Fairy Tale Physics and Poisoned Cocktails

By David KordahlSeptember 6, 2013

Fairy Tale Physics and Poisoned Cocktails

Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott

DURING THE THREE YEARS I spent as a physics graduate student, I often found myself startled by an unearned allotment of intellectual prestige. Whenever I would mention my "profession" in public, there seemed to be two stock responses — one of which I preferred far more to the other. The first, the preferable response from my interlocutor, involved respectful small talk about hot physics research, before veering back to stock patter. The less likely, more difficult outcome occurred when my interlocutor accorded me, the burgeoning physicist, a strange authority to expound on the state of the universe at large. Most encounters of this second type took place at parties where I would meet people who described physics in quasi-mystical terms. I would roll my eyes as I impatiently fielded earnest, confused questions about multiverses, superstrings, and dead-alive cats. Not appreciating the motivating spiritual impulse, I would invariably end up launching into a harangue over the misrepresentation of physics in the public sphere, and we would part with no one feeling very good about the encounter.

Since I've become a teacher, I don't have to worry about overawed responses. But the publication of Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth convinces me that, had this book existed during my "angry physicist" period, I might have been more tactful. I could have outsourced my ire to Jim Baggott, the British author whose complaints have now been published in the United States. While Farewell to Reality reads at first like a work of criticism directed against extant popularizations of the field (which it certainly is), its more urgent target is precisely the assumed prestige that had once drawn me to physics: the halo-maker that awed those cocktail party conversationalists in the first place.

Baggott — ex-chemist, current science writer — seems well suited to write such a book. His bibliography includes just about every pop physics book worth mentioning, and he's a thorough researcher. His previous books of physics history, like Higgs: The Invention and Discovery of the “God Particle”, The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and two semi-technical books on quantum measurement, position him as someone who at the very least takes science seriously.

Baggott traces his motivation for writing this, his most recent book, to watching What is Reality?, a BBC documentary on physics esoterica:

[What is Reality?] began quite reasonably, with segments on the discovery of the top quark at Fermilab and some of the more puzzling conclusions of quantum theory. But beyond this opening the programme went downhill. It became a showcase for fairy-tale physics.

Many of the research routes Baggott has identified as “fairy-tale physics” have shown up in other books. In the past few years, for instance, we've had pop coverage on the glories of string theory (The Elegant Universe), multiverses (Parallel Worlds), quantum information theory (Programming the Universe), and anthropic principles (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle) — and some of these (i.e., string theory) have already undergone a public pummeling. Baggott issues a damning synthesis of arguments against such “fairy-tale physics” — starting with a survey of discoveries on the path to enlightenment (“Part 1: The Authorized Versions”), then branching out to recent deviations from the straight and narrow (“Part II: The Grand Delusion”).

The first of these goals is somewhat more successful than the second — hardly surprising given Baggott's back catalog of expository science writing. He begins with a few gestures toward philosophy: he establishes that science gives a representation of reality, that "reality is a metaphysical concept," that "falsifiability is not a robust criterion for a scientific method" — gestures which serve to establish him as a "scientific realist." As Baggott puts it, science corresponds to truth, rather than simply cohering around a certain set of self-consistent ideas. Of course, books have been written to argue these points alone, but Baggott itches to get on with the main story.

And it's a good story, often told, but rarely as gracefully as it is here. To be sure, Baggott isn't an original thinker on any of these topics — he calls the first half of his book "The Authorized Version" for a reason — but even as he adheres strictly to accepted opinion, he doesn't waste your time. When he presents the invention of quantum mechanics, he discusses Bell's inequalities, but he also makes sure to cover Leggett's. A report on the Standard Model's construction, which in many books comes right at the very end, here arrives on page 54; he gives you the short of it in a brisk 26 pages. When he discusses relativity, he's careful to distinguish measured effects (clocks have been shown to slow down on satellites) from unproven predictions (rockets haven't been shown to contract while speeding). Putting the Standard Model material early allows him to explain what the Higgs field has to do with the Big Bang better than any other book I've read on the subject, and the summary, where he discusses various issues that show this “authorized version” can't completely describe nature, is finished by page 151, halfway through.

Nothing in the book thus far constitutes the “pointed critique” or “much-needed antidote” promised by the jacket copy. If there's any surprise to Part II, it's that, aside from the doomy title, there's no marked shift in tenor or clarity. The book’s difference from other popularizations, at least those that subscribe to a kind of teleological triumphalism, is that Baggott maintains a neutral distance. Especially in light of the sensational cover/title, the fairness of his assessments impressed me. Instead of insisting on the stupidity of physicists for pursuing research programs with which he disagrees, Baggott thoroughly presents the theoretical background and unjustified assumptions. I left these sketches with a greater respect for the researchers they criticized than I had upon arrival, which is perhaps the best sign of their admirable evenhandedness.

