Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Will the cosmic multiverse Landscape ensure the triumph of intelligent design?

Recently, I read string theorist Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape (Little, Brown & Co., 2005), so it was fun to hear him explain why his Landscape idea alarms many physicists,
I have been accused of advocating an extremely dangerous idea.

According to some people, the "Landscape" idea will eventually ensure that the forces of intelligent design (and other unscientific religious ideas) will triumph over true science. From one of my most distinguished colleagues:

From a political, cultural point of view, it's not that these arguments are religious but that they denude us from our historical strength in opposing religion.

Others have expressed the fear that my ideas, and those of my friends, will lead to the end of science (methinks they overestimate me). One physicist calls it "millennial madness."
The Landscape (note the upper case), in his words, is an "enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power," essentially a multiverse.

This was part of a 2006 "What is your dangerous idea?" schtick at The Edge. Susskind answers the obvious question:
Why is it that so many physicists find these ideas alarming? Well, they do threaten physicists' fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). The enormous Landscape of Possibilities inherent in our best theory seems to dash that hope.

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it. Is the danger real? We shall see.
Actually, most of the 2006 Edgy ideas were not dangerous at all, just goofy and probably wrong.

As it happens, according to other cosmologists, string theory is unravelling and coming unstrung.

According to SFGATE, hardly averse to new or wonky ideas (better together, actually), announced breathlessly in 2005:
The most celebrated theory in modern physics faces increasing attacks from skeptics who fear it has lured a generation of researchers down an intellectual dead end.
and ...
skeptics suggest it's the latest sign of how string theorists, sometimes called "superstringers," try to colorfully camouflage the theory's flaws, like "a 50-year-old woman wearing way too much lipstick," jokes Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford. "People have been changing string theory in wild ways because it has never worked."

Already, the split over string theory has caused tensions at some of the nation's university physics departments. "The physics department at Stanford effectively fissioned over this issue," said Laughlin, now on sabbatical in South Korea. "I think string theory is textbook 'post-modernism' (and) fueled by irresponsible expenditures of money."
Okay, well, let's have another look at intelligent design. The government never funded it - a sure point in its favour in this environment.

On the other hand, should string theorists wait for rescue by the Large Hadron Collider (gateway to other universes)?

By the way, does anyone know what happened to that surfer dude who was supposed to have solved the riddle of the universe last November? If so, e-mail me at