Locklin on science

The Physicists: a history of a scientific community in modern America

Posted in Book reviews, physics, Progress by Scott Locklin on April 8, 2021

My reading on innovation in technology lead me to this book by Daniel J. Kevles. I don’t know if I can recommend the thing unless you’re trying to build a thesis on how to create Klein’s Type-1 innovative organizations. The book suffers from many flaws; its fine focus on physics with only incidental mention of astronomy probably skews the view into the history of American physics. On the other hand it is a fairly unique historical document chronicling the rise and fall of a scientific community up to the 1970s. Nothing interesting has happened in physics since the 1970s, no major figures have risen up, and the social organization remains ossified since then, so it can probably be viewed as complete.

There are a couple of striking things about the subject I was only dimly aware of. American physics didn’t exist as a social program involving multiple collaborating scientists with useful technical journals until around the turn of the century. There were a few very productive individuals, and some government organizations and advisory boards (NAS was chartered in wartime to give advice to the government, and various naval and military laboratories existed), but America was mostly a shitty frontier area with no physics to speak of until after the civil war. Two important figures in the early days: Henry Rowland and Albert Michelson. Rowland can be considered the first important physicist to have been trained in the US (at RPI) who helped create the American physics community. He founded the physics department at the newly endowed Johns Hopkins university, and, like Michelson, received some of his training in Berlin. Michelson was a particularly amusing character; like so many great physicists, of Jewish descent; he grew up as a boxing nerd in a frontier town who got his first major educational experience in Annapolis. Both of these guys were tinkering experimental physicists; inventing various forms of interferometry, optical gratings and spectroscopy, doing various forms of precision measurement. There were a couple hundred mostly academic physicists in the US in those days, but most of what they did was only vaguely recognizable as physics; these two stood out as distinctly modern and world class figures in a subject that was mostly being developed in the UK and Germany at the time. Gibbs was the first great American theorist; he was mostly ignored until Rowland created a position for him at Johns Hopkins.

Rowland was father of American physics

There were various government funded efforts around this time (1880s); weather services, the National Bureau of Standards (the first national lab that wasn’t military related), geological and coastal surveys; physicists were involved in such government scientific programs from the get go. Various factions in the government thought these efforts were a waste of money (in particular populist types of the era, which was a time of economic difficulty with the great recession), and there were the typical internal political machinations in the scientific community designed to accrue power and influence over them; just like today. The NBS is worth a few words; the shopkeeps of the country were wildly corrupt at the time, and the physicists and chemists of the NBS were a hugely popular group of consumer protection crusaders for the common people.

Michelson; uncle of American physics

Scientists of the current year who wonder why nobody respects them ought to remember this, and frankly, things like this are urgently needed in the US where everything from meat to vegetables is contaminated with disgusting chemicals, the big tech companies censor and spy on people for little reason, financial firms parasitize and dump risk on the common man, drug companies dump useless garbage on an increasingly medicated and unhealthy population and the “public health official” morons impose medical fascism on people who are in greater danger from eating too many cheeseburgers than the Wuhan coof. I mean there are obvious and enormous national health problems with …. obesity, autism, mental illness, rampant food allergies: people seem peculiarly incurious about all of these. Of course there are few scientists of the current year who could even stand up against regulatory capture of the candy industry, let alone the drug or soy industry, so I’m not holding my breath.

Contemporary with these fellows were America’s great inventors and industrialists, who were completely different people. Alexander Graham Bell, Westinghouse, Tesla, Edison: none of these guys had any sort of physics background, though eventually there was some social overlap. Similarly the great industrialists such as Stanford, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller were dumping their charity money into university endowments, grad schools (the Ph.D. was a fairly recent innovation), laboratories and foundations. Around this time, the early journals were started. Still weren’t too many physicists in the country, but it was coming; demand for physics coursework was high, from new engineering students. The giants at Johns Hopkins started planting seeds in other institutions in Chicago, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. George Hale’s Palomar observatory bred Caltech. In the decade of the 1890s, there were a total of 54 new physics Ph.D.s, but by 1909 it was 25 a year. Two years after Michelson became the first American physics Nobelist.

