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Castles in the sky
on 2 April 2014
In The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy, in the very first chapter, the Earth is destroyed (to make way for a hypergalactic bypass). On the one hand this is frightening, as we lose all basis for relating to anything. On the other hand, it frees us to experience and explore new concepts without being prejudiced by our experience.
In Farewell to Reality, Jim Baggott destroys the concept of reality by page seven: “Reality is a metaphysical concept,” he says. This allows him to explore the submicroscopic with the same detail and passion as the massive contents of the universe. Unfortunately, we are at such an early state of knowledge, we can’t make reasonable, let alone unified sense of it all. Baggott acknowledges this, but still tries. Hard. He describes the essence of numerous theories, without resorting to Greek-symboled mathematical formulas. He compares and contrasts. He makes it understandable. But problems crop up all along the way.
The essence of the main problem is defined succinctly by Heisenberg very early in the book. The gist of it is we frame everything in terms of what we already know (“…nature, exposed to our method of questioning”), and that makes it impossible to understand the universe. Particles that can also be waves are very hard to digest. We have no idea what gravity is. (The Standard Model, that kludge of patches, holes and exceptions, doesn’t even incorporate it.) Baggott points out there are now at least 61 “fundamental” particles that compose the universe. Imagining them is all but impossible for the earthbound. What we detect and know is only 5% of the true content of the universe. We rejoice when we discover and confirm another fundamental particle, like the Higgs boson, but the jigsaw puzzle still doesn’t even have the edges completed. And that’s the easy part.
By the end of chapter nine, the gloves come off at last. Baggott has had enough. He blasts the dreamy “theories” as mere speculation. They are without substance, evidence, or the slightest suggestion of how to test (let alone prove) their accuracy, foundation or fallacy. He (and some of his peers) calls them damaging to the very notion of science. They are castles in the sky, built on circular logic foundations where string theory depends on the foundation of super symmetry, which depends on the foundation of M-theory, which depends on the foundation of string theory. Meanwhile, none of them has any basis in science at all. But like a good internet “fact”, if millions have read about them, they become part of the canon. In the immortal words of Oliver Norville Hardy, this is another “fine mess.”
Baggott ends up calling it fairy-tale physics, and wonders if we’ll look back on this era with acute embarrassment. The tangents, side trips, philosophical excesses and just plain bad science seem to be the state of the physics art to him. He makes his case well.