15 July 2007

String Theory

Until a couple of years ago, string theory (or "superstring theory" as it is also known in grander moments) got very respectful, sometimes adoring, attention from those reporters whose job it is to convey some sense of cutting-edge science to the general public.

String theory involves ten or eleven space-time dimensions (the exact number varies with the theorist)-- and the "strings" or one-dimensional objects that twitter about in space-time so conceived show up as mere points, or point-like sub-atomic particles, within the usual old-fashioned four dimensions.

String theory was designed to serve as a "theory of everything," and in particular to integrate the other forces of nature with the one force that seems to resist any detailed integration into a unified theory: gravity.

One problem, though, is that string theorists haven't been able to suggest any experiments that might bear upon their theories at all. There is only so much blackboard scribbling that scientists will attend to before they start getting impatient for data. Is this all just pure mathematics, and not any part of the physical sciences at all?

Unfortunately, no. Mathematicians don't recognize string theorists are part of their domain either. Mathematics is about rigorous deductive proof, and string theorists don't have that. They have suggestions and hypotheses. What they're doing looks too much like science for the mathematicians, just as it looks too much like mathematics for the scientists.

That doesn't establish that it's wrong, only that if its right the disciplinary name for its sort of rightness has yet to be invented.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.