Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Excellent Reading! PHYSICS ON THE FRINGE by Margaret Wertheim

Remember when you were a junior in High School and the senior kid who was a science and math whiz and a bit smarmy would announce that we were nothing but bags of bouncing atoms and molecules? You knew the guy was smart but deep down you knew he didn't have all the answers. Things have gotten a lot more complicated since the days of that smarmy kid.

When I first saw Margaret Wertheim's book at the library, I thought it was another book on some of the latest breakthroughs in Physics that don't always make their way into magazines like Scientific American. To be honest, I've been enjoying watching physicists scratch their heads a lot more frequently in the last twenty years. Dark energy, dark matter, and a universe expanding faster than anyone expected have rattled the certainty wagon of the physics world. Look, the accomplishments of physics and other areas of science are quite real. And I love science, I love reading about the latest hunt to understand things, but I freely admit that I find myself rooting for faster than light neutrinos to be confirmed (I know, they probably won't, but.... Ah, the but is everything).

As it turned out, Wertheim's book, Physics on the Fringe, is about another fringe in physics: the outsiders who dabble in physics and who sometimes say very interesting things while constructing their own version of the universe....or just something about ordinary physics, as they see it. Briefly, I considered putting the book down, but it got interesting fast. Among other characters, the main outsider Wertheim chronicles is a guy named Jim Carter, who has thought up several theories of physics by actually doing experiments and modeling. The guy is never far off. He has a Periodic Table of the elements that's done his way and it actually makes a bit of sense.

Wertheim isn't necessarily buying Jim Carter's theories but she's clearly sympathetic. He's a bright man, self-taught, with lots of ideas and experiences. His books, experiments, and illustrations are works of art. By the end, thanks to Wertheim's careful attention to what Carter is doing is doing and saying, you actually learn a few things from the man: there really is more than one way to look at the universe.

To drive home the point, Wertheim notes that 'legitmate' string theorists in high level research institutes are actually, one could argue, getting even more theoretical and speculative than science outsiders like Carter (hey at least Carter does experiments and has a useful invention or two under his belt). I've heard about this aspect of string theory but haven't encountered a detail that Wertheim provides: that string theorists are contemplating a very, very large number of possible universes that may exist according to the hyperflexible and complex math of string theory. The number of possible universes that string theory apparently says could exist is something like 10 to the 500th power, more possible theories of everything, in one sense, than there are atoms in our entire universe.

Wertheim's obserservations are consistent with some observations I've had. For one thing, some older physicists who have doubts about the enthusiasm of the string theorists grudgingly admit that things are getting more complicated, but they find themselves wondering if philosophers—real hard-nosed philosophers of science perhaps—are now needed to help clarify what it is physics should be trying to accomplish going forward. The issues are becoming increasingly philosophical or, at least if I'm reading Wertheim correctly, aesthetic.

But I would add another possibility. Perhaps mathematics is becoming so flexible that it can 'explain' anything without actually, at a certain point, being testable or even practical beyond much of the physics that is already established. By all means, the physics we know explains a great deal, but perhaps it's a delusion that it can explain everything. Or, perhaps as Wertheim seems to suggest, we need more explanations than what the theorists can provide.

I highly recommend Wertheim's smart and readable book. She respects both mainstream physicists and the outsider natural philosophers. She also reminds us of that sense of curiosity and wonder that led us all to science in the first place.

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