There’s another article here about Michael Green succeeding Hawking as Lucasian chair. It emphasizes the idea that this is all about more funding for string theory:
MICHAEL Green, the 18th holder of Cambridge University’s Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, is clearly a man with weighty issues on his mind.
He apologetically darts out of our meeting to speak to a colleague about how to submit the paperwork for a 1.5 million euros (£1.35 million) grant application he has just heard has been approved by the European Union.
“I suppose it sounds like a lot of money,” he explains, “but it’s not that much really compared to the billions spent on some research. Our work is theoretical – we’re very cheap.”
The money will go towards research on Michael’s specialist subject, string theory…
“I have been thinking about how I can make use of such a prominent position to benefit my colleagues. It is difficult to find funding at the moment, especially for subjects which don’t obviously have an immediate application for something that will make money.
“But the people who discovered magnetism and electricity had no idea what they could be used for. The MRI scanner wouldn’t exist without particle physics. There are so many spin-off industrial investments in things that are being researched, and we need more of this.”
Another blogger has the following comments about this:
There’s only so far that one can run away with this. People “…who discovered magnetism and electricity…” had, in their corner, empirical evidence to at least tell them if they are on the right path or not. This is where the analogy to pursuing String Theory breaks down and the similarity ends. I don’t believe that there has been, in the history of physics, a study in a field of physics that has gone for so long, and garnered THIS much attention, that has been totally devoid of any empirical evidence which indicates one way or the other that it is on a right path. For many of us who value physics as being guided by empirical evidence, this is the most troubling aspect of String theory.
To be fair, Green notes that it’s not all about cashing in for himself and his colleagues, that he would also like to finally have some success with the science:
But, ever the academic, Michael’s eyes twinkle as he admits his “pie in the sky” dream for his tenure of the Lucasian Professorship is not about money, but a breakthrough in the application of his beloved string theory.
“We need something which at the moment doesn’t seem to be a fundamental phenomenon,” he explains. “To find something we know already, but find an undetected explanation out of string theory. It is a radically new theory; what it needs is a radical new prediction.”
I’m not sure though that describing a nearly forty year old theory as “radically new” is really accurate. Any sort of prediction would be radically new.
Also in the business of defending string theory is Sean Carroll, who has a video and transcript up on the Edge web-site on the topic of “Why does the Universe look the way it does?”. It’s unclear to me what this has to do with the topic, but for some reason much of the talk is taken up with a defense of string theory. It’s the usual misleading hype, at great length, leading up to a peculiar defense of the idea that even once you have shown that a speculative theoretical idea is vacuous and can give you anything that you want, you should keep studying it anyway:
How do you show that a theory is not right if you can get anything from it? My answer to that is we just don’t know yet. But that does not imply that we will never know.
From here it’s on to the multiverse and his idea that it explains why you can’t unscramble an egg, and that one is doing observational cosmology over breakfast:
The reason we find a direction in time here in this room or in the kitchen when you scramble an egg or mix milk into coffee is not because we live in the physical vicinity of some important object, but because we live in the aftermath of some influential event, and that event is the Big Bang. The Big Bang set all of the clocks in the world. When we go down to how we evolve, why we are born and then die, and never in the opposite order, why we remember what happened yesterday and we don’t remember what is going to happen tomorrow, all of these manifestations of the difference between the past and the future are all coming from the same source. That source is the low entropy of the Big Bang…
I like to say that observational cosmology is the cheapest possible science to go into. Every time you put milk into your coffee and watch it mix and realize that you can’t unmix that milk from your coffee, you are learning something profound about the Big Bang, about conditions in the very, very early universe. This is just a giant clue that the real universe has given to us to how the fundamental laws of physics work. We don’t yet know how to put that clue to work. We don’t know the answer to the who done it, who is the guilty party, why the universe is like that. But taking this question seriously is a huge step forward in trying to understand how the universe that we see around us directly fits into a much bigger picture.
Update: Carroll this week will be on a lecture tour in Australia giving talks on the Big Bang/egg unscrambling business. The first will be in Sydney where the “internationally-renowned theoretical physicist” will give the 2009 Templeton Lecture.