Physicists and mathematicians in the area! I hope some of you will be able to attend, and will post your thoughts / reactions online. Note: if you are friends with an Oxford Physicist, please invite them to attend this lecture — this is apparently a necessary step. Update update (5/30): see also the update at the end of section 2, below.]
So, a couple of days ago, a fellow named Eric Weinstein gave a lecture at Oxford in which he outlined a theory that he has apparently been working on for a number of years. The theory, as I understand it, is an attempt at a Theory of Everything — specifically, a theory that would unify the standard model of particle physics with general relativity, explain dark matter and dark energy, and basically provide a synthesis that would resolve many of the big questions facing physics today.
This sort of thing is always exciting. But this proposal gained particular attention for the fact that Eric Weinstein is not a Physics professor. Yes, he has a PhD in math from Harvard, but he has been out of academia for twenty years, and his day job is at a hedge fund in New York.
The talk was the subject of two pieces that ran in the Guardian on the same day as the lecture. One was written by Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician, and the Oxford professor who invited Weinstein to give the lecture. In it, he waxes enthusiastic at length about the beauty of Weinstein’s theory, how the theory, if correct, is much more elegant than the standard model, with certain constants and masses emerging naturally out of the theory, rather than having to be added on in an ad hoc manner. du Sautoy does not vouch for the correctness of the model, but he notes that it has that quality of beauty and elegance that makes a theory in mathematical physics smell right.
The second piece was written by Alok Jha, a science writer. In that piece, the emphasis is a bit more on the human angle, that Weinstein is an academic outsider. It quotes David Kaplan, a physicist from Johns Hopkins who has seen at least some of Weinstein’s work, as saying that it is phenomenal “that someone from outside academia could put together something so coherent.”
Now, in an ideal world of science, no one would give a crap whether or not this guy was in academia, or even whether or not he had a PhD. But, in this world, maybe it is not surprising that the initial response was an awkward combination of excitement about the lone-wolf scientist and benign condescension.
Also not surprising was the second response. Fairly quickly, a number of posts went up around the web lodging complaints about the lecture and the Guardian articles. Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist at Oxford, wrote a piece in the New Scientist titled “Weinstein’s Theory of Everything is Probably Nothing.” Jennifer Ouellette wrote a blog post at Scientific American titled “Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played.” PZ Myers writes simply that “This is not science.”
So what’s the backlash about? Well, I think there are a few different complaints, some more legitimate than others, but the problem is that they all get sort of tangled up together. What I’d like to do here is try to separate those complaints, and evaluate each one on its merits.
1. Where’s the Paper?
The overriding complaint seems to be the fact that, as of this time, there is no publicly available version of Weinstein’s theory, so no one is able to dig into the math and evaluate it. According to du Sautoy’s Guardian piece, Weinstein plans to put the work up on the arXiv, but has not yet done so.
Now, at first glance, that seems pretty bad. I mean, you can’t just go around talking about your research until it has been published, right? Or at least you have to make it available, like someplace on the arXiv, preferably well in advance of your talk, so that people can review the work and come to the talk prepared to ask technical questions.
That all makes perfect sense, and the academic community is completely justified in being outraged about the way that Weinstein violated procedure.
Except . . . bullshit.
The first comment (by “Unity”) on PZ Myers’s post notes that
“This is not how anyone does science.”
Other [than] the publicity, most of which is speculative at this stage, there is nothing particularly exceptional in Weinstein having only discussed his ideas with du Sautoy or in the decision to start floating his ideas in a series of talks without first having published.
This is often how mathematicians operate, on the clear understanding that what they are present is, at this stage, provisional and that publication and peer review will necessarily follow – that is, of course, unless someone spots a serious flaw during the talk and raise it during the Q&A.
In mathematical terms, what Weinstein is doing at this stage is equivalent to putting forward a conjecture, so it necessarily has to be understood that the actual science will follow, and in that sense its really not so unusual at all.
In fact, I think we can go a step further. This is how ALL OF SCIENCE operates. Just think back to the last time you went to a conference. Did any of the talks include data that was not yet published? Or did pretty much ALL of the talks include data that was not yet published?
If someone gives a seminar in your department, and they present their latest work, do you sputter with rage: “How dare this person present research without providing a written copy to the audience in advance”?
No, you don’t do that, because you’re not an asshole. If they present something really exciting, you ask them some questions. Maybe you walk up to them after the talk, and you ask them to send you a copy of the manuscript when it is ready.
Now, should physicists around the world drop what they’re doing on the basis of this talk? Of course not. These, like all scientific claims, should be treated skeptically. But no one should be running around pretending that giving the lecture represents some sort of ethical violation.
2. The Physicists were not invited.
According to Andrew Pontzen’s piece:
Yesterday Weinstein, encouraged by du Sautoy, went public with a loud splash in British newspaper The Guardian and in a 2-hour presentation in the main physics lecture theatre here at the University of Oxford. “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.
Sounds fair enough, until you discover that no one thought to invite any of Oxford’s, er, physicists.
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.
Pontzen’s complaint was repeated in the other pieces.
Okay, so that’s pretty bad, right? He’s giving a lecture on a new model for physics, but did not invite any physicists!
Except that, um, what?
I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something here, but Pontzen almost makes it sound as if this lecture was kept secret. I mean, what does it even MEAN to say that the physicists were not invited? In my experience, lectures are announced via pre-existing e-mail lists, and by flyers stuck on bulletin boards. Did these things not happen?
Also in my experience, the only time you go around and explicitly invite people to a lecture is when you are worried that there will not be enough people in the audience, and it will be embarrassing for the speaker and the organizer.
It’s a little bit like when your kid has a book report due the next day, and they’re all, “Why didn’t you make me start my homework earlier?”
