Monday, August 20, 2012

Experiments and scientific knowledge

In a previous post I have commented about Stephan Wolfram and A New Kind of Science. Here are a few citations from his very interesting post (A Moment for Particle Physics: The End of a 40-Year Story?) about the "particle of God" and all the media excitement about the recente CERN experiments (of course, part of the social battlefield seeking additional funding for the institution and its research program).
Some comments about the  advanced (and expensive) research on physics of particles, based on his personal experience in this field:
  • But in the end—in a rather formative moment for my understanding of applying the scientific method—it turned out that what was wrong was actually the experiment, not the theory.
  • Experiments are messy. Empirical evidence is not "clean" and direct: usually it is fuzzy and confusing. Polanyi had a clear understanding of this. The scientist commands the experiment (not the reverse).
  • I suppose I had hoped for something qualitatively different from those particle physics talks I used to hear 40 years ago. Yes, the particle energies were larger, the detector was bigger, and the data rates were faster. But otherwise it seemed like nothing had changed (well, there also seemed to be a new predilection for statistical ideas like p values). There wasn’t even striking and memorable dynamic imagery of prized particle events, making use of all those modern visualization techniques that people like me have worked so hard to develop.
  • Could future discoveries in particle physics immediately give us new inventions or technology? Years ago things like “quark bombs” seemed conceivable. But probably no more. Yes, one can use particle beams for their radiation effects. But I certainly wouldn’t expect to see anything like muonic computers, antiproton engines or neutrino tomography systems anytime soon. Of course, all that may change if somehow it’s figured out (and it doesn’t seem obviously impossible) how to miniaturize a particle accelerator.
  • Over sufficiently long times, basic research has historically tended to be the very best investment one can make. And quite possibly particle physics will be no exception. But I rather expect that the great technological consequences of particle physics will rely more on the development of theory than on more results from experiment. If one figures out how to create energy from the vacuum or transmit information faster than light, it’ll surely be done by applying the theory in new and unexpected ways, rather than by using specific experiments
  • But from my work on A New Kind of Science I developed a different intuition. That in fact there’s no reason all the richness we see in our universe couldn’t arise from some underlying rule—some underlying theory—that’s even quite simple
  • Now of course it could be that something new will be discovered that makes it more obvious what the ultimate theory might look like. But my guess is that we don’t fundamentally need more experimental discoveries; we just need to spend more effort and be better at searching for the ultimate theory based on what we already know. And it’s certainly likely to be true that the human and computer resources necessary to take that search a long way will cost vastly less than actual experiments in particle accelerators.
Good stuff for discussion in classes about science and scientific method.
Of course I appreciate very much the reference to Michael Polanyi. He correctly claimed that experimental results and empirical evidence do not make science and establish truth (although they contribute do it), but it is the consensus of the scientific community, in a certain moment, that defines what is accepted as scientific truth. This is not incompatible with Karl Popper falsibillity of scientific hypothesis. Although Popper has a very restrictive and limited view of scientific knowledge, and knowledge in general.

(Italics my resposability)