Not even wrong

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

“It’s not even wrong.” This was the criticism a friend recently received for his PhD work in maths. And it’s a damning allegation. Consider 1 + 1 = 3. This is simply wrong. But 1 + 1 = vodka is so bizarre it’s not even wrong – it’s nonsensical, and thus meaningless. The phrase “not even wrong” was coined by the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who had no patience for sloppy science. A scientific claim must be testable, which means it may be proven wrong. But for Pauli, a wrong claim is better than a meaningless claim, which cannot be falsified at all. As for my friend: he is consoling himself with the fact that even superstring theory is “not even wrong”, since it remains untestable. And, of course, with said vodka.

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Terrestrial ignorance

Mini-column ‘Alison in Wonderland’, published in the Observant, Maastricht

A UFO was spotted above the Waddenzee last week, the NRC reported. Was it really a flying saucer with little green men? The speculation brings to mind a Richard Feynman lecture, now decades old and available on YouTube in all its black and white glory. Feynman was an American physicist, known as “the Great Explainer”. And you can see why, as he tells of a layman who had asked, somewhat foolishly: “Is it impossible there are flying saucers? Can you prove that?” Feynman: “No I can’t prove it. It’s just very unlikely … From my knowledge of the world I see around me, I think it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known, irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence [ouch!] rather than the unknown, rational characteristics of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”