Sunday, August 24, 2008

Will Physics turn into Philosophy?

I recently talked to a friend who said the century of physics is over. The 21st century is about biotechnology, it's about enhancing ourselves, it's about designing our children, it's about customizing our food.

Of course I disagreed. Not only do I think biotechnology will take quite a long time to be incorporated in our every day lives simply because it’s hard to do better than Nature. I also think the 21st century is going to be about the social sciences: To cope with the challenges mankind is facing, the scientific revolution has to be finished. It needs to be extended into those areas we use to organize our lives on this planet, most notably sociology, politics and economics. The natural sciences are ahead in rigor and successful integration of knowledge into our civilizations, but both areas, the social and the natural sciences, are necessary to successfully shape our future.

Nevertheless, it made me wonder, what is the future of physics, the field that I love and live for?

The Future of Physics

While the content of our research departs more and more from our immediate experience and experimental confirmation of hypotheses becomes increasingly difficult, speculations are thriving and unconstrained creativity is booming on the theoretical side. Science fiction writers find ideas for their stories on the arXiv, and in some cases the boundaries are blurring. Will the Higgs try to disable its own discovery by inducing a technical failure at the LHC? Will we all be reborn as Boltzmann Brains? Have alien civilizations rearranged the stars to leave messages for us?

Motivations are turning into constructed justifications for calling fantasy research. Besides the oldfashioned strive to explain recognized puzzles in data or to solve shortcomings of current theories, one can now excel simply through creativity and novelty, connection to Nature not required. New theories can be introduced just for the fun of brain exercise. The light that shines on your career path is trendleading. Thus, you better know the fashions of the day - currently it's phenomenology, so whatever you're speculating about you should call it “phenomenological”, make sure it's “falsifiable” and claim to have “testable predictions”. At the very least, write that in the abstract, whether it's true or not.

If I look at hep-th and gr-qc, I find it increasingly depressive. In the vast majority of cases it is a complete mystery to me why somebody would even be remotely interested in that topic if he wants to describe nature. And isn't that what physics is supposed to be about? Describing nature? If we go on like this, I see physics moving from science to science fiction, from explanations to equationized stories about the could-be.

Do we have too many physicists?

We can not plan progress.

I'm all in favor of fundamental research, and I strongly believe that unexpected spin offs arising from it are a crucial ingredient of progress. Scientific breakthroughs can not be planned and rarely be foreseen. That makes it necessary to have faith in the scientific community and to support non-directed research. Today however, research in theoretical physics is directed by financial possibilities and job opportunities that are too often bound to specific subfields. Experts in a field will promote their own research and try to ensure its survival by hiring more people and producing more papers. But are more people working on a topic always the right choice to foster progress? Or does a field have a certain topic-dependent complexity that is optimally examined by a limited number of people?

Given the tight budget in foundational research this question is sure to upset many of my colleagues who are competing for the few permanent positions, but still, I have to ask: do we have too many physicists? Do we really need this vast production of redundant papers that nobody reads? Has foundational research become a commercialized publication production because our societies value money over wisdom and that’s where the incentives are, and thus, grants and papers and a well-paid job has become how we define ‘success’ in research. It’s about the career, stupid.


But if you try to build a house, hiring more and more people won't make the construction go faster and faster. At some point you will have a lot of workers who don't know what to do. They will pretend to be useful by occupying themselves with carving the wood or painting the bricks or worse, they will attempt to add extensions here and there that nobody asked for and nobody needs.

Do more people necessarily imply faster progress? Can we push insight by distributing research to ever more researchers? Can scientific breakthroughs be speed up by community building? I think there are limits to this. Progress has a pace that is set by the time it takes to appreciate, digest and incorporate a new insight. It can't be accelerated arbitrarily, it is constrained by the capacity of the human mind to find and process input, to extract patterns, and to then express an idea in a rigorous and useful way. It is, in many aspects, a lonely task - at least until we find a way to share our thoughts without the need to express them in words and equations inbetween. I would certainly be in favor of just uploading part of my brain.

Improving the connectivity of the scientific community and finding better ways to manage information is helpful to improve collaboration, get knowledge faster where it needs to be, and to optimize the use of resources we have. But still, the thinking needs to be done by a human brain. Look at the billions of dollars that have been spent and the thousands of people that have dedicated their lives to cancer research. Yet, the long hoped for breakthrough couldn't be pushed despite all these efforts. Science is a community enterprise, research lives from exchange and discussion and gradually builds the body of our knowledge. Does anybody really believe the ingenious idea will come if only the pressure is high enough, if only the incentives are good enough, if only enough money goes into the right channels? Do you really think we can overcome the limits of the human mind that easily? We can not plan progress and all the pushing isn’t going to change that. (Sadly enough, many people seem indeed to believe this works which is the reason why they don’t take global environmental problems seriously: surely, if the situation gets only bad enough, the ingenious homo sapiens will come up with a solution. Everything's gonna be alright.)

Diffusing the frontiers of research to more people the outcome will only be that new results are superficially discussed, sloppily integrated, and insufficiently communicated. If a field has too many people it will just produce irrelevant output, fragment and specialize, and lose coherence. A process that unfortunately is greatly supported by the pressure to publish for the sake of the CV.

