When does an idea die? Plato and string theory clash with data
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
From the perspective of the west, it all started in ancient Greece, around 600 BCE. This is during the Axial Age, a somewhat controversial term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers to designate the remarkable intellectual and spiritual awakening that happened in different places across the globe roughly within the span of a century. Apart from the Greek explosion of thought, this is the time of Siddhartha Gautama (aka the Buddha) in India, of Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, of Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) in ancient Persia—religious leaders and thinkers who would reframe the meaning of faith and morality. In Greece, Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras of Samos pioneered pre-Socratic philosophy, (sort of) moving the focus of inquiry and explanation from the divine to the natural.
To be sure, the divine never quite left early Greek thinking, but with the onset of philosophy, trying to understand the workings of nature through logical reasoning—as opposed to supernatural reasoning—would become an option that didn't exist before. The history of science, from its early days to the present, could be told as an increasingly successful split between belief in a supernatural component to reality and a strictly materialistic cosmos. The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Age of Reason, means quite literally 'to see the light,' the light here clearly being the superiority of human logic above any kind of supernatural or nonscientific methodology to get to the "truth" of things.
Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding.
To what extent we can understand the workings of nature through logic alone is not something science can answer. It is here that the complication begins. Can the human mind, through the diligent application of scientific methodology and the use of ever-more-powerful instruments, reach a complete understanding of the natural world? Is there an "end to science"? This is the sensitive issue. If the split that started in pre-Socratic Greece were to be completed, nature in its entirety would be amenable to a logical description, the complete collection of behaviors that science studies identified, classified, and described by means of perpetual natural laws. All that would be left for scientists and engineers to do would be practical applications of this knowledge, inventions, and technologies that would serve our needs in different ways.
This sort of vision—or hope, really—goes all the way back to at least Plato who, in turn, owes much of this expectation to Pythagoras and Parmenides, the philosopher of Being. The dispute between the primacy of that which is timeless or unchangeable (Being), and that which is changeable and fluid (Becoming), is at least that old. Plato proposed that truth was in the unchangeable, rational world of Perfect Forms that preceded the tricky and deceptive reality of the senses. For example, the abstract form Chair embodies all chairs, objects that can take many shapes in our sensorial reality while serving their functionality (an object to sit on) and basic design (with a sittable surface and some legs below it). According to Plato, the Forms hold the key to the essence of all things.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0
When scientists and mathematicians use the term Platonic worldview, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives (1979), 39.)
Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, semi-religious dream.
This kind of tension is palpable today when we see groups of scientists passionately arguing for or against the existence of the multiverse, an idea that states that our universe is one in a huge number of other universes; or for or against the final unification of the laws of physics.
Nature, of course, is always the final arbiter of any scientific dispute. Data decides, one way or another. That's the beauty and power at the core of science. The challenge, though, is to know when to let go of an idea. How long should one wait until an idea, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic? This is where the debate gets interesting. Data to support more "out there" ideas such as the multiverse or extra symmetries of nature needed for unification models has refused to show up for decades, despite extensive searches with different instruments and techniques. On the other hand, we only find if we look. So, should we keep on defending these ideas? Who decides? Is it a community decision or should each person pursue their own way of thinking?
In 2019, I participated in an interesting live debate at the World Science Festival with physicists Michael Dine and Andrew Strominger and hosted by physicist Brian Greene. The theme was string theory, our best candidate for a final theory of how particles of matter interact. When I completed my PhD in 1986, string theory was the way. The only way. But, by 2019, things had changed, and quite dramatically, due to the lack of supporting data. To my surprise, both Mike and Andy were quite open to the fact that that certainty of the past was no more. String theory has taught physicists many things and that was perhaps its use. The Platonic outlook was in peril.
The dispute remains alive, although with each experiment that fails to show supporting evidence for string theory the dream grows harder to justify. Will it be a generational thing, as celebrated physicist Max Planck once quipped, "Ideas don't die, physicists do"? (I paraphrase.) I hope not. But it is a conversation that should be held more in the open, as was the case with the World Science Festival. Dreams die hard. But they may die a little easier when we accept the fact that our grasp of reality is limited, and doesn't always fit our expectations of what should or shouldn't be real.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
- A new study proposes the "babble hypothesis" of becoming a group leader.
