The physics of futility

Open mic: Should science theorize about the unverifiable?

The cover of Shel Silverstein’s famous Book of Futilities depicts two men in an obviously hopeless predicament. Thoroughly chained to both the floor and ceiling in an inescapable room, one prisoner exclaims to the other “now, here’s my plan.” I was reminded of the old cartoon the other week when the front page of the New York Times science section had an article (albeit very well written and worth reading) on a physicist who claimed gravity didn’t exist. Of course he had zero experimental evidence and few in his field even understood his theory, but it got me thinking: Has physics reached the point of futility?

The greatest problem facing generations of physicists has been the inability to unite gravity – as described in Einstein’s general relativity – with quantum mechanics. Both theories work very well on their own in making predictions, but the common ground between them may lead to a description of our origins, allowing us to peer into the very first instants of the universe. String theory, quantum loop theory, M-Theory and a slew of other approaches have hacked away at finding a theory of quantum gravity that will make our understanding of the universe more complete.

And much like the search for the mythical El Dorado, the quest for a theory of everything has proven too much for many physicists to resist. While few would argue such a pursuit to be futile, the hunt has consumed the lives of many great minds while bearing very little fruit.

What’s more, many of these approaches have attacked the problem from directions that can hardly be described as scientific. The first principle of cosmology Lee Smolin lays out in his book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity is that there is nothing outside of our universe (this is not to discount religion). If the universe is a closed system, then the answer to any question in the universe must come from the universe. String theorists throw such cautions to the wind; the theory predicts wide-ranging things like multiple other universes (can we please use universi?) and dimensions, as well as gravitational effects from outside our own universe. In fact, one of the few methods offered to move string theory from the “not even wrong” category relies on the remote chance of detecting gravitational effects from other universes using the LHC.

For decades the frontiers of physics has been occupied by such theories with profound promise, but little observational support. But can we really question their worthiness? Science rarely plays out the way we expect it to, and quite often the popularly dismissed route ends up being the correct one.

This is not an editorial meant to take a stand one way or the other because, honestly, I’m not sure how I feel. I’ve often taken Brian Greene to task for The Elegant Universe, which made millions of Americans cognizant of string theory and led many of them to believe it was more than just a mathematical framework. But I don’t believe string theory is futile (though my friends’ frequent questions about it may be), I just think it lacks context in the public eye. I’m very curious what other people think.

Is there such a thing as futility in science?

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