Letters to the Editor

For Physicists, There's Plenty Left to Dream About

April 10, 2011

To the Editor:

In "Hey, Physics, Get Real!" (The Chronicle Review, March 18), John Horgan suggests that string theory, black holes, and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics are constructs that catch the imagination, but that those topics are passé and need to be superseded by something even more intriguing that will inspire a new generation of science aficionados. The author makes the assumption that truly inspiring theories in the world of physics are proposed or generated simply to make philosophical musings more interesting.

Ultimately what the author is saying is that dreamers have run out of material with the subject of physics. That cannot be further from the truth. I got into plasma physics about the same time the author was reading John Wheeler's works. It has been said that 99 percent of the universe is in the plasma state, and that we live in the 1 percent that is not. So the possibilities for learning and discovery were, and still are, huge. I was drawn into this field for two reasons. First, plasma physics is the direction to take to obtain controlled fusion. Controlled fusion using hydrogen as the fuel is a solution to all of the world's energy issues because the oceans have an almost limitless supply. Theories surrounding tokamak construction and operation may not rival the big bang for philosophical discussion. However, the stakes are higher for the human condition. What will the world be like if the energy needs of all of humanity are met? The possibilities for the dreamers are profound if they take their thoughts in this direction.

My second reason for going into plasma physics was that there were areas where discoveries of great importance were still being made. I believe that many scientists choose fields where they can make a contribution and perhaps change the world. I also suggest that the author take note and focus on the process of discovery.

Medical physics, computational physics, and solid-state physics are all areas where great strides are being made. The entire civilized world cannot live without products that have grown out of discoveries in these fields. Nanotechnologies are progressing at a rapid rate. The possibilities are endless as we consider what sub-micron-size robots might be capable of. Solar cells may also be developed in the near future that could significantly impact the availability of energy for mankind.

Philosophical discussions of what happens when we fall into a black hole are interesting and well worth discussing. The theory that parallel universes exist and are nearly identical to our own can entertain many at a cocktail party. But to say that material for discussion in physics is running dry is simply not true. Many areas of physics do have exciting and changing landscapes. Allow yourself to grasp the importance of these developments as they relate to mankind and you will have plenty of material.

Steven W. Daniels
Chair
Physics Department
Professor of Physics
Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, Ill.

***

To the Editor:

I have just one question regarding "Hey, Physics, Get Real!": When was physics ever really "real"?

One only has to peruse the 1902 edition of Astronomy for Everybody, by Simon Newcomb, to get a historical perspective. Newcomb takes us on an imaginary trip, at the speed of light, through the then-known universe to the "staggering" distance of 100,000 light-years from Earth. That's roughly the length of our Milky Way galaxy, as we know it today. "So far as we know," he states, "we should at this point find ourselves in utter darkness, a black and starless sky surrounding us on all sides." He goes on to say we would see a large patch of feeble light spread across the sky, which we call the universe. He had no inkling that the Milky Way is a huge galaxy, nor of other galaxies, the true size of the cosmos, its expansive nature and true age. This was our state of knowledge about a century ago.

Then along came that oddball Albert Einstein and his theories of relativity. Gone was that dull but predictable Newtonian-gravity universe, ticking like clockwork and moving forward in time just as it was meant to do. Suddenly, gravity was not just a force of attraction, but a distortion of the "space-time continuum"; time itself underwent "dilation" close to the speed of light, and ideas ultimately leading to black holes, gravitational waves, event horizons and the like were born. How "real" was all that at the time?

Subsequently Slipher and Hubble discovered that "spiral nebulae" (galaxies) are receding, leading to the realization that the universe is several orders of magnitude larger, older, and more expansive than Newcomb could ever have imagined.

Of course the power of Einstein's theo­ries is that they have predictable and hence testable consequences. Problem is, those macro aspects of the cosmos don't entirely jibe with the micro or atomic levels of physics, where quantum theory reigns supreme. What seems to bother Mr. Horgan most is that some physicists go overboard trying to come to grips with those issues; hence string theory, multi-universes, and even stranger philosophical notions.

More power to them, I say. Let imagination run a little wild; after all, much of yesterday's science fiction is today's science fact. The scientific process itself will sort it out in the long run, and whether Stephen Hawking et al. are full of star dust in some of their ideas or future Einsteins, only science and history can determine.

Klaus R. Brasch
Professor Emeritus of Biology
California State University
San Bernardino, Calif.