- Researchers show that intelligence is not the most important factor in leadership.
- Those who talk the most tend to emerge as group leaders.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.
Before Alexander the Great established Alexandria around 331 BCE, one of Egypt's primary ports on the Mediterranean Sea between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE was a place called Thônis-Heracleion.
Now researchers from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), the same organization that first found the city in 2001, have announced the discovery of a couple of fascinating items from the city's heyday. Pinned beneath fallen temple stones is a surprisingly intact Egyptian military vessel from the second century BCE, and researchers have excavated a large cemetery from the fourth century BCE.
Thônis-Heracleion was one of the two primary access points to ancient Egypt from the Mediterranean. (The other, Canopus, was discovered in 1999.) For millennia, experts assumed Thônis-Heracleion were two different lost cities, but it's now known that Thônis is simply the city's Egyptian name, while Heracleion is its Greek name.
Thônis-Heracleion had been the stuff of legend before it was located, mentioned only in rare ancient texts and stone inscriptions. Herodotus seems to have been referring to Thônis-Heracleion's temple of Amun as the place where Heracles first arrived in Egypt. He also described a visit there by Helen with her lover Paris just before the outbreak of the Trojan War. In addition, 400 years later, geographer Strabo wrote that Heraclion, containing the temple of Heracles, had been located opposite Canopus across a branch of the Nile. Today we know Thônis-Heracleion's location as Egypt's Abu Qir Bay. The sunken port is about 6.5 kilometers from the coast and lies beneath ten meters of water.
Both Thônis-Heracleion and Canopus were wealthy in their day, and the temple was an important religious center. This all ended when the Egyptian dynasty created by Ptolemy set out to establish Alexandria as Egypt's center. Thônis-Heracleion and Canopus' trade — and thus wealth — was diverted to the new capital.
It was perhaps just as well, given that natural forces eventually destroyed Thônis-Heracleion. Located on the Mediterranean, the ground upon which it was built became saturated and eventually began to destabilize and liquefy. The temple of Amun probably collapsed around 140 BCE. A series of earthquakes sealed the cty's' fate around 800 CE, sending a 100 square-kilometer chunk of the Nile delta on which it was constructed under the waves. The Mediterranean's rising sea level over the next couple thousand years completed the drowning of Thônis-Heracleion.
Researchers have recovered a large collection of Thônis-Heracleion's treasures revealing an economically rich culture. Coins, bronze statuettes, and over 700 ancient ship anchors have been pulled from the waters. Divers have also identified over 70 shipwrecks. A giant statue of the Nile god Hapi took two and a half years to bring up.
An ancient vessel and a cemetery
Gold mask found in a submerged Greek cemetery.Credit: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques
The newly discovered ship was found beneath 16 feet of hard clay, "thanks to cutting-edge prototype sub-bottom profiler electronic equipment," says Ayman Ashmawy of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques.
The military vessel had been moored in Thônis-Heracleion when the temple of Amun collapsed. The temple's enormous blocks fell onto the ship, sinking it. The boat is a rare find — only one other ship of its period has been found. As underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, one of the scientists who found the city, puts it, "Finds of fast ships from this age are extremely rare."
At 80 feet long, the boat is six times as long as it is wide. Like its dually-named city, it's an amalgam of Greek and Egyptian ship-building techniques. According to expert Ehab Fahmy, head of the Central Department of Underwater Antiquities at IEASM, the boat has some classical construction features such as mortar and tenon joints. On the other hand, it was built to be rowed, and some of its wood was reused lumber, signature traits of Egyptian boat design. Its flat bottom suggests it was built for navigating the shallows of the Nile delta where the river flows into the Mediterranean.
Also found alongside the city's submerged northeastern entrance canal was a large Greek cemetery. The funerary is adorned with opulent remembrances, including a mask made of gold, shown above. A statement by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques describes its significance, as reported by Reuters:
"This discovery beautifully illustrates the presence of the Greek merchants who lived in that city. They built their own sanctuaries close to the huge temple of Amun. Those were destroyed simultaneously and their remains are found mixed with those of the Egyptian temple."
Excavation is ongoing, with more of Egypt's ancient history no doubt waiting beneath the waves.
