Weinberg Goes Anthropic

As a commenter here noted last night, and other commenters have discussed in the last posting, Steven Weinberg has just put on the arXiv an article entitled Living in the Multiverse. In it, he correctly points out that theoretical physics was immensely successful during the twentieth century as it adopted a fundamental paradigm of exploiting symmetries and quantum mechanical consistency conditions, using these to develop extremely powerful and predictive theories. Initial hopes for superstring theory were that it would lead to further progress along similar lines, but these have not worked out at all.

Faced with the failure of superstring theory to provide any new predictions based on a useful new symmetry principle or consistency condition, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion that it’s just a wrong idea about how to get beyond the standard model, Weinberg instead proposes to dump the lessons of the success of twentieth century physics:

Now we may be at a new turning point, a radical change in what we accept as a legitimate foundation for a physical theory. The current excitement is of course a consequence of the discovery of a vast number of solutions of string theory, beginning in 2000 with the work of Bousso and Polchinski.

What Weinberg sees as “excitement” is what some others have characterized as “depression and desperation”. His “radical change in what we accept as a legitimate foundation for a physical theory” seems to be to give up on the idea of a fundamental theory that predicts things and instead adopt the “anthropic reasoning” paradigm of how to do physics. Weinberg goes through various examples of his own recent work of this kind, announcing that the probability of seeing a vacuum energy of the observed value is 15.6% (this seems to me to violate my high school physics teacher’s dictum about not quoting results to insignificant figures, but I’m not sure how you’d put error bars on that kind of number anyway). He also quotes approvingly recent anthropic work of Arkani-Hamed, Dimopoulos and Kachru, as well as that of his colleague Jacques Distler. All he has to say about the underlying string theory motivation for all this is that “it wouldn’t hurt in this work if we knew what string theory is.”

In his final comments he acknowledges that this new vision of fundamental physics is not as solidly based as the theory of evolution. Describing the strength of his belief in it, he says “I have just enough confidence about the multiverse to bet the lives of both Andrei Linde and Martin Rees’s dog.” One can’t be sure exactly what that means without knowing how he personally feels about Andrei Linde, or cruelty to innocent dogs.

Weinberg’s article is based on a talk given at a symposium in September at Cambridge on the topic “Expectations of a Final Theory”. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about this symposium, and would be interested to hear any other information about it that anyone else has. The article will be published in a Cambridge University Press volume Universe or Multiverse?, edited by Bernard Carr (the president of the Society for Psychical Research), about which I’ve posted earlier here.

I’m curious whether this Cambridge symposium was one of the infinite number of such things funded by the Templeton Foundation. Next week the Vatican will be sponsoring a Templeton-funded conference held in the Vatican City on the topic of Infinity in Science, Philosophy and Theology. It will feature a talk by Juan Maldacena on “Infinity as Simplification”, and is part of a larger Vatican/Templeton project called Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest. This project is designed to promote the vision of scientific research outlined by Pope John Paul II in two encyclical letters, including the rule that scientific research must be “grounded in the ‘fear of God’ whose transcendent sovereignty and provident love in the governance of the world reason must recognize.”

Update: Lubos Motl has some comments on the Weinberg article. This is one topic on which we seem to be in agreement.

Update (much, much later, May 2022): Rereading this posting many years later, I decided to check on the question of Templeton funding raised here. The Weinberg article was published in the volume Universe or Multiverse?, and the Acknowledgements section there has:

First and foremost, I must acknowledge the support of the John Templeton Foundation, which hosted the Stanford meeting in 2003 and helped to fund the two Cambridge meetings in 2001 and 2005.

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87 Responses to Weinberg Goes Anthropic

  1. Ranger says:

    (edited version)

    As a young physicist, I was looking for some career advice.

    After teaching all the labs and classes for years in grad school, writing all the grant proposals, and doing all the research, it would be fun to have a job and get paid someday.

