Thursday, August 28, 2008

A warning from von Neumann

I can't resist reproducing this quote from John von Neumann, which I think applies well to certain branches of particle theory today. Thank goodness the LHC is coming on line soon...

As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source... it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more purely l'art pour l'art. ...In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much "abstract" inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration.

From the opening material of the book John von Neumann and Modern Economics. I highly recommend the chapter by Paul Samuelson.


Anonymous said...

does it apply to string theorists as well?

Anonymous said...

No! That quote does NOT apply to string theory in any way!

Anonymous said...

IMHO, this quote does not apply to String Theory, because (as far as I know) String Theory is not a "mathematical discipline".

Though many may disagree, String Theory is still Physics, right? And Physics is still a Natural Science, right? Ultimately, experiment will tell what is right and what is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Some say the LHC will find the Higgs. Some say LHC will find supersymmetry. Some bravest soul even say LHC will find extra dimensions.

One thing is certain - LHC will find that string theory is pure mathematics.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I do not find ST aesthetic at all. In fact, to the contrary. It is, however, definitely an offspring of pure thinking but with no proven connection to reality.

Anonymous said...

Excellent quote, Steve! A good example is the anthropic argumentation in some fashionable papers these days (I realize it is more subtle than the caricature, but still...)---unbelievable how some very smart people are taking it so seriously.

However, the approach taken by Witten (and collaborators), of using field and string theortic dualities to contribute to mathematics, is a good counterexample of the quote. He gets around it by simply developing a new field!

The discovery of what breaks EWSB is clearly very, very important. However, it seems that nothing at LHC will be "revolutionary" in the sense of relativity or quantum physics---it certainly has to be a QFT. The EWSB picture, while unclear, seems to me to be a lot less confusing than was the case in the '60s, when even QFT was questioned. I think (and hope) it is based on some novel insight into quantum field theory (like asymptotic freedom). Specifically, I hope it is not the scalar Higgs and nothing else---it may be "unnatural", but it is still logically consistent.

One thing most laymen won't appreciate is how tightly constraining even the current measurements are on the models. Most models are automatically ruled out based on the changes to the S, T an/or U paramaters---one does not need the LHC to disprove them.

Anyway, can't wait for some exciting surprises from the LHC!


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