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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Is Theoretical Physics Becoming 'Softer' than Anthropology?"

John Horgan of Scientific American:

Is theoretical physics becoming "softer" than anthropology?: ...The ... decision of the American Anthropological Association to delete the word "science" from its mission statement ... provoked squawks from anthropologists who ... want their field to be lumped together not with historians and literary critics—God forbid!—but with physics... The irony is that parts of physics are less empirical and more speculative than the most humanistic anthropology. ...
[S]ome ambitious physicists have increasingly ventured beyond the boundaries of measurable reality into the unmapped realms where dragons roam. That brings me to the physics story in the news. Roger Penrose and V. G. Gurzadyan recently proposed that minute ripples in the cosmic microwave background—the afterglow of the big bang—originated from the collision of monster black holes in another universe that preceded our cosmos, and may have spawned it; moreover, our universe might be just one of an infinite series spawned by such cataclysms. ...
[T]he proposal is literally too far out; it can never be confirmed in the way that the existence of, say, quarks has been confirmed, or the big bang itself. I call this highly speculative theorizing "ironic science," because it makes assertions that are more akin to literary criticism or even literature than conventional science. ...
Anthropologists gather data—by observing rainforest hunters in Amazonia, excavating a Neolithic settlement in Jordan, carbon-dating an Ardipithecus jaw bone dug up in Ethiopia—and then try to figure out what it all means. This ... addresses real things: actual primates in actual places.

Many physicists, on the other hand, theorize about phenomena that are not only extremely remote in space and time but might not even exist. Physicists conjecture what's happening at the Planck scale... They speculate about the era before the big bang, and about other universes that might be mutant versions of our own. They postulate strings, membranes, higher dimensions and other stuff whose existence, like that of God, cannot be proved or disproved. ...

    Posted by on Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at 01:26 AM in Economics, Methodology, Science | Permalink  Comments (36)


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