Friday, July 30, 2010

The physics of futility

Open mic: Should science theorize about the unverifiable?

The cover of Shel Silverstein’s famous Book of Futilities depicts two men in an obviously hopeless predicament. Thoroughly chained to both the floor and ceiling in an inescapable room, one prisoner exclaims to the other “now, here’s my plan.” I was reminded of the old cartoon the other week when the front page of the New York Times science section had an article (albeit very well written and worth reading) on a physicist who claimed gravity didn’t exist. Of course he had zero experimental evidence and few in his field even understood his theory, but it got me thinking: Has physics reached the point of futility?

The greatest problem facing generations of physicists has been the inability to unite gravity - as described in Einstein’s general relativity - with quantum mechanics. Both theories work very well on their own in making predictions, but the common ground between them may lead to a description of our origins, allowing us to peer into the very first instants of the universe. String theory, quantum loop theory, M-Theory and a slew of other approaches have hacked away at finding a theory of quantum gravity that will make our understanding of the universe more complete.

And much like the search for the mythical El Dorado, the quest for a theory of everything has proven too much for many physicists to resist. While few would argue such a pursuit to be futile, the hunt has consumed the lives of many great minds while bearing very little fruit.

What's more, many of these approaches have attacked the problem from directions that can hardly be described as scientific. The first principle of cosmology Lee Smolin lays out in his book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity is that there is nothing outside of our universe (this is not to discount religion). If the universe is a closed system, then the answer to any question in the universe must come from the universe. String theorists throw such cautions to the wind; the theory predicts wide-ranging things like multiple other universes (can we please use universi?) and dimensions, as well as gravitational effects from outside our own universe. In fact, one of the few methods offered to move string theory from the "not even wrong" category relies on the remote chance of detecting gravitational effects from other universes using the LHC.

For decades the frontiers of physics has been occupied by such theories with profound promise, but little observational support. But can we really question their worthiness? Science rarely plays out the way we expect it to, and quite often the popularly dismissed route ends up being the correct one.

This is not an editorial meant to take a stand one way or the other because, honestly, I’m not sure how I feel. I’ve often taken Brian Greene to task for The Elegant Universe, which made millions of Americans cognizant of string theory and led many of them to believe it was more than just a mathematical framework. But I don't believe string theory is futile (though my friends' frequent questions about it may be), I just think it lacks context in the public eye. I’m very curious what other people think.

Is there such a thing as futility in science?


  1. Any observation contains information. The secret is to abstract higher meaning. This often means more observations.
    Here is a higher abstraction on Gravity and Black Holes;


    In the continuum of space and time, exists the dichotomy of matter and energy. All things exist as both matter and energy, but are experienced as one or the other.
    As energy, all things exist as wave patterns. Most wave patterns are interferences of simpler wave patterns. The simplest wave forms are those that do not interfere with other waves. These simplest wave forms hold their shape as they propagate. There are three such wave forms.
    The first such wave form is seen in three dimensions as the spherical expansion wave of a bomb blast, and in two dimensions as the circular wave of expansion on the water where a rock was tossed in. The second wave form is seen in three dimensions as the cone of sonic boom following an aircraft traveling faster than sound, and in two dimensions as the V-wake on the water where the boat is traveling faster than the water wave. The third wave form is seen in three dimensions as the propagation torus of a smoke ring and is seen in two dimensions as the double vortexes of an oar stroke on the water.
    The Torus is a particle of discrete exchange, from one point to another. The object exchanges position and momentum. While the spherical wave shows position, and the conic wave shows momentum, the torus shows both at the same time, and has a dynamic finite unbounded reality. The volumes of the cone, sphere, and torus are mathematically related as static objects.
    The Universe is a local density fluctuation. (a wave pulse) On this local density fluctuation wave, lesser wave forms may exist. All simple wave forms are also local density fluctuations, and as such are indeed universes in their own right, where other waves may exist.
    Consider the torus as a universe. Einstein said that gravity is indistinguishable from acceleration. There is both linear acceleration and angular acceleration. Although the torus as a whole travels in a straight line, every local point on the torus travels in a circle and experiences angular acceleration.
    The rubber sheet model of gravity and curved space translates directly to the propagating torus with angular acceleration. Acceleration is downward on the rubber sheet and outward on the torus. The tension field that separates the inside of the torus from the outside holds its shape as a simple two dimensional field of space and time just as the rubber sheet does.
    Experimentally verifiable is that a big fat slow smoke ring generated in a room with very still air will eventually possess a bulge that travels in a circle on the surface of the smoke ring. This bulge, being a gravitational depression, gathers more of the energy of the field toward itself. Finally the bulge gathers enough material to collapse the field and eject a new, smaller smoke ring out in the same direction as the first torus. This collapse is a black hole to the first torus, and a white hole to the second torus, where the axes of space and time in that second torus have reversed.
    While gravity tends to draw depressions together locally on a dynamic torus, even to the point of field collapse, other areas on a torus expand and contract globally as the torus propagates along without regard to local phenomenon on the surface. This is quintessence. The inertia of the torus to propagate is its dark energy. This is a two-dimensional example of the process that we experience in three dimensions.

