Saturday, July 24, 2010

Physics or Philosophy?

In a recent comment Charles has drawn my attention to an interview with Sheldon Glashow, a "Viewpoint on String Theory." I'm not sure when this interview was conducted, I think it was 2003. In any case I thought it might be of interest for you and it fits well with the theme of our recent workshop on Experimental Search for Quantum Gravity, so I want to use it to discuss some questions about our search for quantum gravity.

Glashow is very critical of string theory and does not hesitate to say so:
"[S]uperstring theory ... is, so far as I can see, totally divorced from experiment or observation. If not totally divorced, pretty well divorced. They will deny that, these string theorists.

[T]here ain't no experiment that could be done nor is there any observation that could be made that would say, "You guys are wrong." The theory is safe, permanently safe. I ask you, is that a theory of physics or a philosophy?

There is today a disconnect in the world of physics. Let me put it bluntly. There are physicists, and there are string theorists."

He is careful to then point out that string theory is not entirely useless, just that its use is unclear:
"[String theory] leads to many interesting ideas... It has had an impact on modern mathematics. They may even have a practical impact some day, these things that string theorists do. One never knows, just as number theory, the most useless of the mathematical sciences, has given us cryptography and has given us a secure way to encode information. The string theorist may also produce something equally useful. May. So it is science, it is physics, it is mathematics. It does stimulate ideas in related fields."
Glashow could, at the time the interview was conducted, not know of the more recent applications of string theory to heavy ion physics or condensed matter systems. Arguably, this is exactly the practical impact that he asks for. He ends on a conciliatory note, speaking of his string theory friends:
"[A]lthough I occasionally pick on the work string theorists do, I describe them as physicists. They are interested in the same problems that I am. They're approaching those problems in different ways, ways that they regard as somewhat more productive than I do. But they're not searching for a theory of everything. They're just trying to create better theories."
Indeed, I would agree that physicists will find different approaches promising, but in the end we're all - more or less - interested in finding solutions to the same problems. The reason why I work on the phenomenology of quantum gravity is not that I think it's the one and only right way to progress, but that it's one of the necessary contributions and one that presently not enough people work on.

In any case, the question that I would like to draw from this interview and pose to you is whether there's a balance between phenomenology and pure theory that is ideal for progress and if so, how that balance can be reached?

To add my two cents: During the last decade or so, maybe starting with string-theory-inspired extra-dimensional models, in the area of physics beyond the standard model one could clearly notice phenomenology come into more fashion. I certainly welcome this trend. The problem is however that many of the phenomenological models we've seen are little more than ad-hoc proposed parameterizations of not-yet-observed effects (and lets not forget that adding parameters typically allows a better fit of the data). It thus seems to me one of the essential factors needed is a healthy interaction between theory, phenomenology, and experiment. A hundred years or so ago, it would have been hard to imagine these areas being disconnected, but the increase of our communities has resulted in a specialization that brings the risk of negatively affecting these vital connections. In the beginning of his interview, Glashow also wonders what happened to this interaction.

It is very easy today to focus on ones' own community and not look right or left. To make matters worse, it might even be career-wise beneficial. One of the side-effects is then that people outside that community may wonder if it's physics or philosophy. This incidentally is nothing specific to string theory, it's just that there's so many string theorists that other people talk about it. I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happens in other fields than physics as well. (Neuroeconomics - Science or Philosophy?) I'm having one of my more optimistic days today. Thus, I think the trend we've seen in the last years is a good one, and one that will eventually lead to the connection between quantum gravity theory and experiment that we are lacking so far.

34 comments:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Actually I find it hard to form any firm opinion on whether the current divergence of direction and purpose within physics is beginning to converge once again. On one hand there has been so much revealed through observation as of late with things like what is labelled as being dark matter and energy and as of yet no direct observations in respect to what would account for such phenomena.