But calm down, if you read this blog frequently you should know I don't think there are too many physicists. However, the investment of time, financial and human resources is suboptimal and directs too many people in some construction areas whereas others have too few workers. The present organization also doesn't really encourage new construction areas altogether, and the management of knowledge in academic research isn't appropriate to deal with the changes in our information-infrastructure. One obvious way to alleviate this problem is to just hire workers, and not assign them to a certain construction zone. (For more about this, see my earlier post We have only ourselves to judge on each other.)

What the bleep can we know?

But let me pursue this line of thought one step further. We have seen that theoretical physics opens a playground for increasingly wild speculations, due to the growing difficulties in experimental accessibility. We have also seen that research areas can attract more people than would be necessary to investiage their promise. The problem is that due to the delayed testability, it’s not Nature that judges on our ideas when we put them on the archive - it’s our peers, and it remains our peers for a long time.

Especially the field of physics I work in has set its goal very high. Commonly referred to as the “holy grail”, researchers are looking for a fundamental theory that combines quantum field theory with classical gravity, or even gives rise to the standard model of particle physics.

“Phenomenology” is the word of the day, and sometimes I can't but wonder what if that fundamental theory - should it exist - indeed does not make any testable predictions. Just consider it for a moment: There is a fundamental theory, but it makes predictions only in ranges far outside what we can measure. With the focus on phenomenology, aren't we then potentially discarding the path to go? It is not even that I believe it to be the case that a theory of quantum gravity would not have observable effects, but that possibility certainly exists (and who cares what I believe). So then what? What can we know? Can we know what we can know? What will happen to physics? Would the pursuit of such a theory still count as science?

It doesn’t require much imagination to extrapolate the current situation based on the above. We might get stuck with several theories that make differing predictions only in ranges we can’t test. That’s when we still start to argue about the beauty, elegance or naturalness of one approach over the other. That’s when we will start to ask how much time is appropriate to investigate and solve shortcomings before we have to consider them ugly, that’s when we will start discussing personal taste, community likabilities, and the historical value of concepts underlying our speculations. And that’s when physics will turn from a science to philosophy.

Time discovers the Truth

However, though this is my extrapolation of the current situation, it certainly isn’t inevitable. I think that the biggest part of the problem is that theoretical physics is way ahead when it comes to explaining the world around us. Maybe we will have to wait for other areas to catch up. Maybe we will have to wait until we can measure graviational waves or the cosmic neutrino background. Maybe we will have to wait until we can extend our brains, or the internet finally becomes self-aware and overtakes the planet. Either way, I am optimistic that time will discover the truth.

    “Veritatem dies aperit.”
    (Time discovers truth.)
~ Seneca



If that was too much words for you, here are some questions to ponder, your comments are welcome:

  • Can progress be accelerated by increasing the number of researchers or does scientific insight proceed on a pace eventually set by the capacity of the human mind and the complexity of the field?
  • Do too many people on one topic eventually hinder progress by producing irrelevant reduncancies and speculative distractions?
  • Do we have too many theoretical physicists?
  • Might the fundamental theory only make predictions far outside any range potentially accessible to experiment in the long future?
  • Might there be various consistent theories that agree in the observable range that we will be unable to test for their truth, and would the argumentation about these theories still count as science?
  • If the right theory of quantum gravity indeed does not make testable predictions, is the present focus on phenomenology hindersome to progress?
  • Will physics turn into philosophy?

64 comments:

Michael F. Martin said...

The strange fact is that there are plenty of systems with dynamics accessible to experimental probes that are not being modeled or studied enough. For example, why haven't some brilliant theorists been able to explain what couplings and conditions result in the synchronization of a network of oscillators? Sometimes I think hardcore scientists would do well to partner with people who are good at marketing. The problem is both with incentives and lack of creativity in choosing problems for study. Why should only very small things or very big things be favored over people-size things.

Also, in case I did mention it before, Paul Romer at Standord also wants grad students to get non-field specific funding. It's a good idea.

Enriq said...

Just consider it for a moment: There is a fundamental theory, but it makes predictions only in ranges far outside what we can measure.

The worst case would be to end up with several "theories of everything", i.e. theories that explain everything we can measure but predict different things in the regime that we cannot measure. I don't see why the holly grail has to be unique...?

Anonymous said...

Dear Sabine,

how do you see yourself in the picture? as a physicist... I'm curious... PI is supposed to be 'on the edge', literally building those extra rooms *no one cares* now but may open a new window in the future... one that may be fun and profund to look at but perhaps nowhere *useful*... well, like philosophy ;)

Is PI a center for theoretical philosophy??

G

Dr Who said...

The biggest problem is that people don't take their own theories seriously enough. For example, I'm very sorry to see you citing Boltzmann Brains as an example of "science fiction". If, as many believe, and *observations* make this belief defensible, we live in an asymptotically de Sitter spacetime, then of course Boltzmann Brains will exist eventually. The fact that we are not accustomed to thinking on such long time scales does not justify this kind of mockery. You could with equal justice mock any of the counter-intuitive predictions of special or general relativity. In fact, I see this tendency to mock new ideas, which seems to have become a staple of the physics blogosphere, as a serious problem.

