Randall on Rovelli

Lisa Randall’s extremely harsh review of Carlo Rovelli’s book “Reality is not what it seems to be” is amusing. She doesn’t even try to be politically correct… Much of it has already been discussed by Woit in his excellent blog and I can’t add much to that. What I really think is that Randall is using her authoritative position to fight a small battle in a war of cultures (and power) where she obviously stands on one side, and overall I think that abusing scientific authority for such small purposes goes to the detriment of science itself: after all these books a little talks, people might just think that science is just a cultural trend like any other, and the *americans* (though I should explain this better) are doing their best making it into a showbiz.

Anyway, I am sure that Randall’s books (which bear titles that are already mystifying on their own, like “Dark matter and the dinosaurs“ or “Warped passages: unraveling the mysteries of the Universe”, “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself”!!!) are “presented correctly… by separating what we know from what we are still trying to understand” in a way that is methodologically superior to Rovelli’s.

However, I know Carlo personally as a theoretical physicist with a most solid philosophical background (Randall seems not to be aware of his previous book on Anaximander, where the connections between ancient philosophy and modern physics are argued in a deeper way) and, most importantly, with a tendency to always think deeply and in foundational way to his research questions. I have also read his books, I don’t always agree, but it seems to me that he was always quite careful in claiming where were the “known facts” and where the “interpretation” that Randall invokes…

…as if this distinction actually made any sense. And here comes my main objection to Randall. I find she’s extremely naive about philosophy and science, when she says “the science as presented isn’t always correct, and interpretations are misleadingly presented as facts.” And I don’t need to go into her books to find an example of how she herself fails at this:

“Explaining quantum mechanics, Rovelli says: “Electrons don’t always exist. They exist when they interact. They materialize in a place when they collide with something else. The ‘quantum leaps’ from one orbit to another constitute their way of being real: An electron is a combination of leaps from one interaction to another.” PhotoStocks may not achieve a precise value until they are traded, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approximate their worth until they change hands. Similarly electrons might not have definite properties, but they do exist. It’s true that the electron doesn’t exist as a classical object with definite position until the position is measured. But something was there — which physicists use a wave function to describe.”

This naive materialism is typical of physicists and it’s one of the things I’d like to devote most of my thinking time if I could be paid for it. In short, to me physics is only about the relationships between things, observers and observed. Whatever statement does not ultimately involve such process is out of the realm of physics, it’s about personal beliefs, philosophies of life, religions. Now Randall wants to establish her personal belief as a truth-of-matter. Interestingly, discussions about the “reality” of the wave function have been going on forever, since the origin of Quantum Mechanics, see for example this contribution (and references therein):

David Z Albert and Rivka Galchenhtt, A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity.

The fact that this discussion exists is not even taken into consideration by Randall. Again, you might not like it, but it exists, and unless you believe that your word is superior to that of whomever thinks differently from you, this makes so that the “reality” of the wave function is far from being established. I find this to be a perfect example of when physicists tend to misinterpret “facts for interpretations”.

The idea that scientists hold objective truths damages scientific discourse.



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