Sunday, December 18, 2011

A kind of mathematical theology

Lawrence Krauss writes:
If the Higgs is discovered, it will represent perhaps one of the greatest triumphs of the human intellect in recent memory, vindicating 50 years spent building one of the greatest theoretical edifices in all of science and requiring the construction of the most complicated machine that has ever been made.

That's the good news. But if the Higgs is all that is found at the LHC, it will mean that the other crucial empirical guidance that physicists now need to try and understand truly fundamental questions about our existence – from understanding whether all four forces in nature are unified in some grand theory, to determining what may have caused the big bang – will still be absent. Answering these questions may be beyond the technical and financial capabilities of this generation.
I agree with that, except that I believe that pursuing a grand unification is foolish. As John Horgan defended his 2002 bet:
“The dream of a unified theory, which some evangelists call a ‘theory of everything,’ will never be entirely abandoned. But I predict that over the next twenty years, fewer smart young physicists will be attracted to an endeavor that has vanishingly little hope of an empirical payoff. Most physicists will come to accept that nature might not share our passion for unity. Physicists have already produced theories–Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, nonlinear dynamics–that work extraordinarily well in certain domains, and there is no reason why there should be a single theory that accounts for all the forces of nature. The quest for a unified theory will come to be seen not as a branch of science, which tells us about the real world, but as a kind of mathematical theology.”
I agree with him that there will be no Nobel prize for string theory.

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