Proving the Unfalsifiable

March 11, 2011
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The question of how and why we are here has plagued the human species forever. This question has been the basis of which religion formed and also the basis of mythology as our ancient brethren tried to create an explanation for the events that occurred. Now modern science may have an answer in the form of the controversial topic of String Theory. This theory may be able to answer that question once and for all. String Theory is the leading candidate for the theory of everything, meaning that with this theory, one could explain any phenomena or event that occurs and could predict any outcome to an experiment or event. The uses for this are unimaginable. Experiments would no longer be needed, and everything could be mathematically calculated and modeled using the equations. This would save money and time and lead to quicker innovations. This theory, if it were found, would arguably be the most innovative and important finding to ever come out of science. String Theory is a very controversial topic in science that has its fair share of proponents and opponents. Some of those opponents are credible and make valid arguments against String Theory. Most of those arguments deal with whether it’s falsifiable and experimentation with it. Currently, String Theory is being tested in the world renowned Large Hadron Collider, but String Theorists are asking for an even more powerful atom smasher in the future to be able to test the theory and get their sought-after proof. That should not be done. String Theory should continue to be tested since it has shown such potential of being the Theory of Everything, but testing of String Theory needs to be moved out of the particle colliders and into labs. Theorists need to get creative and browse other options for testing instead of the most obvious.

String Theory, as would be expected considering it attempts to explain everything, is very complex in nature and the mathematics that it consists of would make even an experienced mathematician cringe and sweat. Luckily, String Theory can be broken down and simplified into blocks and aspects that make it much easier to understand and digest for the average Joe. At its core, this theory basically suggests that all of the smallest particles (electrons, quarks, etc.) are not point-like particles at all but instead they are one-dimensional strings of energy that vibrate. These different vibrations produce the different fundamental particles and forces we observe and are familiar with. This is what sets String Theory apart from all the theories before it, because “string theory sets up a framework for explaining the properties of the particles observed in nature” (Greene, “The Elegant…” 146). Theories in the past have predicted them, but String Theory can actually explain why they occur. Another aspect of the theory, and the one that is most publicized to the general public because it is the most bizarre to the average mind, is the requirement for eleven dimensions. These are supposedly wrapped up into tiny space points and into a geometric formed called Calabi-Yau manifolds in which the strings vibrate in the eleven dimensions. The aspect of String Theory that makes it a candidate for the Theory of Everything is the fact that it reconciles Einstein’s General Relativity (Model for the world of the enormous) and Quantum Mechanics (Model for the world of the extremely small) that are currently irreconcilable. Those must be able to be reconciled in order to apply to all aspects of the universe. They could not be integrated because infinity is the result when calculations are done and infinity just indicates that “the laws of nature are breaking down” which is not a good solution (Cole). The problem arises from the fact that these two theories allow for infinitely small particles and spaces and this allows masses to reach zero, which leads to the dreaded infinity. String Theory does away with this by destroying the root of the problem, it sets the string as the smallest of the small, which stops zero from occurring and therefore stops infinity.

Although String Theory is attempting to do this seemingly impossible feat and has made some progress, it has still been prone to backlash.

The opposition to String Theory has been making many of the same arguments against it for many years, some of them legitimate and some not so much. The opposition is composed of theoretical physicists and mathematicians, who are well versed (or at least claim to be) in String Theory and still reject it. One of the most prominent is Peter Woit. One of the most played out argument has been that String Theory “makes no precise predictions whatsoever” (Woit). This argument’s legitimacy falls in the “not so much” category because as the opposition states this, they are also quick to acknowledge the incorrect predictions String Theory makes (tragically, sometimes in the same article). One example of this contradiction can be found in the exact same article as the earlier statement by Peter Woit, in the statement that “String Theory indicates that the cosmological constant should be at least around 55 orders of magnitude larger that the observed value” (Woit). Well this begs the obvious question, if String Theory makes no predictions, where are the false predictions coming from? So since both arguments contradict one another, one must be false. Since the prediction and data are not being made up (from a credible source), the former of the two arguments (it makes no predictions) must be incorrect. Also, as technology progresses, new predictions have been made that can be tested in enormous particle colliders, namely the Large Hadron Collider. This once again falsifies this claim by the opposition. The “it makes no predictions” argument has actually been carried in from many years ago during the early development stages of String Theory where it had some merit and was true to an extent. However, in this day and age, String Theory has advanced and evolved enough so that this assertion is no longer valid. The opposition should stop using this argument and focus on other flaws that String Theory has.

