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This is not science

We may have the answer to all of the big problems in physics! Or not.

My money is on “not”.

Marcus du Sautoy, a very smart mathematician and the fellow who occupies the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford formerly held by Richard Dawkins, made a stunning announcement.

Two years ago, a mathematician and physicist whom I’ve known for more than 20 years arranged to meet me in a bar in New York. What he was about to show me, he explained, were ideas that he’d been working on for the past two decades. As he took me through the equations he had been formulating I began to see emerging before my eyes potential answers for many of the major problems in physics. It was an extremely exciting, daring proposal, but also mathematically so natural that one could not but feel that it smelled right.

He has spent the past two years taking me through the ins and outs of his theory and that initial feeling that I was looking at “the answer” has not waned. On Thursday in Oxford he will begin to outline his ideas to the rest of the mathematics and physics community. If he is right, his name will be an easy one to remember: Eric Weinstein.

There are a few peculiarities to this story. Weinstein is a consultant to a hedge fund, not an academic physicist. That’s not a major criticism of his theory, but the fact that he hasn’t shared his ideas with anyone other than one mathematician…that’s a problem.

This is not how anyone does science. No paper has been published or submitted for peer review, not even so much as a copy put in arxiv.

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

But wait, there’s more. He was invited to present his ideas at Oxford, but then no one bothered to let the physicists know.

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists. You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.

Oh, I remember science by press conference: I got to attend Pons and Fleischmann’s big announcement of the discovery of cold fusion at the University of Utah. We all know how that turned out.

The New Scientist article is damning.

Exciting news: all the problems plaguing physics have been solved. Dark matter, dark energy, quantum gravity – one amazing insight has delivered us from decades of struggle to a new knowledge nirvana.

There’s a catch, however: I’m unable to tell you what that insight is. Neither I, nor any of my professional physicist friends, have the faintest clue. In fact, nobody except Eric Weinstein and mathematician Marcus du Sautoy are sufficiently familiar with the claims to venture an opinion.

It’s interesting that just yesterday at this conference I’m attending I was asked a good question: when we’re dealing with high level scientific explanations that are far beyond what our background allows us to assess, how do we judge whether they’re valid or not? Do we have to rely on faith in the scientific authorities?

And I told him no, that we have other means than simple faith. The methods of science are completely open — scientists show their work. You can review the papers describing their conclusions, and even if much of it is beyond your grasp, you can at least see that they aren’t hiding their procedures. They don’t say, “Here’s a miraculous leap,” they instead may show you a pile of incomprehensible math, but it’s available to study, anyway.

And then you can also expect other independent scientists, who do have the background to understand the math, to weigh in and evaluate the evidence. They can explain the steps.

It’s like someone claiming to have been up on a roof, and you don’t see how she could have gotten up there, and you have no personal desire to be up there yourself, but she can point to the ladder she climbed, and you can also see others climbing up it, so you can trust the individual rungs to work. It’s not faith-based at all, but is based on the step-by-step evidence that the procedure actually performs as promised.

And that’s the problem with Weinstein’s claims. He claims to have been tap-dancing on a high, inaccessible roof, yet so far he hasn’t shown us any way to climb up there, and no one else has even been given an opportunity to climb his ladder. So why should we believe him? That would require an act of faith, and I reject that.

I am not a physicist. I have to wait to see the ladder. And that Eric Weinstein seems to be hiding it makes me very, very suspicious.


Andrew Pontzen has written to me about his statement that ‘nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists’.

Unfortunately this statement now turns out to be wrong. Marcus Du Sautoy did in fact think to invite the Oxford physicists, sending an email to the head of department along with A3 posters; unfortunately no-one spotted the talk because, unbeknown to Du Sautoy, the email was not widely circulated or advertised on the internal web page.

So it was an error, not an intentional evasion.

It’s still bad science.

Comments

  1. mikee says

    Seriously, the person occupying the chair for the public UNDERSTANDING of science is involved in this example of circumventing standard practice in science?

    This is disturbing to say the least.

  2. Ichthyic says

    Jennifer Ouellette (author of the 3rd article linked) is Sean Caroll’s wife, btw.

    She has been exposed to enough physics to smell something rotten.

  3. chrislawson says

    This reminds me a bit of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, which he claimed would revolutionise our understanding of the universe. Of course, it was not all that original (John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam were playing around with cellular automata way back int he 1940s) and it has yet to lead to a single new discovery in the physical sciences. Having said that, Stephen Wolfram is most definitely an extremely gifted mathematician with an enviable publication record in physics and computational science, and he had the good grace to actually publish his book…

  4. says

    Thanks for the snort-giggles. Mio sposo got his first-class degree in mathematics over 40 years ago, and is wondering whether it’s too late for him to get a speech at Oxford too. Given that he’s semi-retired rather than consulting for a hedge fund, he should be able to get something at least as good as Weinstein’s work in 5 years max, surely?

  5. says

    I can’t see how this is too far removed from that weird TimeCube guy.

    I’m not a scientist, and because of stuff like this I’m not particularly impressed with academic-type people… but it seems to me that you should lead with your data and hope that others agree with your conclusions, rather than leading with your conclusions and hiding the data.

  6. raven says

    I’ve always wondered about Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

    While we do know huge amounts of physics, we still don’t know what the large majority of the universe is made of.

    It doesn’t look like Weinstein knows either.

