Friday, February 26, 2016

Brian Greene on Albert Camus and String Theory

by Salman Hameed

For your weekend pleasure, here is an interesting article that profiles Brian Greene and how he thinks about the String Theory. He does address some of the criticism of the theory in the end, but there are other bits about his inspiration from Camus, and the influence of Greene's father. So the last part first:
Greene remains hopeful, too, that it won’t be long before the Large Hadron Collider throws up evidence of the super-symmetric particles – “partners” that pair every electron with a “selectron”, every quark with a “squark”, and so on – that string theory demands. 
He cites other possible forms of evidence, including the creation of miniature black holes
(with a consequent loss of energy presumed to have shunted into other dimensions), and, his own meticulous search for subtle signatures in the cosmic microwave background radiation. 
“Collectively there are a number of ways that I think you get strong hints that string theory is going in the right direction,” he says. “But failure to see any of them will not rule the theory out.” 
He has no time for critics who suggest that absence of evidence in string theory is strong evidence for continuing job security. 
His counter-argument echoes Jean Paul Sartre’s assertion that “Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have.” 
Says Greene: “I think that you go around once in life, and who would ever want to spend that time working on something that’s not right, that’s wrong, that’s a total waste of time? 
“So if string theory’s wrong, I’d like to know right now. I’d like to have known 20 years ago.
“We want to rule the theory out. I would be thrilled if string theory is wrong. I would be thrilled if we could learn that right now. Then I could move on to something else that might be right.”
And here is the bit about Camus, existentialism, and String theory:
For Greene, though, there is still another concept of distance that sometimes occupies his mind, a concept that cannot be quantified, no matter how sophisticated the mathematics, and that will never be subject to experimental evidence, no matter how much juice is pumped into the Large Hadron Collider. 
It is, nevertheless, a concept that gives rise to a powerful question. What is the distance
between a New York scientist and a dead Algerian philosopher? 
“I sort of re-read Albert Camus every few years,” he tells Cosmos from his office in New York. 
“He has a hold on me in a very deep way, and his ability to weave deep philosophical questions together with the kind of human concerns that we all have, into what I find to be riveting stories, makes him a compelling thinker.” 
Greene’s love for Camus isn’t the recently discovered intellectual regard of a smart guy in his 50s. It goes way deeper. It has occupied him for most of his life. 
In terms of his research – from his doctorate describing Calabi-Yau shapes, the putative repositories of the six hidden dimensions string theory demands; to his present quest to uncover evidence of quantum gravity in data describing cosmic microwave background radiation – the image of Camus, Gauloises cigarette hanging from his lip, lurks beneath the equations. 
For Brian Greene, Camus was the start of it all. 
At the beginning of his best-known book, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), Greene describes his teenage discovery of Camus’ philosophical masterpiece, The Myth of Sisyphus, in his father’s bookcase. He was transfixed by the author’s opening line: “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” 
“I do consider physics to be in some sense a branch of existential philosophy,” Greene tells Cosmos. 
“I would say there is a deep connection. The reason why I’m interested in physics, the reason why I’m interested in cosmology, is really to try to gain some insight into the very questions that Camus is asking. What is it that makes life worth living? What is it that drives the human spirit to explore as opposed to crawl back into the cave and crumble under the weight of existential angst?
Read the full article here

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