Modern physicists have spent decades struggling to explain the universe with more and more baroque theories. They’re creative and complex—and as Jim Baggott points out in review - Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, largely unsupported by experimental evidence. Shining a spotlight on both fact and fancy, Baggott draws the line between valid science and “fairy tale” physics.

Where did modern physics “go wrong”?

Theoretical physicists were faced with a choice. Either they could sit and wait for new data that might help guide them toward solutions, or they could build new theoretical structures without waiting for data. Of course, they couldn’t wait. The end result is the creation of theoretical structures with great logical and mathematical appeal, but with no real empirical foundations—in other words, metaphysics.

Is there something endemic to the field that invites this kind of abstraction?

Not so much with the field of physics itself, but rather with aspects of physics that touch on the “big questions” of reality and human existence. Human beings have always desired to tell each other creation stories, and contemporary theoretical physicists are no different. It’s really hard to resist.

You describe the Standard Model of particle physics as being riddled with problems. Has the recent discovery of the Higgs boson made things better or worse?

It really depends on what you were hoping for. All the signs indicate that the particle discovered [at CERN] last July is the bog-standard Higgs boson. This is a triumph for the Standard Model, but it doesn’t really move us forward. There are no real big surprises here, no new data to point toward resolving some of the Standard Model’s thornier problems. I think it’s fair to say that most high-energy physicists hoped for something more. But it seems we’re not going to get it.

Is any part of modern theoretical physics salvageable?

Funnily enough, I don’t advocate any kind of major change of direction. I just want us all to acknowledge the difference between empirically based scientific theories and metaphysics, or pseudo-science. I would question whether we should be throwing all our eggs in the string theory/multiverse/cosmic landscape basket. Perhaps it’s time to consider other ways we might address the problems with the “authorized version” of reality, wherein all the available observational and experimental data are essentially secondary to the prevailing theoretical structures. These other ways would suffer from a lack of empirical foundations just the way string theory does, but there’s a saying that when you find yourself in a deep hole, maybe it’s time to stop digging...