Saturday, November 18, 2023

The Great Narrative of theoretical physics

I have used a lot of time in pondering the Great Narrative of theoretical physics. It has two components. The stubborn belief on the idea of a continuous progress that arose during the Enlightenment: it has proven impossible to admit that huge mistakes have been made at the level of basic postulates so that progress has become illusory.

The second component comes from colonialism: the development of theoretical physics is seen as a series of wars of conquest. Reductionism encapsulates how conquest-war progresses. Each conquered area corresponds to a new field of physics. The community is still unable to see that the triumphal march of reductionism is a very similar illusion as colonialism was.

Wars of conquest have progressed in the direction of both short and long length scales. We have progressed from the planetary system to astrophysical and cosmic scales. The narrative of cosmology has started to crack more and more: there is a crisis related to the understanding of dark matter and energy and inflationary theory has been in crisis from the beginning. As a matter of fact, a state of stagnation here might be a better word than crisis since crisis means criticality and a promise for something new.

The observations already made earlier, and especially James Webb, have now once and for all destroyed the grand cosmological narrative. The Big Bang remains, but Webb's observations call into question the concept of time at the base of cosmology (galaxies older than the universe), the assumption that coherence is only possible on short scales (correlations on cosmic scales), the assumptions about how signals propagate (or rather do not propagate) on cosmological scales, and also the existing view of the formation of astro-physical objects.

On the other hand, progress has been made in both directions by starting from atomic physics which was a real triumph, but molecular physics is already just phenomenology without any real theory (for example, the concept of a chemical bond is not understood on a basic level at all). In biochemistry, biocatalysis remains a complete mystery.

The troops marched also in the direction of nuclear physics, but it was necessary to decide that it is a completely separate area from atomic physics, even though correlations were noticed very early on. The march proceeded to electroweak interactions: this was a real success and also to hadron physics and QCD. It was agreed that hadrons have been understood even though color confinement remained a complete mystery. Standard model emerged and all that was left was the jump to the Planck length scales. The GUTs were a leap into the void producing nothing, but were accepted as a part of the great narrative, partly for reasons related to funding.

Finally, the super string model was built as a theory that was supposed to unify the standard model and quantum gravity. The trial was based on two theories, both of which have a huge gap. The gaps were already noticed a hundred years ago.

In Einstein's theory, conservation laws of the Special Relativity are lost, but perhaps because the discoverer of the gap was Emmy Noether, a woman and a Jew, this discovery was not allowed to mess with the unfolding Grand Narrative.

The basic paradox of quantum measurement theory was the big gap of quantum mechanics. In the spirit of pragmatism, even that was not allowed to interfere with the development of the Great Narrative so that an endless variety of interpretations were invented. So it's no wonder that the superstring theory built above these two great gaps eventually collapsed.

When one thinks about reductionist wars of conquest, one can't avoid comparisons to Alexander the Great's victories and the rapid collapse of the empire that followed. The Colonial Wars is another point of comparison. In between all the areas of the physics landscape agreed to be conquered, there are white areas on the map, about which nothing is actually known. The last hundred years of theoretical physics will probably be seen as the greatest intellectual self-deception in human intellectual history.

I remember the novel, was it the core of Darkness, which told about a similar illusion related to colonialism. It told about a commander of a British base in Africa, a drunkard who desperately tried to maintain the illusion that the situation was under control after all. In the same way the community of theoretical physicists tries to preserve its Grand Illusions. Internalized censorship takes care that new ideas challenging the basic dogmas are neither published in "prestigious" journals nor funded.

Can one find reasons for the recent situation? Sloppy thinking is certainly one basic reason. Colleagues must respect the rules of logic when they write computer code but when it comes to the consistency between fundamental assumptions and mathematics and empirical facts, the basic rules of logic are given up: the justification for this deadly sin of theoretician comes from "pragmatism".

It has been said that great narratives are dead. I do not agree with this. Great Narrative of theoretical physics is possible but it can be developed only by a continual challenging of the basic assumptions of the existing narrative. This has not been done for a century.

For a summary of earlier postings see Latest progress in TGD.

For the lists of articles (most of them published in journals founded by Huping Hu) and books about TGD see this.

1 comment:

Mitchell said...

> I remember the novel

"Heart of Darkness"