The Mind of God: The Promise of String Theory

There is a Russian proverb which goes: If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.

I was thinking of that saying these last few weeks while I try to find time  to write my stories (a full time job in itself), blog, draw, and experiment with my new camera – all while holding down a full time job. Then there are the children and the grandchildren – all of whom I want to spend more time with.

Not willing to give up on any of these rabbits, I’ve also been doing a lot more reading.  Which brings me to the subject of my current read: Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics by Peter Woit.

I’ve had this book for a long time and started to read it several times. Unfortunately, it brought back such conflicting emotions about my college days (where I earned a Bachelor of Science in Physics and a minor in Computer Science) that I kept putting it down. In those days, I felt confused over the material we were learning. We studied a great deal of mathematics that we were assured would help us with post graduate studies, but seemed to have nothing to do with science. I was never a stellar student to begin with and I left the university feeling depressed about it. To be fair to myself, I had a lot of personal troubles at home which left me with limited time to concentrate on my studies. Still, I felt that I had no future in Physics since I felt lost in the last year or two, where I began to pick up Computer Science courses. Here, I easily excelled (thanks to the Physics and Mathematics courses).

Mr. Woit did Post Doc work in Physics, but eventually switched over to Mathematics. The  reassuring part of the book for me was that he felt the same confusion as I (and many of my classmates) felt as an undergraduate.

It’s very hard for people who don’t have a firm grasp of Mathematics to follow current ideas in Physics (it’s hard for people who do, too, unless math is a natural talent). He writes about the split in the physics community over how to approach modern physics. Having reached a point where we are limited in our ability to observe smaller and smaller particles directly, do we abandon the old methods of science where we insisted that the theoretical research match up with experimental results or do we abandon that approach in order to explore theories that are more elegant and interesting, but do not match reality?

Now, to normal people, who deal in the real world, this question seems to have an obvious answer: Go with reality. So, why don’t these very smart people with higher math skills choose that path? In short, the current theory called The Standard Model isn’t very elegant. It’s incomplete. It doesn’t explain every known force that we know of. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find something clean and simple – that could explain everything- like String Theory.

The trouble is that the String Theory doesn’t predict anything. In fact, it’s not a theory, it’s a bunch of ideas that point to a possibility of a theory.

What I find fascinating is that just as Physics reached its peak of prestige (last half of the previous century) it hit a wall in its ability to describe the universe. When I was in college, we were on the verge of a Unified Field Theory that would explain how everything worked in the universe and when we did that we know the Mind of God.

All these years since I graduated in 1979, while there has been some real progress in Particle Physics, there is still no answer to a unified theory. The high priests of science are split into two camps – those who believe reality (experimental results) should play a role in physics and those who think insisting on working on theories that match reality is a hindrance to a fuller understanding of the universe. This second group believes that studying all possible worlds (mathematical constructs – not actual worlds) will eventually reveal the one that we live in.  It’s a “Fake it to you make it” type of approach. Or you might say it’s like trying to catch all the rabbits because one of them is the magic rabbit which will tell you the secret of the universe.

Like everyone who watches the news and goes to the movies, I’ve been following the effects on the culture these ideas have had. We have physicists telling us about multiple dimensions, time travel, and alternate realities in ways that indicate that they believe these things exist and there is proof that they exist. Yet, there are no observable data ANYWHERE that indicates that any of these things exist.

Don’t get me wrong – I love science fiction. I can suspend my skepticism long enough to enjoy a good story. But, I know it’s fiction. There’s no flux capacitor (Back to the Future) and there’s no Warp Drive (Star Trek). How about uploading your brain into a computer? Because once we figure out what the universe is made of, figuring out the brain will be a snap. Yes, well, don’t count on it. But, you say, isn’t the brain really a machine? IT COULD HAPPEN.

(Sigh) So, okay – even if you could duplicate an actual brain it wouldn’t be you, but a copy of you. So, what good does it do you? What kind of immortality would it bring YOU, the person reading this? None. You are still going to die even if a copy of you goes on. Then it will die and so on.

So, now, I’m going to leave you with these thoughts while I go back to figuring out how to catch all my rabbits. Yes, I know there are only 24 hours in each day, 7 days in the week, and with luck I might live to 100. I’ll make it work. After all, I am a scientist…

We all have our blinders to reality – it’s in our nature.  😊

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