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Is String Theory Really a Scientific Theory? 397

vk38 writes, "The New Yorker is running a story on whether String Theory is really a scientific theory or just an abstract exercise in math designed to churn out papers and Ph.Ds for the established academics. The article reviews two current books, by Lee Smolin and Peter Woit, laying out the case against string theory." From the article: "Dozens of string-theory conferences have been held, hundreds of new Ph.D.s have been minted, and thousands of papers have been written. Yet... not a single new testable prediction has been made, not a single theoretical puzzle has been solved. In fact, there is no theory so far — just a set of hunches and calculations suggesting that a theory might exist. And, even if it does, this theory will come in such a bewildering number of versions that it will be of no practical use: a Theory of Nothing... String theory has always had a few vocal skeptics... Sheldon Glashow, who won a Nobel Prize for making one of the last great advances in physics before the beginning of the string-theory era, has likened string theory to a 'new version of medieval theology,' and campaigned to keep string theorists out of his own department at Harvard. (He failed.)"
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Is String Theory Really a Scientific Theory?

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <[moc.liamg] [ta] [nhojovadle]> on Friday September 29, 2006 @01:50PM (#16248357) Journal
    String theory is a scientific theory that has neither been proved nor disproved to my knowledge.

    I could speculate all day on whether or not it is fact but from what I've read, I will make a few statements. It seems that string theory was invented to satisfy some things we could not explain. This doesn't mean it's wrong or right although some people will contend that it is most probably wrong.

    As the summary points out, few (if any) of String Theory's propositions can be tested or even observed. So it is simply an unknown right now. We cannot measure the proposed strings so how can we prove if they exist or they don't? We simply can't yet.

    A good analogy would be Bohr's early assumptions about the atom [utk.edu]. They were wrong but they were a step in the right direction. In hindsight, we see this now but we don't know what the future holds for String Theory. I'm just glad there are people out there thinking outside the box.

    Do not fret, however, as scientists have been very resourceful at proving/disproving theories. I submit, for example, the exercise of determining the diameter of the building blocks of matter. Scientists had the idea to fill up one cubic milliletre of oil and dump it on top of a trough of water with a roller across the top. As the oil spread out, they moved the roller further down the trough. Once they started to see non-reflective parts of the water, they moved it back until they agreed the oil was completely spread out to the best of their abilities. Using this area, they determined how thick a molecule of oil could be without precision tools!

    Similar ingenious tests have been devised to easily find the diameter of the earth at sunset on a beach with a yard stick or ruler.

    So even though we may never be able to measure these strings, there are still some options left to explore to record properties that may prove/disprove their existence. We're merely in the very early stages of the scientific process.

    Let us be excited about String Theory, even if it is wrong it sure is interesting. Nothing's wrong with a scientist who dreams, is there?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:00PM (#16248509)
      As the summary points out, few (if any) of String Theory's propositions can be tested or even observed.

      So how is that any different from intelligent design? If you can't test it, it isn't science.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by cain ( 14472 )
        Similar ingenious tests have been devised to easily find the diameter of the earth at sunset on a beach with a yard stick or ruler.

        What's the diameter of the earth at sunrise? Can I use the same stick?

      • by Ithika ( 703697 )

        So how is that any different from intelligent design? If you can't test it, it isn't science.

        But you can't test Intelligent Design by design, so to speak. Everything comes down to the classic response A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away (and yes, I am a Brookmyre fan!).

        I don't know for certain, but I'm supposing that quantum physics and string theory make the same predictions about everyday life, in the same way that quantum and classical physics can be reconciled in most circumstances. But for certain ca

      • by Perseid ( 660451 )
        Intelligent Design makes no attempt to prove it's truthfulness. It relies on faith. String Theory may not be provable today or tomorrow, but scientists are trying. They want it to be proven.
      • by LihTox ( 754597 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @04:21PM (#16250847)
        I agree that if string theory isn't testable, then it isn't science (yet). However, it IS mathematics (which often isn't science either, often dealing with strange systems which have no basis in reality), and as mathematics it is certainly a worthwhile field of study. (There are a lot of physicists out there who are basically doing mathematics.)

