PHYSICS IN TROUBLE . . .
HOW SKEPTICISM THREATENS SCIENCE
WHERE TO BEGIN...
Although few would agree on all points, the growing consensus among many who are involved, in one form or another, with physics is that we are at a crossroads. Despite the fact that much progress has been made over the last 50 years, in many ways we are far from the point that would have been expected not more than twenty years ago.
Wolfgang Zernik, a retired theoretical physicist from Doylestown, PA has said that "Physics today is a science in decline; its widely touted 'discoveries' often have little relation to the real world. Unfortunately, an increasingly scientifically illiterate public can no longer tell the difference between real physics and largely irrelevant speculations..."
Some say that it is because of a lack of imagination. Einstein is famous for the quote, "imagination is more important than knowledge", yet imaginative thinking has been lacking to such a degree that the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts had a slogan - "Don't let your preoccupation with reality stifle your imagination". This commentary would seem to suggest a cause for the lack of imagination - a preoccupation with reality. Some would see that as a euphemism for skepticism, i.e. imagination equals fanciful thinking and fanciful thinking equals fantasy and as such is not grounded in reality.
Cal Tech physics professor Kip Thorne said in his book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy that -"While many of us may enjoy reading science fiction or may even write some, we fear ridicule from our colleagues for working on research close to the science fiction fringe..." seeming to indicate a kind of gang mentality that while, eager to enforce their own opinionated edicts, they have forgotten that all of the breakthroughs that were the 20th century and what we have today, were the 19th and early 20th century's science fiction.
NIAC had six key comments that it used to emphasize what they considered to be revolutionary ideas:
These six attributes are not compatible with the mindset of those who are concerned with their appearance of being grounded in reality and use skepticism as their anchor. The reason is purely psychological - fear. Fear of appearing too far out or being ridiculed by the "peer" group as Thorne said.. Fear of new ideas and new approaches. Fear of the pursuit of the expansion of knowledge because such expansion requires a confrontation with the unknown. Fear of having to rely on intuition because intuition does not require logic. And finally, fear of the revolutionary because that causes an upheaval of the known order of things and the known order of things is safe, reliable and predictable.
If skepticism was always right, we would still be cavemen. The opposite is not gullibility, however. The opposite is inquiry. Skepticism equals doubt - "I don't believe it!". Inquiry equals curiosity - "Let's find out..." Skepticism at its core is passively reactionary. Inquiry is aggressively proactive.
For those who would doubt that skepticism leads to stagnation of technological advancement, consider the following quote from Charles Kettering, a former VP and head of research for General Motors and founder of the Kettering Foundation :
"If I want to stop a research program I can always do it by getting a few
experts to sit in on the subject, because they know right away that it
was a fool thing to try in the first place." - Charles Kettering
Any further doubt will be challenged by this quote by scientist and author, Carl Sagan:
"Too much openness and you accept every notion, idea, and hypothesis - which is tantamount to knowing nothing. Too much skepticism - especially rejection of new ideas before they are adequately tested - and you're not only unpleasantly grumpy, but also closed to the advance of science. A judicious mix is what we need.
If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you.
You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress. - Carl Sagan
The reason that many scientists fall into the later category is that skepticism appeals to the ego. The skeptic gets to belittle others, their ideas, and show everyone just how smart he is, not by using his mind, but by how much information he has memorized, much of it that was originally rejected by skeptics before. Again, Carl Sagan:
"You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of
all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do. We
have to guard carefully against it." - Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP meeting
CSICOP is the Committe for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a controversial organization that has been the target of charges of pseudoskepticism, or the policy of dismissing any evidence of what they feel to be paranormal.
Marcello Truzzi, professor of sociology at Eastern Michingan University and a founding co-chairman of CSICOP had this to say about scientists:
"Scientists are not the paragons of rationality, objectivity,
openmindedness and humility that many of them might like others to believe." - Marcello Truzzi, CSICOP
Not long after he started the organization, Truzzi resigned due to his view that CSICOP was becoming increasingly unscientific in their behavior, a behavior for which he coined the term pseudoskepticism . However, skepticism, by any other name, is still the problem when it has become a philosophy as opposed to a temporary position on a particular subject, and it can be and is applied against many things, not just the so-called paranormal. In fact, new scientific ideas have been tarred with the brush of being labeled "paranormal" by skeptics as an easy way to dismiss such theories. As stated earlier, anything that is not rooted in "reality" can be viewed as fanciful and thus not realistic and thus be targeted by the skeptical "believer".