If you know physics history, you know these dates are the beginning period in the greatest flowering of physics creativity in human history. Most of the theory was done by Germans, many ethnic Jewish, while the US remained more or less a hub of experimental activity (similarly Britain I think). It was also a flowering of industrial activity; as larger areas became electrified and were hooked up to the new telephone technology. Industrial labs started hiring some of the new physicists, and they immediately began producing returns; even the humble light bulb was assisted by Irving Langmuir. Aircraft became a thing; also refrigeration, automobiles, vacuum cleaners, escalators, air conditioners, motion pictures, washing machines, safety razors; inventions which changed daily human life forever in ways which were absurdly huge. Radio; very classic physicist achievement (entirely by foreigners) it is worth remembering the distance from theory of Maxwell in 1865 to demonstration by Hertz in 1886 to practical implementations by Marconi in 1896 to widespread adoption after 1900 when contemplating imaginary bugaboos like quantum computing; (Benioff in 1982, to Shor in 1994; one of them should be the QC Maxwell and there still hasn’t been a Hertz yet).

Then the cataclysm of WW-1. I’ve always said this is the great changepoint of human history. Had it never happened the world would be completely different. It was a war fought with the new industrial technologies; a war of chemicals and steel production, of submarines,  telephones and airplanes. As soon as the war started, the US had an industrial policy; if nothing else, we (meaning we Americans, sorry overseas bros) needed to replace critical items which were unavailable due to British blockades and war needs. Political operators including Palomar’s George Hale began to advocate for government funding through the National Research Council. There were various political machinations between different factions in the US technological establishment, but in the end the war happened and the physicists were utilized and found helpful. Optical glass industry had to be grown and developed at home to replace all the Zeiss optics and whatever the British were using. But the most important innovations the American physicists delivered was submarine finder technologies.

Up to this moment in time, the only great theorist the US ever had was Gibbs, and he didn’t have any noteworthy descendants. Most American physicists were experimentalists; tinkerers in the same sense that the Edisons of the world were tinkerers, except they knew stuff like how sound travels in water, how to detect the electron’s charge to mass ratio using oil droplets, or how to make nice telescopes. There were a number of very amusing characters from those days; Max Mason of U Wisconsin is one who stuck with me; a clubbable type guy with talents including chess, golf, violin and billiards; he pretty much came up with the submarine passive detection systems we used today. Another pair of characters involved in artillery range-finding was Augustus Trowbridge and Theodore Lyman, a couple of Boston Brahmin types who had to teach a bunch of roughnecks “splendid specimens …. like the big trees of their native Oregon” about differentials and hyperbolas and such while having fine wines and a mess featuring a french cook in the trenches of evenings. Lyman didn’t mind being shelled at least, he had hunted big game dontchaknow. The miniature portraits of these fellows gives a vivid picture of the old WASP elites, more or less acting like American versions of Bertie Wooster and Augustus Fink-Nottle.

Max Mason

The aftermath of WW-1 demonstrated  a lot of analogues to current year problems. Thanks to the British propaganda agencies, Germans were demonized. America used to have a large German speaking minority; WW-1 ended this. Rather astoundingly Hale and his allies in the NRC tried demonizing and bureaucratically “canceling” German scientists in Germany who had the temerity to support their own country during the war. This was completely bonkers. In addition to it being a ridiculous nationalistic thing to do, disguised, as is usual with Anglos as moralistic preening,  the Germans were literally the leading members of the physics community. Hale instead of building bridges and returning physics to the international enterprise it always had been, was attempting to burn them; trying to get physicists from neutral countries to see things the Anglo-American perfidy way. All of it was ridiculous and disgusting, and is very much like current-year cancel culture.  It went on through the dawn of modern Quantum Mechanics; Hale wouldn’t even allow his organization to cosponsor a visit to America by Einstein, who was Swiss, but spoke with a German accent.

The 20s started the real rise of colleges as a sort of US cottage industry; land grant schools, R&D research, university presidents as fund raisers; this was the birth of the whole encrusted edifice that threatens to destroy its host population. It was also the rise of PR used as a tool by scientists in fundraising, and it was very consciously deployed as such. Mind you it was mostly baloney: physics took a lot of credit from, like chemists, electrical engineers and statisticians for the recent technological evolutions; but the physicists had better PR -a pattern which continues to the present day.

