Alex Vilenkin has a new popular book out about cosmology, entitled Many Worlds In One. It’s mainly about the extremely speculative end of cosmology, and much of it is devoted to explaining the author’s ideas on eternal inflation, creating the universe by tunneling out of nothing, and the anthropic landscape, together with stories about how he came to these ideas. It contains various amusing anecdotes, especially about Alan Guth. Sean Carroll is credited with the following story:
One of the leading superstring theorists, Joseph Polchinski, once said that he would quit physics if a nonzero cosmological constant were discovered. Polchinski realized that the only explanation for a small cosmological constant would be the anthropic one, and he just could not stand the thought.
He also describes the reaction to his anthropic arguments back during the years when these were not all the rage like they are now:
After one of my seminars, a prominent Princeton cosmologist rose from his seat and said, “Anyone who wants to work on the anthropic principle – should.” The tone of his remark left little doubt that he believed all such people would be wasting their time.
Vilenkin’s book covers much the same ground as Susskind’s, although from the point of view of a cosmologist, not a particle physicist. A huge amount is made of the supposed anthropic “prediction” of the value of the cosmological constant (any news of the rumor from Sean Carroll of new work by prominent Princeton cosmologist Paul Steinhardt showing this is bunk?). Unlike Susskind, Vilenkin at least doesn’t seem to be on a campaign to attack the “Popperazi” and convert everyone to anthropics, but he demonstrates a similar lack of concern for the fact that the ideas he is discussing don’t lead to much if anything in the way of a testable experimental prediction.
Here’s his scientifc program for 21st century physics, which he hopes will be spent working on the anthropic landscape:
First, we will need to map the landscape. What kinds of vacua are there, and how many of each kind? We cannot realistically hope to obtain a detailed characterization of all 10500 vacua, so some kind of statistical description will be necessary. We will also need to estimate the probabilities for bubbles of one vacuum to form amidst another vacuum. The we will have all the ingredients to develop a model of an eternally inflating universe with bubbles inside bubbles inside bubbles… Once we have this model, the principle of mediocrity can be used to determine the probablility for us to live in one vacuum or other.
Unfortunately for this research program, it has yet to even begin to get off the ground, and there are very good arguments that it can never succeed. There are an infinite number of possible vacua, and trying to make this finite so one can do statistics requires putting in cutoffs, with results then strongly depending on the cutoff. The large numbers of these vacua make any attempts to identify ones that agree with the real world computationally completely intractable. Even if one could do this, all evidence is that one would end up with broad statistical distributions for many of the parameters of the standard model, providing no useful prediction of what new experiments will see, or any insight into why these parameters have the values that they do.
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