Authors: Jim Baggott
is an award-winning science writer. A former academic scientist, he now works as an independent business consultant, but maintains a broad interest in science, philosophy and history, and continues to write on these subjects in his spare time.
Also by Jim Baggott
Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the âGod Particle'
The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments
Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939â49
A Beginner's Guide to Reality
Beyond Measure: Modern Physics, Philosophy and the Meaning of Quantum Theory
Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene
The Meaning of Quantum Theory: A Guide for Students of Chemistry and Physics
FAREWELL TO REALITY
How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth
NEW YORK LONDON
To John, in memory of Mary
Modern physics is heady stuff. It seems that we can barely get through a week without being assaulted by the latest astounding physics story, its headlines splashed gaudily across the covers of popular science magazines and, occasionally, newspapers. The public's appetite for these stories is seemingly insatiable, and there's no escaping them. They are the subjects of innumerable radio and television news reports and documentaries, the latter often delivered with breathless exuberance and lots of arm-waving, from unconnected but always exotic locations, against a background of overly dramatic music.
We might agree that these stories are all very interesting and entertaining.
But are they true?
What evidence do we have for super-symmetric âsquarks', or superstrings vibrating in a multidimensional spacetime? How can we tell that we live in a multiverse? Is it really the case that the fundamental constituent at the heart of all matter and radiation is just âinformation'? How can we tell that the universe is a hologram projected from information encoded on its boundary? What are we really supposed to make of the intricate network of apparent cosmic coincidences in the laws of physics?
Now, modern science has discovered that the reality of our physical existence is bizarre in many ways, but this is bizarreness for which there
is an accumulated body of accepted scientific evidence. There is as yet
observational or experimental evidence for many of the concepts of contemporary theoretical physics, such as super-symmetric particles, superstrings, the multiverse, the universe as information, the holographic principle or the anthropic cosmological principle. For some of the wilder speculations of the theorists there can by definition
be any such evidence.
This stuff is not only not true, it is not even science. I call it âfairytale physics'.
It is arguably borderline confidence-trickery.
Matters came to a head for me personally one evening in January 2011. That evening the BBC broadcast an edition of its flagship
science series, entitled âWhat is Reality?'. This began quite reasonably, with segments on the discovery of the top quark at Fermilab and some of the more puzzling conclusions of quantum theory. But beyond this opening the programme went downhill. It became a showcase for fairy-tale physics.
There was no acknowledgement that this was physics that had long ago lost its grip on anything we might regard as descriptive or explicative of the real world we experience.
has an impressive reputation, and I became deeply worried that many viewers might be accepting what they were being told at face value. Conscious that I was now shouting rather pointlessly at my television, I decided that it was time to make a stand.
But, you might ask, what's the big deal? Why get so worked up? After all, consumers of popular science may simply wish to be entertained. They may wish to have their already boggled minds further boggled by the latest âscientific' thinking, through a rapid succession of âOh wow!' revelations. Blimey! Parallel universes!
To take this view is, I believe, greatly to underestimate the people who consume popular science. It also shows an astonishing lack of respect. I suspect that many people might actually like to know what is accepted science fact and what is science fantasy. Only the hard facts can illuminate the situation sufficiently to make it possible to judge the nature of the trick, and to decide if it involves a betrayal of confidence, or even a betrayal of the truth.
Put it this way. If we were to regard fairy-tale physics as a lively branch of contemporary philosophy rather than science, do you think it would continue to receive the same level of attention from funding agencies, universities, popular science publishers, the producers of radio and television programmes and the wider public? No?
This is the big deal.
In writing this book, I've tried to hold on to several ambitions. I wanted to describe what modern physics has to say about the nature of our physical reality, based as far as possible on the accepted body of observationally or experimentally grounded scientific fact.
But we have to accept that even in this âofficial' or âauthorized' version of reality there are many grey areas, where we run out of hard facts and have to deal with half-truths, guesses, maybes and a little imaginative speculation. This description is the nearest we can get to reality given the current gaps in our knowledge.
I also wanted to convince you that whilst the knowledge in this authorized version goes very deep, it does seem that we have paid a high price for it. We now know much more about the physical world than we have done at any other time in history. But I believe that we comprehend and understand much less.
We were obliged to abandon Isaac Newton's clockwork universe quite some time ago, but there was an inherent comprehensibility about this description that we found familiar and maybe even comforting (unless you happened to be a philosopher). The world according to quantum theory remains distinctly unfamiliar and uncomfortable. âNobody understands quantum mechanics,' declared the charismatic American physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, with some justification.
And today, more than a hundred years after it was first discovered, the theory remains completely inscrutable.
Some modern theoretical physicists have sought to compensate for this loss of understanding. Others have tried to paper over the cracks in theories that are clearly not up to the task. Or they have pushed, with
vaulting ambition, for a final âtheory of everything'. These physicists have been led â unwittingly or otherwise â to myth creation and fairy tales.
I want to be fair to them. These physicists have been wrestling with problems for which there are as yet no observational or experimental clues to help guide them towards solutions. They are problem-rich, but data-poor. Rather than simply pleading ignorance or focusing their efforts on more tractable problems, they have chosen instead to abandon the obligation to refer their theories to our experience of the real world. They have chosen to abandon the scientific method.
In doing this, some theorists have railed against the constraints imposed by a scientific methodology that, they argue, has outlived its usefulness. They have declared that the time has come to embrace a new methodology for a âpost-empirical science'.
Or, if you prefer, they have given up.
With no observational or experimental data to ground their theories in reality, these theorists have been guided instead by their mathematics and their aesthetic sensibilities. Not surprisingly, ever more outrageous theoretical speculations freed from the need to relate to things happening in the world that we experience have transported us to the far wild shores of the utterly incredible and downright ridiculous.
This is not a wholly new phenomenon. Speculative theorising has always played an important role in scientific development, and in this book we will take a look at some examples from history. However, under the stark, unyielding gaze of the scientific method, in the light of new observational or experimental data such speculations have either become absorbed into mainstream science or they have fallen by the wayside and been rigorously forgotten.
But contemporary theoretical physics seems to have crossed an important threshold in at least two senses. Speculative theorizing of a kind that cannot be tested, that cannot be verified or falsified, a kind that is not subject to the mercilessness of the scientific method, is now almost common currency. The discipline has retreated into its own small, self-referential world. Its product is traded by its advocates as mainstream science within the scientific community, and peddled (or even missold) as such to the wider public.
Secondly, the unprecedented appetite for popular science and its attraction as an income stream have proved hard for the more articulate
and eloquent of these advocates to resist. The result is that virtually every other popular book published on aspects of modern physics is chock-full of fairy stories. It is pseudo-science masquerading as science.
This will prove to be a controversial book. I'm not hopelessly naive â I don't expect it to change current thinking or current practices. But I am hopeful that it will provoke some debate and, at the very least, provide a timely and much-needed antidote.
In August 2011, I joined popular science writer Michael Brooks in a discussion about science at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Brooks encouraged the assembled audience to imagine who members of the general public would name if asked to identify three scientists. He went on to suggest Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox.
The last is a former pop star turned high-energy physicist and television science presenter who has rapidly established himself as an important UK media personality. Interestingly, all are (or were) physicists.