In the paper Cognitive Processes and the Suppression of Sound Scientific Ideas by J. Sacherman, the following quotes were revealed as taken from The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navakky:
"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology France, 1872 (p.30)
"Fooling around with alternating current in just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever." -Thomas Edison, 1889 (p.207)
"Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value." - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre (p.245)
"To affirm that the aeroplane is going to 'revolutionize' naval warfare of the future is to be guilty of the wildest exaggeration." -Scientific American, 1910 (p.246)
"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?" - H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers Studios, 1927 (p.72)
"The whole procedure of shooting rockets into space. . . presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished." -Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer (p.257)
"The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine." Ernst Rutherford, 1933 (p.215)
Pioneering atomic physicist Ernest Rutherford in his laboratory, ca. 1925
"Space travel is bunk" - Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik (p.258)
"But what hell is it good for?" -Engineer Robert Lloyd, IBM 1968, commenting on the microchip (p.209)
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." -Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp. 1977 (p.209)
This is a photograph of a computer room at NASA, ca 1958
What these quotes prove is the propencity for scientists at times to be skeptical due to an obvious lack of imagination. After all, how much imagination does it take to see how aircraft could effect naval warfare? It's simple - build a ship with a flat deck that can carry and launch airplanes and you automatically extend your projection of power from the vessel at far greater distance than artillary could reach. Whoever wrote otherwise at Scientific American back in 1910 was simply dismissing the idea out of hand without even thinking about it. Too many times, those in decision making positions do the same thing, the result being what Sagan warned about.
The resulting problem - lack of imaginative thinking due to an over zealous skeptical environment, is so pervasive that the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Program had to use a method called Horizon Mission Methodology that "forces paradigm shifts beyond extrapolations of existing technologies by using impossible hypothetical mission goals to solicit new solutions. By setting impossible goals, the common practice of limiting visions to extrapolations of existing solutions is prevented".
It should be noted that the problem identified here is "the common practice of limiting visions to extrapolations of existing solutions", i.e. focusing too much on reality, as NIAC would put it. Or, to be more exact, relying too much on a conservative view of reality - one that has already been confirmed but isn't the only option. Again, imaginitive thinking has been viewed as too fanciful up to this point, and the fanciful is not reality...
Below is a copy of a press release from the Marshall Space Flight Center that illustrates effort that is slowly being made to confront these issues:
Lecture series to cover
Physics for the
February 2, 1998: "Spooky action at a distance," antimatter, and the dividing line between physics and fantasy are on the syllabus for a series of lectures about Physics for the Third Millennium at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Feb. 9-12.
Those topics often raise the hackles of serious physicists, and with good reason. As one lecturer notes in his syllabus, "the Internet is now full of ... fiction masquerading as fact." The Physics for the Third Millennium lectures are rooted in established physics and explore areas that we don't understand. And that is where the lecturers will discuss possibilities that might be leveraged in the future to make space exploration easier.
Marshall is NASA's lead center for developing new space transportation technologies, noted lecture coordinator John M. Horack of Marshall's Space Sciences Laboratory.
"Most of that work is rooted in rockets that have known capabilities and limitations," Koczor said. "The purpose of these lectures is to look at cutting edge physics that might revolutionize space transportation - perhaps not in our children's or grandchildren's lifetimes, but eventually. We're bringing in some of the best scientists in these fields and letting them explain their work to our people in hopes of maybe lighting a fire and getting some experiments started."
Attendance is open to pre-registered Marshall scientists and engineers. Topics scheduled for the lecture series include:
Monday, Feb. 9, 9-12
Quantum Nonlocality - Nature's Faster-Than-Light Linkages. Dr. John Cramer, University of Washington, Seattle. Physicists in Switzerland recently demonstrated what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance" wherein two photons are separated and a change in one is reflected by a change in the other several miles away. These linkages between quantum subsystems can operate faster than light and even backwards in time. Examples of nonlocal effects will be discussed, and a hypothetical mechanism of nonlocality will be presented in terms of the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 9-12
Physics of Antimatter. Dr. Gerald A. Smith, Pennsylvania State University. Antimatter is like the universal solvent: it eats through everything. Yet recent developments in electromagnetic devices called Penning traps allow the storage of small quantities of antiprotons. This opens the possibility that antimatter could be manufactured and stored for use as fuel by deep-space rockets. (At right, the tracks left by an electron and positron [anti-electron] created from a photon.)
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 1-4
Warp Drives and Wormholes: What's Physics, What's Fantasy? Dr. Matt Visser, Physics Department, Washington University in Saint Louis. Wormholes and warp drives are two of the stranger theoretical concepts being discussed by the general relativity community. Visser will try to separate fact from fantasy and give a clear description of the engineering difficulties involved in building these.
Wednesday, Feb. 11, 9-12
Visualizing Relativistic Space-Time Dynamics and Kinematics. Dr. William G. Harter, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark. Harter will show several methods to visualize space-time mechanics of particles and waves. Two computer animation programs: RelativIt and WaveIt will help clarify key concepts.
