This week and next, I’m very busy preparing and delivering a new class (four lectures, 1.5 hours each), for a non-technical audience, on the importance of and the discovery of the Higgs particle. I’ll be giving it in Western Massachusetts (my old stomping grounds). If it goes well I may try to give these lectures elsewhere (and please let me know if you know of an institution that might be interested to host them.) Teaching a new class for a non-technical audience requires a lot of concentration, so I probably won’t get too much writing in over that period.
Still, as many of you requested, I do hope soon to follow up last week’s article (on how particle physicists talk about the strength of the different forces) with an article explaining how both particles and forces arise from fields — a topic I already addressed to some extent in this article, which you may find useful.
Now — a few words on the flap over the suggestion that math Ph.D. and finance expert Eric Weinstein, in his mid-40s, may be the new Albert Einstein. I’ve kept my mouth shut about this because, simply, how can I comment usefully on something I know absolutely nothing about? (Admittedly, the modern media, blogosphere and Twitter seem to encourage people to make such comments. Not On This Blog.) There’s no scientific paper for me to read. There’s no technical scientific talk for me to listen to. I know nothing about this person’s research. All I know so far is hearsay. That’s all almost anyone knows, except for a few of my colleagues at Oxford — trustworthy and experienced physicists, who sound quite skeptical, and certainly asked questions that Weinstein couldn’t answer... which doesn’t mean Weinstein is necessarily wrong, only that his theory clearly isn’t finished yet. (However, I must admit my expert eye is worried that he didn’t have ready answers to such basic questions.)
What I do know is that the probability that Weinstein is the new Einstein is very low. Why? Because I do know a lot about how very smart people with very good ideas fail to be Einstein. It’s not because they’re dumb or foolish.
First, most novel and creative theoretical ideas eventually turn out to be mathematically inconsistent. Non-experts don’t hear much about such things because this normally doesn’t make it into the press or into books, but any expert has invented theories that weren’t consistent, and thrown them out either before or soon after initial publication. But let’s see what we can learn from the case of string theory, the poster child for the very clever idea that made a big splash, still is hanging around, yet still hasn’t panned out as a theory of nature.
String theory’s pre-history is a long story, which I’ll tell another day — but it was first recognized as a possible theory of all elementary particles and forces, one that could resolve the conflict between quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity and include all the known forces and particles, in this paper, in 1974. [About its title: “Dual Models” are string theories, and “non-hadrons” are elementary particles; let me skip the history behind this.] No one went around writing articles in newspapers that declared Joel Scherk and John Schwarz the new Einsteins, even after there was a paper one could read, because the theory wasn’t complete and it wasn’t clear it was consistent. It took until 1984 for Schwarz and Michael Green to prove that although most string theories are inconsistent, not all of them are inconsistent. After considerable work, the number of consistent string theories was reduced to a handful, and then, remarkably, in the 90s they were all shown to be related to each other, so in the end there is (in a limited sense) only one consistent theory with strings and quantum gravity in it, called M theory. It’s nice to have a unique theory; either it’s right, or it’s wrong. Which leads us to…
Second, most mathematically consistent theories turn out not to be consistent with nature. In other words, they disagree with experiment. There’s only one “real world” out there; the number of possible universes that one could imagine is potentially much larger. M theory is a consistent mathematical theory with quantum gravity in it; that doesn’t mean it’s the theory that describes nature. Unfortunately M theory is very, very difficult to test experimentally, so that uncertainty may be with us for a long while.
Here’s another example, going back a century, of a theory that was mathematically consistent, but turned out experimentally to be wrong: Nordstrom’s theory of gravity, a competitor of Einstein’s, which was developed over the years that Einstein was developing his own. (Einstein initially thought Nordstrom’s theory was not mathematically consistent, but found a way to write it that convinced him it was acceptable.) Nordstrom was very smart indeed! He invented a theory of gravity that incorporated Einstein’s early work on special relativity, which was just what Einstein was trying to do. But he’s not famous, because his theory, excellent as it was, just wasn’t in accord with nature. In other words, even if Weinstein does has a mathematically consistent theory, it is quite likely to share Nordstrom’s fate, along perhaps with Scherk and Schwarz’s great idea.
So even if it turns out (once there’s a paper) that Dr. Weinstein has had a very good idea (and really good ideas are rare), it is unlikely (given that he could not answer the basic consistency questions that Dr. Conlon asked him) that we will know whether some version of it is mathematically consistent for quite some time. And then it is not clear any of us currently living will see a consensus that it describes nature. We may, by contrast, know very quickly if it is false; all that has to happen is that one — just one — of its predictions contradicts an existing experiment.
The obstacles that theories that describe nature must overcome should never be underestimated!