    From by Dan Echegoyen 951-204-0201

    Dan Echegoyen
    author of
    (951) 204-0201

  2. It seems to me that good science has always been based on observations. We are now formulating theories, and then forcing our observations to fit into the theories. Both quantum, and cosmological information is becoming more abundant due to advances in technology, but much of it is inferred, or detected indirectly, neither of which are inherently accurate. While we wait for new technologies to provide useful information to spur ideas, we formulate preposterous, all encompassing theories, based on a finite amount of flawed information, and wonder why these theories do not pan out. Einstein seems to be every aspiring big shot’s target these days, but his genius is even more magnified when considering the amount of reliable information he had when formulating his theories.

  3. My belief is that the universe is much more than a machine that can be taken apart, and that the question 'what is everything' goes on infinitely as long as there is reliance on 'taking things apart to understand them' as a method of interpreting. I notice along with this that all things are relative, and that includes our thinking and experience.

    On futility, my thinking is the question becomes futile if people are obsessing or stagnating rather than growing as people from the asking of it. If they are getting value from it, than keep on asking I say..

  4. No, there is never futility in science. The best example I can come up with off the top of my head is to point out that, at the end of the nineteenth century, there was considerable - if muted - commentary to the effect that everything had been discovered, there is little left for scientists to do but clean up the rough edges, throw dust-covers over the furniture, turn out the lights, and lock the doors of Human Knowledge. Well, perhaps not... We seem to be approaching a another impasse today, and I would agree that physics has been wobbling about the past few decades, trying to make sense of a number of seemingly senseless quandaries. (shrug) I have no doubt that, somewhere, there is a modern-day equivalent of a Swiss patent-office clerk, staring out a window and wondering about... things. Oh, and by the way, it should only be spelled "universi" if the singular were spelled "universus".

  5. String theory is long past the point of futility. So much money and so many man-hours of the brightest minds wasted for nothing.

    Enough is enough, society has to intervene when it's resources are wasted in such a hopeless manner.

    And I am not saying string theory has to be wrong (although I suspect it is) I am saying that the lack of results proves beyond any doubt that further work without experimental guidance is way too wasteful and therefore unacceptable.

    Public funding should go to much more worthwhile causes like molecular biology, medicine or nanotechnology. Their potential to improve our lives is immensely bigger and they are intimately linked to experiments which are the ultimate source of our knowledge.

    Strings theory has to be shelved and not revived until experimental evidence which can guide further developments comes along. If that means until Planck scale is accessible to experimenters, so be it.

  6. The search for new knowledge is never futile. Modern physics has simply run into a point where it is waiting for more experimental data. It has happened countless times in history when many theories were built "too far" from experimental evidence. Eventually the data will indicate which path is correct.

  7. At this stage in physics, the first next step *has* to be the formulation and discussion-to-near-death of a wide variety of theories.

    The cost (in both money and time) of designing and building machines that can explore the frontiers of physics is so immense that the time "wasted" in the forumulation and discussion of various TOEs is nothing in comparison.

    So, at this point what we *should* be doing is encouraging the forumulation of a wide variety of theories, with preference toward those that have verifiable predictions. Then we should be discussing them to near-death before and only then should we start the design of the next LHC.

  8. Your take on Verlinde's article is ironic indeed, since I took Verlinde to be attempting to end what may be a futile search for a unified theory bringing gravity and quantum mechanics into a single consistent mathematical solution. Verlinde does NOT say that gravity as we experience it does not exist, but that it may not be a force in the same sense as electromagnetism or the strong force. Rather, he argues that gravity may by an effect of entropy and therefore derivative, not primary.

