Monday, January 17, 2011

String Theory and Russell's Teapot

I don't want to be too hard on string theory because in reality I like the theory and hope it is correct.  That said, this cartoon by XKCD reminds me of the parallels between string theory and Russell's Teapot:
"The extra dimensions are really there we promise, they are just too small to observe...", "The supersymmetric partners that should exist for every particle are really there we promise, they are just at a high enough energy that they are out of our reach... ", "The 10^500 vacuum states leading to a multiverse...." etc...
I guess what I am worried about is that if string theory is not falsifiable in any practical way then you could never know if it is false or not.  Like Russell's Teapot.

Now, in defense of string theory, in principle these things may be able to be observed once we have built good enough detectors.  Therefore maybe it could somehow be falsified.

I guess another big difference is string theory employes hundreds if not thousands of physicists and the detection of Russell's Teapot doesn't. :)


  1. The best arguments for continued work on string theory (and other such highly speculative theoretical endeavors) are the existence of cold dark matter and dark energy. The observations clearly show something that does not fit within current verifiable physics, so there must be something new out there. String theory seems like the best candidate on aesthetic grounds. I say run with it.

    Rock on you string theorists, even if the rest of us enjoy making jokes at your expense.

  2. Nick,

    You are right, it is the best candidate on aesthetic grounds which is why I like it and why governments continue to fund it despite 40 years of no evidence. I'm sure string theory has the most man hours of any theory that has failed to produce a concrete falsifiable prediction in the history of government funded science for appealing reasons.

  3. When I checked xkcd this morning, I knew you guys would repost it!

    Here's my layman contribution. String theory is based in models that are internally consistent and coherent. The mathematics works which makes the theory aesthetic. There are real world predictions that if confirmed would make a significant contribution to our understanding. These are good reasons to pursue it even with a dearth of confirmation. It is reasonable to believe it might be right or somewhat right.

    We have no reason to believe in Russel's teapot. We have the technology to easily place a tea pot in orbit around the sun, but it would be silly and expensive with no benefit to anything. That makes it easily dismissed. Very different from String Theory.

    Now, theorize that Utah's "Dream Mine" is in orbit and you could sell stock to fund an expedition! =:)

  4. Stan,

    I admit the comparison is a bit of a stretch and string theory could potentially provide huge scientific payoff and Russel's Teapot even if confirmed does nothing for us.

    That said, watch the literature. If places like the LHC or other experiments find nothing giving evidence to string theory, like the god of the gaps, theorists will quickly explain that string theory may still be hidden in the yet unprobed regions of parameter space so we can't stop looking. :)

    I'll be looking for that orbiting dream mine.

  5. I say we actually put a teapot in orbit so we can put Russel's Teapot thought experiment to rest!!

  6. No laughing matter.. [the pun intended]. We might see a third coming of the recycled, reformed, reworked notion of cosmic 'aether' of Aristoteles. This time as the dark matter of the cosmos.


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