contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion – springs from twentieth century physics and has, most recently, infected neuroscience

yo dude I hate to trip up your high horse there, but you might wanna google Spinoza and check on the clear lineage of those he's directly influenced (including Einstein, who wrote poetic odes to his conceptually beautiful philosophical thought) before making wild claims like this.
Not to mention that neither neuroscience nor physics believe in determinism - not since Einstein incorrectly claimed "God does not play dice with the universe."
posted by IAmBroom at 8:59 AM on January 19, 2015


> There are particles that move backwards through time.

Wait. What? This is surely untrue.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 9:10 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Models are models of... They are not the thing in itself. Mathematics is a description of... It could be seen as just a language. One we use to describe... A description is a map. The map is not the territory. The power of our descriptions is based on the power of the language we use to describe. Math is quite powerful. But it is not the thing described.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:13 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wow, that Applebaum essay was hard to stomach. With apologies to Newton, some people stand on the shoulders of giants, then stick their heads up their own asses and complain about the view.
posted by bjrubble at 9:20 AM on January 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


I am actually surprised that no one on this thread has yet to joke, "Stephen Hawking is not part of the solution, he is part of the precipitate."
posted by surazal at 9:21 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


It could be seen as just a language.

This would be inaccurate. The "language of science" thing is just one role of what is just a strict proper subset of math (abusing language, here, rather hugely).
posted by busted_crayons at 9:21 AM on January 19, 2015


it's cute when physicists rediscover 18th century metaphysics. Why, you can only imagine, they may even make it into the 19th century within the next 100 years.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:21 AM on January 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Let me know when one of these guys figures out a new way of describing the universe. In the meantime, I'm gonna use some rather sloppy math to figure out how many cubic yards of gravel I need to order for my new patio.
posted by Revvy at 9:23 AM on January 19, 2015


Let me know when one of these guys figures out a new way of describing the universe. In the meantime, I'm gonna use some rather sloppy math to figure out how many cubic yards of gravel I need to order for my new patio.

Discussions about this kind of thing, in many venues, almost always have a comment or two that is isomorphic to this one. I think it's a joke, but I'm not sure what it's trying to achieve. Even Lee Smolin doesn't crash discussions about patio-drainage with insinuations about how hopelessly arcane patio-drainage is in the face of practical, relatable issues like the nature of time.
posted by busted_crayons at 9:27 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


The article is appallingly bad - it's hard to know where to start.

It's full of howlers - "For example, contemporary determinism – the idea that everything that happens is inevitable and that our free will is an illusion – springs from twentieth century physics".

ARG! It was classical physics that postulated a completely deterministic universe. Quantum mechanics was the first time since science became science that anyone had postulated any form of intrinsic non-determinism.

This isn't a little goof - it's getting the whole nature of twentieth century physics wrong.

He acts as though some scientists believe that theory trumps observation - that the map is the territory. No scientist ever believed this, no one has ever claimed this - name one!

But forget about quibbles. If we give up mathematics, including statistics, logic, calculus, then how exactly do we formulate theories? How do we test theories - how do we decide which theory is better - how do we work out the consequences of new theories without mathematics?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:32 AM on January 19, 2015 [18 favorites]


Wait. What? This is surely untrue.

Relativity allows for something called closed timelike curves, which are points where spacetime loops around on itself. In theory, these can be reconciled with quantum mechanics in such a way that the attendant causal paradoxes are nullified. Thus, it may be possible for particles to interact with themselves through time. My understanding, however, is that this has not been experimentally verified outside of simulations.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:33 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