The 1930s were fairly hard times for the physics community as everyone else. By this time there was a fair amount of populist religious people (mitigated by the number of high profile Christian physicists such as Millikan and Compton) and left wing rumbling against the pretensions of scientist types and their affiliation with monied interests and wealthy foundations, as well as their perceived involvement in “progress” which caused economic dislocations. As such there were, for the first time, layoffs. There were also New Deal government efforts which are the origin of most “Big Science.” Cyclotron research also got bound up in health care back then; something that always confused me (it persists to this day despite its generally dubious utility), but which seemed to be a funding scam by Lawrence. Interestingly many physicists were extremely conservative and against the New Deal due to their associations with business. This is a sort of bifurcation that persists to this day: industrial and military physics people are different from the rest of the scientific establishment, which is mostly a product of New Deal organizations. Of course, they were all united in preparations for war, for different reasons; a microcosm of what was going on in the country at large.

Vannevar Bush (despite his engineering background, or perhaps because of it) was one of the most crucial people in the development both of wartime physics and American technology in general, and the book paints a decent outline of his flinty New England “grandson of a whaling captain” character and early achievements. Interestingly he was not a New Deal man, but he saw the utility in using government agencies directly instead of going through independent bodies like the NRC as happened in WW-1 research. He was able to sell it with a single sheet of paper in front of FDR in 1940 based on already-existing NACA (aka NASA later); originally called the NDRC which was more research oriented, it later changed its name to OSRD which was more production oriented. Rather than setting up new labs as was attempted in WW-1 era, the idea was to use already existing scientific facilities as much as possible. OSRD management techniques persisted into the 50s with a few hot spots of innovation like Skunkworks and China Lake, but they’re largely extinct now. Entirely Klein type-1 organizational principles, and entirely entrepreneurial. You look at national lab operations now: it’s basically a big welfare pyramid where people continue to work on …. the same funding priorities people have literally been working on since the 1950s. No moving fast and breaking things, no innovation, no shuffling people into concentrations of excellence; just a bunch of nervous bureaucrats feathering their beds and playing bureaucratic power games with each other.

One of the characters who came up here who was of crucial importance: Alfred L. Loomis; a retired investment banker who had his own hobby physics lab; cousin of the Secretary of War, who ended up leading up the radar efforts as well as inventing LORAN (Loomis Radio Navigation), muzzle velocity chronos and a number of other things which are forgotten. He was an absolute giant, a figure who would be familiar to the Ancient Greeks representing all that was heroic and good in men of his time: he was from a first rate family, served his country as a soldier in WW-1, got a law degree, bought an investment bank, funded electrification of rural America, was an astute trader who called market top in 1928, and taught himself how to be a goddamned experimental physicist in the 1930s. There is literally nobody alive today like this: all you retired quants need to get to work in your personal laboratories.

Alfred Lee Loomis

Other figures; Lee Dubridge founded MIT’s radiation lab where much radar and electronics oriented work got done: a middle class aw-shucks methodist who went on to a career managing other scientific facilities, most notably CalTech. Edward Bowles; former fur-trapper Missouri redneck EE professor who helped manage the growing enterprise. His experience as a hunter helped him manage growing Pentagon bureaucracy. Amusingly he hated all the physicists and didn’t get along well with flinty New England Bush very well either. His management and advice changed a bunch of key research directions and made the US much more effective in warfighting. Operations Research; aka 1940’s version of “data science” was founded by pioneers like Philip Morse. Amusingly, he was one of only a few of explicitly mathematical physicists who made large contributions, presumably by keeping to very practical real-world solutions. I always knew him as being one of the “Handbook of Mathematical Functions” guys, but he continued his work of managing large scale scientific enterprises. Ultimately this famous book probably came from wartime experience where people had to go look up Bessel functions in various other tomes; books like this were of vital importance before the existence of tools like Macsyma. Arguably still more useful. Donald Trump’s uncle John was also an important figure in these days.

