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Physics in revolution

Ehsan Masood
17 October 2006

The 2006 Nobel prize for physics went to two scientists, John C Mather and George F Smoot, who successfully detected the universe's birth-pangs. Their achievement builds on the discovery of "cosmic microwave background radiation," a signature relic from the universe-creating "big bang" of (approximately) 13.7 billion years ago, which won Arno A Penzias and Robert W Wilson the physics Nobel in 1978.

It was only in the late 1980s that the dramatic scale of the scientific breakthrough that the "big bang" represented was registered. When it happened, the intellectual and public impact was enormous. It even made headline news around the world - not bad for the pre-internet age. The (London) Independent, still in its infancy though already with a broadsheet's authority, devoted most of its front page to the story.

Today, across the corridor in the world of theoretical physics, a different kind of drama is being played out. Only here it is novelists rather than Nobel committees who are busy taking notes.

"String theory" has for more than two decades been the favoured framework to attempt to explain all nature's different forces. These include gravity and electromagnetism, as well as the strong force between elementary particles and the weak force that is responsible for radioactive decay. The theory is now under severe pressure. It is said to have failed on two counts.

First, despite dominating theoretical physics for some two decades, string theory has been unable to explain all of nature's forces - there are today hundreds of variations of the theory. Second, and related, none of these theories can be tested because the energy required to simulate the conditions at the time of the birth of the universe are beyond even the most powerful particle accelerator.

The assault on string theory is not, as you might expect, coming from sociologists doing their customary demolition job on science. They don't need to because physicists have learnt the language of politics and sociology and are attacking their own field all by themselves. Former string theorists have broken ranks and published books surveying the evolving arguments and (in some cases) criticising their former colleagues.

One such book is The Trouble With Physics by string-theorist-turned-sceptic Lee Smolin. Among other things Smolin argues that string theorists are a kind of clerical order. They dominate the theoretical-physics community to such a degree that there are few opportunities and not much money to develop alternative explanations for the forces of nature.

To working physicists (and failed physicists such as myself), this is alarming. But it is also clear that this is one of the most exciting periods in the history of physics. What is depressing is that the potential for a single theory to explain nature's fundamental forces will be set back by many decades if string theory proves to be a dead end (though that outcome is far from certain; the theory continues to have influential backing, including from the science journal Nature).

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Big media, small world" (August 2006)

"The global politics of cricket"
(September 2006)

"Pope Benedict XVI:science is the real target"
(September 2006)

"The cost of freedom in the digital age"
(October 2006)

The wonder effect

What makes this an exciting moment is that the string-theory flap represents a real-time example of a scientific discipline being forced to consider changing course because of a lack of results. New theories challenging or replacing existing ones is how science works. This doesn't happen often, however. The last major revolution in physics was the birth of quantum theory a century ago.

Moreover, in schools across the world physics, chemistry and biology is taught as a set of fixed ideas to memorise - with little reference to context or history. So it is hard for young people to really appreciate the idea of science as a process of discovery, experiment, evidence-testing, and accumulating knowledge.

To their credit, many teachers, researchers and educational authorities here in Britain have been conscious of this deficit. Several initiatives are now underway to address it. The latest of these started to deliver its new two-year science course in September 2006. This is "21st-century science," a project developed by the Nuffield Foundation in partnership with the University of York's science education group. The 14-16 year-old pupils who take the course will learn about the nature of science and its relationship to people, to politics and the environment - including focusing on topical scientific issues such as climate change and genetically-modified crops.

One of the reasons why such courses have taken so long to see the light of day is resistance from some in the scientific community. Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College London, is one such sceptic; he has warned of the dangers of a "dumbed-down curriculum", and is joined by other experts who fear the effects of "soundbite science" on scientific literacy.

Sykes's reasoning has a certain logic to it. The didactic, memory and maths-approach of school science may not do much for the scientific literacy for the general population, but it is a required staple for the production of science PhDs. If you want to pursue a career as a research chemist, it is a good idea to have memorised the periodic table of elements at age 18. Anyone contemplating a research career in physics needs to be able to have above average ability in mathematics.

A decade ago, Sykes's view would have found support inside the leadership of scientific institutions such as Britain's Royal Society, and the Institute of Physics. But there is less support today. Both bodies (and many others) have reconsidered their positions and are backing innovative approaches to science education. They have good reason to do so. Since 1991, the numbers of pupils embarking on the present crop of post-16 physics courses has dropped by 35%.

This has led, among other things, to a reduction in the supply of trained physics teachers. Robert May, former president of the Royal Society, has described Britain's science education as being in "crisis." Furthermore, Britain's scientific leaders believe that if young people have a better understanding of the nature of science, when they are older they will be more sympathetic to public-policy decisions that are based more on research.

Already, another key development of the past decade has been much greater public involvement in scientific processes (see James Wilsdon, "Small talk: new ways of democratising science and technology," 27 September 2005). Non-scientists today are involved in setting the priorities for research conducted by the Food Standards Agency, and more lay people today sit on scientific advisory committees, and research ethics committees. Effective participation in these and other scientific processes needs an understanding of the process of science, as much as high standards of mathematics and an ability to memorise large numbers of acts.

Indeed, Lee Smolin believes that a more accurate understanding of the natural world is hampered by the fact that theoretical physics is dominated by a very large number of narrow specialists, each able to attack a small part of the problem. He says that a breakthrough is more likely to come from scientists who can take a more panoramic view. These will be scientists with the sort of vision and breadth of interests as Albert Einstein and his colleagues who revolutionised physics at the start of the 20th century.

Smolin may have a point. For all his scientific genius, Einstein's career included working at a patent office. He was also passionate and active in a range of other fields, such as human rights, global governance, even science education.

Richard Sykes, take note: if we are to see the likes of Einstein again, it will be because he or she has been immersed in a range of fields at an early age. To encourage early specialisation in 18-year-old budding scientists may close rather than open the windows of discovery.

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