Welcome to "Tell a Physicist to Suck It" Day
As you all know, I'm a grad student in Sociology. Or, well, as you all should know if you keep reading this crap, since it says so right up there in my profile. Now, Sociology is perhaps not one of the most respected of sciences, probably owing to the fact that our models provide quite a bit less predictive power than the models used by other scientists in other fields. As such, we frequently seem to take shit from our bretheren in the sciences about whether or not we're a "real" science.
Of those fellow scientists who mock us, probably the worst are the physicists. We've all had the experience, encountering one of those paragons of physical law with their "strong nuclear force" and "gravity" and "thermodynamics" nonsense. Well la-dee-dah! Whatever our level of annoyance with them, however, we must concede that they have developed a very impressive science with considerable explanatory power. Or, so we've all been led to believe. It has recently come to my attention that, perhaps, physics is not in as strong a position as it would like.
Perhaps some of you have heard of Brian Greene, the physicist and science-popularizer whose works include The Elegant Universe, and the PBS Special of the same name. Now, I've read Greene's Elegant Universe and have to commend him for making string theory quite understandable.
For those of you who aren't familiar with string theory, it's a grand unified theory (Or as the physicists say, and I swear this is accurate, a "GUT") that is supposed to combine Einstein's relativity, and modern quantum mechanics, into a single theory that accounts for all forces at all levels of analysis. For we sociologists, it would be the equivalent of a theory that is equally useful in explaining small group interactions, organizations, national politics, and the world-system. So, it goes without saying, whoever develops the first GUT that actually works is going to join the ranks of Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg in the annals of science history.
Now, string theory is a little odd at first, but once you get used to it, you realize it's totally fucking insane. Basically the idea is that all matter at a sub-sub-atomic level, is composed of tiny, vibrating loops of energy called strings. The manner in which these loops vibrate, and the geometry they assume while doing it, determines the physical properties of the matter they define. You might think of this as the "loser college musician" theory of the universe. Much like stoner undergrads think they can define all of life using half-learned Dave Matthew's lyrics and the vibrating strings of a second-hand guitar, physicists think that they can define the universe with vibrating strings of energy. (God, was that the most forced analogy ever... and it gets worse, the punch-line is coming up) Unfortunately for the physicists, they haven't realized that, vibrating strings or no, without the guitar they ain't getting any chicks. (See?)
Now, string theory was previously thought to be the best hope of developing a GUT during our lifetimes. Well... my lifetime anyway, I don't know how old YOU are. Greene's Elegant Universe was, along those lines, a sort of string theory primer, giving us the tools to understand the miracle of the GUT when it finally arrives.
Well, that was then, and this is now, and string theory has taken it's place on the ash-heap of history. In its place we now have brane-theory or M-theory, both of which are short for "membrane theory." Yeah, you guessed it, the vibrating loops of string have been transformed into vibrating sheets that are folded upon themselves like a double-jointed circus performer. Privately I wonder if the physicists are just going to keep taking us up the "shape complexity" scale until, someday in a bleak future, we're all learning about the Barcalounger-Theory or BL-Theory. Give them time, physicists love this kinda shit.
With the shift to M-theory, Dr. Greene has written a new book to keep us all up-to-date on these exciting developments in physics. I haven't read this book yet, (though I'm sure I will eventually. I'm a sucker for a surprise-ending) but I have recently read a review of it in the July/August issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. Those who simply have too little to occupy their time will recall I mentioned SI in a previous post. In any case, as a result of this review (written by James N. Gardner) I have learned the dark secret of physics. You wanna know too? Well, gather close...
The thing about the GUT is that it's supposed to explain, with precision, how the universe is the way it is. Put another way, a true GUT is supposed to explain why particle masses and force strengths and other myriad details are just right for the universe to exist in its current life-accomodating state. Einstein, in thinking about GUTs said, "I want to know God's thoughts. Everything else is just details." Well, as it turns out God has an awful lot of thoughts. And I mean an AWFUL lot.
See, M-Theory isn't just consistent with a universe like our own. No, it's also consistent with a few other alternative universes. How many, you ask? Oh... not too many. Only about 10^500, or a ten with five-hundred zeroes following it. Remember to breathe now.
Now, some of you might not be completely up on your scientific notation, or like me have a hard time grasping such an abstraction, so let me spell that out a little. M-theory is consistent with
1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000
different distinct universes, none of which are mathematically favored or more probable than any other. That number above is manually split up into 10 groups of 50 zeroes, by the way. Writing it out without the spaces gives blogger fits.
Sounds like quite a pickle, eh? Well, Steve Giddings of UC- Santa Barbara puts it this way:
"No longer can we follow the dream of discovering the unique equations that predict everything we see, and writing them on a single page. Predicting the constants of nature becomes a messy environmental problem. It has the complications of biology. [Quoted on page 52 of the July/August 2004 "Skeptical Inquirer"]
Or, you know, the complications of Sociology. I suppose I can feel some sympathy for the physicists- after all, they're venturing into a territory where their variables don't sit still for them and don't like to provide neat, simple answers. That sounds an awful lot like what we've been grappling with since our discipline's birth.
Of course, the physicists already have two approaches to dealing with this problem. The first we might think of as the "Marxist Revolutionary" school of physics, which argues that the correct, simple GUT equations just haven't been discovered YET, but we'll get them any day now. You know, sort of like how the proletariat is going to overthrow the bourgeoisie any year now. Yeah, I don't think any of us are exactly stockpiling shotguns and canned goods in anticipation of that one.
The other school of thought might be termed the "Structural Functionalist" approach, and generates a solution using "eternal chaotic inflation" theory and the weak anthropic principle. The former of these argues that out universe is embedded in a churning multitude of other universes. This assembly, owing to physicists' gift for catchy names, is called the "multiverse." In this multiverse new universes are constantly being born by way of big bangs. The latter of those two elements, the weak anthropic principle, argues we shouldn't be amazed we live in a universe conducive to life because if our universe wasn't conducive to life, we wouldn't be here to take note of it. This is also called the "Goldfish Bowl Principle" in reference to a hypothetical goldfish that marvels that its "universe" just happened to be so ideally suited for it to live in. Combined, these two elements argue that of the trillions upon trillions of universes that exist, and are being born all the time, we just happen to live in one of the small minority that can support life. It's pure chance, in the sense that there are uncountable multitudes of other universes that didn't win their "roll of the dice," but deterministic, in that our presence in a universe that just happens to be able to support life is effectively inevitable. So, why do I equate this to structural-functionalism? Simple: the physicists are arguing that our universe is the way it is because it wouldn't work if it wasn't. I do loves me a good tautology.
So, the next time you run into a physicist, why don't you offer your condolences? I mean, sure some of our models only explain 3% of the variance, but that's slightly better than one case in 10^500. They're probably starting to feel a bit self-conscious that they're not a real science, like sociology, since they don't have our tremendous explanatory power. And let's face it, their theories are a bit quaint to our experienced minds. Functionalist arguments are just so passe. As for me, I know exactly what comforting words of sympathy I'm going to offer to the very next physicist I meet.
"Welcome to my world, cockbite."