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May 24, 2013 1:51 PM   Subscribe

Eric Weinstein has a PhD in mathematical physics from Harvard, but has spent most of the last 10 years outside academia working as an economic consultant for a New York hedge fund. Now he apparently has a new theory of everything that claims to be able to explain quantum gravity, dark matter and dark energy. Actual details have not yet been provided and some physicists are dismissive. But his work has received enthusiastic endorsement from Oxford's Simonyi Professor of Public Understanding Marcus du Sautoy, with whom he has been discussing the theory over the last two years.

Weinstein contributed an answer to the 2012 Edge.org question that seems rather suggestive given this current revelation (he also has other material on the site via his Edge profile). Even Garret Lisi (famous for proposing his own theory of everything a couple of years ago) has said that he is glad that Weinstein is coming forward with this now (scroll down the page).
posted by leibniz (105 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Professor of Public Understanding? What the hell is that?
posted by windykites at 1:58 PM on May 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe he let Rossi in on the secret.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:58 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Except for the part where he hasn't submitted a paper, this is awesome.
posted by lukemeister at 1:59 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's not sell his theory short yet.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:59 PM on May 24, 2013 [8 favorites]


Until Weinstein produces a paper, physicists will remain unconvinced and, crucially, unable to properly assess the claims he is making.

He may be on to something but without a paper, all we have is some Guardian articles. What is there to discuss here?
posted by vacapinta at 2:00 PM on May 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


Oh, man, for a minute I thought it was Eric Weisstein, and was all, "cool! It's the mathworld guy!" But no, it is not. It is not the mathworld guy at all.
posted by phooky at 2:02 PM on May 24, 2013 [17 favorites]


ugh, alongside the rossi link, we're getting hit hard with bullshit science lately......

no paper = no love.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:02 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


windykites,

It's the Richard Dawkins Professorship of Something or Other.
posted by lukemeister at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2013


Also, the last time the hedge fund brigade claimed to understand something it led to the 2008 financial meltdown. So there's that.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2013 [17 favorites]


Professor of Public Understanding? What the hell is that?

It's the Simonyi Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science.

The aim of the Professorship is "to communicate science to the public without, in doing so, losing those elements of scholarship which constitute the essence of true understanding".

Marcus de Sautoy's Story Of Maths series for BBC Four is really good, if you can find it.
posted by dng at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2013 [7 favorites]


Professor of Public Understanding? What the hell is that?
They missed the "of Science" bit from the end.
posted by Jehan at 2:03 PM on May 24, 2013


Actual details have not yet been provided and some physicists are dismissive.

Yeah, cause it's not science yet.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:04 PM on May 24, 2013 [14 favorites]


And, as it turns out, the universe is a side-effect of computing the price of a particular financial derivative in a 14-dimensional stock market.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:09 PM on May 24, 2013 [20 favorites]


Every few years (or sometimes months) someone with the appropriate academic background but who doesn't actually work in academia claims to have solved a famous longstanding problem in science or mathematics. Deolalikar's attempted proof of the P versus NP problem a couple years ago comes to mind. These claims almost always get treated with breathless excitement in the media (because, really, the headline "GUY SOLVES SUPER HARD PROBLEM IN HIS SPARE TIME. TAKE THAT, IVORY TOWER!" is going to generate a lot of traffic), but then fall apart when subjected to more scrutiny.
posted by jingzuo at 2:10 PM on May 24, 2013 [21 favorites]


ugh, alongside the rossi link, we're getting hit hard with bullshit science lately......

I don't think that's really fair. He may be wrong (most new physics ideas are), but the list of people in that article who are apparently impressed by the ideas here includes a number of people whose opinions on theoretical physics shouldn't be readily dismissed.

Of course, we'll only really know when the paper shows up on the arxiv, but this guy seems to have been reluctant to take this public at all. I think this was mostly a private hobby for him, shared with a few people over the years/

Rossi on the other hand is a convicted fraudster who takes every opportunity to promote himself.
posted by atrazine at 2:10 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


Eric Wareheim?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 2:12 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


This will not change the fact that the world is run by the Professors of Private Understanding.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:14 PM on May 24, 2013 [11 favorites]


It says in the article that:

His lecture at Oxford today will give more mathematical details

so presumably he's spoken about this all in public by now. I couldn't find any accounts from people who were there so far.
posted by clockzero at 2:15 PM on May 24, 2013


My boy Eric is wicked smaat.
posted by jimmythefish at 2:20 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, at least we know it's going to be complete. Or consistent. One or the other. Not both.
posted by scruss at 2:20 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's because they neglected to invite any actual physicists.
Scientific American: Dear Guardian, you've been played
posted by physicsmatt at 2:22 PM on May 24, 2013 [18 favorites]


Until Weinstein produces a paper
"Weinstein plans to put a manuscript on the Arxiv preprint server..."

