I’ve noticed a trend recently. The East Coast newspapers I read, such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe, have taken to lecturing ordinary schmoes like me on a regular basis that things we believe to be self-evidently true are in fact false–when you look at them in the sort of nuanced, sophisticated way that writers for these rags are capable of.
“I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid all these years!”
Headlines for articles in this vein are typically written in the following format: “Everything You Know About [Something] Is Wrong.” For maximum impact on a reader who was previously flipping through the paper while sipping his or her morning coffee, it helps if the “Something” is a subject of such overwhelming simplicity that it causes one to sit up ramrod straight and shout to his or her spouse/s.o., “Oh my God–do you realize we’ve been wrong about tuna salad sandwiches all these years?”
Thus, subjects as fundamental as healthcare, immigration, taxes, highways, belly-button lint–okay, I made up that last one–have been spread across a glass slide and examined under the microscope of the methodology of “You’re wrong, I’m right, nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah-NYAH-nyah” favored by East Coast (and for all I know, West Coast) public intellectual wannabes.
The “Everything You Know is Wrong” formulation is one borrowed from a 1974 Firesign Theatre album. The phrase has been used as the title for two songs, one by “Weird Al” Yankovic, one by Chumbawamba, whoever they are. It has also been used as a title by no less than three authors–Paul Kirchner, Lloyd Pye, and Russ Kick; which raises the question, if the newspaper writers who tell us that everything we know is wrong are so smart, how come they can’t come up with something original?
I’m tired of being told that I’m totally wrong about familiar stuff such as the English language, the Civil War and dime-store turtles. It’s time to fight back. I’ve picked an extremely difficult topic–string theory–and I’m writing today to tell you that everything those guys know about it is wrong. Ready? Let’s go!
String theory does not involve actual string. If you’re at a physics department cocktail party and some guy is making goo-goo eyes at your date and you try to head him off at the pass by launching into an explanation of string theory, do not hold out your hands like you’re making a cat’s cradle.
“See, this is Cleveland over here,” you begin, “and this is the solar system, and this is the Crab Nebula Supernova.” Pretty soon you’ll run out of room and cut your hand by pushing it through a closed window.
“Strings” are One-Dimensional Objects, So You Don’t Have to Be. String theory is a developing approach to theoretical physics based on one-dimensional extended objects called “strings.”
If all you ever talk about is one subject, like yourself or string theory, your date is going to walk off and talk to the guy with the mustache who looks like Omar Sharif.
Because string theory does not depend on the “point particles” of quantum field theories, it forms an apparently valid quantum theory for the creation of belly-button lint.
This is a show stopper. You’ve been listening to some wise guy drone on and on about his second Nobel Prize in Physics. He’s dominating the dinner-table conversation, and you’re starting to drink too much to deal with your feelings of inadequacy. You may already be inebriated, for all I know. Now is the time to man up and give this guy what-for: “Sure, that’s an adequate descriptor of the modular valence if you’re talking quantum field theories,” you snap. “But has it ever–and I do mean ever–formed a valid quantum theory for belly-button lint?” You pause for effect, and your stare turns your stunned adversary into a startled fawn.
“Uh, well actually, now that you mention it, I guess not,” he says, sweat breaking out on his forehead as he reaches for his glass of water. “Is it just me,” he says after he takes a gulp, “or is it getting hot in here?”
Which, as every scientist worth his slide rule knows, is a song by “Nelly,” an American rapper, singer and actor.
Unless everything I know about him is wrong.