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Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe

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Can the following of fashion, blind faith, or flights of fantasy have anything seriously to do with the scientific quest to understand the universe? Surely not, but I shall argue that researchers working at the extreme frontiers of physics are as susceptible to these forces as anyone else, and that fashion, faith, and fantasy, while sometimes highly productive in physics, may be leading today’s researchers astray in three of that field’s most important areas—string theory, quantum mechanics, and cosmology.   I argue a strong case that string theory veered away from physical reality when it found the need to posit six extra spatial dimensions, the fashionable nature of the theory clouding our judgments of its plausibility. With quantum mechanics, its stunning successes in explaining the atomic universe has led to an unquestioning faith that it must also apply to sizably massive objects. Yet, I argue that changes in the theory are needed. In cosmology, I claim that most of the current fantastical ideas about the origin of the universe fail to address certain central issues. Elements of fashion, faith, and fantasy have nevertheless also influenced my own work, as I shall briefly indicate.

This talk is part of the The Danby Society: Downing College Science Society series.

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