Monday, May 10, 2010

I like strings, but not string theory

Am I the only one who finds breathless comparisons of "string theory" with Einstein's work (or that of the Copenhagen group) ridiculous? I cannot help but think it is a sign of the times, which is to say, a time when a mass-media-driven lowest-common-denominator culture of democracy in its logical extreme has no recognition of reason, that the sterile mathematical self-stimulation of people who clearly seek to achieve public notice rather than advance the cause of understanding of the world is compared with the work of the true geniuses of humankind. A "theory of everything" which can explain nothing, predict nothing, whether predicted observation or experimental result? Relativity and quantum mechanics all made immediate and accurate predictions which were and have been verified time and again (the computer you are using relies on solid state computer chips that are the engineering application of quantum mechanics; your GPS device uses relativistic corrections to accurately derive your position given the difference in the time measured by speeding satellites and relatively stationary Earth clocks). Stephen Weinberg is a brilliant physicist, no doubt, but does he really believe that the theoretical attraction of a sterile mathematical construction (and one which is not elegant in the slightest degree---there are numerous monstrous versions with Rube Goldberg additions intended to make the numbers crunch properly) is any indication after several decades that any true insight into the nature of our universe can emerge from this nonsense? I am not a historian of science, but I don't recall any brilliant advance on the level of relativity or quantum mechanics that was bandied about for decades without the slightest connection to any observation. The clear evidence of insight, as for example in the case of Maxwell's uniting of the electric and magnetic forces in four equations, is the immediate understanding it yields of the world (we had radio communications soon after). Most of what I am hearing in "string theory" (and I grant that I don't enjoy or have world-class capability in advanced mathematics) is very reminiscent of 60's era discussions made possible, and more interesting perhaps, by the use of hallucinogens. As a guitarist and engineer (both professions being concerned with resonance), I find the idea of the physical manifestation of the Universe being reduced at the most fundamental level to oscillating strings quite appealing. However, I don’t see any evidence that this is true.

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