Oppenheimer, Fermi and the Bomb are the most famous product of OSRD; everyone knows what happened there, but one highlight: the physicists, particularly Lawrence got cocky. The Calutrons were a preposterous waste of time and resources in hindsight. Because it was OSRD, they did have multiple approaches to deliver the final product, but it’s absolutely staggering how many resources were wasted in this efforts. It’s also hilarious redneck Ozarks ladies were more productive than physicists on similar equipment. Of course, plutonium chemistry at Hanford and the Gas diffusion efforts at Oak Ridge delivered the real product (the latter, further enriched by absurdly wasteful Calutrons). This is a great historical example to bring up when physicists try to get too fancy or egotistical about their ability to deliver some complicated atrocity where simpler techniques would do; humble chemists did most of the real work and other than a few guys like Seaborg (often mistaken for a physicist) got little of the credit. FWIIW Kevles just presented the facts; this is entirely my emphasis and interpretation of what happened. Similarly for subsequent comments.

Virgin physicists versus Chad Calutron Girls

Postwar physics, like postwar everything else, was a completely different civilization. It had almost nothing to do with what came before and the first decade after Bush’s 1945 “Science the endless frontier” define the field to this day. Bush opened the government funded research chuckwagon. It also did away with the OSRD practicality and urgency. Bush basically opened the funding trough as an ongoing national investment with zero expectation of return. And zero returns is basically what we’ve gotten. The high energy physics of the 1940s were the nuclear guys; they kept the highest prestige and funding, getting bigger and bigger particle accelerators, and more and more seats in the physics departments. WW-2 put a crimp in the supply of new physicists; they weren’t going to get any more European braniacs, and the war had stopped the Ph.D. pipeline. 1946 was probably peak year for power and prestige of the American physics community. There weren’t enough of them, they were well paid and actually had significant political power; enough to put the Atomic Energy Commission under their civilian control. It’s also very obviously been downhill since then. The 50s and early 60s saw some interesting if wildly impractical results; the field has plummeted since then, to the point where it is best known for inventing glass-bead games for imaginary computers.

People on college campuses resented the expensive physicists of the postwar era, and it was extremely obvious the field became a sort of cargo-cult prestige scam over time. Quoting Kevles:

The younger physicists seemed interested too little in physics and accomplishment, too much in pay scales and security. They also expected a remarkable degree of luxury in the conditions of re­search. At Brookhaven, everyone seemed to want a new $3,500 (1953 dollars) oscillo­scope. “Someone walked into my office the other day,” reported Samuel Goudsmit, who headed the laboratory physics department, “and complained that he had to share the one we’d got for him with another re­searcher.” The new recruits also seemed disturbingly content to submerge themselves in team research, publish papers jointly, often with as many as twenty other authors (lol; try 2000 now a days) — to become, in short, organization men.

We all know by now that the research program of the last two generations of high energy physicists have been an abject failure. It is little acknowledged when the sweet smelling putrefaction set in, not at some nebulous later date: post-WW-2 physics was largely a failure. By mid-1950s there were 21,000 practicing physicists in the US. These days the APS is about 60,000 people. In 1930 when things were actually happening there was 3,000. Even if we don’t think 60,000 physicists is too many for a country of 330 million, it’s abundantly obvious via the output (which is entirely …. papers) that the vast majority of these people are not engaged in any kind of useful work. While these people either loaf in some leafy ivory tower or scramble in some CERN slave factory horror show: even assuming they’re capable or hard headed enough to do useful work, they’re not mobilized to do so.

It’s a weird sort of irony that Vannevar Bush mobilized one of the great technological and scientific leaps forward in history, then killed physics with welfare cheese because he … more or less forgot how the Promethean fire was created. He remembered the money part, but that was only useful for certain kinds of problems, and only with the correct management, correct social structure and correct people. These days you can’t even get the correct people, and people labor away LARPing as Einsteins or Oppenheimers. The rest of the book goes into the various hippy protests against physicists and grubby rooting around for new sources of funding.

Assuming the US continues as an identifiable polity in 100 years, I’m pretty sure “physics as scam” rather than “physics as a study of nature and how it may be put to use by humanity” will continue. They’ll continue screwing around with particle accelerators because Livermore did. They’ll continue ridiculous mathemagical nonsense like noodle theory because they don’t know how to do anything else, other than live action role play they’re Einstein. The only way I could see it changing for the better is a geopolitical upheaval which would effectively end what remains of the post WW-2 order and the current reign of corrupt imbeciles running the US.  Most of the West basically does what the US does. I suppose there could be new progress in China, Japan or Russia, but I don’t see much happening here for the next 50 or 100 years on the present trajectory.

