Much has been said and written, will be said and written, about the trouble with physics, or even sometimes the end of physics. Lee Smolin once famously asked Why is there no new Einstein?. It is not a matter of finding physics celebrities, for instance to make science more visible and facilitate funding (although, I might add, the perception that science lacks funding is in my opinion slightly wrong).
Problems that just won’t die
Rather, there is a general unease with the unpleasant fact that some problems in physics, including interpreting physics foundations such as quantum mechanics, have resisted us for too long. So people tend to simply shrug it off, while more or less openly hoping for a “new Einstein”, which really means a savior. In other words, it has just become Somebody Else’s Problem.
Lee Smolin points out the obvious, namely that such unsolved physics problems most likely will take unusual creativity to tackle. It’s obvious, since at least one of the problems has been out there for, conservatively, about 70 years. Don’t get me wrong, he is quite smart, and made a very interesting argument that some aspects of the answer can be identified, even if there is a step from identifying some properties of a theory to the theory itself.
But, not having the ultimate solution, Dr Smolin has to keep looking, writing books, giving interviews. In a recent interview in La Recherche, he is quoted as saying that the solution may well come from an outsider to the field, and wonders: is there something that we don’t see, some hidden assumption that we all take for granted?
The physics research community is not welcoming outsiders
But there are two additional points that Dr Smolin did not make, which I have not seen elsewhere either:
- A simple one is that the physics community looks down on outsiders, notably outsiders who pretend doing physics. A particular manifestation of this is ignoring e-mails. Dear Dr Smolin, if you want to locate the next Einstein, why don’t you begin by answering e-mails sent by no-names like myself, if only to say “your idea is bogus because…“? Who knows, the next Einstein you are hoping for may not have a .edu e-mail address.
- If and when someone figures it out, it may very well be that you will not like it. Why? Because it has generally been the case in the past.
This frustrates me particularly because I am delusional enough to believe that I have an answer to one of these problems. I believe that Lee Smolin is right and that there is at least one assumption that needs revisiting, namely that laws of physics using a variable like x are independent from the way you measure x.
Ontological vs. Phenomenological
This actually reminds me of a question that a cousin of mine with pretty whacky ideas of his own asked me when I tried to explain what I think I figured out. He asked me whether I was trying to move away from an ontological description towards a more phenomenological description of physics. It took me a while to page-in the required memories from old philosophy courses to understand what he was talking about. But I think that he nailed it.
The key question, really, is whether there is a reality to our mathematical models, something I already discussed in the past, including on Loosenet. For instance, if we use real numbers to describe time, does that imply that time is continuous?
How would I know that I am a crackpot, if nobody tells me?
At the same time, I am painfully aware that, from a technical standpoint, I am sorely lacking, and have no hope to understand more than one word out of five in a physics discussion with Ed Witten. So I don’t need to be reminded of that. Does that necessarily invalidate my idea? I don’t think so.
If Ed Witten came to me saying “I have this great idea for a new piece of software“, it is quite likely that the idea might be good even if he probably doesn’t know crap about C++ template metaprogramming, compiler implementation for coroutines, or Itanium speculative loads (which are the kind of technical topics I do need to master in my work).
Unfortunately, this is the kind of mindset I have, in my personal experience, not seen in the physics research community. As usual, there are exceptions to any overgeneralizing rule… But the bottom line is that I’d really love to hear criticism about my ideas from physicists who actually read my stuff. I wish I could have gotten the feedback before submitting for publication, even if I understand the rules. But so far, the count of feedbacks is exactly 1 (and honestly too positive for my taste), plus a couple of Nobel-prize winners and high-profile physicists who were kind enough to tell me they did not have the time.
That was not by lack of trying either. Actually, if I insisted more, I’m afraid I would end up there along with the Viagra-selling dudes in the spam filters of too many “real” physicists…
The burden of proof goes both ways
Of course, this criticism has to meet the same stringent criteria in rejecting the theory that should apply in accepting it. Just calling everybody else a crackpot is not going to cut it…
As an aside, that is something that I really don’t like about the peer review process in academia: whoever reviews is anonymous, so it’s not a discussion to improve or fix an idea, it is just a binary “yes/no” answer. Of course, there are reviewers who do their job diligently, will ask questions, even if that means they are no longer anonymous. Another issue is that the average peer review is several months, which is not exactly the fastest way to get feedback. As I wrote on this blog already, Einstein apparently did not like anonymous peer reviews too much either. That makes two of us, then.
In computer engineering, code or design reviews are generally face to face, something that is even sometimes made part of the process. This gives me a chance to defend my approach to the other guy in case he just did not grok it. “No, that’s not a bug because…”. Peer review doesn’t let you do that. End of aside…
Are there taboos in physics
So we have a very paradoxical situation in physics. On one hand, we have folks who have dedicated their life to research. On the other hand, some core topics have pretty much become taboo after a few decades of failure. So nobody talks about that. Instead, the physics community wastes gazillions of electrons discussing whether string theory is good or bad. The problems with string theory? That’s only a symptom, folks.