        And of course, eventually someone might come up with a way to test the string theories, and then they'll definitely be science. :)
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by mentrial ( 956547 )
          No one is saying that st isn't testable, just that it would be wildly impractical to test it. Just suppose that we become a type 3 civilization in the kardashev scale. Then we would count with the energy needed to prove or disprove the string theory (even if an advance in string theory itself that would provide a better way to verify it doesn't occur). So if we are saying that in the current theoretical state, given the resources, we could contrast st, then it is science. The fact that we don't have such r
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iocat ( 572367 )
      But to really be a theory, it needs to be testable and disprovable. Right now String Theory is not really testable, and it's difficult to disprove, because it morphs to accept whatever disprovations people come up with. Wikipedia actually sites it on the theory page as a more looser definition of theory than the traditional scientific usage of the term. (The term theory is occasionally stretched to refer to theoretical speculation that is currently unverifiable. Examples are string theory and various theori
      • by wirelessbuzzers ( 552513 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:34PM (#16249071)
        You're right: string theory is not a scientific theory. It's a mathematical theory. That is, it's a collection of mathematical axioms and related proofs (and an extremely unpleasant one, according to a physicist friend of mine).

        String theory does provide a model of physics. That is to say, if you set the parameters right, you get something that looks kind of like quantum field theory (which, by the way, is also a mathematical theory in addition to a scientific one). Unfortunately, the math is too hard to deteremine how they differ, and even once a determination is made, string theory has a lot of parameters which will have to be set before real predections are possible. Note that quantum field theories are testable, but only barely. For instance, Howard Georgi's "representations of SU(5)" theory was disproved by experiments in proton decay.

        Finally, once string theory does make real predictions, they will be hard to test. In particular, they are likely to require enormous amounts of energy, and accelerator experiments can take years to run and analyze. So it will be a long time yet before string theory becomes scientific.
    • Good post.

      That's somewhat the point I was making with a my previous..simplistic post below. It would be different if the artical was written with no apparent predisposed position. Simply a... as someone else said layperson's attempt to understand and explain the debate over String Theory.

      Note the possibilities, note the present reality of even putting much of M-Theory's proposed experiments through the wringer, and state time will tell. Critically analyze it, versus....this.

      That's not what we got here, and
    • It's philosophy.

      String theory is at the moment, philosophy. As soon as someone comes up with a way of testing it, it will become science.

       
      • by alexgieg ( 948359 ) <alexgieg@gmail.com> on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:33PM (#16249055) Homepage
        You, sir, have no idea what Philosophy is.

        Do you "prove" logic by testing it, or testing anything is to apply logic to the issue?

        When something "becomes" science, that's because it never was philosophy. Philosophy is that discipline that provides you the tools with which you build science. Not the other way around.
        • You don't prove logic by testing it because logic cannot be proved. And there are certainly areas where philosophy has given way to science when empirical evidence provided explanations for things previously unexplainable by science, such as astronomy and evolution. In the future, philosophy of mind will become a science, too.

          I'm not sure that I'd call string theory philosophy, but I wouldn't dismiss such a categorization immediately, either. It isn't just an as-of-yet untestable proposition, it is a fram

        • I don't know what you are talking about. If something becomes a science, it wasn't a philosophy? You seem to be forgetting that science used to be (and maybe still is) a field of philosophy. It was philosophers who came up with the concept of an atom. And it's philosophers who came up with the concept of strings.
        • When something "becomes" science, that's because it never was philosophy. Philosophy is that discipline that provides you the tools with which you build science. Not the other way around.

          Well, that's pretty much true for string theory right now. It's a huge body of math that doesn't predict anything in particular. However, it's possible that in the future, it can be built into something that actually says something about the real world - and then it'd be a useful tool for doing science with.

          Right now it

        • by Chris Pimlott ( 16212 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @03:58PM (#16250427)
          I love it how this happens; whenever there is a discussion about whether something is or is not a theory, or isn't actually science, the Science People always piss of the Philosophy Poeple because philosophy always gets used as a dumping ground for everything that starts out with "what if..." but doesn't quality as science. "Damn it guys, we have rules too, you know. Stop sending us your trash!"
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by LotsOfPhil ( 982823 )
      Grrr. I have no problem with most of your post, but you really get off on the wrong foot.

