Science

Infinite in All Directions: String Wars, Ledecky’s Success and Subatomic Puzzles

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String wars

Credit: redglow/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: redglow/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The question of whether science needs philosophy has always seemed like a strange proposition to me. What’s the doubt? Of course science needs philosophy – irrespective of the era in which the question arises. There are different philosophies catering to the various aspects of science. Science, to me, is an umbrella term encompassing the modes of humankind’s investigation of the natural universe, and a philosophy of science allows us to deepen our understanding of our position as the investigators. In this context, the only times a debate about whether science needs philosophy can manifest is when we are faced with someone asking the question at all.

Though science and philosophy have mixed constructively in all eras, the one in which we live has been placing a great and continuous strain on what we consider to be the elements of sound investigation. Specifically: the case of string theory. In a fascinating essay on Aeon, Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher of science, breaks down the ideas of Karl Popper, focusing especially on the problem of demarcation. Simply put, the problem deals with distinguishing between the scientific and the unscientific – and the principal condition that separates them: falsifiability. If an idea is falsifiable, i.e. lends itself to scrutiny and, if it is false, falsification, then it has been scientifically developed. If not, then it has been unscientifically developed.

This is a strong condition to set on scientific investigation because of the historical relevance of the problem of demarcation. To be sure, falsifiability is easily understood and implemented, and does not birth complication of its own. For these reasons, it became widely adopted as a test for the ‘search for truths’: untruths, after all, don’t always lend themselves to falsification. This is why scientists often seek experimental proof for a theoretical prediction. If experimentalists have not been able to find, or observe, what a theoretician predicted, then the theory is considered to have been falsified. At the same time, in defining falsifiability, Popper may have operated in a framework that assumes all ‘truths’ will be available to scrutinise.

Consider the analogy of imaginary numbers (square roots of negative numbers) in mathematics. They were invented – not discovered – because some problems in mathematics could not be solved without their existence. However, imaginary numbers don’t have a physical manifestation of any sort. They are not directly falsifiable. This then is to admit that, in the chasm between a problem and its solution, imaginary numbers may not be the sole bridge – there might be other ways to solving these problems without having to resort to numbers that the imagination is stretched to visualise. Let’s call these other solutions alternate numbers. Now, the issue boils down to this: is the set of alternate numbers equivalent to the set of imaginary numbers?

This is also the issue with string theory: no direct manifestations of string theory have been observed to date even as many mathematicians and physicists assert that only string theory, none other, will be able to reconcile the frameworks of general relativity and quantum mechanics. This in turn has given rise to the so-called ‘string wars’: between scientists convinced of string theory’s supremacy and those who would doubt it.  For a glimpse of what this has been like, I recommend three things: Peter Woit’s blog, Lubos Motl’s blog, and The Wire’s interview of the physicist Abhay Ashtekar. An excerpt from the last:

… there is no question that string theory has enriched us. What is unfortunate is that they are extremely intolerant, in my opinion. It’s everywhere. There is no need to be so intolerant. Because in science there should be a competition of ideas. Let it be a free competition of ideas rather than declarations. It’s not faith; and somehow when you say this is the only true thing, I don’t see much difference between that and some guru saying that his is the only true path.

Anyway, these ‘wars’ have given rise to a broader, and relevant, questioning of the necessity of falsifiability as a necessary condition of the soundness of scientific investigations. String theory has until now eluded falsifiability even as its supporters claim it subsumes any criticism one can throw at it. And such criticism has been motivated in the first place by the absence of falsifiability. So: is falsifiability no longer needed? Has the era of ‘post-empirical science’ come to be? As Pigliucci writes:

The point is that in a lot of cases we don’t discover pre-existing boundaries, as if games and scientific disciplines were Platonic ideal forms that existed in a timeless metaphysical dimension. We make up boundaries for specific purposes and then we test whether the boundaries are actually useful for whatever purposes we drew them. In the case of the distinction between science and pseudoscience, we think there are important differences, so we try to draw tentative borders in order to highlight them. Surely one would give up too much, as either a scientist or a philosopher, if one were to reject the strongly intuitive idea that there is something fundamentally different between, say, astrology and astronomy. The question is where, approximately, the difference lies.

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Head in the cloud

Credit: akasped/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: akasped/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The other day, I stumbled upon an IBM ad from the 1980s for a computer. It addressed concerns over whether the advent of computers would displace humans at various tasks, and so cause an employment crisis. Then, it asked a question (I’m paraphrasing): “Why give 20 men spades and pay them to dig when you can give 200 men spoons and pay them to dig?” As it has happened: our concerns about machines taking over our jobs are misplaced because, most of the time, the anti-machine commentators forget what else those machines would make possible, and what new jobs would be created becauseof them, not just in spite of them.

Just thought I’d put that out there as a (tangential) prelude to a question Sophie McBain asked in February 2016: “As we download ever more of our lives on to electronic devices, are we destroying our own internal memory?” In more detail:

By blurring the distinction between our personal and our digital memories, modern technology could encourage intellectual complacency, making people less curious about new information because they feel they already know it, and less likely to pay attention to detail because our computers are remembering it. What if the same could be said for our own lives: are we less attentive to our experiences because we know that computers will record them for us?