It's hard to tell at this point obviously, and I'm not particularly optimistic, but nice thing that does seem to indicate non-crankiness is that "Weinstein's theory predicts the existence of more than 150 new subatomic particles" -- so it should at least be testable.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:22 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well I certainly hope someone will tell poor Einstein that he can roll back now.
posted by clockzero at 2:30 PM on May 24, 2013


Another reason to be skeptical: Most out-of-nowhere stuff in the math heavy fields comes from young people. Music and math.
posted by Trochanter at 2:30 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. Create grandiose theory that has not been peer-reviewed.
2. Be featured in FPP.
3. ???
4. Profit!
posted by MoonOrb at 2:37 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's a story told about Hilbert that he once told conference planners that he would be presenting a paper on his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. He showed up at the conference and gave an entirely different talk; When asked about it later he said "Oh, that was just in case the plane went down."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:41 PM on May 24, 2013 [83 favorites]


In a moment, Steve Martin will show up and there will be some sort of swindle.
posted by jquinby at 2:43 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every few years (or sometimes months) someone with the appropriate academic background but who doesn't actually work in academia claims to have solved a famous longstanding problem in science or mathematics.

Pascal Boyer has a great blog post on crackpots that I think back to whenever I hear stories like this one. (This guy seems to be more respectable though. He's credentialed and other legit physicists are vouching for him.)
posted by painquale at 2:44 PM on May 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


They missed the "of Science" bit from the end.

So the Professor of PUS, then?
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:47 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, at least we know it's going to be complete. Or consistent. One or the other. Not both.

There are theories that are both complete and consistent, Presburger arithmetic for example. Also there's nothing that says it has to be either.

It would be nice for Harvard if this guy starts being the "Harvard PhD" talked about in the press instead of Richwine.
posted by tractorfeed at 2:57 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


My boy Eric is wicked smaat.

Christ, am I the only one who got that reference?
posted by sutt at 3:08 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I, also, have a new theory of everything that explains quantum gravity, dark matter and dark energy.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:08 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


This seems like as good a time as any to announce my new model of gravity, which extends Heim theory to four-dimensional manifolds.

Cold fusion is one of the more trivial applications. Within five years, we'll be riding FTL gravitic drives to Gliese 581. In seven years' time, we'll resurrect Mr. Rogers. Exactly ten years from now, I'll be writing this comment and sending it back to this thread via retrochron pulses.

All this is comprehensively laid out in a 12 slide PowerPoint file, which I'll upload to arXiv on Monday afternoon.

Or actually later Monday evening, come to think, because I promised I'd help Hal move.

Definitely by Thursday, though.

At any rate, it's been vetted by some extremely venerable personages, so chill out, okay? God.
posted by Iridic at 3:09 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am a venerable personage, and I categorically endorse Iridic's ludicrous claims. Please don't hurt his feelings by baseless attacking a theory you haven't even read, okay? God.
posted by Your Disapproving Father at 3:09 PM on May 24, 2013 [9 favorites]


After all those years in the hedge fund salt mines, it turns out that the missing variable was money. E=MCash^2. Where do I go to collect my fortune?
posted by feloniousmonk at 3:10 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


What I found most noteworthy was that previously Du Sautoy had been dismissive of Garrett Lisi's theory (which seems to be comparable in approach), but is now so supportive of this one. There's an interesting sociology of maths v physics going on here as well I think.
posted by leibniz at 3:11 PM on May 24, 2013


Who knew that the hedge fund guys, referring to themselves as "Masters of the Universe," meant it literally.
posted by JackFlash at 3:20 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Christ, am I the only one who got that reference?

No. How 'bout them Newton's apples?
posted by seemoreglass at 3:20 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


Remember that Einstein was a patent clerk...just saying
posted by dudemanlives at 3:23 PM on May 24, 2013


Or actually later Monday evening, come to think, because I promised I'd help Hal move.

The stunning reveal comes in Tuesday's Scientific American, in which it is revealed that Iridic did NOT, in fact, help Hal move; it was just, like, me and Dave, and Dave's girlfriend Lindsay, who, let's be honest, like no offense or anything, but like pretty much all she did was guard the truck, while we were lifting boxes and shit, so.
posted by Greg Nog at 3:25 PM on May 24, 2013 [10 favorites]


Remember that Einstein was a patent clerk...just saying

Yes, but apropos my point, he was a young patent clerk.
posted by Trochanter at 3:33 PM on May 24, 2013


So what happened to the last guy? Oh, it got a serious rebuttal.

Except the previous guy at least had a paper you could look at. This new guy has nothing.

> Remember that Einstein was a patent clerk

Yes, a patent clerk who published four seminal papers in one year.

There's some tiny chance he's onto something - but almost certainly this will be nothing. Worse, it promotes the whole, "We don't need to support XXX - all we need is rich amateurs working in their spare time" idea which has been so destructive to so many contemporary fields.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:44 PM on May 24, 2013 [12 favorites]


it was just, like, me and Dave, and Dave's girlfriend Lindsay

Horse hockey, Greg. Who do you think packed all those boxes? Me. Also Hal himself, but it was at least 41% me. I helped pack, therefore I helped move, quod erat demonstrandum.

