Science and the Laconic If
There is a tale that Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, once threatened the city state of Sparta. He told them:
“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The response of the Spartans was one word – “If”. This if implies threats and consequences and is known as the Laconic if after the land of the Spartans. Importantly, this Laconic if is also central to the process of science.
How do scientists gain knowledge about the universe? Students are told that they follow a scientific method, a wash-rinse-repeat approach where experiments and observations are used to test ideas. Failed ideas are thrown into the scientific rubbish bin, whilst successful ideas live to fight another day. Of course, real science is complex and messier, but it roughly follows the scientific method.
The scientific method is often represented as a closed circuit, where the output of experiments is used to form new hypotheses to be tested. But scientists in lab coats fiddling with coloured liquids and electronics in advanced laboratories are not the only source of new hypotheses. Simple observations of the world around us can lead to new questions ‑ wondering why the day-time sky blue and night-time sky dark has yielded deep insights into the nature of light and matter, and the evolution of the cosmos.
Many questions come from thinking about the way the universe works. Louis de Broglie opened the door on modern quantum mechanics by considering whether matter can behave like waves, whilst Albert Einstein through his gedanken (or thought) experiments revolutionised our view of gravity by pondering the curving and bending of space and time. Other ideas have resulted in theoretical dead-ends, such as James Clerk Maxwell thinking of electricity and magnetism as minute whirls in space, or Richard Feynman and John Wheeler’s proposing that there has only been a single electron in the history of the universe that zips back and forth in time and appears as the multitude of electrons around us.
These ideas are examples of the Laconic if, or hypothetico-deductivism to give it its philosophical name. de Broglie was asking “if electrons behave like waves, then can be diffracted?”, and Einstein wondering “if space and time can curve, then can I account for gravity in the universe?” The if implies consequences, and these consequences can be tested. And asking these if questions is simply the first part in the scientific method, building your hypothesis.
Of course, hypothesis building and testing in the fundamental sciences can be fraught with problems due to a lack of observational information and guiding principles. In the microscopic world, physicists have been sought guidance in simplicity, breaking the material of the universe into simpler pieces. The standard model of particle physics is built from a relatively small number of quarks, electrons and other particles, but physicists still call on the Laconic if in attempting to take the next step – “if all particles are made of simple strings, then …”, or “if all particles have symmetric cousins, then …” – these thens might point to long-sought Theory of Everything, or they too are scientific dead-ends.
It is important to remember that asking these if questions is nothing but the first step of the scientific process, the proposing of a hypothesis. The next step is to develop the if into a mathematical theory whose consequences can be determined so that it can be held up to nature and tested. This will reveal whether a new door has been opened, or a blind alley has been wandered down.
The frontier of physics is littered with if questions at various stages of development. In the hunt for the Theory of Everything, we have string theory, m-theory, and loop-quantum gravity, as well as geometric and graphical approaches whose proponents argue apparent simplicity that is not apparent to anyone else. On the larger scale, we are faced with questions of cosmic origins, wondering where the universe came from and how it might be related to past, future and other universes.
One interesting if question is focused upon the key properties of our universe, the fundamental particles and forces that underwrite the cosmos, and the matter and energy that dictate expansion and evolution. If these were slightly different to the values we observe, the universe would be robbed of the complexity of atoms and molecules that allow us to be here. So why are we here?
In seeking a solution to this apparent fine-tuning of the physical properties of the universe, some have proposed that our universe is one of many in a multiverse, each written with their own laws of physics. Most of these universes would be dead and sterile, whilst ours was lucky enough to be born with precise conditions that allow us to be here. But a reminder that all of this hinges on the Laconic if – if the constants of nature and physical properties could be different, then the resultant universe would be different.
For this physics at the forefront, some of these ifs are underwritten with reems of mathematics, others are still little more than speculation. Some will undoubtedly turn out to be scientific failures, whilst others might point to new areas of discovery, but the majority currently lack the mathematical rigour to be tested with current telescopes and colliders. But, again, it has to be remembered that we are still formulating our hypothesis and developing our theories.
Clearly such if questions are common in science, but more recently this frontier of physics has become a battleground. Some of this is driven superstars of science, those that command an audience (and often a substantial fee) to talk about the wonders of the universe. They talk with confidence on the certain existence of other universes and wow the audience on the reality of superstrings. What is rarely mentioned is that this is all underwritten by the Laconic if.
In this universe, every particle has its anti-particle. Likewise, for superstars there are nay-sayers (some of whom are also on the path to stardom) who get angry at the superstars, or anyone pondering ideas that have yet to be tested or answered. Mentions of multiverses or superstrings are met with cries of “nonsense”, or “this is religion”. Again, the Laconic if, the creative process of the formation of hypotheses, is lost.
Unfortunately, both sides have fans in the broader community who parrot their messages, either brimming with confidence about string and branes, and a multitude of universes, or shouting down discussions with cries of “this is not science”, and “you guys are idiots”.
In truth, both viewpoints are a detriment to the real process of science. The overconfidence of the superstars breeds cynicism across the scientific community, whilst the attack on topics at the forefront as being “unscientific” because they cannot yet be tested against nature is premature as theories are not fully developed. Nobody knows if the concept of a multiverse is testable or not as we do not that workable theories of a multiverse and shouting down discussions of multiverse ideas does nothing in forming a theory from the hypotheses. Unfortunately, communicators of science are caught in the swirl, presenting a confused and disjointed message to young minds and broader public on just what is, and isn’t, science.
This confused picture loses sight of one of the most important aspects of the science process, creatively forming a hypothesis. It must be remembered that great scientific ideas begin with ideas and insights, with imagination and creativity. Great scientific ideas often begin with the Laconic if.