  7. Rich Woods says

    I still can’t find any details of the lecture anywhere. If/when Weinstein does publish, I know my maths won’t be up to understanding it so I’d ask for two simple things: an abstract and a list of testable predictions.

  8. csrster says

    What is the source of the claim that physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk? This was a public lecture _at the Clarendon Laboratory_.

  9. consciousness razor says

    What is the source of the claim that physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk? This was a public lecture _at the Clarendon Laboratory_.

    First, simply being ‘public’ is not an invitation in the sense of getting their attention and actively extending an invitation.
    Also, the source is the New Scientist article which was linked above. The author is a physicist at Oxford where the talk was given, so presumably he at least knows whether he got invited (and more than likely other physicists at Oxford). From the article:

    While Weinstein was delivering his lecture, the theoretical physicists were in a different room listening to a different speaker discuss a different topic (a new source of CP violation in charm physics and its implication for the unitarity triangle, if you’re curious). Only afterwards did anyone spot news of the revelatory talk that had taken place next door.

  10. crocodoc says

    Smells weird, true. But then, the standard model has become a patchwork and it wouldn’t be too surprising if sooner or later someone came up with a more coherent theory. And there have been people working on difficult problems on their own for years. Andrew Wiles, who finally proved Fermat’s last theorem, is an example. If Marcus du Sautoy tells the truth about Weinstein’s theory it makes many predictions – new particles and measurable properties that determine the cosmological constant in the observable universe. If it’s testable, it might be worth hearing it.
    I don’t have high expectations. But I have to admit, the article made me curious. Bring it on.

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Like crocodoc (#10) I’m curious about this too.

    It seems fishy but, who knows, there’s really not much yet to go on. Insufficient evidence for any firm or even tentative conclusions.

  12. TheBlackCat says

    “I can’t see how this is too far removed from that weird TimeCube guy. ”

    He doesn’t appear to be advocating genocide, for one thing.

  13. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ ^ The BlackCat : Huh? Who isn’t? Don’t recall anything about the Time Cube guy doing that or this Weinstein one. My memory may be a bit faulty but still. Who are you meaning?

  14. madscientist says

    I’m betting on a sham/scam. Consultant to a hedge fund – enough said.

  15. says

    There are plenty of theories that purport to unify the four forces, or at least unify the strong nuclear force with the electromagnetic and weak forces.

    For example, if you take the symmetry groups underlying the standard model, you can combine them in a very elegant manner, by using a larger symmetry group having them as subgroups. Unfortunately, when such theories make falsifiable predictions, they inevitably predict stuff that has already been falsified. Mathematical elegance doesn’t count for much when your theory predicts (for example) that protons should rapidly decay.

  16. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @ 14. consciousness razor : Nope. Just curious to know who is referred to there.

    Oh, I remember science by press conference: I got to attend Pons and Fleischmann’s big announcement of the discovery of cold fusion at the University of Utah. We all know how that turned out.

    The one that I recall well for that is the arsenic life in Mono lakes press conference NASA did that turned out to be very wrong – see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/09/30/arsenic-and-old-posts/#.UaHnMNJHJRY

    &

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/01/23/independent-researchers-find-no-evidence-for-arsenic-life-in-mono-lake/#.UaHm8tJHJRY

    & for the original hyped press conference :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/12/02/nasas-real-news-bacterium-on-earth-that-lives-off-arsenic/#.UaHn29JHJRY

  17. madtom1999 says

    If you work in n dimensions this will contain all possible things in n-1 dimensions.
    The fact you can tease out solutions from n dimensions that match up with one aspect of reality in n-1 dimensions does not mean you have found the correct model for reality in n-1 dimensions.
    Or more succinctly correlation does not mean causation.

  18. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Having said that, Stephen Wolfram is most definitely an extremely gifted mathematician with an enviable publication record in physics and computational science, and he had the good grace to actually publish his book…

    That’s true, but Wolfram had been working effectively on his own, without exposing his ideas to critics who were not in his hire, for years. However smart you are, you need people to stop you bullshitting yourself.

  19. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    If his model makes predictions, lets hear them. And why not put the relevant calculation in a paper on the arxiv. Crazy, I know. Building GUTs is complicated, and my bet is that Weinstein, being out of the field for decades, does not have a comprehensive understanding of the issues that need to be taken care of.

  20. says

    If it’s testable, it might be worth hearing it.

    The complaint isn’t that we don’t want to listen. The complaint is that they’re not talking. If they’ve got it, show it. Specifically, lay it out for public critique like you do with real science.

  21. says

    If you work in n dimensions this will contain all possible things in n-1 dimensions.

    Not remotely true. For example, it is possible to have a knot in 3 dimensions that is not equivalent to the unknot, but such a thing is impossible in 4 dimensions.

  22. Compuholic says

    This reminds me a bit of Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, which he claimed would revolutionise our understanding of the universe.

    That reminds me of how his awful TED talk. While Wolfram certainly is a smart guy and made significant contributions to his field I could not bear watching his talk. The way he created the impression that all of this was his idea really made me mad.

    He is certainly good at what he does. But he is even better at marketing himself.

  23. kevinalexander says

    If his maths predict that the answer is 42 then he gets the Nobel.

  24. Gregory Greenwood says

    And I told him no, that we have other means than simple faith. The methods of science are completely open — scientists show their work. You can review the papers describing their conclusions, and even if much of it is beyond your grasp, you can at least see that they aren’t hiding their procedures. They don’t say, “Here’s a miraculous leap,” they instead may show you a pile of incomprehensible math, but it’s available to study, anyway.