We are likely to see the first humans walk on Mars this decade.
- Space agencies have successfully sent three spacecraft to Mars this year.
- The independent missions occurred at around the same time because Earth and Mars were particularly close to each other last summer, providing an opportune time to launch.
- SpaceX says it hopes to send a crewed mission to Mars by 2026, while the U.S. and China aim to land humans on the planet in the 2030s.
Spacecraft from three of the world's space agencies reached Mars this year.
In February, the United Arab Emirates' Hope space probe entered the Martian orbit, where it is studying the planet's weather cycles. That same month, NASA's Perseverance rover touched down on Mars, where it will soon begin collecting rock samples that could contain signs of ancient life. And in May, China successfully landed its Zhurong rover on the Martian surface, becoming the second nation to ever do so.
All three missions launched in the summer of 2020. The timing was no coincidence: once every two years, Earth and Mars come especially close together because their orbits are "at opposition," which is when the Earth-Mars distance is smallest during the 780-day synodic period. It is an opportune window to send spacecraft to Mars.
The handful of spacecraft currently exploring the Martian surface and atmosphere are scheduled to conduct their experiments for periods ranging from months to years. Some even plan to collect materials to return to Earth. For example, NASA's Perseverance will store its rock samples in protective tubes and leave them behind for a smaller "fetch rover" to pick up on a future mission.
Photo of Martian surface taken by the Perseverance roverNASA/JPL-Caltech
If all goes well, an Airbus spacecraft dubbed the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) will carry the samples back to Earth in 2031. It would be the first time a space mission has returned Martian matter to Earth. But before the decade's end, space agencies have some other missions that aim to study the Red Planet.
Europe & Russia
NASA is not the only space agency aiming to find evidence of life on the Red Planet. In 2023, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency plan to land their Rosalind Franklin rover on the Martian surface, where it will drill into rock and analyze soil composition for signs of past — or possibly present — alien life.
The joint mission is part of a long-term Mars project that began in 2016. This second phase was initially planned for 2020, but due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the space agencies decided to postpone the launch to 2022.
"We want to make ourselves 100% sure of a successful mission. We cannot allow ourselves any margin of error. More verification activities will ensure a safe trip and the best scientific results on Mars," said ESA Director General Jan Wörner.
In 2022, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) plans to send to Mars its TEREX lander, which will "precisely measure the amount of water molecules and oxygen molecules, and search for water resources and the possibility of life on Mars," JAXA wrote.
In 2024, JAXA also plans to launch a uniquely bold interplanetary mission that will involve sending a probe to orbit Mars, landing on the Martian moon Phobos, collecting surface samples, and then returning those samples to Earth in 2029. JAXA says the mission has two main objectives: (1) to investigate whether the Martian moons are captured asteroids or fragments that coalesced after a giant impact with Mars; and (2) to clarify the mechanisms controlling the surface evolution of the Martian moons and Mars.
Following the successful landing of its Zhurong rover this year, China released a roadmap of its plans for additional Mars voyages. The first is an uncrewed mission scheduled for 2030, with crewed missions planned for 2033, 2035, 2037, and 2041. As the International Space Station project is coming to a close, China is in the process of building its own space station; earlier this year it launched into orbit the first part of its station, which will take 10 more missions to assemble.
Elon Musk's California-based aerospace company has its sights on two Mars voyages: a cargo-only mission in 2022 and a human mission by 2026. The crewed mission would involve building a propellant depot and preparing a site for future crewed flights. Getting to Mars will first require an orbital test of SpaceX's Starship rocket, which the company hopes to conduct this year.
Regarding the long-term future of humans on the Red planet, Musk once told Ars Technica:
"I'll probably be long dead before Mars becomes self-sustaining. But I'd like to at least be around to see a bunch of ships land on Mars."
In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization executed its first interplanetary trip with its Mars Orbiter Mission. It marked the first time an Asian nation reached Martian orbit and also the first time a nation successfully reached the Red planet on its maiden voyage. India has plans for a follow-up Mars Orbiter Mission 2, but it remains unclear when that will occur and what the mission will entail.
In February, the chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation said the nation would only launch a Mars mission after Chandrayaan-3, India's upcoming mission to the Moon, which is expected to launch in 2022.
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