New theory could be an alternative to the multiverse

It seems like there have been a number articles recently talking about the soul searching currently going on in the Physics community over the failure of the LHC to find evidence for super-symmetry (at least so far), a theory that had a lot of theoretical work resting on it.  This article discuses that and a new theory: scale symmetry.  Radical New Theory Could Kill the Multiverse Hypothesis | Science | WIRED.

Nature, at the deepest level, may not differentiate between scales. With scale symmetry, physicists start with a basic equation that sets forth a massless collection of particles, each a unique confluence of characteristics such as whether it is matter or antimatter and has positive or negative electric charge. As these particles attract and repel one another and the effects of their interactions cascade like dominoes through the calculations, scale symmetry “breaks,” and masses and lengths spontaneously arise.

Similar dynamical effects generate 99 percent of the mass in the visible universe. Protons and neutrons are amalgams — each one a trio of lightweight elementary particles called quarks. The energy used to hold these quarks together gives them a combined mass that is around 100 times more than the sum of the parts. “Most of the mass that we see is generated in this way, so we are interested in seeing if it’s possible to generate all mass in this way,” said Alberto Salvio, a particle physicist at the Autonomous University of Madrid and the co-author of a recent paper on a scale-symmetric theory of nature.

Apparently in this theory, even the Higgs mass arises through dynamic interactions.  The article goes into some explanatory detail, much of which I have to admit is above my head.  Still, it’s interesting to see the theories that are being dusted off in the wake of the LHC’s findings.

The article discusses how much of this is to avoid falling to the backstop position, the multiverse, which is often posited to explain how various forces and constants in nature happen to be balanced so well for the universe we observe.

As the logical conclusion of prevailing assumptions, the multiverse hypothesis has surged in begrudging popularity in recent years. But the argument feels like a cop-out to many, or at least a huge letdown. A universe shaped by chance cancellations eludes understanding, and the existence of unreachable, alien universes may be impossible to prove. “And it’s pretty unsatisfactory to use the multiverse hypothesis to explain only things we don’t understand,” said Graham Ross, an emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oxford.

…Picking up where Bardeen left off, researchers like Salvio, Strumia and Lindner now think scale symmetry may be the best hope for explaining the small mass of the Higgs boson. “For me, doing real computations is more interesting than doing philosophy of multiverse,” said Strumia, “even if it is possible that this multiverse could be right.”

I’ve expressed my skepticism before about evoking multiverses to explain the anthropic principle: the idea that our existence is related to constants and parameters that must exist in a narrow range for us to be here.  So, I’m happy to hear that many physicists aren’t taking that route, resisting the unfalsifiable explanation until every testable alternative has been ruled out.

I do see multiverses as a candidate for reality, particularly the bubble variety, and there are reasons other than the anthropic principle to suspect that they’re there, but until someone finds a way to test for them, or all of the conceivable testable alternatives are cleared out, I think settling on them as an explanation is premature.

h/t s7hummel

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Is logic and mathematics part of science?

Partial view of the Mandelbrot set.

Partial view of the Mandelbrot set. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week was scientism week at Scientia Salon, and I reblogged a post by Coel Hellier on a defense of scientism, mostly by arguing that mathematics was actually part of science.  As I indicated in my comment on that reblog, while I agree with Coel that both logic and mathematics have foundations that are empirically observable (my wording here is actually pretty careful; for why, see this post), I’m not really on board with calling mathematics a science.

To some degree, I see this as a bit of semantic issue.  Whether or not to include certain fields as a science ultimately comes down to what your definition of science is.  Some have a fairly narrow view of science, others a broader one.  Massimo Pigliucci, in the latest Rationally Speaking podcast, stated that he sees science as those subjects that have historically been labeled as science.  I can’t agree with that view, mainly because I can’t see how any new scientific fields could ever be started with it.  My view of science is fairly expansive.

To me, science is the pursuit of reliable knowledge about reality.  Part of that reliable knowledge are the methods of investigation that have been shown to be reliable in acquiring that knowledge, in other words, the scientific methods.  “Reliable” in this context means having a low probability of being substantially revised in the future.  (“Substantially” because just about every scientific idea eventually gets revised in at least small ways.)  Note that there’s no bright line between reliable and unreliable, just a continuum, with science usually concerned with the most reliable things that can be demonstrated.

I have to admit that this definition is a slightly broader one than I’ve written about before.  My earlier definition was pursuit of reliable knowledge on how reality works.  The extra word restricts science to discovering natural laws, but I think it omits things like figuring out what actually happened in the early universe, or the geological history of Earth.

But taking this slightly broader view means that it ends up including fields like history and journalism, as well as things like good police detective work and plumbing.  I personally don’t have a problem with this.  It explains what separates, say, rigorous journalism from blatant opinion, but many people will regard it as a form of scientism.

