Jim Baggott, author of Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale PhysicsBetrays the Search for Scientific Truth

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a triumph for the standard model of particle physics. This is the theory that describes reality at the level of elementary particles and the forces between them and which helps us to understand the nature of material substance. But we know the standard model can't be the whole story. There are lots of things it can't explain, such as the elementary particle masses, the existence of dark matter or dark energy, and it takes no account of the force of gravity. There are no clues in the available scientific data about how these problems might be solved, and theorists have been obliged to speculate. But, in Farewell to Reality, I argue that in their ambition to develop a "theory of everything", some theorists have crossed a line. The resulting theories, such as superstring theory (or M-theory), are not grounded in empirical data and produce no real predictions, so they can't be tested. Albert Einstein once warned: "Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally by pure thought without any empirical foundations – in short, by metaphysics." Now, metaphysics is not science. Yet a string of recent bestselling popular science books, supported by press articles, radio and television documentaries, have helped to create the impression that this is all accepted scientific fact. Physics has gone too far.

In Farewell to Reality, Baggott now castigates theoretical physicists for indulging a whole industry of "fairytale physics" – strings, supersymmetry, brane worlds, M-theory, the anthropic principle – that not only pile one unwarranted assumption on another but are beyond the reach of experimental tests for the foreseeable future. He recalls the acerbic comment attributed to Richard Feynman: "String theorists don't make predictions, they make excuses." Baggott has a point, and he makes it well, although his target is as much the way this science is marketed as what it contains. But such criticisms need to be handled with care. Imaginative speculation is the wellspring of science, as Baggott's hero, Einstein, demonstrated. In one of my favourite passages of Time Reborn, Smolin sits in a cafe and dreams up a truly outre idea (that fundamental particles follow a principle of precedent rather than timeless laws) and then sees where the idea takes him. In creative minds, such conjecture injects vitality into science. The basic problem – that the institutional, professional and social structures of science can inflate such dreams into entire faddish disciplines before asking if nature agrees with them – is one that Baggott doesn't quite get to. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/10/time-reborn-farewell-reality-review


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