The Summa Metaphysica and all that

Feynman's prize commemorated on the monument a...
Nobel prize winners commemorated on the monument at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stumbled across a fascinating article in this weekend’s Guardian magazine about David Birnbaum and his “Summa Metaphysica” (this – Q4P2 – Principia Metaphysica (The Birnbaum Summa Metaphysics) – is listed in Amazon and appears to be the work, or a version of it).

Normally I more or less ignore the magazine supplements that come with the weekend’s papers but I was attracted this one by a graphic that mentioned the “Bohr radius” – as I had just been listening to Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics while running in the gym.

To be honest, the article doesn’t do a lot to illuminate what Birnbaum  a New York jeweller who has spent a lot of his own money to promote his ideas – is about. But then, maybe that is because he’s not about very much at all: metaphysics is, after all, literally beyond science and testing.

It does tell us a lot about how Birnbaum has upset quite a few genuine scientists about how he has promoted his claims to have found an ultimate theory to explain existence. He used an imprint – Harvard Matrix – on his self-published books that seems to have left a few people at the university feeling their good name has been misappropriated, while others feel that they were used to give a veneer of credibility to a conference Birnbaum funded at Bard college this past May (though I can only admire – seriously – the Oxford chemist, Peter Atkins, who says he attended because it gave him a chance to get an expenses-paid trip to New York and because he likes a good argument).

Such as they are, Birnbaum’s ideas seem to centre on the concept of “potential” (energy? it’s not clear). It’s not mentioned in the article but, of course, the concept of a multitude of inflationary universes is also, in a sense, related to potential energy (or at least the energy that is freed when the ‘inflation’ changes state). But those ideas are, at least to some degree, testable and potentially falsifiable. By all accounts Birnbaum’s are not.

In any case I doubt there is much relation between them and inflationary cosmology either, but as cosmology/particle physics becomes more complex, then the scope for the naive (a category into which, being kind, I will place Birnbaum) as well as the exploitative – wait for the next batch of psuedo-science in the Daily Mail – grows larger.

Many scientists in these advanced fields are unhappy about the core of the “standard model” – in that it posits a very large number of supposedly “fundamental” particles. There has been disappointment as well as joy over how well the model has stood up to the LHCs explorations – a triumph of the scientific method as great as Le Verrier’s prediction of Neptune, but also a confirmation of a model that looks less than fundamental after all. If, and until, we solve some of those seeming contradictions then we are just going to have to live with the interstices of physics being filled with ideas from strange people – especially rich ones who want to be taken seriously.

(Incidentally, the Bohr radius graphic was actually a reference to an idea promoted by Jim Carter who denies the truth of quantum mechanics.)


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