Thursday, March 20, 2008


"Can physics come to an end with nothing left to do but the tedium of cleaning up details? There is a kind of game going on between the experimentalist and the theoretician. The former keeps bringing in new empirical constants and the latter keeps trying to reduce their number by expressing them through each other."

George Gamow

"To these questions, I answer with complete confidence, that, in my opinion, the right way exists, and that we are capable of finding it. Our experience hitherto justifies us in trusting that nature is the realization of the simplest that is mathematically conceivable. I am convinced that purely mathematical construction enables us to find those concepts and those lawlike connections between them that provide the key to the understanding of natural phenomena. Useful mathematical concepts may well be suggested by experience, but in no way can they be derived from it. Experience naturally remains the sole criterion of the usefulness of a mathematical construction for physics. But the actual creative principle lies in mathematics. Thus, in a certain sense, I take it to be true that pure thought can grasp the real, as the ancients had dreamed."

Albert Einstein

[Herbert Spencer lecture, 1933]

"Handwerksgelehrte" simply means "hands on" and is the fulcrum of this thread. Can there be harmony and relevance for the disciplines and disparate tenants of "theoretical" and "experimental" physics. The "experimental" is quite soundly based in scientific methodology and is widely accepted as theory under the rigid parameters of the scientific method whereas "theoretical" physics often has roots and hypothetical propositions based on unproven scientific statements--extrapolation rules and many hypotheses [erroneously called "theories"] are taken for granted and further extrapolations are made. Characteristic of these hypothetical extrapolations are fantastic statements of yet to be proved statements like "black holes", "worm holes", time travel. One has sometimes a difficult time separating "theoretical" physics from science fiction. Just how far can "theoretical" physics be believed and incorporated with mainstream "experimental" physics. Surely there is an overlap. Should more emphasis be placed on the "experimental"? Should we take much of "theoretical" physics with a grain of salt? Often "theoretical" physics is taken with great truth and spouted as real as if it were in the realm of "experimental" physics.

Of course experimental science and theory go hand in hand--that's doing science. Guidelines, protocol, rigid methodology must be observed for practical and heuristic science. And there is even room for theoretical physics. But my concern is to how far one puts credibility in theoretical science. Building one theoretical hypothesis upon another ad infinitum is not good science and knocks on the door of science fiction. That's not at all bad as long as one realizes that the house was built on sand instead of bedrock The big issue is that people begin to believe all of it is true when its only reality is scribble on a chalk board. Caution and skepticism should be exercised. The two should be mutually bound for one is solid science while the other explores the unknown and "what ifs".

This possibly pseudo bifurcation of experimental and theoretical physics will go on and on I'm sure. I did discover an interesting lecture given by A.J. Kox in 1999 at a symposium at Vijftig jaar Instituut voor Theoretische Fysica UvA called "One hundred and twenty-five years of theoretical physics in Amsterdam" that you will find interesting. It's a story of Johannes Diderik van der Waals and theoretical physics in Amsterdam. [Even James Clerk Maxwell is mentioned.]

Okay, consider this possibility--a complete shift of understanding what science is and the ultimate source of knowledge about the universe. Should we then not use the scientific method as the criteria for an epistemological basis? Or should we use a different benchmark? Perhaps there are things in the universe [like multiple dimensions] that are "impossible" to detect or subject to empirical analysis but yet the mathematics say they exist. Should we also include or make exclusive the realm of mathematics as the ultimate verification of things that exist. Maybe. I think there is room for both but the ultimate verification of an hypothesis is by the scientific method not by some mathematical model or set of formulas. Prime example: Einstein's concept of light bending [General Theory of Relativity]. Remember, it was unproven until 1919 during an eclipse.

I don't understand why good science isn't based on the "experimental". The "theoretical" is fine as long as it doesn't drift into the realm of science fiction and offers a workable hypothesis to perform experiments that can validate specific statements. The "theoretical" does provide the seeds for "experimentation". I suppose the "experimental" is boring and routine.