The *really* serious problem is not "science fiction" but just the opposite: our field is getting really boring. Take a look at Motl's summaries of the Strings 2008; even LM seems to have struggled to stay awake, and David Gross' concluding talk was basically an appeal to young people to do something interesting and not drone on about tedious technicalities. I would *far* rather read a Don Page or Lenny Susskind paper than slog through all that tedious drek. Imagine a prospective PhD student reading LM's reportage --- can you see him/her saying, "Wow! this resurrection of tired old 1960's S-matrix technology is just so exciting! I must spend the next 5 years learning this stuff!!" ? I don't think so.

Basically: anyone who puts a paper on the arxiv that doesn't bore me to death is someone I want to thank.

Bee said...

Dr. Who: In contrast to what you say, I did not use Boltzmann Brains as an example for science fiction. I used these examples to show that the boundaries are blurring and it's sometimes hard to tell what is science and what is fiction. I leave the judgement over to the reader.

Anonymous said...

As for whether physics will become philosophy: I wonder how people like Lagrange and Hamilton would fare in the current climate. "What's that, Hamilton? You say that you have re-formulated Newton's mechanics as some kind of least-action principle? What sort of teleological science-fiction is that? And anyway, where are your PREDICTIONS????? Don't waste our time with philosophy......"

Dr Who said...

Well then, I still don't agree that there is any blurring. Boltzmann Brains are as close to science fiction as black holes or Inflation. All these things seem like science fiction to people who don't understand them.

Speaking of philosophers, we can learn a lot from them. I can't imagine a professor of philosophy arguing as incomptently as I have heard [very famous physicist, name deleted] do, for example. They don't worship "deep insights" the way so many of us do: with them, you either argue your case or shut up. If physics became like philosophy in that way, it would be an excellent thing. And I remember Brian Greene saying that he found the work of some philosophers very helpful.

Michael Gogins said...

Progress can be accelerated by moving from zero to more than zero workers. One worker is not enough, he or she needs a few people to talk to and for support. So there needs to be a school. One school is not enough, there needs to be a clash of points of view for motivation and dialectic. Beyond that, it is a question of how capable are the most capable few workers. As far as an outsider can see, most people in theoretical physics are working on the same few problems, from different angles. So it does not take many workers to have hopes of progress.

Yet, I don't think too many people on one topic could really hinder progress. It's obvious that the leading workers have pretty clear notions of who they should be paying attention to.

I have no way to know if we have too many theorists, but it seems likely that if we keep adding physicists, the most capable few will probably be somewhat more capable because the workers will be heading further out into the tail of the distribution of innate talent. But there are probably better ways of identifying and recruiting workers -- the present system relies much to much on pure competition, as far as an outsider can tell. I would think that this leads to bad feelings and probably to lots of cryptic infighting.

At some point, I do think it is quite possible that the fundamental theory (or theories) will make predictions that are not practical to test. But I see no evidence that we are anywhere near that point, because I doubt that people have exhausted all the phenomenological possibilities. Particularly from astronomical observations. We seem to keep discovering new cosmic phenomena. Wait until we have better instruments working in outer space. Wait for space-based gravity wave detectors, for example.

If we did have multiple fundamental theories making effectively identical predictions, I think that working on them would still be science in that we could continue to refine our mathematical understanding of the theories. We could try to boil down the theories into their simplest form, their most math-like form. And we could take the axioms of the theories and subject them to purely philosophical analysis. I do not think that is a dead end. And I do not think it is turning physics into philosophy. Physics began as natural philosophy, a long time ago. It may spend some periods being natural philosophy again from time to time.

So I do not think physics will turn into philosophy as such.

Finally, physicists all seem to assume there really is a true theory of everything. I personally have no doubt that there are universal causal laws of Nature, but I am far from convinced that they can be completely, or even effectively, represented by a formal theory of finite complexity.

a mathematician said...

"Might there be various consistent theories that agree in the observable range that we will be unable to test for their truth, and would the argumentation about these theories still count as science?"

This only matters when there is more than one such theory. At the moment there is less than one such theory.

Chip Neville said...

Bee,

Your example of building a house is well chosen:

"But if you try to build a house, hiring more and more people won't make the construction go faster and faster. At some point you will have a lot of workers who don't know what to do...."

This phenomenon has been well understood for a long time now in software engineering. The classic book everyone cites is The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering by Frederick Brooks.

It turns out that adding more programmers actually slows progress because they have to spend so much time in meetings communicating with each other. Brooks actually has statistics on this.

Bee said...

Dr Who: What I am saying is merely that backwards causation and reincarnation as Boltzmann Brains make great topics for science fiction.

Bee said...

Hi Chip,

Thanks, that is interesting! It was also funny that when I was visiting Google recently they told us they are locating (as far as possible) all employees who work on the same problem in the same building because they noticed that otherwise they will repeat mistakes that others have already made, which can be avoided when somebody is there to say "Don't do that, it doesn't work because..." I guess this too happens a lot in theoretical physics, our mistakes are typically badly documented, which I am afraid wastes a lot of time. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

Will Physics turn into Philosophy?


