The String Theory of Other Sciences

I realized the other day that since moving to ScienceBlogs, I'm turning into John Scalzi (Does my new body have a brand name?), what with all the posting of cute images (and spending an inordinate amount of time taking pictures with an eye toward posting them), and assigning other bloggers homework. If I had a novel, I'd put it on the web, and make millions! Or something.

Anyway, it's nice to have at least one of those things turned around on me: RPM at evolgen is asking for the "string theory" of other sciences: the most controversial and possibly overhyped fields of study.

RPM has obviously pre-empted the most obvious physics answer, but if I'm allowed an interdisciplinary nomination, it would probably be something with "nano" in the name. The idea of nanotechnology has a great deal of promise, but a lot of what's talked up as "nanotechnology" appears to be more of a buzzword grab than anything arising naturally from the science.

(Also, I'm always annoyed to hear things hyped as "nano-scale" only to find the dimensions given in microns (1000 nm). I mean, sure, that's small, but if you're going to allow micron-sized objects to be called "nano-scale," then my watch is nanotechnology-- after all, the face is only 25,400,000 nanometers across, give or take a bit, and the parts inside are smaller still...)

(I'll also tip my nonexistent hat to Charles Clark of NIST, who dubbed Bose-Einstein-Condensates "nano-super-fluids" a while back, and predicted that there would be proposals for "using nano-super-fluids for quantum computing with biological molecules" within a few years...)

So, other than string theory, what's your nomination for the "string theory" of physics?


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I hope Astrobiology makes the list. It's not really astronomy, it's not really's interdisciplinary hogwash!

"I realized the other day that since moving to ScienceBlogs, I'm turning into John Scalzi."

Ah. So that's why my shoes don't fit anymore.

I that that quantum computing falls into the "string theory" category of things -- lots of talk but I don't get much sense that there's much there. That may not entirely qualify as pure science though -- lots of engineering in that topic, too.

I that that quantum computing falls into the "string theory" category of things -- lots of talk but I don't get much sense that there's much there. That may not entirely qualify as pure science though -- lots of engineering in that topic, too.

I think there's a good amount of real science there, but then I'm a little closer to that field than I am to string theory. I think it also helps that the leading lights of the quantum information field are very careful to qualify everything that they say. You don't have that many crazy people running around declaring that quantum computing is the solution to absolutely everything.

But again, I know more people in the quantum information field than I know string theorists, so I may be biased.

I always get mad at having to hype stuff i've done as nano-scale. I used to work with STM's. For STM's nano-scale is big. When you're watching sub angstrom objects with good resolution on them it's silly to say nano-scale. 50 picometers is definately pico-scale. But to buzz word up a paper we sell ourselves short and call ourselves nano-scale.

I'll agree that in some ways "quantum computing" is a bit over hyped. But again the field is FULL of results in interesting fundamental questions. They just get obscured by the fight for NSA funding for the code-breaking angle.

We had a joke around my lab in graduate school. If you could write a good proposal for nano-lunches we could get the lab catered. Of course with the current funding climate i think quantum-bio lunches would be a better bet.

I have to agree about the nano. I think Eric Drexler and friends over hyped things early on and when it finally became a more main stream idea there was plenty of material for the press to get hysterical about.

For a recent example, see this article on the Jan Hendrik Schoen scandal:

The summary begins with:

"Imagine a world where disease could be eradicated by an injection of tiny robots the size of molecules."

The work Schoen was pretending to do would have been ground breaking but going from molecular transistors to nano-doctors is ridiculous.

In pharma research: Combinatorial chemistry for lead identification. And the crystalography/computer modeling-based rational drug design. These opposing concepts of drug discovery are now moving towards their well-deserved emeritus status.

The problem of hype and fads is inherent to any research that fights for funding on the premise of a (long-shot) profitability. In biotech industry, the companies are started and financed on the value estimate of their "cutting edge, breakthrough core technology". Such a company could be burning tens of millions a year, for 10-15 years, before having any drug to sell. As it needs the money to keep the projects going, the overhype can be rampant.

So don't put your retirement money into biotech unless you can tell hot air from solid. I cannot - I just work there.

By secret milkshake (not verified) on 03 Feb 2006 #permalink

I remember when nanotechnology was just called colloid and surface science (when I was in graduate school actually). Now anything even slightly near that length range is relabelled as such. Think about the pants with a nonstick coating that are now nanotechnology. Think about all of the carbon nanotube hype, which has since failed to generate any actual products but lots of Ph.D.'s. (For a 1930's example, remember Langmuir-Blodget films and their technical and industrial promise? Neither do I.) Think about any colloidal dispersion. It's all nano now. Nano seems to be more popular as a brand than as science.

I like to tell people that I am nanotechnology also - I just happen to be 1.75x10^9 nanometers tall.

In engineering, there was the fuzzy-neural-wavelet hype. Also, renaming any structure that was periodic a "photonic bandgap".

But none of us are as bad as the management/manufacturing guys. Every three years they need a new name for "increase profits" or "decrease defects".

Quantum computation is actually a really solid pair of fields: it's quantum scale manipulation and control, which is a really fascinating engineering discipline, and a funny new area in the theory of computation where all kinds of wacky things happen.

I'm going to contribute the study of biological arousal as a nice companion for string theory: lots of conjecture and argument, and essentially no way of testing any of it. Not to be confused with nearby subfields of neuroscience which can be very serious and sensible.