The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

The Fundamental Physics prize continues to be bad for physics.


Particle tracks from a bubble chamber, one of many indications that physics is a tool-driven revolution relying on hard experiment (Image: Naturphilosophie)

The Fundamental Physics prize has again been awarded to sophisticated mathematical speculation disconnected from experimental evidence. The 2012 Fundamental Physics prize was shared among nine physicists, most of who were string theorists. String theorists continue to dominate the awardees of this year's New Horizons and Frontiers in Physics prizes. Another string theorist, Alexander Polyakov, received the 2013 prize. The 2014 prize will be announced in December, and the previous trend makes me no more optimistic about who the recipients would be than what I was before.

The brilliance, mathematical abilities and dedication of these men are not in question, but the real-world validity of their theories is certainly uncertain. The first award had already sparked criticism and this year’s award would do little to quell it. While the money is Milnor’s and he can spend it the way he wants to, I find it troubling that the prize sends the wrong message out to young scientists and to the public. It says that the most financially lucrative scientific prize in the world is being awarded to speculative ideas that may or may not have anything to do with reality. It's also worth noting that a special prize was awarded in 2012 to Stephen Hawking for his “discovery” of Hawking radiation, a phenomenon for which experimental evidence is at best suggestive.

There is another feature of the prize that troubles me even more, the fact that it was awarded to experimental physicists only once, and that too only as part of a special category. Experiment is the bedrock of science; in Feynman’s words, if a theory does not agree with experiment it is wrong, period. It does not matter how beautiful it sounds, it does not matter how smart the person who came up with it is, all that matters is how it compares to numbers from well-designed experiments. Unfortunately recognitions like the fundamental physics prize seem to cherish mathematical elegance, reams of equations, raw IQ, and “star power” much more than hard numerical prediction, let alone hard empirical verification.

Sadly this omission seems consistent with a more general phenomenon that I bemoaned in a previous post – the downplaying of experiment relative to theory in the popular imagination, a flaw in the perception of science that the Milnor prize can only deeply accentuate. Ask most laymen to name a famous physicist and their choices would be both obvious and predictable: Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Heisenberg, perhaps followed by Dirac, Fermi and Bardeen. Rutherford, Faraday and Curie might be the only experimental physicists widely recognized by the public. Better-informed laymen may perhaps know of Witten, Hawking and Penrose. But few if any would readily remember Millikan, Michelson or Compton, let alone Aspect, Zeilinger, C. W. F Everitt, Mather and Smoot, Pound and Rebka or even the 2012 Nobel Prize winning duo of Wineland and Heroche.

Yet what these scientists have done qualifies every bit as “fundamental science”. Take the work of Aspect, Zeilinger and others who have tested and verified the astonishing phenomenon of quantum entanglement. It’s a prediction of quantum mechanics that is so bizarre that it led some of the greatest physicists of the century including Einstein and Schrodinger to suspend their belief in the theory. Only experiment could have resolved it one way or another. Other experimentalists cited above also made immense contributions. Everitt was the leader of the Gravity Probe B mission which tested a highly fundamental prediction of general relativity (frame-dragging). Mather and Smoot are leaders in the awe-inspiring art of precision cosmology. Three years ago the Nobel Prize was awarded for a startling bonafide experimental finding that theory just could not have settled – the accelerating expansion of the universe. And going back to the turn of the twentieth century, by finding that there was no ether through which light propagated, Michelson paved the way to relativity and a revision of our view of the universe.

All these experimental discoveries are as deeply in the realm of “fundamental physics” as any major theoretical advance and yet prizes like the Milnor prize ignore them. Instead recognition goes to speculation charted out on pen and paper, not the hard fruits of grease, interferometers and charge-coupled devices. The fundamental physics prize almost completely ignores the fact that physics is as much a tool-driven revolution as an ideas-driven revolution, a trend that will be obvious to anyone who studies the discipline’s history.

This is not the way science is supposed to work. Almost a century ago scientists and philosophers formed the Vienna Circle. Their goal was to emphasize logical positivism, the belief that science can only be defined in terms of things which we can directly observe. However its proponents took the philosophy too far by placing too great an emphasis on direct evidence and downplaying the importance of the kind of important but somewhat indirect evidence that was then verifying the spectacular predictions of quantum mechanics. The Vienna Circle may well have been appalled by the highly statistical nature of the proof that turns particles like the Higgs boson from squiggles to reality. And yet the pendulum now seems to have swung to the other extreme in physics. The frontier of physics, at least in the public imagination, now consists mainly of complicated symbols written on paper and tossed around in erudite debates. Whether these symbols have much to do with reality is at best a secondary concern and more typically a clerical distraction.

Perhaps the world of physics needs another Ernest Rutherford. When asked what he thought of theorists he famously retorted, “You theorists play games with your symbols, but we are the ones who discover the secrets of the universe”.

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

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