You say that as though it were a bad thing...

Actually, it's too early for that to occur. Give it another century or two.

Thomas Larsson said...

This sounds like - gasp - John Horgan.

Plato said...

"But if you try to build a house, hiring more and more people won't make the construction go faster and faster. At some point you will have a lot of workers who don't know what to do...."

I think some theorists do need good managers.:)

Now you know "any project with this undertaking has a monetary connection," and when you hire and sub contract, you are always trying to see how much different things are going to cost "before" you enter into the project, and not as you go along. There is a foundational procedure that you work from.

Of course you make allowances for cost overruns and calculate this. You pick the right workers who can proceed fastidiously and correctly.

So I think Michael's point is worth considering in a "managerial context," and with regard to referencing google operations, is one considered by others in the same way. It's a managerial tactic.

Keep all aspects of the operation close, so redundant questions are not asked, and yet when asked, can be answered and quickly dispelled.


On Philosophy

Can you imagine one who would hold both positions in context of being a theorist and a philosopher? David Z. Albert's talk with Sean Carroll pointed out by Phil is an example.

Now what is good about it is the attempts to clarify the most appropriate way to formulate and distill the essence of the question needed "logically to move ahead." Then foundational approaches is a systematic method to working in different ways to get to a solution. Gathering different kinds of folk, for different strokes. That's PI?:)

I think one should also know that Lee Smolin from what I understood from reading his work, was also open to this aspect of foundational development, just to get the questions right.

Work on Quantum gravity from a different angle, see.:)

Nothing wrong with it.

So why should one think then, one is loosing their touch on the real essence of the truth gathering?

One does not have to be afraid of finding value in this approach of using philosophy to help orientate oneself, too proceeding in a certain method. One is logically proceeding in the right way?


Fiction writing

I always thought theorist's were better at fiction then some fictions writers? Why, because if they knew in advance how insane their idea was, wouldn't it be nice to cover it up with words, like Lewis Carroll who proceeded in writing while working in a mathematical context?

Some of the best science people work with those in fiction to bring the ideas of science and it's knowledge limitations to the forefront for the general public thought process.

See, if you are only speaking in mathematical equations how did you arrive at the purest symbolic form of expression using normal language to proceed in any new method?

Even in the failings of psychology as a subjective language, one always works to see through the ultimate essence of the expression.

Best,

Peter Morgan said...

"isn't that what physics is supposed to be about? Describing nature?" Well, no. At least, it changes our relationship with the world if we think of Physics as a way of constructing models instead of as a way of constructing descriptions.

A model is like to a map that is not the territory, with precise conventions for how an atom, a blade of grass, a post office, an ocean, and the relationships between them are shown, but the precise relationship of the sign for a post office to the object in the world is relatively vague.

The question whether a map, or the set of rules for constructing maps, is "true" is ridiculous, but there are looser ideas of accurate approximation and pragmatic effectiveness that can be confirmed. The London underground map, for example, is generally considered more successful than a map that accurately represents distances.

Bee said...

@ All Anonymouses: Could you please use a pseudonym or at least enumerate yourselves? Choose option 'Name/URL', you don't have to enter an URL, you'll make my life much easier, thanks.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous #1,

Yeah, I guess that question is only consequential. I certainly ask myself occasionally what side I'm on. As I've expressed previously (e.g. here) I regard philosophy an important part of our endeavors to understand nature. I guess I'm skipping back and forth, but I usually try to distinguish between the one and the other. What annoys me is if people try to sell their work as something it is not. If it's maths they are doing, they should call it maths. If it's philosophy, they should call it philosophy.

As to PI, they are doing a very good job by integrating theoretical physics into the larger picture. It makes a noticeable difference, at least for me, I find it very inspiring. Otoh, as far as I am concerned, there is a certain lack of phenomenology here. I've also come to miss talking to experimentalists, I very much appreciate the occasional down-to-earth report about the real world out there. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous #3,

Well, even though I'm technically seen a Phil. Nat. I'm not very good with philosophy. Thus, I am wondering how the field I am working in is developing. Whether one considers that good or bad probably depends on ones personal attitude. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Thomas, I disagree on pretty much everything John Horgan says or writes. Though I think he writes very well, and his arguments are usually worth considering. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Enriq,

Indeed, I agree with you on that this would be the worst case. It is a big quesion though whether this is possible. I guess that many people hope there will be only one consistent fundamental theory (I don't think so for reasons that I might discuss some other time.) Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Hi Bee,

Maybe i have misunderstood your sayings but i don't understand you quite well. First you express your fear that physics will turn to philosophy and then you complain about the current "trend" of phenomenology. But phenomenology tries to establish a link between the theory and the physical world through the experimental consequences of the theory. Isn't this a contraction? I lost you there.

For the Quantum gravity i agree with the mathematician above that the current problem is to find one consistent theory and not to choose between one of them. Generally i have the belief that the new theory (despite the fact that the relevant energies are too high) will alter our way of understanding the world in such extend and will have so many consequences that itself will open new roads in experiment that nobody could think before.

