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Science “faction”: Is theoretical physics becoming “softer” than anthropology?

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black hole illustrationTwo recent science stories, one in anthropology and the other in physics, have me wondering which field is "hard" and which "soft."

The first story involves the decision of the American Anthropological Association to delete the word "science" from its mission statement. That step provoked squawks from anthropologists who’ve struggled to counter the image of their field as a branch of the humanities. Whereas sciences are "empirical," the humanities are "analytic, critical or speculative," as Nicholas Wade put it in The New York Times.

Science-oriented anthropologists want their field to be lumped together not with historians and literary critics—God forbid!—but with physics, supposedly the gold standard of hard science. The irony is that parts of physics are less empirical and more speculative than the most humanistic anthropology. I’m not talking about what the physicist Sean Carroll calls the physics of "everyday life"; as Carroll pointed out last fall on his blog Cosmic Variance, physicists’ understanding of the reality we can access in experiments is rock-solid.

But in part because of this success, some ambitious physicists have increasingly ventured beyond the boundaries of measurable reality into the unmapped realms where dragons roam. That brings me to the physics story in the news. Roger Penrose and V. G. Gurzadyan recently proposed that minute ripples in the cosmic microwave background—the afterglow of the big bang—originated from the collision of monster black holes in another universe that preceded our cosmos, and may have spawned it; moreover, our universe might be just one of an infinite series spawned by such cataclysms.

My reaction to reading about this idea was: Far out! Penrose, one of the most famous, creative physicists in the world, along with Gurzadyan had dusted off the old oscillating universe theory of the cosmos, which I always liked. But not for a nanosecond did I think their proposal was true. Other theorists quickly pointed out problems with the hypothesis, but if they had supported it, I still wouldn’t have believed it, because the proposal is literally too far out; it can never be confirmed in the way that the existence of, say, quarks has been confirmed, or the big bang itself.

I call this highly speculative theorizing "ironic science," because it makes assertions that are more akin to literary criticism or even literature than conventional science. Another useful term is "faction," coined by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz—the archetypal "literary" social scientist—to describe his field. Geertz, whom I profiled for Scientific American in 1989, defined faction as "imaginative writing about real people in real places at real times," but the term could apply to imaginative riffing on all sorts of phenomena.

Geertz, who died in 2006, would have been amused by the recent ruckus over anthropology’s scientific status. He did not consider anthropology to be "merely" a humanistic or even literary enterprise, devoid of any empirical content. Anthropology is "empirical, responsive to evidence, it theorizes," Geertz told me, and practitioners can sometimes achieve a "non-absolute" falsification of ideas. Hence it is a science, one that can achieve progress of a kind. On the other hand, "nothing in anthropology has anything like the status of the harder parts of the hard sciences, and I don’t think it ever will."

Geertz, who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he often crossed tracks with the string theorist Edward Witten, added that the doubts afflicting anthropology seemed to be springing up in many other fields, including physics. "The kind of simple self-confidence in science that there once was doesn’t seem to me to be so pervasive," Geertz said. "Which doesn’t mean everybody is giving up hope and wringing their hands in anguish and so on. But it is extraordinarily difficult."

In retrospect Geertz might not have given anthropology enough credit, especially in comparison with physics. Anthropologists gather data—by observing rainforest hunters in Amazonia, excavating a Neolithic settlement in Jordan, carbon-dating an Ardipithecus jaw bone dug up in Ethiopia—and then try to figure out what it all means. This act necessarily involves lots of interpretation and imagination, and hence subjectivity, and it culminates in highly speculative theories—such as the demonic-males theory, which I recently criticized. But even at its most hermeneutical, anthropology still addresses real things: actual primates in actual places.

