QR4.5.6 The Last “Standard Model”

In the second century, Ptolemy’s Almagest let people predict the movements of the stars for the first time based on the idea that heavenly bodies, being heavenly, moved around the earth in perfect circles, or circles within circles (epicycles). It wasn’t true but it worked, and Ptolemy’s followers made it work for centuries. As new stars were found they altered the model to make it more complex and themselves more expert. This ancient standard model only fell when Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton developed a causal model to replace it. The standard model of physics and the Ptolemaic standard model have a lot in common as both are:

1. Descriptive. Descriptive models describe what is by identifying patterns, ideally in the form of equations, but this is the first step of science not the last. Only causal models truly predict.

2. Parameterized. Ptolemy’s model let experts choose the free parameters of epicycle, eccentric and equant to fit the facts just as the standard model of today lets experts choose the free parameters of field, bosons and charge.

3. Retrospective. Ptolemy’s model defined its epicycles after each new star was found just as today’s standard model bolts on a new field after each new force is found.

4. Barren. Descriptive models only interpolate so the Ptolemaic model would never have deduced Kepler’s laws and likewise today’s standard model will never deduce that matter is made of light.

5. Complex. Medieval astronomers tweaked Ptolemy’s model until it became absurdly complex just as the equations of today’s standard model fill pages and those of its string theory offspring fill books.

6. Normative. The Ptolemaic model was the norm of its day so any critique of it was seen as an attack on the establishment and likewise today any standard model critique is seen as an attack on physics itself (Smolin, 2006).

7. Wrong. Ptolemy’s model mostly worked even though planets don’t move in circles around the earth and likewise the standard model calculations mostly work even though virtual particles don’t exist.

When the medieval church pressured Galileo to recant they didn’t ask him to deny the earth went around the sun but to just call it a mathematical fiction, rather than a reality description. Today, physicists volunteer the same about quantum theory but what quantum theory describes really does happen, just as the earth really does go around the sun.

In research methodology, after describing patterns comes finding correlations and finally attributing causes (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 1991), so the standard model is a descriptive model that should have evolved into a causal theory but didn’t. The reason it didn’t is that physics denies the existence of what quantum theory describes, for as Bohr said:

There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum mechanical description.” Newton, p244

This view led him to deny the need for meaning at Copenhagen, led Everett fantasize about many worlds (Everett, 1957) and led Witten to try to go it alone with mathematics in string theory, none of which led anywhere. This one choice, to deny meaning and just calculate equations, arrested the scientific growth of physics, which abandoned science when it abandoned meaningful causes. The only option left was to invent magical particles that pop out of empty space to cause what the equations describe, and this is the standard model. The standard model is a naive descriptive paradigm ruled by acausal equations that are leading nowhere. In the history of physics, it is essentially a scientific dead end.