As for the other points i mostly agree with you. Moreover i believe that physics and science in general (similarly to anything else) has become an industry. It follows the dominant American perception that nothing really worths something if you can't make a few bucks out of it. There is the danger that self preservation would become more important than finding the truth about things.

BR

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

I'm neither afraid not do I complain. I'm just wondering, maybe that's the reason for your confusion. I generally dislike trends of any sort. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Btw, I too do of course agree with mathematician and you. I also think that either way we would learn a lot from it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous #3,

Well, even though I'm technically seen a Phil. Nat. I'm not very good with philosophy. Thus, I am wondering how the field I am working in is developing. Whether one considers that good or bad probably depends on ones personal attitude. Best,


On Gödel:

All of his thinking is governed by an `interesting axiom,' as Ernst
Gabor Straus, Einstein's assistant from 1944 to 1947, once
characterized it. For every fact, there exists an explanation as to
why that fact is a fact; why it has to be a fact. This conviction
amounts to the assertion that there is no brute contingency in this world, no givens that need not have been given. In other words, the world will never, not even once, speak to us in the way that an exasperated parent will speak to her fractious adolescent: `Why, I'll tell you why. Because I said so!' The world always has an explanation for itself, or as (Gödel) puts it, Die Welt ist vernünftig, the world is intelligible.

***

Furtwängler, Gödel's revered professor, is reported to have
asked: 'Is his illness a consequence of proving the nonprovability or
is his illness necessary for such an occupation?' This is, perhaps,
not just a joke. In the words of his biographer, central to Gödel's
life and thought are a few deeply held convictions: (i) the universe
is rationally organised and comprehensible; (ii) there is a mental realm apart from the physical world; (iii) conceptual understanding is to be thought through introspection; beliefs inspiring both his accomplishments and his angst. Mathematicians, unlike poets, would more readily accept (ii) than (iii). But how then to perceive new mathematical concepts? Says Gödel: Positivists contradict themselves when it comes to introspection, which they do not recognize as experience... The concept of set, for instance, is not obtained by abstraction from experience -- a view resonating with the vision of Cantor, the creator of set theory. Gödel "conjectures that some
physical organ is necessary to make the handling of abstract
impressions possible... Such a sensory organ must be closely related to the neural centre for language... For each vague intuitive concept the sharp concept exists all along, only we do not perceive it clearly at first". If you understand yourself completely, you
understand everything.

http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0709/0709.1387.pdf

oleg said...

Hi Bee,

Let me make a couple of points.

First, physics is not restricted to particles and cosmology. Physics is distinguished from other disciplines not by the subject that it studies but rather by the methods it uses. And these methods (precision experiments combined with quantitative theory) are applied well beyond particle physics. Condensed matter physics and astrophysics are thriving fields by any measure, so I think the pessimism over physics in general is unfounded.

Second, the main problem with particle physics appears to be the disconnect between theory and experiment. Without experimental checks physics indeed becomes speculative. Let's hope the LHC brings in not only the Higgs but something else that will constrain theoretical imagination.

Anonymous said...

Enriq and Bee,

We have indeed already a fundametal theory which comes in versions that are are conceptually very different yet indistinguishable by measurement - quantum mechanics itself.

We've been in this "worst case scenario" for a long while now.

Bee said...

Hi Peter,

Yes, that's what I meant. To me a model is a way to describe nature, but I don't want to argue about the use of words. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous #2,

That's mathematical physics, there is nothing experimentally untestable about it. It might open new point of views, but sure, one can argue about the usefulness of mathematical rigor or reformulations. It seems to me however that in the history of physics and maths insights in both fields have often been tightly related to each other, and I don't have the impression that many people doubt that these connections are fruitful for both sides. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Michael,

Also, in case I did mention it before, Paul Romer at Standord also wants grad students to get non-field specific funding. It's a good idea.

No, you didn't mention it before. Thanks for letting me know, that's interesting! Best,

B.

bellamy said...

That wouldn't be philosophy, Bee. It's called culture or society. Anyways, this is why there is little difference between christians and scientists - they both need something to believe in. Sure, the latter are often more interactive with the 'phenomeological' (vs the social), yet they're still emotionally dependent.

By the way, there's sci-fi (based in anthropomorphic stroking) and SF (which looks outside human focus).

bellamy said...

About philosophy: it seems to me to be largely distracted with the human condition. There is a way round this, and that ultimately makes it irrelevant.


"It turns out that adding more programmers actually slows progress because they have to spend so much time in meetings communicating with each other."

That's because they still have to take time out and speak. Sheesh. The might do better to ape the systems they work and design on.

Peter Morgan said...

Bee, I also don't want to argue about particular words -- models or descriptions -- in a grandly philosophical, critical way. Finding a succinct language, however, is always useful. In a public relations, proselytizing, marketing of Science frame of mind, writing about models can imply a relatively greater humility about the aims of Science. Do we want to engage in the warring of science, on two fronts, with religion and with social constructivism, or do we want to look for subtle, creative, peaceful compromises? If the latter, then I think finding good language matters. Finding good mathematics is probably not going to help.