    Should we completely cut off all relations with physics and reality, and instead fully devote ourselves to ingratiating the tenured dinosaurs who now say we must abandon the scientific method so as to turn their failures into success?

    Should we hide the fact that we have theories with postulates that are based in logic and reason?

    Should we bury all independent thought, and discard our theories which unify disparate phenomena with simple principles?

    What would you do if you wanted a job?

    Are there any journals out there taht favor logic, reason, and postulates over cronyism and nepotistic jargon?

    Thanks all!

    Having fun working on some lowly patents here. 🙂

  2. DMS says:

    Note also that
    The STOQ Project is aimed at developing the dialogue and the confrontation between Science and Religion, to face many theoretical, ethical and cultural challenges posed by current developments in science to the Christian vision of world, the human person and society.

    What possessed the Fields medallist Enrico Bombieri also to talk at such a forum? I wonder what these scientists think of Giordono Bruno, Galileo and Copernicus. This is very depressing indeed (not just silly, as in the case of Weinberg).

  3. woit says:

    Hi DMS,

    One motivation for people to attend these Templeton sponsored things is that they tend to pay very well. Actually I found the STOQ Project and conference really silly, but the Weinberg article extremely depressing.

  4. R says:

    To me, this just seems like (justifiably) eminent thinkers who realize they are approaching the end of their usefulness in physics and want to think that they know what the next big thing will be — in order for them to believe they still have some small part to play.

  5. D R Lunsford says:

    What’s perhaps most distressting – W wrote this paper using quantum optics grants. I’ll bet he can’t even point a telescope!


  6. JC says:

    Speaking of funding issues, has anybody with Weinberg’s stature ever had their grants cancelled by the government funding agencies (ie. NSF, DOE, etc …)?

  7. Thomas Larsson says:

    I have heard Weinberg twice, I think. The first time was during the Nobel lecture in 1979. Back then, I was a sophomore and basically didn’t get anything. The second time was when Rubbia and van der Meer won the prize in 1984, and Weinberg was on the panel during the Nobel lecture. This was the first time I realized that people were excited about string theory (I had previously tried to read Schwarz’ 1982 review on my own, without success). In particular, I remember Weinberg making one prediction: that the 1991 Nobel prize would go to one of the smart young string theorists. So S.W. has evidently made at least one manifestly wrong prediction.

    Perhaps growing up means that you realize that the heroes of your youth have become pathetic old men. It is nevertheless tragic.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    TL – W was basically completely wrong about gravity as well (although he did it perfectly in his book).


  9. woit says:

    Hi Thomas,

    One of my colleagues this morning, after being shown the Weinberg article, commented that Weinberg must just be senile. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Weinberg wants to be part of whatever the hot topic in particle theory is, and the landscape is the hot topic these days. It’s being driven mainly by younger people, not by seventy-year-olds, and you can’t put their behavior down to senility.

  10. Ranger says:

    Is everyone getting the feeling that String Theory is the Enron of physics?

    Wouldn’t it be fun to do a documentary and ask Brian Greene, “Yes–those were some very pretty animations in your show, and yes, we might well live in ten or twenty or thirty dimensions, but what exactly do you mean? What are the laws of string theory? What are the postulates? Besides TV shows and tenure and millions of tax payer dollars, what are string theory’s hopes and dreams? Finally, could you please draw the intersection of the seventeenth dimension with the twenty third dimension? I have no idea how to picture this, but I imagine it must be very beautiful. Please share. Einstein and Feyman and Farady and Dirac and Newton and Ohm and Ampere and Gauss shared their wisdom in simple equations, so could you please do the same? Thanks! And keep on rockin’!!!!”

  11. elmer fudd says:

    what is pathetic is being unable to even consider a paradigm shift. The history of science is littered with pathetic scientists of all ages who just could not let go of old ways of thinking.

    The current situation seems to be littered with spectators who would rather consider distinguished older scientists, and the most creative younger ones, wrong rather than let go of their little box of intellectual familiarity.

