Saturday, June 13, 2009

Warped Thinking

Discovery News reports that warp drives facilitating space travel at faster than the speed of light look to be a theoretical possibility, though they may bring about catastrophic results—sucking the high-speed spacecrafts that use them, and anything relatively close to those crafts (such as the planet Earth), into a newly formed black hole.

Apparently, a glimmer of hope remains in string theory, which, if true, might allow for warp-speed travel that does not require the formation of a “bubble of dark energy” that ultimately threatens to pop. According to Discovery News, “in a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 3, a possibility with string theory instead of the semi classical physics used by [those who have identified the threat of black hole formation], a stable warp drive is viable.” They go on to note that “the real question is not whether a warp drive, which [some experts] estimate is hundreds of years away, will be stable or not. It's about the fundamentals of the universe; do we live in a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 2 or 3? Until scientists can answer that question, there will be significant limitations on scientific models of the universe.”

While I find the notion of warp-speed travel intriguing, my real reason for bringing up this article is to point out the sloppy philosophy that so often permeates science (or at least scientific reporting). Quite simply, it is not the case that 1 plus 1 equals 3, nor can it be. Whatever these scientists have in mind, it is something other than what they suggest here. They are speaking loosely at best, which unfortunately happens quite often in scientific investigations. I see this all the time when reading about free will – scientists claiming to have shown free will is an illusion because people can be fooled into thinking they did things voluntarily when they did not, etc. The truth is, philosophy permeates everything, so if you’re sloppy with your philosophy, your science suffers. I don’t know what it is about string theory that suggests “1 plus 1 equals 3,” but I assure you it is not at odds with what we mean when we say “1 plus 1 equals 2.” So, for any competent user of the English language, there isn’t a question about whether 1 plus 1 equals 2 or whether it equals 3. It’s the former. If string theory is correct, that won’t change. Whatever they mean in this article, it isn’t quite what they’re saying, which means they are either intentionally sensationalizing the article or just stupid. Neither option appeals to me.

Sorry. Little things like that get annoying. That’s my two cents, anyway. Or is it three?


  1. I really enjoyed your philosophical rant here and seeing that part of you come to it's own defense. Very interesting.

  2. Ditto.

    I think it's significant that the 1 + 1 = 3 idea comes from the Discovery writer, not the university physics professor. I assume the writer thought he was helping to enlighten his readers by coming up with a simple example to illustrate the sometimes-counterintuitive results of a complex idea (string theory). Instead, the writer has endumbened the readers who don't have the sense to realize that 1 + 1 just can't equal three.

    Also, "endumbened" is a word now. (The "b" is silent.)

  3. Wow, I think I once learned a thing or two about string theory so I wish I was intelligent enough to talk about it. I think you are amazing that you could disect even a "smart" article this way. Good thoughts and I like to be reminded that you can't believe everything you read.
    I'm trying to remember a kind of math where 1 + 1 does equal 3, but it all has to do with definitions which apparently were not set up here. It could also have something to do with dimensions... like once you get out in space or down to the miniscule level, because of how things are defined, 1 + 1 sends you to some place different, a different plane... Man, I wish I was smarter :)

  4. P S Sorry, but...

    Jak. I remember you telling me about 1+1=3. Did it not have something to do with for example... one man + one woman have a child so that equals 3???
    Hope I don't sound silly here, but I know there was some kind of explanation.

    Also, I love the string/energy discoveries. They make so much sense to me. But don't ask me to say why. I don't think I could explain much of that.