Horgan's Arguments Require Closer Examination
I would like to argue emphatically against the point of view advocated by John Horgan in his BACK PAGE article, "Is Science a Victim of its Own Success?" (APS News, December 1996). In fact, it is a myth that string theories or ideas formulated at the Planck scale cannot be tested.
We do not have to be able to do an experiment directly at some small distance scale or high energy scale, or be there when something happened, to test a theory in normal scientific ways. We can test the big bang theory of the universe by quantitative study of its predictions that the universe is expanding, that certain abundances of nuclei should be observed throughout the universe, that the microwave background radiation left over as the universe cooled should have a certain temperature and power spectrum, and so on, even though we do not recreate the conditions of the big bang in the laboratory. We can test hypotheses about how dinosaurs became extinct 60 million years ago even though we were not there. Similarly, we can test the existence of forces that only act over Planck scale distances because they might induce decays forbidden by the Standard Model of particle physics, such as proton decay or decays that violate conservation laws. It is also a test of such theories if they explain previously unexplained results, such as quark or lepton masses, or CP violation. Many more examples could be given if there were more space; however, as it happens, an article by me will be published in the February 1997 Physics Today that contains further examples.
It is important to examine Horgan's arguments a little further. He discloses his intentions early in the article by the use of the word narrative, and then modern myth to describe the results of science. The results of science are not narratives or myths, because they require systematic testing before they are accepted.
As far as the topics covered in his article are concerned, he is simply incorrect that string theory or questions about the origins of the universe are not testable. We don't yet know what the outcome will be, or whether physics can explain such questions, but the tests are there.
The book by Horgan presents his views as the consequences of inteviews with distinguished, often older and famous, physicists. Only one of them actually does research in string theory, and he certainly believes it is testable, but probably did not have such arguments at his fingertips. Perhaps it is not surprising that Horgan formed his views, particularly since some distinguished physicists have stated such views. But it is sad that he did not turn his narrative into something closer to science and to the truth by talking with more people who could explain why he was wrong. Particle physics and cosmology may end because the questions do get answered and tested, but they will not end because possible answers cannot be tested.
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
In John Horgan's article, "Is Science a Victim of Its Own Success," he quotes Richard Feynman as saying, "The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again." However, in Feynman's provocative essay, "The 7 Percent Solution," he says, "Since then I never pay any attention to anything by 'experts.' I calculate everything myself." In the first quotation, Feynman is speaking as an "expert," whereas in the second, he is speaking as a practicing scientist, par excellence. The moral for practicing scientists is that they should not pay any attention to that first quotation, but pay close heed to the second quotation. A fortiori, they should not pay any attention to what John Horgan is saying, either.
San Diego, California
Mr. Horgan seems to believe that much of the research being done in particle physics today, and particularly in string theory, can never be given a firm experimental standing. His thesis rests on the fact that physicists may never be able to do experiments at the Planckian energies needed to observe elementary string quanta.
While it is true that elementary strings are probably out of reach, there are low-energy predictions of superstring theory that physicists hope to verify in the next generation of particle accelerators. Foremost among these is supersymmetry, the search for which is one of the primary goals of accelerators in the U.S. and abroad. The discovery of any of the supersymmetric partners of the known particles would be a great hint in the direction of superstrings and would provide a unique framework for studying Planck-scale physics with Fermi-scale experiments.
Besides the search for low-energy supersymmetry, there is an active program to search for proton decay as predicted by superstring theory. The strong overlap with cosmology has led to a great deal of excitement in the particle physics community over the plethora of data that is coming now, and in the near future, on cosmic microwave background anisotropies. Theoretical work in superstring theory has shown promise in providing an explanation of fermion masses, and can even address the solar neutrino problem. And the list of experimental issues addressed by string theory goes on from there.
Mr. Horgan believes that questions such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?" will never be answered by physics.
History and common sense are not on the side of those who expect, or require, a single definitive experiment which once and for all verifies or rules out superstring theory. Few of the major advances in science (including special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model) were accepted as the result of any one experiment; instead the evidence in their favor emerged slowly from a patchwork of indirect tests which, when taken together, formed a complete picture. Such is the experimental program for testing superstring theory.
I share the belief held by many physicists today that we are standing at a new threshold in our understanding of the fundamental laws of Nature. And while there may be some eventual limit in our ability to probe and understand Nature, I see no reason to believe that we have already arrived at that final stop in our journey. Rather, I believe that all of the available evidence points to a renewed era of discovery in the coming decades. It would be a shame if articles such as Mr. Horgan's, promulgated by our very own professional society, discouraged the next generation of physicists from participating in those advances.
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey
Critical Thinking & Science Literacy are not the Same ThingI was pleased to see the article "An Alien Ate my Laundry: The Decline of Reason in the Age of Science" by James C. Garland ("The Back Page," November 1996). It was a very interesting and thought provoking article. One thing I thought it lacked was a clear distinction between critical thinking and scientific literacy.
For example, the article implied that if the woman whose laundry was "eaten" was scientifically literate she would not have come to that conclusion. I don't think scientific illiteracy is entirely to blame for the widespread belief in paranormal phenomena. In this case, it isn't necessary for the woman to know Newton's laws or any other science facts. What she needs to know is how to come to a conclusion based on evidence. Square holes in sheets are not evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials. This is critical thinking, not scientific literacy.
Since critical thinking can be taught in any class, the popularity of paranormal beliefs is a failure of all parts of the education system, not just science education. However, we physicists have a special role to play in educating the public since many paranormal claims directly contradict established laws of physics. It is up to us to teach not only the steps one follows to solve a problem but also the critical thinking skills students need to apply physics facts to their daily lives.
The article gave the impression that there is little we can do to fix the problem and that we are doing our part. It said, "The problem will not be solved if it is only the educators and scientists who wave their arms in despair." Is that what we're doing? Can we do more? I think we can. First we need to educate ourselves about the common paranormal beliefs. I strongly recommend both the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazines. Then we need to explain why these beliefs are wrong. Professors can include these subjects in their lectures or even start a new class (Physics and the Paranormal 101, perhaps). The rest of us can influence friends and relatives, write to TV stations and newspapers who encourage these beliefs, or teach classes for the local community education program. If we scientists don't encourage "reason in the age of science" who will?
Ithaca, New York
Two-Year Colleges and the APSA recent letter here [M. Sawicki, APS News, November 1996] complains that two-year-college (TYC) physics teachers are looked down upon by APS members; that TYC faculty are prevented from applying for DOE and NSF research grants; and that these conditions make TYC physics teachers drop out of the APS. The letter proposes that the APS form a topical group for TYC physics teachers.
I have taught at a two-year college for 26 years, and have been a member of the APS all that time; my last Physical Review publication was in 1991. My experience has been the opposite to Sawicki's in every way. University researchers have always been friendly and hospitable. Three different DOE-funded facilities have generously supported summer visits. The NSF funded a summer Research Opportunity Award and is currently evaluating a research proposal of my own.
At least in the research area, people and organizations have always seemed to make an extra effort to help people from two-year colleges. Also, the TYC teachers I know who dropped APS membership had simply lost interest in research. A support group for TYC physics teachers called "TYC21" has recently been founded by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).TYC21 intends to alleviate the isolation expressed by Sawicki.
Young physicists may encounter a culture shock on first arriving at a TYC. If they stay, they may find that compared to teaching 18-to-22 year-olds, it is a great pleasure to teach young adults living in the real world. TYC teachers can keep up research if they really want to. Theory is easiest, but a biology colleague of mine studies whales.
John H. Connell