  12. elmer fudd says:

    Isn’t the classic scenario that older scientists cling to the theories of their own generation that they helped create? Now you’re saying that older scientists want to jump on the bandwagon. Which is it?

  13. woit says:

    Hi Elmer,

    Nothing against paradigm shifts myself, I actually think particle theory is in desperate need of one right now. But if the paradigm shift is to completely trash the intellectual traditions of physics in order to prop up a failed research program that some people have a lot invested in, count me out.

    In this instance, Weinberg is both jumping on a bandwagon and clinging to a theory he helped create (the anthropic “prediction” of the CC is generally attributed to him).

    String theory is no longer a cutting edge new idea only embraced by the young. It has been around since about 1970. Young Turks who first came up with it (Susskind, Schwarz, etc.) are now old enough to collect Social Security. Those who came of age at the time of the First Superstring Revolution (1984) are now deep into middle age and losing their hair (I know a lot about this, this was my generation). Younger people trying to make a career for themselves in recent years have to do so in the context of an ossified ideology older than they are. That they end up doing things to prop it up in order to get ahead is not particularly surprising.

  14. Ranger says:

    Whoah elmer.

    The only thing people are saying is that science does science and religion does religion.

    You can use a fork to dig a grave and eat your spaghetti with a shovel, but we’re allowed to laugh.

    As a young scientist my greatest fear is that the old guard is pulling up all the ladders of objectivity, logic, and reason, and surrounding their NSF funded castles with useful-idiot grad student guards who will shoot you on site if you ask questions such as, “how many millions of dollars has each new dimension cost the NSF?”

    The first three dimensions came relatively inexpensively.

    And the fourth dimension was a bargain too.

    But now it seems that each new dimension costs billions.

    And can we really use them?

    Can I take my date there tonight?

    If so, then rock on, as there aren’t any good bands playing tonight.

  15. Aaron says:

    “Weinberg wants to be part of whatever the hot topic in particle theory is, and the landscape is the hot topic these days”

    Actually, Weinberg’s mostly working on cosmology these days. I really doubt Weinberg does much of anything because of fashion. As you note, he was making anthropic arguments before any of the stringy types jumped on the wagon.

  16. Kris Krogh says:

    Hi D R Lunsford,

    “W was basically completely wrong about gravity as well (although he did it perfectly in his book).”

    Could you elaborate? I’m familiar with the book, which I admire very much, but not the mistakes about gravity.

  17. Shantanu says:

    Peter , I believe this conference was held at Cambridge university in 2001
    and was discussed in Physics world. Smolin also has contributed to this volume
    (hep-th/0407213), so has Wilczek (hep-ph/0408167). some other contributions
    for this conference on preprint archive are by Aguirre (astro-ph/0506519)

    See http://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/photos/science/anthrofest_010830.jpg
    which I believe is a photo of this conference (although I see neither Weinberg nor Wilczek in the photo)

  18. woit says:

    Hi Shantanu,

    Weinberg’s article says his talk was on Sept. 2 of this year. There have been lots of “multiverse” conferences over the last few years, often sponsored by Templeton, at least a couple of them at Stanford.

  19. blank says:

    I’m not a big historian of science, so could somebody please tell me, are there any past instances of succesful paradigm shifts, driven not to kill off an old theory which cannot explain empirical data, but instead to save an existing theory which cannot explain empirical data? This would seem truly to be a paradigm shift among paradigm shifts.

  20. D R Lunsford says:

    KK – he claimed that the geometrical picture that makes gravity sensible, is unimportant. He then wrote a 500 page book that is thoroughly geometrical!


  21. Kris Krogh says:

    Hi DRL,

    Point well taken. Meisner, Thorne and Wheeler have said the same. But maybe Weinberg’s heart was really in the right place. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look for alternatives to complicated geometries to explain gravity, particles, etc… That was the road to this string theory mess!

