The Fine Line Between “Theory” and “Story”

When I read about string theory in Discover magazine 20 years ago, I thought it was the coolest thing. Awesome. Fun. A little puzzle for me to puzzle over. I could triumphantly announce to friends and family strange things about the Universe, and they would have to believe me.

A few days ago, while watching an episode of Through the Wormhole (hosted by the ever-believable Morgan Freeman), I had a very different experience.

It was the same puzzles and cool stuff as before. But now I’ve spent 20 years gaining experience about the “real world”, working closely with a plethora of “experts” who I would not trust to handle my most minor problem or mystery. And now, I probably doubt more than ever – I once doubted the World, fact, and theory, considering myself a scientist of sorts. Now I doubt scientists themselves.

At least ten years ago, I came to the firm belief that:

You can prove anything with statistics.

And it is true. That’s not good science, of course, but how many of us ever really have the time to hunt down and understand the details behind statistics or sweeping statements of “theory” which are printed, both in the mainstream media and in the more obscure journals.

An “expert” once told me that prolotherapy is an effective treatment. A week later, after having done all the possible research within my sort of limited means, I had concluded that there was no (significant) reason to think so – or at least no reason that seemed close to negating what to me were the clear downsides. I won’t quote my “research” directly here – after all, the expert did not even bother to provide research material.

We do gloss over details all the time. We just, typically, don’t have time to pursue.

When I heard Morgan Freeman, in his bassy, authoritative voice talk about “string theory” and all the various scenarios which are claimed to surround the “Big Bang”, for the first time, I seriously doubted my beloved physics – the same physics which made me feel comforted when I was younger.

Maybe Mr. Freeman has more justification somewhere up his sleeve, but he didn’t reveal it during the TV broadcast. The take-away, unfortunately, was that some physicists had theorized a very fabulous and elegant view of the Creation of the Universe. But it only all worked out okay if we added to our current three physical dimensions and one time dimension, another six or seven INVISIBLE dimensions. The idea of the “invisible” dimension used to seem cool. Now it seems like.. well, if these folks were software developers (like I am), I would point to their stinking piece of software and say:

You over-engineered it.

The justification for the extra dimensions goes something like this:

In order for the equations to work out, there must be other, invisible, dimensions.

It reminds me now of the old Bloom County comic strip where the little genius boy is working on his own theory of the Universe, and as he computes, he comes to the conclusion that Opus (the funny penguin) cannot exist (flightless waterfowl???). As Opus fades away, the little genius boy realizes he has forgotten to carry the “one”. He corrects the equation and Opus pops back into existence.

Of course, that sort of thing is funny in the comic. But in the context of real scientists doing real work, and having to add some “invisible” construct that only seems necessary in order to make the equations work – well, maybe:

The equations are wrong?

As I often am, perhaps I am being naive. But I do hope these experts in theoretical physics and cosmology are trustworthy. And trust me, not every “expert” in a niche field knows what he/she is doing and/or can be trusted to apply objective standards to their work. I still *heart* science, but reading about it now, it sounds a little tenuous.

What do you think? Can super-strings help to explain Creation?