    I admit that I don't understand his argument fully, and the math involved is way over my head (I am a physics degree holder who never practiced in the science), but his derivation of many of the basic concepts of Newtonian physics from thermodynamics and holographic theory is fascinating.

    Much of the theoretical physics in my lifetime has been founded on the assumption that gravity as Einstein defined it should be similar theoretically to the other three fundamental forces. This has led to a mind-boggling amount of effort and money spent to find the elusive grand unifying theory of the four "forces". Verlinde's brilliant stroke (if that's what it proves to be) is to question gravity's right to share the platform with the other three fundamental forces that can be explained in both Newtonian and relativistic cases.

    Is this futile? Absolutely not. Science generally and physics in particular advances only by the interplay of theory and experiment. We cannot formulate an experiment if we have no idea of what we want to prove. Theoreticians guide our thinking about what we may find, thus allowing us to experiment.

    Are theoreticians wrong? Often, but that is part of the work. The history of physics is littered with theoretical dead ends and red herrings (many of which were shown to be so by experiment), but we would not be where we are today in science and everyday life without those mistakes, and the correct theories that such mistakes allowed us to create.

  9. Before you can find a theory of everything, you've got to figure out where the energy and matter came from that were the big bang. They existed before this universe did. Finding that might also show that this universe is insignificant in size, enough that it was created from a blip outside this existence. That would likely start us on the path to understanding gravity and dark energy.

  10. "Should science theorize about the unverifiable?"

    I think that the author misunderstands how science is done. Every single step forward in science ever made was done as a thought experiment first. There is no way to verify something without first devising a way to test it and that always involves theory.

    To suggest that science stay put simply because the experimental physicists have not compiled enough data to test a specific theory is ridiculous. This thought can only come from an armchair physicist who has too much access to knowledge they don't understand.

  11. Should we stop infants from trying to walk just because they lack the experimental data of actually walking while they fall in the attempt?

  12. "I think that the author misunderstands how science is done. Every single step forward in science ever made was done as a thought experiment first. There is no way to verify something without first devising a way to test it and that always involves theory."

    Nope. In fact most breakthroughs come through unexpected results from experimentation, not "as a thought experiment." While theory on occasion arises from pure math, more frequently the result is folly.

    Also, as the author describes, it is yet impossible to test what is outside of our universe.

  13. I believe that the greatest problem, which is not only facing physicist but mankind in general, is lack of understanding of how the human mind works, hence our inability to interpret observations correctly. People take what they observe at face value and end-up with misperception of what lies behind events. This misperception is manifest in the current confusion in physics. For example, if one asks a question about the nature of force, the explanation is given in terms of mass. If on the other hand one asks about the nature of mass, the explanation is given in terms of force or energy, and so on. There is no tangible substance which the mind can visualise. From within such a loop it is impossible to break through. If the endless list of subatomic particles and variety of sting geometries and multi-Universes are needed to create the Universe, then it would have required an assembly line type production to generate matter in the aftermath of a Big Bang. The reality is that there is a very simple, yet intricate process which produces matter and energy from the fabric of space. Until that process is understood physical reality will remain ambiguous.

  14. Anonymous said: ""Should science theorize about the unverifiable?"

    I think that the author misunderstands how science is done. Every single step forward in science ever made was done as a thought experiment first. There is no way to verify something without first devising a way to test it and that always involves theory.

    To suggest that science stay put simply because the experimental physicists have not compiled enough data to test a specific theory is ridiculous. This thought can only come from an armchair physicist who has too much access to knowledge they don't understand."

    I'd (clearly) disagree. Science isn't done the way we teach kids that it is. This whole "question, hypothesis, experiment" thing is simply not the way science happens in the real world. Theory often springs from experiment, and experiment from theory. Yet scientific truth is always determined in the laboratory. Without it I could pose - as the old-woman to Hawking - that "it's turtles all the way down."

    The fundamental question I pose is this: if there is no foreseeable experiment you can use to test a theory, is it actually science, or is it just very elegant math?

    It seems most of you think the answer is that there can be no futility in science.

    But I would say a theory can only be considered scientific if it can be proven false. I guess that means I agree science can't be futile, but it's a backwards way out of the question.