However, let me hasten to add — Third — that a theory does not have to be correct, as a theory of nature, to be useful and important. That’s clearly true of string theory, for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here; it’s useful as a tool for doing many different types of calculations, in giving insights into otherwise difficult to understand phenomena, and in generating various new ideas about how the world might work. We can hope that, if Weinstein has had a good idea and if his theory is consistent, or if it can be modified to be consistent, that it will represent a valuable contribution to the field, whether it is true of nature or not. We can hope; there’s no way to know or guess without seeing it in detail.
I have no problems with Dr. Weinstein (as yet) — fresh theoretical ideas, from people who have the training to produce them, are rare and always welcome, and I hope that’s what he has to offer. But who does Professor Du Sautoy — a mathematician, unfortunately appointed to the post of Simonyi Professor for the Public mis?Understanding of Science — think he is, irresponsibly and unnecessarily disregarding the established procedures of scientific research (which have worked extraordinarily well for several centuries, as evidenced by the modern scientifically-based technological world that we live in), and declaring someone “Einstein II” not only before his theory’s been tested experimentally, not only before expert physicists have considered his theory carefully to see if it is mathematically consistent, but even before there’s a finished paper for experts to read?! No individual has such a right; it is nature’s, and a community’s, to decide. Or are we going back to Aristotle, perhaps even before, where a beautiful idea must be true, perhaps even while it is still half-baked, and empirical facts be damned? Are we going to start seeing announcements like this every year or two, from the latest smart boy or girl who has delusions of grandeur and a friend who writes for newspapers? I hope Charles Simonyi understands what’s just happened…
It also bothers me that this whole story interacts in unfortunate ways with various myths about Einstein. Aside from the absurd myth that he was bad at mathematics (he did not fail eight-grade math class, and he taught himself calculus), he is widely said to have been “outside academia as a patent-clerk”. Really, folks, he wasn’t far. The odd part of the story is that he was an unfunded, unadvised physics graduate student. Like any graduate student in his early-to-mid twenties, he was writing his Ph. D. thesis, reading and writing scientific papers, talking with other physics graduate students; but because he had no advisor and no teaching fellowship, he had to support himself and his family by working in a patent office — no more a patent clerk than the writer William Faulkner was a postmaster. Why did this happen? According to Abram Pais’s biography (written for physicists, so you won’t want to buy this unless you’ve got the background to read it), he’d had a bad falling out with one of the professors in his undergrad days; this kept him from getting a graduate student teaching fellowship, and almost destroyed his career. Fortunately he was brilliant enough to overcome this setback.
Meanwhile, there’s the myth that he was a fellow with his head in the clouds, thinking deep and beautiful thoughts with no regard for experiment. But two of his four famous papers in 1905 are not on some ethereal mathematical theory; they involve solving two of the great and concrete experimental puzzles of his day: Brownian motion and the photo-electric effect. And his two 1905 papers on special relativity aren’t a complete, over-arching theory that tries to resolve all unsolved issues in physics; they are short and to the point, mathematically consistent, and brilliant seeds of what he and others developed into a more complete theory later. Taken together, these papers made Einstein famous among leading physicists within a year or two, though it was still a little while before the relativity ideas were experimentally tested.
Then, as Einstein began to spend much of his time on the problem of gravity — a period during which he was a professor at famous institutions, in Zurich, Prague and Berlin — he made many incomplete attempts at a new theory, some of which he published along the way, sometimes with other people. So when his final version of his gravity theory came out in 1915, he was no unknown patent clerk! He was deep within academia, and well-known across physics and mathematics. And experts around him had seen many previous versions of his theory, and were in a position to evaluate it. Still, even then, in the public he was unknown. He became famous in the public eye only after his gravity theory was tested observationally, in 1919. That’s fourteen years after his first brilliant papers were published. It was only then was he could be declared the successor to Newton.
[Note Added: Even then, as a reader has prompted me to remind you, it was another several decades before the evidence in favor of general relativity was truly convincing! So in 1919 it was premature to say Einstein’s gravity theory was clearly right — though it was not premature to say that he had invented a brilliant, consistent gravity theory of great importance in physics, as well as having proposed plausible and inventive solutions to several other important physics problems.]
Compare this with the case of Dr. Weinstein. I think we have quite a long way to go.
That said, what’s the rush? You can’t get to the bottom of things if you’re in a big hurry. In our speedy modern world, that can be hard to remember; but for true scientists, it’s impossible to forget.
For other commentary on this hoopla, you can try
http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=5927 (who is moderately sympathetic [he knows Weinstein] though measured, especially since he too hasn’t seen the content)
http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/2013/05/24/dear-guardian-youve-been-played/ (who is less sympathetic, but like me, concerned mostly about the potential damage to the scientific process and public understanding thereof)