Friday, October 06, 2006

The Future of Physics

Last time I visited New York was this summer and I had the pleasure of lunch with my old advisor. He thinks that string theory is a dead end, and I have to agree with him. Physics is entering a new era. My advisor would cringe at the company his opinion keeps, but Robert Laughlin A Different Universe (which I discussed here) agrees. Laughlin sees the the future of physics in emergence (as opposed to the reductionism of which string theory is a grand culmination).

A couple of items have surfaced that similarly question the future path of physics. First, John Horgan, in his review of Lee Smolin's book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, writes about how the great promise string theory showed in 1990's has been achieved only frustration:

Physics at the end of its string?

Smolin pleads with his colleagues to explore alternative theories of everything, including twistor space theory, an invention of British physicist Roger Penrose; doubly special relativity, proposed by Portuguese theorist Joäo Magueijo; and loop quantum gravity theory, to which Smolin has contributed. Acknowledging that "no idea yet has that absolute ring of truth," Smolin also calls for "a radical rethinking of our basic ideas about space, time and the quantum world."

Horgan disagrees with Smolin and thinks that money, not a new mindset, is the key to the future of physics:

Although I admire the authority and passion of Smolin's diagnosis, I disagree with his prescription. What physics desperately needs is not new ideas but hard experimental data that can test ideas or inspire new ones. But these data are costly. [etc. etc.]

Secondly, Burton Richter, former director of SLAC, writes the "Reference Frame" piece in the current Physics Today:

Theory in particle physics: Theological speculation versus practical knowledge.

Richter bemoans string theory as more akin to theology than science (and he uses theology in the most pejorative sense). He especially laments Leonard Susskind's "Cosmic Landscape" of unlimited universes that sample the parameter space of all cosmic constants (review forthcoming). Richter, like Horgan, sees experiment as the ultimate way to salvation.

My prognosis for today's physics is even more dire: we are due for a larger shift than Smolin hopes for, an even more radical break than Laughlin heralds: reductionism has played itself out, but it's not emergence per se that will rule. Instead physics will have to go back to its conceptual roots to a rediscover nature as an organizing principle, of matter as possessing inherent purposes. As I've written before, teleology compliments other modes of explanation.

The shift in mindset with be tectonic. The reigning paradigm has made progress by ignoring purpose in nature, thereby blinding itself to the major component of the natural order that it seeks to describe. The program has been a great success: we've certainly managed to circumscribe the physical world of ordinary experience... and much beyond ordinary experience. But the overwhelming mathematicization of this description keeps it from being hinged on the ordinary human experience that forms the basis of human meaning.

The new physics will open man's second eye and discover a whole new dimension to the world. Experiment will necessarily play a role, but the new mindset will lead in new, more quotidian directions (directions that will be much less costly than multi-billion-dollar particle accelerators). We might actually have to open our eyes to the world around us.

The revolution will not happen overnight. The programs of renewal for which Horgan, Smolin, and Richter hope may first come and go. It may be decades before the new physics can stand on its own.

But it is coming.

John Horgan, "Physics at the end of its string?," The Globe and Mail, (October 4, 2006), A2.

Burton Richter, "Theory in particle physics: Theological speculation versus practical knowledge," Physics Today (October 2006), 8.


Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

10 06 06

Yes LG, YES! You are on the money. I can feel a major paradigm shift occuring in physics right now. While the LQGers and stringers are arguing, so much is being thought about and will be made manifest.

I personally see the main notion behind LQG, that is that spacetime can be quantized, evolving into a less restrictive theory and merging with some p-adic physics. The reason is that p-adic physics introduce interesting discretizations of the spacetime that look fractal and these are describable mathematically and more in concert with experimental observations. I was reading an article in American Scientist about symmetries, particularly on a fractal scale. Many flowers that we see have fractal patterns in how their leaves are shaped etc. In fact, many natural phenomena are more chaotic than anything else. And when you speak about unifying what is seen in Nature with these perfect abstractions found in physics I agree. I DO think that non linear dynamics, chaos theory and fractal quantizations are the next step. The fractional calculus is a tool that is becoming more useful to physicists and I hope that fractional calculus will be a required course in undergraduate physics in upcoming years.

I am starting to see many, many physicists go towards connecting metaphysics and consciousness to mathematics as well. All of these things, that is the acknowledgement that there is more to the physical world than what we can perceive will take us in new directions. Let me share with you a couple of links that are so interesting by V. Varadarjan, a mathematical physicist who is toying with these ideas:

1.Did God make the Universe P-Adic? This is a two part series.

2.Matti Pitkaanen's blog. He has a very complex theory that is rooted in a number theoretic approach and is quite fascinating. If you look him up in Wikipedia, the stub says that no one understands what he is doing. I however, find his thoughts to be on the cutting edge and very rigorously developed.

These are just a couple of the emerging types of thought processes that will be the new way of physics, imho.

Good article.

Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

10 06 06

Hey LG:
Here is the American Scientist article that I referred to above (PDF):

Leaves, flowers and garbage bags: making waves; Rippled fractal patterns on thin plastic sheets and biological membranes offer elegant examples of the spontaneous breaking of symmetry, by Sharon et al. Enjoy:)

Caryl said...

Readers interested in new directions in physics may be interested in my recent series of postings, "Rediscovering the Moral Law - through Physics," at

Thanks for the website!

Caryl Johnston

Lawrence Gage said...


Thanks for the link. The last post is very provocative! I'm looking forward to digging into the previous three.