    And then you can also expect other independent scientists, who do have the background to understand the math, to weigh in and evaluate the evidence. They can explain the steps.

    Exactly – my understanding of physics is woeful, and my mathematical skills are… shall we say not all they could be. When confronted with extreme claims couched in advanced mathematical terms my recourse is first to look at the position of the broader community within that discipline – do the peers of this person consider their claims credible? Then I can try to find people with the proper background who are prepared to explain the concepts to me in terms I can grasp so that I can see if it makes any sense at its fundamental level. I am perfectly prepared to accept that there will be all kinds of stuff that sails way over my head, but when there are obvious gaps in the work that is supposed to lead to these conclusions, I get suspicious; doubly so when the discoverer of the brave new world refuses to divulge any of their work at all.

    The extreme caginess of Weinstein and du Sautoy when it comes to making the actual work behind their claims available for scrutiny, and their reticience to come out with any testable predictions of this new hypothesis, strikes me as highly suspect. There is little point holding a public lecture about your ideas if none of the people who are able to critically evaluate your claims have been made aware of it. Even as a layman, this is making my antenna twitch.

    When someone goes to such lengths to avoid putting their concept out there in the market place of ideas, to sink or swim as it may on the evidence, then I have to ask myself why that would be the case.

  25. Andy Groves says

    In the end it comes down to testing and verification of one sort or another. Although peer review of papers is important, it is certainly not perfect. Peter Mitchell’s work on his chemiosmotic theory was considered heretical in the 1960s, to the extent that he had to publish his two most significant papers on the subject privately in 1966 and 1968. The thing about Mitchell’s work, however, was that it made testable predictions. After more established biochemists stopped laughing at his ideas, they actually went to the lab and tested them.

    He won the Nobel prize ten years later in 1978.

  26. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    But this confirms my opinion that maybe the professorship for the public understanding of science should be given to good scientist. I’ve found it quite often that even brilliant and successful mathematicians have annoying misconceptions about science and naive views of religion vs. science.

  27. cubist says

    If this turns out to be Cold Fusion II, it could be worse. I am given to understand that while nobody could reliably replicate the claims made by Pons & Fleischman, some of the attempts to replicate those claims yielded some weird results that nobody could figure out, and people have been working on the weirdness ever since.
    Even if Weinstein’s specific claims (assuming he ever makes them) turn out to be a dead end, it’s possible that he might get other scientists working on interesting topics anyway.

  28. Beatrice (looking for a happy thought) says

    But this confirms my opinion that maybe the professorship for the public understanding of science should be given to good scientist. I’ve found it quite often that even brilliant and successful mathematicians have annoying misconceptions about science and naive views of religion vs. science.

    Better not let any stinking mathematicians anywhere near the promotion of science then.

    *joins sociologists in the corner of shame*

  29. ChasCPeterson says

    the fellow who occupies the chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford formerly held by Richard Dawkins

    well it’s got to take a pretty big ass to fill that chair.

    This is not science

    Correct: it’s theoretical physics. The reasion it’s ‘theoretical’ is because they have no data. Therefore it’s not science, but mathematics*, and like Tyrant al-Kalām I’ve long wondered about why people insist on confounding mathematics and science.
    When mathematicians do try to express their ideas in words it tends to come out like this:

    a new source of CP violation in charm physics and its implication for the unitarity triangle

    which, thanks a lot.

    I’m betting on a sham/scam. Consultant to a hedge fund – enough said.

    sssshhhhh! I’m hunting wabbits.
    And by ‘wabbits’ I mean wild argumenta ad hominem.

    *I’d be willing to say the same about at least some theoretical biology.

  30. ChasCPeterson says

    Peter Mitchell’s work on his chemiosmotic theory was considered heretical in the 1960s…He won the Nobel prize ten years later

    Was that his choice of terminology? Because if so he ought to be vilified for so thoroughly confusing so many intro-to-bio students about osmosis for so many years now.

  31. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    ChasCPeterson,
    Actually, many good theorists are well grounded in experimental evidence–some, like Fermi, actually did reasonable experimental work. Feynmann remained well grounded in experiment throughout his life. So did Einstein.

    And, shock of shocks, the fact that you don’t understand the mathematical terminology does not render the mathematical terminology meaningless. The best theoretical physicists make sure the verifiable predictions of their theories are clear. You just evidently don’t read or understand the best theoretical physicists.

  32. Rob Grigjanis says

    Chas @32:

    When mathematicians do try to express their ideas in words it tends to come out like this:

    No, that’s how experimental physicists talk as well (scroll down to 14 November 2011, e.g.). There’s really no other way to talk in particle physics.

    http://lhcb-public.web.cern.ch/lhcb-public/

  33. Sastra says

    The methods of science are completely open — scientists show their work.

    Exactly. One of the first books I ever read which specifically addressed the topic of ‘science’ and how it works was Alan Cromer’s magnificent Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science. He liked to define it in social terms because he thought that what specifically set ‘science’ apart from other methods and activities was that it goes directly against the strong human tendencies towards thinking subjectively, associatively, intuitively, and egocentrically.

