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Murray Gell-Mann, string theory, and underlying principle

The Reference Frame offers some interesting insights in the post Murray Gell-Mann: 80th birthday and interview.

He is also told by the reporter that “battles of new ideas against conventional wisdom are common in science”. Gell-Mann thinks it’s very interesting how these negative principles get embedded in science sometimes. Instead, he emphasizes that most challenges to scientific orthodoxy are wrong. Lots of their authors are cranks. Sometimes, the challenges are right. Their authors face a lot of disbelief – and Gell-Mann offers some examples, e.g. the continental drift.

It can be tough, especially when the evidence is not distinctive, to understand a new idea properly. That can lead to debate that can get a bit away from the ideal of logic and reason. It can take time for people to work over the implications and test the new ideas against their existing reality. That is why science is a discipline and requires the development of a manner of thinking and seeing and learning.

I am puzzled by what seems to me the paucity of effort to find the underlying principle of superstring theory-based unified theory. Einstein didn’t just cobble together his general relativistic theory of gravitation. Instead he found the principle, which was general relativity, general invariance under change of coordinate system. Very deep result. And all that was necessary then to write down the equation was to contact Einstein’s classmate Marcel Grossmann, who knew about Riemannian geometry and ask him what was the equation, and he gave Einstein the formula. Once you find the principle, the theory is not that far behind. And that principle is in some sense a symmetry principle always.

This is the problem with mathematics. It is one thing to play with equations and see where they go much like playing with words to see what sentences can be formed. It is another thing for the equations or sentences to make sense and to reveal meaning. Much of formal schooling is about the grammar and the methods for manipulation of equations and words. If you are a student who years to understand what the underlying principle or what is being said, your grades can suffer as that is not what grades measure in school.

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