Thursday, December 22, 2011

Awkward science problems

In Harper Magazine’sThe accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith,” physicist/novelist Alan Lightman, writing for Harper’s Magazine, explains the dilemma that string theory, which posits multiple dimensions and multiple universes, places the discipline of theoretical physics.

On the one hand, it promises a workable Theory of Everything, the Holy Grail of physics, which would finally reconcile general relativity with particle physics in a coherent, mathematically expressible way.  As well, as Steven Weinberg explains, “The multiverse idea offers an explanation of why we find ourselves in a universe favorable to life that does not rely on the benevolence of a creator, and so if correct will leave still less support for religion.”  No need for “fine tuning” here, so sorry, folks; you can pack up your intelligent-designer bags and go home.

On the other hand, with 10500 universes in play, it means that the fundamental principles of our universe are accidental; the whole point of string theory in the beginning was to prove those principles necessary.  Worse, because of technological and financial limitations they can’t prove eternal inflation or string theory true, and won’t be able to for many, many years (if ever):

Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable [sic] [; in] addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes.  But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence.  Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Excuse me, I gotta get this out of my system:  BWA-HAHAHAHAHA-AA!  O the irony!

Of course, Weinberg’s contention is off-base cosmologically, because string theory doesn’t solve the problem of either causality or contingency, no matter how many alternate universes it postulates.  More to the point, though, if Lightman is correct, then theoretical physics has come to the end of its chain for awhile, at a spot particularly awkward for those attempting to argue against God from scientific discoveries.

Speaking of awkwardness:  I’m sure everyone has read by now of the Italian researchers at the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development who recently announced that the image on the Shroud of Turin was caused by “some form of electromagnetic energy (such as a flash of light at short wavelength)” by using UV light to create an image with characteristics similar to the Figure on the Shroud.  The scientists did not prove that the image was created by UV lasers; nor did they use the word “supernatural” to describe the process.  However, they did finally prove that the cause was beyond the capability of medieval technology.

Shroud researchers have known since 1978 that the image on the Shroud consists of fibers whose chemical composition in their surface fibrils was changed, producing a monochromatic yellow color (i.e., one consistent shade; darker and lighter areas are differentiated by the number of fibers affected, not by changes in shade).  Almost invariably, attempts to show how the Shroud was “faked” have failed to take this characteristic into account, even after “years of research”, mostly depending on use of some medium to bond pigments to fabric.  A couple of attempts have been made to use radiant heat from a solid object; however, the resultant images were fuzzy and indistinct.

Skeptics everywhere were relieved when in 1988 carbon-14 dating presumably proved that the Shroud was produced between 1260 and 1390.  However, several issues arose that undermined the credibility of the tests, from bad methodology of the sample selection, to possible confirmation bias on the part of some of the researchers, to issues with carbon-14 itself as a reliable method of dating.  This didn’t stop Eric Pfeiffer of Yahoo! from claiming, “There has been substantial evidence working against it, including a 1988 radiocarbon test conducted at the University of Oxford, which dated the cloth to a time between 1260 and 1390.”

What other evidence?  The one positive piece of evidence in the pile is a memorandum by Pierre d’Arcis, Bishop of Troyes in 1389 claiming to have gotten a confession from the artist. However, the memo only appears in a rough draft, and doesn’t name the artist; nor have the archives coughed up a signed confession.

And a couple of years ago, a couple of Israeli archaeologists found a burial shroud from the first century whose weave was different from the Turin shroud.  The archaeologists claimed that the Turin herringbone pattern wasn’t introduced for over a thousand years after Christ; since the conclusion is based on one sample only, we can feel free to doubt the certainty of their facts.

Stuart Chase’s dictum about the necessity of proof has been over-quoted.  Obviously, just as there are those who are emotionally vested in the Shroud’s authenticity, there are those who need to believe that it’s a medieval hoax.  As the authentic burial cloth of Christ, the Shroud wouldn’t give us prima faciae proof of Christianity’s truth, though it would give us highly suggestive evidence in that direction.  But as a 14th-century fraud, it would be even more inexplicable and bewildering than as a first-class relic.

Lightman says, “If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles — to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are — is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true.”

The thing is, it was never physics’ mission to make the properties of the universe necessary. To the extent that it became a goal, it did so only as part of an effort to chase God out of the universe with the law of parsimony.  All string theory does is set the infinite regress up another level: instead of explaining where the universe came from, now you have to explain where strings came from.

Is it really that hard to say “There was a beginning”?