Bryan Appleyard writes: The greatest story of our time may also be the greatest mistake. This is the story of our universe from the Big Bang to now with its bizarre, Dickensian cast of characters – black holes, tiny vibrating strings, the warped space-time continuum, trillions of companion universes and particles that wink in and out of existence.
It is the story told by a long list of officially accredited geniuses from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking. It is also the story that is retold daily in popular science fiction from Star Trek to the latest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar. Thanks to the movies, the physicist standing in front of a vast blackboard covered in equations became our age’s symbol of genius. The universe is weird, the TV shows and films tell us, and almost anything can happen.
But it is a story that many now believe is pointless, wrong and riddled with wishful thinking and superstition.
“Stephen Hawking,” says philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger, “is not part of the solution, he is part of the problem.”
The equations on the blackboard may be the problem. Mathematics, the language of science, may have misled the scientists.
“The idea,” says physicist Lee Smolin, “that the truth about nature can be wrestled from pure thought through mathematics is overdone… The idea that mathematics is prophetic and that mathematical structure and beauty are a clue to how nature ultimately works is just wrong.”
And in an explosive essay published last week in the science journal Nature astrophysicists George Ellis and Joe Silk say that the wild claims of theoretical physicists are threatening the authority of science itself.
“This battle for the heart and soul of physics,” they write, “is opening up at a time when scientific results — in topics from climate change to the theory of evolution — are being questioned by some politicians and religious fundamentalists. Potential damage to public confidence in science and to the nature of fundamental physics needs to be contained by deeper dialogue between scientists and philosophers….The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable. Only then can we defend science from attack.”
Unger and Smolin have also just gone into print with a monumental book – The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time – which systematically takes apart contemporary physics and exposes much of it as, in Unger’s words, “an inferno of allegorical fabrication.” The book says it is time to return to real science which is tested against nature rather than constructed out of mathematics. Physics should no longer be seen as the ultimate science, underwriting all others. The true queen of the sciences should be history – the biography of the cosmos. [Continue reading…]
Before any physicists stop by to question whether I really understand what a wormhole is, I will without hesitation make it clear: I have no idea. It just seems like a suitable metaphor — better, say, than rabbit hole.