    Here’s an alternative to to general relativity which is quantum-mechanical rather than geometrical: http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/9910325

  22. Jean-Paul says:

    The whole story is very weird. Within 1 week, I see Weinberg’s article in Physics Today on Einstein’s mistakes and then his own arXiv paper in which he essentially disintegrates as a physicists, quotes cardinal Schoenberg and cracks silly jokes. My suspicion was that he was getting senile, but then I felt embarassed by such disrespectful thoughts…
    So let’s simply forget about the whole incident, drop the curtain and remember Steven Weiberg at his best…

  23. Tony Smith says:

    Are there sociological pressures in the U. Texas physics department that might force Weinberg to conform or be ostracized ?
    My view is that ostracism by one’s “peers” (read fellow members of the U. Texas physics department, in the instant case) can be a powerful force inducing conformity of thought.
    Consider, for example, “silent treatment” in military academies.
    If Weinberg is stuck in such an environment, it is possible that even someone of his mental ability (evidenced for example by his excellent 1972 book Gravitation and Cosmology mentioned by DRL and his more recent 3-volume treatise on Quantum Theory of Fields) might be so “brainwashed”.
    If so, U. Texas should be ashamed of its physics department. Further, if the U. Texas physics department does have such an environment, it might even tarnish the highly favorable reputation now enjoyed by that university due to its currently successful football team.

    Tony Smith

  24. Aaron says:

    “Are there sociological pressures in the U. Texas physics department that might force Weinberg to conform or be ostracized ?”

    That may well be the funniest thing I’ve read in years.

    And no, he’s not senile. Just because you disagree with someone — and I’m against the anthropic principle — it doesn’t make him nuts.

  25. D R Lunsford says:

    “smoking or not? Multi or uni verse? May I take your coat?”


  26. Moshe Rozali says:

    Aaron, That also brought a smile to my face, I’d like to see someone try giving Weinberg “the silent treatment”… also noteworthy, for earlier and more serious comments, is the fact that Weinberg’s first paper on the subject is from 1987, so it is not clear who is jumping on which bandwagon.

    The paper itself is really nice, as usual. I liked the clean separation between the anthropic principle (which is a tautology) and the “principle of mediocracy” which is much more problematic.

  27. Tung says:

    There’s also an article by Weinberg in the latest issue of Physics Today, titled “Einstein’s Mistakes”.

  28. D R Lunsford says:

    I should write out a detailed destruction of these (anhistorical) “arguments”. “It is a pity that Einstein gave up on Kaluza-Klein..” etc. etc. And what about Pauli? Dirac? Everyone gave up on KK theory because it was demonstrably content-free.


  29. Quantum_Ranger says:

    Whatever stringtheory is?..it’s not part of this Universe, no matter how wrong we are in our understanding of our Universe.

    It’s apparently quite clear that the only saving grace of the stringtheory era, is choosing the right ‘get out clause’. Anthropic reasoning is quite obvious the only way out, as embarassing as it is, its the one and only way out.

    Finding ‘multi-universe’ reasons to which they can catogorize a Universe, where they know they would be absolutely correct in stating that stringtheory would finally exist somewhere!..although not in this universe..there is a more than likely probability that it exists elswhere?

    Saving grace future headline replacing the previous ST headline of wondering how they discovered stringtheory?>,.. (you know the one:where a monkey left some mathematical clue from the future, and it suddenly was discovered in the 20th century, explaining the discovery of ST-MTheory?)..HEADLINE:We had the correct theory..but it was in the wrong Universe!..oops!.. sorry wrong place and wrong time!

    Even to mathematically show this to be ‘almost’ true..we would all have to pack our weekend overnight suitcase’s, and visit the correct Universe to see for ourselves.

    Problem?..why go to another Universe just to proof ST!

  30. MathPhys says:

    “Those who came of age at the time of the First Superstring Revolution (1984) are now deep into middle age and losing their hair (I know a lot about this, this was my generation).”

