Martin Rees Against Fundamentalism

There’s a really good article from Martin Rees in the latest issue of Seed, on the scientific challenges that won’t be affected by the LHC:

The LHC hasn’t yet provided its first results, the much-anticipated answers to questions we’ve been asking for so long. But they should surely come in 2009, bringing us closer to understanding the bedrock nature of particles, space, and time – toward a unified theory of the basic forces. This would push forward a program that started with Newton (who showed that the force that made the apple fall was same one holding the planets in orbit), and continued through Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Weinberg/Salam, and others in a distinguished roll call.

Most exciting of all would be clues to the ultimate unification between the force of gravity, which governs cosmic scales, and the forces of the microworld. Indeed, the quest for a unified theory engages huge numbers of the most talented young theorists (too many, in my opinion – most would derive more satisfaction, and contribute more to science, if they focused on other scientific frontiers that are less intensively studied). But while unified theories are sometimes called “theories of everything,” this phrase is misleading and hubristic. Such theories offer absolutely zero help to 99 percent of scientists. Chemists and biologists don’t fret about their ignorance of subnuclear physics, still less about the mysterious “deep structure” of space and time.

String theory, or some alternative to it, might indeed unify two great scientific frontiers, the very big and the very small – and that would be an immense intellectual triumph. But a third frontier, the very complex, is perhaps the most challenging of all.

It’s a refreshing change from the usual run of LHC hype, which loudly proclaims the problems of high energy physics as the most “fundamental” and important problems in science. As I’ve said before on the blog, though, high energy physics isn’t really “fundamental” in the usual sense; or, as Rees puts it “Even if we could solve Schrödinger’s equation for all the atoms in [a turbulent fluid] flow, the solution would offer no insight into turbulence.”

this is also a good opportunity to please the Corporate Masters by plugging the newly redesigned SEEDMAGAZINE.COM, which is so shiny and new that you’ll want to SHOUT about it…