Also I helped Hal kill those fifths of whipped cream vodka left over from Jillian's birthday party, which is why you didn't have to waste any trips on a bunch of nearly empty bottles, you're welcome very much.
posted by Iridic at 3:48 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was a patent leather clerk, so I guess that makes me the Einstein of bull.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:54 PM on May 24, 2013 [3 favorites]


dudemanlives: "Einstein was a patent clerk"

Where E ≔ { people at least as smart as Einstein },
and m ≔ { people with mundane jobs },
and c² ≔ m ⊆ E,

E ⊆ m ≢ c²
posted by Riki tiki at 3:55 PM on May 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


There hasn't been any mention of turtles. It's turtles all the way down, fuckers.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:03 PM on May 24, 2013


Needs more Shinichi Mochizuki.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 4:23 PM on May 24, 2013


Oh, this du Sautoy fellow is the one with the wacky website. He's sort of a Cool Prof™ type.
posted by Unified Theory at 4:40 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think that's really fair. He may be wrong (most new physics ideas are), but the list of people in that article who are apparently impressed by the ideas here includes a number of people whose opinions on theoretical physics shouldn't be readily dismissed.
Anyone can come up with a consistent "theory of everything" Just take everything we know about physics, create some function f(x) where x is some physical state encoding such that f(x) = y where y is consistent with all the data we currently have. Lots of people have done that. String theory does that (I think) Maybe some explanations leave out dark matter / dark energy.

The problem is then you have to make some actual predictions of things we haven't seen yet. This guy claims to predict some new particles, so in theory his theory can be tested, but who knows at what energy levels, specifically whether or not those energy levels can be achieved in any realistic device.
Another reason to be skeptical: Most out-of-nowhere stuff in the math heavy fields comes from young people. Music and math.
That's actually a really dumb reason. It may have been more true in the past but less so now. Lots of the more recent breakthroughs have been by older people, including the proof of the Poncare conjecture and fermant's last theorem. And this guy
posted by delmoi at 4:51 PM on May 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


So when he writes a placeholder paragraph for the Wikipedia page will he be able to say "I stubbed my TOE"?
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:55 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


My wife: "Everyone knows Garrett Lisi is an idiot."

She's so cute.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:13 PM on May 24, 2013


CheeseDigestsAll: It's hard to tell at this point obviously, and I'm not particularly optimistic, but nice thing that does seem to indicate non-crankiness is that "Weinstein's theory predicts the existence of more than 150 new subatomic particles" -- so it should at least be testable.

Maybe, but it's hard to say. At this point, any physics theory that predicts new particles also has to predict why they haven't been detected yet. Two of the most common reasons are because the particles are so huge they can't be created in any reasonable accelerator, or they don't interact with anything ever. There's the rare exception of hypothetical particles like the axion that can be created by a different method than by smashing particles together really hard, but it's not very common.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:20 PM on May 24, 2013


I kind of like to imagine MetaFilter as having a discussion over coffee or beer with friends. You don't call your friends names like "dumb."
posted by KokuRyu at 5:34 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


1. Create grandiose theory that has not been peer-reviewed.
2. Be featured in FPP.


You do realise that things don't magically become suddenly true the instant they're peer-reviewed, right? And that something can be worth discussing long before it's appeared in a journal? I agree that in the absence of a paper there's maybe not a whole lot of deep discussion to be had here, but there have been plenty of perfectly decent and interesting FPPs about stuff on the arXiv.
posted by hoyland at 5:42 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


While it may appear that graduate training has become less costly with increases in assistantships and tuition reimbursements, the value of PhD level training must be evaluated as a form of investment. The two central concepts here are the focus on the opportunity cost and the expected value of PhD training. The key problem is that the expected value of basic research training appears to have fallen significantly as an investment relative to other competing opportunities as the odds of success of gaining a PI position have decreased significantly. Furthermore, increases in stipends have not kept the opportunity costs from increasing for top American students as the number of years spent in training and apprenticeship have increased. We proposed a decoupling model which created non PI positions for biological researchers which were none the less permanent.
This is the brilliant insight of... a physics PhD who is now working for a hedge fund making ridiculous money milking his academic pedigree. Q.E.D.
posted by benzenedream at 5:49 PM on May 24, 2013


I just want to thank you all for being who you are and letting me lurk, it's really thrilling some days.
posted by kemrocken at 5:49 PM on May 24, 2013


hoyland, it was a joke. I do realize all of the things you mentioned.
posted by MoonOrb at 5:51 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nobody ever wants to talk about my Supertheory of Supereverything.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:04 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


They tell me some guy on Slate(!) has disputed it.

If you're referring to the article from Slate that delmoi linked to arguing that math is no longer a young person's game, then it's not just some guy, it's MetaFilter's own, um, me.
posted by escabeche at 6:12 PM on May 24, 2013 [20 favorites]


MoonOrb: "hoyland, it was a joke. I do realize all of the things you mentioned."

