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Break on through

November 26, 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder characterizes the stagnation she sees at the core of physics:

The current theories are incomplete. We know this both because dark matter is merely a placeholder for something we don’t understand, and because the mathematical formulation of particle physics is incompatible with the math we use for gravity. Physicists knew about these two problems already in 1930s. And until the 1970s, they made great progress. But since then, theory development in the foundations of physics has stalled. If experiments find anything new now, that will be despite, not because of, some ten-thousands of wrong predictions.

I agree with Hossenfelder “that a theory isn’t pretty is not a problem.” That said, the situation she describes seems one where some key insights are lacking. Not necessarily pretty ones. A poster on Not Even Wrong offers a more bleak view.

Someone might try to point to quantum computing as an area of advance. And it is, but not in the foundation of physics. So it is interesting to read Mikhail Dyakonov’s skeptical look at what it might achieve.

I want to be more optimistic about that. The first computer I ever programmed was an analog computer. Those quickly gave way to digital computer, despite the fact that they can solve certain kinds of problems faster. I’ve long thought we should investigate and build some analog engines precisely for those problem classes where they execute faster. Quantum computers are a kind of that. There is the problem of achieving minimum known precision. That seems to me tractable, if restricted to certain kind of problems.

Turning to biology, I think Sean Parker hits the nail on the head when he says:

Tech people coming from tech to biology dramatically underestimate the complexity of the human body. It’s not designed by us. It doesn’t work in ways that make sense.

Biological systems are the result of billions of years of kludge after kludge, yielding systems that at first glance seem so tailored, and so Rube Goldbergesque and interconnected and path dependent as you dig deeper and deeper. That is the beauty of it. For the sake of medicine, we want to engineer biology. But it will be a hard kind of reverse engineering and careful, partial refactoring, rather than traditional forward engineering.

Breakthroughs may come more and more from abroad. Part of that is the natural effect of world development as we leave the American century. Alas, part of that is this nation’s inward turn, and consequent reduction in its attractiveness to young scientists.

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