One of these strong arguments posed by the opposition is against interpretation of data within String Theory. The root of this problem is caused by the eleven-dimensional Calabi-Yau manifolds that String Theory argues is the structure of the crumpled up extra dimensions that we humans don’t perceive. The problem with the Calabi-Yau is the fact that Calabi-Yau manifolds can “take at least a hundred thousand different shapes” and that each of these shapes produces a different set of universal physics constants (Gardner). These constants are “about 20 numbers
that describe our universe” such as the speed of light and the force of gravity (Greene). These values are so fundamental and set in stone that if they even changed by a minute amount, the universe would become unbalanced and unstable. This is because the all the values of the constants are in perfect harmony, a minute change in even one would cause all of them to feel an affect and stability would cease. So the argument is, that if there are so many different possibilities, how are we to narrow down the different manifold shapes to the correct one that describes our universe? That’s right. Our universe. String theorists now say that there is might be a whole “landscape” of universes. A multiverse. And in this eleven-dimensional multiverse, the different universes, one being our very own, supposedly float, constituted of different dimensions. Each supposedly also has its own set of physical constants (one universe for each of the 10^500 possibilities in the Calabi-Yau manifolds). And obviously, life, stars, galaxies, and we humans showed up in maybe the only universe in which all of these things are possible (stars, life, etc.). So if we can’t narrow down the Calabi-Yau manifold shapes from 10^500 to the one that deals with our universe, the opposition suggests that String Theory cannot ever make precise predictions that are relevant to our universe (which is what scientists are interested in). This argument is absolutely valid and is acknowledged by String Theory proponents also. Both sides acknowledge that this staggering number of shapes can be narrowed down through experimentation – which leads to another of the opponents’ major criticisms of String Theory.
How can one prove or disprove something that makes hundreds of predictions about the same phenomenon? This is the argument proposed by the opposition. They have said that a theory needs to make a single rigid prediction about a phenomenon that can be tested and verified. In recent years, String Theory has been expanded, split up, and even absorbed into M-Theory. So as of now, there are many different forms of String Theory, each with its own set of principles and predictions that stem off of the original. So the opposition now points out that “particular String Theory models may by falsifiable, but variety of models is so great, no one has been able to come up with a viable test of the whole framework” (Woit). So since so many models exist, if one is even able to deem one false, another one of the models most likely agrees with the results that have been empirically observed. So the experimenter has only disproved one model of String Theory instead of the theory as a whole. This argument is valid also, since what good is a theory if we can’t figure out if it is correct or not, right? A case of this occurred very recently in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in which one form of String Theory was found to be false. One form of String Theory predicted that microscopic black holes should emerge in the LHC that would then shoot out a jet of particles and then immediately decay. The results of the experiment were that the experimenters “exclude the production of black holes with a minimum mass of 3.5-4.5 eV [electron volts] for values of the multidimensional Planck scale up to 3.5 TeV [teraelectron volts] at 95 percent CL [confidence level]” (Timmer). Since these predicted black holes were not observed, there was enough evidence to exclude their existence and therefore disprove the form of String Theory that proposed it. However, just as Timmer goes onto explain, this does not mean that String Theory as a whole is disproved. Although this may seem like a plus at first (the theory is still not dead!), after further reflection one gets thinking that, what test can be done that the entire theory is disproved? The answer is still unknown. However, what we can do at the moment is keep testing the different forms of String Theory so as many as possible are disproven. Through experimentation, the best form can be found and then tweaked if need be.
A trend starts to form. The answer to most of the criticisms of the opposition deals with testing and experimenting with String Theory to narrow down the possibilities. So obviously, experimentation must be the most important topic of discussion. However, sadly, experimentation has received the cold shoulder recently. It has been confined to enormous particle colliders that span many miles, implement state of the art supercomputers, and require exorbitant amounts of energy to conduct a single test. What is even more saddening is that scientists seem to content with this. There has been no mass push to move testing out of these monstrous contraptions. This push must be made! How much longer can scientists just keep asking for a more powerful atom smasher until the cost becomes too unreasonable (that isn’t to say the cost of the LHC isn’t unreasonable as it is)? Tests must be moved to labs where they can be conducted multiple times, with ease, and for a minute fraction of the cost of a single run in a particle collider.
How is String Theory supposed to be tested in a lab? The only way it can be accomplished is by scientists focusing their efforts on examining various aspects of the theory that can be tested and choosing one that doesn’t require a collider, and most importantly, getting creative! This has been done before many times in the past and absolutely ingenious methods to test scientific theories have been developed. Just one example would be Millikan’s Oil Drop Experiment that was used to empirically discover the charge of an electron for the first time. Another would be Rutherford’s Gold Foil Experiment that led to the discovery of the densely packed, positively charged nucleus in an atom. These experiments were testing revolutionary ideas and required intense creativity to develop since the experiments do not seem to be related to the hypothesis being tested. These novel techniques had to be created because the technology at the time did not allow the scientists to be able to visually see what they wanted to observe. So as always, necessity (lack of technology to be able to see the atoms) gave birth to invention (the experiments). This is not the case of String Theory. String Theorists have the technology to be able to observe what they want in the form of particle colliders. But as the size and power (and cost) of these colliders increase, they keep asking for a more powerful one to be able to do their tests and experiments, and sadly, new, more powerful ones are built (such as the LHC). This technology-on-demand gives the String Theorists the impression that they can just request a new particle collider whenever they need to reach higher energies than is possible now for experiments. This stifles the “necessity” that scientists throughout history have faced when trying to solve a problem or support a theory. Without this, String Theorists don’t feel like they have to get creative and expand their thinking on the testing of String Theory.
Scientists are being lazy!
These scientists don’t understand that a new particle collider should not always be the solution to their problems! They keep complaining that the technology at this point is not powerful enough for the experiments. Calls have even been made by deranged String Theorists for the construction more particle colliders that are much larger and more powerful than the LHC. This is not the way to go. Just the exorbitant price tag of this monstrosity makes it impractical. And add to that the amount of energy required to power it and the question of where to house such a machine and the idea of building such a contraption seems absolutely absurd. If scientists claim that the power of the particle colliders is not sufficient, maybe they should just shift their focus from them and onto other fields of science instead of asking for a more powerful one? But no, they decide to take the easy path and buy their way out of their problems. The point may be now at the LHC, after the next one is built, or some point far off in the future, but the point will come where the building of a new collider will not be economically feasible. Testing must be removed from the colliders and be placed in labs where other aspects of science can be used. This must be done or String Theory will face a slow death as public interest and support fades as costs skyrocket.
On the bright side, promising evidence has been found that supports the possibility of a lab test for String Theory in the near future. Recently, a test was done to find the viscosity of a Fermi-gas (regarded as the sixth state of matter) of Lithium-6 atoms in an ultra-cold environment (-459 degrees Fahrenheit). The viscosity measured by the experimenters in the study “verify that this gas can be used as a "scale model" of exotic matter, such as super-high temperature superconductors, the nuclear matter of neutron stars, and even the state of matter created microseconds after the Big Bang” (“Fahrenheit -459…”). This scale works by comparing the average spacing between the atoms of the gas, which determines all of the other properties of the gas that are scaled from the Fermi-gas. This has links to String Theory because String Theory makes predictions about properties such as entropy and viscosity. Actually, String Theory has already calculated a lower bound for “the ratio of the viscosity or fluid flow to the entropy, or disorder, in a strongly-interacting system” which was measured in the Fermi-gas and the results showed “that the gas minimum is between four and five times the string theorists' lower bound” (“Fahrenheit -459…”). One limitation in the test already done with String Theory was that the prediction was made for a “strongly-interacting system” and therefore a “high-energy system”, but the Fermi-gas was a “low-energy” system (“Fahrenheit -459…”). But this can be fixed simply by getting String Theorists to redo the prediction and calculations that were done for the high-energy system and make them for low energy systems such as the Fermi-gas. This would be a direct test of the accuracy of String Theory and would be a legitimate experiment that could be done relatively quickly and inside a lab. It would be relatively cheap and easy to do also. The advantages to this type of experimentation over the type done in particle accelerators are numerous and substantial. This technology must be used to test String Theory.