Sorry, I'm being a grump tonight.
posted by hoyland at 6:14 PM on May 24, 2013


As for Weinstein's thing, put me in the camp of "there's nothing much to talk about yet." It's not so much that the paper hasn't been peer reviewed, it's that there's no paper. du Sautoy is a very good mathematician, but (as far as I know) not expert in the fields relevant -- I mean, he's a group theorist, but not that kind of group theorist. If I were friends with a guy who had a big idea like this, something I could listen to intelligently and to some extent appreciate but which I didn't have the expertise to judge directly, I'd probably say pretty much the kind of thing du Sautoy is saying -- it sounds really interesting, the guy is really smart, I hope people will pay attention to it and figure out what's there.
posted by escabeche at 6:16 PM on May 24, 2013


After all those years in the hedge fund salt mines, it turns out that the missing variable was money.

Building on the seminal results announced in "Cash Rules Everything Around Us", by R. Za, G. Killah, M. Man, R. Kwon, and G. Za. Proc Brook Acad 1993
posted by benito.strauss at 6:17 PM on May 24, 2013 [5 favorites]


I do like the image of mathematicians sitting around all arched eyebrows "Well, yes, he's a group theorist, but not that kind of group theorist. One must have standards, musn't one?"
posted by benito.strauss at 6:23 PM on May 24, 2013 [6 favorites]


After I proved my theory of everything, I realized that I was too old to have solved it, so I threw it out and went back to an earlier theory I had come up with as a younger man, involving chocolate pudding and jetted tubs retro-fitted as bongs.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:42 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


[derail deleted; dudes, chill out a bit and maybe get back to the original topic at hand?]
posted by mathowie at 7:16 PM on May 24, 2013


I'm slightly drunk and feeling pretty good right now, so I'll let myself be optimistic and excited about this new idea. It will be a while, at least Thursday, before I might get disappointed, and I will have forgotten about how optimistic I am now, and if this does turns out to be right, I can get all excited again. Have a good weekend everybody.
posted by tommyD at 7:25 PM on May 24, 2013


>> My boy Eric is wicked smaat.
> Christ, am I the only one who got that reference?

No, we've all seen Harry Potter.
posted by Sutekh at 7:29 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, seriously dudes. I don't know what the derail was, but clearly the big con here is that Iridic claims plans to post a powerpoint to the arXiv?! I mean come on now, I'll believe a universal theory of everything based on Your Disaproving Father's recommendation of Iridic's claims, but you're clearly just pulling our leg with that powerpoint claim.
posted by eviemath at 7:30 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


escabeche: Wow. Cool. Neat that you're here. Do you consider that your article closed the case? It seems to me that, as regards old mathematicians, you've cited some exceptions. The strongest assertion you make appears to be that, "Today one doesn't find mathematicians who revolutionize their field—even once—before the age of 22."

Do you firmly conclude that "math is a young man's game," as it applies in its original sense to the old end of the bell curve, not the young -- is a foolish statement?

Do you assert that it is not rare for a mathematician to contribute major work after forty?
posted by Trochanter at 7:38 PM on May 24, 2013


Trochanter, why are you going on about this after your derail was deleted?
posted by Unified Theory at 7:53 PM on May 24, 2013


Of course it is rather rare for mathematicians to contribute major work altogether -- that's what makes it major! But a lot of recent developments have been carried out by middle-aged mathematicians (we prefer "mid-career"....!) Perelman was in his late 30s when he proved Poincare, Wiles just 40 when he proved Fermat, Taylor mid-40s when he proved Sato-Tate. Agol and Wise, who proved virtual Haken last year, a big big deal in topology, were both young 40s. Mochizuki is 44 if you believe he's proven ABC...
posted by escabeche at 7:54 PM on May 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unified Theory: The original statement by delmoi that my comment was dumb remains.

escabeche:I just looked at the recipients of the Fields Medal and they're almost all in their thirties.

Among all the weird P.T. Barnumy things with this deal, as in the way it's being made public like a naughty Victorian strumpet raising her skirts to reveal her instep. Along with all that weirdness, one other element that is atypical is that the fellow claiming to have found the answer to everything is an outlier in regards to age. That's all.
posted by Trochanter at 8:33 PM on May 24, 2013


This guy sounds like the Holden Karnofsky of Science. I guess I'm jaded, but the theory of everything people just aren't as much fun as the perpetual motion kooks were.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:35 PM on May 24, 2013


I just looked at the recipients of the Fields Medal and they're almost all in their thirties.

There's a reason for that.
posted by escabeche at 8:36 PM on May 24, 2013 [19 favorites]


Now THAT's funny!
posted by Trochanter at 8:37 PM on May 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, he's a group theorist, but not that kind of group theorist. If I were friends with a guy who had a big idea like this, something I could listen to intelligently and to some extent appreciate but which I didn't have the expertise to judge directly,
Especially if that guy had hundreds of millions of dollars and was willing to pay 'consulting fees' to work out the details of his theory...
I kind of like to imagine MetaFilter as having a discussion over coffee or beer with friends. You don't call your friends names like "dumb."
It really depends on how dumb they're being.
I just looked at the recipients of the Fields Medal and they're almost all in their thirties.
There's a reason for that.
Hah!
posted by delmoi at 9:32 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


String theory does that (I think) Maybe some explanations leave out dark matter / dark energy.