My own gut feeling is we have taken a wrong turn somewhere in respect to being falsely convinced something being true fundamentally that just isn’t so. That is as I’ve eluded before I think it’s more a time to perhaps take a few steps back in respect to our assumptions, rather than remaining convinced that all that’ required being some new observation to help sort it all out.

For example let’s suppose that the LHC fails to identify the Higg’s, with it then suggesting that as far as the standard model is concerned it becomes more probable it being significantly flawed as to have a mechanism for mass no longer part of its explanation? I would suggest that there are not many prepared for such an admission let alone any significant numbers working on alternatives.

So in short I think observation as of late has given plenty to think about with perhaps the fault laying not so much with what can or has been thus far observed yet more with how we allow ourselves to think about them. For example I feel it to be essential to resolve the remaining ontological questions by devising theorems which produce experientially realizable ways to have them tested and the decided upon This was the type of things those like Bell was working on which has in my humble opinion as of late been sorely neglected. That is I find this no longer the time to just shut up and calculate yet more wher one steps back to contemplate.


Best,

Phil

Uncle Al said...

[T]here ain't no experiment that could be done nor is there any observation that could be made that would say, "You guys are wrong." The theory is safe, permanently safe.

Perturbative string theory demands BRST invariance, then the Equivalence Principle. Two lumps that vacuum free fall differently falsify string theory. Postulates cannot be defended or they would not be postulated.

Falsification may not contradict prior observations. The experiment SOP runs in existing apparatus using commercial materials, completed within three months. End all quantum gravitations,

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/erotor1.jpg
The worst it can do is succeed.
http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm
Learn some chemistry, physics.

arxiv:1001.0785 "The equivalence principle leads us to conclude that it is actually this law of inertia whose origin is entropic." Eötvös entropy dipoles at 298.15 K, safely EP-inert,

W: 0.1777 J/K-gram entropy
----------------------------------
Mg: 1.344 J/K-gram
TPX: 1.800 J/K-gram
PDMS: 2.028 J/K-gram

Steven Colyer said...
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Steven Colyer said...

Glashow is one of my many heroes for his remarks. It was joyful to read his admonition that one must separate the theorists from the theory, i.e., don't hate them because they are String Theorists. As Woit and Smolin's books point out with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, those of us born in America between 1954 and 1966 has little choice to work on anything else.

To date and as far as I know, the only contribution from String Theory to Physics is a helpful and speedy equation in QCD. Which QCD doesn't need. But string theory makes one particular calculation faster. That's it. Divide the amount of money that has been spent on String Theory by the amount of helpful results, and you get a very large number.

Dirac introduced String Theory in the fall semester 1955 at Cambridge, to his students. He must have been working on it all that summer, and being Dirac, told no one.

He posited that rather than being of zero dimensions, the electron was a one-dimensional string. The students never worked further on it and neither did Dirac. Dirac was angry that year and many previous re renormalization, the QED breakthrough that never set well with him, including the concept of a "bare electron", an electron existing in the absence of an electromagnetic field. That's not nature.

MY basic problem with strings is the initial assumption: 1D strings. All further objections fall apart if that one isn't true.

Is it?

Prove it.

(If the assumption is NOT true Bee, then it's not only not Science, but NOT Philosophy as well)

Phil Warnell said...
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Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

As I related to Bee I currently find no consensus as what stands to have us confident in respect to the direction physics at times such as these now finds itself. However what I do find as certain is this not being the first time things have presented this way. That is on the outset of what we now recognize as the beginnings of its modern form there were those that saw similar difficulties which hindered things from moving forward. One such person of course being Rene Descartes; who most today would attribute to being more of a philosopher than a scientist. What I gathered from Descartes is more than anything else being that science must always remain as continently virulent in respect to resist becoming as arrogant to believe it has reached a point where doubt can be largely ignored as being its most essential aspect. In the following words of Descartes I can’t help but find resonance with the complaints of many today.


