I love the films of Woody Allen and one of the best quotes from Annie Hall is "That's one thing about intellectuals. They prove that you can be absolutely brilliant, and have no idea what's going on.".
This brings me to some comments from Hawking in the guardian today in which he says that the discovery of the Higgs boson is dissapointing because it reconfirms standard physics, and he ends asking us to look at the stars instead of our feet. Very inspiring, but although I love astronomy and long for humans to conquer space, I think that looking feetwards occasionally is a good thing: to make sure you're standing on a firm foundation and to learn a little humility.
It is true that standard particle physics happily found the Higgs, but particle physics reminds me of a specialised racing car. It works very well on a racetrack (or CERN), but drive it anywhere else and its shortcomings will be obvious. My point is that if Hawking wants some anomalies, he does not have far to look. The part of the cosmos we can predict with the standard model is about 4% of it. The other 96% of the universe is an anomaly (intriguingly correlated with low accelerations, and perhaps explained by MiHsC), but the racing drivers, with a myriad of fudges and fixes, have convinced themselves that the whole world is a racetrack and the mountains, bogs and ice cream vans you might think you see from time to time are just different kinds of circuit.
In the article Hawking also discusses the bets he has made. His bet against the discovery of the Higgs was a brave one, and firmly in the empirical traditions of science, but he also talks about his famous bet on whether 'information is lost in black holes'. What bothers me is that apparently this bet has been settled against him and he has given a baseball encyclopedia to John Preskill who apparently 'won'. I'm sure this 'decision' makes the theorists happy that they know what is going on, but it is complete hubris since the matter is untestable.
It is a shame Hawking didn't give Preskill a general encyclopedia since they could have looked up the middle ages and found out how much like their kind of thinking, the thinking was back then. In the middle ages intellectuals used to decide things with logic, starting from the bible and Aristotle, which made up their model of the world. What Hawking and his peers, all 'brilliant' intellectuals, are doing with the resolution of the black hole information paradox is deciding what the world is like, based on the standard model of physics, without any sort of experimental test. Is information lost in black holes? They say now that it is, based on the standard model, but no-one can observe a black hole well enough to find out, since they are annoyingly invisible, and to rely solely on a theory that only predicts 4% of the universe, is a good example of one of those times when they should have had a quick look at their feet. A more scientific investigation of information, involving an experiment, was attempted here.
This theory-only attitude bothers me since it is a backwards step from the 400 years of empirical science we have enjoyed since Francis Bacon, Galileo and Newton decided that the books were wrong and they asked nature using experiment instead. It is also interesting that just at the time that an elite of financiers are trying to escape into their own dream world, so again are the theoretical physicists. It is as if our civilisation is a coffee gone cold, and a skin is forming on top. It needs some heat and a stir!
Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact. H.L. Mencken, Minority Report.
The guardian article is here.