Not all New York Times contributors read The Reference Frame or other blogs about physics. One of those who apparently don't is John Horgan, the author of the controversial book The End of Science - as Peter Woit pointed out - and whom I originally confused with the enlightened professor of pure consciousness John Hagelin who has worked for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (Did you know that in Cincinnati, Ohio, a vedic approach to military defense based on Hagelin's insights about consciousness may earn you a PhD?)
Thanks to a reader for explaining me the difference between Horgan and Hagelin and please accept my apologies for this error.
In his book The End of Science, Horgan argued that all important discoveries in science had been made and science had switched to a postmodern speculative mode - something that Horgan called "ironic science". Even if there were something true about this general, vague, slightly arrogant, and discouraging thesis, it cannot justify the absurd details; and Horgan offers many crazy details, indeed.
In his new op-ed piece
definition of "common sense". My definition of "common sense" is such that Horgan's statement is incorrect. Any "sense" that is supposed to be called "common sense" should be "common" which means that many (or most) people should have it.
It is obvious that most people have lived in the world where relativity, quantum mechanics, or even quantum gravity play no material role. This fact implies that most people's intuition is based on the ideas and expectations that were later mathematically embodied in classical, non-relativistic physics. In other words, quantum physics and relativity are not parts of the natural instincts of the majority of the world's population. Most of us "feel" neither relativity nor quantum mechanics. The more we work with these concepts and the relevant theories and experiments, the more natural and essential they look to us. Quantum mechanics and relativity have been included in the instincts of most theoretical physicists (and many experimental physicists) - and those intelligent people who have been exposed to theoretical physics for a sufficient amount of time.
One of the criteria to measure the depth of ideas is their ability to challenge the beliefs and intuition of most people, including the smartest ones; in particular, deep ideas often challenge common sense. No doubt, both relativity and quantum mechanics satisfy this criterion. We have emphasized many times that even thousands of philosophers working for thousands of years would not be able to invent a valid theory of the Universe that is as weird as quantum mechanics by pure thought; that's essentially a statement by Sidney Coleman whose original author may be Richard Feynman, as David Goss has pointed out to me.
The neverending inflow of silly books such as The Final Theory is a testament of the striking incompatibility between common sense on one side and relativity or quantum mechanics on the other side (or, in the case of the author of that book, it's even the incompatibility of Newton's theory of gravity with common sense). The strength of the belief of a person that relativity or quantum theory is correct is a sharply increasing function of the number of physics degrees.
Even if you believe that John Horgan internally "feels" what quantum mechanics and relativity are all about - which I doubt - his op-ed shows quite clearly that his common sense is incompatible with some newer insights. For example, he says that he believes that the critical dimension of string theory is determined by the ZIP code of a physicist. Let me assure you that the correct calculations look a bit different. Even if you don't believe that string theory has anything to say about the dimensions of this actual Universe, it does not change the fact that Horgan's statement about the critical dimension is rubbish mathematically.
Note that Peter Woit is so eager to support any kind of attack against string theory that he even seems to agree with this stupidity by Horgan.
Horgan offers many other examples of scientific theories (as well as myths; I don't claim that all ideas that Horgan finds strange must be correct) that contradict his common sense, and therefore they must be wrong, he says. Of course, his opinions about particular theories of physics or biology are not supported by rational arguments. It's all about feelings.
Because I originally confused Horgan and Hagelin, let me add a story about the latter.
A story about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: right after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, a group of Maharishi's disciples visited our high school; many similar unusual spiritual trends were penetrating into the former communist countries of Europe, too. They did not look particularly smart when they were proposing their amazing methods of meditation, but let me admit that I was really impressed by their brochures claiming that the Einsteinian dream about the unified field theory had finally come true. I needed a week to decide that despite their reasonable choice of the words, these guys could not know anything about unification in physics. Several more years were needed to learn that the former physicist John Hagelin was behind these brochures.