    Speak for yourself, Peter!

  31. Quantoken says:

    I only have this to say: Weinberg is getting old now and he no longer say anything intelligent.

    I could not bear to read on when reaching the end of the third paragraph, which he claimed never before was a symmetry principle involved. One who made such a statement should return whatever prize he was once rewarded for being intelligent.

    I thought it’s taught to every kindergarten kid who has learned any physics at all, that Each one symmetry principle is ALWAYS associated with one corresponding conservation law, and vise versa.

    By Weinberg’s extraordinary claim, he is suggesting there had been no conservation law proposed before Einstein. He must have forgot all the physics he leaerned. For example, what is the corresponding symmetry that caused Galileo to believe that an object shall continue to move at constant speed, if left free of inference of any external force? Weinberg should have known better.


  32. island says:

    I liked the clean separation between the anthropic principle (which is a tautology) and the “principle of mediocracy� which is much more problematic.

    Has anybody but me ever tried to actually answering the obvious and begged question of what good physical reason might exist for the implied “specialness”, rather than to automatically assume that it’s a circular reasoned tautology.

    FYI: The principle of mediocrity only applies to banded spriral galaxies that are on the same evolutionary “plane” as us. SETI is wasting its time looking elsewhere.

  33. Nigel says:

    Feynman, Character of Physical Law, BBC 1965, page 57-8:

    “It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do? So I have often made the hypothesis that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer board with all its apparent complexities. But … it is not good to be too prejudiced about these things.”

    Earlier in the book he had reviewed the LeSage ether theory, concluding on p. 39 that it didn’t do anything right as of 1964:

    ” ‘Well,’ you say, ‘it was a good one, and I got rid of the mathematics for a while. Maybe I could invent a better one.’ Maybe you can, because nobody knows the ultimate. But up to today [1964], from the time of Newton, no one has invented another theoretical description of the mathematical machinery behind this law which does not either say the same thing over again, or make the mathematics harder, or predict some wrong phenomena. So there is no model of the theory of gravitation today, other the mathematical form.”

    These lectures were given at Cornell in 1964, filmed and transmitted on BBC2 in Britain in 1965. It is a pity they are not available on DVD or on the internet. People like Weinberg could learn from them.

  34. Tony Smith says:

    1986 – Weinberg said “… In the last two years, theoretical physicists have become intensely excited over the idea that the ultimate constituents of nature … are … strings. … [each of]… these theories … has no free parameters in it … ‘solve the string theory’ … mean[s] to find out what these theories predict at much lower energies than 10^18 GeV …
    The aim today is to try to find out whether the theory does in fact predict the standard model of the weak, electromagnetic, and strong interactions.
    If it does then the second question is, what does it predict for those seventeen or more parameters of the standard model … the mass of the electron, the mass of the quarks, and so on?
    If it does, then that’s it. …”. (from his 1986 Dirac Memorial Lecture)

    1992 – Weinberg said “… Physicists will certainly keep trying to explain the constants of nature without resort to anthropic arguments. My own best guess is that we are going to find that in fact all of the constants (with one possible exception … the cosmological constant …) are fixed by symmetry principles of one sort or other and that the existence of some form of life will turn out not to require any very impressive fine-tuning of the laws of nature. …” (from his book Dreams of a Final Theory)

    2005 – Weinberg said “… when the effort to extend the Standard Model to include gravity led to widespread interest in string theory, we expected to score the success or failure of this theory in the same way as for the Standard Model: String theory would be a success if its symmetry principles and consistency conditions led to a successful prediction of the free parameters of the Standard Model.
    Now we may be at a new turning point, a radical change in what we accept as a legitimate foundation for a physical theory. …
    Unless one can find a reason to reject all but a few of the string theory vacua, we will have to accept that much of what we had hoped to calculate are environmental parameters, like the distance of the earth from the sun, whose values we will never be able to deduce from first principles. … Theories based on anthropic calculation certainly represent a retreat from what we had hoped for: the calculation of all fundamental parameters from first principles….”. (from his paper Living in the Multiverse at hep-th/0511037)

    Why has Weinberg relaxed his standards for a well-founded physical theory from
    “predict … parameters of the standard model” in 1986
    anthropic principle only for the cosmological constant / vacuum energy in 1992
    “much of what we had hoped to calculate are environmental parameters” in 2005 ?

