Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Standing in line at the bank the other day, I spoke to a man in front of me and asked if he was getting much reading done while standing in that line. He seemed absolutely engrossed in his book and I just couldn't stand that he was having so much more fun than I was. He showed me the title and told me it was something everyone should read. The Trouble With Physics is apparently a book about how physicists are on the wrong track with "string theory". I mentioned that it sounded similar to the book Not Even Wrong which uses Pauli's famous slight and points it at string theory.

The book he was reading talked about something more important than I realized however; Money. It seems that a great deal of money that could be used in other physics research is being spent by the big university physics departments on research into string theory. This caused be to think about the biggest problem I've always had with life: you must make choices and every blasted choice eliminates an infinite number of other choices.

There is no way around it. You can't do everything, not even in theory, or theoretical physics. When a department decides to put money into a particular field of research it is gambling that that research will yield results that will get future grants or other funding due to prestige or real useful results. Things like string theory, which become very sexy in the eyes of the public, can be very tempting places to put your resources. Of course the problem with the public is that they have no idea what research is going to yield results worth chasing after. That is why physics departments are lead by physicists who are supposed to have a little better idea of where physics is going. But, the truth is: nobody really knows what research in basic theoretical physics is going to lead to. There are good arguments against pouring money into strings since it is not a theory with much hope of proveable results. There are also good arguments for pursuing a theory with such beauty.

In the end, nature will throw you curves no matter which way you go, and there will always be more to understand about nature than our theories and models can tell us. That is why I love science, because we get such beautiful glimpses of nature through it and sometimes that beauty leads to knowledge we never expected. Howevery, I must admit, in my view, string theory is probably too long of a shot to pay off any time soon and we should not let other avenues of physics research get lost while we gamble on string theory.