But I think this definition excludes pure logic and mathematics.  The reason is that while these fields can produce reliable knowledge, it isn’t necessarily knowledge about reality.  Examples include abstract concepts like the Mandelbrot set, which apparently have no real world correlate.  Of course, this can also result in an argument about the definition of “reality”, a rabbit hole that I don’t think I’ll jump down today.

But wait a minute.  If logic and mathematics do indeed have foundations that are empirically observable, then how can logically correct extrapolations from these foundations produce something that doesn’t match reality?  How can we get the Mandelbrot set from real world relations if the result isn’t in the real world?  I’m not going to pretend like I understand abstract mathematics, but based on discussions I’ve read from people who do, I think the answer is that we get them because the foundations, while grounded in reality, aren’t a complete account of reality.

Consider if I decided to build a model of the universe, but only using the laws of electromagnetism.  That is, I ignored general relativity and any other scientific understandings.  My model would be grounded in reality, but in an incomplete account of that reality.  The resulting model would not represent much of what is actually in the universe.

Of course, no scientist would do this, at least not on purpose.  (They obviously do it accidentally all the time while constructing speculative theories).  The reason they wouldn’t set out to do it is, it is unlikely to tell them anything interesting about reality.  But mathematicians and logicians do it all the time.  And in the case of mathematics and logic, it does often produce interesting constructs, that occasionally turn out to have real world correlates.

Now, if your definition of science is pursuit of reliable knowledge, period, then I can see a case being made for including mathematics within the science umbrella.  However, while my view of science is expansive, removing reality from the definition strikes me as ignoring what motivates most of science, which is to learn as much about the world as possible.  It seems like an important distinction to me.

That said, if you look at how departments are organized in academia, the math department is sometimes lumped together with the science departments and sometimes separated, so there’s obviously people in academia who fall into both camps.  Although admittedly organizational structure often has more to do with politics than with particular philosophies about what is and isn’t science.  Still, putting mathematics in the science division or college is a feasible move because many people believe it belongs there.

Logic on the other hand, is generally in the philosophy department, which in modern organizations is almost never grouped with science.  This is probably so because formal logic is rarely used in science, if ever.

So, while I personally don’t think logic or mathematics is science, despite the incredible usefulness of mathematics in science, I’m also not adamantly against the idea.

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Doctor Who: ‘Deep Breath’ – I like the new Doctor

doctor_who_peter_capaldiThe new Doctor Who season started Saturday and I just got around to watching the season opener.  I think Peter Capaldi is going to make an excellent Doctor.  I’m pretty pleased to see the show return to an older Doctor.  Since it was restarted in 2005, the Doctors have been getting younger and younger, but anyone who watched the classic show knew that the Doctor has historically been a mature figure.  The show even played around with this in the 50th anniversary episode with a previous version of the Doctor wondering if his later youthful incarnations was some sign of a mid-life crisis.

Still, an older Doctor, particularly one that looks to be a bit rougher and edgier that we’ve been used to, appears to have the producers a little worried.  Anticipating the reaction of a major portion of the audience that probably never watched the classic series, they had Clara react against the new Doctor, wondering if he was the same man she knew before and why a regenerated Doctor would look so old.  A good portion of this opening episode is her coming to terms with him, and the episode features a pretty disarming surprise at the end to help clinch their relationship.

To make our acclimation of the new Doctor a little easier, the episode, in addition to Clara, also features Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, with plenty of Strax humor to lighten the dialog.  Even the villain turns out to be related to one from a David Tennant episode several seasons ago.

As I noted above, Capaldi’s Doctor is a bit ruder and grumpier than the last couple of Doctors.  In many ways, his performance reminds me of Tom Baker’s Doctor from the 1970s.  There’s even an oblique reference to that version of the Doctor when the new one briefly considers wearing a scarf, then decides it would look ridiculous.  Since his was the first one that I watched as a boy, Baker’s Doctor will always be my baseline for judging others, so I’m pretty happy with the new Doctor’s similarities.

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Science is not a frog

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

enjoy_scienceby Steven Paul Leiva

I am the author of a science fiction novel, Traveling in Space, and there is a bit of an irony in that. When I was in high school and college I was lucky to achieve even a D in science courses, and to this day any math beyond the four basics — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — puts me into a cold sweat. Even the four basics would bother me if some kind strangers had not invented the hand held electronic calculator.

Granted there is no hard science in my novel and the only math involved was the word count, but still — a science fiction novel? I mean, any dummy can write a mystery, just create an amateur sleuth who has the same profession you have (so you can “write what you know”) and throw a dead body in their path. But science fiction?…

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Defending scientism: mathematics is a part of science


I have to admit to pretty much agreeing with Coel’s main points in this post, which anyone who read my recent post on logic probably won’t find too surprising.  The idea of math and logic resting on empirical foundations seems to be ferociously resisted, I think because those foundations don’t feel empirical, mainly because we don’t learn them empirically.  The human brain is not a blank slate.  It comes with pre-wiring for a number of capacities, including logic and some math.  We don’t always use it, but we evolved it, probably due to its survival advantages.

