Lee Smolin: the trouble with physics.

"we have failed."

"We have failed" is Smolin's verdict on his generation of physicists to sustain the momentum of scientific progress, at a fundamental level.

Lee Smolin has written a good book on scientific method in current physics. He doesn't explain the theories in detail but he gives you a good insight into the difficulties of giving coherent explanations of nature in all its depth. It doesn't matter that research will soon render much of this explanation out of date.

There is the Large Hadron Collider coming online at CERN. And there is an increasing ability to see events at energy scales, previously thought unreachable, by the use of astronomical data as if from cosmic experiments. But the beauty of the book is in understanding physicists' decisions with the information currently at hand.

I wouldn't recommend Smolin's book as a primer on scientific method, because the physics of string theory, and the like, is so far out. I would recommend it as essential reading for someone who has progressed in learning scientific method, with respect to more familiar fields of knowledge.

Smolin's work is based on a methodological decision that it is high time for physicists to diversify from string theory. One of the controversial ideas, he had a hand in, was so-called Doubly (or Deformed) Special Relativity (DSR). This was to over-come the problem that Special Relativity, in its current formulation, does not allow different observers to see the fundamental quantum unit of length, the Planck length, as the same length. Observers moving ever closer to light speed, relatively to the Planck measure can always measure it as shorter.

The Planck length is a universal quantity of length as light speed is a universal quantity of speed. Observers do agree when they measure light speed and when something is moving less than light, they agree to the extent that it is moving less. DSR re-formulates SR so that observers agree on the Planck length and when anything is more than the Planck length.

In a later version of DSR, the cosmic creation began with a concentration of energy that started fotons with infinite speed, which decreased in the expansion called the Big Bang. Only the low energy fotons, we know in our much-expanded universe, are reckoned to have constant speed. This modification allowed theorists to do away with the SR paradox of a varying Planck length with respect to constant light speed.

DSR with a variable speed of light is a possible replacement for Inflation theory (an enormously accelerated initial expansion of the universe beyond that first thought in the Big Bang theory) as an explanation of why the universe is causally connected at the same temperature. This wouldnt be possible if nothing could move faster than the currently observed constant speed of light.

The standard model of theoretical physics has held up well in experiments. But in 30 years, there has been no new theory to replace it. String theory, which mathematicly derived the known particles, as well as the yet unobserved graviton, as modes of minute vibration, and its developments in extra dimensions as "branes," have not so far fulfilled the high hopes for it, as a "theory of everything."

Smolin repeats his objection to string theory that it has been slow to become a background-independent theory, like general relativity, the physics of the very large. It would be sensible for string theory to have this property if it is indeed to reconcile general relativity with quantum theory, the physics of the very small.
Smolin calls this problem, of quantum gravity, the first great problem of theoretical physics.

The lesson of general relativity is that space and time are not a passive back-ground according to any number of assumed geometries. Instead, space-time geometry changes its shape in relation to the presence of matter. Having an infinite number of possible back-grounds has weakened the predictive power of string theory, because when anything doesnt fit, the back-ground can always be changed.

In this respect, Smolin talks about doing science the old-fashioned way. This means abiding by the rules of scientific method (a term he denigrates), such as that theories should come up with testable predictions.

Smolin believes the second great problem of physics is to make sense of quantum mechanics or replace it with a more sensible theory. Neils Bohr said that if anyone thinks they understand it, they dont.

Problem three is to unify the particles ( leptons and quarks are at present the two known kinds) with the four known forces (gravitational, electro-magnetic, forces, weak and strong nuclear forces). Theoretical developments, like super-symmetry, have depended on creating a lot of unknown partner particles. The LHC at CERN might turn up new particles of theoretical relevance. But this is only a hope, not solidly backed-up predictions of the kind made by the Salam-Weinberg theory of the unified electro-weak force.

Murray Gell-Mann used group theory to explain the abundance of new particles observed with higher energy accelerators. They produced more unstable versions of the proton and neutron. There was high hopes of building on Gell-Mann's work with symmetry groups to predict rare decays of the proton. Even if an average proton was so stable as to last longer than the age of the universe, a few of their multitude might be detected to decay.

By 1990 (in a Physics anthology essay, edited by Paul Davies) Abdus Salam was already wanting a moon base for more suitable conditions to measure the rate of proton decay and give a clue to what class of symmetry group applied to the real world.

Since 1975, the standard model has explained known particles and forces (except gravity) but has to adjust their relations with the help of about twenty constants, which are just given experimently. Their theoretical justification is big problem four.
Problem five is to explain dark matter and dark energy, or whatever is the correct explanation of the discrepancy in astronomical mass measurements.