In all of this, there's uncommon respect for the lay reader. Baggott understands — rightly, I think — that the difficulty of following mathematical derivations is separate from the difficulty of following logical arguments, and that while untrained readers can't be expected to track the math, the logic behind new theories is probably a large part of what they want from a book of this sort. So while the specifics of how Lagrangian densities are employed to generate conserved quantities are well beyond the text's scope, if the term "symmetry" is properly explained, and if we're given some idea of what "spacetime" denotes, then we can get what Baggott means when he tells us that supersymmetry is a spacetime symmetry between bosons (previously defined) and fermions (ditto).

This assumes a certain readerly tenaciousness, a belief that we're indeed pursuing popular physics books for their intellectual grist, rather than for some wooshy dispensation of metaphysical uplift. Such faith on Baggot's part sometimes even enters the style of argument. Here's the setup (see page 270) for a critique of anthropic arguments for their similarity to certain arguments from design:

There's a good chance that, having made it this far, you're a reader who happens to be interested in what contemporary science is saying about the nature of the physical world around us. […] I'm hoping that we can therefore agree that intelligent design is not science.

But with this assumption, Baggott might ultimately be wrong — not about intelligent design (though, who knows — ID proponents seem to enjoy take-downs of the "scientific mainstream"), but about his tacit belief in the intellect's primary importance to the success of a work of popular science. By the last page, I couldn't avoid the feeling that no matter how pithily Baggott had managed to summarize the research, from a reader's perspective, the book had failed. I returned to the inconvenient memory that it was not, in fact, a disinterested curiosity that had led me to read popularizations of science before any serious study. A more accurate portrayal of my motivation — a motivation shared, I suspect, by most other frequent fliers — would include the desire for visions of a world I didn't yet understand, for that frisson that came from realizing that the universe could be stranger than I might've once imagined.

For all its clear-eyed assessments, Farewell isn't that sort of a mindfuck. Consider, again, Baggott's distaste for anthropic principles. Roughly, these include any ideas that allow human existence (hence "anthropic") to act as an explanation for why the universe is the way it is. In its most extreme form, the "strong anthropic principle" asserts that the laws of physics are somehow required to allow for the evolution of humanoid observers — or else we wouldn't be around to discover them. Some physicists have connected this idea to the possibility that there are multiple universes, and that ours seems unusually well suited to life just because it is the one that we are able to observe.

This idea drives Baggott crazy. "I don't think we need to waste time debating whether the strong anthropic principle, or indeed any similarly structured principle, is scientific," he writes. "Any structure designed to […] restore some kind of privileged status to intelligent observers (whether human or not) goes against the grain of nearly five hundred years of scientific practice." But the problem remains that the parameters of the laws of physics seem finely tuned — suspiciously so. If readers are curious to know what answer Baggott would prefer, soon it arrives: "I have no explanation because science does not have an explanation."

Um, okay? "Scientists (even theoretical physicists) should not be afraid to say what they do not know," Baggott chides. But while this is most certainly true, the punch-then-duck rhetorical strategy is unsatisfying, inevitable though it may be. If you're outlining the problems with the notion of "Santa Claus," it's a major blow to your argument if you don't have any better explanation for those presents lounging under the tree.

We’re left in the position of a disillusioned grad student — that is, in the position of someone who has noticed the con but hasn't managed to work up any conceit to replace it. Little wonder, then, that party guests prefer the promises offered by confidence men, confident in their unlikely stories. Baggott, a terminally honest writer, simply insists that we must do better. "In the meantime " —  next year in Jerusalem —

we have to square up to the challenge posed by fairy-tale physics. And this is all I ask of you. Next time you pick up the latest best-selling popular science book, or tune into the latest science documentary on the radio or television, keep an open mind and try to maintain a healthy skepticism.

Again, most certainly true — but take it from someone who knows: no one likes that skeptical guy who ruins the party with his insistence that everyone else is wrong without having any better idea about what's right. Good luck, Dr. Baggott — if we ever meet, I'll probably change the subject.


 David Kordahl is a writer and musician living in Tempe, AZ, where he nevertheless earns money teaching physics.

LARB Contributor

David Kordahl is a graduate student in physics at Arizona State University.


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