Anyway, good book; depressing, but good.

40 Responses

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  1. glaucous noise said, on April 8, 2021 at 2:28 am

    I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

    Firstly, chemists and engineers have picked up quite a bit of the slack, doing all the hard computational and experimental physics that matters. Secondly, many physicists do fairly applied stuff. For all its pomp, noodle theory is starving to death; it can’t get graduate students, and it can’t land faculty positions.

    Also, I’m sort of in the quantum computing field (in an ancillary capacity); it’s basically the final death squeal of the physic department before they will completely reform. They are now forced to bring quantum mechanics into reality in a way they never have before. My suspicion is this will break quantum mechanics as we know it, as they will be forced to actually properly describe the messy real world they have been avoiding for decades or die.

    Finally, I think there is a “complex systems” barrier that looms in front of any form of scientific and technological progress in addition to the sociological barriers you frequently opine upon. In the last century and before, an intuitive picture of the theory and some back of the envelope calculations could take you impressively far. Then simple numerical methods applied to tractable systems (i.e. near equilibrium, memory-less, linear, other nice simplifying assumptions etc) got pretty far.

    Now in almost any area of importance, the problems are mathematically fiendish and opaque. This makes intuition staggeringly difficult and accurate modelling often close to impossible. There is a colossal theoretical barrier which is cross-disciplinary.

    We’ve picked the low hanging fruit, and are in uncharted waters. The chaotic, confederated scientific system of before may not work. Nobody really knows how to proceed. Things will take time.

    But I’m optimistic.

    • DamnItMurray said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:02 am

      It’s becoming an increasingly intra-disciplinary effort, like most of the real world is – no system is confined only to physics or chemistry or biology, it’s constant and inseparable entity of all three. I’ve always told people that the next breakthrough in human thought would have to be made by the next breakthrough in human evolution, which is something our scientists today can work on, even though human genetic engineering is a no-no – it is the next important leap.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 8, 2021 at 8:11 am

      It’s nice to hear that the noodle dudes can’t get students, but otherwise I disagree completely.

      The interdisciplinary thing is a horse shit direction; everyone knows what physics is. Inviting biologists or whatever to the conferences which have vastly too many people just further dilutes them. “Low hanging fruit” is also nonsense; there are obvious things out there that have been totally ignored. The fact that it took some obscure tokomak physicist to notice maybe the Lense-Thirring effect applies to, like, shit in space is completely mind boggling, and I am sure there’s lots of such things.

      Modern physics people are timid and unwilling to take risks. Doing what your thesis advisor did (who at this point did what his thesis advisor did, unto the generations) is a recipe for … exactly what we have today. My own humble physics adventures, which were largely failures, were attempts to do something new; and most of the senior physicists told me I was nuts or even …. grandiose …. for trying new things. The type of people who pushed the needle were always trying new things; that was the point. Imagine if people in 1920 were still fiddling with simple electrostatic experiments that physicists did in 1800: trying rat hair or civet hair instead of cat hair on a Franklin electrostatic generator, that’s largely what we have now.

      Of course there are probably undiscovered countries of mathematics which allow one to, say, study turbulence or more complex colloidal phenomena such as you encounter in life. You can see the goddamned order with your own eyes, yet people remain profoundly incurious about it. I don’t see anyone attempting to discover them; they’d rather publish something on obscure group theoretical gibberish which relates to something that seemed of great importance 120 years ago.

      • DamnItMurray said, on April 8, 2021 at 12:58 pm

        Intra-disciplinary work is the reason Turing wrote “The chemical basis of morphogenesis”, Poincaré laid the basis of SR. It’s silly to complain about scientists being too obsessed with obscure corners of their field when we don’t give them a broad enough view and space of exploration.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:55 pm

          Look I’ve been invited to these inter-disciplinary things by friends in academia trying to get a raise. In one memorable meeting my pal was trying to use control systems theory to hound people into taking the bus via an annoying app. There was an economist who was babbling rubbish about “people never change their minds they just optimize a different utility function.” Psychologist arguing with economist about people changing their minds all the time. The dean was there. There were filthy little environmentalist teachers pet types making stink face at the dude in the tie who raised his hands: “have you considered marketing and sales techniques from Haas?” No they hadn’t.