“Among the branches of philosophy, I had, at an earlier period, given some attention to logic, and among those of the mathematics to geometrical analysis and algebra, -- three arts or sciences which ought, as I conceived, to contribute something to my design. But, on examination, I found that, as for logic, its syllogisms and the majority of its other precepts are of avail- rather in the communication of what we already know, or even as the art of Lully, in speaking without judgment of things of which we are ignorant, than in the investigation of the unknown; and although this science contains indeed a number of correct and very excellent precepts, there are, nevertheless, so many others, and these either injurious or superfluous, mingled with the former, that it is almost quite as difficult to effect a severance of the true from the false as it is to extract a Diana or a Minerva from a rough block of marble.”

-René Descartes, Discourse on The Method: of Rightly Conducting The Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637)


Best,

Phil

Arun said...

If doing phenomenology is computationally intensive, then improve tools so that exploring the space of models is no more difficult (in a sense) that making powerpoint slides.

GW said...
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Zephir said...

The main consistence problem of string theory is, it considers extradimensions and Lorentz symmetry under situation, when presence of extradimensions manifest itself just by violation of LS => FAIL, landscape of 1oE+500 solutions, etc..

BTW LQG theory suffers by dual problem regarding equivalence principle violation, so it leads to similar problem, too. Actually we cannot have a rigorous theory, which is based on completelly consistent postulate set - if our postulates would be fully consistent, we could replace them with single one and corresponding theory would become a tautology.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

I am not certain either whether we will be seeing a convergence on some of the most pressing questions in physics soon, but I'm more hopeful now than I was some years ago. I see more people changing communities and trying to reach across fields now then than and I think it's a good development, one that is strengthening interactions that previously were missing, and that I think are essential for progress.

Yes, you previously said that you think we've taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I believe I said I think the same. It would maybe surprise you to hear how many people share this believe. It is just that, at least up to now, nothing useful has come out of it. I know I must have said it many times before, but the problem is not to have an idea, the problem is to make it work. In any case, it seems to me we have been stuck for such a long time that people are starting to consider the not-so-straightforward alternatives and sooner or later we'll stumble across something. I tend to believe that the foundations of quantum mechanics will play a major role in that. Another area that many people would discard as philosophy... Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

I'm afraid your impression of what string theory is good for or isn't is somewhat outdated. I'm not a string theorist, so I'm usually somewhat limping behind with what's going on, but here's my rough impression of things. The formalism of string theory has, through the AdS/CFT correspondence proven to be very useful to address a number of problems in various qfts (not only qcd) that are hard, if not impossible, to tackle on the qft side. This has applications in heavy ion physics as well as condensed matter systems. There's presently a lot of people working on that. It is clearly one of the boom-fields of the last years. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any good review article, but I'm sure sooner or later one will come.

Now one has to be careful what this means. These applications have a priori nothing to do with string theory being the grand unified theory of everything and quantum gravity. That's a different story. Nevertheless, it documents that the formalism works and that it's useful. It doesn't follow from that that string theory is also the theory that describes quantum gravitational effects in our world, but I think it's obvious why people working on it have the hope that it does, given that it has some relevance in the description of Nature. Of course people diverge on the question and without evidence there's no knowing.

All theories rest on assumptions and if these aren't realized in Nature the theory isn't useful. I don't understand why you have a particular problem with the assumptions of 1d objects. 0d objects are far more problematic. In any case, one doesn't typically prove an assumption of the theory true or false, what one does is make predictions with the theory and see if these are fulfilled. (Not exactly the same thing. Sorry for the nitpicking.) This then brings us back to the question of experimental possibilities which, as I've said many times, I think is one of the most pressing ones. But not only for what string theory is concerned. It is generally an open question in all approaches to quantum gravity and the problem is simply that the Planck scale is so far off our Earthly experiences. That's why it takes such a lot of effort to come up with something. At some point I found myself joking to Stefan I should write a paper titled "50 ways you cannot test quantum gravity" because whenever you put in numbers it turns out whatever effect you had in mind is like 40 orders of magnitude too small to be detected. Very frustrating actually. In any case, I think sooner or later we'll figure something out, one of the most promising areas is certainly the early universe. Best,

B.

