Sean Carroll’s recent blog post is typical of the arrogant physicist confronting questions that he has no idea how to answer but is absolutely certain that no one but a physicist like himself could possibly find the answers. Musing about the origin of life, the origin of the universe, and the origin of consciousness, he says,
Anyone seriously interested in tackling these big questions would be well-served by acknowledging that much (most? almost all?) progress in science is incremental, sneaking up on major discoveries by a series of small steps rather than leaping right to a dramatic new paradigm. Even if you want to understand the origin of the universe, it might behoove you to think about some more specific and tractable problems, like the nature of quantum fluctuations in inflation, or the emergence of spacetime in string theory. If you want to understand the origin of consciousness, it’s a good strategy to think about something like our perception of color, with the idea of working your way up to the more challenging issues.
Conversely, it’s these big questions that attract crackpots like honey attracts flies. I get a lot of emails (and physical letters) from cranks, but they never have a new theory of the branching ratio of the Higgs boson into four leptons; it’s always about the nature of space and time and everything. It’s too easy for anyone to have an opinion about these big questions, whether or not those opinions are worth paying attention to.
All of which leads up to saying: it’s still worth tackling the big questions! Start small, but think big. Because they are so hard, it’s too easy to make fun of attempts to solve the biggest questions, or to imagine that they are irreducibly mysterious and will never be solved. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we had quite compelling pictures of the origin of the universe, life, and consciousness within the next hundred years. But only if we’re willing to tackle the big problems seriously.
While it’s true that most progress in physics is incremental, once in a while it requires a new paradigm to get past a roadblock. We’re at such a point right now, and that’s why we need crackpots like me (or “cranks,” as Sean calls them). The physicist haughtily dismisses people like me, preaching to us that we must first find something incremental, like a new theory of Higgs branching ratios, before being taken seriously. Well, no physicist can tell you what the Higgs field actually is, let alone calculate its mass, but I can, based on tha new paradigm I’m talking about in this blog. The paradigm had to come first, and now the incremental progress can resume. Meanwhile, the physicists make zero progress, incremental or otherwise, secure within the box of their familiar paradigm. They won’t solve the big problems that way in a hundred years, or ever.
While we’re mentioning the Higgs field, you might take a look at Sabine Hossenfelder’s recent post at Backreaction. She attempts to explain the Higgs field and how it gives mass to elementary particles using a seashore analogy. It doesn’t really work, of course, because like all physicists, she has no idea what the Higgs field is or how it actually works. She admits that physicists have no spacetime model. But her wryly humorous writing style is always worth reading.