    Both science and democratic politics must rely on arguments capable of convincing their publics. To be taken seriously as science, any new idea or assertion must, at the very least, be capable in principle of convincing the established scientific public. The members of a scientific public must share common knowledge without being committed to a common ideology or school of thought. I am not saying that truth in science is whatever the scientific consensus says it is. Rather, I am saying that, in general, there can’t be a consensus of informed opinion unless there is something ‘real’ out there and that this consensus is the only objective proof of that reality…The social definition of science helps explain how certainty can arise from a purely human activity… Science doesn’t care how a scientist comes up with an idea: it does care, however, about the evidence the scientist uses to support the idea. It must be convincing to those who don’t believe in Ouija boards, not just to those who do.

  34. dave001 says

    @27 Yes. And, if we substitute ‘Albert’ for ‘Eric’ and knock the ‘W’ off the surname, we have a story that doesn’t need much of a rewrite and that one turned out rather well, if memory serves. Keeping the lid on this kind of thing is harder today, especially when people who should know better are complicit.

  35. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    @ChasCPeterson,

    Where do you get the notion that all theoretical physics is disconnected from data. This is very wrong. There are very speculative branches of theoretical physics, there are those that are very close to experiments, and a broad spectrum inbetween.

    When mathematicians do try to express their ideas in words it tends to come out like this:

    a new source of CP violation in charm physics and its implication for the unitarity triangle

    I don’t understand what you mean. This reads like a standard summary of a particle physics talk, has little to do with pure mathematics.
    The unitarity triangle is a collection of measured quantities in flavor physics, physical constants if you will. The fact that certain measured complex phases involved in the weak interaction of quarks add up to 0, hence form a triangle in the complex plane, is a strong pointer towards the fact that there are only three generations of quarks in the Standard Model.

    Cecilia Jarlskog and others have demonstrated that the area of this triangle is directly connected to how strongly the symmetry between matter and antimatter (“CP Symmetry”) is violated in the weak interactions.

    There’s hardly anything closer to experiment in fundamental physics than the unitarity triangle.

  36. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    csrster

    What is the source of the claim that physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk? This was a public lecture _at the Clarendon Laboratory_.

    I think you are making a good point. Its a little hard for me to evaluate how this was publicized, and how that stacks up against the way things are usually done at Oxford. At my university for instance when we have a guest lecture at the chemistry department, fliers are put up in the halls advertising the talk, and we all get emails. Sometimes we have lecturers who are giving talks on chemical physics, and if it happens in the physics department we are welcome to attend, but not notified by the same mechanism. Similarly, we sometimes have physicists showing up to our physical chemistry seminars, but if they were ‘invited’ it was probably because they were talking to their chemist colleagues*.

    Of course, if the physicists weren’t formally notified that the talk was going to happen, I’d like to know who was. IMO “not inviting the physicists” would only have been malpractice if the talk was actually being pitched to the public rather than scientists at all. Unfortunately, the fact that a vague account of this unpublished theory has already been in the Guardian has me leaning toward that conclusion.

    *friendships between chemists and physicists constitute a rare form of bonding, but they are not unknown to science.

  37. ChasCPeterson says

    You just evidently don’t read or understand the best theoretical physicists.

    & Tyrant @#39:
    well, that’s for damn sure. Neither one.
    Nobody has any reason to take me seriously on this subject. (I’m mostly just yanking chains out of boredom, tbh. But thanks for settin’ me straight.)

    No, that’s how experimental physicists talk as well…There’s really no other way to talk in particle physics.

    & Tyrant @#39:
    Relax, fellas; just kidding around about jargon. The only reason the guy threw that in was to send an inside wink to guys like you while bafflegabbing the rubes. So I mocked it.
    As above, I lack even the most basic understanding of particle physics, not even enough to know what’s experimental and what’s theoretical. Nevertheless, I am a resonably intelligent scientist* and I don’t appreciate being intentionally bafflegabbed.

    *albeit one who put on boots and collected data instead of farting around all day in Mathematica.
    (I kid!)

  38. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    @Chas

    “and I don’t appreciate being intentionally bafflegabbed.”

    I find this attitude flabbergasting!

  39. Andy Groves says

    Chas @33:

    Was that his choice of terminology? Because if so he ought to be vilified for so thoroughly confusing so many intro-to-bio students about osmosis for so many years now.

    Yes, he chose to describe it as chemiosmosis. Apart from the fact that Mitchell’s ideas were considered heretical, it didn’t help that he did some of his work privately in a converted dairy farm and that his writing was considered extremely hard to read. It wasn’t until Guy Greville published a review of his work in 1969 that people really started to understand what he was talking about.

  40. says

    I almost asked this on the math.columbia.edu site linked above, but decided to ask here instead:

    Okay… a little clarification, here.

    Noting of course the lack of any experimental data, the multiverse idea would, in fact, be a good explanation for the cosmological constants (not to mention the rather fun [or I think so] thought experiments of the consequences of an infinite amount of universes, including the potentialities for a sort of “time travel”, assuming you can travel between universes).

    Barring the multiverse idea and the god hypothesis (please let’s bar the god hypothesis just for the sheer stupidity alone), what other potential explanations could there be for the cosmological constants?

  41. Amphiox says

    Peter Mitchell’s work on his chemiosmotic theory was considered heretical in the 1960s, to the extent that he had to publish his two most significant papers on the subject privately in 1966 and 1968. The thing about Mitchell’s work, however, was that it made testable predictions. After more established biochemists stopped laughing at his ideas, they actually went to the lab and tested them.

    As has been alluded to above, a major part of Mitchell’s problem was not just that there was skepticism for his ideas themselves, but that he failed utterly in expressing them in an understandable or compelling manner.

