The fall of physics

Describing two books critical of String Theory - The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next and Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical ­Law David Lindley at Wilson Quarterly also touches how we learn in his review, Strung Out:

The problem with string mania, [Lee] Smolin [The Trouble with Physics author] concludes, is that it suits the wrong kind of mentality. He makes a nice distinction between scientific ­seers—­people such as Einstein and Niels Bohr, his heroes, who deeply pondered the working of nature and were by no means brilliant ­mathematicians—­and craftspeople, who are enormously adept at intricate calculation but don’t seem to think much about the larger meaning of their ingenious manipulations. Seers are always in short supply, and the technical demands of mastering string theory are such that ­would-­be researchers of a more philosophical stripe can rarely meet the price of ­entry.

Both authors plead for universities and granting agencies to consciously find room, every now and then, for the mavericks and eccentrics who might bring ­much-­needed new ideas into the excessively closed world of theoretical physics. Fat chance, unfortunately, was my instant reaction, given the way the scientific world, like academia in general, rewards careerism more than ­brilliance.

Lindley's review is an illustration of the problem of knowledge I've referenced a couple of times and the need for the unorthodox - and frequently unnerving - take on old issues. I'm not qualified to offer an opinion about whether String Theory will turn out to be the most accurate description of the physical universe. But I'm in complete sympathy with Lindley's point: technical problems will sometimes yield to the artist's vision long after the engineer has exhausted all the options.

If you're interested in diving a bit deeper into the issue of science and knowing, the December 2005 article in Physics Today, "Albert Einstein as Philosopher of Science," describes how Einstein reasoned his way past accepted limitations to formulate his theories. I highly recommend it.

Wayne

Wikipedia: String Theory