What’s The Trouble With Physics ? asks Lee Smolin. The answer has something to do with the absence of diversity within the scientific community (xxii): “Science requires a delicate balance between conformity and variety. Because it is so easy to fool ourselves, because the answers are unknown, experts, no matter how well trained or smart, will disagree about which approach is most likely to yield fruit. Therefore, if science is to move forward, the scientific community must support a variety of approaches to any one problem.”

Smolin doesn’t think this is happening in physics: “While few would disagree with the rhetoric of diverse views, it is being practiced less and less. Some young string theorists have told me that they feel constrained to work on string theory whether or not they believe in it, because it is perceived as the ticket to a professorship at a university. And they are right: In the United States, theorists who pursue approaches to fundamental physics other than strong theory have almost no career opportunities. In the last fifteen years, there have been a total of three assistant professors appointed to American research universities who work on approaches to quantum gravity other than string theory, and these appointments were all to a single research group.”

And string theory has achieved this dominance without experimental confirmation. Smolin says that if string theory turns out to be right, “string theorists will turn out to be the greatest heroes in the history of science.” But if they are wrong and all those dimensions and symmetries don’t exist, “then we will count string theorists among science’s greatest failures” (xvii). Physicists have worked out an unfortunate “premature consensus” and “despite the absence of experimental support and precise formulation” some believe in string theory “with a certainty that seems emotional rather than rational” (xx). As a result, physics has stagnated.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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