    When someone else re-expressed those ideas in a more effective way, interest was almost immediately piqued, and acceptance after that was not out of the range of usual in terms of time-frames.

    So let that be a lesson to all future aspiring scientists not to turn their noses up at their language and literature courses and studies!

  42. anchor says

    Hmmm…It seems I’ve seen this particular horse lap the track before.

    The last time I saw Weinstein galloping by with noises like this was over a decade ago…not very long after he was successfully sued for using someone else’s proprietary material on his Eric Weinstein’s Wolfram MathWorld website.

    Alas, I am without citation, but I do know du Sautoy isn’t the first person Weinstein has, uh, revealed his theory to…I can’t recall what he called it back then, but I don’t think it was called “Geometric Unity”. However, he claimed it promised to ‘revolutionize’ physics just the same. No paper describing his ideas then either.

    Would it not be funny if it was completely different from what he now appears to claim. Too bad nobody else has been allowed to assess that one or his newest claim.

    To be sure, Weinstein is indeed a bright fellow. He also has a gigantic ego. Too bad science finds that irrelevant. (He might consider it ‘unfair’).

    What amazes me is the gullibility of du Sautoy and Frenkel.

  43. Amphiox says

    Was that his choice of terminology? Because if so he ought to be vilified for so thoroughly confusing so many intro-to-bio students about osmosis for so many years now.

    Kind of reminiscent of Robin Hill’s Z-scheme for photosynthesis. (It really, really, really should have been called the N-scheme instead).

  44. Amphiox says

    From the Greville review in 1969 to Mitchell winning the Nobel Prize in 1978 is actually rather fast by Nobel standards….

  45. anchor says

    Correction!: The operator of the Wolfram MathWorld website is apparently a different person. Mea culpa.

  46. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I am given to understand that while nobody could reliably replicate the claims made by Pons & Fleischman, some of the attempts to replicate those claims yielded some weird results that nobody could figure out, and people have been working on the weirdness ever since. – cubist

    Who gives you to understand this? Anything to do with the “low-energy nuclear reactions” apparently being investigated at NASA?

  47. says

    Everything about this gets my crank senses tingling. Sure, it could be a great revolutionary theory, I grant there it is possible, but the way they are going about this makes it impossible to tell. There is some history of releasing revolutionary ideas in lectures; Andrew Wiles presented his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem through a series of three lectures called “Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves and Galois Representations.” but that was done at a small conference where the audience contained a large number of experts in that field who could help evaluate the proof. In addition the paper associated with it went through peer review, errors were found and eventually fixed, and the papers were finally published where any interested parties could read them. Eric Weinstein could have done it this way, he could have given a lecture about this to those that could actually evaluate the claims but instead he chose a public lecture and has not released a paper, something that would be trivial to do arxiv. If he does any sort of complaining about not being taken seriously I am going to go apoplectic, as he has no one to blame but himself.

    I am not really sure why so many cranks seem to think debates and lectures are some ultimate medium for conveying info. I think anyone who has been to a conference realizes that you rarely get everything in a talk, you get an overview, sometimes quite a lot of detail, but things are missing, you do not get everything, you have to go find the paper to fill in the gaps and try to understand the material.

  48. says

    I am not really sure why so many cranks seem to think debates and lectures are some ultimate medium for conveying info

    Because you get to stand in front of people, say whatever you want, not have to really back it up, and if anybody catches you talking shit, you can always just deny that you ever said it, because there’s no written record?

  49. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    NateHevens,

    There is the speculative but testable Idea that we live on a brane in higher dimensional space, where the geometry of these extra dimensions reacts dynamically to the cosmological constant on our brane and (almost) cancels it. This requires gravity effects which would be testable in the lab in the near future…

  50. sugarfrosted says

    @10

    And there have been people working on difficult problems on their own for years. Andrew Wiles, who finally proved Fermat’s last theorem, is an example.

    I kind of feel that this kind of inaccurate. In order to prove Fermat’s last theorem there were three things that needed to be prove. What Wiles did was prove that one statement was equivalent to Fermat’s Last Theorem, but that other statement had already been proven by someone else (Ken Ribet).

    Basically, it just bugs me that Wiles gets all of the credit.

  51. David Marjanović says

    Over in the ScienceBlogs version of this thread, people have been pointing out that mathematicians commonly float half-baked ideas in public to decide whether they’re worth writing a manuscript about and submitting it to peer review. It’s, in other words, a different culture.

    That still doesn’t make sense out of presenting the conclusions of an idea without presenting the idea itself.

    well it’s got to take a pretty big ass to fill that chair.

    :-D :-D :-D

    Therefore it’s not science, but mathematics

    Why, as long as it makes testable predictions?

    (Obligatory mention of string theory goes here.)

    Yes. And, if we substitute ‘Albert’ for ‘Eric’ and knock the ‘W’ off the surname, we have a story that doesn’t need much of a rewrite

    …what… no. Einstein wasn’t derided, he published in big-name journals right away – and those papers showed his work in all detail.

    I’m mostly just yanking chains out of boredom, tbh.

    …That’s called trolling, tbh.

    The only reason the guy threw that in was to send an inside wink to guys like you while bafflegabbing the rubes.

    Are you drunk!?!

    I am not really sure why so many cranks seem to think debates and lectures are some ultimate medium for conveying info.

    Because it’s so dramatic: you get to stand in front of all the great and famous people in the field* and blow their minds, all at once, in real time. Few people who aren’t professional scientists have ever imagined the importance of the scientific paper.