For everyone's convenience, here's the link (to the first post) linked:


Caryl said...

Hello, Lawrence Gage -
Thanks so much for your two replies to my blog.
I don't know enough about Ellis's kenosis idea to comment on it, and your reservations may be right. My comments on his paper were intended to be encouraging while at the same time suggesting a subtle divergence of opinion. These things are very difficult and sometimes it may take several attempts to refine one's thinking - or even to know what it is, precisely, that one thinks.
I think your criticism of Robert Sungenis was a bit harsh and also lacking in specificity. As for not knowing any science, I have the prize in that regard! Sungenis's book was for me a fascinating introduction to cosmology. He writes well and clearly, and his geocentric position does give one a "fixed point of reference" to evaluate competing theories.
Which is, to me, interesting, for it seems to me that the act of thinking itself demands some sort of reference point, and that when this is lacking, chaos and confusion ensue. Just as the fact that we cannot walk without a ground to stand on, we cannot think without a structure, even if we reject it.
From this point of view a thorough re-evaluation of geocentrism might be, spiritually, a very valuable exercise in correcting the kinds of intellectual promiscuity we see today in physics ... and virtually everywhere else.
Thanks again for writing.
Caryl Johnston

Lawrence Gage said...

Mahndisa, I suspect that there's been a miscommunication. The pages you recommend sound very mathematical. I'm actually arguing against the overwhelming mathematization of physics: I think it has led us down a dead end. We need less math and more physical insight.

Caryl, I'm sorry if my comments about Sungenis were apodictic. It's been a while since I've looked at his material. If you'd like an example of his slip-shod science, I recall that he not only claims that the stars revolve around the Earth, but doesn't deny their mind-boggling distance from us. The combination of these two propositions makes the speed of the stars much, much greater than the speed of light, which contradicts the special theory of relativity (according to which the speed of light is the maximum cosmic speed). If I recall, Sungenis in another place actually calls on special relativity to get him out of the consequent contradiction of some other wild claim of his. What I've read of Sungenis is a rats nest of (willful?) incomprehension of science and wishful thinking. I didn't find it very encouraging that further reading will be fruitful, to say the least. I'm not sure how useful he is as a "fixed point of reference"; using him in this way is like using the distance from Paris to give directions in New York.

Certainly there is a lot of permiscuous thinking in science these days, but it's mostly not in science itself, but in the public organs that present science.
Carl Sagan is wrong about a lot of things, but I have to agree with Walker Percy in agreeing with Sagan that the great thing about science is that it is (in the long run) self-correcting. If heliocentrism were incorrect, it would have been spotted a long time ago. Even today there is a lot of good science being done, despite the public appearance of insanity. Over time the crazy Scientific American sensationalism fails to support its own weight and disappears.


Mahndisa S. Rigmaiden said...

11 06 06

LG: No miscommunication in intent, but rather a miscommunication in meaning. When you say that the papers I referred you to were mathematical, my perception is that NO they are not so mired in formalism and that they are a bit more intuitive. The article on symmetries had almost no equations and the P-adic universe article was a talk that had been boiled down to a bulletted list. I guess Matti's blog was mathy, but he also has quite a bit of physics and metaphysics that he discusses.

While I DO think that focusing on formalism can take away from physical insight (if ones insight isn't well developed), I also think that more of a merging between disciplines yields progress. And I suppose you don't need p-adic physics to describe some basic physical processes, but you may need it to describe more complex biological processes...

I have always felt that mathematics was a tool that physicists used to better their craft, now I am not seeing much of a distinction between the fields. Ultimately it would be nice if we could integrate across disciplines more, without eroding the purest sense of each discipline...In the end, I am still trying to figure out what the difference is between physics, math, chemistry and biology because the more I study all of those disciplines, the more I come across the same results...

Quite a thought provoking post, and you have let me get a peek into that brain of yours. Funny how one says something is mathy, while another says it isn't rigorous enough. Maybe that is the difference between math and physics...hehehehe:)

Lawrence Gage said...


There's nothing wrong with math or with mathematical physics per se. If that's where your interests and talents lie, then great!

My point is that physics these days relies on mathematics blindly. When you say that "physics, math, chemistry and biology" all seem to give the same results, you're speaking from an abstract, mathematical perspective. This reflects mathematical abstraction from the real. The equation for the oscillations of a water wave is the same as that for the oscillations of a pendulum. The mathematics fails to capture the very real differences between the two situations. That is the incerdible power of mathematics, but also its blindness. Math's powerful generality comes at the expense of its ability to capture full physical reality.

It's dangerous to confuse math with physics. You can come to think that reality originates in your mind (where mathematical abstractions originate), and become trapped in your mind.

Perhaps you've already seen my post on The Degrees of Abstraction, which expresses some of the difference between mathematics and physics. Of course it doesn't discuss mathematical physics, which is a hybrid: it looks at physical reality but only insofar as it is quantitative, instead of looking at the whole of a thing's reality (which includes qualities and other characteristics) as natural philosophy does.

I hope that this makes some sense. I imagine that all this philosophy is very new to you. It takes some time to understand, but it is worth the effort.


Richard Feynman said...

The next great awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations. Today we cannot.... Today we cannot see whether Schrödinger's equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality—or whether it does not. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way.

The Feynman Lectures v. II:41-12

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lawrence Gage said...

Hi John from Melbourne,

I'm sorry, but your post consisting exclusively of links was too much like an advertisement and I had to delete it. You're welcome to share your ideas here, as long as you write something here.