      String theory is a scientific theory that has neither been proved nor disproved to my knowledge. I could speculate all day on whether or not it is fact but from what I've read, I will make a few statements.

      In the context of science, "theory" does not mean "unproven." It is very far from "guess." We have "the theory of gravity" and "the theory of evolution." When someone says "evolution is *just* a theory," remind th

      • String theory might not have earned the rights to be called a theory yet, but as with Bohr's model of the atom, perhaps we could agree that it has earned the right to be called a model.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by paiute ( 550198 )
        In the context of science, "theory" does not mean "unproven." It is very far from "guess." We have "the theory of gravity" and "the theory of evolution." When someone says "evolution is *just* a theory," remind them that gravity is just a theory too, but that seems to be working out okay.

        I don't think that there is a theory of gravity. We know gravity exists. We can quantify it. We have a law of gravity based on those observations. But laws are not theories. A theory of gravity would explain how gravity wo
        • I don't think that there is a theory of gravity. We know gravity exists. We can quantify it. We have a law of gravity based on those observations. But laws are not theories. A theory of gravity would explain how gravity works. So far we have only hypothetical gravitons. When these and gravity waves are someday detected and quantified, then we may have a theory of gravity.

          What we have evidence of is the apparent attraction between objects.

          Aristotle explained a limited set of that evidence as the "natural mot
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by cohomology ( 111648 )
          "A theory of gravity would explain how gravity works."

          We do have such a theory - general relativity reduces gravity to
          geometry - and some additional (testable) theories about the geometry of spacetime.

          It's very pretty: There is no such thing as "gravitational force." Freely falling objects follow geodesics, which are the paths of "extremal proper time" between events. This simple formulation wasn't possible until physicists accepted the possibility that spacetime is curved, and learned the mathematics of di
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Astarica ( 986098 )
      Scientific theories are not proved. Good theories are just never disproven. We don't have a proof on why the Law of Thermodynamics must hold true. It is just that no one has ever observed this law being violated. I recall you can restate 2nd Law of Thermodynamics as entropy always increases. Well, let's assume the Big Crunch happens. If universe is getting smaller, then it'd have to be the case the entropy spontaneously decreases (everything is getting crunched together and thus more orderly). Voila,
    • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:22PM (#16248849)
      String theory is a scientific theory that has neither been proved nor disproved to my knowledge.

      What makes a theory scientific or not?

      Falsifiability is only one criterion. Science is a communal activity, and to a far greater extent what is taken to be "scientific" is what is approved by the community. The community of science has a set of self-perpetuating rules such that we hope our communal sense of where the truth lies never gets too far out of sync with reality.

      By the minimal standard of falsifiability string theory passes, just--there are experiments that can at least be imagined that would test the predictions of the large family of equations that string theory now encompasses. But it is a perfectly legitimate point that continuing to invest in a failed family of theories in perpetuity at some point becomes a faith-based initiative, and that divergent approaches should be more welcomed.

      Insofar as aesthetics have played a role in physics, they have done so after the fact. The principles that guided most of the major developments in 20th century physics were consistency constraints with quite simple justifications. Most famously, Dirac's insistence on a second-order wave equation that treated space and time symmetrically gave us the foundations for relativistic quantum mechanics. This was not an arbitrary or aesthetic constraint, but a logical inference from empirical fact and known relativistic symmetries.

      What string theorists are doing is quite different, and no amount of invoking Einstein or Dirac can hide that. If they want to be taken seriously they need to come up with "aesthetic" principles--if they want to call them that--that uniquely constrain their equations, perhaps up to a constant of integration (we gave Einstein that, after all.)

      And until then, the measure of how "scientific" string theory is can be answered by a single question: How many string theorists are spending the majority of their time trying to prove that no string theory can ever describe the universe that we actually live in? If the answer to this question is: few or none, then the string theory community is not a scientific community, but merely a mutual admiration society.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by thefirelane ( 586885 )
      Wow, this post was so amazingly wrong....