Many physicists, on the other hand, theorize about phenomena that are not only extremely remote in space and time but might not even exist. Physicists conjecture what’s happening at the Planck scale, a microrealm even more distant, in a way, than the farthest reaches of the universe. They speculate about the era before the big bang, and about other universes that might be mutant versions of our own. They postulate strings, membranes, higher dimensions and other stuff whose existence, like that of God, cannot be proved or disproved. Do these imaginings even deserve to be called faction?

Addendum: My last post, on "truthiness," provoked comments from Tabitha Powledge, Randy Olson, Matt Nisbet and my so-called friend David Berreby, who likens me to both Charlton Heston and Martha Stewart. Make up your mind, David!

Image: Black hole illustration, courtesy of Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. SummerSeale 8:20 am 12/21/2010

    I completely understand where many scientists are coming from when they have been lately criticizing theoretical physics for being too "out there" to be considered as real science (the current debate over the science of String/M Theory immediately comes to mind).

    However, it is also important that scientists remember the public perception. Right now, there is a massive effort underway from the fundamentalists to portray Science as "just another faith". The last thing that scientists should be doing is to give fodder to this particularly stupid and uninformed meme.

    As any scientist could tell you, the realm of Theoretical Physics, even if they quibble over whether or not it has left the strict discipline of the sciences, is not based on absolute fantasy. All the Physicists that I know of who deal with Theoretical Physics currently labor under very strict mathematical disciplines. They don’t make up ideas about black holes, strings, and multiple dimensions off of the top of their heads and present them as unquestionable facts. They actually have mathematical equations which add up to back up these ideas, and all of them are open to criticism, study, and rejection.

    It isn’t the same as holding up the Bible, or any other "holy text" and saying that the universe is so because it says so in that one book written thousands of years ago, and that questioning it is absolutely forbidden and evil.

    The two aspects could not be more wildly different.

    It is important that Scientists remember the ignorant perception that is out there about science in general and not help out the morons leading the masses into believing that they have been right all along about science being nothing more than wild fantasy and just another strain of their version of unquestioning "belief".

    It would be better served for the scientists who criticize the weak points of Theoretical Physics to constantly explain these vast differences between faith and science which, I am sure, is painfully obvious to anyone reading this site.

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  2. 2. sonoran 12:13 pm 12/21/2010

    It seems to me that science, as pursued by human beings, necessarily contains an element of imagination and belief as a starting point. Scientific theories don’t come about fully formed and tested, they all start as hypotheses, speculative products of imagination.

    Where science deviates from the human norm is the requirement that this speculation be subject to well designed testing, peer review, and most importantly a mindset that is always willing to concede established theoretical territory to a better theory.

    When a discipline has no intention interest or ability to empirically test the hypotheses it generates then it is not doing science. This is the realm of religion and philosophy.

    Conversely a scientific discipline that has no purely speculative element is not generating any new ideas. The predictions of the colliding worlds hypothesis may be testable some day, at which point it will enter the realm of science. But the fact that it cannot be considered science now doesn’t condemn the discipline from which the idea sprang as "faction" or philosophy.

    We are so polarized now by attempts by outside interests to diminish science’s credibility that I think we forget that science is simply a formalized structure for improving the accuracy of human perception and thought. Scientists are human after all and imagination is one of humanities most important tools.

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  3. 3. bonetopick 12:36 pm 12/21/2010

    Tangential to your main point but no credit to science, no matter how you define it, "carbon-dating an Ardipithecus jaw bone dug up in Ethiopia" is not possible. The upper age limit for radiocarbon assay is about 60,000 years. Dates for Ar. ramidus fossils (4.4 million years) have been obtained through argon-argon dating and geochemical analysis of volcanic rock layers above and below the remains.