It would have been interesting to see what arguments other than thumping the table exist for time realism and the unitary universe, but I didn't see any in the article, other than that people feel this is the only way to save the Very Important Dignity of Physics as the thing that describes Reality.
posted by thelonius at 9:46 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whether time's existence is a priori, emergent, or just a method of our feeble brains to cope with a more complex universe, drainage capacity is partly measured in time and Smolin's house is built using that measurement. I'm agreeing with Smolin that time is a real thing (because that's what I believe, not because I have any proof aside from my ticking clock), and I'm also pointing out how utterly useless that distinction is because it's not falsifiable until he puts forward a new description (physicist, disprove thyself). Even the TimeCube guy put forward his ideas. Smolin's still talking over absinthe at the philosopher's table.
posted by Revvy at 10:00 AM on January 19, 2015


OK, I think the Appleyard thing is nonsense. But, I recently read a book called Farewell to Reality that talks about a lot of the issues in play, and I think this is all reflective of the current crisis point that physics has hit.

Basically: string theory is all hypothetical, but it's based on supersymmetry (SUSY). And SUSY posits that for each boson there is a corresponding partner fermion, and vice versa. (Somehow in a catastrophe of naming these got called spartners.) The problem is, the LHC should have found one of these particles, and it didn't find anything at the expected weight. So the current models of supersymmetry might not actually be true at all. Which wouldn't be an issue if not for the fact that the last 20 years or so have seen an unprecedented number of scientists working in string theory. People like Smolin are trying to use this as an opportunity to introduce alternate takes on fundamental physics, since the alternative is to figure out new models for SUSY that will totally change what is already worked out for string theory.
posted by graymouser at 10:01 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Argh. A think piece with no citations and a lot of claims formed from the air of vague impressions, such as this one, already derided a few times above: "In climate science, for example, mathematical models have repeatedly proved wrong" This is not a valid criticism of maths, you twit: only of the particular model and the data we were able to seed it with. What you've said is analogous to "Our theories about the mechanical characteristics of steel are wrong, as has been proven by skyscrapers that have fallen down and autos that have rusted."

Also:

Metafilter: probing scales of 10 to the minus fuckton.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:03 AM on January 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I once saw a watch that was broken, thus Newton is disproved.
posted by idiopath at 10:08 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


the above the fold link is garbage, but the interview with Smolin is pretty good:
The results from the Large Hadron Collider are extremely disappointing to people working on particle physics. Many thousands of people fear that forty years of work are lost—their whole careers they’ve spent on very intricate and elaborate models with motivating ideas, they have now to reconsider in the light of the evidence. The question is how people think when what they thought was contradicted.

One of the issues is that the standard model is extremely fine-tuned on 29 parameters to take either very large or very small values.
Smolin is really pulling his punch here though.

Also "time is real" is a terrible pun, since Hawking is fond of using "complex" time.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:09 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've always considered our mathematical models to be imperfect, incomplete representations of the whole of a given phenomenon or system. This has led me to be skeptical of some of the more outlandish predictions I've come across, which are based in anomalous mathematical implications more than observation.

On the other hand, I like to think about these fantastic ideas, and to keep an open mind in the absence of supporting data. Also, I just watched Pi this weekend.
posted by Mister_A at 10:18 AM on January 19, 2015


“Three or four of us in 1957 put forward a partially complete theory of the weak [nuclear] force, in disagreement with the results of seven experiments. It was beautiful and so we dared to publish it, believing that all those experiments must be wrong. In fact, they were all wrong.” --Murray Gell-Mann

"What I remember most clearly was that when I put down a suggestion that seemed to me cogent and reasonable, Einstein did not in the least contest this, but he only said, "Oh, how ugly." As soon as an equation seemed to him to be ugly, he really rather lost interest in it and could not understand why somebody else was willing to spend much time on it. He was quite convinced that beauty was a guiding principle in the search for important results in theoretical physics." --Hermann Bondi

Which is not to say that there are many modern physicists that would completely disregard experimental evidence in favor of a beautiful theory, but there is nonetheless a tendency among theoretical physicists to assume that physical law is intrinsically elegant, and thus there must be a relationship between the beauty of a theoretical formulation and its essential truth. This undoubtedly distorts the advancement of the field in practical ways--i.e., that some beautiful but misleading theories attract disproportionate attention while some messy but promising theories are ignored or prematurely dismissed.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:24 AM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem is, the LHC should have found one of these particles, and it didn't find anything at the expected weight. So the current models of supersymmetry might not actually be true at all. Which wouldn't be an issue if not for the fact that the last 20 years or so have seen an unprecedented number of scientists working in string theory.

