[Paleopsych] Slate: Theory of Anything? - Physicist Lawrence Krauss turns on his own.

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Theory of Anything? - Physicist Lawrence Krauss turns on his own. By
Paul Boutin

[I am quite patient and will be glad to wait for string theorists to come up 
with something testable.]

    Theory of Anything?
    Physicist Lawrence Krauss turns on his own.
    By Paul Boutin
    Posted Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005, at 11:44 AM ET

    Lawrence Krauss, a professor of physics and astronomy at Case Western
    Reserve University, has a reputation for shooting down pseudoscience.
    He opposed the teaching of [23]intelligent design on The NewsHour With
    Jim Lehrer. He penned an essay for the New York Times that [24]dissed
    President Bush's proposal for a manned Mars mission. Yet in his latest
    book, [25]Hiding in the Mirror, Krauss turns on his own--by taking on
    string theory, the leading edge of theoretical physics. Krauss is
    probably right that string theory is a threat to science, but his book
    proves he's too late to stop it.

    String theory, which stretches back to the late 1960s, has become in
    the last 20 years the field of choice for up-and-coming physics
    researchers. Many of them hope it will deliver a "Theory of
    Everything"--the key to a few elegant equations that explain the
    workings of the entire universe, from quarks to galaxies.

    Elegance is a term theorists apply to formulas, like E=mc^2, which are
    simple and symmetrical yet have great scope and power. The concept has
    become so [26]associated with string theory that Nova's three-hour
    2003 series on the topic was titled [27]The Elegant Universe (you can
    watch the whole thing online for free [28]here).

    Yet a demonstration of string theory's mathematical elegance was
    conspicuously absent from Nova's special effects and on-location
    shoots. No one explained any of the math onscreen. That's because
    compared to E=mc^2, string theory equations look like spaghetti. And
    unfortunately for the aspirations of its proponents, the ideas are
    just as hard to explain in words. Let's give it a shot anyway, by
    retracing the 20^th century's three big breakthroughs in understanding
    the universe.

    Step 1: Relativity (1905-1915). Einstein's [31]Special Theory of
    Relativity says matter and energy (E and m in the famous equation) are
    equivalent. His [32]General Theory of Relativity says gravity is
    caused by the warping of space due to the presence of matter. In 1905,
    this seemed like opium-smoking nonsense. But Einstein's complex math
    (E=mc^2 is the easy part) accurately predicted oddball behaviors in
    stars and galaxies that were later observed and confirmed by

    Step 2: Quantum mechanics (1900-1927). Relativistic math works
    wonderfully for predicting events at the galactic scale, but
    physicists found that subatomic particles don't obey the rules. Their
    behavior follows complex probability formulas rather than graceful
    high-school geometry. The results of particle physics experiments
    can't be determined exactly--you can only calculate the likeliness of
    each possible outcome.

    Quantum's elegant equation is the [33]Heisenberg uncertainty
    principle. It says the position (x) and momentum (p) of any one
    particle are never completely knowable at the same time. The closest
    you can get is a function related to Planck's constant (h), the
    theoretical minimum unit to which the universe can be quantized.

    Einstein dismissed this probabilistic model of the universe with his
    famous quip, "God does not play dice." But just as Einstein's own
    theories were vindicated by real-world tests, he had to adjust his
    worldview when experimental results matched quantum's crazy
    predictions over and over again.

    These two breakthroughs left scientists with one major problem. If
    relativity and quantum mechanics are both correct, they should work in
    agreement to model the Big Bang, the point 14 billion years ago at
    which the universe was at the same time supermassive (where relativity
    works) and supersmall (where quantum math holds). Instead, the math
    breaks down. Einstein spent his last three decades unsuccessfully
    seeking a formula to reconcile it all--a Theory of Everything.

    Step 3: String theory (1969-present). String theory proposes a
    solution that reconciles relativity and quantum mechanics. To get
    there, it requires two radical changes in our view of the universe.
    The first is easy: What we've presumed are subatomic particles are
    actually tiny vibrating strings of energy, each 100 billion billion
    times smaller than the protons at the nucleus of an atom.

    That's easy to accept. But for the math to work, there also must be
    more physical dimensions to reality than the three of space and one of
    time that we can perceive. The most popular string models require 10
    or 11 dimensions. What we perceive as solid matter is mathematically
    explainable as the three-dimensional manifestation of "strings" of
    elementary particles vibrating and dancing through multiple dimensions
    of reality, like shadows on a wall. In theory, these extra dimensions
    surround us and contain myriad parallel universes. Nova's "The Elegant
    Universe" used Matrix-like computer animation to convincingly
    visualize these hidden dimensions.

