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Fundamental physics increasingly dominated by “unsuccessful highly speculative research programs”?

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Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law

At Not Even Wrong, (July 8, 2011), the blog for his book of the name, Columbia computer scientist Peter Woit goes after the defects of cosmic string theory and other bizarre cosmologies Here he notes a new book by Helge Kragh, Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology :

I’ve always wondered what historians of science would make of the increasing dominance of research in fundamental physics by unsuccessful highly speculative research programs, and have also often wondered if there are any relevant historical parallels to this situation. This book does a great job of addressing those questions, and it’s pretty much unique in doing so.

Kragh spends the first half of the book on history, the second half on currently popular (of varying degrees of popularity…) topics including varying constants of nature, cyclic cosmological models, anthropics, the multiverse and string theory. He doesn’t explicitly make any attempt to evaluate how successful these current efforts are, but they are discussed in the context of previous failures and parallels are drawn. I didn’t know much about the history of “vortex theory” in nineteenth century physics, and this turns out to be possibly the best historical parallel to the story of string theory. Here’s an extract from the extensive and enlightening discussion of that bit of scientific history:

From its beginnings in 1867 to its end at about 1900, the [vortex] theory was frequently justified on methodological and aesthetic grounds rather than its ability to explain and predict physical phenomena. In an 1883 review of ether physics, Lodge described the vortex atom theory as ‘beautiful’ and ‘the simplest conception of the material universe which has yet occurred to man’. He added, just as Michelson would do twenty years later, that it was a ‘theory about which one many almost dare to say that it deserves to be true’.


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Back in the day the aether theory was alpha dog for awhile. Unifying light, electricity and magnetism nested in matter. Kepler had some beautiful unifying geometric models. But mathematical beauty alone does not always cut it. At some point you have to observe something. junkdnaforlife

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