My problem (ha!) with this debate is that this is not a "problem" at all. It's how science has pretty much always worked since the beginning of humanity. Non-string-theorists are wringing their hands at the "death of science" because people who have put literally their life's work into the theory are scrambling to adjust, up to and including throwing out a fundamental axiom of science? I don't know, that sounds like a typically human reaction to me.

It seems to me like non-scientist bloggers and interviewers don't really recognize that Smolin isn't exactly a disinterested party. He has his own life's work to support and to sell. His philosophy of science and his understanding of the history of science doesn't just accidentally support his own theoretical interpretation of the universe.
posted by muddgirl at 10:26 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Can someone explain the last bit about the neutron stars? How does a neutron star of greater than 2 solar masses kill Smolin's theory? I understand about the why part of that - he is suggesting that his theory is 'real' science because it can be disproved by experimentation or observation - just curious about the 2+ solar masses result being critical.
posted by Mister_A at 10:33 AM on January 19, 2015


Nature loves Math, but they're really in a Platonic relationship.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:37 AM on January 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Time did not begin, as the physicists have been telling us, at the Big Bang, it passed serenely on through the Big Squeeze, as did our own universe.

Look, I don't know a whole lot about physics, mostly just the Theoretical Minimum and various other youtube-based stuff, but my impression is that the idea of the Big Bang being the absolute beginning of time, before which there was no such thing, has gone way out of fashion in recent decades. You heard people saying it in the 1990's, more philosophers than physicists probably - but the more publicly visible physicists seemed to go along with it or at least not contradict it. Today they'll much more likely admit that we don't have the slightest idea what happened before then. In part this is because there have been a few theories about what kind of situation might have preceded and led to the big bang, but those don't seem too important in practice. They just solidified the idea that there probably really was something going on before anything we can know about.

Still, physicists do go wrong on occasion, including for example Hawking. Obviously he's great, but having read his popular book wherein he tries to explain the origin of the universe, it's clear that he did get a bit carried away taking ideas from mathematics unwisely far into philosophy, where they didn't hold up very well.

The basic fundamental ideas of string theory, by contrast, seem sensible enough. It still has some big problems of course, but it seems promising. Susskind and others have convinced me that it's no more weird and mysterious to imagine that there are these extra dimensions of space than it is to imagine these "fields" that quantum field theory talks about without having any concrete physical model that satisfies one's intuition about why they're there or how they really work. If they get the mathematics right, string theory very well could lead to a better understanding of things. I gather that they haven't quite done that yet, but we can still hope they might succeed.

string theory is all hypothetical, but it's based on supersymmetry (SUSY)

I can see why string theories tend to lead to SUSY -- partly because the mathematics works out that way, but also because the same people tend to like both. But isn't it a bit of a stretch to say that all string theory is based on it? Anyway, I do hope they can do it without resort to Grassmann numbers, because if those are still involved I think maybe you're on the wrong track there guys. Those are just too weird.
posted by sfenders at 10:57 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


idiopath: I once saw a watch that was broken, thus Newton is disproved.
Nah, it just means it was unintelligently designed.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:04 AM on January 19, 2015


I've always considered our mathematical models to be imperfect, incomplete representations of the whole of a given phenomenon or system.

"Insofar as mathematics accurately describes the world, it ceases to be interesting." -Ulam
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:06 AM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh. he's a 63 year old author with a degree in English.

