Saturday, May 20, 2006

Dubious Science

Dare to be naive. ~ Buckminster Fuller

I love science. I wanted to be a physicist in my youth, but there was this little problem of something called eigenfunctions (it's math; if you never heard of it, don't worry, because you're better off not knowing). However, like the guy who was a scrub on every team he ever played on loves athletics, I still love science. That doesn't mean, though, that I necessarily accept everything I hear or agree with every effort scientists are undertaking. I know enough physics, math, and chemistry to be dangerous when it comes to being a critic, which probably puts me ahead of some science writers. Therefore, allow me to expound on some things that cause me to go, “Hmmm....”.

String Theory – This is the hot new thing in physics. Basically, instead of quarks, protons, and electrons being hard little particles, they're cute little vibrating strings. Take this and add a bunch of spatial dimensions and you've got String Theory, which, according to its proponents is supposed to unify quantum mechanics (the science of itty bitty things) with Einstein's theories of relativity (the science of really big things, like, say, the universe). It doesn't bother me that they're replacing particles with strings; they could be day-glo slinkies if it helps theorists. Even the 11-dimension universe where most of the dimensions are rolled up into teeny little dimensions we can't see doesn't bother me. Four dimensions always has seemed to be so limiting.

No, the problem is that String Theory is so blamed complicated, almost no one can actually explain it or understand it. Even the people who understand it don't understand all of it. Relativity is supposed to be complex, but it isn't really. The math isn't even all that difficult. It's the concepts that Einstein drew together and the conclusions he developed from those concepts that make it wonderful. Well, there's that and the fact that Einstein's theories made predictions that have been tested and found to be correct over and over again.

String Theory (and its big brother M-theory) isn't very good at making testable predictions. Oh, it makes predictions of a sort, but most of them involve untestable experimental conditions, like simulating the Big Bang. I suspect that String Theory will be superseded by something more realistic some day soon. Maybe Day-glo Slinky theory. If it is, you read it here first.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) – It's not that I don't think that there might be other intelligent life in the universe; I do, although sometimes I'm not sure that there's much on Earth. The problem, when you're looking for life in the galaxy and beyond, is that, to quote The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, “Space is big. Really, really big.” It would be nice to get a signal from the Purple People Eaters of Rigel V, but it's not like we'd be having much of a conversation. And, no, I don't think that Little Green Men have been landing on Earth and abducting drunks from the bayou. Let's face it. If someone came all this way and found us, they'd either be communicating with us or having us for lunch (as the main course, not as a guest).

There is, of course, a huge psychological element to finding out that intelligent life does exist elsewhere. I think one of the hopes of those who support SETI is that if we can see that there is life elsewhere in the universe, perhaps we could bring some sense of unity to people here on Earth. That's overly optimistic. Politicians will not be impressed with the fact that someone 200 light years away can broadcast a series of prime numbers. It is highly unlikely they would change their attitudes.

We should, however, be concentrating on finding habitable planets, because we need to be seriously considering future home sites. The Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years. During that time, we've been hit by very large rocks from space, ice ages (including one of the snowball-earth variety), volcanic planetary makeovers, and various other mass extinction devices. In fact, we're overdue to be clobbered by some lump from the Kuiper Belt the size of Detroit or having Wyoming turn into the “Land of Lava Lakes”. We should be finding potential places to move to and developing the means to get there. Hoping that Zathrus is going to call with the plans to NCC-1701 isn't going to get the job done.

Researching the Obvious – The other day I read that researchers have determined that people who carry guns in their cars are more prone to road rage. Oh, good, now I can worry that when some guy flips me the bird because I won't shove someone off the road to get out of his way, he's liable to shoot me, too.

What is with this constant bombardment of research proving that men and women are different or that the bread really does fall jelly side down (or doesn’t, depending on who performs the study)? These nonsensical researches take away human and monetary resources that could be used on more worthwhile research like affordable power, curing cancer, or growing food more efficiently. Oh, I know, there's supposed to be some deeply meaningful research behind these obvious findings, but it must be pretty deep. Or maybe there really isn't anything there at all.

Many of these so-called studies are actually funded by corporations, trade groups, or professional organizations trying to publicize some point or another. By their nature, the studies are geared to find out what the funder wants it to find. We need some "truth in research" legislation badly. The trouble is that the sorts of groups that fund cockamamy research also happen to have huge lobbies in Washington.

Space Tourism – What an immense waste it is. Burt Rutan and friends would like us to believe that they've done all this miraculous development on a shoestring with no help from the government, breaking new and uncharted ground.

Sorry, it just ain't so. Without years of government-funded research into composite materials, Space Ship One would never have flown. The launch method was developed in the 1950's by the U.S. military to launch the X-series rocket planes. Basically, we've got a glorified X-15 here, with its stated goal to provide a vehicle for people to ride up to space and come back (probably). Unlike the Arianne rockets that have put valuable payloads into space, like communications satellites, with great reliability, nothing that so-called private rocketry is developing will have any use other than to be a toy for the very wealthy.

Frankly, I don't think it will get that far. I suspect that fairly soon one or more of these “pioneers” will be begging for government funding so they can produce something useful. Gee, taxpayers paying to help corporations make money: Won't that be a surprise?

( Since I wrote those words, these clever "entrepreneurs" have conned governments into fighting to pour money down a rat hole to build spaceports using -- ready for this? -- government funding. Considering that the original objective for commerical spaceflight was to use commercial facilities, it would appear that there's been a change of heart amongst the rugged individualists.)

Maybe I could get a grant for my day-glo slinky theory of matter. It could happen.

[updated from original item posted in Gog's Blog 2/25/06)


mickey said...

there was a book i read in the late eighties called, "beyond einstein". it explained the string theory in simple terms. you might want to check it out. ;)

The Gog said...

Actually, I have read it. And you're right, it's a lovely clear explanation. Unfortunately, it leaves out much of the machinery, which is what makes string theory so complex. To get a feel for this, you might check out Brian Green's book, "The Elegant Universe:Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory."

Even though Green is one of the gurus of string theory, and even though he champions the theory, he is frank about its weaknesses.