Wednesday, Feb. 11, 1-4
Experimental Tests of General Relativity. G. M. Keiser, Stanford University
Stanford Calif. Keiser, Stanford's chief scientist on Gravity Probe B, will review the experimental tests of General Relativity with particular emphasis on experiments which have been or can be performed in space, such as measurement of the gravitational deflection of light, the Shapiro time delay, and advance of the perihelion of Mercury. Proposed gravitational wave observatories in space will not only open a gravitational window to the universe but will also give insights into the nature of gravitation.
Thursday, Feb. 12, 9-12
Possible Revolutionary Technologies Based on the Zero-Point Field of the Quantum Vacuum. Dr. Bernhard Haisch, Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, Lockheed Martin, Palo Alto, CA. According to a 1994 theory, inertia - the property that keeps matter at rest or in motion until acted upon by an outside force - may be an electromagnetic phenomenon implying that it may be susceptible to manipulation and modification. "Revolutionary technological possibilities" may follow if this effect can be proven and exploited on a larger scale.
Thursday, Feb. 12, 1-4
Breakthrough Propulsion Physics and the Horizon Mission Methodology. Dr. Marc G. Millis, NASA Lewis Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio. Millis will cover the NASA Breakthrough Propulsion Physics program designed to make measurable and credible advances in physics for breakthroughs in space propulsion. Topics covered by the program include experiments and theories regarding the coupling of gravity and electromagnetism, vacuum fluctuation energy, warp drives and wormholes, and superluminal quantum tunneling.
Now, more than ever before, we need more imaginative thinking as well as thinkers, and we need it all NOW! Not just imaginative thinking but imaginative thinking based on hard, substantiated facts or testable theories. Too often there has been imaginative ideas and theories that have been based on hidden assumptions or been embedded with hidden assumptions which render the idea or theory null and void. But guess what? Due to the fact that the assumption is hidden, and too many scientists aren't used to thinking outside the box, the theory or idea is accepted because the error of the assumption goes unnoticed. The rush to use ethanol from corn is but one example. Once seen as a great alternative to oil, people are now realizing that it costs more overall to use it and it doesn't deliever the same energy output. However, some have started looking at imaginative solutions to that problem. So imaginative or out of the box thinking is not enough. It has to be done with attention to detail.
Never before has there been a greater need to accelerate the progress of not only new ideas and inventions but better ideas and inventions. Just because an idea or invention is new or a breakthrough does not mean that it is a good thing or that it was created with the best interests of mankind in mind. The important thing is to effectively demonstrate that the strangle hold that Carl Sagan warned against and that Kip Thorne complained about, be challenged and defeated with sound ideas supported with overwhelming evidence.
A SECOND LOOK AT A CONTROVERSIAL BOOK. . .
In 2006 Houghton Mifflin published a book by physicist Lee Smolin - The Trouble With Physics which got much press due to its critical look at the development and subsequent reduction in progress of string theory, the best hope of some for the creation of a theory of everything.
About one third of the book however deals with problems that Smolin sees in the science community, particularly on the academic level, that he feels is contributing to a lack of new ideas and progress in physics. Although reviewers who have a stake in promoting string theory disagree, many reviewers found truth in Smolin's words:
"Another key aspect of Smolin's critique goes beyond the science itself to discuss the sociology -- or even the pathology -- that has accompanied its rise to prominence. It seems that this is the thing that most disturbs Smolin, and it should. There is a near-orthodoxy within the physics community that says string theory is the only promising area. When such an orthodoxy takes hold, the mechanics of how scientific careers are established (or not) takes over and active research in heterodox approaches tends to wither.
Someone should always be checking for completely new approaches to unsolved problems. It is healthy. From an investment point of view, you might put the big money behind the leading theories, but you should always reserve some for the longer shots. This is called diversifying the portfolio in finance; the same approach would be useful in science."
- Brian GalvinAnother concurrent thesis that Smolin puts brilliantly forth, and which cleared up my comprehension on several personal issues regarding what the scientific activity is all about, can be summarized below:
"Theoretical physics is hard, not because a certain amount of math is involved but because it involves great risks."
A good strategy to do science right, therefore, involves diversity and the willing to take risks: without them the scientific activity gets corrupted and dominated by sociological phenomena. Lee Smolin offers plenty of reasonable evidences along his book that this is the case for string theory.
But Smolin also offers a possible cure for the problem and actually defends it throughout some parts of the book:
"To keep science healthy, young scientists should be hired and promoted based only on their ability, creativity, and independence, without regard to whether they contribute to string theory or any other established research program."
There are obvious things that, although obvious, sometimes hide unexplored reasoning inside them:
"The truth lies in a direction that requires a radical rethinking of our basic ideas about space, time, and the quantum world."
