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Saturday, March 17, 2007

String theory: The theory that was supposed to finally eliminate the theistic universe isn't doing that well?

John Baez observes in This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 246) that recent books on the problems of string theory (a theory that multiple universes are connected by strings, so ours is just accidental) are probably the first news most lay people have gotten that string theories are not going anywhere. These books' importance, he writes, is that
they explain the problems of string theory to the large audience of people who get their news about fundamental physics from magazines and popular books. Experts were already aware of these problems, but in the popular media there's always been a lot of hype, which painted a much rosier picture. So, casual observers must have gotten the impression that physics was always on the brink of a Theory of Everything... but mysteriously never reaching it. These books correct that impression.

In fact, string theory still hasn't reached the stage of making any firm predictions. For the last few decades, astrophysicists have been making amazing discoveries in fundamental physics: dark matter, dark energy, neutrino oscillations, maybe even cosmic inflation in the very early universe! Soon the Large Hadron Collider will smash particles against each other hard enough to see the Higgs boson - or not. With luck, it may even see brand new particles. But about all this, string theory has had little to say.

To get actual predictions, practical physicists sometimes build "string-inspired" scenarios. These scenarios aren't derived from string theory: to get specific predictions, they have to throw in lots of extra assumptions.

String theory reminds me of Darwinism for at least two reasons: It is, at heart, nontheistic and it builds in lots of extra assumptions. It differs from Darwinism in that people won't necessarily try to wreck your career if you question them - not yet, anyway.
If you want to understand why the intelligent design controversy cannot go away, read By Design or by Chance?.

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