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  4. 4. brodix 2:35 pm 12/21/2010

    The problem for science, as with many other areas, politics and economics come to mind, isn’t what we don’t know, but what we think we know that is wrong.
    Epicycles were a good example of how basic assumptions can lead us astray. It does seem that physics and cosmology have been having to come up with increasingly convoluted patches to maintain their accepted theories. Sometimes, what’s needed isn’t another patch, or epicycle, but a complete reboot.
    One very basic point that has occurred to me is the effort to incorporate time as the point of the present moving from past to future, when it is most logically the changing configuration of the present which turns the future into the past.
    There is no need for multiworlds when it is the very collapse of future probabilities into present circumstance that is the effect of time.
    Obviously we still see the past turning into the future, but then we also still see the sun moving across the sky. The only problem is when we try to devise a physical explanation for it, based on seemingly obvious reality.

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  5. 5. nfiertel 2:45 pm 12/21/2010

    Penrose’s proposition for a cyclical universe fits many of the oddities of the Big Bang . One must consider that time is a vector that appears not to have a negative vector but only a forward direction and as such makes the cyclical idea consistent with time as thus time does not begin with the big bang which becomes thus a pulse of energy creation in the continuity of time forever. If in fact the data that is collected so far confirms in spite of misgivings Penrose’s dataset then Physics will have taken yet another baby step towards resolving the extremely iffy proposition that the Universe had to start from nothing but a nearly infinitely dense, infinitely hot molecular sized both in terms of energy and space and time dot…I naturally cannot say if or how things began or if they began at all, nor can anyone else but Penrose’s interesting implications of a cyclic universe surely does fit the data so far and no matter what the politics of theoretical physics might be, the data must be gathered objectively and studied carefully and then and only then can hypotheses be confirmed or indicated to be correct as far as one can determine up to this point. We have come a long, long way from turtles holding up the earth or some old man separating the waters from the land. We need patience and science to determine what happened if we are capable of doing so with our primate brains working very hard to try to understand what is possibly inconceivable. To say, however, that Penrose is getting into a place that is not scientific is bull. His hypothesis is there to try to fit the pieces of DATA that has been collected. If there are equal explanations for these data anomalies, well fine…consider them all but not denigrate his consistent observational conclusions with the spurious nonsense about anthropology being science vs humanities. That situation is ludicrous in the first place as physical anthropology is part of science and the other stuff is unfounded garbage not unlike phrenology and Freudian pyschoanalysis that also does not belong in amongst real scientific thought. Penrose surely is making what is a very basic scientific process which is to fit all the data to an hypothesis and this is not philosophy or the humanities. There might be other explanations for the phenomenon that he is fitting from the data. This is science just as any other scientific consideration. I do believe that Einstein suffered the same kind of rejection. We seem to never learn that things are not as they seem always at first sight.

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  6. 6. Dr.d 4:05 pm 12/21/2010

    It should not be difficult to realize that the subPlanckian and cosmological manifolds are outside the resolution capacities of the human species. Ditto for the limited human capacity to reduce such complexity to symbols and/or sentential logic representations and then process them (combinations, permutations, etc) to extract a reliable truth value content. As long as representations are based on convenient axioms and tautologies in a best-fitting effort to accomodate the myopic observations, we have to conclude that the map is not the territory it represents. Mathematics is NOT a science, just a valuable language to represent a subjective and probable reality in an effort to extract meaning from the limited observation. To that extent reality is neither ontological/perceptual nor epistemological/conceptual but a hybrid combination thereof, epistemontological. Being adapted to an existential, quotidian reality requires a biopsychosocial equilibrium in harmony with the biospheric niche we did not choose to be born into, i.e., metaphysical models of the physicalist or the theological faith are probable worlds continuously evolving and coming closer together under the guidance of a quantum theoretical approach, thus far the best glue to approximate the perceptual and the conceptual moieties into a hybrid whole. Dr.d

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  7. 7. Stuntmonkey 4:18 pm 12/21/2010

    The litmus test for any theoretical idea in physics, no matter how far out, is that it cannot contradict any known experimental data. The subtlety is there are usually many theories that are consistent with known observations, not just one. Enumerating these variations helps delineate what we truly know. For example, Everett discovered long after the development of quantum mechanics that one can remove the collapse postulate and still be consistent with everything we observe. So as long as an idea ties back to reality — i.e., is falsifiable and passes the test — it’s viable science and not mere creative writing.