    * Of course it never happens that all of them have time and money and health etc. etc. to actually attend the same conference. But cranks don’t think that far.

  52. ChasCPeterson says

    …That’s called trolling, tbh.

    I know.

    Are you drunk!?!

    Not yet.

  53. aimee whitcroft says

    OK, but (she says, getting ready to duck and run away from storm of grrrr), doesn’t du Sautoy’s article say that this new hypothesis provides particles for which people can look? Which makes it somewhat testable?

    Other than that, yes, it’s unusual to announce new science like this but so what? Maths, especially of the theoretical kind, doesn’t quite work like some of the other branches of science in how it does things, anyway (and even that shouldn’t matter). Perhaps he’s been quiet about his hypothesis because he’s proud of it, and wanted it to be at least ready-ish before he brought it into public view? Which, by presenting a very public paper, is exactly what he’s going to be doing. At which point, everyone can dive into it.

    I propose waiting to rubbish his hypothesis until everyone’s actually gotten to _see_ it. Anything else smacks of hypocrisy :)

  54. consciousness razor says

    OK, but (she says, getting ready to duck and run away from storm of grrrr), doesn’t du Sautoy’s article say that this new hypothesis provides particles for which people can look? Which makes it somewhat testable?

    It makes it claimed to be testable, but that claim may be wrong. No way to tell without knowing what the actual theory says, and basically nobody does know.

    Maths, especially of the theoretical kind, doesn’t quite work like some of the other branches of science in how it does things, anyway (and even that shouldn’t matter).

    Even if that were the case, physics is not math. This is ostensibly about physics, not about math. But mathematicians do have standards like peer review, so whatever differences there would be (if this were pure math which it isn’t) are irrelevant anyway.

    Perhaps he’s been quiet about his hypothesis because he’s proud of it, and wanted it to be at least ready-ish before he brought it into public view?

    If we can agree that ready-ish means “has no definite description which the public can evaluate,” or in other words not ready. It’s in the “public view” now, yet it’s still not ready.

    Which, by presenting a very public paper, is exactly what he’s going to be doing. At which point, everyone can dive into it.

    Why make a huge splash in the press before there is any such paper and before everyone can dive into it?

    I propose waiting to rubbish his hypothesis until everyone’s actually gotten to _see_ it. Anything else smacks of hypocrisy :)

    Who has “rubbished” it? It’s possible that it’s correct (or at least valuable), but that seems very unlikely to me. Until there’s actually something to talk about, this “waiting” stuff is just a load of wishful thinking. You believe his promises, fine, but that’s all they are at this point. The only thing I’m really waiting for is a train wreck to happen.

  55. aimee whitcroft says

    I didn’t say I believed what he’s claiming, not at all! I don’t have the information to make that judgement.

    I was just saying I note a lot of speculation about the validity of his hypothesis*, without anyone (other than du Sautoy, who seems a fan) having seen it. That’s all :) There’s a lot of complaint about the fact he’s not put his work out there, but isn’t publicly presenting his paper exactly that? Once that’s done, then everyone can make informed commentary about the work.

    That’s all I had to say, really. Have an awesome week, everyone!

    —–

    * Actually, there has been a lot of scoffing and rubbishing going on – calling someone a crackpot, for example, isn’t exactly a non-judgmental standpoint :)

  56. Rob Grigjanis says

    Aimee @65:

    without anyone (other than du Sautoy, who seems a fan) having seen it.

    David Kaplan has communicated with Weinstein enough to judge his work promising, if over-hyped.

    Link

  57. M, Supreme Anarch of the Queer Illuminati says

    There’s a lot of complaint about the fact he’s not put his work out there, but isn’t publicly presenting his paper exactly that?

    No, it isn’t — which is the whole point of this post and the “complaints” that you dismiss. “Publicly presenting” (note: not publishing in any context with remotely rigorous standards) is, in this context, as useful for determining validity as a press release. We’re looking at demonstrations with the terms of observation carefully set by the people claiming a revolutionary advance…with that supposed advance kept carefully behind a curtain (in this case, a blue box and a suspiciously-excessive tangle of wires). There has been no “public presentation” of the presumed principles or mechanism of operation; that is what would be necessary to even begin to consider this a scientific matter. It’s absolutely basic: science doesn’t cover up its own evidence.

  58. aimee whitcroft says

    Let me be clearer – I was assuming that his presentation (in a speech) of his thoughts will be accompanied by some sort of written thingummy (i.e. a paper) which people can then look into more closely.

    Certainly, if he simply stands up and says ‘I’ve cracked it’ but releases nothing further? Bah humbug to him. I just don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

    I don’t see it as any sort of cover-up whatsoever until he refuses, after the fact, to release his work for proper inspection. Until then, I don’t have a huge problem with him wanting to announce his work when, presumably, he offers it up unto his peer group for scrutiny :) Scientists and their press offices put out press releases and whatnot about new work all the time, after all. Hell, I’ve even seen scientists and their press offices start happily talking about new research when the paper/research isn’t yet available!

    Again, let me reiterate – announcing his new thing without backing it up afterwards? Fail? Until then, I should think that the jury is out about the validity or not of his work, and shouldn’t that kinda be the point? Not the presentation, but the actual work?

