Theoretical physicists who devised a theory for which there is no evidence have received a $3m award. Why am I not surprised?by Jim Baggott / August 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
When it comes to our ability to comprehend the nature of space, time, and the material universe, to understand the fabric of physical reality, the “quantum theory of gravity” represents one the most significant scientific theories of our age. Today, we describe the expansion of the universe using Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which explains how gravity works. But to deal with the physics of very small things we reach for a completely different theory, called quantum mechanics.
Now both of these venerable theories work extraordinarily well, but they are also fundamentally incompatible. Despite many efforts over many years, there is no consensus among physicists about how they should be brought together.
You might therefore be surprised to learn of the award of a $3m Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics to the pioneers of “supergravity”—a particular quantum theory of gravity—which they published over 40 years ago. Even more curiously, supergravity is based on something called “supersymmetry” for which, despite many efforts over many years, physicists have failed to find any evidence. In the media splash following the announcement in early August, some commentators lauded the decision, declaring the prize “well deserved.” But for others this is just another symptom of the malaise confounding foundational theoretical physics. One commentator tweeted that this is a “Breakthrough Prize for fiction.”
Physics is the hardest of the “hard sciences” and to count as science, theories can’t be considered in the absence of some kind of supporting evidence, or at least the promise of evidence. This is why Peter Higgs and François Englert had to wait 49 years before their efforts—first published in 1964—were recognised with a Nobel Prize, following the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. No matter how talented you are, you don’t win the Nobel just for having a few good ideas. The prize is not awarded for speculative theories that “might be true.”
This really ought to be the end of the matter, but we find ourselves living through a rather extraordinary period in the history of foundational physics. Ideas are not all that hard to come by, but gathering empirical evidence often requires expensive particle colliders or satellite-borne instruments, and can take decades. We…