The very last section of the book-in-progress (at least the draft that’s with my editor right now…) is titled “Science Is Never Over,” and talks about how there are a nearly infinite number of phenomena that you can investigate scientifically. The universe is a never-ending source of amazement and wonder, with surprisingly rich dynamics in the simplest of things. I mean, look at the thousands of words I’ve gotten out of talking about sticky tape…
This is why I sigh heavily whenever I see a title like Ashutosh Jogalekar’s “Should Physicists Stop Looking for Fundamental Laws. This is, at least, a slightly different twist on the theme, but it’s always the same story at the core: the search for the Ultimate Theory of Everything has run into some sort of snag (in this case, the latest round of multiverse speculation), and thus Physics is in crisis (in this case, it’s turning into biology). Because, of course, high energy theoretical physics is all the physics there is.
Except it’s not. If you look at the unit membership statistics for the American Physical Society, you’ll see that the Division of Particles and Fields is fairly substantial– around 3,500 members– but only the second largest division in the APS. The largest is the Division of Condensed Matter Physics, with over 6,000 members, and my own home Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics is not far behind the particle physicists, with just over 3,000 members.
And, in fact, that almost certainly overestimates the number of people working directly on a Theory of Everything. The fact is, the physicists whose work is genuinely in crisis as a result of recent developments (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) are a tiny minority of professional physicists. They’re vastly overrepresented in the media, in large part because wildly speculative stuff about multiple universes is sexy and provides lots of opportunities for stoner-friendly CGI, but if they all got sucked into a black hole tomorrow (thus settling the “firewall” debate for good and all), physics as a whole would continue on with barely a hiccup.
I sort of hate to pick on Jogalekar about this, because his piece is better than a lot of the dreck that clogs this particular genre of pop-science. The biology analogy and the stuff about historical contingency is pretty original, and well written, like basically everything on that blog. If he doesn’t have a book deal, somebody should give him one.
But the thing is, the vast majority of physicists are already comfortable taking the precise value of the electron charge as just one of those historical contingencies that you have to accept and get on with your day. Most of us are not actively and directly engaged in the search for ever more fundamental laws. The principles governing the systems I study were pretty well nailed down by 1950, and the core ideas of condensed matter are of similar vintage. And that doesn’t stop the many thousands of members of DCMP and DAMOP from having rich and rewarding careers.
Physics will never be over, because science is never over. Even if we never again discover another testable fundamental principle, that’s not a problem because we’re not even close to exhausting the ones we already have. Theoretical particle physics has had a rough couple of decades, to be sure, but they’re not the whole story, not by a long shot. And I wish more writers were more careful about recognizing that.
UPDATE: Some further discussion here.