      As others pointed out 'theory' doesn't mean 'guess.'

      The word you're searching for is hypothesis. Here's how it works:

      1) Data
      2) Hypothesis that explains current data
      3) Prediction derived from Hypothesis
      4) Data from new tests
      5) See if hypothesis matches #4 data
      6) Repeat, then hypothesis is called theory

      So, if something can not be tested by going through that process, it is just a hypothesis looking for a way to become a theory. Atomic theory has
    • Religion is a scientific theory that has neither been proved nor disproved to my knowledge.

      I could speculate all day on whether or not it is fact but from what I've read, I will make a few statements. It seems that Religion was invented to satisfy some things we could not explain. This doesn't mean it's wrong or right although some people will contend that it is most probably wrong.

      As the summary points out, few (if any) of Religion's propositions can be tested or even observed. So it is simply an unknown r
  • This isn't some reasonably objective piece on string theory; the author appears to be skeptical from the start, and BARELY lets up. I'd hoped I'd be reading a critically analytical article but I guess not. Wake me when the "story" is such.
    • by orasio ( 188021 )
      I think you don't understand the meaning of "objective".
      To be objective, you need to start being skeptic, and then evaluate all the alternatives, choosing the one that seems more likely to be true/better.

      There is no middle ground between "skeptic" and "believer". For any new piece of knowledge the sensible form of analysis is start as an skeptic, and follow from there.
  • by lawpoop ( 604919 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @01:54PM (#16248405) Homepage Journal
    I am a geek, but I have seriously problems with math ability. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree. However, I like to keep up on math and science news as much as possible, inasmuch as I can understand it.

    IIRC, string theory *does* make predictions, but the amount of energy required to run an experiement would be literally almost astronomical, so we have no practical way of testing it. I think according to concensus on what the 'scientific method' is, that makes it a hypothesis -- an educated guess, based on evidence. After it has sucessfully passed a few rounds of experiment, then we can say that it is a theory.

    So, bottom line, it is scientific, as much as any other hypothesis. However, it's not a theory.
  • by MooseTick ( 895855 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @01:56PM (#16248431) Homepage
    String theory sounds weak. Let's upgrade the name so it sounds like it has to be true. Henceforth it will be referred to as String Fact.

    I'll even throw a bone to an entrepreneural slashdotter out there. STRINGFACT.COM is not registered yet. It is yours for the taking.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by grangerg ( 309284 )
      I believe what you meant to say was Intelligent String Design. That's a definite grand unification theory. Along with the String Theory scientists, you'll get the ID and FSM nut-jobs all in the same boat. =)
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by hal2814 ( 725639 )
      Intelligent String Design is also not taken.
  • Any idea what side of the whole "intelligent design" debate the author of this article subscribes to? It'd be interesting to know whether or not his motivation in this is to somehow smear the credibity of science as a whole on the political level.
    • You can read about him on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], if you like.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      I don't think it's smearing science, indeed in some ways it's keeping intact science's integrity in the face of "ID" and other anti-science movements.

      String theory appears, for the most part, to be a very smart, very compelling, system that could be used to explain how the universe works. As such, it's easy to get lost in the excitement and forget that the current evidence for it is, well, not what it could be.

      The author is saying "We should hold off and be careful about how we portray this, especially

    • Intelligent design is irrelevant to string theory; or the big bang for that matter. Given the amount of entropy in the universe, we're basically still dealing with how things "may" happen and "may" have begun anyway.

      Pretending for a moment than an all-powerful being created this entire reality around me milliseconds ago and I never actually typed that first sentence at all but simply remember having done so as some sort of cosmic practical joke, there's no reason not to study what could have happened nonet
  • Well.... (Score:5, Funny)

    by finkployd ( 12902 ) * on Friday September 29, 2006 @01:58PM (#16248477) Homepage
    So which is it: the best of times or the worst of times?

    According to Schrodinger, both.

    Finkployd
  • by GillBates0 ( 664202 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @01:58PM (#16248481) Homepage Journal
    Q: Is String Theory Really a Scientific Theory?

