Data vs Theory: The Mathematical Battle for the Soul of Physics


These are exciting times for the field of physics. In 2012, researchers announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, a discovery four decades in the making, costing billions of dollars (and euros, pounds, yen and yuan) and involving some of the best minds on the planet. And in December 2015, researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe reported that two separate experiments have reported possible traces of a new particle, one that might lie outside the Standard Model, although much more data and scrutiny will be required before anything definite can be said.

Yet behind the scenes a far-reaching battle has been brewing. The battle pits leading figures of string theory and the multiverse on one hand, against skeptics who argue that physics is parting ways with principles of empirical testability and falsifiability that have been the hallmarks of scientific research for at least a century.

String theory

String theory, as physicist Brian Greene explains his book and TV show The Elegant Universe, posits that all matter and fundamental forces can be thought of as vibrating strings and “branes” roughly 10-33 cm in size (a billion billion times smaller than an atom). Most formulations of string theory inhabit a space of 11 dimensions; the reason we only see three dimensions of space and one of time is that the other dimensions are curled up to submicroscopic size, much as a garden hose looks one-dimensional from afar, because its circular cross-section is much smaller than its length.

String theory arose in the 1960s and 1970s, as a theory of hadrons and later also of fermions. In 1974 John Schwarz and Joel Scherk concluded that string theory could also be formulated as a theory of gravity, thus achieving the long-sought unification of gravity with the other fundamental forces and particles. —> Read More