Weinstein was also apparently scheduled to give a more technical version of the talk the day after the big public lecture. This would have been after Pontzen published his complaint. Did the physicists attend the next day’s lecture? The one geared towards presenting more of the technical details?
Or is there something I’m missing about how Oxford works? Are science lectures typically by invitation only? Do you get a hand stamp?
[Update (5/30): The following correction has been attached to the New Scientist piece by Andrew Pontzen:
Correction: When this article was first published on 24 May 2013, it stated that no one thought to invite physicists at the University of Oxford. New Scientist acknowledges this is not true and regrets any embarrassment caused. Marcus du Sautoy had emailed the head of department asking for the talk to be advertised. Du Sautoy was unaware that this advertisement was not widely circulated or posted on the internal website. Du Sautoy had also sent A3 posters for display in the physics department and advertised the talk in other media. Andrew Pontzen would like to apologise to Marcus Du Sautoy for not investigating these circumstances more thoroughly.
That makes sense to me. Also, full credit to Pontzen for the apology here.
Also, according to a comment from “oxfordanon” on Peter Woit’s post on this, Weinstein’s Thursday lecture (at 4pm) conflicted with the particle theory group’s long-standing weekly seminar slot (Thursdays at 4:15). So, there’s maybe a combination of unfortunate scheduling and a breakdown in the flow of information — both common failures in bureaucracies, but nothing here to require, or even imply, that anyone was acting in bad faith.]
3. Who is this guy, anyway?
The complaints and criticisms don’t come out and say, “This guy is not an academic. He’s not part of the club. He’s a nobody.”
Of course, in polite society — or even in academia — you can’t come right out and say that sort of thing. It makes you sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century cartoon villain.
But, there does seem to be a bit of an undercurrent of that sentiment.
Here’s Pontzen, for instance:
Until yesterday Weinstein was largely unknown to us. He has a PhD in mathematical physics from Harvard University, but left academia years ago and now makes his living as an economist and consultant at a New York hedge fund.
That is not to say he doesn’t have anything to contribute, but he will have to go through the proper channels.
“Proper channels” Ha!
I take it back, apparently you CAN sound like a bemonocled nineteenth-century villain!
4. Excessive Media Hype
If there is a legitimate complaint to be had, it might be here. To my taste, both Guardian pieces overreach a bit in their efforts to convince me how cool the theory is. On the other hand, both pieces also acknowledge that the paper is not out yet, that the work has been seen by only a few people (and that they have not deeply evaluated the work), and that we have a long way to go before we find out if this theory is going to have legs or not.
Jennifer Ouellette’s criticism focuses on the media coverage. In particular, she calls out Alok Jha for deflecting criticism by preemptively playing the non-academic victim card:
Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.
It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.
Now, it’s hard to disagree with that. Theories need to stand on their own merits. In an ideal world, your work should not get treated with kid gloves just because you’re a non-academic, just as you should not get special treatment by virtue of having a prestigious professorship.
So, what are these disingenuous quotes from du Sautoy and UC Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel that make it impossible to criticize Jha or Weinstein? Let’s have a look, shall we:
“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,” says du Sautoy. “Science is very much an evolutionary process and [Weinstein’s] is such a wide-ranging theory and involves such a wide area of mathematics and physics, this is an invitation to say, ‘This is speculative and it’s claiming a lot so let’s see where it can go.'”
Whatever happens, says Frenkel, Weinstein is an example of how science might change in future. “I find it remarkable that Eric was able to come up with such beautiful and original ideas even though he has been out of academia for so long (doing wonderful things in other areas, such as economics and finance). In the past week we have learned about an outstanding result about prime numbers proved by a mathematician who had been virtually unknown, and now comes Eric’s lecture at Oxford.
“I think this represents a new trend. It used to be that one had to be part of an academic hub, such as Harvard or Oxford, to produce cutting-edge research. But not any more. Part of the reason is the wide availability of scientific information on the internet. And I think this is a wonderful development, which should be supported.
“I also see two lessons coming from this. The first is for the young generation: with passion and perseverance there is no limit to what you can do, even in high-end theoretical science. The other lesson is for me and my colleagues in academia – and I say this as someone who on most days takes an elevator to his office in an Ivory Tower, as it were – we should be more inclusive and more open to ideas which come from outside the standard channels of academia, and we’ll be better off for it.”
Umm, okay. Obviously. I mean, we have an acknowledgement that information is now widely available, and a suggestion that people should be more open — or, as Ouellette puts it, “touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.”
Something here is disingenuous, anyway.
She follows up with this:
Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.
This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like.
Well, I certainly hope that none of these top physicists spoke about any ideas for which there was not a preprint available!
So, is this going to be the Theory of Everything that unifies physics and earns Weinstein the Nobel prize? Heck if I know. Statistically speaking, most efforts like this don’t pan out. On the other hand, sometimes they do, and the ones that pan out in the end look an awful lot like the ones that don’t at this stage.
I’ve never met Eric, although I’ve interacted with him a bit online. I know several people who know him, and the story from all of them echoes the image presented in all of these stories: he’s a really smart guy, and not a crackpot. So, this is at least a serious attempt at a theory, and if you’re someone out there with the skills and knowledge to evaluate it, you won’t be wasting your time by having a look.
Hopefully, the preprint will hit the arXiv soon, and people can start digging into the math. And, if that math holds up under the first rounds of scrutiny, hopefully the top physicists will engage with Weinstein in a free and open scientific discussion — maybe even at a conference.
And hopefully that discussion will be a little bit less dismissive and condescending than what we’ve seen so far.
[Update (5/30): There’s an excellent post from Peter Woit here, including a great discussion in the comments.
Zen Faulkes also has a nice post here.]
This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.