Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Strong Opinion About Something I'm Incapable of Even Comprehending

About eight years ago, John Horgan stirred up controversy with his book The End of Science, in which he posits -- and I'm broadly summarizing here -- that all the major scientific discoveries have been made, and that most revelations still to come will simply be filling in the details of those discoveries. It seemed clear to me reading it that Horgan deeply respects the scientific process and community, but many within that community chided him for suggesting that their discipline would never again be quite as revelatory as when Newton considered the apple, or Einstein cracked relativity, or the people at Pringles learned to neatly stack potato chips in a silo. Well, the first two, anyway.

Horgan's method was to interview scientists across many disciplines, and he relates much of what they say word for word. I told a friend, who had also read it, that while I certainly didn't think science had outlived its usefulness (and needless to say, I think it would grossly misrepresent Horgan to say he felt that way), it did seem that certain scientific practitioners were moving closer to having things in common with religion -- generating grand Theories of Everything that were running laughably far ahead of whatever foundation might exist for them.

Of course, I know as much about string theory as you do (which is nothing, unless my readership has drastically changed), but it does strike me as not just untestable, but so arbitrarily bizarre in its assumptions -- requiring different numbers of space-time dimensions, for instance, depending on whether or not certain currently imaginary elements exist -- that pleas to accept it begin to sound like evangelism. This is only my deeply unscientific instinct, and it's quite possible that string theory will lead to a major, provable breakthrough before long, but it seems that at least some people much smarter than me are beginning to introduce some healthy skepticism to the proceedings.

Then last night, I saw Stephen Colbert interview Brian Greene on Comedy Central. Greene is the author of The Elegant Universe, the bestselling book that brought string theory to a much larger audience when it was published five years ago. Unlike guests of Ali G, it seems Colbert's interview subjects know they're on a satirical program, and Greene was great, explaining things as best he could while fully appreciating Colbert's glib rejoinders. This was the funniest exchange, after Colbert said that he finds the idea of being descended from a monkey distasteful:
Greene: Well, what we've come to learn is that the universe doesn't care about your tastes.

Colbert: I don't care about the universe. The feeling is mutual.
But an equally funny -- and more instructive, for my purposes -- moment was this, after Greene admitted that string theory is currently untestable:
Colbert: So, you can just say things and not have to prove it. What's that like?



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