Mister Pterodactyl
Friday, July 09, 2004
Shortly after this post about Brian Greene's book, I find a review, of sorts, on Slate Magazine. The article is written by Amanda Schaffer, and says she's a science writer from Brooklyn.
Schaffer doesn't seem to like Greene very much. She does say that his "technical explanations are often effective," but she seems annoyed by some of the language he uses, particularly to express his excitement over the promise of string theory.
It's true, the book is full of that, but Schaffer goes out of her way to emphasize it. "Elaborate scenarios often characterized by cute and slightly corny imagery," "the rhetoric of self-help literature," "a pandering sort of lyricism." It really didn't bother me that much.
She's also disturbed by his use of the word 'elegant' to describe the (eventual) completed theory, and thus the unifying of relativity and quantum physics. I wouldn't even mention it but, well, that's what elegant means: "adj. [common; from mathematical usage] Combining
simplicity, power, and a certain ineffable grace of design."

When I think of science, I think of philosophy too. All science begins as philosophy; as I've often put it, the difference is that scientists do experiments. They discover things a posteriori, through experience, then modify their theories to fit. As knowledge advances, more subjects become open to experiment and so move from the realm of philosophy to that of science.
The reason some scientists are leery of string theory is its inaccessibility to experiment. The idea is that the fundamental particles - quarks, bosons, photons, etc. - are actually tiny loops that vibrate in different ways. Those vibrations give each particle its characteristics and cause the forces that govern their behavior. These 'loops,' however, are so small that they can't be observed. In fact, it's possible that we'll never be able to observe them (it's possible that there's a limit to how small we can go, that the energies required to detect these loops are so great as to be physically impossible). So the only predictions made by string theory can't be verified by experiment. It's a reversal of the standard method and does make string theory resemble philosophy more than science.
String theory is still very popular though. Why? Because the math works. By inserting new ideas into existing theory, mathematical contradictions are eliminated, and often the new results agree with experiment. Some of these ideas get pretty crazy; did you know that in addition to the three 'extended' spatial dimensions, there are six (maybe seven) more that are 'curled up' in what's called a Calabi-Yau shape? You don't notice because they're too small to detect.

Eventually, some way will have to be found to prove string theory experimentally. Even if it someday fully unites relativity and quantum physics theoretically, the structures it postulates can't be accepted on that basis alone. But until then (I'm talking to you, Ms. Schaffer), everybody lighten up. I'm having fun.

P.S. There's a little more commentary here, with good comments from people who sound like they know what they're talking about. I'm gonna keep an eye on this guy.
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