  59. Ichthyic says

    doesn’t du Sautoy’s article

    wow, haven’t seen you about these parts in ages, Aimee! Howz things?

    yeah, the problem is that there really IS no peer review here, there is only du Sautoy’s credulous acceptance of it. There is no “paper”, there was an entirely unreviewed presentation of his idea in a public forum that apparently nobody who could understand what he was talking about, other than du Sautoy was present.

    what’s more, Weinstein has a history of this that goes back well over ten years. We’re still waiting for the paper that should have been published after the LAST time he pulled this.

    So, the onus is definitely on Weinstein to produce something directly reviewable before skepticism even begins to apply. What’s more, frankly, we shouldn’t care a hill of beans what du Sautoy *thinks* about it.

    right now, it’s still in “not even wrong” territory.

    Not the presentation, but the actual work?

    exactly why the attacks resemble a criticism of “cart before horse”.

  60. Ichthyic says

    Let me be clearer – I was assuming that his presentation (in a speech) of his thoughts will be accompanied by some sort of written thingummy (i.e. a paper) which people can then look into more closely.

    this is the point, it’s unusual to say something like this while at the same time not presenting ANYTHING at all beforehand for review.

    hell, even a first year student doing a biology report will have handouts for the class.

  61. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ichthyic @69:

    Weinstein has a history of this that goes back well over ten years.

    What was that about? Any references?

  62. Ichthyic says

    What was that about? Any references?

    word of mouth on facebook. I’ll try to track down specific mentions for you, but the sources were certainly credible.

  63. consciousness razor says

    From the Guardian:

    Edward Frenkel, a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley, has been discussing Weinstein’s ideas with him for the past year. “I think that both mathematicians and physicists should take Eric’s ideas very seriously,” he says. “Even independently of their physical implications, I believe that Eric’s insights will be useful to mathematicians, because he points to some structures which have not been studied before, as far as I know. As for the physical implications, it is quite possible that this new framework will lead to new answers to the big questions, after necessary work is done to make precise predictions which can be tested experimentally.”

    The way I’m reading it, this is saying that they have not done the work “to make precise predictions which can be tested experimentally.” It’s just a mathematical framework that maybe has some potential to make predictions about the real world. And a bunch of mathematicians are promoting it because of its “naturalness.”

  64. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    right now, it’s still in “not even wrong” territory. – Ichthyic

    I’d say it’s not even not even wrong! According to the pfft of all knowledge:

    Rudolf Peierls writes that “a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, ‘It is not even wrong.’”

    So in the original instance, there was an actual paper to be not even wrong.

  65. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    Heh, not even not even wrong, I like it!

    Although I must admit, the entire affair has by now captured my attention enough that I will probably carefully read the paper if one ever comes out. However, the question is, can Weinstein’s ego take it, if after all this built-up level of anticipation, the community examines and possibly trashes his paper? Having ideas dragged out in broad daylight can be uncomfortable.

  66. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    @John Morales

    uh erm mhm. Too vague, what the hell is he talking about? Reads a bit like he was high when he wrote that. Lots of nice prose about how properly geometrizing the quantum is the path to ultimate enlightenment. Hell, I can write something like this, how about “the path to the unification of gravity and quantum field theory will be found by achieving a successful synthesis of the deep ideas which form the underlying structure of quantum field theory and gravity. Geometry. geometry. quantum. geometry. Atiyah. Singer. quantum. yadda. yadda.”
    Bloated with nice rhetoric, and impossible to reconstruct what he is actually talking about. Hedge fund managers, beware.

  67. ChasCPeterson says

    Weinstein has a history of this that goes back well over ten years.

    What was that about? Any references?

    I assumed that Ich was parroting this comment above, but I guess “word of mouth on facebook” is the same thing.

  68. Rob Grigjanis says

    John @76: As one of the commenters at Not Even Wrong says, it’s “half history, half lyrics”. Not quite Jon Anderson, but I’m still intrigued.

  69. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    Commenter “Leaker” at Not even Wrong sez

    “The core idea seems to be to work with the 14-dimenional bundle of all metrics over a 4-dimensional manifold, as a way of generalising GR, the standard model, and QFT a the same time. The high dimensionality gives very large multiplets of as yet undiscovered particles, and he has no idea of their masses. …
    …He still hasn’t got all the details worked out and there’s no preprint. My general verdict would be that it’s certainly not nonsense, but I would take a lot more convincing that it’s heading in the right direction.”

    This sounds like it could easily go horribly wrong once thought through. I for one would like to know whether he can circumvent the Coleman-Mandula theorem which basically states that one cannot simply add new symmetries to those of relativity, and in what way this model improves upon the usual Standard Model + GR picture.

    Also, if he hasn’t got an idea about the masses of these particles, my bet is that he has no idea whether any correct amount of Dark Matter comes out of this stuff, let alone Dark Energy.

  70. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    It’s still bad science

    That remains to be seen. We don’t know anything about what Weinstein is planning to publish (assuming he ever does). His work is still hypothetical science, and if published it deserves the same evaluation every other proposed physical theory gets.

    IMO this story is more about bad journalism. Weinstein and his friends shouldn’t be pitching his unpublished work to news organizations, and science journalists should learn to resist the temptation to print sensationalist articles, particularly if the science is questionable or unpublished. The seminar was pretty standard practice, and I don’t see any reason to complain about it. I don’t know how things are done in biology, but in probably 80% of the chemistry seminars I’ve attended, unpublished results have been discussed. Its a perfectly good way to solicit criticism and feedback, so that you don’t become aware of your deficiencies by reading them on reviews that recommends your paper for rejection.

  71. David Marjanović says

    I’d say it’s not even not even wrong!

