A shrug of resignation in physics?

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.

8 thoughts on “A shrug of resignation in physics?

  1. Dear Christophe:If I look at my inbox I presently count about 50 emails per day (spam filtered), and that’s only for one e-mail address (I think I have five or six), comments at the blog not counted (which make a 20 more per day). An increasing fraction of these emails are from people who think they’ve just stumbled across the theory of everything, and want me to read it. Occasionally they send snail mail too. So far, I read all of it.If I extrapolate that to somebody who has written several popular science books and of order 100 papers, is frequently commenting on blogs, and seems to have an infinite amount of energy to repeat himself, I can about imagine what Lee’s inbox looks like.At least I can’t answer an increasing amount of these emails. Though I am sorry about it, I’ll tell you why. Because my day has only 24 hours, and I don’t have the time for it. There are lots and lots of people out there who want to be heard and read, and want to have attention. In those cases where I answered such emails, it always turned out the sender was either not willing or not able to listen to what I was trying to explain, and I really can’t provide physics lectures by email. So I tell them to read some books, take some classes, and think again about what they’ve cooked up. Look, if somebody holds a PhD in physics one can usually rely on him or her to at least being able to follow an argument. If somebody can’t show up this qualification he’ll first have to convince people otherwise that it is worth listening to him. If somebody has worked in the field for some while, you can at least expect him to know the work that has been done during the last decades, to know the difficult questions, and being able to explain what he contributed. And yes, that might take some time and effort. What do you mean with the community is not ‘welcoming’ to outsiders? What do you expect, that everyone who sends an email gets an invitation for a seminar? Gee, get a grip. We’ve all worked hard to be taken seriously, have read an infinite amount of books and papers, have argued with colleagues, and chewed our pens to death. There’s no shortcut to that. Don’t you see that you are acting against your own interests? The more people send around and advertise their half-baked theories, the more it will be necessary for us to filter all of them – possibly prematurely, and with the danger of missing those that would have been worth reading. The more people bombard .edu addressees with theories of everything, the less likely any of these emails will be read. Best,B.

  2. Hi Bee,Thanks a lot for the comment. We all have a lot of e-mail (377 for the last 5 work days in my work inbox, so I guess we are more or less comparable). But Steve Jobs, Linus Torvalds or Charles Simonyi answer their e-mails.Sure, it does take time to argue and discuss and explain, but I bet that the average discussion with some newbie will never take as long as a blog duel with Lubos. If out of 50, you have five unsollicited e-mails a day, it takes 5 times 2 minutes, or 10 minutes of your work day to give a nice reply, if you keep it short and to the point. Big deal.I am not trying to diminish the value of having a PhD. As a matter of fact, when I talk to someone I don’t know, I usually try to look them up on Google to see what they did. But if I see nothing, that does not mean the person is nothing, and in that case, it is really the contents of what is written that matters to me. More often than not, it is smart.I worked hard to be taken seriously in my field. That does not mean that I recall ever telling anybody I didn’t know that she was acting against her own interest for, say, making a possibly ill-founded but original criticism of C++. And please don’t blame me for the filtering, it is already there. Finally, I never asked for an invitation to a seminar, I asked for an e-mail. Gee, get a grip ;-)As to comments about taking shortcuts and half-baked theories, I will assume this was simply an over-generalization. And this is precisely the kind of behavior that makes the community feel hostile. Not that I believe your intent was to be hostile.Anyway, if you think Lubos is sometimes rude to other physicists, please realize that in my experience, the average physicist is just a Lubos to someone outside the field.

  3. Zephir,I did a quick Google search for the “Aether Wave Theory”. What I found is a large number of graphics, most of them without explanations of any kind, and statements I am unable to comprehend (for instance, that a wave function and E=mc2 are all you need for your theory).Well, I am entirely convinced that you can create graphics from the set of equations you gave. There is a whole field of cellular automatas to study this kind of pseudo-worlds, some of them very rich. If that interests you, I’m sure you would love “A new kind of science”, by Wolfram.But unfortunately, just like for Wolfram, I have not understood the connection with the real world. If there is a good write-up of your theory somewhere, Google did not help me find it.

  4. HI, I think you should try submit to the journal “Foundation of Physics”. Their new editor is t’hooft, so I guess it’s on the way to a respectable journal in that field.

  5. hi, stumbled upon your blog following some way over my head but funny physics arguing. Just gotta comment on your statement..”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…”You obviously dont work in the kind of field where you get to interact with random clients with great ideas for software (…or even lowly websites, as I do). Let me tell you they almost without exception completely wrong, their ideas are rubbish, and they have missed or misunderstood some startlingly obvious issues.Don’t want to imply anything…🙂

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