It seems that every mathematician or physicist out there, whether they are working in string theory or not, has an opinion about the subject of string theory. My review of the debate currently surrounding string theory has revealed that there is an ongoing heated debate in the physics community that is revolving around a philosophical debate, that is being characterized as a debate between empiricism vs. rationalism. I will make the case here that regardless of what is actually true about this famous “Theory of Everything”, this debate has not made things more clear, but actually shrouded everything in a kind of conceptual haze that distracts from the details of the actual debate (of which I am NOT an expert).
Here is what I can say as a non-expert that I find fascinating:
The Large Hadron Collider, the famous particle accelerator, has continued to turn up nada for a proof of super-symmetry, one of the necessary predictions of string theory, and continued to make observations consistent with the Standard Model. This is fascinating because on its face value, theoretically, the Standard Model does have weaknesses, recognized weaknesses, most famously that it isn’t compatible with general relativity. String theory emerged not as a makeshift candidate for how to address these problems, but in trying to work out the problems of their own accord. So what does that mean? It means that in all the headlines you read about how “string theory may finally be killed!” it actually hasn’t definitively been killed or not killed. There has been no evidence found against it. Strangely enough, string theory has weaknesses as well, like preferring a cosmological constant that is negative or 0 (we know that the cosmological constant is in fact positive).
So it seems like we have an answer- that the Standard Model is incomplete, but string theory won’t do the job. The strangeness of this is that we really don’t have any other alternatives. Great scientists doing work in theoretical physics have looked at string theory and marveled at its elegance and how it gets rid of certain problems with quantum field theory. So it seems like everywhere we turn, we find more contradictions.
What strikes me as odd in this whole debate is that pop scientists and professional mathematicians who aren’t string theorists love to hate on string theory because of lack of evidence, but there is never any questioning of the methodology of the experiments. It seems to me that there is more room for human error in an experiment as complex as the LHC.
Let’s take a closer look at the Large Hadron Collider, which has famously announced the existence of the “God Particle”, or the Higgs Boson/field that gives particles mass.
The Large Hadron Collider, the largest single machine in the world, and therefore ever built, sits on the France-Switzerland border. Data from the LHC is analyzed by 170 computing centers in 42 countries, according to Wikipedia. Now, I’m not a math scientist [laughs], but that seems like a lot of room for potential error. At any given time, the beam pipe of the LHC needs to be almost a complete vacuum, with only the amount of hydrogen that can fit in a grain of sand allowed. With a total operating budget of $1 billion per year, and a construction cost of around $7.5 billion, the LHC has been more the object of marvel than of scientific scrutiny in the popular press.
Famously, public concern over the safety of the LHC, whether it could produce a black hole, etc. was met with scoffs and simple dismissals. Of course, it can be reasonably assumed that after years of operation, the real dangers of the LHC are not on the order of a “doomsday weapon” like in the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, but it is fascinating to me how it seems like the single largest machine ever constructed by mankind seems to be escaping scrutiny. The best demonstration of this I can find is how the LHC is described by “Rational Wiki”, the kind of site that is frequented by Sam Harris lovers and “sciencephiles”. The description of the LHC on Rational Wiki is “the LHC is a kick-ass piece of scientific designed to replicate conditions immediately after the Big Bang…” etc. Now, it seems to me that the term kick-ass is not very rational or logical, it seems pretty emotional to me. But of course, the defenders of Rationality will always be right by definition!
There is absolutely no doubt that this subject is fascinating, but there are of course two questions that come out of this debate:
- Are the questions we ask worth $1 billion a year? The answer is probably yes, considering if you compare the cost to America’s skyrocketing military budget, it seems trivial in comparison. Still, gone are the days where we can verify physical theories with simple telescope observations, expect the costs to only grow for particle accelerators.
- What are the potential technological benefits that could accrue from this device that essentially just runs experiments? Computers have not even reached the point where they are utilizing all the quantum phenomena we know about. Is verifying string theory or quantum gravity even necessary? Of course, these kind of questions are blasphemy for the scientific establishment, but that is exactly the kind of questions currently being asked by the directors of the LHC, who after not finding any evidence of super-symmetry this year, expect to move their focus to other areas that are admittedly less “sexy”.
Proponents of the LHC will invariably point to the achievement of discovering the celebrated Higgs boson. What I want to avoid is this kind of unthinking mindset, “oooh, muons! quarks! oh my!” as well as the simple dismissal of science. Oftentimes criticisms of scientific work as simply demonized as anti-Science. In short, there needs to be the kind of Latourian anthropological analysis of particle physics that currently goes on in other fields. I probably won’t be the one to do it, as it would require such a highly specialized knowledge of the field, and I am currently pursuing other projects. But I encourage others to!
What would a science studies analysis of the LHC yield? What would the “discoveries” be? Hopefully it would simply offer a realistic portrayal of what’s going on at the LHC on a daily basis.
Here’s a ray of hope that the people at CERN are concerned about practical applications of the LHC: applying the particle accelerator to developing radiation cancer treatments for people in developing countries:
This particularly hits home for me, because my father was a radiation oncologist who worked on developing treatments for prostate cancer. My father was a research scientist with an avid interest in physics (he was a physics major) – so I am no stranger to the wonders of science and what it can do for real people. In a severe twist of irony, my father passed away of cancer, and it wasn’t able to be treated with chemotherapy. Perhaps we need to do far more in the way of preventative treatment and larger policy changes, not just finding treatments for the worst case scenario. That’s not to say I’m devaluing the work my father did- he actually contracted a case of esophageal cancer that is far harder to treat.
In short, there always needs to be theoretical work done, and I recognize that. But perhaps with more humanists working in the field, more practical applications could be developed, burgeoning costs could be contained, and maybe even theoretical debates could be seen in a new light.
But my last and probably most crucial point is this: governments find no shortage of cash to throw at the largest scientific device ever created by man. Maybe they could throw some of that money at the refugee crisis, or eliminating poverty?
What we need now more than ever is a “string theory” of humanity- of how the economy, the environment, and society form an integral whole, and our arbitrary designations of where one ends and the other begins are only, well arbitrary. If string theory is meant to show the subtle interconnections between all aspects of physical reality, then maybe we should take the poetry of this elegant theory and apply it to social reality. Can we, for instance, demonstrate the relationship between human psychology and the environment, as Gregory Bateson has done in the Steps to an Ecology of the Mind? Could we not go further, and connect the philosophy of science with a political ecology? Anthropology continues to be the field that describes these interactions as all emanating from underlying dynamics within the social field, which have been revealed to be patterned, not meaningless and random. Kinship structures, political organization, ideology, cosmology, belief, values, norms- how do these function within, say, the search for a God particle? The answer we will get is pretty straightforward, as my adviser George Mentore has suggested, the cosmology that is operating here is the search for origins, the metaphor of discovery that is at the bottom of Western understandings of the self and the cosmos. Is this metaphor inhibiting “real” discovery? Is it helping? Are there different metaphorical patterns at work? An ethnographic study would reveal this in detail