Monday, August 14, 2006

Time exposes string theory fad

Time magazine reports about String Theory:
The public, meanwhile, has been regaled for years with magazine articles breathlessly touting it as "the theory of everything." Brian Greene's 1999 book on the topic, The Elegant Universe, has sold more than a million copies, and his Nova series of the same name has captivated millions of TV viewers. ...

[Woit and Smolin] argue that string theory (or superstring theory, as it is also known) is largely a fad propped up by practitioners who tend to be arrogantly dismissive of anyone who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes. ...

Since then, however, superstrings have proved a lot more complex than anyone expected. The mathematics is excruciatingly tough, and when problems arise, the solutions often introduce yet another layer of complexity. Indeed, one of the theory's proponents calls the latest of many string-theory refinements "a Rube Goldberg contraption." Complexity isn't necessarily the kiss of death in physics, but in this case the new, improved theory posits a nearly infinite number of different possible universes, with no way of showing that ours is more likely than any of the others.

That lack of specificity hasn't slowed down the string folks. Maybe, they've argued, there really are an infinite number of universes--an idea that's currently in vogue among some astronomers as well--and some version of the theory describes each of them. That means any prediction, however outlandish, has a chance of being valid for at least one universe, and no prediction, however sensible, might be valid for all of them.

That sort of reasoning drives critics up the wall. It was bad enough, they say, when string theorists treated nonbelievers as though they were a little slow-witted. Now, it seems, at least some superstring advocates are ready to abandon the essential definition of science itself on the basis that string theory is too important to be hampered by old-fashioned notions of experimental proof.

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