Yeah, as I understand it, the big problem with String Theory (or one of them, anyway) is not that it can't explain the universe, but that it can be used to explain any conceivable universe. That said, it wasn't devised as a simple results-driven cheat for developing a Theory of Everything. It just turned out, after a great deal of work, to be way more nonspecific than everyone hoped.

This is the brilliant insight of... a physics PhD who is now working for a hedge fund making ridiculous money milking his academic pedigree. Q.E.D.

In the paper he's referencing, one of the proposals is to increase reimbursement and job security for post-docs. Arguably, you could call that magical thinking that ignores the causal forces and the practical barriers to implementation, but it's hard to dispute the notion that this really needs to happen, regardless.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:58 PM on May 24, 2013


I'd like to point out that people are solving longstanding problems in academia, outside of academia, all the time. More importantly, academia thinks the story ends at the paper. It doesn't.

Bitcoin and Google come to mind.
posted by effugas at 2:19 AM on May 25, 2013


Google's search engine was designed at Stanford, wasn't it?
posted by empath at 3:48 AM on May 25, 2013


bitcoin and google are both the result of academic papers.
posted by delmoi at 3:48 AM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


OK, I'll probably regret contributing to this, but so it goes.

The reason I am skeptical of this has relatively little to do with the man's age. While it certainly is true many of the big world-changing discoveries are made by scientists and mathematicians in their 20s and early 30's, that is A) not as universally true as many believe (including many scientists), B) even if it was true, that tells you very little about this particular claim. Just because a bell curve has a particular distribution doesn't mean outliers don't exist.

There are several reasons why I think this is likely to turn out to be another failed "theory of everything." First, and absolutely the most important one, is that there are many failed theories of everything, many written by very intelligent people inside the academic sphere. His being outside of academia doesn't make him more likely to be correct, and so the prior on this being right is very very low.

Second, as Weinstein is outside of academia, I find it hard to believe personally that he's as up on all the literature as he should be to be making claims like this. I mentioned in the cold fusion scam thread that I check arXiv every day; it is a full time job keeping up with what my colleagues are doing, and I cannot imagine having a career as time intensive as investment banking and also reading everything else that is going on in the world of particle physics. Even everyone's favorite example of the rogue outsider who came in and showed us ivory tower intellectuals what-for, Einstein, demonstrates the need for constant communication with the rest of the community. Einstein was not laboring in total isolation; he was in contact with his advisor, a small group of scientists, and read the relevant journals (I have heard it said that the reason he liked the patent clerk job was it gave him time to read and think). It is possible that Weinstein did maintain the level of involvement that I would think is necessary; maybe he's just way way smarter than anyone else I've met and also doesn't sleep. Some people are like that. (This concern has some overlap with "being too old:" you can't be out of the field for 20 years as a 30 year-old, for obvious reasons.) Or maybe he just is that much of a maverick that he doesn't need to know what anyone else did for the last 20 years. This again doesn't prove that he's wrong, as I said, outliers exist. But it changes my prior on the likelihood. If it doesn't for you, well, so it goes.

Third, the enthusiasm of mathematicians has no affect on my opinion on whether this is likely to be correct. Mathematics is the language of physics, but just as you can invent perfectly valid fictional languages, much of math does not describe the physical Universe that we happen to live in. Every quote from people who claim to be familiar with his work is from mathematicians; this tells me his work is unlikely to be total incoherent garbage. That alone catapults it to another level from the crackpot letters I get regularly. Kudos.

However, just as I am completely unqualified to declaim on the importance or correctness of various discoveries in pure math, so are mathematicians (as a group) completely unqualified to say whether a mathematical construction is physically relevant. OK, his theory has 150 new particles. What are their masses? Their gauge group interactions? Should they have been discovered already at the LHC or LEP? Do these new particles increase or decrease the amount of fine-tuning needed in the Standard Model? Do they solve the hierarchy problem? Do they explain the flavor structure of quarks and leptons? Do they predict flavor-changing neutral currents, or large anomalous magnetic moments? Do they predict the neutrinos are Majorana or Dirac? Do they spoil BBN? Or are all your new particles at the Planck scale, in which case: congrats, your theory is untestable. We can throw it in the pile of every other untestable theory about the Universe (there are lots).

150 new particles sounds impressive. However, last week I was thinking about a solution to a particular problem in dark matter and postulated about 60 new particles, on top of the new particles that the minimal supersymmetric standard model (MSSM) has. That theory also had beautiful mathematical symmetries that the MSSM lacked. It also is fucking wrong and I discarded it quickly - though maybe there's some kernel there that can be rescued to solve my problem. N=8 supersymmetry is way more mathematically beautiful than the Standard Model or N=1 supersymmetry realized in the MSSM, and has buckets more particles to boot. It is also fucking wrong; or, if it's not wrong, the way it is realized in Nature shatters the beautiful symmetries in some crazy fashion. We work on these pretty, simple, "wrong" theories because they are more mathematically tractable and so may give us insight to the real solution, but at some point, the rubber meets the road, and you have give up mathematical beauty and deal with the data that present itself. So no, mathematicians saying this is awesome have little to no impact on my confidence that this is correct.

