Scholars' Association News
Issue 26
May 2013


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Scientific truth vs Common sense
Probing reality at the Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation in New York
By Nikolaos A. Katerelos

The audience which despite the rain in the city of New York came to the Onassis Affiliated Public Benefit Foundation on October 2nd, 2012, to attend the discussion on “Truth vs. Experience in Probing Reality”, an event in a series of discussions On Truth (and Lies) (see ΑΩ 55 and ΑΩ 56), was deservedly rewarded by a thrilling mental journey of awe-inspiring distances amongst galaxies and subatomic particles, with the guest speaker offering delightful recesses of discreet “cosmic” humour.  

Moderator Simon Critchley, Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research of New York, talked with Brian Greene, prize-winning writer and a Professor of Physics and Mathematics at the Columbia University, who is recognized for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in the field of superstring theory. His book The Elegant Universe, which has been translated in Greek too (entitled Το κομψό Σύμπαν, ed. Okeanida, 2004), was a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, while The Fabric of the Cosmos was included in the New York Times best-seller list and inspired the Washington Post to call Greene the “single best explainer of abstruse ideas in the world today.” His latest book, The Hidden Reality, also in New York Times bestseller list, explores the concept of a multiverse.

In order to understand the relationship between scientific truth and common sense, professor Critchley set the basic pillars for that thematic night’s mental journey which were the concept of multiverses, the application of the superstring theory to cosmological questions, based on the fact that The Hidden Reality is in fact a work of philosophy. Professor Greene was asked to present the role of scientific truth and of common sense in the probing of reality through a chronological account of the main landmark discoveries in Physics, starting from Einstein’s Special Relativity theory, going through Quantum Mechanics and reaching superstring theory. 

It was established that when common sense is compared to scientific truth all the afore-mentioned ideas were counter-intuitive theories. Professor Greene stated that “Special Relativity has fundamentally changed our view of reality” and added that “Before Einstein’s work in 1905 [...] there was a very basic intuitive common sense idea of how reality was constructed which basically was there is an arena called space, there is this feature of the universe called time”, so based on this intuitive idea, things change through time and everybody agrees on what happens, on how things move and evolve within the confines of this model. 

“Einstein came along and revealed that this idea is plain wrong” stressed Brian Greene, explaining that not all people agree on what happens at the same time, on the rate on which time elapses, on how big or small something is, and this is not due to subjective matter of opinion, but applies also to absolute objective measurements of time by experts. The inconsistency, according to Special Relativity, is due to the fact that relative motion affects the passage of time, even if we synchronize our watches. Expert observers of time shall come to different answers regarding how much time has passed if they move relative one to another, and their answers will all be right, if they’re doing their measurements correctly. In our everyday life, these disparities are basically unobservable because the relative speeds we achieve are low, but if you go near the speed of light these effects become huge. 

The next big decisive moment for Einstein was trying to understand the force of gravity.  Newton gave us a formula according to which if you multiply the masses together, divide through by the distance square and multiply through by this constant (G) we can calculate the force of gravity . Brian Greene continued by explaining that after 10 years of work, Einstein published in 1916 the General Theory of Relativity after having come to the realization that gravity is associated too with space and time; like a big rolling ball on a mattress it warps the space time fabric communicating the force of gravity. This is a completely counter intuitive idea.  In addition, Einstein managed to prove the correctness of his hypothesis as he was able to extract observational predictions that could be tested, like in the case of the motion of planet Mercury. Curvature in space and time gave rise to a prediction that worked, and could be applied to cosmology, the entire universe.  

At this point, Simon Critchley pointed out the criterion of testability of a theory and asked the physicist co-speaker what the universe looks like. The answer that he received was enigmatic; the universe is infinitely big, without overall curvature, and is stretching with time, like a 3-dimensional version of an infinite tablecloth.

The goal of Physics was a unified field theory, and the best contender at the moment is superstring theory or just string theory.  Professor Greene was asked to explain the string theory in the sense that particles are vibrating strings. And he admitted this being easier than explaining the theory of relativity or Quantum Mechanics.   He continued by saying that at the heart of all matter, inside electrons and quarks, there is a tiny little filament, a string-like filament which vibrates like a string in a musical instrument, and strings vibrating different patterns produce different kinds of particles. The “note” that the fundamental string is playing provides the richness of the spectrum of particles that we have discovered.

