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Books Education Math The Media Science

The Hidden Reality Draws Ire From Physicists 387

Posted by Soulskill
from the don't-anger-the-physics-nerds dept.
eldavojohn writes "Scientific American is running a piece by science journalist John Horgan attacking pop physicist Brian Greene's latest offering, titled The Hidden Reality. He's not entirely alone; Not Even Wrong backs him up and reminds us of a growing list of multiverse propaganda. The journal Nature ran a short piece (subscription required) trying to remind everyone that Greene's book is more theory than fact, but apart from those three responses, the popular press seems to be gobbling up this tantalizing concept of a multiverse. NPR offers an excerpt while SFGate and The Wall Street Journal entertain us with interviews of the controversial Greene. The New York Times and Salon seem to think it's worthwhile, with Salon even calling it 'the science behind' the multiverse theory. The New York Times thought it worthwhile to give Greene an op-ed column. For better or for worse, Greene has certainly brought this great debate to the public's attention — similar to his exhibition of String Theory."
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The Hidden Reality Draws Ire From Physicists

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  • by Stregano (1285764) on Monday January 31, 2011 @03:46PM (#35060136)
    This means that I can travel to the other universes, kill off the me from other ones and become stronger? I am pretty sure that the awesome Jet Li movie came out first (seriously, when he is going in regular motion and the sparks are in slow motion at the end, awesome). And yes, this is all 100% on topic since the movie discusses the multi-verse (it is not everyday that I can figure out a way to shove a Jet-Li reference into /.)
  • by jdgeorge (18767) on Monday January 31, 2011 @03:53PM (#35060202)

    What's so freakin' hard about getting that concept right? Oh, yeah, people can't spell (much less pronounce) "hypothesis".

  • by jfengel (409917) on Monday January 31, 2011 @03:54PM (#35060220) Homepage Journal

    Even scientists, when they're not being absolutely rigorous, use "theory" in the "hypothesis" sense. It's common in culture, and scientists are still human, especially when off the clock.

    This is a scientific context and the summary really should be rewritten to use the more precise and accurate word "speculation", but "hur hur evolution is a theory not a fact" is so spectacularly and deliberately misinformed that no amount of rigor on the part of scientists is going to stamp it out. Those who grasp it will understand what was meant; those intent on misunderstanding will find a way to do so regardless.

  • Re:not science (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sgt101 (120604) on Monday January 31, 2011 @03:54PM (#35060224)

    Errm - well, the double slit experiment is kind of observable, and there are lots of sort of explanations of it that don't involve a multi-verse.

    But you could say that Feynman should have been taken literally, although he didn't want to be.

    To be frank, Feynman should have been taken literally (and with a bucket full of worship) full stop.

  • Bad use of theory (Score:4, Insightful)

    by plopez (54068) on Monday January 31, 2011 @03:57PM (#35060246) Journal

    OK, it seems that even people who should know the difference can't distinguish between the word theory and hypothesis. What was meant in the write up when this was said "Greene's book is more theory than fact" is "Greene's book is more hypothesis or conjecture rather than theory". A theory has been tested and more than once. It is as close to fact as humans can get. This watering down of the word theory is bad, it causes people to be confused and discount theories. Which is why people doubt the theory of evolution or global climate change.

    Use the word right or don't use it.

    OK, I'll stop ranting.

  • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by keytoe (91531) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:01PM (#35060280) Homepage

    Which means it is not and cannot be science. Unless someone comes up with a way to test the "multiverse" theory, it is nothing more than a mental exercise.

    He actually addressed this when he was on Colbert the other night. His point is that the maths indicate that this may be true, but that there is no way to scientifically prove it given current technology and understanding. This is similar to the fact that several aspects of Einstein's theories were indicated via math but not verifiable via experimentation. Einstein didn't even believe them. They were ultimately proven true as technology advanced to the point that the relevant experiments became possible.

    The premise of his position is simply that math, while ultimately a mental exercise, can help guild the focus of scientific experimentation by indicating possibility. That's not really a controversial position in and of itself.

    What the media are doing with this, on the other hand, is pretty much par for the course in science reporting.