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

I think it is good to have some balance of phenomenology and pure theory. To reach it, one need not to follow after any hype that's up to date. And this means, one should get jobs for different issues, which wasn't the case in the past and which would be hopefully the case in the future.

Best, Kay

Neil B said...

I suppose I might as well make one of my periodic reminders, that math/logic per se do not and cannot in principle specify logically select "realness" of reification among various model descriptions. Hence we have no idea why our universe is the way it is, other than either taking it for granted, saying we're just in one of the possible worlds, or there's an exterior/ulterior purpose for it being this way.

BTW it is also true, that a purely computational intelligence (as some suppose even we are) cannot formulate the thought of special real existence apart from logical structures (ie, such a mind cannot even represent disbelieve or an alternative to modal realism/MUH.) That's becasue computations are just math, they can't represent "this is just math" versus "this is my thinking here in a real material world." (Similar point made by cyberneticist/futurist Jaron Lanier - who deserves more attention than he gets.) Well, I don't think CI/AI is true but that would be the implication.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

It’s at least nice to hear there are some physicists out there who consider that much of the current difficulty rests with what we think we know rather then what we don’t. I’m also somewhat surprised to learn that you feel it may rest with the foundations of QM as I’ve never heard you express this so clearly before. However I find it unfortunate that you consider such feelings should be relegated as being principally mere philosophical considerations as a few like Bell and later David Albert placed a higher value on them.

Perhaps I think of such things too simplistically. yet for me before one can seriously get down to accounting for some action of nature shouldn’t we first clearly have the action defined as to what it is. So for instance almost all of the new theories do little to expand on having explained the least understood mechanisms of the quanta, such as entanglement or the confusion in respect to measurement, yet rather concede these theories need simply comply with its basic formalism,

So to put it even more simply, wouldn’t one expect an advanced theory to have decided how some of this actually works so we can stop wondering if reality requires there be many worlds, many minds or just one having a mechanism lending a level of holism not common to everyday experience. For me the trouble I have with most of the new directions is not with what they serve tp tell us in addition about nature, yet rather what they fail to, as being the questions I would have thought to be the more important in terms our general understanding.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

I don't understand why you have a particular problem with the assumptions of 1d objects. 0d objects are far more problematic.

Agreed on 0d, I just openly question whether or not 1d is correct. We live in a non-linear universe, period. Also a quantum mechanical one that includes general relativity on large scales. Both QM and GR are likely low energy approximations of a greater theory, but that doesn't mean 1d strings are the way to achieve that theory.

Because of the non-linearity of the universe, I would find it odd to the point of the greatest of
co-incidences if the actual number of dimensions on the Planck scale turned out to be of integer value. I would investigate 0.99d to 1.01d strings (a little perturbation goes a long way) first (because I'm an engineer, and we worship 2 significant figures), and I'm not sure if anyone has even tried that.

However, the whole concept of "dimension", by which I mean its definition, is a hot potato (for Dan Quayle: potatoe) in its own right. Mathematicians on the one hand and Physicists on the other hand have a slightly different definition of the word: "dimension", and I'd rather not get into a semantical discussion re same.

In any event, thanks for the long reply. You've re-interested me in heavy ion physics, again.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

Of course the problems with 0d objects don't necessarily mean that string theory is the correct description of Nature. However, I have no clue why the "non-linearity of the universe" (not sure what you mean with that) means that 1d objects (and all the higher-d objects that string theory brings along) are implausible. I actually don't even know what you mean with non-integer dimensions. Can you give a physical definition that does not rely on the properties of objects propagating? And what are those objects? Best,

B.

Christine said...

