science wars (internal)

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Tue Dec 4 16:08:05 MST 2001

Apropos Lou's posts on the Science Wars and some of the debates on
ethnoscience, there is an interesting article in NYTimes today:
"Challenging Particle Physics as Path to Truth" (bottom).

Though a lot of the stuff mentioned in there is too mushy/undercooked
for my taste, nevertheless there are several important themes:

  1.) Blowback against the "God Particle" and "Theory of Everything"
  fads, at least in so far as having, say, a unified field would
  suddenly explain everything (i like unified field theories
  myself). much like the critique of Richard Levins regadring the lack
  of total explanatory power of the mapped genome. its good this is
  getting kicked around in the physics field even if it is only turf
  wars between solid-staters and particle physicists for a shrinking
  part of the (fundamental) research pie.

  2.) The material on quasiparticles is okay. there are
  even some mainstream quantum field theorists who discuss their work
  as "effective field theories", good for now -- that is, for the
  current class of machines which can explore given energy domains --
  but could easily be succeeded in the future. for the (actually
  existing as well as budding) physics fans among us, see "Effective
  quantum field theories" by Howard M. Georgi in The New physics,
  Cambridge Univ Press. mostly all words, a few simple algebraic

i believe in coexistence: reductionism should live - now in conflict -
now in harmony - with emergent domains like biology etc. so that even
if a successful physical theory were to emerge unifying gravitons with
the other little tykes, i'd still see "fundamental" value in other
fields not reducible to physics (naturally). the various theories will
have to live well together at some perhaps faint boundaries. not that
contradictions won't arise as we go, either.

incidentally, the David Pines mentioned in the Times article did some
great work with David Bohm on plasma physics back in the 1940's. The
Gross mentioned below is NOT the Gross from Levitt- Gross.

les schaffer

December 4, 2001

Challenging Particle Physics as Path to Truth


 In science's great chain of being, the particle physicists place
 themselves with the angels, looking down from the heavenly spheres on
 the chemists, biologists, geologists, meteorologists - those who are
 applying, not discovering, nature's most fundamental
 laws. Everything, after all, is made from subatomic particles. Once
 you have a concise theory explaining how they work, the rest should
 just be filigree.

 Even the kindred discipline of solid-state physics, which is
 concerned with the mass behavior of particles - what metals,
 crystals, semiconductors, whole lumps of matter do - is often
 considered a lesser pursuit. "Squalid state physics," Murray
 Gell-Mann, discoverer of the quark, dubbed it. Others dismiss it as
 "dirt physics."

 Recently there have been rumblings from the muck. In a clash of
 scientific cultures, some prominent squalid-staters have been
 challenging the particle purists as arbiters of ultimate truth.

 "The stakes here are very high," said Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, a
 Stanford University theorist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1998 for
 discoveries in solid-state physics. "At issue is a deep
 epistemological matter having to do with what physics is."

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