Boltzmann

Episode Nine – An Interview with the Physicist Juanma

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6) What do you think about string theory?
Ah well, to paraphrase The Fountainhead, “I don’t think of string theory”. No, really, I think the methodology adopted by theoretical physicists in the last century inevitably leads to arbitrariness and, what’s even worse, a complete disregard for understanding natural phenomena.

For example, Descartes wrote several volumes rationalizing answers for every single scientific problem he could think of and then proceeded to proclaim that he had discovered everything. Literally, he said that. But at the very least he intended to understand the world around him.

Descartes

Descartes is, fairly, said to the be the father of modern philosophy. This is not a good thing.

Modern physicists make the exact same guesses, only mathematically more sophisticated, but they don’t care about explaining reality. All that matters to them is to create a model, they say, that predicts numbers, and the less conceptual they get, the better; this is known as the “shut up and compute” principle.

This is, of course, a losing strategy for science, but they get their peers’ appraisal.

Ironically, however, mathematicians know that you can always make a model sophisticated enough to account for any data, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good model if you can’t make any sense out of it.

For example, I could write down a set of equations explaining in detail when and how the light inside my fridge will turn on and off as I open and close the door, but have I actually learned anything about why it behaves so?

I could claim that a ghost is operating the light, and my equations would not be able to contradict that because all they do is predict results rather than explain the facts.

String theory does exactly the same thing and that’s why I consider that neither of those are even scientific in nature. They’re more like mystical claims, epistemologically speaking.

Ashna: I think the ghost theory might make more sense than string theory. Or, at least be easier to understand.

7) Who is your favorite figure in physics?
Probably saying ‘Newton’ would be too uninteresting as we all know of his genius, and some of the audience will even be familiar with his work in the epistemological field of induction. So, to be a bit more of a romantic spirit, I will say ‘Ludwig Boltzmann’.

He vigorously fought for the relevance of philosophy in scientific activity, against the rising positivist current of his time, led by Ernst Mach. So, he was quite a hero in my view.

He laid the foundation for, and then developed, statistical mechanics, which is the link between microscopic and macroscopic behaviour of physical systems. It is such an important core theory, because, for example, the existence of atoms could be proven in this way. So, this was actually the greatest feat in the 19th century.  So considered by all, nearly all, historians of science, because it was a causal explanation

And then, in his time, causal explanations were severely disregarded, so the arrival of atomic theory as a proper, integrated explanation of microscopic was delayed because of the opposition to Boltzmann’s views. But he defended it to the bone.

But, regardless of the outcome, he stood against a great philosophical danger

Ashna: Boltzmann, he made my favorite list too, for basically the same reasons!

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