Of being bold June 28, 2008Posted by dorigo in physics, science.
Tags: claims, not even wrong
Scientists should be bold. They are expected to think out of the box, and to pursue their ideas until these either trickle down into a new stream, or dry out in the sand. Of course, not everybody can be a genuine “seer”: the progress of science requires few seers and many good soldiers who do the lower-level, dirty work. Even soldiers, however, are expected to put their own creativity in the process now and then -and that is why doing science is appealing even to us mortals.
You do not need to be a Einstein, or a Fermi, or a Witten, to do good science: but you need to be bold sometimes. You study, understand, ponder on something, and you come up with your own perception of the matter: you create a model of it in your brain, and this enables you to look in the shady corners, and make a bold claim about what one should find there. The claim may have the function of a working hypothesis, or remain a wild bet, a guess you do not pursue further. Usually a working hypothesis allows you to continue your investigation in one direction, giving you some guidance into new territory. A wild bet is more risky, since it exposes you more: if somebody else proves you wrong it hurts much more than if you prove yourself you were on a dead track.
I have made my own very wild and risky bet a couple of years ago, when I predicted that the LHC will not find any signal for new physics beyond the Standard Model. Definitely a bold statement, motivated by my frustration with observing the lack of any real indication that our current understanding of the subnuclear world may be finally crumbling down. Indeed, it was a real bet, which will pay real money. I perceive it as an insurance: I definitely would rather lose it than win it!
Other scientists have made their own, virtual or real bets: claims about what we will eventually discover on the organization of reality. I salute with enthusiasm the latest one, which I read today. Here is what Peter Woit says:
To go out on a limb and make an absurdly bold guess about where this is all going, I’ll predict that sooner or later some variant (”twisted”?) version of N=8 supergravity will be found, which will provide a finite theory of quantum gravity, unified together with the standard model gauge theory.
How’s that for boldness ? This is not about not finding something. It is about predicting how things stand: definitely a high-level claim. And Peter then continues in kinds:
String theory will turn out to play a useful role in providing a dual picture of the theory, useful at strong coupling, but for most of what we still don’t understand about the SM, it is getting the weak coupling story right that matters, and for this quantum fields are the right objects. The dominance of the subject for more than 20 years by complicated and unsuccessful schemes to somehow extract the SM out of the extra 6 or 7 dimensions of critical string/M-theory will come to be seen as a hard-to-understand embarassment, and the multiverse will revert to the philosophers.
This is called going “all in” in Texas hold’em poker: being consistent to the end. The criticism of string theory contained in his successful, highly readable book Not Even Wrong finds here its final justification: string theory is not by itself bad, but investigating it with momentum in the last two decades has not resulted in finding a new stream, but rather in a folding into itself of the discipline along with its extra dimensions, in one of the 10^500 possible ways which all together threatened the perception that most of us have of what doing science should be. Congratulations for your Friday evening boldness, Peter!