The problem with Lee Smolin and physics
Lee Smolin wrote a very important book a few years ago called, “the trouble with physics.” I give Lee a lot of credit: he recognizes there is trouble with physics; thousands of men have been working on string theory since the 1980s, and have yet to make anything resembling scientific progress in the subject. On the other hand, he misses out on an obvious reason why physics is in trouble, and I feel a powerful need to correct my intellectual superior in physics.
This book came out at around the same time as Woit’s “not even wrong,” which is on a similar topic, though Woit takes a different tack. Both contain decent descriptive histories of what string theory is, and where it went pear-shaped. Both books explain the sociological and ‘economic’ forces in building up a large community of very smart people … which doesn’t function properly. Both also miss out on an important thing which is pretty obvious to people outside his field. What all quantum gravity people (Smolin and his crew of merry misfits included with the string theorists) are doing is entirely aesthetically driven. There is no reason gravity should have a quantum theory any more than a ham sandwich should have a quantum theory associated with it. There are no experimental, or even observational reasons to presume gravity has a quantum limit. It’s all aesthetics. They’re nice aesthetics, but science has no real business doing aesthetics. The image Smolin paints of his flamboyant Italian colleague waving a knife around at the idea that the universe might not live up to his aesthetic ideals is supposed to be funny, but the knife fighter is emblematic of a very serious problem. Science is about learning about how the universe works, not seeking aesthetic answers to questions that the universe isn’t asking. While many great physicists have been prey to neo-platonic grandiosity as to how the universe works, they’re not being physicists when they think like that. They’re being art critics.
Allow me to explain what I mean with some other examples from Lee’s book. In his first chapter he defines what he claims are the five great outstanding problems in physics today. I must respectfully disagree with all but his second one. The four I disagree with are essentially cosmological questions; the questions string theory (and Smolin and Rovelli’s rival idea of “loop quantum gravity”) ultimately attempt to answer. Quantum gravity may be a silly question. I’m not some kind of lone heretic in saying this: I’m stealing the idea from people much smarter than I. People like the grand old man of physics, Freeman Dyson -or perhaps better yet for credential worshippers, Phil Anderson, a man who discovered something of mind-boggling importance which is largely met with a world-weary shrug by theoretical physicists in noodle theory land. Both Dyson and Anderson agree that we may no more have a quantum limit for gravity than steam engines and other grossly macroscopic phenomena have a quantum limit. Assuming gravity does have a quantum limit may be the great intellectual folly of theoretical physics of the last 50 years. Don’t do it just because Einstein did it. Einstein was also a communist, and we know that communism was a very, very bad idea.
Smolin’s outstanding problems numbers three and four, I count as essentially the same: he thinks it is important to come up with a unified field theory that predicts fundamental constants observed in nature. Why should things work this way, besides the fact that it would make Lee and his pals happy? Again; this “problem” is an aesthetic guess how he thinks things should be. These ideas about how a “theory of everything” should be are problematic for the same reasons the idea of quantum gravity itself is problematic. While many people do indeed think the universe should have some sort of ultimate theory which can unify the particles and forces, and predict why the fine structure constant is what it is, the reasons people think such are historical and aesthetic -these reasons can not remotely be described as physics. Aesthetically, physicists like only having to remember a few things, rather than many things. You can derive everything about electromagnetism by memorizing very few simple facts; same with statistical physics. Historically, the unification of magnetism, electricity and light into one theory really was a tremendous breakthrough in human knowledge. 50 years later, all manner of practical uses were found for it.
Let us compare E&M to the most successful unification of modern times, the electro-weak theory (a unification of a force governing certain kinds of nuclear decay with that of electromagnetism). Unlike Maxwell’s equations, electroweak theory is abysmally ugly. Unfortunately for aesthetics, it does appear the universe works this way. The wise and benign god who wrote Maxwell’s equations must have contracted electroweak theory out to some perverse lesser daemon, like Loki. Comparing practical implications; 50 years from the invention of modern electrodynamics we had the creation of the modern world of AC power, radio and almost everything else involving electricity which you take for granted. 50 years from the creation of electroweak theory: there have been no technological implications. I’ll go out on a safe, sturdy limb and assert there will be none, ever. As an intellectual project, glorious electroweak theory is literally more technologically sterile than … I don’t know: Thomas Aquinas ideas on how many angels fit on the head of a pin. And electroweak theory is a smashing success compared to any kind of quantum gravity; it was motivated and verified by experiment.
As for the many outstanding problems in astronomical cosmology which Smolin collects together as the fifth major outstanding problem in physics; I find it hard to get too worked up about them, as the astronomers seem to find new “anomolies” every time they fire up a new telescope. Historically, astronomy gave us Newton’s laws, but what has astronomy done for us lately in terms of real physics? Sure, dark matter and so on are interesting and worth thinking about, and it is nice to have someone telling the telescope johnnies what to look for, but there are far more frightening lacunae in physics which should be on this list.
I’m a lowlife quant: I went to a cow college and did fairly badly for myself while I was screwing around in physics. Very few of my former colleagues will stand up for me and talk about my ultimate brilliance, because frankly, I didn’t display any. However, even a mercenary dirtbag like me can come up with a better list than Lee Smolin, or, for that matter, any physicist in the public eye today. Here is the Scott Locklin’s five most important unanswered unquestions in theoretical physics today:
- The fundamentals of quantum mechanics. I admit it; I stole this one from Lee Smolin. I just want to know how it works when it starts to turn into classical physics. Seriously: this is important, and it isn’t known. This is the subject I concerned myself with when I was doing physics. I made no progress at all, but I think it’s one of the things worth spending your time on. There are several small sub-fields of active research in the subject: quantum chaos and Mesoscopic physics. Maybe quantum information theory -though it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about it, and beyond Shor’s algorithm, I have read an awful lot of silly bullshit coming from this quarter. For some reason, there are not 10,000 physicists thinking about the basic question of nature, like there are in string theory. Smolin correctly identified the reason why: physics bureaucracy does not favor it.