    Short Answer: No.
    Long Answer: Yes.
    Longer Answer: Both of the above, but each in a separate Universe.

  • I heard that Intelligent Rubberbands were all the rage.
    • I prefer 'Invisible Rubberbands'. I once used that phrase in a letter-to-the-editor in a reply to someone who tried the whole, "It's a theory!" nonsense when talking about ID.

      After all, if evolution can be challenged by a theological precept which cannot be tested in any fashion, then so can the Theory of Gravity be challenged by the Theory of Invisible Rubberbands.
  • While I am a believer in string theory, it has yet to come up with a prediction that can be tested or observed. That is generally the acid test for a theory to gain substantial credibility. Everything so far requires more power than a galaxy or needs to see things smaller than planks (?) constant, neither of which we have access to. I believe I recall even one of the supports saying that they have come up with an untestable theory. However, no one has been able to conflicts in the theory either. It could be
    • by jandrese ( 485 )
      One thing that has me worried about String Theory in general is that whenever something comes up that seems to disprove parts of it, the theory adds some complexity to deal with the problem. This sort of escalating complexity is usually a sign of a flawed theory.

      Of course most scientists seem to be a little wary of string theory too. The problem is that while it sucks, nobody has come up with anything better yet. If think if someone came up with a competing theory that was a bit more elegant you would
      • If think if someone came up with a competing theory that was a bit more elegant you would see scientists flocking to it in a hurry.
        That's the thing. Lee Smolin thinks he is working on a competing theory that is a bit more elegant - namely loop quantum gravity. I personally am not qualified enough to judge the validity of that assertion.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by KDN ( 3283 )
        Of course most scientists seem to be a little wary of string theory too. The problem is that while it sucks, nobody has come up with anything better yet. If think if someone came up with a competing theory that was a bit more elegant you would see scientists flocking to it in a hurry. You can't just give up entirely on String Theory until you have something better.

        This is exactly what I felt about quantum mechanics as well. Compared to Einstein's relativity, it was too complicated, too random, to messy.

  • by bunions ( 970377 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:09PM (#16248659)
    Let the physicists, who are the only people who can truly understand this, sort it out. They likely don't need the academic process becoming any more politicized than it already it. If it's a blind alley, they'll find that out in due time. While it's regrettable that it's taking as long as it is to reach a conclusion on the issue, come on - it ain't exactly flippin' burgers, and we're not exactly hung up waiting for the result. Let the scientists work.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Spot on, parent. It is impossible to appreciate the allure of the mathematical foundations without many years of dedicated study. It says a lot that two researchers have spoken out as they have, but I think that most of the community feels that the conceptual motivation for string theory is sufficient to warrant more investigation... and even their fellow physicists don't have the understanding to vouch for one side of this debate or the other.

      It's also worth mentioning that this research -- at its worst
    • by jefu ( 53450 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @04:34PM (#16251117) Homepage Journal

      Should the New Yorker not cover things that may be beyond the reach of the average reader?

      Even if they were publishing the mathematical theory itself, they should be free to do so (though it would probably not appeal to the average reader), but they're not doing that, they're publishing about a controversy in the field - just as they might about any other field. Is physics somehow different than (to take an example from one article I remember) considering the effectiveness of different kinds of therapy on people who've experienced stressful events and who might then be subject to PTSD?

      Writers and journalists should be encouraged to write about whatever interests them and their audience, even if the people they're writing about don't always find it flattering or helpful.

      As someone who frequently reads the New Yorker, I must say I've learned a lot from it over the years - and in many areas that I'm not familiar with such readings have sometimes taught me something (perhaps only a little, but something), sometimes aroused my curiousity, and sometimes introduced me to whole new ideas that I might not have otherwise run into. I say "More power to 'em".

  • by Banner ( 17158 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:22PM (#16248845) Journal
    String theory is at times one of the biggest con jobs in Physics, and at other times some of the most interesting speculation. It's also the 'Theory that will NOT die!' reminding me of so many late night C rate thrillers.