Don't look at us that way; we think he's an idiot too.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:24 AM on January 19, 2015 [15 favorites]


Can someone explain the last bit about the neutron stars? How does a neutron star of greater than 2 solar masses kill Smolin's theory?

Google tells me it's down to some possibly-true principle of particle physics which would mean that neutron stars larger than that would collapse into black holes. It must depend on parameters that would vary in Smolin's theory, which relies on the laws of nature being fine-tuned to produce as many black holes as possible, through a kind of natural selection where black holes sort of reproduce by making universes with slightly different parameters. So if the particular variables that Smolin imagines varying are in fact set up to maximize black holes, larger neutron stars would collapse.

So okay, his theory is falsifiable. To me that alone doesn't make it any more plausible than something like "multiverse" theories of eternal inflation, but of course it would be convenient if whatever the truth is did turn out to be something we could test.
posted by sfenders at 11:54 AM on January 19, 2015


Thanks, that clears things up a bit. Should Smolin's theory pass this test, we must think of other tests to poke it with, etc. Should it fail, we must abandon or modify the theory to better fit the data and to predict experimental/observational results.
posted by Mister_A at 11:57 AM on January 19, 2015


The Nature essay's characterization of Everett's many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics seems lacking. That "quantum probabilities affect the macroscopic" is true in any interpretation, since that's how the cat dies or doesn't die. They authors simply seem to think that MWI gets a bit *too* macroscopic for their liking. Saying that MWI means alternate universes "pop out of the quantum vacuum" is not an accurate description of what proponents of the theory would say is happening, and seems to push an understanding of MWI as spawning too many entities. Which is fine, a lot of people feel that way, and that's an argument you can have, but the authors seem to understand it only on an oversimplified level.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:21 PM on January 19, 2015


Mister_A: Can someone explain the last bit about the neutron stars? How does a neutron star of greater than 2 solar masses kill Smolin's theory?

Um. I work on these things, I've been involved in neutron star mass measurement papers, and I honestly wasn't aware of this prediction that we were trying to kill. Grade: Must Do Better in keeping up with the theoretical literature.

Ok, so reading up a bit: There aren’t many predictions, but there are a few. One is holding up remarkably: When I first published [in 1992], I predicted no neutron star should have a mass of more than 1.6 times the sun.

Bzzzt. Here is a 2 solar mass neutron star. (Work by some of my close colleagues, not involving me - it's a beautiful result!)

... That wasn’t quite right; the prediction was based on a theoretical calculation done by nuclear astrophysicists, and when that was done more carefully the upper limit predicted ended up being two solar masses.

Well, how convenient. This is why we get annoyed by theorists. They make a prediction, we make careful observations, declare another beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact, and they come back with "Oh, did I say 1.6? I meant 2.0..." Gah!

More seriously, here's a diagram showing all well-measured neutron star masses, taken from this paper. (Paper may be paywalled, image should not be.) The one of interest is J1614-2230 (1.97+-0.04 solar masses) but many of the rest are pretty good too - and damn close to the original prediction of 1.4 to 1.6 solar masses. So far, we haven't found one more massive than 2 solar masses with any degree of confidence.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:28 PM on January 19, 2015 [12 favorites]


Even more nitpicks about climate:

Appleyard says: "In climate science, for example, mathematical models have repeatedly been proved wrong – most spectacularly in their failure to predict the pause in global warming over the last two decades. "

But RealClimate argues convincingly for no pause: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2014/12/recent-global-warming-trends-significant-or-paused-or-what/

I'm not sure Appleyard is a 'reliable narrator' here.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 1:27 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Whoa, thanks RedOrGreen.
posted by Mister_A at 1:29 PM on January 19, 2015


MisantropicPainforest: Can someone explain how math and physics interact? So political scientists and economists use math to make their intuition, logic, and conclusions from premises airtight. They view these equations as very gross abstractions from the real world. Is this in anyway similar to how physicists use math? or is it that they believe their formulas aren't models?

