Friday, June 1, 2012

Physics: It is 30 years that we fail

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, in Edge:
I'm allowed to be polemical, in my field, in fundamental theoretical physics, it is 30 years that we fail. There hasn't been a major success in theoretical physics in the last few decades, after the standard model, somehow. Of course there are ideas. These ideas might turn out to be right. Loop quantum gravity might turn out to be right, or not. String theory might turn out to be right, or not. But we don't know, and for the moment, nature has not said yes in any sense.

I suspect that this might be in part because of the wrong ideas we have about science, and because methodologically we are doing something wrong, at least in theoretical physics, and perhaps also in other sciences.
Rovelli goes on to say that our training tells us to take data more seriously than theories, because theories change all the time. But Einstein, he says, turned this on its head. He took the existing theories of classical mechanics and Maxwell's equations very seriously, and asked what had to be done to make them fit with each other:
To force coherence between these two, the two theories, by challenging something completely different, which is something that is in our head, which is how we think about time. . . .

What are then the aspects of doing science that I think are under-evaluated, and should come up-front? First, science is about constructing visions of the world, about rearranging our conceptual structure, about creating new concepts which were not there before, and even more, about changing, challenging the a-priori that we have. So it's nothing to do about the assembly of data and the way of organizing the assembly of data. It has everything to do about the way we think, and about our mental vision of the world. Science is a process in which we keep exploring ways of thinking, and changing our image of the world, our vision of the world, to find new ones that work a little bit better.
Alas, it is one thing to say that we need a new way of thinking, and another to actually think in a new way.

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