Examples for potential of lab experimentation of String Theory do not end there. Recently, some scientists saw a striking similarity between the equations for quantum entanglement of three particles and the equations for a Black Hole by String Theory (Sanders). Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon in which two or more particles are “entangled” in a way that measuring one particle has an effect on the other over large distances. By using the String Theory equations, a prediction was made about the number of ways entanglement of four particles can occur. When calculated out, the “answer … is 31” (Sanders). So by now running the tests on the entanglement of four particles, we can either support or disprove our hypothesis. If successful, it will demonstrate that String Theory works on both the very large (black holes) and the very small (particles), which is required for a Theory of Everything. This test, like the last, can also be done in labs around the world with relatively low cost and without the need of extremely advanced technology.

String Theory is at a crossroad at the moment. Backlash against it has risen drastically in recent years and the highly sought-after data from experimentation has, for the most part, yet to be seen from the particle accelerators. If some kind of progress doesn’t occur at this point and counter the opposition, String Theory is at risk of falling out of the public eye and losing support of many of it’s prominent supporters. If that were to occur, a very sad loss would occur in science and it would be very detrimental for the search for the Theory of Everything. The String Theorists must break their “addiction” to particle accelerators and expand their boundaries to other fields of science that are waiting to be applied to String Theory. The science is there. The technology is there. Now it’s the scientists’ job to utilize these tools to keep String Theory alive and progressing. Hopefully they will heed this warning and open their eyes to all of science instead of continuing to suffer from tunnel vision they are suffering from now.



Works Cited
Calabi-Yau Manifold. Digital image. Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics. Web. <http://bccp.lbl.gov/dimensions.html>.
Cole, K.C. “Nothing Gets Strung Out.” Gale. 2001. Web. Jan. 25, 2011.
"Fahrenheit -459: Neutron Stars And String Theory In A Lab." Space Daily (2010). General OneFile. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
Gardner, Martin. “M is for Messy.” Gale. 2007. Web. Jan. 25, 2011.
Greene, Brian. “Brian Greene on String Theory.” Monterey, California. Feb. 2005. Lecture.
Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York: Random House. Print.
Sanders, Laura. "New Twist Found in String Theory: Application to Entanglement Suggests Way to Test Math." Science News. 25 Sept. 2010: 11. General OneFile. Web. 25 Feb. 2011.
Timmer, John. “Missing Black Holes Cause Trouble for String Theory.” Wired. Dec. 17, 2010. Web. Jan. 25, 2011.





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