    Why? Because everytime string theory gets disproven, they come out with a new theory and call it 'String Theory'. String Theory from the 70's really doesn't resemble current string theory much other than the name. It's strange that this is so, but there are a lot more politics involved than there is science at times. And the author is right, there are lots of articles being written, but not much going on that can be said to prove the theory, and little in the way of predictions (cause those could be tested). And so far, everytime someone does stand up and make predictions, it quickly gets disproven by actual tests. Which may be why no one is predicting much using it anymore.

    At this point actually String Theory may very well be the most 'disproven' theory in physics. But that doesn't seem to stop people from trying. It will be curious to see what science has to say about all of this 50 years from now. To be honest I think many of us have gotten too close to the subject to be objective about it, and I think that is not helping the issue on either side.
    • String theory is at times one of the biggest con jobs in Physics, and at other times some of the most interesting speculation. It's also the 'Theory that will NOT die!' reminding me of so many late night C rate thrillers.

      Why? Because everytime string theory gets disproven, they come out with a new theory and call it 'String Theory'.

      This reminds me of Evolution, in the sense that the label "Evolution" is applied to all areas of science: Biology, Astronomy, Geology... It's as if no one would ever refute

      • I have seen a lot of science programs in my day, and not once have I heard anybody ever say that astronomy or geology was demonstrating evolution. It wouldn't even make any sense. I'm more likely to believe you don't care for the Theory of Evolution for some theological reason, and have to make up straw-man counter-examples, just for the chance to say something bad about it.

        Of course if you have any examples or astronomers evoking evolution, you could easily provide a link...

  • No way (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SlappyBastard ( 961143 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:36PM (#16249129) Homepage
    It is barely, if at all, testable. Half its assumptions are based on assumptions that require assumptions in order to assume something we should probably assume.

    While some of the math might be right, the same theory applies to friggin role playing games, too. So, are those real just because their math ads up?

    Where are the good string theory experiments? Nowhere.

  • Occam's razor (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zoftie ( 195518 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @02:38PM (#16249157) Homepage
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor [wikipedia.org]

    As far as my popular understanding of the domain goes, it goes like this. Before there was quantum phyiscs. Scientists thought lets smash these atoms see if there is anything inside them. So to the dismay of theirs they have been rewarded with millions of particle types quarks, muons etc etc. that they are trying to categorized catalogue, derive properties of. Some of them didn't like the idea that millions of disjoint test results as material for explaining universe's compositions. With advances in field of mathematics and nod from those early einstein papers they moved on trying produce the theory of everything. Sort of like beautiful theory of relativity. Though relativity has been easy to test and formulas are often recognized by some 6th 7th grade students (E=mc^@), string theory is quite a bit more complicated then that. As it stands of nearly infinite data result domain of quantum physics.

    As the string theory suggests that protons neutrons and electrons are singlewaveforms of certain frequency. And smashed atoms and half-waveforms and for some reason decay rapidly.

    I suppose it is an excersize in occam's razor placed into the future when theory can be verified.
    Why scientists are folling said theory, is in their wet deams they think of Unified field theory, which string theory may well support.

    Just like way back as someone mentioned here Bohr's suppositions were incorrect in many ways, but generally incorrect. Perhaps string theory will inspire a new one in the future, that will make more sense.

    But for now I would think it should be renamed a hypothesis, away from shameless marketing of non existant product! :)
    2c.
    • When you come up with an idea for how Things(TM) work... it's would be a hypothesis. When you get a large portion of the physics community to start working out the math and trying to get it to the point where it's provable/disprovable, it becomes a theory. Just because Einstein's theory of relativity (or general relativity) has withstood a fuckload more scrutiny than string theory doesn't mean that it is somehow more than just a theory. At any point in time, someone could make an observation that isn't supp
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fujiman ( 912957 )
      You lost me at Occam's Razor.

      O.R. is not science. That's why it's not called "Occam's Law". It's about as useful as an analogy in a discussion, and about as scientific.

      Just because something is easier to understand, doesn't make it true.

