Saturday, March 8, 2014

Theory of Everything? Physics itself seems to have hit a limit

I love science. but I do not worship science. I have a BSc in Applied Physics with Electronics dating from the early 80's. I was taught physics in a pragmatic way; things that were solidly understood in context with a view to making engineers and scientists who could fabricate the next generation of electronic devices. I pursued a career in this arena for many years. I have been involved in the design of electronic circuits in areas such as telecommunications, aerospace and industrial test. I have some grasp on science, especially where it relates to engineering.

We humans like to control our environment and that means understanding it and modelling it. Beyond trying to understand other people, which can be problematic, it seems easier to predict the behaviour of the matter around us. (Yes, I know other people are also made of matter; that is another discussion!) Matter seems to be fairly predictable and we formalise this predictability into maths-based behavioural laws. This activity has progressed astonishingly well in recent centuries. The behaviour of liquids, solids and gases, electromagnetism, mechanics and electric circuit  elements, for example, has proceeded superbly. These areas continue to be refined and expanded. We can use aerodynamics and other disciplines to design multi-million dollar aircraft and they fly and behave much as expected.

However well-established physics still tends to look at reality in contextual nibbles. We identify a scenario and then choose a law. We want to understand how a radio wave travels from the Mars Rover. We choose Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's equations are nearly a couple of hundred years old, but they work just fine. Or we want to calculate the temperature rise of a solar boiler. We use thermodynamics. We may need other physics disciplines as well to refine our result, (such as GR for the Mars Rover) but the point is, we choose the best law for the context.

If we stretch our law too far, errors accumulate and we make mistakes. Our calculations no longer work well. We find the mistake by experimental data which doesn't agree with the law. Experimental verification with real world data is an essential part of science. Even Einstein's famous thought experiments needed verification. Einstein himself acknowledged this. However as the scientific enterprise attempts to progress further, it seems to be drifting more and more into unverifiable abstractions. Both Physics and Evolutionary Biology seem to be doing this. A thought experiment will do, never mind solid data and mathematical predictors. It is interesting that as scenarios get more and more complex, involving deep time and/or space, science as a whole is loosing it's firm handle on reality. Many would agree with me. Many are reluctant to say and do not want to be controversial or defeatist. Another human tendency; we like to uphold the credibility of our current enterprise. The Catholic Church used to be very guilty of this, but the issue is less the Catholic Church, more human nature at large. Again, another discussion there. But if we are not careful, science will fall to the very sort of deceptions it sought to remedy. Copernicus sought to remedy blind orthodoxy with evidence and mathematical models. These days a lot of big picture 'science' also makes do with little of either. Engineering as a discipline tends to address these problems fairly fast and close the program; real world results are needed soonish. But contemporary big picture science...?

Despite spectacular progress in recent centuries, and detailed progress in many areas in recent decades, I believe big picture science is stalling and increasingly bankrupt. Of course I could be proven wrong tomorrow, or next year, but I doubt it very much.

What do I mean?

Physics is stalled in a place where Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity cannot be reconciled into a general underlying theory. In some areas of cosmology there are QM and GR effects at play, so we have no model. Cosmology has many areas of huge uncertainty of understanding. As the scenarios increase in complexity, it also gets harder to obtain solidly relevant and accurate data. Both modelling and verification get more and more problematic until we just have to admit we do not really know and we don't have much lead. Suggestions to go beyond the reasonably-effective standard model of particle physics are stalled. More and more abstract concepts, with and without attendant maths, and always without empirical data, are springing up. Supersymmetry, string theory, m-branes, multiple-universes. It is amazing what you can convey with computer graphics and selective interviews and clever narrative, but hard facts in the traditional scientific sense tell another story.

I think our human ability to conceptualise accurately, both in theoretical maths and metaphysics, is hitting a limit defined, more than anything, by us and our capabilities as organisms. Our own human constraints of being; of perception and intelligence. To the humanist this would represent the death of progress. I am not a humanist.

In evolutionary biology things are even more deluded. Challenges like the non-progress of non-trivial genotype-phenotype prediction, or the ridiculous presumption than genotype change will necessarily produce viable and/or useful change in the organism often enough to keep the evolutionary show on the road. I could go on and on- evolutionary biology is extreme presumption, not science. Just-so retrospection, not predictive theory. Again, there are pockets of proven validity, such as virus population change, but they are hardly case proof calibre for the entire discipline. Mathematical models of adequate rigour and sophistication just do not exist and very probably never will.

Yes, in some areas such as the permeation of microelectronics into the day-to-day, progress in science has been spectacular. Other established areas of engineering have also been pretty successful. But in the big picture theories, science is stalled and largely bankrupt, built on presumption and dodgy orthodoxy.

As a Christian, I am happy to acknowledge that in this age, we as humans just may not get too much further. The creator who framed our existence also constrained our intellects and perceptive capacity, for the time being at least. We will climb asymptotically to a ceiling of understanding which we will not penetrate. By all means continue trying, with a reasonable part of our resources, but be honestly realistic about the progress.

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