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M-theory, religion and science funding on the BBC

08 Sep 2010 Hamish Johnston
Vince Cable believes in cuts, but what about God and M-theory?

By Hamish Johnston

This morning there was lots of talk about science on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – but I think it left many British scientists cringing under their duvets.

Stephen Hawking was on the show explaining why M-theory – an 11-dimensional structure that underlies and unifies various string theories – is our best bet for understanding the origin of the universe.

Hawking explained that M-theory allows the existence of a “multiverse” of different universes, each with different values of the physical constants. We exist in our universe not by the grace of God, according to Hawking, but simply because the physics in this particular universe is just right for stars, planets and humans to form.

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

This, and other recent pronouncements from Hawking in his new book The Grand Design were debated in a separate piece on Today by brain scientist Susan Greenfield and philosopher AC Grayling. Neither seemed too impressed with many of Hawking’s recent statements and Greenfield cautioned scientists against making “Taliban-like” statements about the existence of God.

That brings me to another bit of news making the headlines in the UK – huge and looming cuts in science funding.

The cuts will be implemented by Vince Cable who is the UK’s secretary of state for business, innovation and skills.

He was interviewed in a third piece on Today and made the remarkable claim that “45% of research grants [in the UK] go to research that is not of an excellent standard”.

Ouch…and to save money, the government will soon be “rationing funds by quality”.

So what does this have to do with Stephen Hawking and M-theory?

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

The challenge, of course, is how to make the public aware of all the fantastic work done by other British physicists.

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