- The second law of thermodynamics, chaos and the arrow of time. If you never thought about this, you will say, “yeah, whatever,” but this is important. It’s important in all kinds of places; information theory, finance, psychology, and it’s not really understood why it is so.
- Self-organization and emergent properties in matter. Sure, you have “nanotech” types of people (subject for another rant) trying to exploit this. Why doesn’t anyone even attempt to understand this? Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel for this; it seems to be worthy of study, and there is tons more to do. Meanwhile, armies of vast string theorists count the angels on heads of a boson.
- Why is life? Never mind “how does life work,” tell me why life works at all! You’re all faced with an ultimate mystery of physics every morning in the shaving mirror. Why don’t you think about it a little? Don’t wave your hands on this one; tell me what’s going on. There is obviously order here; order which can presumably be understood by mathematics.
- How do neural computers, aka brains work? Another problem of immense import. People are studying it; there are even good pop science books on the subject. Nobody is seriously studying it from a theoretical point of view.
I have this idea that physics, along with Western civilization in general, never fully escaped from the wandervogel era “playing indian in the woods” navel gazing of post WW-1 Europe. In fact, I think as a result, physics attracts moosh-headed people who think this sort of “looking into the mind of god” thinking is, well, acceptable, when it really shouldn’t be for a serious scientist. In the Victorian era which spawned the ideas of Maxwell and (early) Einstein, a theoretical physicist’s job was to come up with models that fit the experimental data; a physicist was a sort of mathematical phenomenologist. He was not an aesthetician, though he might create something of great aesthetic merit. An interesting observation which might be made is how physics followed many other formerly rigorous fields in to the badlands of ‘theory.’ String theory is to Victorian physics what modern Literary theory or artistic technique is to their Victorian analogs. Certainly, the modern things can be said to be more ‘sophisticated’ -but it is also more useless for understanding the world.
Smolin’s idea that more affirmative action is going to help physics is laughably insane. I’d go so far as to say this is probably a symptom of the type of mental illness which thinks doing quantum gravity is important “because it must be so,” aesthetically. Physicists did better before they were required by their Universities to engage in ritual Maoist witch hunts against racism and sexism. That’s a historical fact. Throwing away the simple, effective idea of judging physicists based on something resembling competence isn’t going to get us anywhere good.
My attempt at a solution to this social problem (and it is a social problem) is a lot more radical and frightening to people who work within the University-Industry axis of mediocrity. It is positively heretical to people who worship education as some kind of secular sacrament. To my mind, the strength of the institution you belong to is the weakness of the individual. The very idea of a University is medieval and feudalistic, or at best Industrial. You want to do real original research? Quit academia and become a free lance consultant. Smolin’s most interesting menagerie of oddball physicists did just this, so I know he’d be behind me. Smolin himself works in a very nontraditional institute funded by private industry. It’s what I have done, and freed of the bureaucratic need to churn out nonsense papers, or spend my time baking vacuum chambers, my creativity has blossomed. I’ll never be an eminence grise like Smolin in any subject, as I’m not as clever as he is, but I will likely die richer, and have enjoyed my life more than chaining myself to some horrific bureaucracy whose purpose is to crush all original thought. Do you think Kepler would have had his brilliant idea if he were rotting in a University or government observatory somewhere? I don’t, and I think if you want to be Einstein or Kepler, your path is clear, and is far away from a safe life of vegetable contentment, sucking at the public teat.
Someone needs to write a futurist manifesto of physics, because physics is no longer bringing us into the future. With apologies to F.T. Marinetti:
The universities? Government labs? Cemeteries! Public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Absurd abattoirs of play actors ferociously slaughtering each other with bureaucratic slaps, idiot journal editing blows, the length of the fought-over walls!
That one should make an annual pilgrimage, just as one goes to the graveyard on All Souls’ Day—that I grant. That once a year one should leave a floral tribute beneath the icon of Albert Einstein, I grant you that… But I don’t admit that our sorrows, our fragile courage, our morbid restlessness should be given a daily conducted drudge through the universities and neuroses of long dead physicists. Why poison ourselves? Why rot?
And what is there to see in quantum gravity except the laborious contortions of an artist throwing himself against the barriers that thwart his desire to express his dream of original research?… Admiring unification theory is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of hurtling it far off, in violent spasms of action and creation.
Do you, then, wish to waste all your best powers in this eternal and futile worship of the past, from which you emerge fatally exhausted, shrunken, beaten down?
In truth I tell you that daily visits to government labs and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for physicists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner… But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurist physicists!
So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!… Come on! set fire to the government labs! Turn aside the canals to flood the universities!… Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old frauds bobbing adrift on those waters, broken and shredded!… Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the long dead academic system, pitilessly!
Lubos Motl is a righteous peckerwood for a mainstream physicist. If he reads this, he’ll probably dismiss me as an insignificant dunderhead who couldn’t make it in physics: that’s one of the reasons I like the guy; I respect a straight shooter.
Some other guy’s list of important questions; typical “quantum gravity” bias, but at least he notices some other interesting stuff I don’t bother mentioning. Some of them are literally table top physics you could do at home.