Posted on June 16, by woit Jim Baggott has written a very good new book called Farewell to Reality that will soon come out here in the US. It is already out in the UK, where it is stirring up some debate, and perhaps the US will soon see something similar. The book is divided into roughly two halves, with the first half a well-executed overview of the current state of our theories about fundamental physics, from quantum theory through the standard model and cosmology. It ends with a description of the outstanding problems left unsolved by our best theories, and a good summary of the current situation: Several centuries of enormously successful physical science have given us a version of reality unsurpassed in the entire history of intellectual endeavour. With a very few exceptions, it explains every observation we have ever made and every experiment we have ever devised.
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This book is a summary of the present state of physics and he shows it is riven by methodological and epistemological difficulties. As far as we have tested, General Relativity and Quantum Gravity are both very good at explaining the world we see around us and some bits we dont!
One of them or both? In Baggott certainly has an agenda. In trying to solve this main problem and this is merely a most pertinent one from many, Physics has tied itself in a knot it is struggling to untangle. Lee Smolin thinks he has found a possible answer in his latest book "Time Reborn" and the hint is in the title, but Baggott is very clear that his book will not provide many answers to the questions it poses. It is pure polemic.
In this regard, Baggott is like the child who, amid all the pomp and grace of current physics is brave enough to admit that the Emperor has no clothes. To show us why this is so, he has to fill us in with the history of physics so as to get us up to speed with the current state of physics. In this regard, the book is fantastic.
As an introductory text of popular science, Farewell to Reality is hard to beat. But make no mistake, Baggott is thorough too. A solid familiarity with popular science is helpful here, but Baggott assembles any knowledge needed to understand his arguments. The ideas proposed as solutions to certain problems, are numerous. Branes crashing into branes. One dimensional strings vibrating but currently undetectable. Variations of graph theory on the Planck scale.
A theory of the universe that imagines our word is merely a projection of some deeper rule, as if we are players on the surface of a galactic balloon. A world where every action you could take really happens each in its own separate and co-existent reality.
Principles Copernican and strongly or weakly Anthropic. A menagerie of elementary particles we may never be able to detect and a Standard Model that is looking creaky. So many competing ideas. Baggott dislikes this and dislikes that many conjectured ideas will remain, in absence of evidence, just that: mere conjecture.
And what of conjecture without current evidence? A plurality of truth begets a plurality of approach and attempt. But, rather that, in my eyes, than physics constrained by old ways of working, a physics beholden to toeing a party line of How Science Must Be Done.
Innovation must be allowed. And yet, society is healthier for them. They are exemplars not of an affirmation of existing order, but of a need to question it and to have been better for it. From such conflict does resolution both diegetic and extra diegetic emerge. Tales of this kind are above all, a sharply delineated lesson pulled from the chaos of Life, and the more powerful for it.
It is not Life true and real. A tale or fable works against current orthodoxy but Fairy Tale physics IS our orthodoxy. Truth is messy. Our physics wholesale is messy though locally congruent and gifted with explanatory and expository force. Seen in Kuhnian terms, the state of order today is to my mind, one of incipient epistemic revolution in forment.
Seen in fairy tale form, it is Sleeping Beauty though Baggott would have us believe that we are about to take a bite of poisoned apple, to fall into a sleep of reason who just needs a nudge to wake up to a brighter world. But enough tenuous analogy. We would do well to remember that a lot of Fairy tales end well as indeed we must also recall that some do not.
I am quite sure that this particular story will end well too. The moral of this particular knotty tale is that patience and tolerance are virtues. We must work as we must and realise some paths lead into forests as some lead home. Ok, I know I said no more analogy It should be a call instead to permit experiment of thought and not just experiment upon a lab bench, to admit simply put, challenge to order.
This is not anarchism but dynamism, a field bubbling over with essential and productive action. So too might this tale of Fairytale physics be a reminder that the exercising of indignation, whilst it is an inalienable right of any scientist and a function of a healthy open society, might be as much a hindrance to progress as it is a call to arms. Let each pursue their own enquiry as they may, and then one day tomorrow, or tomorrow upon tomorrow, the truth will out.
Gordia still awaits its Alexander to cut away the knot. Our society - humankind as a whole - will benefit from whomsoever has the sharpest mind to make the cut.
Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth
He was very interested in "how stuff came to be". He loved physics but did not think he had a strong enough talent for the mathematics that would be required. He worked as a professor for the University of Reading and left academia to work for Shell International Petroleum. After several years he opened his own training and consultancy business. He calls himself a "science communicator" and publishes a science book approximately every 18 months. The advent of the Internet makes it much easier to do research than back when he first started writing books in the early s. In his opinion, the program started out well, but became what he calls "fairy tale physics" when it included interviews with theoretical physicists who talked about such ideas as multiverse , superstring theory , and supersymmetry.
Farewell to Reality