  • Uhhh... whut? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by PCM2 (4486) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:05PM (#35060318) Homepage

    Why all the negative spin in the summary? As far as I can tell, nobody is accusing Greene of "propaganda." Rather, this is /. propagandizing at its absolute worst.

    • Why call Greene a "pop physicist"? That seems to imply he's not qualified in his field, when one of the articles referenced calls him "a physicist at Columbia University" who is "is an immensely talented science explicator." It describes his other books as "smart, witty bestsellers."
    • TFA says Greene "draws ire from physicists," then goes on to explain that a journalist from Scientific American has written an editorial, and another blog agrees. Where are the physicists? I can't read the article from Nature, but just the abstract calls Greene's book "beguiling."
    • TFA goes on to accuse Greene of being "a cheerleader" for multiverse theory, a stance that puts him in the same camp, it says, as other notable physics propagandists.... such as Stephen Hawking. Whoah, hanging out in some bad company there.

    Here's the real summary: Brian Greene has written on string theory for a popular audience in the past, and he's also fascinated by some of the more fringe-y elements of physics, such as the multiverse theory. He has a new book out. He has not taken any public stance on the Tea Party, abortion, or the Iraq war -- and honestly, I think it's sad that it seems to have become a requirement of modern journalism to pretend that he has.

  • Re:not science (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:13PM (#35060388) Journal

    And that's the problem. It's one thing to play with various mathematical models like M-theory, and to some extent it is science in that researchers in these areas are trying to work out mathematical models that might give us a quantum theory of gravity. But something pretty peculiar has happened, particularly with some of the string theorists, in that they tend not to speak in the normal, cautious language that physicists usually do when talking about very hypothetical models. They seem to start talking in terms that would suggest to an uninformed layman that they have the Answer, so to speak. Science journalists, sadly, are among the most gullible of laymen, and will happily give guys like Greene far to much credence, and guys like Greene in return seem to take this as an opportunity to try to fight the scientific battle in the public press, which to my mind is quite inappropriate. Greene, will of course, in front of the proper audience (his peers in the physics community) speak much more cautiously, and though I hesitate to call that duplicitous behavior, I sometimes wonder. Being a science popularizer like Sagan or Hawking, is a delicate balancing act. On the one hand you want to include hypothetical solutions to long-standing problems to give an account of the state of physics and cosmology, but at the same time you want to make sure that your layman audience understands that these are in fact hypothetical solutions, currently untestable (and with variants on M-theory and its kin, for all intents and purposes pretty much completely untestable with the level of technology at our disposal for the foreseeable future, if ever).

    Another thing I don't particularly like about Greene and his gang of string theorists is that they tend to poo-poo the major competitor, loop quantum gravity. While LQG isn't currently testable either, unlike the various superstring theories, which just seem to get messier as you look at them, LQG works within the 3+1 dimensional framework of classical physics. It too may be wrong, but it has a certain attraction in its own right.

  • by jfengel (409917) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:15PM (#35060406) Homepage Journal

    Science popularizers like Greene have to tread a careful line. They're not paid to talk about the most important work, which most people wouldn't understand. Real cutting-edge physics is comprehensible only to those extremely skilled in the art, which cuts out even the vast majority of scientists. But people like believing that they're getting dispatches from the front, especially in physics, because that's where people imagine lays the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything.

    You can't even pretend to know much about string theory without some very advanced work in quantum mechanics AND general relativity, which means knowing an awful lot of very, very difficult calculus. For 99.9% even of readers of Scientific American, they're skipping straight past all of that.

    Which means, in essence, telling comforting lies. That's common in education, simplifying a subject to the point where it's essentially false. It's common in science (cf. genetics), but in other fields as well. History, as taught in schools, is so far from reality that college professors have to spend a full year (at least) undoing the damage.

    It's similar to the situation with space research: most of the actual science is done by the robots, but people like the human stories associated with manned flight. The real science is done practically with the rounding errors in the budget.

    In the case of string theory, that means that a bunch of people doing interesting but (bluntly) irrelevant speculation get far, far more attention than they deserve. It's not that they're right, wrong, or Not Even Wrong. People want to know what they're doing, because they've been told that we're Just Around The Corner from The Big Answers. It's a lie, and essentially everybody familiar enough with the work knows it. But they also know it's where the funding comes from.

