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Elegant Mathematics Leads to Wrong Physics?

  1. Jun 20, 2011 #1
    So much of what is written regarding the considerable efforts invested in string theory and its offshoots revolves around the elegance of the mathematics itself or of the versatility and all-embracing scope of its conclusions. Undoubtedly there have been instances where the irresistible simplicity and beauty of a mathematical argument regarding how physics works have subsequently been vindicated by experiment. Things like Dirac's equation predicting anti-matter and Gell-Mann's quark eightfold way model come to mind.

    My question is have there been instances of the opposite happening too? Any examples out there of a mathematically beautiful theory of physics that has turned out experimentally wrong? Is mathematical elegance a strong indication of physical reality or not?

    IH
     
    Last edited: Jun 20, 2011
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  3. Jun 20, 2011 #2

    bcrowell

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    Maybe Weyl gauge theory (described in Eddington, "Space, time and gravitation: an outline of the general relativity theory," http://www.archive.org/details/mathematicaltheo00eddiuoft ) or dozens of other classical unified field theories: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_unified_field_theories

    Probably both supersymmetry and inflation, IMO, although the jury is still out and both are intrinsically hard to falsify.

    Mach's principle, IMO, in the sense that its best-known embodiment in a mathematical theory was Brans-Dicke gravity, and BD gravity has essentially been falsified (in the sense that the [itex]\omega[/itex] parameter is constrained to be very large).

    -Ben
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  4. Jun 20, 2011 #3

    Dale

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    Magnetic monopoles, at least there is no evidence for them.
     
  5. Jun 20, 2011 #4

    Apart from difficulty of falsification, have there been any physical theories for which the underlying mathematical development has proven undecidable in the sense of Gödel's incompleteness theorem?

    IH
     
  6. Jun 20, 2011 #5

    bcrowell

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    You might want to look at a book by Torkel Franzén, called Godel's Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse.

    Physics makes use of various mathematical theories.

    Some of these, such as elementary Euclidean geometry or the first-order theory of the reals, are theories to which Godel's theorem doesn't apply. (Tarski, "A decision method for elementary algebra and geometry.") They are provably self-consistent, and for any statement within these theories, there exists rules for determining in a finite number of steps whether that statement is true or false. Let's call this set of theories A.

    Some other theories used in physics, such as Zermelo–Fraenkel set theory with the axiom of choice, are theories that Godel's theorem does apply to. Call this set of theories B. Godel's theorem guarantees that these theories contain undecidable statements (unless they are not self-consistent, which nobody expects is the case). However, there is every reason to believe that these undecidable statements are ones that have no interesting implications for any real-world application such as physics. Franzen discusses this.

    There may be a lot of different theories in B, but if you name two of them at random, you will typically find that they are equiconsistent with one another. For example, the theory of Euclidean plane geometry (not just the first-order theory) is in B, and so is the theory of elliptic geometry. These two theories have been proved to be equiconsistent with each other, meaning that if there is a contradiction that can be reached from the axioms of elliptic geometry, then the same is true for Euclidean geometry. Since nobody expects that to be true in the case of Euclidean geometry, we don't lose any sleep over possible contradictions in elliptic geometry.

    Please also keep in mind that physical theories are essentially never stated as formal axiomatic theories, so Godel's theorems don't apply to physical theories. Franzen discusses this. An exception is that there is a book on the formalization of part of the Principia: Jacques Fleuriot, A Combination of Geometry Theorem Proving and Nonstandard Analysis with Application to Newton's Principia. This example is noteworthy because it's so rare for anyone to go to such lengths to pose a physical theory as a formal axiomatic theory.

    A theory can make clearcut predictions based on given data, and yet there can be undecidable statements about the theory. This doesn't mean that there is something wrong with the theory. This will be true for any interesting theory. For example, Conway's game of life can be thought of as a physical theory describing a certain simple universe. The theory always makes clearcut predictions about the evolution of its universe. However, there are undecidable statements about the theory.

    We had an extremely long thread about this kind of thing last year: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=455641

    -Ben
     
  7. Jun 20, 2011 #6
    Ben,

    Quite the insight, much appreciated, and thanx for that thread reference...

    IH
     
  8. Jun 20, 2011 #7
  9. Jun 21, 2011 #8
    On present trends, is the mathematics of string/brane/etc theory considered more or less elegant than other theories which have not withstood experimentation?

    IH
     
  10. Jun 21, 2011 #9

    atyy

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    In fact Dirac's "elegant" theory was wrong. His correct prediction came from a kludge.
     
  11. Jun 26, 2011 #10
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  12. Jun 26, 2011 #11

    HallsofIvy

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    Going back a ways, Kepler's original theory of planetary motion contained some very elegant mathematics: he had the outermost planet, Saturn, on a sphere, Jupiter on a regular icosaahedron, Mars on a regular dodecahedron, Earth on a regular octahedron, Venus on a regular hexahedron, and Mercury on a regular tetrahedron. Lovely! Six planets, six Platonic solids! Kepler dropped that idea when the numbers did quite fit Tycho Brahe's observations.
     
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2011
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