A striking examination of an important scientific question: “What, exactly, are scholars of fundamental physics today trying to achieve?”
A former editor of Science and Nature, Lindley (Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, 2007, etc.) expressed unhappiness with his profession in The End of Physics (1993). Since then, matters have changed without actually improving, so he returns to the attack. He maintains that today’s theoreticians have reverted to a pre-modern way of thinking that harks back to the ancient Greeks, who are regarded, incorrectly, as the founders of modern science. Led by Plato, they belittled observation because human senses are imperfect. Greek thinkers believed that true knowledge required reason and logic. They also had a profound respect for mathematics, which they did not consider a useful tool but a source of deep insights. “Fundamental physics has [become] a version of philosophy…one that shares with other areas of philosophical inquiry an endless capacity to ask deep questions and an impressive inability ever to answer them.” Lindley makes his case through a fine capsule history of physical science with an emphasis on Galileo, in the opinion of many the first modern scientist. Galileo looked around, wondered about phenomena (do heavy things fall faster than light things?), performed experiments, and calculated. He produced groundbreaking discoveries, as did his followers, from Newton to Maxwell to Einstein to the founders of quantum mechanics. Lindley believes that physics peaked in the 1970s with the development of the standard model, an excellent if imperfect explanation of fundamental particles and forces. Since then, he adds, researchers have attacked still unexplained problems (dark matter, dark energy) with complex mathematics-based systems (supersymmetry, string theory), some of whose predictions are untestable. He joins a minority of colleagues who complain that a 30-year obsession with pure mathematics has reached a dead end, although the physics establishment remains convinced that deep insights are just around the corner. This scientific polemic deserves mention alongside Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math (2018).
A delightful addition to a widespread, ongoing scientific debate.