Perhaps the following is such a case that I mentioned above. While the theoretical notion of metallic hydrogen, with zero fluidity and some electrical resistance, cannot be as of yet demonstrated since an environment of four atmospheres is impossible, it does manifest itself in computational computer source models. Such theoretical statements are a far cry from stipulating eleven dimensions of space.

"Theoretical physicists have found evidence for a novel quantum state called a "metallic superfluid" in numerical calculations. If observed in experiments the superfluid would be a new member of the family of "super" states that already includes superconductors, superfluid liquids and gases, and supersolids. The new state could be seen in hydrogen or its isotopes under high pressure...."

"Metallic superfluid seen in computer"

A case in point of the near philosophy and a shift of validity in epistemology and science of such extreme theoretical postulates. The researchers claim the validity in mathematics but no evidence. But such glaring headlines: "Physicists say universe evolution favored three and seven dimensions" .

And Stephen Hawking holds the same position that Isaac Newton did at Cambridge University--"Lucasian chair in mathematics". But what a world of difference there is between the two men. Newton was firmly grounded in experimental science, while Hawking is more theoretical.

"Where do we come from? How did the universe begin? Why is the universe the way it is? How will it end?

All my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars, and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist. The questions are clear, and deceptively simple. But the answers have always seemed well beyond our reach. Until now.

The ideas which had grown over two thousand years of observation have had to be radically revised. In less than a hundred years, we have found a new way to think of ourselves. From sitting at the center of the universe, we now find ourselves orbiting an average-sized sun, which is just one of millions of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. And our galaxy itself is just one of billions of galaxies, in a universe that is infinite and expanding. But this is far from the end of a long history of inquiry. Huge questions remain to be answered, before we can hope to have a complete picture of the universe we live in.

I want you to share my excitement at the discoveries, past and present, which have revolutionized the way we think. From the Big Bang to black holes, from dark matter to a possible Big Crunch, our image of the universe today is full of strange sounding ideas, and remarkable truths. The story of how we arrived at this picture is the story of learning to understand what we see."--Stephen Hawking.

Again, is theoretical physics overshadowing experimental physics? Why is that the case if it is true? Is the base of scientific epistemology based in the "what ifs" or "here is my evidence and passes all criteria of the scientific method"?

Additional sources:

""Even if you're not a researcher, it is helpful to have a researcher's mentality when you are trying to evaluate all the conflicting information that comes at you these days from different sources"..."--Professor Manuel Ares.

"Teaching undergraduates to think like researchers: New approaches emerge from experimental teaching lab"
by, Tim Stephens

"Any Physics Tomorrow?" by, George Gamow

"Taking a fresh look at maths and physics" by, A. J. Kox

Stephen Hawking's Home Page

The Language of Physics: The Calculus and the Development of Theoretical Physics in Europe, 1750-1914 by, Elizabeth Garber

ISBN: 08176403


Timray said...

I remember when the "Tao of Physics" came out and i bought the paperback out of curiosity because it was on physics....not so but what i found instead was the extrapolation of physics to fit some new age spin on religion. Even the Indian scientists were supposedly able to better understand physics due to the Hindu/Shiva connection. We should know by now it is because they have a better education in math and physical sciences. How many of you remember when "Chaos" was published and you had everybody and their relatives explaining unfortunate or fortunate circumstances to some cosmic realignment of quarks. I think some physicists are not much above new agers and probably would find a better home in science fiction than science fact. Will we see and end to cosmology? Hell will we see an end to life because from what I see there is some credibility to the end game of evolution, life destroying itself. Looking at the epochs of extinction nature might just have this plan too.....let us remember the "leap of faith" concerning Einstein ended up provable...since then mathematics has leapt to new frontiers...and proved little to nothing in the real world.

Mercury said...


Spirituality and physics are not that mutually exclusive. As I have written many times, it may well be the situation where mankind can only go so far in the theoretical arena before it morphs into science fiction or better yet metaphysics. The ability to understand all in the universe may be impossible due to our tools to provide empirical evidence or the physical incapacity of the brain in providing structures of an epistemological nature. The point is that too much emphasis of theoretical physics is placed in the real of empirical science and yet escapes the rigors of empirical science. Contradictory and a poor source of sound knowledge.