          That’s what interdisciplinary shit is. That’s actually rewarded (my homey got his raise; everyone else probably did also -that or some meaningless award). Nothing gets done. People still drive to work instead of taking the bus because taking the bus in Berkeley is fucking ass with all the animated human refuse on it.

          Turing thinking about something weird is just smart mofos being smart. I consider myself fairly interdisciplinary at this point. Institutionalizing it and giving people bozo buttons for talking to someone not in their department is crap.

        • Walt said, on April 9, 2021 at 3:36 pm

          I think it’s better to say that we need more generalists – guys who can turn a wrench or a lathe as well as do math – rather than interdisciplinary efforts. This was David Epstein’s point in “Range” and is evidenced in Scott’s posts. The successful physicists and inventors were tinkerers to were also athletes who could also shoot guns and sleep in the bush.

          The only way I could see it changing for the better is a geopolitical upheaval which would effectively end what remains of the post WW-2 order and the current reign of corrupt imbeciles running the US. Most of the West basically does what the US does.

          That seems to be what’s happening. As Indian Bronson noted, the USSR died when everyone stopped caring about it. 2020 was Year Zero of the new civilization and the elites are working hard on demolishing the old one. It should be gone by 2030.

          The only solution I see to the scientific stagnation is to teach children more general skills as well as a classical education consisting of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and ‘rithmetic. People today simply can’t think and college actually makes this worse. Any discoveries will be made in small-scale, unfunded hobby labs by tinkerers. When you think about it, what has government funded science given us that currently benefits humanity in the way that unfunded science did? We have nukes, but where’s our nuclear power? Did Edward Jenner need government funding to create the first smallpox vaccines? What about sanitation? Was this invented by government research?

          DARPA and the MIC have given us some impressive inventions, but how have they actually benefited us in terms of quality of life and life expectancy? It seems to me that ARPAnet and the cellular networks, for example, are now driving us backwards.

          • anonymous said, on April 9, 2021 at 5:01 pm

            I have a lot of serious holes in my education. I’ve been reading some autobiographies of some old (admittedly upper-class: I don’t know where I would get the *time* to do what they did) 1900s era people who got their educations in a different milleau. (JS Mill – classically educated, Norbert Weiner, educated by his dad who was a world-hopping philologist/entrepreneur.) I’ve been jotting down what these guys were reading during their education and trying to assemble a curriculum.

            (Not sure how useful Latin or Greek are, but I’d love to pick up German and maybe Russian. I probably won’t go in for the whole classical program (takes decades) but I’ll try to fill in the holes. Looking back on my regimented American highschool experience, I wonder if I even learned *anything* that wasn’t from my technical teachers (Calculus, etc)).

            Most of it will probably sit in folders on my hard drive, but I’m going to try to do more serious reading.

            • Walt said, on April 9, 2021 at 5:30 pm

              There used to be Latin and Greek tests on the Ivy League entrance exams. They disappeared sometime early last century.

      • glaucous noise said, on April 8, 2021 at 2:39 pm

        Sometimes I forget that you may be the only person I’m aware of who’s more pessimistic and cynical about physics than me!

        I agree that the system has crippling sociological flaws, but my main point is that these are not solely due to corrupt politics.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:43 pm

          In a way I’m not pessimistic about physics; I’m pessimistic about the physics community. If I live long enough I’ll make an attempt at what Loomis did and build a personal lab. I have a few quantum optics experiments I think would be reasonably interesting.

          • Dennis said, on April 13, 2021 at 6:05 pm

            “I have a few quantum optics experiments I think would be reasonably interesting” — what experiments could that possibly be?

          • John Fenley said, on April 14, 2021 at 10:40 am

            I’m hoping to build a large open science lab in a huge industrial building I bought. I need to run my own experiments, and I hope to have other interesting people come here to run theirs.

            I’m calling it Serendipic.org. I hope to foster the type of interesting collisions that Xerox Park had.

            I’m hoping this type of place will self select driven and interesting people. It will probably attract a lot of crackpots as well, but what’s a crackpot really except someone with an unanswered question. I may be a crackpot myself.

            Maybe you’d be interested in dropping by once it gets off the ground.

