Cognitive Dissonance

Stephen Hawking in ‘The Grand Design’: God did not [sic] create the universe, it would have happened anyway.

I’m as big a fan of Stephen Hawking as the next geek. I’ve paid homage to his stand against religious bigotry by singing along with his faux DJ avatar to the tune of “Entropy, Yea you know me …”.

However, after A Brief History of Time (BHoT), a book which is likely responsible for inspiring an entire generation of young physicists his forays into popular publishing took a nosedive. The Universe in a Nutshell was a graphic monstrosity that any precocious eighth-grader would laugh at. And from these patently absurd promotional tactics for his latest venture, such as this news article, I have lower expectations for The Grand Design than I did for the second installment in the Matrix series.

Hawking remains, as ever, one of the giants of 20th century physics. My hope is that this new work will redeem his earlier missteps as a popular author, my low expectations notwithstanding.

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3 Responses to Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Firstly let me point out an irritating and very common misperception.
    Stephen Hawkins is NOT a scientist.
    He is a theoretical physicist and in common with others of his kind, Brian Greene and Lee Smolin, for instance, must properly be viewed as science fiction writers who mostly use the simple language of mathematics for their works.
    You see, science is an evidence-based domain.
    And there is not the slightest shred of hard evidence for, say, the eleven spatial dimensions at present favoured by string theorists. Or of the “branes” beloved of Hawkins. I am not knocking these people. The world needs dreamers. Science fiction, whether written in mathematics or natural language, is a playground of the imagination from which important ideas that correspond to the real world sometimes emerge. But until any of these ideas are backed up by evidence they are certainly not part of science.
    But to address the main topic, Hawkins’ latest natural language interpretation, “The Grand Design”. We at last see him breaking away from the quasi-religious mindset so common among theoretical physicists and instead started to adopt the kind of evolutionary model of our observed universe which is described in my book “Unusual Perspectives” A model which, when developed beyond the narrow limits of Hawkins’ world-view, is founded on a strong evidential basis with minimal assumptions.
    My present work “The Goldilocks Effect” is a rather more straightforward treatment of the main theme and will be soon ready for publication. Meanwhile, “Unusual Perspectives” is available in its entirety for free download from the eponymous website.

  2. Deepak says:

    Hi Peter,

    There are some points in your comments which I could dispute, but they are mostly semantics.

    Overall I agree with your perspective that theoretical physics went “off the deep end”, so to speak, sometime back in the 1970s. However, this had more to do with the paucity of new experimental evidence than any propensity for fantasy on physicist’s part. That almost 40 year long drought of fresh observations in high energy physics is about to come to an end with the release of the first year’s data from the LHC. That will do much to separate the wheat from the chaff of theoretical ideas.

  3. “Overall I agree with your perspective that theoretical physics went “off the deep end”, so to speak, sometime back in the 1970s. However, this had more to do with the paucity of new experimental evidence than any propensity for fantasy on physicist’s part. That almost 40 year long drought of fresh observations in high energy physics is about to come to an end with the release of the first year’s data from the LHC. That will do much to separate the wheat from the chaff of theoretical ideas.”

    Hi Deepak
    Certainly the theoretical physicists of that earlier era seemed to be much more hard-nosed. Einstein, despite what I suspect was a purely metaphorical leaning towards deism, was essentially a realist and, of course generated testable hypotheses. Feynman could perhaps be considered the ultimate realist despite working in a domain which, by his own admission, nobody fully understands.
    Today, though, it is open slather and anything goes. And unfortunately it is the wilder fantasies that occupy the popular limelight. The question of dimensionality is a glaring example. All we have ever observed are the three spatial and one temporal dimensions. Sure, within the context of mathematics we can have an arbitrary number of dimensions. They are part of the structure of mathematics and none have a direct correspondence to the observed universe except when supported by observation. Eleven, or a hundred and eleven “curled up” real world dimensions may exist but until they are observed their acceptance makes no sense. No more than that of angels. As remarked by Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Unfortunately, the inherent weakness in testability of string theory and most other TOEs probably means that data from the LHC will not fnally resolve such matters. I suspect that many hypotheses will be simply patched to fit!
    It is comforting to see that there are still some theoretical physicists with a healthy aversion to extravagant hypotheses around. Horava being a notable example. Also that we have an abundance of “real” (i.e. applied) physicists quietly doing wonderful stuff while the theoretical mystics get glorified.
    We do need to get away from the sensationalism, however, and take stock of the overall evolutionary patterns evident in our universe with a view to the very practical matter of survival of our species, This is what I try to do in my own writings.

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