Losing the Faith

Let us suppose that there exists a field of study in which people take established facts about the world and extrapolate upon them wildly; where bizarre–though interesting–ideas are routinely advanced with no more basis than the fact that they could conceivably turn out to be true, within accepted limits, if someone only knew how to look hard enough, or they might be true in a Universe different than our own. Let us suppose that people take these speculations, and build entire edifices and systems of belief upon them: new ideas extrapolated from new ideas based on things which might–only might–be true; a metaphorical castle in the clouds. Now let us suppose that no one, at present, has any idea whatsoever how to test the overwhelming majority of these theories against real-world observations, and some of them can’t be tested at all. And let us suppose that this field of study is called “theoretical physics.”

I have, for the last several years, proudly called myself a theoretical physicist. But as I sat through one lecture after another during a conference on the subject this week, I found myself more interested in how I could use these theories in science fiction stories than I was the theories themselves. And that, in turn, got me thinking: in the absence of any experimental or observational evidence, is what we are doing really science, or is it just some sort of incredibly elaborate science fiction?

There certainly is a place for purely theoretical speculation in the scientific method. But at what point does this speculation stop being helpful? At what point does it become irresponsible? If we propose a multiverse, for example, to avoid problems with the inflation hypothesis, and just say that there an are an infinite number other “bubble-universes” with different configurations and different laws of physics out somewhere beyond the edge of the visible universe, does this actually give us a deeper, more profound understanding of reality? Or does this just allow us to shunt-off problems with our cosmological models by postulating the existence of solutions that we will never be able to see?

Now I love speculation*, and I love science fiction, but if I’m going to do that as a career, then I’m inclined to do it in name as well as deed, while preferably writing in a more engaging style. As for physics, however, I have probably been spoiled by my recent reading of papers in less-speculative areas of the science, which, while less sexy, at least have the benefit of producing results.


*The coolest theory I’ve heard about recently is “dark electromagnetism,” which postulates that the invisible dark matter which supposedly accounts for 27% of the mass-energy in the universe interacts amongst itself using a sort of bizzaro-world equivalent of electrodynamics. It appeals to me greatly as a science fiction aficionado, but frankly, at present it seems to be on the level of those astronomers of yesteryear who used to suppose that there were dinosaurs on Venus because all they could see were clouds.



About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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10 Responses to Losing the Faith

  1. zinemin says:

    I have come to a similar conclusion about my own field. I think it is fantastic that people do speculative and exotic research in Physics, and I will always support that they get funding for that.
    But I have decided that I do not want to spend my life doing things that will with almost 100% certainty never interest or benefit anyone who is not working inside my narrow field of study. That being said, a more complicated dark sector would be extremely cool and I hope something like dark electromagnetism exists in the real Universe. 🙂

  2. E A M Harris says:

    Theoretical physics has some results in science fiction. Without its speculations sci-fi would still be at the dinosaurs on Venus stage.

  3. Another example from yesteryear that reminds me of this sort of thing is epicycles. People kept just drawing more and more complicated orbits for the planets in order to still have them orbit around Earth, until finally Copernicus bit the bullet and decided we were really going around the sun. I have the feeling that dark matter, dark energy and all that might end up being similar and the problem isn’t what we can’t see, but that we refuse to come to grips with what we can.

    • The connection to epicycles is apt. When ancient philosophers first started speculating about the motion of the planets, they actually had a pretty good justification , in terms of their own conception of nature, for supposing that their motions should be circular (i.e. the universe is hierarchical, the heavens are higher than the Earth, the stars are demonstrably “perfect and unchanging,” therefore the heavens are perfect, therefore planets should move in circles because circles are perfect). By adding epicycles to the mix, they were able to maintain this circular geometry, but at the price of a model which makes sense (it gives you the right answer for how the planets will move, but no answer at all for the question: ‘why do the planets move in epicycles rather than just pure circles?’).
      Likewise, today, we can tack on new particles until the cows come home* and come up with all kinds of super-contrived, hyper-fine-tuned mechanisms that would produce the physics that we observe: but we can only do so at the price of losing a consistent picture of nature; we no longer have a good explanation for why such super-contrived mechanisms should exist.
      *When all that you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail; when all you have is a quantum field theory, everything starts to look like a particle.

    • Actually, one of the highlights of the recent conference was a public lecture by Neil Turok, in which he argued that recent experiments with the LHC and the Planck satellite had shown that the Universe was way simpler than all of the theorists have been supposing for the last forty years, and they we are probably all overlooking something really obvious.

  4. Pingback: A Blessing in Disguise? | voxcorvegis

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