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Multiverse Skeptic Whacks Multiverse Peddler for Whacking End of Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I suppose I should be grateful that, 18 years after the release of my book The End of Science, people still care enough about it to knock it.

Research on multiverses, according to science writer John Gribbin, shows that predictions of an end to science are wrong-headed. Physicist and blogger Peter Woit disagrees.

The latest whack was a book review published in The Wall Street Journal last weekend. British science writer John Gribbin, reviewing The Island of Knowledge, by physicist Marcelo Gleiser, notes approvingly that Gleiser views science as an infinite, never-ending quest.

Gribbin continues: “Mr. Gleiser’s assessment of the future of science is distinctly different from that of many scientists and commentators. Back in 1996, John Horgan made a splash with The End of Science; his argument was that the foundations of science, such as the Big Bang theory, the structure of DNA and evolution by natural selection, were well established and were not going to be changed, except in detail, by new discoveries.”

As a rebuttal of my thesis, Gribbin asserts that cosmologists could be on the verge of demonstrating that our observable cosmos is just “one bubble in an infinitely large and eternal metaverse with no beginning and no end.” (For some reason Gribbin here prefers metaverse to the more common multiverse.)

“Grrr,” I thought. I was also annoyed that Gribbin repeats the apocryphal tale that in 1900 the great British physicist William Thomson—a.k.a. Lord Kelvin—declared, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” As Gribbin would know if he had read The End of Science, it was Albert Michelson, not Kelvin, who suggested that “most of the grand underlying principles [of physics] have been firmly established,” and the year was 1894, not 1900.

Michelson added: “An eminent physicist has remarked that the future truths of Physical Science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” Although some pundits have identified Kelvin as the “eminent physicist,” historians have found no evidence for the claim.

I was trying to decide whether to whack Gribbin’s review when mathematical physicist Peter Woit whacked it for me on his blog “Not Even Wrong.” After noting that Gribbin wrote “the 2009 multiverse-promotional effort In Search of the Multiverse,” Woit adds:

“The really odd thing about the review is that Gribbin uses the multiverse to argue that John Horgan’s claims about physics in The End of Science are wrong. This is just bizarre. Gribbin and his multiverse mania for untestable theories provide strong ammunition for Horgan, since it’s the sort of thing he was warning about.”

Thanks, Peter. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. rshoff2 12:44 pm 06/12/2014

    My interpretation is that you never said that Science itself has ended. Only that we have reached the end of our tether. I think you’re saying that there are limits to what we can directly observe and indirectly deduce. And your opinion is that we have reached those practical boundaries. Beyond that, everything becomes conjecture, which is related to fiction. At this point we need to fill in the details of what we have already explored. Those details are where we will get the biggest bang for our buck. That is where we will find practical applications.

    Is that understanding anywhere in the ballpark?

    Of concern though is that knowledge is not persistent. It must be maintained, re-explored, handed down to each new generation. Heck, we even have to remind ourselves what we have learned and sometimes relearn it. Existing understanding and documentation of Human observations about the world and universe around us can be easily lost. What are we to do about that? Do we need to do anything? Does it matter?

    Finally, do you think we can inadvertently hurt ourselves misapplying physics (e.g. create a black hole at the Hadron or its successor).

    In other words, do we really know what we’re doing?

    Link to this
  2. 2. brodix 1:17 pm 06/12/2014

    John,
    Personally I think many of our current problems stem from some deep seated assumptions that do not completely reflect reality and what we are now experiencing is a form of reductio ad absurdum.
    A very basic point I keep trying to make is that since we individually experience change as a linear sequence of events, we think of time as the point of the present moving from past to future, which physics then distills to particular measures of duration to use in theories. Yet the obvious reality is the physical dynamic creates and dissolves these events. Thus it is the events which go from future to past.
    To wit, the earth does not travel some dimension from yesterday to tomorrow, but rather tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns.
    This makes time more like temperature, than space. Time is to temperature, what frequency is to amplitude. Just that with temperature, our experience is of the cumulative effect, rather than the multitude of fluctuations creating it. While with time, we experience that particular sequence of events and have spent centuries trying to figure out what the universal clock is, when all we can detect is this cumulative result of multiple narratives.
    A faster clock only burns quicker and so recedes into the past more rapidly. The hare is long dead, while the tortoise plods along.
    This explains why the future is not determined, nor does the past remain probabilistic, ie. multiworlds, because probability precedes actuality. There are ten potential winners before a race and only one actual winner after it.
    Nor is there blocktime, as the energy to manifest these events and processes is conserved and so can only make that which is present physically real.
    Safe to say, no one in physics is capable of even considering this point, given their minds are filled with visions of strings, multidimensional geometries and other such things. It is like I’m speaking a foreign language.
    Not that you have to take my word for all of this, but it might at least be interesting to consider.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rshoff2 2:02 pm 06/12/2014

    brodix, that is interesting to consider, although, I am not the audience you are directing your comment to. At fist, your idea of the measurement of time being similar to the measurement of temperature had me confused. Until it struck me that temperature is really a measurement of movement. Absolute zero = zero movement, no vibration.

