Saturday, August 9, 2014

Fooled by observations

Two recent theories – one that hypothesizes that the universe is a floating 3D brane at the edge of the event horizon created by the collapse of a 4D star into a black hole and the other speculating that the expansion of the universe is an illusion created by changing mass – are both instructive. Observations in the presence of faulty foundational theories could diminish the understanding of non-linear systems over time. In astrophysics and in economics, this has been happening for long. In the former, heavy instruments that bring large amounts of data – that almost agree with the hypothesized theory creates a feeding frenzy to create even more refined instruments, bringing more observational data “close enough” to prove the established theory. In the latter, uncertainty has afforded enough flexibility for back fitting data – essentially allowing anything to be proved or disproved and to stick to belief systems that do not need any further proof.

Humans have been experimentalists who like observations as the primary path to proof. Even their most famous invention, religion – a highly sophisticated and abstract notion, makes use of tactical observations to prove the underlying complex theory. Physics has been no different – and lately, it appears that the need for experimentalism has been expanding at an accelerated rate – perhaps in frustration - as many felt a few decades ago that the field is coming to an end, after having revealed everything there is to know. Experimentalism has a dark side - when combined with theories that cannot be proven, observations can only lead down the path of either asserting the original wrong or incrementally modifying it to make it worse. Additionally, the human mind, designed with a simple objective function containing two factors - food and sex, has been in awe of the puzzles presented to it and predictably prefer unknown complexity as the only answer.

There have been rare excursions all through history, outside her limitations, in which she simply imagined the next state – with no instruments in hand and no data to analyze. In a world replete with engineering and economics, such a process is becoming even more rare.