Addressed a little above already, but I wanted to add that this is a deep and contested topic in philosophy of science. I think you can find plenty of people who'll say that physics is the same, and plenty of people who'll argue otherwise. Generally it's agreed that the math used by physicists is less of an abstraction than it is a field like economics.

Personally, I'd argue that math as used by physicists is an approximate reproduction/recreation of the mathematical structure of reality, not really a model in the same sense as it is in political science or economics. In those fields, the underlying reality is not fundamentally a mathematical structure but rather is emergent behavior of independent actors which is amenable to abstraction into math. See also structural realism, but I think that should be a fair description for other forms of scientific realism as well. I can imagine realist positions which would disagree. Anti-realist positions could more easily take a dim view of the work being done by math in physics.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:43 PM on January 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


there is a Greater Truth In Humanity that science Does Not Understand but instead Undermines.

Soon to be the startling conclusion to the next blockbuster fiction film. Nothing brings tickets in like a movie saying "science does not have all the answers.
posted by happyroach at 2:02 PM on January 19, 2015


So fuckin' dense and off-putting and useless, right off the bat with the "I THINK TIME EXISTS THING." Theoretical physicists describing time as a dimension or emergent property of matter (along with consciousness, suck on that one) isn't saying "time doesn't exist," but it lets the same kind of morons who use the name "black hole" as some damning indictment against black holes ("they just explain gaps in our understanding of space and it's a secret conspiracy to identify them as such by name!!!") off the hook for totally missing the boat on science.
posted by aydeejones at 2:48 PM on January 19, 2015


Basically this guy is at the level where he needs to watch Cosmos, old and new, pay attention to the opening sequences even and look at some fibonacci spirals and his nifty computer that is a manifestation of pure abstract thought completely governed by mathematical principles and highly non-intuitive but provable models of electricity that may not be perfect but are good enough to make modern civilization as we know it possible. Yeah, blood pressure
posted by aydeejones at 2:51 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


After reading the Appleyard article I was prepared to dismiss the Ellis and Silk essay as some kind of ridiculous overreaction... but after reading their article I think I agree with them. To a point, anyway.

An attempt to redefine what science is by including things that can't (yet) be experimentally verified really does eat away at the foundations of the whole enterprise. Remember that article from last year about how quantum mechanics could be simplified by computing the volume of an extra-dimensional amplituhedron? Beautiful (and potentially helpful as a calculation device), but not science, because it's not actually describing the world we live in. It's so easy for human minds to get lost in self constructed rabbit holes, the only thing that keeps us tethered is the demand for experimental verification. If that is replaced or even just supplemented by Bayesian analysis then theoretical physics risks becoming decoupled from reality altogether and losing itself in a wonderfully self-consistent mathematical dream.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:57 PM on January 19, 2015


But that doesn't mean that science should only investigate things that can be proven. I'm not qualified to criticize Smolin's ideas and I haven't read his book, so he's probably making a much more complex argument than The Awl article describes, and so on. But just going by what he describes in the article, his theory of cosmological natural selection seems to be based on an article of faith as much as any version of string theory.

The string theories depend upon other dimensions that we can't experimentally verify (yet), whereas he takes the opposite approach and bases his theory on the belief that only things that can be verified are real. But how can he possibly know that? In the end string theory is still a tentative "maybe" since it depends upon things that we haven't yet found, and his theory is a "maybe" because it's based on observable facts. They're both science until one or both can be proven to be false.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:17 PM on January 19, 2015


JohnB Says:
15 JANUARY 2015 at 8:13 am

Appleyard isn’t qualified to write about physics.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:23 PM on January 19, 2015


For non-experts (and sometimes experts) it is important to remember the limitations of a mathematical approach to real-world problems, which can be very complex.