Brian Greene specified that the string theory is speculative to date; it has not been proven. He also added though that it is extremely hard to prove because these strings are unbelievably tiny.  While general relativity exited the realm of theory and entered the realm of reality by making predictions of what later became experimental observations, like the prediction of a solar eclipse in 1919, if a theory remains permanently untestable, then it ceases being a scientific proposal and remains as an interesting idea that may be right.  A scientific proposal does not require faith. Until the day of the discussion, there were no experiment-based data supporting string theory, like Higgs boson from the experiment on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The audience laughed when they heard the prestigious physicist saying that it’s not the theorists but the experimenters that are to blame for the failure to test string theory!

Touching on the concept of “multiverse”, the Physicist explained that if the universe is infinite, then somewhere out there, there could be beings similar to himself and Simon Critchley who are having the same interview again and again, simply because according to Quantum Mechanics, there can only be finite configurations of particles within any region, like the shuffling of a deck of cards.  An infinite big universe is an infinitely big capacity for repetition, concluded Greene, and continued by comparing our universe to a slice of bread in an infinite cosmic loaf! In support of the string theory testability, he stated that during the LHC experiment, when protons collide, some energy may be ejected from our ‘slab’ in the form of particles and enter a different dimension, which could be found from the energy ‘signature’ of the missing particle.

Then, he guided the audience’s thought to the absurd idea that we coexist in dimensions which we cannot perceive with our senses; we stand blind before them, like living in a matrix, as theoretical Physics is pushing towards the untestable by definition.  Unlike other, his taste is for ideas that are by definition testable regardless the years it may take. Such an idea is the idea of multiverses which even though it is in principle testable it seems to be crossing the line.  He himself prefers following the math wherever it leads

At this point, Simon Critchley mentioned the relation of mathematics to reality by asking his co-speaker whether mathematics is reality when it comes to theoretical Physics and the latter answered that “reality is how maths feels”; this led the discussion to a brief dialogue on the aesthetics of mathematics, the aesthetic elegance of scientific enterprise which could prove a very powerful practical tool. In his response to how he sees the relation between mathematics and reality, Greene said that his answer to that unfortunately changes from day to day surprising the audience with this humour!   He explained that Mathematics is shorthand of an equation into a sentence in a language, a product of our brains in a linguistic framework. However, when one realizes that math can describe reality, then one begins to feel it is more than that, it’s more like an underlying matrix, Greene added and joked with a hypothetical alien encounter where humans would discuss the purpose of math in our interpretation of the world. “Mathematics is the language that is able to encapsulate pattern in a manner that allows us to systematically analyse those patterns. [...] How could you analyse the universe without doing that? When we extract systematic laws that govern those patterns, then we are doing the patterns.” he emphasized. 

In professor Critchley’s question regarding what would happen to human freedom if there were a unified theory, our guest speaker surprised the audience by saying that based on the fundamental laws of Physics, humans are collections of moving particles and the notion of free will is incompatible with that. Thus, there is just an illusion of freedom, and we just need to redefine this notion!   

Referring to Camus and Pascal, Simon Critchley contradicted Brian Greene with the fear that infinite causes, the need for faith and love, the need for desire versus science, as something that creates a bloodless abstraction. The latter expressed his enthusiasm in response for humans who resemble ants on a rock, and who despite their insignificant size, they can make hypotheses on the shape of the universe, they can predict and calculate the cosmic. After all, one that is living in a cocoon cannot make rational judgments about whether life is worth living. Greene insists that it does matter how many dimensions there are in the world, and he wants to know what the dark energy is. “These kind of questions [...] make me wanna get up in the morning” he asserted! 

Before the closing applause, the guest speaker responded with humour and honesty to the audience’s questions, and to the question of how we perceive the real world, to the ancient myth of the cave he counter proposed the concept of the hologram.

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(Nikolaos A. Katerelos has a degree in Chemical Engineering by the National Technical University of Athens, and a doctorate from Reading University, UK. He works as a specialist scientist at the Hellenic Food Authority (EFET).