If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction – a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory – who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself.
[Richard Feynman, Nobel prize lecture]
I think that the important thing in the above is teaching himself quantum electrodynamics. Nobody expects an outsider to bring anything to the field if he does not know at least the basics. On the other hand, anybody with an “unusual point of view” may have trouble using standard terminology.
Using non-standard terminology
Here is a simple example. Each time I talk about something as simple as Lorentz invariance, I just can’t bring myself to talking about “reference frames” or “mass increase”. Why not? Because when I tried to understand special relativity, these terms were an obstacle to my understanding, and I only finally grasped the meaning of Einstein’s discovery when I realized Lorentz’ transform was just a rotation with an hyperbolic cosine instead of a regular cosine, and that special relativity was just perspective in 4D.
Mathematically, it’s equivalent to the standard presentation. But once this became my mental model, any train-based analogy or mention of a reference frame seems just so primitive and awkward that I just cannot bring myself to use this terminology. I find it confusing, and I’m certainly not alone, since the vast majority of the engineers I talk to, while having been trained in special relativity, are unable to say anything sensible about it after 5 years without using it. Also, in my experience, my mental model makes it possible to deal in 5 minutes with problems that take 5 times longer with the usual approach.
There’s something good about standards…
On the other hand, to the trained physicist who, more often than not, kept using the traditional formalism and became quite familiar with it, seeing me use non standard terminology indicates I do not grasp the physics behind special relativity. Which, I believe, is totally false, but I can certainly see how one can come to this conclusion with the kind of superficial analysis you grant to the “a priori crackpot”.
On the other hand, reading more and more comments from various people with “big ideas”, I came to realize that often, I have myself trouble grasping an idea expressed in an unusual way. There is something to be said about standard terminology. Now, I think that I made a particular effort presenting my own ideas in a way that is not jargonesque and therefore relies on a background any reader should have. But apparently, I must have failed, because the feedback count to date is still practically zero.
Examples of good feedback
If you want to see what I would consider a good feedback, have a look at Misner’s objections to Yilmaz’s modifications of General Relativity. While I’m not completely through digesting the arguments, for the moment, I would tend to side with Misner here. I still suspect a good physicist could come up with similar arguments regarding my paper. But while I had my share of lousy feedback (in that case, ad-hominem attacks as opposed to physics arguments), I’m still waiting for any reasonable discussion of my ideas. Shrug.
Update: If you want to see the kind of physics I don’t like, read this thread on sci.physics.research. And you wonder after that why folks think that special relativity is complicated…