***

To the Editor:

As John Horgan waxes eloquent about how difficult it is to do social science as opposed to, say, physics (physics envy lives!), he lets loose with the following: "Imagine how hard physics would be if every electron were the unique product of its entire history."

It might amuse him to learn that physicists often do just that, using a technique developed by Richard Feynman. In order to understand what a particular electron is up to, one takes a sum of all of its possible histories.

That, and no matter how much I may try to convince them otherwise, my students insist on believing introductory physics is the most difficult subject they take.

Christopher Sirola
Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Miss.

In his otherwise astute article, John Horgan dismisses intelligent design in one sentence as "pseudoscience," but fails to realize that the bizarre and baroque theories in physics that he rightly criti­cizes—those appealing to multiple universes in various forms—are invoked precisely to avoid the conclusion that our universe, given its exquisite and multi­dimensional fine-tuning, is designed. For these ma­terialist thinkers, it is better to arbitrarily multiply unlimited and undetectable multi­verses, all wrought by chance, than to acknowledge one universe designed by a trans-cosmic mind.

Horgan to the contrary, the appeal to one designing mind to explain our one universe is a simple, elegant, and legitimate scientific theory, since it appeals to a mass of empirical facts from which design emerges as the best explanation. This kind of reasoning—design detection through inference to the best explanation—is fruitfully employed throughout science (SETI, archaeology, forensics, cryptography, etc.), but is arbitrarily barred from ultimate explanation in physics. The design inference need not conjure up alien and unknown universes to rescue an ontology of comprehensive fortuity. As such, it deserves more respect than what Horgan accords it.

Douglas Groothuis
Professor of Philosophy
Denver Seminary
Littleton, Colo.

***

To the Editor:

John Horgan criticizes physicists for their cosmological speculations, which he characterizes as "irresponsible."

I can't imagine The Chronicle Review publishing an editorial suggesting that we may not need an annual conference on postmodern/Freudian analyses of necrophiliac themes in Twelfth Night.

Furthermore, did The Review consider the effects of publishing this essay? Think of the Nobel laureates who might become suicidal on hearing that John Horgan does not approve of their speculations. It makes me weep.

James M. Cargal
Professor of Mathematics
Troy University
Montgomery, Ala.

The following comments are from chronicle. com:

Physics (along with biology) is still the primary deliverer of awe to our lives. This is the primary religious function that physics took over from all religions and churches centuries ago. It opens up minds and emotions.

Nothing else does this for us—these two disciplines are the core of our global church/temple/etc. They open us, they humble us, they draw wonder from us—nothing in any traditional religious or symbol system competes.

richardtaborgreene

Excuse me, but for many of us (a majority of the American population, I'd wager), actual, good ol' religion is still the primary deliverer of "the divine to our self concerned lives." I'm as a big a fan of science as the next guy—my wife (an evolutionary geneticist) and I make it a point to catch every episode we can of Nova and Nova Science Now—but that doesn't mean that physics or biology has in any way replaced religion (and its natural cousin, philosophy) in how I perceive meaning in the world and my existence in it.

This is, in fact, my greatest beef with Hawking et al.: They usurp the authority of religion and philosophy all the while parading around in the cloak of "scientific proof"—never mind the fact that Hawking's proposals are as scientifically unprovable as those enunciated by William Jennings Bryan in a Tennessee courtroom almost a century ago. Science has not replaced religion; rather, it complements theological wonder. When I see the truly astounding feats of nature shown to me by scientists—vistas of great beauty and natu­ral machines of seemingly supernatural complexity and efficiency—this increases my awe at the love of the personal God I study as a theologian.

nathanielcampbell

Mr. Horgan's focus is on popular physics books written by those whose names are easily recognizable from their featured appearances on television and in film. I count myself as a reader of those books who generally finds pleasure in new ideas whether they are in reach of empirical verification or not. Aren't these books more a part of popular culture than academic physics? This point seems lost on Mr. Horgan, but not lost on this reader.

jlen6319

I have not read the books in question, but I am untroubled by scientific speculation, so long as it is clearly labeled as such. I ran an experiment in college that showed (this is not difficult to demonstrate) that people can literally see what they expect to see even in the face of conflicting visual evidence. I think we are all prisoners of our own expectations to some extent. By considering the seemingly improbable, one may encounter some small number of thoughts that transcend expectation yet resonate with empirical constraints. Perhaps a few of those stoner thought experiments contained some potentially fertile leaps of imagination, but these were not typically coupled to the empirical discipline to make them useful. Yet the assiduous pursuit of some small percentage of "what ifs" have dramatically changed our understanding of the world.

jlgraham