Monday, October 5, 2009
We Are All Economists Now
"Lay people tend to regard science, especially physics, as a lofty temple inhabited by serene, Spock-like wise men. ... Consider the story of the branch of physics known as string theory and what happened to it after it attracted the attention of a mathematician named Peter Woit. ... The book combines science and polemics to argue that string theorists were heading down a scientific rat hole, one where fancy math tricks had been mistaken for genuine physics. At the time the conventional wisdom was that the string theorists were the best in the business and on the brink of a new revolution on par with Einstein's theory of relativity. ... 'String theory was a bubble waiting to be pricked,' says Woit, 51. 'The fundamentals just weren't there anymore.' ... There is no direct evidence that the world is really made up of strings; the idea was first proposed simply because it made a certain amount of mathematical sense. ... Physicists come in two varieties: The experimental ones sit at the controls of huge machines like particle accelertors, while the theoretical ones, who include string theorists, think deep thoughts in front of blackboards. ... The crucial problem is that it is hard to pin string theory down to a specific set of predictions that vindicate or disprove the theory. ... 'And there are two ways [ideas] can fail. The first is that there can be an inconsistency about the idea. But the second is that the idea was so vacuous that you can get anything you want out of it.' ... While Woit had a PhD in physics from Princeton, his math job at Columbia, though involving very advanced topics, is a nontenured and thus low-status post, as an instructor rather than as a professor. Worse still, from the perspective of academic prestige, he is also responsible for running the math department's computer system. It isn't that he is low in the physics world's pecking order; he isn't even in it. ... Physicists, though, defend themselves by saying that in the Internet age, when anyone can put out an opinion about anything, they have to draw limits around who they can get into arguments with", my emphasis, Lee Gomes at Forbes, 21 September 2009.
So what? Einstein was a Swiss patent office clerk, 1902-1909. It sounds like physics is infected with the same disease as our Keynesian economists or financial engineers. Has Woit's opinion merit? That's what's important, not if he is a tenured professor at MIT. I have long thought as highly of string theory as financial engineering, not very. The string theorists have promising futures ahead. Working for ratings agencies. Predictions? This sounds like something Uncle Miltie used to say.