Finally, the whole presentation of this thing just pisses me the fuck off. As the link I dropped in earlier shows, the mathematicians who brought this guy made a big deal about how they were going to smash the paradigm of stuffy physicists in our towers and bring the truth out in the open. Well, thanks for the passive aggressive horseshit. “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. Implying first that physicists are unwilling to discuss and casting himself and Weinstein in the starring role as Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, hinting that some vast conspiracy has kept him and his friend Silenced All His Life. Which is a weird thing for a tenured professor at Oxford to complain about. At least give our secret cabal of evil cowardly* physicists a chance to chase you down a darkened alley before your get on your high horse.

* "brave"? Really? I didn't realize I was doing yellowing-bellied physics over here.

Second, there's the implication that physicists don't think about really big ideas. I'm willing to grant that I personally am pretty small minded. I'm not thinking about the solution to Everything. I'm working on only one quarter of the Universe we don't understand, and trying to figure out physics up to maybe 1-10 TeV. That leaves all of dark energy, AdS-CFT, holography, gravity, and string theory outside of my narrow purview. However, there are many physicists who do tackle those big questions, and do it every day. They don't make a lot of progress that the public sees, but then again, it's hard, and the public seems pretty uninterested in the AdS-CFT correspondence. Regardless, it's awesome.

Third, there's the idea that we need to "have a discussion" in some way that physicists are unwilling to have. As an Oxford physicist, Andrew Pontzen pointed out, at the very moment that Weinstein was supposedly having his "discussion," all the physicists were next door listening to a talk on CP violation in charm physics. Was this because the physicists are ivory-tower assholes unwilling to listen to the mathematical proletariat? No, the proletariat decided not to inform the physicists that there was a talk on ostensibly world-changing physics going on next door. Maybe this is the new way of doing physics du Sautoy is talking about: the way where you don't let half the people in the "discussion" know what's going on. So, after casting himself and Weinstein as the oppressed voices in the wilderness, our Oxford don makes sure that there's no one around to actually ask detailed questions. What a crock.

Maybe Weinstein is onto something. I find it incredibly unlikely that he's solved all of physics, but that's because it's incredibly unlikely anyone's solved all of physics. Doesn't mean that he didn't do something valuable. Who knows, yet. He hasn't told us a thing, just allowed himself to be cast in the media as the antidote for all us jerky physicists who have the temerity to not come up with a theory of everything while also becoming very wealthy in the private sector. Damn us.

I understand why that narrative is appealing to the world, and physicists really do have a lot of work to do to try to shed our pretty awful public image. One of the reasons I comment here on metafilter is to try to make my work and the work of other scientists more understandable to a group of people who have real interest in what we're discovering about the Universe. And I genuinely enjoy doing that; it's wonderful to see people get excited over the same things that get me excited.

That's why I find commenting on crackpot physics posts so personally depressing (also posts like this, which aren't necessarily "crackpot"). Crackpot physics not only is headache-inducing (seriously people, "quantum" has a meaning, and that meaning isn't "magic"), but having to play the asshole who says "no, this is wrong and by implication you're an idiot for believing it's right" not only isn't fun, I worry that it just pays into the stereotype of elitist scientists trying to crush dissent. I don't like having to tell people here that their ideas on dark energy and dark matter are simply incorrect, but they are, and part of science is saying that some ideas are wrong given our current data. I'm wrong pretty much every day of my life when I'm working (which tends to be pretty much every day of my life, I do love my job). Being wrong is ok. Being wrong and ignoring why you're wrong is not ok.

Anyway, science funding and science research is in real trouble in America, Canada, and Europe (especially England). The reaction to this is depressing, just because it really shows how little the public understands what we do, how we work, why we work in the way we do, and why having an academic structure that does this sort of thing is actually incredibly important - not just for the advancement of pure science, but for the economic health of our nations. I guess we'll just have to do better.
posted by physicsmatt at 9:00 AM on May 25, 2013 [52 favorites]


I just looked at the recipients of the Fields Medal and they're almost all in their thirties.

That's because you have to win the Fields Medal at age at most 40.
posted by hoyland at 9:32 AM on May 25, 2013


Also, this.
posted by physicsmatt at 9:37 AM on May 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


basically, math is not physics because there is not a dependence on empiricism.

that being said, math can be pretty useful and this guy isn't bad at it.
posted by flyinghamster at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2013


yes, don't read this is "math and physics hate each other." Mathematics really is the language of the Universe; it just also describes many other universes that are not this one. There are differences between math and physics in terms of rigor and standards of proof (basically, we are less rigorous for the most part, and are willing to forge ahead without formal proofs in many cases as long as the results seem physically useful). The thing to remember is that the library of human knowledge is a big place and getting bigger by the day, and no one is an expert in everything. A mathematician who's spent their life interested in very specific questions is going to have a lot of catching up to do if they want to be taken seriously in physics (and vice versa). However, we all have to work on what we find interesting, and cross-disciplinary research can yield a lot of useful results, when done with respect for expertise on both sides.
posted by physicsmatt at 9:59 AM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, I'll probably regret contributing to this, but so it goes.