Every knowledge must embrace lack of knowledge -- any one-sided view is just human illusion. We should not rely on just one side of what we "think it is true", but look for wisdom in the opposites. Theories just attempt to describe what is observed or needed for logical completeness of our particular understanding of nature, up to limits. I do not understand current obsession of elaborating "theories" with the urge of forcing them into something that should correspond to some "final" knowledge of the physical world, specially when some of these "theories" offer no way to be tested, or either cannot be practically tested. This is just human imagination into mathematics. Or worse still, science becoming faith. No problem with that if these theories are admittedly a rehearsal, a set of speculations, an acknowledgement of a limitation, and to attempt learning from this fundamental limitation (or perhaps there is something deeper than just a limitation here that we should understand? A meta step beyond into our current rationalization?), that what we really seek is a description that fits what we measure, and to realize that if we succeed in doing so what we get is merely a humble probe one step more into the unknown. But people want recognition per recognition, to live their "careers" on performance for performance, and to dream to be called the "next Einstein" for their elaborate ramblings, and to live in eternity.

Frankly, I am very skeptical that we will get anywhere if we forget that the scientific journey is more about humbleness than credit, more about *not* understanding (in fact) than understanding (or believing so).

Best,
Christine

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

However, I have no clue why the "non-linearity of the universe" (not sure what you mean with that) means that 1d objects (and all the higher-d objects that string theory brings along) are implausible.

I should have said "fractal" rather than "non-linear." Actually that too but "fractal" would have made more sense. Every 3-yr-old toddler looking at a seashell, or a fern, or a tree, understands fractility. In about 20 years, they should understand the math as well.

My point I guess is that "Non-Linear Dynamical Feedback Analysis" aka "Order-in-Chaos" Theory aka Chaos Theory( for example : the Universe is obviously chaotic, with order) is rather new in mathematics and poorly understood. We get better every day though, so I'm not worried so much.

As a disclaimer, not a backpeddling, I think Superstrings Theory is intriguing mathematics and should always be studied ... in Mathematics departments.

Quick joke:

Q: How many people in the Mathematics Department at IAS-Princeton does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None, because there is no such thing as a Mathematics Department at Princeton-IAS. Oh yeah? You could have fooled me. What the heck is it that Witten and Malcedena do? Oh, right. they work for the PHYSICS department, there. Ok then, fine and whatEVer.

You can paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra, but it's still a horse no matter what you call it.

Also, SupeyStrings BORROWED from Solid State Physics, so I'm not surprised to see it giving back. I too have always loved tooling around with extra dimensions. It's just fun. Or have I read too many books by Rudy Rucker and Chris McMullen?

Hi Christine,

Well put. I'm not sure we need the next Einstein as much as the new Gauss. New Einsteins seem to come along once a century, New Gauss's once every half a millennium. If people wish to call Lee Smolin "the new Einstein" and Ed Witten "the new Gauss", I'm good with that.

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Bee,

However, I have no clue why the "non-linearity of the universe" (not sure what you mean with that) means that 1d objects (and all the higher-d objects that string theory brings along) are implausible.

I should have said "fractal" rather than "non-linear." Actually that too but "fractal" would have made more sense. Every 3-yr-old toddler looking at a seashell, or a fern, or a tree, understands fractility. In about 20 years, they should understand the math as well.

My point I guess is that "Non-Linear Dynamical Feedback Analysis" aka "Order-in-Chaos" Theory aka Chaos Theory( for example : the Universe is obviously chaotic, with order) is rather new in mathematics and poorly understood. We get better every day though, so I'm not worried so much.

As a disclaimer, not a backpeddling, I think Superstrings Theory is intriguing mathematics and should always be studied ... in Mathematics departments.

Quick joke:

Q: How many people in the Mathematics Department at IAS-Princeton does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: None, because there is no such thing as a Mathematics Department at Princeton-IAS. Oh yeah? You could have fooled me. What the heck is it that Witten and Malcedena do? Oh, right. they work for the PHYSICS department, there. Ok then, fine and whatEVer.

You can paint stripes on a horse and call it a zebra, but it's still a horse no matter what you call it.

Also, SupeyStrings BORROWED from Solid State Physics, so I'm not surprised to see it giving back. I too have always loved tooling around with extra dimensions. It's just fun. Or have I read too many books by Rudy Rucker and Chris McMullen?