    The tricky question is how does one select the most plausible theory from the (usually infinite number) of possible variants? It’s the thorny blue/green vs grue/bleen problem. Occam’s razor is a guiding principle but is not provable.

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 5:41 pm 12/21/2010

    As I understand, Penrose predicts that collisions among black holes in the precursor to our own universe produced signals that could have propagated through the collapse of its own mass-energy into a singularity, emerging as our own expanding universe, somehow still retaining those signals from its predecessor.

    What’s most puzzling is how those persistent signals could propagate through the proposed unified force ‘initial’ state of our universe. This proposal seems to require some newer physics than the already missing unified physics – quite a challenge indeed! I’m sure it’s just too complicated for me to understand, or imagine…

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  9. 9. bertrand_ducharme 5:50 pm 12/21/2010

    The Big Bang theory pretends to explain the history of the universe but we still ignore what constitutes 96% of the matter and energy of the universe. In view of the situation, we should also adopt a humble attitude concerning that theory.

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  10. 10. Genzeb 6:11 pm 12/21/2010

    Are you seriously equating a theory on conditions prior to the big-bang or the Plank scale to religion? Seriously? On what do you base your claim that such theories could never be proven or disproven? To claim that there could *never* be direct or indirect effects that could be measured is incredible. In case you’ve not noticed, physics is full of theories that were hypothesized prior to being experimentally verified. Having the theory at hand sort of helps figuring out what to test for.

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  11. 11. ennui 6:17 pm 12/21/2010

    The trouble with Science and scientific discoveries is that dishonest people in power will supress anything that would hurt their financial status.
    Nasa was given the technology of Gravity Control.
    The Propulsion Engineers rejected it, it would make them obsolete. Nasa Bonzes, informed recently, did not answer either. They had interests in the One Billion Dollar Heavy Lifter.
    Let there be a curse on these parties who delegated the USA to the has-been status.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 7:08 pm 12/21/2010

    IMO, the dark energy and dark matter you refer to, supposedly constituting 96% of the mass-energy in the universe, are not supported by direct observational evidence, only the inferences of astronomers misapplying standard analysis procedures to the interpretation of disparate new observational data.

    After 4 decades for dark matter and one decade for dark energy, no ‘hard’ evidence exists, and no independent theoretical basis for their existence has been developed.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 7:09 pm 12/21/2010

    Your not implying that all hypothesized theories will be confirmed, are you?

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  14. 14. kdonald 9:06 pm 12/21/2010

    I don’t know if I would go as far as saying that physics has become ‘soft’ science or that anthropology is in any kind of bad standing. Because when it comes down to it, both sciences — or really any science — can prove or at least demonstrate with physical evidence that something did happen. To me, it only sounds like problems start to arise when scientists have to take a step back from their observations and ask themselves what the data is trying to say and what it all means. Maybe I am comparing apples and oranges here when it comes to falsifiability or proofiness, but even here I think that it is mostly beneficial to form theories and hypotheses that are not readily provable since they help to aim our investigations when moving forward. I suppose this could also become problematic in the case of "faction" science, but the politics of change notwithstanding, I like to think that peer review can overcome this obstacle.

    To me, it sounds just as well to say that ‘every day’ physics is down pat just as much as saying that artifact gathering is down pat. I do not think that the rigor of math or that the rigor of (I guess eventual) falsifiability is really at the heart of the issue. I am not an expert in any of the scientific fields so I do not know the lay of the land, but it seems as though the real issues are the types of ideas or things that science may not be able to prove. Getting back to what I said earlier about science demonstrating that something happened and, in the case of physics, also demonstrating the mechanism of how it was able to happen; I am not sure if science will ever be able to prove that the system had choice or that something could have happened otherwise beyond random means. Without being able to bridge the measurement and observer problem gap (or possibly other problems of this sort), I do not think science will ever be able to speak to issues of this kind without giving recourse to ‘soft’ speculation and suggestion.

