In a couple of weeks I will be participating to a workshop in Munich, Germany, on the current status of string theory, the multiverse, and other cutting edge ideas in fundamental physics.
The event is organized by physicist and philosopher of science Richard Dawid, and its goal is to get some cross-disciplinary talk going among people who vehemently disagree on the future of physics.
I asked Dawid why he invited me, since I’m a biologist and philosopher of biology, not physics, and he said he is interested in outside perspectives and parallels with other fields. Fair enough, it should be fun!
In preparation for the workshop, I wrote an essay over at The Philosophers Magazine Online on the whole debate, which has recently taken a nasty and very public turn.
Lee Smolin a few years ago wrote an influential book, The Trouble with Physics, which called into question the whole string theory operation on grounds that it is leading the fundamental physics community to detach itself from empirical reality. To which Leonard Susskind responded accusing Smolin of being a “Popperazzi,” an obviously derogatory term referring to the philosopher Karl Popper and his idea of falsificationism as a criterion of demarcation between science and pseudoscience.
More recently, George Ellis and Joe Silk wrote an op-ed in the prestigious Nature magazine, dramatically entitled “Defend the integrity of physics,” again criticizing their string and multiverse colleagues. To which cosmologist Sean Carroll responded via Twitter (not exactly a prestigious scientific journal, but much more effective in public discourse) with, and I quote: “My real problem with the falsifiability police is: we don’t get to demand ahead of time what kind of theory correctly describes the world.” The “falsifiability police”? Wow.
As I explain in the essay, I find all of this both amusing and disturbing. Amusing because it turns out that a number of physicists who cavalierly dismiss philosophy (though Sean is not one of them) resort to invoking their (incomplete, misguided) understanding of philosophy of science to score rhetorical points against their colleagues. Disturbing because the very public nature of the debate, and — let’s be frank — the rather crass tone that it sometimes takes, are doing nothing to improve the already troubled public image of science.
Stay tuned for more after Munich…