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Christine,

Well put. I'm not sure we need the next Einstein as much as the new Gauss. New Einsteins seem to come along once a century, New Gauss's once every half a millennium. If people wish to call Lee Smolin "the new Einstein" and Ed Witten "the new Gauss", I'm good with that.

Christine said...

Steven,

On a second thought, or maybe a complementary thought, what I mean to say is that science is a very complex activity with otherwise very simple rules. These simple rules (the scientific method) seem to become less and less important in detriment of achieving personal status in the career. This problem lies in the "complex side" of the activity.

This is not an issue in the applied sciences nor on how science used to be until the first half of the last century. I see no problem that in the applied sciences one should be as competitive and ambitious as one wishes in order to have things done. In fact, given the practical side, the simple rules (scientific method) is usually maintained in the applied sciences as a very natural and necessary guide. In the same vein, Einstein and so many singular people had different personalities and maybe different agendas on their notion of science, its meaning and how it should be done, but lived in a time when their scientific theories could be in principle put to test, and that was always what mattered at the end.

I am not certain that we can do fundamental science the same way as before. But some people do not realize this, and continue to try to be the "next Einstein", to put forward "theories" that promise too much instead of making an honest effort towards putting them in their correct perspective, and treating them as such.

In fundamental work, the quest is different from the applied sciences, and from what science used to be before, it is becoming more and more different than anything previously done. We are at a point that I believe needs a conceptual revision, not in the scientific method of course, but on the approach, that is: what is really expected from such an endeavor, and to adapt out agendas to what is really necessary to proceed from here on.

Best,
Christine

Christine said...

"to adapt out agendas to what is really necessary to proceed from here on"

please replace with

"to adapt OUR agendas to what is really necessary to proceed from here on"

Thanks.

Christine

Steven Colyer said...
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Steven Colyer said...

Hi Christine,

You wrote:
These simple rules (the scientific method) seem to become less and less important in detriment of achieving personal status in the career.

Oh I hear that, and I second the motion.

Such an attitude slows down Science, IMO. I don't see it in Biology so much, because they look pretty busy over there. Physics is on the other hand, as many have noted, a victim of its own success.

We know so much that in many ways we seem to be fine tuning more than anything else. That leaves time for sniping, as the whole Witten Newton Award speech business is revealing itself.

Physics has gotten so good that our limits of small-length scale exploratory prowess have been achieved, such that all else is speculation. Experiment is about to become king in Geneva and in Space, once agin.

Hopefully, new Physics will ensue based on new and unexpected data. Rutherford would have liked that.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

Chaos theory is some decades old. I share your believe that it will become more important in physics. It's a matter of techniques I believe. However, chaos is an emergent feature. I don't think it will be relevant on the most elementary level. The same holds for fractals. Neither a seashell, nor a fern, nor a tree are even remotely elementary. Besides that, the fractal dimensions were used for Georgi's Unparticles, an, if you ask me, generally unappealing model of one-doesn't-really-know-what. Best,

B.

Charles said...

I thought you hadn´t published the previous comment; I should have briefly stated what the link was about. I am glad you liked it.

Steven Colyer said...

However, chaos is an emergent feature.

I personally find "emergence" to be the most ill-defined concept in the Sciences, at present. I have no problem with that, because the study of same is so new. It spans everything from "Emergent Consciousness" (oh, please) to Emergent Dimensions in CDT, and everything in-between.

I don't think it will be relevant on the most elementary level.

But it might be. As you brilliantly pointed out, there is more we DO NOT know at the most elementary of levels (Planck length and Planck time ... quantum foam, anyone?), and not just those levels but orders and orders and orders of magnitude between them and the smallest we can probe with our greatest and most powerful microscopes.

Our knowledge is eclipsed only by our ignorance. But not to fret, we're getting there.

The same holds for fractals. Neither a seashell, nor a fern, nor a tree are even remotely elementary.