  • Medieval Theology? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by alexgieg ( 948359 )
    Mr. Glashow can be a genious in the field of Physics, but I doubt he's also so much of a genious in the fields of History, Philosophy and (yes) Theology to be able to make such an absurd statement. No matter how much he dislikes religion and related subjects, there's a difference between stating a personal taste and talking meaningfully about something you don't know about.
  • As long as there have been "modern scientists", there have been complaints that their theories are untestable and, as such, are works of philosophy and tools of calculation rather than works of science. It's a healthy debate, but critics should have a better background in the philosophy of science. Critics used almost precisely these arguments when the atomic theory was in development. Just because you cannot yet think of a testable hypothesis for a scientific theory does not mean that it does not exist.
  • Yeah, these string theory people have their ideas all caught up in knots. ...sorry. I'll go now.
  • Sorry, I must have missed the memo. I thought the basis of the scientific process was observing phenomena, coming up with an idea to explain it, and testing it, then revising that idea.

    Now, it's true there's no testability to string theory(s) yet, but it certainly fits with the observing phenomena bit. Since when is examination and extrapolation frowned upon by scientists? I'm not saying there aren't better things string theorists could be doing, but I certainly see the exploration of the concepts a wor
  • I keep expecting to hear at some point some bright boffin prove that the reason there are so many variations of string theory is that string theory is actually homomorphic to all of mathematics - if you can describe it in math, you can describe it in string theory.

    Pug
  • A theory that can't be proved or disproved, or can't be used in a practical way right now, can still be pretty useful if describe the real universe more accurately than our previous knowledge. You dont know what will come in the future, what development could be done taking that as a fact. Something that could have been seen in his own moment a small correction to the accepted Newton laws, like relativity (wasnt the one of their 1st experimental proofs observed like 15 years after?) , have a bit of practica
  • ... cricket chirp ... cricket chirp ...

    [That's what I thought. It was never *cool* to bash string theory. It was never so cool and in to bash it that the late night hosts were bashing it. So you didn't join in ...]
  • Sheldon Glashow, who won a Nobel Prize for making one of the last great advances in physics before the beginning of the string-theory era, has likened string theory to a 'new version of medieval theology,' I prefer the term "intellectual masterbation"
  • by ishmalius ( 153450 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @03:32PM (#16249989)
    For so long, String Theory has been politically correct and unassailable. Now all of a sudden there is a flurry of anti-String sentiment. During either trend, if you disagree with the current mode, you are considered a dope and an ignorant Luddite.

    Maybe after this period, people can be less childlike and some serious discussions about its strengths and weaknesses can begin.

  • by AWeishaupt ( 917501 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @03:46PM (#16250247)
    "Sterile" neutrinos, Supersymmetric particles, Kaluza-Klein particles, Energy 'leaking' into higher dimensions...

    These are some of the predictions of string theories.

    And they all can, to some degree, be tested empirically.

    All the technology that needs to be implemented to do this isn't readily available right now, but hopefully, in coming years with experiments such as LHC and IceCube coming online, we could start to see meaningful results - Remember, it took years for empirical confirmation of General Relativity, simply due to technical limitations.
  • problems (Score:4, Informative)

    by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @04:23PM (#16250861) Homepage

    I read Smolen's book recently, and learned a lot of new and interesting things about string theory from it. Some problems with string theory:

