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By: XPM

Mon, 01 Jan 2007 20:37:18 +0000

I can’t recall the author and title of a science fiction story about someone who created a hierarchical theory of genius. He systematically searched the trash heaps of insane asylums for ideas thought mad that turned out to be true, but ahead of their time.
The story (or more precisely, a "review" of a fictitious story) "Odysseus of Ithica, New York." in Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum.



By: Jonathan Vos Post

Fri, 29 Dec 2006 17:35:38 +0000

So the cosmos is not a dodecahedron embedded in a 5-dimensional composition of 4 elements plus Quintessence, but rather of strings of phlogiston? And these string can be plucked in a Pythagorean mathematical harmony so as to become the electric fluid? I have not the Humor to follow this, but wonder what the soothsayers determine from the portents on how long such a theory will be accepted. As pointed to by Ars Mathematica, here's a wonderful quotation, and fascinating paper, on the misapplication of scientific statistical methodology, which might just as well be applied to String Theory by its critics. "... a potent but sterile intellectual rake who leaves in his merry path a long train of ravished maidens but no viable scientific offspring...." From: "The Earth is Round (p 'less than sign' .05)" by Jacob Cohen, 1994. http://camargue.unibas.ch/cohen1994.pdf



By: Jonathan Vos Post

Wed, 27 Dec 2006 05:18:13 +0000

J.F. Moore's question, and the mention of ancient Greeks, and Ptolemaic astronomy are connected. For instance, J.F., Aristarchus may not have been thought mad, but his heliocentric theory was ignored for a millennium, until Copernicus rediscovered it. www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Aristarchus.html Democritus was not thought mad, and was seriously discussed by Epicurus (who sort of predicted chaos theory in cosmology) and Lucretius (so long ago that science was disseminated in poetry). But most people thought that atoms were only a philosophical construct, until Dalton updated them. Until Einstein's quantitative analysis of Brownian motion, many scientists STILL thought atoms a mere calculational convenience. Odds are good that some other obscure ancient pre-Socratic Greek theorists will be rediscovered in some exciting future way. Those folks were actually in favor of experiments. That died out, for reasons unclear to me (Aristotle?) and ivory-tower theory dominated until the modern era. The attack on String Thory is, in part, a historical analogy to the debate between pre-Socratics and later natural philosophers on the value of empirical methods. I can't recall the author and title of a science fiction story about someone who created a hierarchical theory of genius. He systematically searched the trash heaps of insane asylums for ideas thought mad that turned out to be true, but ahead of their time. In the story, he found a few. Wasn't Grassman thought mad, and eventually accepted the claims, with his algebra filled with nilpotents. Turned out right, but ahead of its time.



By: woit

Tue, 26 Dec 2006 03:42:20 +0000

Walt, Some commenter here pointed out that Ptolemaic epicycles are at least much better than string theory. They make loads of experimentally verifiable predictions.



By: Jonathan Vos Post

Mon, 25 Dec 2006 19:45:19 +0000

Excerpt from Pharyngula science blog http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/blank_post.php (medieval): Nature abhors a blank post. (modern): Blank posts are spontaneously filled by virtual posts and antiposts. (postmodern): String Theory (strings of alphanumerics) has failed to make any useful predictions on a Blog Theory of Everything. Or, more properly, Character String Theory predicts a "landscape" of over 10^500 possible blogs in a blogmultiverse. See, for instance, Not Even Wrong http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/ Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post | December 25, 2006 02:41 PM



By: Walt

Sun, 24 Dec 2006 22:16:25 +0000

Does anyone else feel sorry for the Ptolemaic epicycle system?