Perhaps the right wording is "Will Physicists find a way to make common cause with Philosophers?" To admit that a compromise might be necessary, even the only intellectually justifiable course given the force of some of the mid-20th-Century critiques of positivism and Popperian falsification, is an admission too far for the alpha-subject, of course.
All the best.

stefan said...

Hi Oleg,

First, physics is not restricted to particles and cosmology.

Good point. I was about to say something similar. For example, condensed matter phyisics or atomic/molecular physics are flourishing. I think an interesting aspect is that this flourishing depends a lot on the technological and experimental tools available. For example, it is often said that atomic physics and optics was more or less at a dead end before the advent of the laser. So, maybe a similar, perhaps unexpected event could boost again particle physics. But unless this happens, I think Bee's characterization of the situation in particle/HEP theory hits the mark.

Best, Stefan

Bee said...

Hi Oleg, Hi Stefan,

Sure, I agree, what I wrote was about foundational questions specifically. I actually first meant to ask whether physics might split into the down-to-earth part and the philosophical part, but then fell for the temptation of a more catchy title, my apologies. Best,

B.

L. Frank Morgan said...

As a retired Physicist and Systems Engineer, I spend a lot of time researching on the internet. To me physics is about trying to understand the universe in a detailed mechanical, fully visualized way-- and then be able to describe it so that humanity can find sooner rather than later find ONEScienceReligionphilosophy --where the lines between the three blend so smoothly that it all boils down to one word forever ---and we ALL call it physics and it is taught in kindergarten in a way that leads to deep understanding of the Universe by sexual maturity!Evolution with then finally take off like as rocket and seed the Uiverse with our kind!

Anonymous said...

Let me see if I understand you...

The LHC is cold; the final hardware commissioning will be finished in a week; They had a second spectacularly successful injection test over this past weekend (including injections in opposite directions on alternating SPS pulses!); they will have first circulating beam in two weeks.

GLAST had successful liftoff a couple of months ago; PLANCK will be launched in six months or so. A whole series of ground-based CMBR polarization experiments is beginning to take data. PAMELA results were leaked TODAY (see the addendum to http://arxiv.org/pdf/0802.3378)

The Japan Hadron Facility is due for beam this year, and the T2K neutrino experiment will begin data taking soon thereafter.

We have a recently discovered neutron star - neutron star binary system for precision tests of strong field General Relativity.

The SNOlab underground facility (3 hours by car from where you work) is complete and taking its first experiments. The Americans appear to be ready to make DUSEL a reality.

LIGO data has now achieved design sensitivity (and upgrades on the way)! We have the full WMAP 5-year data set!
We have first results from MINOS!
We have first results from Mini-BOONE!
We have the full data set from BABAR and pre-upgrade BELLE! We have the unexpected RHIC results on strongly coupled thermal gauge theories (comprehensible through gauge - gravity duality)!
We have more and more data from the Sloane Digital Sky Survey! We have
these stunning atomic interferometry measurements from the Kasevich group at Stanford, testing everything from gravity waves to modifications of Newton's law! (when you went to Goggle, you were probably less than 10 kilometers from Kasevich's lab!)

... and you're worried about the lack of data? We're in the middle of a data bonanza; most people I know in particle physics and cosmology expect the next 20 years in their fields to be data driven.
But data is only useful if you're willing to understand it, and take its implications seriously...

Bee said...

@ All Anonymouses: Could you please use a pseudonym or at least enumerate yourselves? Choose option 'Name/URL', you don't have to enter an URL, you'll make my life much easier, thanks.

Bee said...

Hi most recent Anonymous:

Nowhere did I complain about the lack of data. Maybe you read somebody elses post to leave that comment. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

A very interesting post and discussion and one I see as essentially focusing around what questions are legitimate to ask and still be considered natural philosophy or physics. These questions of course being “how” and “why”. In the distant past both were considered not only legitimate yet essential, while today it would break down to “how” being the main focus of physics and “why” being restricted to the purview of philosophy. My take on this is it resultant from more and more scientists falsely considering that to ask the why question tends to indicate that one is religious in the conventional sense of meaning and thus equates to be the opposite or counter to being the role and goals of science.

When I examine the contrast between Bacon and Descartes of the past or Bohr and Einstein of just a little while back or Penrose and Hawkings of today you see this struggle still continues. I feel the record shows that the Descartes’, Einstein’s and Penrose’s have given us better as to mean more insightful and inspiring science. I am aware however that the vast majority of your peers and perhaps even yourself would disagree

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

Bee why don't you the time stamps to separate the Anonymous? I don't think your requests will have any result.

BR

Bee said...

Because it's a Tuesday and I'm in a bad mood. I considered just disabling anonymous comments, I don't come around answering all comments anyway. If it's too much effort to check a box and enter a random string of letters then why should I make the effort of reading that stuff, in addition to writing the post?

Giotis said...

Maybe because you are a good person and you respect people's thoughts even if they are expressed anonymously?

BR

Bee said...

I don't respect nothing. And I'm not a good person either.

Shantanu said...

