Friday, April 20, 2007

Simon White on fundamentalist physics

Fundamentalist physics takes over astronomy

Sean Carroll at cosmicvariance.com has pointed out an article by
that explains that the cosmological constant is a conspiracy created by the fundamentalists - also known as high-energy physicists - to take over astronomy. :-)

That's interesting. I thought that the cosmological constant was a conspiracy theory of astronomers meant to dismantle high-energy physics and fill it with all kinds of traditionally astronomical garbage such as the anthropic principle. :-)

As you can see, most of the people on the hypothetical two sides of the battle between the laws of the small and the laws of the large agree that the cosmological constant is an evil thing. Even Einstein himself agreed when he called the intellectual intercourse that led to its discovery "the greatest blunder of his life". :-)

Simon White argues that the fundamentalists, represented in the context of cosmology by their fifth column and their WMAP satellite, are uniform teams with predetermined big goals and their work leads to improvements in statistics. The astronomers and traditional cosmologists, represented by the Hubble Space Telescope, are, on the contrary, a diverse group of many loosely connected small teams with many unexpected results.




I think it's a fair observation but I don't think that the difference is created by "culture" or "social conventions". The difference arises from the distinct character of the questions that these two types of scientists are asking.

When you're asking how the Universe works at the most fundamental level, the number of detailed fundamental questions and possibilities is simply not large. For example, there are not too many things like the Higgs boson that we will observe soon. Also, the work with the WMAP data is inherently similar to the work of particle physicists. Such a proximity to the most fundamental questions inevitably makes the community more unified because they inevitably share certain basic theoretical pillars and certain big open questions.

Astronomy used to be a sloppy activity of senile philosophizing grandfathers and their excited grandsons from the kindergarten. Today, there also exists something else about the Cosmos: a high-precision science known as modern cosmology that unsurprisingly works in a similar way as particle physics.

Of course that if one studies different types of processes inside stars and galaxies, there is much less need to communicate with each other, the problems are more specialized, and the community ends up looking more diverse.

There are different levels of diversity and some fields naturally lead to higher diversity than others because it is a better strategy to make progress. However, the boundary between "diverse" fields and "united" fields is not sharp. It is completely inevitable that if one studies questions that are as "interdisciplinary" as the cosmological constant - something that tightly connects high-energy physics with the cosmological observations - the boundaries between the specializations will be blurred and the methods will be mixed with each other.

I don't think that it's right to be worried about some "cultures" taking over "other cultures". Whatever strategy to answer certain questions and discover new things is more efficient will lead to successes and will spread. On the other hand, I agree with Simon White that the cosmological constant shouldn't become the #1 question in science. It is, after all, just one number. It is very far from being the only fundamental question and moreover, not all interesting questions are fundamental. Because scientists don't quite understand the origin of one number that was recently observed doesn't mean that they should abandon millions of other methods, insights, and open questions about the Universe they have.

And that's the memo.

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