Theoretical Physics May Be Paralyzing Real Scientific Breakthroughs

Monday, 04 June 2018 - 12:49PM
Monday, 04 June 2018 - 12:49PM
Theoretical Physics May Be Paralyzing Real Scientific Breakthroughs
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Image credit: Outer Places

Theoretical physics has made some amazing headlines over the past few years: Gravitational waves? confirmed! Higgs-Boson "God" particle? Discovered! Quantum computing? Sure, why not! 


Looking closer, though, a disturbing trend starts to appear.


Each of these major breakthroughs is the product of theories that were introduced at least four decades ago. What about the theories proposed since then?


Well, here's a refresher: Multiverse theory and string theory are generally regarded as interesting thought experiments at best, fantasy at worst, and dark matter is still as inscrutable as ever.


The problem is, modern physicists seem to be more interested in searching for math equations and entertaining ideas than exploring concrete reality—at least, that's what physicist Sabine Hossenfelder claims in her new book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. 

"I can't believe what this once-venerable profession has become," says Hossenfelder in Lost.


"Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can't explain what was not observed. And they're not even good at that."


In Hossenfelder's view, modern physics has become obsessed with finding patterns in mathematics that will solve problems with our current model of the universe in simple and elegant ways, as Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek describes:


"We hope the laws that we find will be beautiful. We hope that they'll exhibit symmetry and that they will explain a lot of things in terms of a few hypotheses—so that you get more out than you put in."

But by immersing themselves in the abstract world of mathematics, physicists have lost sight of reality and begun indulging in purely theoretical ideas like the existence of multiple universes (which are generally considered impossible to observe).

"What does it mean for something to exist if you can't observe it?" questions Sabine.


"I think that's a discussion that belongs safely in the realm of philosophy. People can believe in the multiverse all they want—but it's not science."


She's not alone in her exasperation, either.


According to Neil Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics:


"All of the theoretical work that's been done since the 1970s has not produced a single successful prediction. That's a very shocking state of affairs."


Turok goes on to say that the current establishment could benefit from a new perspective, "What we need is for probably some young person to come forward and say, 'Aha, this is the way it all fits together.' "

Funnily enough, that's almost exactly what Thomas Kuhn would have recommended.


In his landmark 1972 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn says that science isn't a steady march toward a better understanding of the universe, it's a repeating cycle where paradigms drift away from their roots, enter periods of crises, undergo revolutions, and get replaced by new paradigms.


Right now, it sounds like we're ripe for revolution.

Science News