Monday, August 02, 2004

Physics at a crossroads?

Here at Over Entertained, my goal has always been to show a bit of everything. There's a reason for the title - JE, my roommate of over four years now, has often called me 'over entertained' with all the books, movies, internet, TV, etc. that I follow and whatnot. Moreover, I've taken it as a sort of badge of my eclecticism - a way of explaining my fascination with such a broad range of subjects. Or maybe its just an excuse I'm using. ;)

Anyway...there is a fascinating interview over at Scientific American's website with Lawrence Krauss, who is perhaps best known for his book The Physics of Star Trek. He has some interesting things to say on a wide variety of issues within physics and science as a whole, including some counter-arguments to the currently en vogue string theory.

SA: Is string theory the physics equivalent of The God That Failed, as some people used to say about communist ideology?

LK: Not exactly. But I do think its time may be past. String theory and the other modish physical theory, loop quantum gravity, both stem from one basic idea: that there's a mathematical problem with general relativity.
The idea is that when you try to examine physical phenomena on ever smaller scales, gravity acts worse and worse. Eventually, you get infinities. And almost all research to find a quantum theory of gravity is trying to understand these infinities. What string theory and what loop quantum gravity do is go around this by not going smaller than a certain distance scale, because if you do, things will behave differently. Both these theories are based on the idea that you can't go down to zero in a point particle, and that's one way to get rid of mathematical infinities. The main difference, I think, between the two theories is that string is intellectually and mathematically far richer.
String theory hasn't accomplished a lot in terms of solving physical problems, but it's produced a lot of interesting mathematical discoveries. That's why it fascinates. Loop quantum gravity hasn't even done that, at least in my mind.

Moreover, Krauss has some rather damning stealth criticisms of our society's tolerance for scientific illiteracy amongst those who are otherwise intelligent - focusing both on public policy makers as well as scientists themselves. Very interesting reading. I really don't know enough about string theory or physics in general to come to any definitive opinions on some of his subjects, but I will say that having an administration in the White House which has somewhat open scorn for established scientific theories (and even facts themselves) certainly doesn't help.

Nor does our society's upsurge in faith over the last few decades. Salon's books section has an article/review of two competing thoughts on that subject as their main story today. I'm not exactly sure where I come down on this whole debate. On the one hand, I would like religion to stay completely out of public life. Every step in that direction tends to be an uncomfortable saunter down a very slippery slope, and I do not enjoy being criticized simply because I do not hold the same beliefs as others. And yet on the other hand, I can see where religion can provide an important moral barometer for society at large, and there is a certain part of me (as I explained at the party this weekend) which longs for the simplicity of yesterday, when I knew what I believed in and the world (as a whole) made 'sense.' I can't help but feel that I've lost something there - even if I'm not sure what it was, or if I'm not better off regardless.

I mean...the anti-religion crowd is sometimes just as bad as the pro. I hear people mention how they don't like having religion thrown into their faces, pushed on them on Metro, at the mall, on an airplane, etc. But, how often does that really happen? From my own personal standpoint - it is rare if anyone talks to me in public that I don't know - and more often than not, they're selling something. I don't remember the last time someone actually tried to 'convert' me to their religion. Maybe I'm an exception - though I'm guessing I'm not.

Who knows. Religion is such a touchy subject - far too easy to get into uncomfortable attacks and whatnot instead of rational discussions, particularly since some on both sides refuse to take emotion out of it (something I've been guilty of on occaision). How can you reconcile faith and fact? Is that even possible? I'm curious for people's thoughts on this.


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