There is a suspicion of dark matter, as the galactic orbits of stars give a greater mass than the number of stars and light matter observable would warrant, according to gravitational law. Likewise, a uniform dispersal of dark energy would account for the acceleration rate of the universe-expanding dispersal of galaxies.
"Dark" matter or energy doesnt interact with the electromagnetic force, the medium of light.

If dark matter accounts for about 26 per cent and dark energy, 70 per cent, this leaves 4 per cent for the matter physicists understand by their standard model. But this unknown matter seems to be the only alternative to abandoning Newton's laws of gravity and their modification by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Besides dark matter and energy, the discovery that neutrinos have masses, are the only two recent finds Smolin credits as major. According to him, at no time for two hundred years has physics had such a dearth of major advances, as in the last thirty years.

Making research more effective.

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Never mind, the biggest achievment of physics for science, in their so-called failed period was the democratic inauguration at CERN of the World Wide Web, the most revolutionary advance for both the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, since printing was invented.

If you want to publish ideas, you dont have to under-go the censorship of peer review. Tho not an academic, I have, on rare occasions, fallen foul of this closed shop. I dont mean to say my work was necessarily deserving of appearing in some journal. I mean that the decision is held in secret so you cannot appeal to out-side opinion in defense of your views against arbitrary decisions of the editor's expert. It can be like talking to a brick wall or the Inquisition. When anonymous, peer review can be a hooded Inquisition as well. It's not science, it's authority.

Admittedly, the odd Guardian journalist says: Sorry the Web hasnt made a difference. And she has some grounds for saying so. Authoritarian politics continue to defy human rights and, in so-called democracies, hold out against electoral justice.

The last part, of the trouble with physics, is concerned with reforms to academic life to make research more effective. One chapter is called: How do you fight sociology? He is not talking about the discipline of that name. He is really talking about tribalism. He reckons there is a string theory tribe.

The work of physics is so hard and the competition is so fierce that students have to resort to other methods than sheer brilliance to keep their job. Following the intellectual fashion, heeding the seniors, knowing how to pitch for grants are also useful talents in the scramble.

One sees this in the popular arts, when even geniuses are not averse from looking over their shoulders to see what fashion is coming next. Alright, I'll tell you the instance I'm thinking of. In the mid-1960s, The Beatles had gone all flower power and transcendentalism. Then there was just a hint of a few rock 'n' roll songs coming back into the charts. Suddenly, John Lennon was saying: We are all rockers really. We're just rockers.
And their songs went back to a simpler style more like the 1950s.

Another critical chapter, How science really works, was not an expected exposition of scientific procedure but a description of how scientists assess each other. The time-consuming system of committees and informers reminded of the Soviet arts bureaucracy, which usually didnt get round to publishing works suspect as to ideological purity.
Solzhenitsyn gives an irreverant version of the ordeal in The Oak and the Calf. Elsewhere, more credit is given to the daring of an editor like Alexander Tvardovsky, he portrays so affably.

In the chapter on What is science? Smolin sets out a scientific ethic, which he hopes might help to keep research on course. This involves a common adherence to reason and evidence as a means of arriving at decisions as to the truth.
Thus the scientific community is a democracy not beholden to authority. At least this is the theory. In practise, status and track-record weigh in the balance.

Smolin says that science is not like a democracy in that it doesnt abide by majority rule. As Mill said, democracy is not majority rule or maiorocracy. This is the undeveloped notion of democracy that still prevails in the world. It is not Smolin's fault that he shares this view. When he says science tries to achieve a consensus, that is what the developed conception of democracy does.

The difference between majority rule and consensual rule can be re-stated precisely in terms of the difference between single majority rule and multi-majority rule. The latter is a rationalisation of the former, basicly because choice, like motion, is relative, which means in practise a transferable vote.
(I explain this on my page on Scientific method of elections - a subject Smolin presumably deems not to exist. On other pages, Ive studied the relation between the physics of relative motion and the method of relative choice.)

It is common sense that government must be by democratic consensus if it is to work. This is most obviously shown by considering what would happen if world government were to be run on a majority basis. It would be impossible for either the East or the West to agree to let the other monopolise government, even if they could trust each other to do so for only a limited period.

A few mature democracies, like Switzerland, recognise this and have power-sharing governments. Or in the case of Northern Ireland, the long-suffering people of Ulster have had to endure a drawn-out civil war, while the consensual principle was being accepted. (Britain's two-party state still wont accept it.) And it couldnt work well, without their happening to have the most effective electoral machinery to make this possible: the single transferable vote (STV). (Tho Ulster still does not have STV in UK general elections.)