We all learn in school to solve motion and acceleration problems by ignoring air resistance and (usually friction). Integrating those forces requires -much- more experience. Similar simplifications are widely used to -model- the very complex behaviors of very common behaviors. There is, for example, no general (exact) solution for water running over terrain, or for the process of photosynthesis. We are always improving existing models.

Claims that math -can- describe the universe completely are completely philosophical ... which, IMO, is the position that string-theory is in.
posted by Twang at 4:01 PM on January 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's not like string theorists pulled it out of their asses. The kind of formulas that can be used to describe physics are extremely constrained by experiment. String theory is entirely consistent with all of physics as we know it. That, by itself, is a stupendous achievement. It also happens to offer a way forward I'm terms of unifying gravity with the other forces. There's basically no other game in town. Which doesn't mean that it's the answer. But it's worth investing a lot of time to find out if it is.

The fact that we haven't found supersymmetric particles is fascinating, it's not a failure of science, it's how science is supposed to work. Nobody wants to find out stuff they already know, they want something new they have to explain.
posted by empath at 5:29 PM on January 19, 2015


his theory is a "maybe" because it's based on observable facts.

I wouldn't go that far. That particular theory of Smolin's seems to be based on some possibilities left open by our incomplete understanding of the mathematics of gravity, plus a lot of making stuff up. It sure isn't based on observations of the interior of black holes. You can find out a little more about what he's actually talking about here.
The landscape problem represents a serious crisis in the development of science. Its solution requires, as we shall see, the construction of speculative cosmological scenarios,
which posit regions or epochs of our universe for which we presently have no observable
evidence. Nonetheless we must insist on taking seriously only scenarios and hypotheses
that make falsifiable or strongly verifiable predictions, otherwise people can just make
stuff up and the distinction between science and mythology becomes porous.
Eh, I don't know. If you're trying to explain all possible laws of nature with cosmic natural selection for black hole formation, I would need a lot more convincing that there isn't some large number of possible combinations of those laws that would make for a lot more black holes than we have around here. Anyone know if he's made a good argument for that? It seems impossible.
posted by sfenders at 5:49 PM on January 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Thus, the hypothesis of cosmological natural selection explains the values of all the
parameters that determine low energy physics and chemistry: the masses of the proton,
neutron, electron and neutrino and the strengths of the strong, weak and electromagnetic
interactions."

Oh, right... considering only low energy stuff that is actually relevant makes for fewer parameters than I was thinking of. And they need only reach a local maxima. Interesting.
posted by sfenders at 6:48 PM on January 19, 2015


The argument from Bryan Appleyard:

THESIS

ANTITHESIS

....and that proves you're wrong, so shut up.
posted by Sparx at 7:18 PM on January 19, 2015


Wolken kann man nicht bauen. Und darum wird die ertaumte Zukunfit nie wahr.

-Wittgenstein.
posted by clavdivs at 9:38 PM on January 19, 2015


These arguments in physics always baffle me, from a molecular biological perspective. It's as if physicists in the experiment-only camp ignore the reality that even our hypotehsis testing apparatus has its own arbitrary nature (or are people suddenly very comfortable with p values?) and decision-making about what is probably true is just that--a placeholder established as a consensus among experts until a better idea comes along.

Science on the medical/pharmaceutical side has no problem just shrugging at this and running with a bit of working uncertainty--otherwise shit wouldn't get done. The established scientific-regulatory pathway for demonstrating that a candidate human pharmaceutical is so loaded with irrelevant, arbitrary, questionable steps that we simply call a spade a spade (as in, 'preclinical efficacy testing is kinda bullshit but it's what we've got to work with') and accept that the process will be in constant flux over time (whether or not the latter is real). There's not much navel-gazing bickering going on between camps about whether or not the pursuit is science--there's just the work of improving the approach, and that is inclusive of theory and practice.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:35 PM on January 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


If I could save time in a bottle
The first thing that I'd like to do
Is to shove that bottle in physicists' faces
posted by jrishel at 8:23 AM on January 21, 2015


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