    So full of win!

    I don’t know how things are done in biology, but in probably 80% of the chemistry seminars I’ve attended, unpublished results have been discussed.

    Oh, we do mostly present unpublished stuff (and the rest is stuff that came out quite recently, often after the abstract was submitted, sometimes the very day it’s presented). The difference is that we show our work in the presentation, and that we’ve either submitted the manuscript already (the most common case) or will start writing it soon.

  72. consciousness razor says

    I don’t know how things are done in biology, but in probably 80% of the chemistry seminars I’ve attended, unpublished results have been discussed.

    Oh, we do mostly present unpublished stuff (and the rest is stuff that came out quite recently, often after the abstract was submitted, sometimes the very day it’s presented). The difference is that we show our work in the presentation, and that we’ve either submitted the manuscript already (the most common case) or will start writing it soon.

    And, well I’m just guessing here, but I bet you generally show the work (which you have, not what you might have if someone does the work) to people in that field who are able to evaluate it. Not just show it to the general public or to people in some other field.

  73. David Marjanović says

    Yep.

    The conferences are open to the general public, but not announced to the general public, and often expensive especially if you’re not a member of the society that organizes the one in question.

  74. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    The conferences are open to the general public

    The conferences of the German physical society allow every member to speak. This has the consequence that in every branch there is a dedicated “Crackpot” session into which all the, well… crackpots are funneled. Usually, younger students go there to get some kicks out of it. It’s not pretty.

    In more specialized international conferences, there is a moderately strict selection of speakers by the organizers in place. Someone like Weinstein might or might not get a slot to speak depending on whether he knows some of the organizers.

  75. David Marjanović says

    The annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology sends the abstracts through peer review and rejects about 30 %. In 2011 mine was rejected for being too similar to that of the year before. They simply get more submissions than they can handle. They should really add a fifth day… Anyone can submit an abstract, provided one of the authors is a member of the Society.

    Someone like Weinstein might or might not get a slot to speak depending on whether he knows some of the organizers.

    WTF, that’s corruption. Raise a stink.

    ░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░

    On the ScienceBlogs version of this thread, someone has posted the following:

    _New Scientist_ ran a correction at the end of their article: apparently there were efforts to publicize the event to actual physicists at Oxford, but those efforts failed due to what sound like routine administrative screwups by all persons involved.

  76. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    WTF, that’s corruption. Raise a stink.

    Well, I think it’s unavoidable. In the end, those who make the final decision about giving out talks will decide more or less obscurely who gets through and who doesn’t. I don’t know any conference where this is really a transparent and objective process…

    _New Scientist_ ran a correction at the end of their article: apparently there were efforts to publicize the event to actual physicists at Oxford, but those efforts failed due to what sound like routine administrative screwups by all persons involved.

    Heh. On the continent we have this cool new technology, “email”, which allows to distribute simple announcements to entire institutes very quickly and without much of a hassle. Maybe they should check it out…

  77. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    CR and David Marjanovic

    Oh, we do mostly present unpublished stuff (and the rest is stuff that came out quite recently, often after the abstract was submitted, sometimes the very day it’s presented). The difference is that we show our work in the presentation, and that we’ve either submitted the manuscript already (the most common case) or will start writing it soon.

    And, well I’m just guessing here, but I bet you generally show the work (which you have, not what you might have if someone does the work) to people in that field who are able to evaluate it. Not just show it to the general public or to people in some other field.

    I didn’t see any actual breakdown of what was discussed in that seminar in the New Scientist article, though. Pontzen says:

    Even if we’d been invited, that would have been hard without prior disclosure of the nitty-gritty mathematical details. Grand claims like Weinstein’s would – in the normal course of science – be accompanied by a technical paper explaining their foundations.

    And I assume he is talking about an actual publication, and not some kind of dissemination of unpublished research to the Oxford physics department. Weinstein’s work obviously needs to be published if it is going to go anywhere, but I don’t think its wrong for him to talk to other scientists about it before that happens.

    As for showing the relevant scientists, its already been established that Du Sautoy tried to get the theoretical physicists invited, so I have to assume he thought Weinstein was interested in a serious discussion, and not just speaking to impress the laity. Depending on what he is doing, it might have also been appropriate to notify the math department. The article made no mention of whether that happened or not.

    Maybe I’m wrong and Weinstien’s seminar consisted of a bunch of gyre-like crackpottery aimed at laypeople, but I don’t think I can conclude that based on the New Scientist article.

  78. lpetrich says

    The latest that I’ve been able to find: How to test Weinstein’s provocative theory of everything – physics-math – 31 May 2013 – New Scientist

    Perhaps more fundamental yet, it should be possible to perform a calculation called anomaly cancellation on Weinstein’s equations, says Conlon. This checks whether a list of particles is a consistent extension of the standard model, much like the digits of a credit card number can be added in a certain way to confirm their validity. If the predicted particles fail the test, the theory is wrong. “It would take an hour and a half,” Conlon said to Weinstein at the lecture.

    “Can I ask you to do that?” countered Weinstein, who admitted that he did not have answers to these and other questions raised by his talk, but said he would like to discuss them further. He also has remained vague about when and where his equations will appear in print.

    Seems like shifting the burden of proof.

    Also, EW has yet to reveal his theory’s particle content or the particles’ interactions, let alone a Lagrangian, if his theory has one. Most of the more fundamental physical theories have Lagrangians, like general relativity and the Standard Model.