My main criticism of Smolin's book is his discounting of scientific method for his scientific ethic. Reducing scientific method to a bare scientific ethic might be compared to reducing relativity theory to the meaning that all motion is relative. Scientific method is really the study of what reason and evidence amount to. Knowing how to think is an art which improves with practice, like any other art. And scientific method is a guide or a set of instructions to mastering this art.

Scientific method, as the study of what reasoning and evidence collecting entail, should be the defense of the community against arbitrary authority that is not answerable for its decisions and can over-rule popular opinion, because of the unscientific disregard for genuine democracy.

Currently some governments are trying to push the dangerous, expensive and obsolete vested interest in nuclear power. The physicists' utopian promises, that massively over-subsidised fission energy for over 50 years, were a disasterous blunder, which the world may yet suffer more grievously.
The International Panel on Climate Change has properly down-played nuclear power. But why is this voice of the scientific community not heard loud and clear before the peoples and their parliaments?

Smolin repeats Feyerabend's anathema that there is no such thing as scientific method. (Notably in an art catalog on art, science and democracy.) This is about as sensible as saying there is no such thing as physics because it hasnt a theory of everything. Who on earth would expect the discipline of scientific method to provide a definitive guide for scientific discovery?

Of course, Smolin's heroes, Einstein and the rest of them, had to use what methods or devices they could to make their discoveries. If they hadnt, then scientific method itself would be the theory of everything. That doesnt mean to say that scientific method or the philosophy of science is non-existent, any more than is physics or natural philosophy.

Smolin believes that the lack of theoretical progress in physics is because they are missing something. One thing I can tell them for sure is that they are too dualistic with regard to science and ethics. Immanuel Kant saw the need to bridge David Hume's radical scepticism against deriving values from facts.

But the academic community, both in the natural sciences and the social sciences, or as Kant called them, the moral sciences, have divided the world in two, which naturally prevents them from understanding the whole world.
(I gave my Kantian crossing of this divide on my page: The moral sciences as the ethics of scientific method. I wrote the draft of this in about 1984.
Maybe a decade later, I wrote a little essay called: Physics and Freedom. This merely states the principle that the most general physical theory must cover the widest choice, or most effective "electoral" system, of experimental observations. These essays were not published till my web-site came online in 1999.)

Smolin's "scientific ethic" reminds of H G Wells' Charter of Scientific Fellowship, in 1942, reproduced on this site. The charter recognises "the democracy of science."
Wells also saw that democracy is scientific, in the work started by John Stuart Mill to promote the transferable vote as the scientific method of elections, beyond all the rival and ruinously wrong electoral methods, as theories of choice.

Smolin may think physicists have "failed" in the past 30 years. If true, it is still as nothing compared to the academic community's 150 year failure to recognise the scientific conception of democracy. Within six months, John Stuart Mill had noticed how its opponents projected the faults in their own beliefs onto Hare's system, the fore-runner of the single transferable vote.

Mill never belonged to the conservative academic community, tho British universities used System Of Logic as their standard text on scientific method, for fifty years.

(This site includes Mill's letters on Proportional Representation or Personal Representation, as he also called it, to emphasise the importance of individual preference. And H G Wells' writings on electoral reform are included or cited on the page about World peace thru democracy.)

Right on Smolin's door-step, at the Perimeter Institute, the Ontario Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform gave an unedifying example of what happens when so-called world experts - the Perimeter Institute would call them, like themselves, "global souls" - flown in to coach the Assembly, abandon all cognisance of scientific method or the search for truth. They merely followed an official line that no voting system is, on balance, better than another. Ontarians should just choose the one that suited them best.

Such an attitude is the end of science as well as of democracy.

Not for a moment would Smolin tolerate the idea, in physics, that no theory is decisively better than another and you just believe what theory suits you subjectively and arbitrarily "as Ontarians", without the need to put theories to the test of a principle, in this case, democracy. Yet that is what the Ontario Citizens Assembly was told by politicians and academics supervising them.
(An account is given on my page, Ontario Citizens Assembly and due process...
The next page criticises the assembly's two reports.)

Interestingly, a British Columbian physicist was curious about the BC Citizens Assembly's choice of a system called the single transferable vote. On finding out what it was about, he thought everyone would see that it was easily the best method. When he found they didnt, he tried to persuade his fellow provincials to see the light. He and a colleague wrote a good submission to Ontario Citizens Assembly.

Richard Lung
18 april 2008.

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