As, again, it happens, McCain answers herself the way IBM did: electronic devices find, index, amass and optimise stupendous tracts of the information realm. Because of its navigability, we choose to not retain the lay of many of these tracts because, hey, the answers are one search away. But what about the things we have chosen to forget at some point and want to remember later? How about choosing not to forget over choosing not to remember? McBain writes:

Our reliance on digital memories is self-perpetuating: the more we depend on computer memories to provide us with detailed personal data, the more inadequate our own minds seem. Yet the fallibility of the human memory isn’t a design flaw, it is one of its best features. Recently, I typed the name of an ex-boyfriend into my Gmail search bar. This wasn’t like opening a box of old letters. For a start, I could access both sides of our email correspondence. Second, I could browse dozens of G-chats, instant messaging conversations so mundane and spontaneous that reading them can feel more like eavesdropping on a former self, or a stranger. The messages surprised me. I had remembered the relationship as short-lived and volatile but lacking any depth of feeling. So why had I sent those long, late-night emails? And what could explain his shorter, no less dramatic replies, “Will u ever speak to me again? You will ignore this I suspect but I love you.” Did he love me? Was I really so hurt? I barely recognise myself as the author of my messages; the feelings seem to belong to someone else.

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Ledecky’s success

Credit: vwcampin/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: vwcampin/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There are no words to describe the wonder that is Katie Ledecky (just as there are barely any to describe the wonder that is Simone Biles). In the 800 m freestyle event at the Rio Olympics, the swimmer didn’t just come first but did so by a stunning 11.38 seconds. The New York Times has an elegant visualisation explaining the significance of this success. Often, such successes are tough to elucidate, as in the case of Biles, whose small body and great strength come together to make her seemingly unbeatable. The elucidation of Ledecky’s success is simpler: 11.38 seconds is an eternity.

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Humpback altruism

One killer whale from a pod hunting a crabeater seal on an ice floe when a pair of humpbacks (one in the foreground) charged in and drove off the killer whales. Credit: Robert L. Pitman

One killer whale from a pod hunting a crabeater seal on an ice floe when a pair of humpbacks (one in the foreground) charged in and drove off the killer whales. Credit: Robert L. Pitman

Humpback whales defend mammals from flesh-eating predators. A Californian researcher has made observations that show humpbacks defending prey from killer whales, or orcas, in a seemingly altruistic gesture that often has the humpbacks put their own calves at risk. Researchers speculate this may be because the whales may be trying to forge reciprocal relationships with those they rescue – while some others think it could be because science hasn’t understood the relationship between humpbacks and orcas fully. Either way, it’s a fascinating tale. Janaki Lenin breaks it down for The Wire:

No doubt humpbacks whales deprive orcas of prey by interfering with their hunts. The much smaller orcas are adept predators and the sabotage probably doesn’t cost too much. Humpbacks don’t target killer whales alone, they also mob other predators like false killer whales and pilot whales. Are humpbacks being altruistic? Why do they rush to save humpbacks that may not be related? What do they gain by harassing killer whales? Humpbacks may mob a predator, much like birds target raptors. This isn’t unknown in the undersea world. Seals and sea lions chase sharks while dolphins gang up on sharks and killer whales.

Although humpbacks are generally solitary, they may form relationships with others when they congregate at feeding grounds. Going to the rescue of others of their own kind may build reciprocal relationships. If one whale helps another, others may come to its rescue when the time comes. However, what makes them rush to the rescue of other species at considerable risk and cost in time and energy? The authors speculate it may be a spillover of the same behaviour, but this needs more research.

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Protons and electrons

An eclipse. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

An eclipse. Credit: gsfc/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The proton radius puzzle is the puzzle as to why a proton’s radius is being measured to values quite smaller than what the theory predicts. Why do we care? Because any discrepancies that arise at the subatomic level between theory and experiment could be useful in the search for something that breaks the Standard Model of particle physics. However, in the case of the proton radius puzzle, the other anomaly that can explain the discrepancy is that we have the Rydberg constant wrong. The Rydberg constant relates the mass and charge of the electron with two constants, the speed of light and Planck’s constant.

Many physicists believe that if the Standard Model is broken, it will likely be succeeded by the theory of supersymmetry – another framework of rules and equations like the Standard Model but more versatile, allowing for more states of matter and being able to answer many unanswered questions in physics today. However, just like the proton’s radius likely won’t give way to supersymmetry (because a simpler solution other than the Standard Model being broken is available), in 2013, something about the electron was biased against supersymmetry, too.

Then, the Advanced Cold Molecule Electron (ACME) experiment – one of whose official posters features Wile E. Coyote – at Harvard University had found that the electron is spherical. Researchers figured this by measuring the electron’s dipole moment using ACME. The dipole moment is a measure of the distances to which an electron repels negative charges around it as well as the distance across which it acts on positive charges. If these distances are unequal, the electron will have wobble, moving unevenly, in an electric field. This wobble is predicted by supersymmetry, but wasn’t found by ACME.

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