    If Aaron is correct that Weinberg is “not senile” and that he is not responding to sociological pressures, then:
    What accounts for the deterioration in Weinberg’s standards for a well-founded physical theory ?
    Why does Weinberg not even mention the possibility that the “retreat” should be a retreat from string theory itself rather than a retreat from high standards for a well-founded physical theory ?

    My only remaining guess is that, as Weinberg said in his 1986 Dirac Memorial Lecture, “Many of us are betting the most valuable thing we have, our time …” on string theory, and that Weinberg, having invested a lot of time in string theory, is, like some monetary investment losers, unwilling to cut his losses and move on.

    Tony Smith

  35. Juan R. says:

    The problem of being smart is when one begins to believe it is true.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  36. Juan R. says:

    Kris Krogh,

    Weinberg did an atempt to quantize gravity based in previous work by Feynman. Now we know that gravity is nonrenormalizable as a field theory.

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  37. Tony, yes it may be more that Weinberg has blinders on than a “brainwashing” but I guess it’s the same thing really. It’s not like the leaders in the field haven’t come up with good ideas. You’ve mentioned Susskind and Smolin both having nice 27-dim M-theory related papers. Nobody seems to get excited even over their own good ideas. You seem more interested in SU(5) GUT than its creators. You’ve talked with Schreiber and Baez about Feynman lattices and exceptional algebras but the excitement doesn’t seem to last past the conversation. People don’t seem to get excited enough about their own good ideas to pursue them far enough. You would make for a nice refreshing Discover magazine article kind of for the same reasons the Penrose article was refreshing (even if it was not all correct).

  38. Nigel says:

    I read Weinberg’s “Dreams of a Final Theory” when it came out, but can’t remember a word from it. I think he had his day with “The First Three Minutes” in 1977. Dreams can easily turn into nightmares with science.

  39. MathPhys says:

    I heard that S Coleman used to say that the reason why “The First Three Minutes” sold so well is that people thought it was about sex.

  40. Kris Krogh says:

    Juan R.,

    “Weinberg did an atempt to quantize gravity based in previous work by Feynman. Now we know that gravity is nonrenormalizable as a field theory.”

    Do we know that? I think it’s only been shown for gravity theories exactly equivalent to general relativiity, as Weinberg’s was. The Yilmaz theory is renormalizable, for example.

    Feynman called renormalization a “dippy process.” And he said he didn’t know whether renormalizability is a valid test of a theory’s correctness or not.

    Ever look and look for something and can’t find it — then it turns up in a place you didn’t look because you “knew” it wasn’t there?

  41. Chris W. says:

    There is a subtle but noticeably subversive tone in Weinberg’s article. (Why not bet his own life on the multiverse?) Think of Shostakovich’s work while Stalin was still alive. I’d say the man knows exactly what he is doing; he is hedging his bets, and gently pointing out that the foundation is hardly stable.

    (Einstein said, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.”)

  42. MathPhys says:

    My understanding from the comments of people like John Baez and Steve Carlip is that Yilmaz’ theory is simply wrong.

    Einstein’s theory is a cultural phenomenon: A major, far reaching theory and a pillar of modern physics that was created single handedly by one man (unlike quantum mechanics), in the absence of any pressing experimental motivation (unlike both quantum mechanics and special relativity). It is elegant and deep, and has stood the test of time for almost 90 years now, during which time it remained a focal point of research.