    I do not hold anything against science, but as long as we approach it with the understanding that evidence, data, and observations are being interpreted in one way or another — albeit rigorous and empirical in the realm of peer review — there is room for a healthy appreciation of the merits and deficits of the scientific process to flourish.

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  15. 15. zstansfi 11:55 pm 12/21/2010

    A simple question can solve this debate.

    Which discipline involves at least one of the following: (i) empirical observation, (ii) experimentation, (iii) falsifiable conclusions?

    If you answered theoretical physics, then you’ve truly lost your marbles. Thank you, String Theory.

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  16. 16. zstansfi 11:56 pm 12/21/2010

    Yes, I can agree. But when it comes to scientific pursuits that other scientists just love to mock, theoretical physics is always at the top of the list.

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  17. 17. Quinn the Eskimo 1:25 am 12/22/2010

    As previously stated; Nothing unreal exists.

    Time is real. Or, else why am I now 62?

    And while we’re on imponderables; why am I soft in the middle? Quick, call Paul Simon.

    If the past is future text, then let the Pharaoh come forth.

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  18. 18. Unbeliever 5:17 am 12/22/2010

    "The fundamentalists", who I assume are Christian, Biblical fundamentalists, are in good company when it comes to being an enemy of objective, empirical science.

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  19. 19. Unbeliever 5:21 am 12/22/2010

    What the hell are you jabbering about?

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  20. 20. bertrand_ducharme 12:35 pm 12/22/2010

    In my view, dark matter and dark energy are simply sophisticated mathematical objects to say we don’t know how to explain the missing mass problem and the supposedly accelerating expansion of the universe, not that we can empirically define what dark matter and dark energy are. They are speculative ideas. On that I can agree with you.

    We can mathematically calculate what is missing in our equations to agree with empirical facts given that we take Big Bang theory for granted. It doesn’t mean that these mathematical results are real. Simply that something must give those results. Many complex phenomena could theoretically give the same results.

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  21. 21. brodix 2:22 pm 12/23/2010

    "What the hell are you jabbering about?"
    Do we travel the fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, or does tomorrow become yesterday because the earth rotates?
    The question is whether time is the foundation of motion, or an effect of motion.
    Trying thinking it through.

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  22. 22. brodix 2:38 pm 12/23/2010

    It does throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the conventional linear thought process, so you might have to push the mental reset button a few times before it starts to make sense.
    Or you can just ignore it.

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  23. 23. Andrei Kirilyuk 2:54 pm 12/23/2010

    Everything is finally so evident about this what-if and why-not ironic science after the end of reason that one can only ask oneself what’s next, what we should do in human knowledge and intelligence development at this very special stage. The dominating science version indistinguishable from arbitrary but largely incomprehensible fiction cannot continue further down from the attained lowest possible level. In reality, it’s not difficult to see that this is not at all the unique, let alone the best or the only realisable, form of objective knowledge. But one should have an elementary motivation for support of a qualitatively stronger (problem-solving) knowledge paradigm, only denouncing the "bad" version is not enough for real progress.

    In reality, one can accept a professional bias of scientists themselves who, contrary to knowledge objectivity, are vulnerable and subjective beings, as "soft" as all other known life forms. And a permanently progressing bias can become indistinguishable from mental illness of a sectarian belief in "mathematical reality" behind the "illusion" of "ordinary" matter. But what about professional and "responsible" mega-funding agencies that continue to allocate fantastic and ever growing support for that evidently fruitless and openly absurd "scientology" (at our unique time of crisis and catastrophically accumulating global problems without solution)? Have they all gone mad too, infected by the "crazy scientist" community? And what about the supposed control by today’s strongly educated public in the same technically rich countries, in addition concentrating the entire world’s resources? Crackpot scientists have been widely discussed lately, but what about crackpot government agencies and crackpot public? Curved time in a rugged landscape of Calabi-Yau manifolds between neighbouring universes, always ready to pay unlimited amounts for a not-even-wrong bullshit "science" like that? Then maybe it’s too late to try anything else with you…