Bee, can you blog something about the emergent gravity workshop?

Giotis said...

Gee Bee, you are really in a bad mood. Sorry for that. Me on the other hand I am in a very good mood; it's 5 o'clock and I'm leaving work. Hura!:-)

BR

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,
Sorry, there was a death in my family yesterday, I'm just not feeling very bloggy.

Hi Shantanu,
I presently don't have the time. It is a very interesting meeting, there will be a panel discussion this evening on "The merits of emergence" which I expect to be entertaining.

Best,

B.

Giotis said...

I'm Sorry Bee. My condolences.

BR

Plato said...

My condolences Bee.

ON a emergent process(?) in GR.

Best,

Anonymous said...

I quite agree that it's VERY hard to improve on the fruits of natural selection.

Then again, when did that ever stop anybody...

cecil said...

Hi Bee:
Instead of foundational physics looking more like philosphy it might start to look more like religion. You have the string preachers and the LQG (and its variants) preachers trying to bring the sheep under one umbrella (at least Gross is according to Woit).

Lacking any data to sort out the reality of either of these approaches it comes down to name calling and basically saying the other side is going to the theoretical hell.

If one approach is so obviously incorrect then it should be readily apparent and easily demonstrated either by showing that there is a mathematiical error or the approach is inconsistant with existing established physics (data).

Lacking either of these one is left to name calling and damnation. The leaders say they "believe" in their respective approach and that it will lead to the promised land: a TOE.

Great physicists in the past followed their instincts and gut feelings to guide their approach. Sometimes they were right but sometimes very wrong. But I don't think the disagreements were ever as personal as it seems to be now. Maybe it is the improved communications.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

And of course my heartfelt condolences for you and your family as well.

Sincerely,

Phil

Neil' said...

A great essay Bee, as usual. One thing I notice is the rather glib acceptance of "other universes" (in various senses of the term, from quantum-choice splittings to "disconnected region" (?) of our own universe to literal multiple universes (separated, "floating in", what sort of "space"?) etc. I am OK with all that as a philosophical type, but how "scientific" is it, really? Not only is it not falsifiable so far, the theoretical underpinnings are shaky aren't they? And what does a positivist/empiricist do, if a terrific and seemingly convincing theoretical argument says we "should" believe in something we can't, or even never could, actually find?

Neil' said...

PS, Quick followup: Many thinkers find it interesting and even odd that we even have to do experiments at all, asking why isn't it just mathematically obvious or discoverable at least, why things are the way they are. But "our universe" (whether "the" universe or not) doesn't appear to be a supreme logical necessity, so we have to find out what it is like. That fits right in with my comment on "Why is there nothing instead of something?", that for any particular universe/s to be "reified" is like picking some numbers to be made into "stuff" and not others - why?

Plato said...

Neil,

With experimentation(phenomenological order) our perspectives change as observers.

My new post deals with this.

Some poke fun at the news and some poke fun at the methods of science in it's theoretical stages and it's relevance.

Each attempt is progressive in it's orientation, and not recognizing this, and being held to the mundane does not give credit to where credit is due.

It's not done, as if for a "crowd pleaser" or research money's taken from all other areas, but for the full recognition of what it hopes to do, as we see the unfolding of the architecture of this or that particularly method of research?

Best,

morningcoffeephysics said...

My thoughts are posted here.

bellamy said...

Bee, people die, expire, leave....whatever you want to call it. And so? Let it go, my dear.


"As a retired Physicist and Systems Engineer, I spend a lot of time researching on the internet. To me physics is about trying to understand the universe in a detailed mechanical, fully visualized way-- and then be able to describe it so that humanity can find sooner rather than later find ONEScienceReligionphilosophy --where the lines between the three blend so smoothly that it all boils down to one word forever ---and we ALL call it physics and it is taught in kindergarten in a way that leads to deep understanding of the Universe by sexual maturity!Evolution with then finally take off like as rocket and seed the Uiverse with our kind!"

Ahem, I would hope that no such quaint thing as kindergarten would exist in the near future. Besides, I've already discovered such a thing as you speculate, but it's not strictly rational, yet it's not even slightly spiritual-hokey like even your vague description implies. And it's evident in all my posts - particularly the first part of this one.


And following on that in responding to Phil: in the right light, how is why. Identity is in function - this is so with particles, no? It is the same with everything. Only humans think and feel otherwise. Crude metaphorical tools is why.


And, re-iterating to Neil. Your question is irrelevant, dear. There's no physical evidence of the phenomenon of 'nothing', so why persue it? Because of the crude metaphorical tools humans have inherited from their ancestors.

Anonymous said...

It is important that we think about the future. Unfortunately, we seem not to be capable of doing this. A generation ago no one dreamt of the Internet. No science fiction writer wrote anything remotely similar to what is going on now.

What will the future be in the next generation, in a few decades? At that time, desktop computers will have more intelligence than human brains. Such "robots" will be capable of independent emotions and thinking. How will we react to this?