    So, in my mind, both time AND temperature are observations or measurement of movement. Frequency & Amplitude being measurements of waves, including energy. I’m going to have to consider how energy and waves relate to movement. They, of course, are closely linked but are they causal?

    And I agree that it makes sense the future is not determined and the past is not probabilistic, but I do hold steadfast that with enough information every detail of the future –from the next moment to the next millennium–  is absolutely predictable. Unfortunately to change the past we would have to roll back absolutely everything in the universe to the space-time we want to effect. Of course we would need the same amount of energy required for it to roll to the present and then some more to reverse the direction. And in this process we can’t use more energy than was already expressed at the past time that we are reverting to. All that is assuming that physics would allow processes in the universe to run both directions equally.

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  4. 4. rshoff2 2:04 pm 06/12/2014

    ok, fiction.

    Link to this
  5. 5. brodix 4:37 pm 06/12/2014

    Rs,
    This is a few ideas I wrote while doing some other things, so it’s a bit disjointed;
    Consider the energy just moves around. While it is conserved, the result is that it is constantly creating and dissolving forms, structure, relations, etc. What we think of time is these forms coming and going. Most especially that which ourselves. We think of it as going from birth to death. Before we are born, birth is in the future, then it is in the past and death is in the future, which is where we usually perceive it from. So we have this sense of going from beginning to end. Meanwhile the whole process of life and our species is constantly creating new beings and killing off old ones. So for the process, the future is in birth, while the past dies off.
    We now project this on the entire universe, that there was this beginning and eventually everything will spread out in an entropic haze and fade away. Beginning to end. Yet the energy remains. Now if the universe is actually infinite and redshift is an optical effect, which would explain why we appear at the center, then energy being lost from one area spreads out to others and vice versa, so it cycles around.
    We could then take that to explaining galaxies; Energy expands out, while mass contracts inward, until it breaks down and radiates back out. So then the form of mass is constantly forming, contracting into ever denser forms and then breaks down, radiating away. So the direction for the energy is outward to the future, while the direction for mass is falling into the past. Just as galaxies are infalling mass and radiating energy.
    Although we think of temporal sequence as causal, but it’s actually only energy exchange that is causal. For instance, one day doesn’t cause the next. The sun shining on a spinning planet causes this effect called ‘days.’
    As such the future is not deterministic, because the energy creating any event comes from different directions, much at the speed of light, so that to calculate the future, you would need the information faster than it could be delivered. The processes may result in one outcome, but the input only arrives with the occurrence of the event.
    As for time being asymmetric, with time as an effect of action, it is due to inertia. The planet doesn’t stop and go the other way.
    The problem is that conscious reality, ie. memory, history, narrative, is a function of this effect and so it is the filter through which we view reality.
    My argument is that the left, linear, rational side of the brain is effectively a clock, as it narrates and filters sequence, which explains why we think of time as causal, while the right, emotional, intuitive side is a thermostat. Thus we put in lots of information/energy and either connections get made subconsciously, or feelings like frustration, boredom, anger, giddiness, happiness, attraction, etc.(Though that last is directional.) rise to the surface, much like a pot boiling from too much input/energy. Or cooling off. That’s why we frequently describe emotions in terms of temperature.
    Much of action can be modeled as waves. Rate, amount of energy, kinetic, momentum, cycles, units, etc. are all effects which can be described by these two terms. Though they can seem quite mixed together. Basically we could use ideal gas laws to create a form of temperaturevolume, similar to spacetime, in that if the volume of a given amount of energy is reduced the temperature goes up.
    The brain is not being linear at the moment..
    Regards,
    John

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  6. 6. brodix 7:28 pm 06/12/2014

    rs,
    Another way to consider the direction of time in terms of this relation between entity and process is between a product and production line;
    The product goes from initiation to completion, while the process, the production line, points the other direction, as it consumes raw material and expels finished product. So the product, going start to finish, points to the past, while the process points to the future and the start of the next entity.
    It would be a bit like sitting on a beach and watching the waves roll in. They form, crest and crash, while you watch the next build.
    Now cosmology has modeled the entire universe as only one side of this relationship, that of the universe as a single entity, forming and fading, because it models time as nothing more than that narrative arc.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Dr. Strangelove 2:33 am 06/13/2014

    I read Gribbin’s “In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat” and Woit’s “Not Even Wrong.” Woit is commendable for calling a spade. The idea of multiverse originated in Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in 1950s. Frankly I can’t understand why such stupid idea gained so much traction. Maybe smart physicists are just too polite to call a spade a spade.

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  8. 8. John Horgan in reply to John Horgan 6:03 am 06/13/2014

    rshoff2, you summarize my view of sciences limits nicely, except I’d say certain extremely complex phenomena, notably the brain and mind, might still yield profound advances. As for your final question, I’m far more worried about H-bombs than mini-black holes.

    Link to this
  9. 9. rshoff2 2:57 pm 06/13/2014

    brodix, thank you for responding to my comment. I enjoyed your description of your views on interaction of time, motion, and energy -or our perception of them. It has a symmetry that feels good. The physics behind it, I cannot address.