I've been visiting metafilter for the better part of 3 years now. I just laid down my 5 bucks and became a full-fledged member after reading that last comment by physicsmatt.

Thanks, physicsmatt, for keeping it real. Your perspective on articles like these are, as always, helpful.
posted by skizzl at 3:09 PM on May 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's interesting to note the baseline credibility given to autodidacts in different fields. In software development, autodidacts have a relatively high level of baseline credibility and there are many self-taught software developers making over $100K or writing sexy + important open source software. In the actuarial field, supposedly it's possible to become a professional actuary just by passing the right actuarial exams even if you don't have a college degree.

On the other hand, this guy has a freaking mathematical physics PhD from Harvard and yet everyone seems to think he's a crank by default just because he hasn't been doing physics for his day job for the past 10 years.

Theories, anyone?
posted by astrofinch at 12:04 AM on May 26, 2013


*glances around more* wait, maybe I am being a bit unfair to the skeptics.
posted by astrofinch at 12:09 AM on May 26, 2013


In software development

It is easy enough to verify the work of a computer programmer. You compile and run the blasted thing, or simply download a binary.

In the case of physics, this fellow may have knocked together which isn't internally self-contradictory (the math works out) but if it predicts the existence of new particles at masses where we've already probed and found squat, or doesn't predict the existence of particles we know are there, then it's not very useful.

Now, it would be easy enough to look at his paper, and look at a particle data book and the huge mass of papers that theorists, phenomenologists, and experimentalists call the bleeding edge of the field, and see if this fellow is onto something.

If he were to publish it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:22 AM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


physicsmatt

I for one, hope you fight off the urge to stop commenting on crackpot physics threads...in fact a post about AdS-CFT would be most welcome! :-) Sure you have the time.
posted by sfts2 at 3:57 PM on May 26, 2013


or rather, skizzl nailed it.
posted by sfts2 at 3:59 PM on May 26, 2013


On the other hand, this guy has a freaking mathematical physics PhD from Harvard and yet everyone seems to think he's a crank by default just because he hasn't been doing physics for his day job for the past 10 years.
Incorrect, astrofinch. Everyone considers him a crank because he refuses to expose his ideas to the necessarily harsh light of public examination by the world at large. Like quacks do.

I couldn't care less if he's a tenured Harvard physics prof, holder of the Newton Chair at Oxford, or just some backwater patent clerk.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:12 PM on May 26, 2013


Incorrect, astrofinch. Everyone considers him a crank because he refuses to expose his ideas to the necessarily harsh light of public examination by the world at large. Like quacks do.

Is that really fair to say yet? One of the links points out that there was a mistake, physicists were invited but the invites not properly circulated/promoted on the venue's end.

I'm not suggesting he isn't a quack, but that I think it's to early to say he is or that he's intentionally being disingenuous. He's probably wrong, but it seems like the media has done more to promote this theory-without-details than Weinstein has. The media, and the internet sharing public loves a narrative more than background or fact checking so it's easy to see how this story would get legs. I love metafilter because of the high ratio of skeptics that fact check. It is a reprieve from everyday life where people share "news" and "facts" because they sound truthy. So we don't know if he's really withholding the details or is still working through them and the media/public is making a bigger deal out of it than they should.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 12:10 AM on May 27, 2013


[insert clever name here]:
Is that really fair to say yet? One of the links points out that there was a mistake, physicists were invited but the invites not properly circulated/promoted on the venue's end.
In this day and age, lack of proper postage and/or poorly timed emails is not a plausible excuse for his work not being available for peer review.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:14 AM on May 27, 2013


There's a story told about Hilbert that he once told conference planners that he would be presenting a paper on his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. He showed up at the conference and gave an entirely different talk; When asked about it later he said "Oh, that was just in case the plane went down."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:41 PM on May 24 [74 favorites +] [!]


While I'm delighted that an old math story like this gets so many favorites, it's a bummer that this particular version of this anecdote is wrong in every single particular. It was Hardy, not Hilbert. It was the Riemann Hypothesis, not FLT. It was returning home on a boat, not going to a conference on a plane. It was a postcard to Bohr, not an abstract for organizers. And most important, it was insurance against the boat going down, not a bid for unearned glory: "God would not have let Hardy have such a great honour and so he will not let the boat sink."
posted by gleuschk at 9:19 AM on May 27, 2013 [11 favorites]


It's interesting to note the baseline credibility given to autodidacts in different fields. In software development, autodidacts have a relatively high level of baseline credibility and there are many self-taught software developers making over $100K or writing sexy + important open source software.
...

On the other hand, this guy has a freaking mathematical physics PhD from Harvard and yet everyone seems to think he's a crank by default just because he hasn't been doing physics for his day job for the past 10 years.

