The Anti-Tyson

Is speculation in multiverses as immoral as speculation in subprime mortgages?

Perhaps Anti-Tyson is a little harsh, but soon after I see a great discussion by Neil deGrasse Tyson on science being driven by passion and curiosity, I read some blather from someone who’s basically pissed off that a physicist wrote something other than a physics textbook. Speculating on the metaphysical implications of science isn’t my particular cup of tea, but it’s not up to me to tell others that they can’t engage in it — as long as they don’t think they’re doing science. One never knows what speculation might spark an actual scientific advance, or when one might recognize that there is an actual falsifiable scientific principle embedded in one of those thoughts. (Leo Szilard is said to have come up with the idea of the fission chain reaction by seeing a traffic light change. Who the hell knows where inspiration comes from?)

I think it’s worth noting that John Horgan is the author of The End of Science, which I believe is the book (and concept) that Tyson was blasting in the interview as being shortsighted.

Is theorizing about parallel universes as immoral as betting on derivatives based on subprime mortgages? I wouldn’t go that far. Nor do I think all scientists should be seeking cures for cancer, more efficient solar cells or other potential boons to humanity. But scientists should, at the very least, investigate the world in which we live rather than worlds that exist—as far as we will ever know—only in their imaginations.

Now, I haven’t read the book, and I can’t say for sure how it is presented. If it’s being misrepresented as actual physics, then Greene is in error. But that doesn’t seem to be the complaint. Horgan knows its speculation, because he identifies it as such. His objection appears to be that a physicist was doing something that’s not physics! How dare he do that! If a physicist wants to write a book about metaphysics, or poetry, or whatever, who the hell is John Horgan to tell him/her otherwise, or to say what we do with our (free) time?

2 thoughts on “The Anti-Tyson

  1. I agree that Greene has every right to write about any topic he chooses. But I do think that the layperson reading such a book (making a BIG assumption here because, like you, I haven’t read it) will consider that “this is what physicists think.” I’m not sure of the harm in it though.

    On a side note, I’m not at the forefront of theoretical physics (or even at the rear guard). But I’ve often read that string theory is unfalsifiable. So what if that’s true? It seems to me that that would eventually mark the end of the search for THE basic theory unless the search would consist of the continual positing of falsifiable theories followed by their falsification. To what extent would this constitute science and for how long would it continue? I’m sure I’m not the first to think of this conundrum but doing so was a bit startling to me.

  2. Rob – the more I learn about physics the more I realise that without military-grade mathematics the only part of the subject I can really understand is the more metaphysical side. This isn’t a bad thing on the whole; the maths can be tortuous and tedious, and the only part that can keep the motivation high is the accessible prose of the pop-sci book.

    The other thing to bear in mind is that some of the concepts that Greene, Susskind, Hawking et al use amongst their peers are also mind-blowing; they just don’t easily admit to a pop-sci presentation, and don’t look good on a t-shirt.

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