    If there are still enough of people with healthy brains and some practical possibilities, they should unite their efforts in search and development of another, realistic and consistent form of knowledge they once called science. There are sufficient and promising starting results, but a practically concrete motivation to continue in that direction is needed. Or else the current "liquid science" will continue infinitely its unconditionally supported gibberish: one can hardly change its priests and practices. Strawberry fields forever, for everyone…

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  24. 24. Gary 7 10:15 am 12/25/2010

    As some wag once noted " The first step on the path to wisdom is realizing you’re fraking clueless." By this criteria, the only person either responding to or having written this article, that is approaching wisdom would be, 9. jtdwyer.

    Science is NOT a thing in itself. It’s a process of separating theories(into those that may be true vs those that are not) by means of prediction and experimental verification.

    Penrose has made a proposition. That proposition has certain consequences. Argument about the validity of the proposition is of no account. TESTING the consequences of the proposition IS.

    We have not yet reached the limits of the scientific method. Y’All better hope we never do, else we will have also reached the limits of sanity(as far as we understand that term)and while being crazy can be fun, it can also kill you.

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  25. 25. jtdwyer 5:54 pm 12/26/2010

    Thanks for the kind remark
    – your humble servant…

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  26. 26. bucketofsquid 5:53 pm 12/27/2010

    Still hyping the long disproven scam eh ennui?

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  27. 27. andy11 10:14 pm 12/28/2010

    Why is it that so many from well respected institutions are so deeply involved trying to find a so called ‘Theory of Everything’ (TEO) while they haven’t finished dealing with quantum mechanics yet? Some leading physicists including Penrose himself admit that somehow quantum mechanics QM is incomplete and that it should be interpreted from a different vantage point. That we should continue develop QM further into a solid coherent theory before moving on to more deeper questions about the universe. I mean in order the get near TEO shouldn’t we come to terms first with the Grant Unified Theory GUT along with Quantum Gravity QG. I think the reason why QM and GR were both successfully developed in such a short time is because there was already a solid foundation upon to construct evolutionary ideas one step at the time, but somehow current physicist are bypassing crucial stages in the hierarchy (Electricity+Magnetism>EM, EM+Weak>EW, EW + Strong>GUT, GUT+QG>TEO). Scientific progress takes time and patience. It took from Newton to Einstein 200 hundred years of evolution before we finally entered the realm of relativity. Why rush into this right now? Address the physical questions first before going into the philosophical ones! What happens beyond our observable universe cannot be tested empirically in our lifetime so it remains in the domain of philosophy not science!

    Also, to my opinion, the problem with physics and cosmology nowadays is the fact that its being commercially exploited by the media to entertain and fuel(exacerbate)the existing conflict between science and religion, which really sells!

    I say scientist from other less popular branches e.g fluid dynamics, brain and medical sciences, engineering en technology should promote more what they are doing via this hungry media in order to engage the consumer and educate them better about science. I mean you go to any book store and all you get is pseudo-science books confronting cosmology with religion. Cosmology related science is simply to risky a business to popularise, since secularism and emancipation from church and religion was not long ago and our society’s still bares religious values. This means that every time the media broadcast some experiment disproving a theoretical prediction (like mini black holes at LHC) it will allow this kind of critics (biased though!) that doesn’t help science in general. We should raise awareness to the consumer that they are benefiting from science and should appreciate people like Penrose and co. a bit more.

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  28. 28. verdai 7:13 pm 01/3/2011

    you got that right.
    not regarding the particular theory, but the overpopulation of functions of math as viable realities.

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