    As for the right brain/left brain. I’m not sure on how the brain actually works, but in the accepted popular left brain/right brain model, mine just doesn’t work that way. Using those terms, I would say I process from my right emotional brain (even analytics) and fact check on my left. The left is pretty rigid and unforgiving. It never rewards, so unfortunately, the fact checking gets dropped far too frequently. And I have to ‘feel’ something physically and/or emotionally (internally) in order to process it, otherwise it looks and feels something like a big heap of nonsensical boring gravel interrupting an otherwise pleasant and symmetrical space. Gravel that is not even uniformed in size and shape. Nor color (all shades of grey), nor temperature, nor… well, you get the point. Let’s add a little dyslexia and reading comprehension issues. And no emotional intelligence about people, what they mean, or their intentions. Having said that, in my working life, I’ve been able to incorporate it all to perform at the norm and provide value added services. Unfortunately, value added is not well compensated. So thank you for engaging my mind. It gives you nothing in return, but thank you anyway.

    I sure hope these conversations don’t get in the way of John’s blogs. You know he’s kind of brilliant, and hopefully his real audience finds humor in my posts!

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  10. 10. rshoff2 3:00 pm 06/13/2014

    Thank you for responding to my question John Horgan! Your view on mini-black holes and the H-Bomb actually makes me feel better, although it shouldn’t!

    Link to this
  11. 11. brodix 10:48 pm 06/13/2014

    rs,
    Thanks. Probably about how my mind works as well. Think of it as a funnel, with the thermal, scalar side taking in lots of information and then it gets filtered down to the essentials, that stream of memory in my wake.
    On a personal level my value added is that I’m good at riding horses, but not so good at engaging with society, so my sister runs the business and I’m something of the trouble shooter with the babies, bad horses, etc. When they get good enough that I start sending snapchats to my 19 year old daughter, they get given to one of the girls to ride and I get another problem child to work with. By the end of the morning, my blood sugar has usually crashed, so I come in here and take some brain time and read or write on the computer.
    Basically I’ve learned to let myself work on various different levels and not focus too much. This lets me operate on a form of autopilot and be more sensitive to the awareness and actions of the people and animals around me. Sort of like being a node in the network, or just a conscious plant, with roots into everything around me. I should knock wood when I say this, but I haven’t been too painfully hurt in a while. Being very physically aware helps alot.
    It’s nice to engage someone who also both operates on a very physical level, yet can see through it as well.
    As I pointed out to my daughter, when we were having one of those discussions about how people tend to be very judgmental, yet frequently don’t live up to their own standards, the spiritual absolute would be the essence from which we rise, not an ideal from which we fell.
    Hopefully this isn’t too much of a distraction to the blog, as it is extremely off the topic of how physics has gotten so far away from the physical, yet it does describe the experience of being physically aware.
    Regards,
    JBM

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  12. 12. christinaak 4:29 pm 06/14/2014

    Kudos to physicist Peter Woit for being one of the relatively few voices of reason remaining in the Physics community. The ‘multiverse’ idea is a dead end (and I strongly suspect the same is true for ‘inflationary cosmology’ as well).

    Link to this
  13. 13. brodix 6:13 pm 06/14/2014

    rs,
    I suppose I should add a further observation that since I’m obviously outside the academic mainstream, this automatically puts me in the crank category, but it should be emphasized that human rationality, history and thus civilization and academia are very much a product of that narrative function, so maybe it does take someone with a slightly outside perspective to see it from a bottom up point of view.

    Christiana,
    It has all become quite absurd, but how far are they willing to examine their foundations? If you really think about the ‘fabric of spacetime’ as being physically real, which all of this is based on, rather than a clever mathematical correlation, it really is as bizarre as many of the ideas sprouting from it.
    The notion of ‘blocktime,’ that all those past and future events exist suspended in the four dimensional matrix and with complicated enough mathematical models, we could travel wormholes through time overlooks lots of otherwise rational physics, such as the conservation of energy. You can’t have both prior and succeeding events, because they fundamentally exist as a function of the transfer of energy!!!!
    Yet when you try mentioning any of this to all those super bright people, they dismiss it as ‘not understanding the math.’
    Personally I’ve tried bringing this up on Woit’s blog and I’ve been banned from the conversation. My hope that it will be resolved any time soon is very slim.

    Link to this
  14. 14. Scientifik 8:41 am 07/16/2014

    The title “The End of Science” smacks of sensationalism.

    Since 1996 (the date of the release of your book) we have already discovered thousands of exoplanets, detected first hints of the elusive dark matter, discovered the consciousness on/off switch, etc. etc

    And the march of science has hardly slowed as ESA’s Gaia probe is about to survey our galaxy to give us the ultra-detailed view of a billion stars (who knows what it might discover?), we are yet to discover life on other planets, the origins of life formation, etc etc. heck, we didn’t even send a probe to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa yet.

    To assert that we already reached the end of science when we are only starting our scientific journey is defeatism of the worst kind.

    Link to this

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