    Sounds neat, huh--almost too neat? Krauss' book is subtitled The
    Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions as a polite way of saying String
    Theory Is for Suckers. String theory, he explains, has a catch: Unlike
    relativity and quantum mechanics, it can't be tested. That is, no one
    has been able to devise a feasible experiment for which string theory
    predicts measurable results any different from what the current wisdom
    already says would happen. Scientific Method 101 says that if you
    can't run a test that might disprove your theory, you can't claim it
    as fact. When I asked physicists like Nobel Prize-winner [34]Frank
    Wilczek and string theory superstar [35]Edward Witten for ideas about
    how to prove string theory, they typically began with scenarios like,
    "Let's say we had a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way
    ..." Wilczek said strings aren't a theory, but rather a search for a
    theory. Witten bluntly added, "We don't yet understand the core idea."

    If stringers admit that they're only theorizing about a theory, why is
    Krauss going after them? He dances around the topic until the final
    page of his book, when he finally admits, "Perhaps I am oversensitive
    on this subject ... " Then he slips into passive-voice
    scientist-speak. But here's what he's trying to say: No matter how
    elegant a theory is, it's a baloney sandwich until it survives
    real-world testing.

    Krauss should know. He spent the 1980s proposing formulas that worked
    on a chalkboard but not in the lab. He finally made his name in the
    '90s when astronomers' observations confirmed his seemingly outlandish
    theory that most of the energy in the universe resides in empty space.
    Now Krauss' field of theoretical physics is overrun with theorists
    freed from the shackles of experimental proof. The string theorists
    blithely create mathematical models positing that the universe we
    observe is just one of an infinite number of possible universes that
    coexist in dimensions we can't perceive. And there's no way to prove
    them wrong in our lifetime. That's not a Theory of Everything, it's a
    Theory of Anything, sold with whizzy PBS special effects.

    It's not just scientists like Krauss who stands to lose from this;
    it's all of us. Einstein's theories paved the way for nuclear power.
    Quantum mechanics spawned the transistor and the computer chip. What
    if 21^st-century physicists refuse to deliver anything solid without a
    galaxy-sized accelerator? "String theory is textbook post-modernism
    fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money," Nobel Prize-winner
    Robert Laughlin [36]griped to the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this

    Krauss' book won't turn that tide. Hiding in the Mirror does a much
    better job of explaining string theory than discrediting it. Krauss
    knows he's right, but every time he comes close to the kill he stops
    to make nice with his colleagues. Last year, Krauss told a New York
    Times reporter that string theory was "a colossal failure." Now he
    writes that the Times quoted him "out of context." In spite of
    himself, he has internalized the postmodern jargon. Goodbye,
    Department of Physics. Hello, String Studies.

    Related in Slate

    Superstring theory is "currently the only plausible candidate for a
    Theory of Everything," according to [37]this 1996 article by Jim Holt.
    In 2004, Amanda Schaffer [38]labeled Elegant Universe author and
    string theory aficionado Brian Greene "the closest thing physics has
    to a pop star." David Greenberg [39]debunks the myth that Einstein's
    theory begat moral relativism and artistic modernism. Holt writes
    about the end of the universe [40]here. Learn about "quantum
    weirdness" in [41]this dialogue.

    [42]Paul Boutin is a Silicon Valley writer who spent 15 years as a
    software engineer and manager.


   21. http://www.slate.com/?id=3944
   23. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/religion/july-dec05/evolution_8-05.html
   24. http://genesis1.phys.cwru.edu/~krauss/nytimesjan6.html
   25. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0670033952
   26. http://www.google.com/search?q=%2522string+theory%2522+elegant
   27. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/
   28. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/program.html
   29. http://www.slate.com/id/2131014/?nav=fo#ContinueArticle
   31. http://archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/NumRel/SpecialRel.html
   32. http://archive.ncsa.uiuc.edu/Cyberia/NumRel/GenRelativity.html
   33. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncertainty_principle
   34. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Wilczek
   35. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Witten
   36. http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/03/14/MNGRMBOURE1.DTL
   37. http://www.slate.com/id/3119/
   38. http://www.slate.com/id/2103335/
   39. http://www.slate.com/id/74164/
   40. http://www.slate.com/id/2096491/entry/2096506/
   41. http://www.slate.com/id/2082874/entry/2082873/
   42. http://paulboutin.weblogger.com/

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