lee_smolin's picture
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Einstein's Unfinished Revolution
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Physics

The Return of the Discipline of Experiment Will Transform Our Knowledge of Fundamental Physics

In science as in politics it seems that Eldredge and Gould's metaphor of punctuated equilibrium holds. When progress happens, it happens fast and the whole culture vibrates with the excitement of it. We have had a bit too much equilibrium lately, of disappointed expectations following as a natural consequence of unwisely reduced ambitions. But I am optimistic that the next decades will see breakthroughs in key problems on which we now seem stuck. In physics, new experiments including the LHC, AUGER, GLAST, PLANCK, LIGO and others are likely to transform our knowledge of fundamental physics, and end the long period when theory sought to progress without the discipline of experiment. Very likely we will be surprised and humbled by what is seen, but this will be followed by rapid progress as new ideas are quickly invented to explain the surprising data.

How can I be optimistic without knowing what direction science will take? This is exactly the point. There are two kinds of optimism, the optimism of people who think they know the future and the optimism of people who believe the future will be more interesting and, if always imperfect, more wonderful than they can imagine. I am of the second kind. The first kind sometimes comes along with a belief that time and change are illusions, and that the world is evolving towards an eternal timeless state of perfection. This is the optimism of religious fundamentalists and orthodox Marxists, and one sees it reflected also in the cosmologies in which our evolving universe is just a transient fluctuation in an otherwise permanent state of thermal equilibrium. The opposite kind of optimism lies behind the evolutionary theorists who believe the world is so intricate that the simplest mechanism that could predict the future of life and the cosmos is the universe itself. If we are the first kind of optimist we seek to transcend the complexities of life to discover something eternal behind it, something like the imagined view of God. If we are the second, we seek to live and think within the swirl of life; we aim for comprehension and wisdom but have no illusions of transcendence or control.