Modern Physics Puts Elegance and Beauty Over Practical Value

(p. C9) Fundamental physics, says David Lindley, has lost its way. “I am ready to declare that research in this area, no matter its intellectual pedigree and exacting demands, is better thought of not as science but as philosophy.” His book aims to show how physics emerged out of airy speculation in the 17th century and, in recent years, has sunk back into it. “The Dream Universe” is not a book that will please philosophers, nor indeed historians, though physicists will find the argument a familiar one.

The problem, says its author, has been an excessive reliance on “mathematical elegance and beauty and whatnot” in fields such as “particle physics, the unification of gravity with quantum mechanics, and cosmology.” . . .

“The Higgs mechanism is no one’s idea of beautiful mathematics,” Mr. Lindley writes. “There’s nothing natural or inevitable about it, certainly nothing elegant. But it does its job.” The same applies, it appears, to one of the biggest breakthroughs in astronomy of recent decades, the confirmed reality of a previously theorized quantity driving universal expansion at an accelerating rate. “The beauty or otherwise of the cosmological constant is a non-issue,” the author writes. “It has practical value, and that’s what matters.”

. . .

The modern rot set in, he maintains, with theoreticians such as Hermann Weyl and Paul Dirac, who spoke of beauty as well as truth in physics. “Galileo would have been aghast,” Mr. Lindley writes. “He had no patience with mystical blather.”

. . .

Mr. Lindley complains that “the more physics pushes into the subatomic world, the more arcane the mathematical tools it draws upon.”

For the full review, see:

Andrew Crumey. “Pulling on a String.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, June 13, 2020): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 12, 2020, and has the title “‘The Dream Universe’ Review: Pulling on a String.”)

The book under review, is:

Lindley, David. The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

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