    1. There are lots and lots of possible string theories, describing different ways for the extra dimensions to curl up. Some string theorists have been reduced to using the anthropic principle to explain why one version would exist and not the others; this is a major admission of defeat, since the anthropic principle is really not an accepted way of doing science.
    2. String theory was always thought to require a zero or negative cosomological constant, which was fine when the cosmological constant was believed to be zero. When observations showed it was nonzero and positive, it should have been taken a disproof of string theory. Instead, string theorists came up with a massive kludge to try to get a positive value from string theory. It's not clear whether the kludge is really a reasonable, viable mechanism.
    3. String theory is done on a background of spacetime, but we know that spacetime is dynamic. String theory, in its present versions, appears to be incompatible with a time-varying background spacetime.
    4. Many important results in string theory are merely conjectures that everybody believes to be true. In particular, string theory's finiteness has never been proved in general. All that's been proved is that a certain type of term in perturbation theory is always finite. According to Smolen, very few string theorists are even careful enough about this kind of thing to realize that finiteness hasn't been proved in general.
    5. There are strong, model-independent arguments that spacetime must be discrete at the Planck scale. (There's a good, nontechnical discussion of the argument in Smolen's Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.) String theory assumes it's continuous.
  • by Silent sound ( 960334 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @04:31PM (#16251057)
    It should be noted that even if String Theory turns out to be "an abstract exercise in math", that doesn't mean it's useless. String Theory has done a poor job of spurring advancements in physics, but it's been a source of massive advancements in mathematics in its own right, due to the advances in things like topology that have been required to describe string theory's odd equations. Even if these advancements never get used in service of a useful string theory, seemingly useless advancements in mathematics have a way of turning out to be critically useful years after their discovery. In the meanwhile, the lack of "a" string theory may turn out to be a good thing-- string theory's excessive flexibility might mean that while it's useless by itself, it provides mathematical language that would allow us to formulate early versions of a future theory that describes something closer to reality, as a bootstrap. If string theorists would take the criticisms of the "not even wrong" crowd to heart and start concentrating on results rather than elegance, we might be able to move forward toward this point. This said, I think the viewpoint that overreliance on string theory is distracting us from other promising ways to proceed should be encouraged. String Theory was a good idea to look into, but after this long without noticeable progress, it is definitely worth looking into alternatives. I think the field of science is large enough that we can explore string theory alternatives while continuing the exploration of string theory itself as a parallel track. Of course, in order for this to work, the string theory detractors are going to have to actually produce real alternatives and results of their own-- there will come a time soon when criticizing string theory is not enough. Encouraging people (and funding sources) to take a step back and take a different tack of looking at the problem is productive, but blindly attacking the establishment just because it's the establishment is not. And I have to admit some of the attacks on string theory veer into some kind of strange territory sometimes. From the article:
    Smolin adds a moral dimension to his plaint, linking string theory to the physics profession's "blatant prejudice" against women and blacks. Pondering the cult of empty mathematical virtuosity, he asks, "How many leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys who got their revenge besting the jocks (who got the girls) in the one place they could--math class?"
    Wait. What?
  • Physics is hard! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @05:29PM (#16252083) Journal
    What I do not understand about all the negative comments on string theory is that they seem to object to it purely on the grounds that it has not yet produced a testable prediction. If there was evidence out there that it will NEVER produce a testable prediction then I would completely agree with the critics. To my knowledge this is not the case. There are certainly incredible problems to extracting a testable prediction but does that mean we should give up, pack up our bags and go home?

    Sorry but sometimes physics is hard - even for physicists! Of course it might turn out in the end to be a waste of time from the physics point of view (although I'm sure even then it will leave a legacy of interesting maths) but we don't know that yet. Giving up on, from my understanding, the most promising avenue of research just because it turns out to be hard to figure it out is not good physics.
  • by Fantastic Lad ( 198284 ) on Friday September 29, 2006 @06:53PM (#16253319)
    Among the latest crop of geek memes is the weird desire to get all politcally correct about what and what is and is not a 'theory'.

    A year ago, nobody would force this nonsense to the table.

    I can't stand popular memes! Occam started making the rounds after Jodi Foster popularized him in Contact. Ugh. The number of dumb and dumber arguments resulting from a little mis-applied knowledge was astronomical. Bubbo's Ridiculous Law, (Or whatever his name is) which states that the well-accessorized geek must close his ears upon hearing the word, "Nazi" is another.

    While not quite as destructive to a healthy mental process, this cross-culture, (geek culture, that is) sudden need to lecture other geeks left and right upon the proper use of the word, "Theory", is just as annoying.

    You watch. It will be mis-applied by geeks trying to knock the wind out of interesting, new ideas by declaring the ideas to be beneath even the rank of theory and therefore somehow worthy of contempt. I've seen so many people who are scared to think for themselves that unless all the ideas in their heads have been validated by somebody else, (TV or other annoying geeks with name tags), then they will shie away from them at all cost.

    It's the old jr. high programming. If you are different, you will be punished through ostricization.

    A cowardly geek is useless.


    -FL

"Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!" -- Looney Tunes, "What's Opera Doc?" (1957, Chuck Jones)

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