- If like most other people you’re stuck at home, and having trouble concentrating on the projects you thought the current situation would cause you to finally find the time to complete, one thing you could do is watch a lot of talks about mathematics online. As far as I can tell, mathematicians are doing much better than any other field right now in dealing with this, since they have a wonderful site developed at MIT called mathseminars.org. It contains a fairly comprehensive set of listings of Math seminars now being run online.
If there’s anything similar in the physics community, I’d be interested to hear about it.
- A new book about the problems of fundamental physics has recently appeared, David Lindley’s The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost its Way. I’ve been thinking for a while about whether to write about it here, have held off mainly because I felt I didn’t have much interesting to say. Today I see that Sabine Hossenfelder has written a review of the book which I mostly agree with, so you should read what she has to say.
There are a couple places where I significantly disagree with her. For one thing, unlike Hossenfelder, I’m a great fan of Lindley’s much earlier book on this topic, his 1993 The End of Physics. This was written a very long time ago, at a time when writing for the public about fundamental physics was uniformly positive about the glories of string theory. Unlike all those books, this one has held up well. Reading it at the time it came out, it was remarkable to me to find someone else seeing the same problems with the field that seemed to me obvious, providing a very helpful indication that “no, I’m not crazy, there really is something wrong going on here.”
It’s interesting to read Hossenfelder’s take on the way Lindley makes “mathematical abstraction” the villain in this story:
The problem in modern physics is not the abundance of mathematical abstraction per se, but that physicists have forgotten mathematical abstraction is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. They may have lost sight of the goal, alright, but that doesn’t mean the goal has ceased existing.
Here is where I definitely part company with Lindley, and to some extent with Hossenfelder. The current problems with fundamental physics have nothing to do with mathematical abstraction, but with the refusal to give up on bad physical ideas that don’t work. Thirty-six years ago Witten and many other leaders of the field fell in love not with a mathematical abstraction, but with a bad physical idea: replace fundamental particles with fundamental strings. One reason they fell in love with this idea was that it could be fit together with two other bad ideas they had been dallying with at the time, that there are new forces mixing leptons and quarks (GUTs), and that you can relate bosons and fermions with the square root of translation symmetry (SUSY).
Unfortunately it seems to me that many theorists have now drawn the wrong conclusion from the sorry story of the last forty-some years, deciding that what they need to do is to stay away from unwholesome mathematics, and stick to the wholesome experimentally observable and testable. But what if the underlying reason you got in a bad relationship with a seriously flawed love interest was that there weren’t (and aren’t) any experimentally testable ones to be found? Maybe what you need to do is to work on yourself and why you stay in bad relationships: the mathematically abstract love of your life might still be out there.
- Witten yesterday posted a definitely not mathematically abstract paper on the arXiv, Searching for a Black Hole in the Outer Solar System. It’s basically a proposal for finding a physical black hole we could then go and get into a relationship with. I can’t help thinking the probabilities are that getting into a healthy relationship with a new mathematical abstraction is more likely to work out than this.
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