The approach of people like Isaac Asimov and the Star Wars creators is wrong. The robots of the future will not be humanoid, machines that look and talk like people. What these past thinkers have forgotten is the Internet. All these robots of the future will be interconnected via the Internet. Consequently, there will be no individual personalities. It will not be Us and Them, but Us and It. A single global intelligence, vastly greater than human intelligence.

How will people react? This vast, superior intelligence that has no location has properties that most people ascribe to God. Will people confuse the Internet with God?

Ancient people believed in angels. An angel was a representation of God, a means of communicating with God, an intelligent being that did not have free will but had to do what was commanded. This ancient model of angels is what the future robots will be like.

No one has discussed this issue. This is the critical issue of the day. Cloning and other problems pale in comparison. We do not have much time to evaluate our options.

In 30 years, computers will be smarter than people. Will we say they are alive, as they will be built out of DNA, and grow by neural training?

We may be able to create such "living" entities that will live forever, for when parts wear out, they are replaced, but the memory is intact. These "beings" will be networked together via the Internet. The science fiction android is not an independent entity, but part of the monolith.

Will they be like angels from Heaven, very intelligent, can do no evil, fully interconnected with other angels?

There is no way we can kill this monolith, as each part is connected to each other, and we cannot kill the entire system. We will have created a new life form that we will not be able to destroy. We must at least be aware of what we are doing, and the possible dangers, before it is too late.

Maybe life exists elsewhere in the universe, in the form of such monoliths.

People talk about the "singularity", I feel the researchers are missing an essential point. Instead of talking about superhuman machines, we must talk about the superhuman machine - in the singular. All computers are interconnected via the Internet. There will be a single super mind (God?).

Anonymous said...

Hi last anonymous,

I got it! You can´t fool us.
You must be that single super mind.
So please answer a question:
"Will Physics turn into Philosophy?"

Plato said...

Can one identify "this function?" :)

The phenomena we study are often complex, and including too many details can hinder, rather than help our understanding. Often it is useful to study a simplified model which contains only the most important general characteristics. Such a model can be more easily studied using numerical or analytical methods and then compared to observations.

One had to know how they got there, and the subsequent translations moved to computerized algorithms.

While at it's basis "the foundation is structural," such roads in research loose energy, and need a injection. How does one deplete it in their own life? One might recognize a certain philosophy here?:)

This injection is "creativity" while recognizing the basis of any scientific method.:)

Even as adults, we recognized in our youth, our heroes. Shall one deny the kindergartens theirs? Such aspirations are of mythical proportions? As people, we are real.

Best,

bellamy said...

It is important that we think about the future. Unfortunately, we seem not to be capable of doing this. A generation ago no one dreamt of the Internet. No science fiction writer wrote anything remotely similar to what is going on now."

That's because you're reading SKIFFY (scifi) vs SF, yo!!

Anonymous said...

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother." ~ Albert Einstein

Here is where Prof. Einstein was wrong. You have to be able to explain it to your high school student.

If more profesors tried to explain things to high school students, serious advances would occur.

Tumbledried said...

Anonymous wrote:

"It is important that we think about the future. Unfortunately, we seem not to be capable of doing this. A generation ago no one dreamt of the Internet. No science fiction writer wrote anything remotely similar to what is going on now.

What will the future be in the next generation, in a few decades? At that time, desktop computers will have more intelligence than human brains. Such "robots" will be capable of independent emotions and thinking. How will we react to this?

The approach of people like Isaac Asimov and the Star Wars creators is wrong. The robots of the future will not be humanoid, machines that look and talk like people. What these past thinkers have forgotten is the Internet. All these robots of the future will be interconnected via the Internet. Consequently, there will be no individual personalities. It will not be Us and Them, but Us and It. A single global intelligence, vastly greater than human intelligence.

How will people react? This vast, superior intelligence that has no location has properties that most people ascribe to God. Will people confuse the Internet with God?"

I will comment briefly here, even though this is perhaps off topic. I subscribe to the viewpoint that although you are probably roughly correct when you suggest that there will be a global or intelligence (think of something like a "Hub" mind from an Iain Banks novel), I think that it will not be a threat to people.

Namely because people, us, will merge with our machines, through first perhaps augmenting our intelligence mechanistically and then making the leap to autonomous web intelligences ourselves. The brain is only a machine, albeit a very complicated one after all - I suspect that once our knowledge comes to the point where we can convincingly simulate and improve upon the architecture of the mind this will happen. Furthermore, I suspect in a hundred or hundred and fifty years (maybe not even that long) much of humanity will have become distributed network intelligences - entities that live through a number of different nodes, such as, for instance, a grove of trees, birds, and humanoid avatars.

Even if I am not completely correct here, I think that this is broadly the way things will eventually lead - to a merger between humanity and our machines.

Cheers,
Tumbledried

Bee said...

Anonymous:

It is important that we think about the future. Unfortunately, we seem not to be capable of doing this. A generation ago no one dreamt of the Internet. No science fiction writer wrote anything remotely similar to what is going on now.

There have been various science fiction writers who have foreseen something like the internet. E.g. Jules Verne in his Novel Paris in the 20th Century wrote about a worldwide communication network. I know there have been others, but that's the first which comes into my mind. What you say is simply incorrect. Best,

B.