Another excellent post from Bee. Including a criticism of a pretty common opinion:

Those who scratch their heads [about the foundations of physics] are the ones that are just too stupid to understand.

The usual “folks are stupid” argument. But anybody, physicists included, should remember that those who contribute the most to the field are not necessarily those with the most impressive technical skills. I have little doubt that Steve Jobs contributed more to computer science than I did, despite the fact that he probably does not understand what metaprogramming is.

Similarly, Smolin and Woit may not have the highest rating in terms of citations and scientific track record. Minions of some well-known Czech blogger like nothing like reminding you of that. However, I think, or rather I hope, that the impact on physics of their books will be measurable and lasting. They stirred the pot simply for asking a simple questions: hey guys, isn’t physics about the real world after all? and that does matter.

On a different topic, I couldn’t agree more with:

I don’t think string theory is the problem. I found it very unfortunate that a big part of ‘The Trouble With Physics’ is dedicated to the string community. It’s unfortunate because a single case study isn’t a very good (scientific?) style to justify a fairly general conclusion about the way science should be done, and I wish that investigation had been broader.

Update: I added a comment there:

First, the problems you talk about are not unique to physics. For instance, most programmers agrees that C++ or Java are pretty lame programming languages, yet everybody working on a different breed of language, myself included, is considered nuts, including in academia. Worse yet, good solution to frequent problems are known, but widely ignored, something which is less glaring in physics (but I don’t think you are immune, see below).

Second, one thing that could be improved is tools helping us find what to read, and that means a better way to assess quality. Peer review or arXiv endorsement only gives a binary result, and as such, are very crude ways to evaluate quality. Sure, there are other ways to rate papers, such as citations or coffee-machine laughing sessions. But I wish there were comments and cross-references on arXiv, I wish I could say “I trust this person’s judgment, so I want to see articles that she liked”, I wish there was an easy way to find which articles introducing this or that concept folks found easy to read, and so on. The emergence of blogs may be another indirect manifestation of this same desire.

Not being able to easily get a big picture, one is left with specialization as the primary option to select what to read. So Bee is right that we are free to choose, but most will naturally choose specialization because it’s an obvious solution to a problem every scientist faces.

My own personal experience sadly confirms Sokal’s finding, that nobody has time to read articles, even those close to one’s research. It is sufficient that the other guy used words you never though searching for, and your paths will not cross. It’s not just about climbing hills or crossing valleys. Who spends time drawing the maps? It seems like everybody has their little own personal map, how inefficient is that?

Finally, these are all important questions to address. I believe that survival of the species depends on physics. For instance, can science shield us from the various forms of mass extinction we can think of? Can we ever explore other stars to find new resources? Can we get better and cheaper energy sources? Physics is our best hope for some of these problems. So physicists have to get their act together or we’ll all die 😉


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