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08 February 2009

The Inch-Long Equation: A Sociology of Science

[I originally posted this blog on Tuesday 19 August 2008 on MySpace. I'm reposting it here as part of "Brad's Greatest Hits."]

Among contemporary physicists, theories are judged not only by how well they represent empirical observations of reality but ultimately by how "elegant" or "beautiful" they are. Arguments for the existence of a grand unified theory (GUT), which would explain the three principle quantum-level forces as one overarching force, and of a theory of everything (TOE), which would combine the three quantum-level forces with gravity, also rely heavily—if not solely—on the insistence of an ultimate beauty. Sociologically, we know that beauty is not absolute but socially constructed. One classic example of this understanding can be seen in the varying standards of feminine beauty over time and across cultures. For instance, viewing Cabanel's The Birth of Venus next to a photograph of Jessica Biel demonstrates two very different definitions of femininity. If definitions of beauty are culturally specific and, more radically, that beauty itself is socially constructed, then physics is judging itself on something less than scientific. This causes several problems. First, there simply may not be a GUT or a TOE, and physicists the world over are wasting their time, chasing a philosophical abstraction. Second, even if there is a GUT or a TOE, it may turn out to be complex and ugly, albeit correct. (Indeed, it is entirely possible that one such theory has already been dismissed based on this superficial criterion despite its being right!) My point is that physics has gone astray. On the margins of the discipline, in a valiant effort to expand the state of the art, scientists have been forced to reach outside of science for direction. Instead of explaining the fundamental nature of the universe, physics is on track to instead explain the consequential nature of humanity.

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