- Christine C. Dantas
"Recently, I finished reading a book called “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute. The book is mostly a critique of why String Theory is bad for science. But on a more general context, it also talks about a certain type of sociology prevalent in the physics community that, Smolin argues, is hampering progress... must say that everything he says is music to my ears because I have been sort of peeved at the “Shut Up and Calculate” mentality that I have found in physics so far. I was glad to know that talented physicsts, like Lee Smolin, cared about philosophical issues as much as I did."
- Hyeok Maxx Cho
"His central thesis is that after decades of stagnation with string theory failing to deliver, theoretical physics needs another revolution like the one sparked by Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and others. Yet the deliberate suppression of competing theories means the field lacks the rebellious seers needed to lead such a revolution.
'This is not just a problem for theoretical physics. If a highly disciplined subject like physics is vulnerable to the symptoms of groupthink, what may be happening in other less rigorous areas?' Smolin asks at the end of the book.
"As it happens, I agree that science is in a crisis today, extending well beyond theoretical physics...Writing with a passion all too rare in popular science books, Smolin puts a human face on science by telling the stories of potential seers ostracized by the string theory community because they dared follow other paths to the unification of quantum theory and general relativity."
- Peter Calamai
'"Trouble" takes a very different tack, describing alternatives to string theory and devoting the last fourth of the book to an elaborate discussion of the sociology of the string theory community, the way scientific careers are built, the way academic research is funded, and what society needs to do to correct the problems that have led physics off course. Smolin speaks of the need for both master craftspeople and seers..."
- Fred Bortz
"The second half of the book, the cultural part, is fascinating. Smolin remembers that when he began his career there were giants around -- real seers who were doing experimental, idiosyncratic work. Huge strides were being made in physics. Then string theory took over and progress stopped. Nothing has happened in at least twenty years, he argues; none of the big questions are being answered, and string theory doesn't show any signs of being helpful in answering those questions.
"He's disturbed that physics has become characterized by groupthink, and he thinks the academic system is doing it. Not the people, the system. Academics spend a lot of time reviewing the work of other academics and ranking them. In the sciences, the academics are looking for grants, and those are given out based on a lot of conservative ranking work as well. The seniors shape the juniors, and the juniors start asking themselves how Prof. X or Prof. Y view their work instead of asking themselves how their work is contributing to science. So the whole ethic of scientific inquiry is disturbed; outliers don't get the time or independence to be alone and think, because they're too busy getting on the trail towards quiet, approved-of seniordom themselves.
"So I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about almost anything. Do your best to work through the first part, gaze out the window once in a while, and then absorb the second part. It may stay with you for a while."
- Susan Crawford
"The most powerful parts of the book are the chapters entitled How Do You Fight Sociology?, and How Science Really Works. They give a detailed and clear diagnosis of the problematic way string theory research is being conducted, and decisions are being made about who deserves a job."- Peter Woit
Change For The Better? NO! Solutions for the Better...
Everywhere at this time it seems that people are talking about change. We're tired of talk. The time has come for action. There are too many pressing issues that threaten our way of life to continue down the path of talk, debate, and more talk. Solutions are what is required and the action to implement them. Who decides? The community or market at large. Action involves attempting a solution in a unilateral way. If the solution works, then the community or market place accepts it because it works. The only way for this method to be successful is for the solution to be executable by one or a few individuals in such a manner that it doesn't adversely effect people in the process. Attempting to build a nuclear reactor on one's private property to power an area potentially impacts too many people negatively and involves too much licensing and regulations. Figuring out a way to supply electric cars to buyers nationwide for less money, does not. Its success is only determined by market demand. No commitees are required to attempt such a plan. It lives or dies based on market demand and the practicality of the idea.
Likewise, there is a need to promote such initiatives and those that will lead to new advancements in physics and science because they will result in solutions to problems. All of this will contribute to the changing of attitudes that restrict, censor, or are biased against highly imaginative thinking, solely on the basis that it is imaginative.
A must read for every educator - Grade 12 and over. . .
Of the quotes regarding this book that we found the most interesting is the following:
"It is hard to disagree with the general socio-academic critiques, but many are far from unique to this particular field; in fact, they are rather commonplace within the broader academic community: the pressures upon young researchers to fit into an already established "niche", the lack of incentive or reward for independent thought, the tendency towards "tribalism" and "group thought", the tendency by more senior scientists, who can provide or deny opportunities to younger researchers, to judge the merits of candidates by how well they agree with their own outlook and interests, etc."
- John Harnad
This quote is interesting because it describes exactly the conditions through which pseudoskepticism, groupthink and peer pressure, have manifested to hinder the type of progress that we need now, and that they are prevelent across the broader academic community. This is why educators and teachers, from high school and above, should read this book with particular attention put toward the second half or so.