Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Latest Dispatches from the Physics Pornfront

The ever level-headed Jim Holt has a good review of Lisa Randall’s new physics-popularization, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, in this morning’s New York Times Book Review.  The book itself sounds like rather a hodge-podge:  the familiar recounting of the Standard Model, plus Why I Like Being a Female Celebrity Physicist (the mindset this sort of thing can give rise to  is noticed here),  and -- every physicist’s privilege these days -- weighing in on the traditional Big Questions by sheer force of a Ph.D.   Apparently watching Large Hadrons collide  confers theological insights denied to the rest of us.

Let Holt tell it:

She is guilty of what might be called premature intellectual closure.  Can a scientist be religious?  Only at the price of inconsistency, she argues, because scientific determinism is not compatible with belief in a deity who can wilfully intervene in the world.  Sympathetic though I am to her conclusion, I would point out that scientific determinism is equally incompatible with free will and moral responsibility.

Skip, as contextually unimportant, the actual indeterminism which physics itself has done most to introduce into our scheme of the world.   The thing to notice is that, even given her assumptions, her conclusion remains untrue.  We don’t actually observe strict determinism (nor Higgs bosons, nor magnetic monopoles), but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is the general rule:  much as it is the general rule that swans are white, and that CP symmetry is observed:  in both cases with some exceptions.  This state of affairs is in fact quite compatible with occasional exceptional events, such as intervention by God -- or by Babar for that matter.   Such events may be as rare as those elusive monopoles, but they are by no means logically ruled out.
The point is not profound;  it is just sort of funny that, out of all the reasons for not believing in God -- and they are many, and profound -- she should choose this silly thing:  perhaps by a sort of déformation professionelle.

Or as Steven Pinker put it (Blank Slate, p. 78): "... scientific findings  spin-doctored beyond recognition  to make a moral point  that could have been made more easily on other grounds."

[Further examples of popularizing overreach here.]


Actually -- two can play at this game.
For I too have a Ph.D. -- this one in linguistics -- and in my science [insert pages of technical gobbledygook here, while dwelling on the resonance of terms like “Generativity” and “Dee-ee-eep Structure”]…. all of which goes to show that, as shown by Principle P of the Binding Theory, the Nicene Creed is true.  Down to the last detail.
Chew on that.


[Update 4 Dec 2011]
The Nov-Dec issue of American Scientist has a careful review, by a physicist, of Randall’s new book, devoid of needless razzle-dazzle.   But the back cover of this same issue is taken up by a full-page color ad for a Nova program, “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, starring that other photogenic physicist, Brian Greene.  Now, Greene’s popularizations in book form are pretty good, plenty of substance  along with occasional nods at the science-fictional fantasies that the masses mistake for actual physics.  But the TV station -- PBS, yet -- chose to highlight just three questions:

Time Travel?
Alternate Universes?
and added:
If the questions blow your mind, imagine the answers.

Well, no, the answers will disappoint:  No such animals, at least on any accessible macroscopic level.
Such tawdry appeals have nothing to do with principled popularization.  George Gamow was able to write physics books for children, amusingly illustrated by the author,  which falsified nothing.  PBS is pandering -- and indeed to a common denominator which it imagines is lower than, in fact, it likely is -- especially among the subscribers to the print edition of American Scientist !
A plague on them.


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