Unscientific Scientists

As you might have noticed, Cosma Shalizi is back with several highly recommended posts. He has some interesting fresh thoughts about corporate governance. But my favorite among these is one pointing to a paper by Smolin, debunking a widespread scientific myth - that of the usefulness of the so called "anthropological principle". As Cosma thought, I actually found it to be "quite accessible" as I'd "normally read a popular science book on astronomy". And it was amazing to see how, at least in according to Smolin, really famous scientists have been able to get away for so long in using almost ridiculous errors in their reasoning behind important results:

Fred Hoyle once reasoned that carbon is necessary for life, that carbon must have been formed by stellar nucleosynthesis, and that this reaction could only have proceeded if carbon nuclei had certain properties, which experimentalists then proceeded to show they did have. Smolin fairly schematizes this as follows. (1) X is necessary for life (or intelligence, etc.). (2) X is, as it happens, true. (3) If X is true, and the laws of physics are Y, then Z must also be true. (4) Therefore Z.

All good arguments, it's only that, as Smolin points out to which Cosma agrees, the statement (1) about life is totally redundant, it has no place whatsoever in the context. And what ever "principle" Hoyle is using, it is not be an "anthropological" one as is claimed. Unfortunately, debunking myths - at least not in the scientific spheres - seem far from risk-free. This is colorfully illustrated by a link Cosma provides to a description of how retaliation has been carried out against Smolin.

Now, reading about the modern particle physics that Smolin is involved with, the little informed but often skeptical reader gets curious about the goals of this research. It seems like it is aimed at reaching unification of currently separate theories through observation of processes occurring at really high energy levels. Energy levels that are so high that these processes almost never interfere in what is usually going on in any engineering application. Hence it is the kind of basic research that is left to governments to fund. Is this the very reason why the unification aimed at is referred to as "Grand Unification"? That this "Grand Unification" in turn is described as an important step to one final, soon to be within easy reach, "Theory of Everything". A theory that would be able to describe even the most energy rich processes, including particles with energy levels over 15 orders of magnitude above these we can perform experiments on today (if I read my Hawkin's "A brief history..." right). Either these scientists are real wizards, able to guess and extrapolate far beyond the known landscapes of our universe(s!?), or they simply just won't get there. And if they were such wizards, wouldn't they have given us the final theory already?

Cosma is probably right in calling these researchers extremely smart, as his post implies. Aren't there lots of theoretically interesting problems in physics on energy- and length-scales somewhat closer to our human lives and technical applications?

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