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.
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.