    I mean seriously... a multi-billion-dollar supercollider? How on earth does that get funded? Because a bunch of people who can't tell a fermion from a boson imagine that they're part of a grand human experiment. And maybe, in the grand human scheme of things, it is worth the money, though I personally doubt it. Still, it's the dirty little secret of scientific work: popularizers write a lot of books about stuff that's really of very little earthy interest, in order to attract enough attention to the field of science to keep the actual work going on. The grad students counting bacterial colonies or coming up with new protein folding algorithms or other tedious stuff that slowly an un-telegentically advances understanding.

    I don't like the little turf war going on between the string theoriests, who get more attention than they deserve, and the anti-string-theorists, who are doing equally unproductive work. Both are intriguing speculations that might one day be of intense interest, but at the moment are of little value either practical or philosophical. They get attention only because they're right at the edge, but most of us are so far from the edge that they'd be invisible under any other circumstances. Both should be left to labor diligently in quiet, and let their little funding turf war be lumped in with the rest of the academic bickering rather than become a great philosophical debate.

  • Re:So... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by HiThere (15173) <charleshixsn&earthlink,net> on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:19PM (#35060452)

    Unhh... but that's true of every single interpretation of quantum mechanics. The multiworld hypothesis is just as reasonable as the Copenhagen interpretation is just as reasonable as ...

    There's a bunch of results that put fairly tight constraints about which theories are reasonable, but they don't uniquely identify which one is correct. When you've got 5-7 different theories that make exactly the same prediction everywhere you can check, then to favor any one of them over the others is unreasonable. And it might just be something that you haven't thought of yet.

    So this guy is the devotee of the multiworld (Everett-Graham-Wheeler) hypothesis, and the other guy (I'm guessing) is a devotee of the Copenhagen interpretation (Niels Bohr, etc.). Neither can be shown to be wrong. Just because the Copenahagen interpretation came first historically doesn't make it any better. In fact, I'd argue that without evidence one should go with the mathematics, and not collapse the state function. (MultiWorld.) But you can't even use Occam's Razor to choose between them. They just make different simplifying assumptions when translating the math into English. They don't disagree on what the math says. And it can't be translated without simplifying assumptions.

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:19PM (#35060456)

    AGW would be easy to disprove if it wasn't true. I can think of half-dozen things off the top of my head which would disprove AGW.

    1) Sustained decrease in global temperatures(i.e. not a one year fluctuation down or not being higher than a one year fluctuation up) without a decrease in greenhouse gas presence in the atmosphere.
    2) Stratospheric heating rather than stratospheric cooling.
    3) Relative decreases in nighttime temperature versus daytime temperatures rather than the reverse.
    4) Relative decreases in polar temperatures versus equatorial temperatures rather than the reverse.
    5) Much greater increases in solar output than have been observed.
    6) Decreases in global CO2 levels.
    7) Lack of evidence that the carbon in atmospheric CO2 isn't coming from fossil fuels via isotopic measurements.

    Obviously all of those conflict with the world as we observe it to an almost ludicrous degree which is why the scientific consensus is that AGW is occurring.

  • WTF is this shit? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0xdeadbeef (28836) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:23PM (#35060498) Homepage Journal

    Someone who whines that the multiverse theory must necessarily be false because it leads him to uncomfortable conclusions regarding his personal belief in morality has no business criticizing any scientific theory, no matter how speculative it is.

    And seriously people, pseudoscience? You are claiming that Susskind and Hawking engage in pseudoscience, like Deepak Chopra?

    This criticism isn't based on scientific merit, this is envy of popular attention.

  • Re:not science (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hypergreatthing (254983) on Monday January 31, 2011 @04:30PM (#35060596)

    what does it have to do with this world? multiverse cannot be science, it's talking about unobservables.

    if we entertain the thought of multiverse, we might as well entertain the thought of a God. what's the difference?

    Ohh you mean like dark matter, the big bang theory, string theory, the god particle, comet extinction theory, or even evolution?
    All of them are theories. Theories try to explain something that may or not be observable. They're made because there's a problem of why something happens that isn't very straightforward. A lot of times they're wrong, but that's also part of scientific progress.

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