However, unlike Coel, I’m not insistent on mathematics being a part of science.  I’m content to leave science to endeavors that involve a heavy amount of empirical investigation, and the logical and mathematical consequences of that investigation.   Mathematics may have empirical foundations, but I think it’s pretty obvious that mathematicians aren’t doing empirical work, but finding interesting and (sometimes) useful tautologies.

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

1+12[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of Scientia Salon’s special “scientism week” and could profitably be read alongside other entries on the same topic on this site, such as this one by John Shook and this one by yours truly. My take on the issue is very different from that of the authors who contributed to this special series, and indeed close to that of Putnam and Popper — as it should be clear from a recent presentation I did at a workshop on scientism I organized. Also, contra the author of the third essay in this series (but, interestingly, not the author of the first two!) I think the notion that mathematics is a part of science is fundamentally indefensible. Then again, part of the point of the SciSal project is to offer a forum for a variety of thoughtful perspectives, not just to serve as an echo chamber…

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xkcd: California drought

I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s point in his book ‘Collapse’ about Montana, that if it were an independent civilization with the same environmental problems, not integrated with the rest of the United State, that it might have already collapsed.  Seeing this about California’s drought, it’s tempting to wonder the same thing about them, or the southwest in general.

Click through for full sized version.

via xkcd: California.

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Why is there something rather than nothing? Why would there be nothing?

Amanda Gefter has an interesting article at Nautilus looking at a somewhat perennial question: How can something come from nothing? The Bridge From Nowhere – Issue 16: Nothingness – Nautilus.

In science, explanations are built of cause and effect. But if nothing is truly nothing, it lacks the power to cause. It’s not simply that we can’t find the right explanation—it’s that explanation itself fails in the face of nothing.

This failure hits us where it hurts. We are a narrative species. Our most basic understanding comes through stories, and how something came from nothing is the ultimate story, the primordial narrative, more fundamental than the hero’s journey or boy meets girl. Yet it is a story that undermines the notion of story. It is a narrative woven of self-destruction and paradox.

How could it not be? It stars Nothing—a word that is a paradox by its mere existence as a word. It’s a noun, a thing, and yet it is no thing. The minute we imagine it or speak its name, we spoil its emptiness with the stain of meaning. One has to wonder, then, is the problem with nothingness or is the problem with us? Is it cosmic or linguistic? Existential or psychological? Is this a paradox of physics or a paradox of thought?

Gefter takes a serious look at this question, ranging through Greek philosophy with its discussions of whether or not the void existed, 19th century science with the old theory of the ether, and quantum mechanics including the Higgs field.  It’s a fascinating article and I recommend reading the full thing.

But the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and its variations have always struck me as something of a flippant one.  When I used to debate theists about the plausibility of religious beliefs, this question often came up, not as a real question, but as a rhetorical strategy to end debate.

It’s an unanswerable question, by design, and my response was often to answer with another flippant question, “Why would there be nothing?”  Victor Stenger has pointed out that the question inherently assumes that “nothing” is more natural than “something”.  Maybe nothing is inherently unstable.

But I suspect even Stenger’s response gives too much credence to the idea of nothing.  The next paragraph in Gefter’s article after the quote above, I think, gets at the crux of the difficulty.

Either way, here’s the thing to remember: The solution to a paradox lies in the question, never in the answer. Somewhere there must be a glitch, a flawed assumption, a mistaken identity.

Remember, that the “nothing” the question is asking about is an absence of all things, including matter, energy, forces, space, and time.  It’s not clear to me that this version of nothing is really coherent.  Certainly I don’t know anyone who can honestly claim they can imagine it.

Of course, our inability to imagine it doesn’t mean that it can’t exist.  But even if we grant that “nothing” is a valid concept, its use as a rhetorical weapon has always struck me as largely impotent.  Just because science or philosophy can’t answer this question, doesn’t mean that any religious tradition can either, at least not with any finality.

If your answer to the nothing question is God or the gods, then you’re no longer dealing with the absolute nothingness of the question’s premise, since a god is most definitely something.  We’re still left with the question of how the gods arose from nothing.  Any answer to this question, such as asserting that they’ve always been there, could also be used as a potential answer for the universe and the rest of non-nothingness.

Ultimately I see the question as a reminder that just because we can manipulate words to ask a question (“Why do triangles only have three corners?”), doesn’t mean that we’ve asked a meaningful one.

h/t s7hummel for calling my attention to the article

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