  43. D R Lunsford says:


    Yilmaz may be wrong, but he’s not “simply wrong”. His motivation is legitimate but he’s trying to solve his problem in the wrong context (analogous to, say, the contracted electron flying through the ether, of Lorentz).


  44. D R Lunsford says:

    Any comments from Glashow about this business?


  45. JP says:

    Of course, given the enormous number of consistent CFTs, as well as the large number of moduli in each, string theory will not have real predictive power until the dynamics that SELECTS the vacuum is understood.

  46. Adrian Heathcote says:

    Elmer F. above implicitly appealed to Kuhn and his Structure of Scientific Revolutions to say that W. is not being irrational (he’s going with the paradigm shift despite being old) but that others here were (for not going with the paradigm shift despite being young).

    I doubt that Kuhn had anything useful to say about irrational belief in science and his book is notably free of hard data. What arguments there are are pretty naive. Truth to say irrationality comes in a lot of shapes and forms and is probably by its nature hard to classify. Unlike rational belief it is inherently disordered.

    But one form that the irrationality of old scientists *can* take is to want, before they die, to see that the current situation, whatever it is, is good—that we are on the right path. After all, they know that they won’t get to see the final answer—but they want to assure themselves that their life’s work was not wasted. So whatever is currently going on is *in the right direction*. And they are prone, in this stage, to retreating to philosophy, as though that might be where the answer really lies, rather than slaving away at the math to come up with something that really fits nature.

    Einstein was a great figure IMO because he never gave up on the math—he was always trying to find what he (justifiably) thought was missing. Even when the orthodoxy was complacent.

    Weinberg has done a lot of kicking of philosophers in the past (particularly in the NYRB) in my view with perfect justification. How ironic that he’s now turned into one of them! “The problem my friends is that we had the wrong philosophy of physics: we expected experimental predictions. How naive! How Positivist of us!”


  47. Nigel says:


    Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” book, at least the edition I read (a red paperpack) has a preliminary page thanking Niels Bohr and the Copenhagen people for editing or whatever. Kuhn was having to err on the side of a defence of Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation. Hence Kuhn saw the issue as one in which physicists like Planck, Einstein, and Schroedinger were old fools being irrational, while Bohr and Heisenberg were right. He then dug up those arm-waving bits of the history of phlogiston and caloric which fitted in with his prejudices.

    You say “Einstein was a great figure IMO because he never gave up on the math—he was always trying to find what he (justifiably) thought was missing.”

    I agree, although as Feynman suggested in the November 1964 lectures on physical law, if the math is so complex it takes an infinite series of coupling terms to calculate the magnetism of the something as tiny as just an electron exactly, perhaps God is not a renormalised mathematician as such. The automatic assumption that nature is abstract mathematics because there is a mess of equations is just like the joke of the great biologist JBS Haldane who said God must be a lover of stars or beetles, because he made so many of them.

    Not very anthropic!

  48. Adrian Heathcote says:

    Hi Nigel

    Yes, I read that same red paperback! I agree with your remarks of course—its a pity so many people took that book as a reliable guide to the sciences. (Sociologists took it to mean that all scientists were irrational but themselves!)

    Weinberg, ironically, was one of its greatest critics.

    But on math: surely there is no problem in which the answer is: *less math*. More elegant, yes, more powerful, yes. Different, yes. But never less.

    Less only makes the computations longer!


  49. Elmer Fudd says:

    Isn’t it possible that there is a nested approximation within string theory that will predict the realities of our own universe close enough to build further machines, even as Newtonian physics exists as a useful approximation/limited case within relativity/quantum physics?

    People seem to want “the final answer” to mean complete description of our own universe with its physical laws. Now that “the final answer” may turn out to be talking about something different, many are unable/unwilling to listen since it does not accord with their expectations.

    If the Landscape shows that there are infinite universes, it is up to the sentient beings (in those universes that support their existence) to come up with versions of physics that work in their particular universe, as useful appoximations. Two different things- one speaks of the large picture, the other focuses on one small picture at a time.

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