Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Think about this: Science is only a small part of human capability

One of my favorite living intellectuals, Freeman Dyson, yet again delivers an essay in which he so easily weaves his polymath nature and his interactions with many remarkable people in his long life.  All in what one would expect to be a dull and boring topic of physics at the fringe, when pursued by amateurs.  In a book review essay in the NYRB, Dyson places science in its place:
[Science] is only a small part of human capability. We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. ... Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. 
"creative interaction of observation with imagination" ... Isn't that a lovely description?  If only most science teachers would keep that in mind when they teach their students, from elementary school to college.

Dyson reminds us that there are limits to imagination, and goes after string theorists who conjure up visions that seem to be no different from those offered by highly creative amateurs without solid scientific backing:
The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled. Hermann Weyl, who was one of the main architects of the relativity and quantum revolutions, said to me once, “I always try to combine the true with the beautiful, but when I have to choose one or the other, I usually choose the beautiful.” Following Weyl’s good example, our string cosmologists are making the same choice.
What is wrong with string cosmology?
String cosmology is a part of theoretical physics that has become detached from experiments. String cosmologists are free to imagine universes and multiverses, guided by intuition and aesthetic judgment alone. Their creations must be logically consistent and mathematically elegant, but they are otherwise unconstrained.
The disconnect from "observation" is sometimes the case even when I listen to faculty colleagues or politicians, whose imaginations simply run amok :)

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