Theories, anyone?
Quantum physics is way fucking harder then software engineering?

The other thing is that there are way more cranks doing physics then cranks doing actuarial science. Programming is different in that you can be a total crank and still come up with useful/interesting software.
posted by delmoi at 10:14 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Weinstein is on twitter.
@EricRWeinstein: Perhaps no university in the world has done more than Oxford both for, and to keep faith with, Einstein's vision for physics as geometry.
In this day and age, lack of proper postage and/or poorly timed emails is not a plausible excuse for his work not being available for peer review.

I don't think it was poorly timed. It sounds like he sent an invitation to the physics dept, but they didn't distribute it.

From Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong link in the FPP:
Update: It seems that claims that physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk are not true: an announcement and posters were sent to the physics department, but did not get widely disseminated. For a small amount of info about the talk, see the comment here from “Leaker”.

[...]

Leaker says:
May 26, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Some comments on the talk by a mathematician that were forwarded to me:

“The core idea seems to be to work with the 14-dimen(s)ional 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.”
I don't understand the strong reaction against this guy. It seems a bit snobbish to me. According to Woit, "going back to his days as a graduate student, he has been working on some of his own far out of the mainstream ideas about geometry and physics." It seems reasonable to me that he may not have wanted to pursue an academic career, yet still wanted to have fun working on his own 'far out of the mainstream,' 'physics as geometry' ideas. Maybe, as Kaplan suggested, he shouldn't have given a lecture like this until he had publish something or at least has put out a preprint. Perhaps it will most likely turn out to be wrong if/when the details are worked out, but he wants to be sure he gets full credit for it now in case some of it does turn out to be useful. I get the feeling that the exact same ideas, if presented by a fully credentialed physicist, would get a lot more respect as interesting work.
posted by Golden Eternity at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Weinstein is giving a third lecture on Friday. I wonder if any particle physicists will show.

@EricWeinstein: I videoed the last talk at my own expense for my own use. I would consider putting it up if more people would become more constructive.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:51 AM on May 29, 2013


I don't understand the strong reaction against this guy. It seems a bit snobbish to me.

I have an extraordinarily good comment to explain why people are irritated by his actions. While I haven't published it, I have shown it to a few people who were quite impressed by it and say that it is a good explanation.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:41 AM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I videoed the last talk at my own expense for my own use. I would consider putting it up if more people would become more constructive.

Oh, so he's got a theory that will overturn everything, get him the nobel prize, and put his name up there with Newton and Einstein. But he's keeping it to himself because people are being mean to him on the internet.
posted by delmoi at 7:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


sebastienbailard, will you MeMarry me?
posted by IAmBroom at 7:19 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


While I'm delighted that an old math story like this gets so many favorites, it's a bummer that this particular version of this anecdote is wrong in every single particular.

That's an interesting story on its own and possibly the ultimate source of the Hilbert story.

However, the story makes a lot more sense with Fermat's Last Theorem. There's a metajoke there -- Fermat's famous "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain."

Yeah, Fermat. We believe you.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:01 PM on May 30, 2013


@EricRWeinstein - Just gave my Geometric Unity talk to a fairly full Oxford auditorium. The audience was terrific w/ great questions from the physicists. Thx!

@MarcusduSautoy - Great to see so many physicists today at @EricRWeinstein talk on Geometric Unity. Thanks for coming and engaging so constructively.

posted by Golden Eternity at 12:05 AM on June 1, 2013


Next Big Future - Geometric unity theory proposed
The particles described by the Standard Model – the stuff of nature that is revealed in accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider – fall into three "generations". In the first generation we see the electron, the electron neutrino, six quarks and their anti-particles, making 16 in total. But then rather bizarrely in the second generation we have another version of these particles which look exactly the same but are heavier than the first generation.

The heavier version of the electron is called the muon. The physicist Isadore Rabi famously quipped on hearing about the muon: "who ordered that?" It didn't seem to make sense that you should have a heavier version of all the particles in the first generation. What was the logic in that? To compound things, there is a third generation heavier again than the second whose electron partner is called the tau particle.

One of the challenges facing fundamental physics has been to provide a natural explanation for these three generations. Weinstein's theory does this by revealing the presence of a new geometric structure involving a much larger symmetry at work, inside which the symmetry of the Standard Model sits. What is so compelling about the geometry involving this larger symmetry group is that it explains why you get two copies of something with 16 particles but also that the third generation is something of an imposter. At high energies it will actually behave differently to the other two.

Not only that, it also predicts a slew of new particles that we can start looking for in our colliders. The particles in the Standard Model have a property called spin. The particles we see in the three generations we've seen to date all have spin 1/2. But Weinstein's symmetry is predicting that we will see new particles with spin 3/2 exhibiting familiar responses to the nongravitational forces together with a slew of new exotic particles with familiar spin but unfamiliar responses to the forces of the standard model.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:50 AM on June 1, 2013


A write up from New Scientist about this latest talk.
posted by leibniz at 12:19 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


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