But they would appear so to the solar-system sized dark-matter plasmoidic sentinent beings that inhabit cosmic voids and for the adventurous ones who hang between galaxies, to whom gravity is poison. ;-)

In other words, it's a question of scale.

Seriously, we can all see where Oldershaw makes his mistakes on his "new paradigm" theory. But Robert isn't completely wrong. Self-similarity is not self-exactness, as he seems to run with too far. For example, the twin lobes of a certain state of the Hydrogen atom and the exploding Eta Carinae soon-to-be-a-supernova big blue star may LOOK similar, but drawing a connection between the 2, on length scales absurdly different, is a bit much.

Besides that, the fractal dimensions were used for Georgi's Unparticles, an, if you ask me, generally unappealing model of one-doesn't-really-know-what.

Wow! Thanks for that, looks hilarious! If, as it seems, Georgi has gone off a bit in the wrong direction, according to mainsteam physics, that doesn't necessarily invalidate fractal mathematics of SOME form at the very small length scales. Unparticles would then have been a noble but flawed attempt.

Steven Colyer said...
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Steven Colyer said...
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Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

Emergence is far from being a new concept in physics or science more generally as Rene Descartes was first to break with the Platoian concept of perfect form, which then paved the way for thinkers such as Darwin and the others that followed Yet even the idea of perfect form can still coexist within an emergent conceptualization if such is transferred to being then considered the limits of potential.


“But this is certain, and an opinion commonly received among theologians, that the action by which he now sustains it is the same with that by which he originally created it; so that even although he had from the beginning given it no other form than that of chaos, provided only he had established certain laws of nature, and had lent it his concurrence to enable it to act as it is wont to do, it may be believed, without discredit to the miracle of creation, that, in this way alone, things purely material might, in course of time, have become such as we observe them at present; and their nature is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming in this manner gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state.”

-Rene Descartes- Discourse on The Method: of Rightly Conducting The Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Steven,

The reason that many people seem to believe "emergence" is ill-defined is that it is used frequently in inappropriate, inaccurate or fuzzy context. In that, it suffers the same problem as "complexity." Anyway, there are cases where it can be nicely defined and of course if you want to make scientific statements, you better stick to those cases where you know what you're talking about. Some years back, I spent some time trying to find a way to generalize these notions so they would capture the general sense. Maybe I'll come back to that at some point. However, just because a word is sometimes used in an ambiguous context, doesn't mean it's a useless concept. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are many cases where it is clear in which sense a feature is "emergent." Collectively defined variables are probably the best, and simplest, example, take sound. That's not something that exists in any meaningful way on the molecular level. Or take the magnetic monopoles that we have discussed recently. There are, fundamentally, no magnetic monopoles in that theory. It's standard electrodynamics you're dealing with. Nevertheless, you can identify in a many particle scenario elements that do behave like magnetic monopoles. It's an emergent feature.

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

So you’ve thought to generalize the concept of emergent action as it relates to phenomena, now that I would consider both an interesting an worthwhile thing to pursue. As I indicated to Steven emergence is certainly not a new idea yet as you point out it has never been formerly defined as to have it clear where and when it has application. One thing for certain Descartes would have considered such an endeavour worth the effort.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

No, I was trying to find a formal definition that was general enough to apply for most scenarios in which the word is commonly used. That went quite well up to some point, but forgot the details. This was briefly before one or the other move, and whatever I tend to start in these time periods ends up in a box somewhere in a corner. Best,

B.

roslean said...

To me, it seems theories of everything and unification crumble under their own mathematical weight.

This challenge is nearly as daunting as actually finding a working model.

Maybe there is no ToE, or forces can't be united because they are different in their very nature.

There are some new approaches, like wolfram automatas. In that vein, neural network, root library, or other programs could one day produce better models.

Hard science did bring us so much that's it's worth looking into every corner. As long as the string church doesn't become omnipotent, I see no real problem with it, except to divert brains that could be more useful elsewhere.