By: mclaren

Sun, 24 Dec 2006 05:11:40 +0000

Dr. Woit astutely remarked: "While they are not claiming it is fine for the theory not to predict anything, they are saying that it is an acceptable situation to have a theory which now can only be used to make `anthropic' predictions (and they claim the CC `prediction' as such a success)." Several questions: Q: What is the difference between a HEP theory which predicts anything you could possibly observe, and a HEP theory which predicts nothing? Q: What is the difference between an elegant scientific theory with so many adulterations and encrustations and baroque modifications, like current string theory which has now turned into M-theory, that it becomes ugly and intractable...and an outright kludge that's ugly and intractable to start with, like the Ptolemaic epicyclic system? Q: What is the difference between saying "it took 2000 years to experimentally verify the existence of atoms, so it could conceivably take that long to experimentally verify string theory" and "it took 2000 years to experimentally verify the existence of atoms, so it could conceivably take that long to experimentally verify [feng shui / ufology / orgone energy / (ad nauseum)]"? Q: What is the difference between a theory like the phlogiston theory of heat, which was pursued for several hundred years without success, and string theory if we pursue it for another 50 or 100 years without producing any experimentally falsifiable predictions? Q: If people like Motl claim that it's okay to continue to pursue string theory for decades or perhaps generations before getting testable numbers out of it, what's the time limit? How long is long enough? 50 years? 70 years? 100 years? 200 years? Longer? Q: How can the statements "String theory is currently the dominant theory in HEP" and "there are no viable scientific alternatives to current string theory in HEP" be falsified, given that current HEP grad students find themselves forced either to work in string theory to get tenure, or find another profession? Bonus question: Isn't this like saying to a young Russian economist circa 1970 "Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialist theory is (and must be) the one correct theory of economics, for there is at present no other viable theory of economics in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics"? On a more serious note... The big question remains whether string theory can produce any slight but experimentally observable departures from the Standard Model at energies much lower than those required to reach the Planck scale. If so, we have a real shot at observing something that might confirm or disconfirm string theory. No possible accelerator built by humans could reach the energies required for unification -- but are there subtle phenomena which would emerge at energies reachable by either the LHC or its successors, or astronomical observations, which string theory predicts, but which lie outside the Standard Model? At present I'm not aware of any. Are there any? Planck's quantum hypothesis implied the photoelectric effect, which was observed. De Broglie's matter wavelength implied Bragg diffraction, which was observed. Einstein's general theory of relativity implied the bending of starlight around massive objects, which was observed. Quantum chromodynamics implied the Casimir effect, which was observed. What slight but experimentally detectable effects does string theory imply? Are there any (which are not predicted by the Standard Model, that is)? If not, can we call it a scientific theory?



By: Peter Orland

Fri, 22 Dec 2006 21:08:33 +0000

James, The main problem is that the unification scale is very high. I don't know if the LHC will have any bearing. There are, however, new generations of astrophysical neutrino detectors which might (Ice Cube for example). The details of neutrino mixing does tell us something about what happens at scales of the order of the unification mass. A neutrino experimentalist or phenomenologist would know more about all this than I do.



By: James Graber

Fri, 22 Dec 2006 20:32:55 +0000

John, Peter O., Peter W. and anyone else: About GUTs: Long ago, people used to talk about SO(10), SU(4)xSU(4), and flipped SU(5)xU(1), after SU(5) was ruled out. Now you almost never hear about them. Does anyone care any more? Could LHC produce any results which would significantly favor or disfavor these GUTs? Or is only proton decay relevant? By the way, there was a Harvard magazine called “Cambridge 38" way back in 1958. This old chestnut never dies. Best, Jim Graber



By: Peter Orland

Thu, 21 Dec 2006 20:01:28 +0000

John, The main purpose GUTs have served was to promote the construction of huge neutrino detectors. This was timely, but there are reasons not to take this kind of unification too seriously. There were two theoretical ``successes" of GUTs. One was the prediction that the sum of electric charges in each generation of quarks and leptons is zero. The other was that there seems to be a common unification scale for the U(1) and SU(2) of the Schwinger-Glashow- Ward-Weinberg-Salam model and the SU(3) of QCD. The first ``success" is a fake - it is necessary to insure that anomalies (quantum breaking of gauge invariance) are absent. It turns out that the sum of electric charges in each generation has to be zero anyway, to eliminate anomalies from the standard model. So GUTs buy nothing here. The second ``success" just tells you that there is probably some sort of unification at 10^{16}eV. This is a huge scale, not as lofty as the Planck scale, but still way up there. And it is by no means clear that the wherever the theories unify, the unification is a GUT. I think even Georgi and Glashow are skeptical about GUTs these days, though I wouldn't want to put words in their mouths.