    • anonymous said, on April 8, 2021 at 7:51 pm

      I recently read a book by Schrodinger, “What is Life”? It’s interesting on a few different levels. 1. It’s actually teaching me a lot about the history of biology – Schrodinger did his homework and is trying to be clear.
      2. It’s amazing how much biologists had figured out about heredity and the genome entirely from the outside, sans microscopes, sans cell-biology, sans any way to look at what they were actually doing.

      3. It’s sort of awkward when Schrodinger tries to shoehorn his quantum physics into biology where it really doesn’t belong. And it’s sort of awkward that it doesn’t belong there. There is pretty much nothing quantum about biology, except perhaps in some pedantically reductionist sense. Biological macromolecules pretty much *are* little atomic billiards stuck together into vast and elaborate machines that do things in a way that Isaac Newton would intuitively understand. The clockwork-universe model works, and you can see it working under a microscope. Molecules have identity in exactly the way quantum statistical mechanics says they don’t. Somewhere between there and the fundamental medium of particle physics is something that has never been properly bridged.

      • anonymous said, on April 8, 2021 at 7:58 pm

        I guess I’m just annoyed at Niels Bohr’s crowd of positivists that “won” the generational struggle for physics in the 1920s. Complementarity isn’t an explanation, it’s the evasion of explanation!

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 15, 2021 at 10:35 am

          Schroedinger was a great physicist, but he was also a wife-swapping mush-head later in life, as were many of his contemporaries. I used to own this book; recycled it.

  2. DamnItMurray said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:08 am

    There is an obvious thread that connects all of these great men of science – necessity. All of their work was bred out of it, all of their knowledge applied to solve the problems of the day, which were stopping them from achieving either a better life or a clearer picture of the world. People nowadays (at least in the West, were good science is made) are not only not lacking in comfort and content, they are actively dying from it. How the hell do you convince all these brainiacs to do any work when they are increasingly becoming dopamine monkeys, porn addicts, druggies and video-game zombies.

  3. atp said, on April 8, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Calutrons a waste? At least according to Gregory Benford, essentially all the uranium in Little Boy came from the calutrons, as the gaseous diffusion was hardly working at that point, and turned out to be incredibly difficult, with many delays.

    Of the three proposed uranium enrichment technologies, Groves picked two: Gaseous diffusion as the primary, and calutrons as the backup. Benford contends that, at least with the benefit of hindsight, he should have picked gas centrifuges as the primary. I believe the Soviets started with diffusion, presumably copying the Americans, but later switched completely over to centrifuges in 1973 or so. What’s not obvious, is whether the centrifuge technology would have been the better choice back in the 1940s, when the choice was critical. Benford contends that it was.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:36 pm

      Calutrons got the gas diffusion the last mile. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have pushed the needle. Shoving them in there “lookit me” is, IMO, physicists cucking the chemists who did all the important work.

  4. Raul Miller said, on April 8, 2021 at 3:27 pm

    It is kind of interesting that, for example HTTP came out of CERN. That says a lot, not only about the nature of the organizations (librarianship is probably one of the most useful “social sciences” — see also: Google’s early years), but about the nature of the society which our physics institutions are a part of.

    Still… looking at this history of what lead up to physics — we have a lot of things going on which have been somewhat mischaracterized. There’s stuff like ether theory and alchemy and so on which are mostly complete garbage — our nostalgia goggles mostly focus on the good stuff. (Except when they don’t. For example, alchemy was largely a complete waste but the concept of hermetic seals has had wide application, including canned food. And, atomic theory and concepts of nuclear decay does have some roots in those lead-to-gold alchemy scams which were aimed at fleecing rich fools.)

    That said, … we have some real problems in academia where practicality is scorned. And, we have some real problems on the business side of things where information of the sort academia makes available is scorned in favor of information gathering based mostly on sales. These are related issues, and I think they are signs of collapse. When sales figures are your highest priority, you’re begging for scams.

    Anyways… if desperation and harsh conditions are what’s needed to force a practical focus and drive science forwards, we’ve got some of that coming up, in spades, thanks to the pandemic and the lockdowns. I am expecting lots of resentment as people start discovering the consequences of crop failures and business failures and blaming it on whatever random thing.

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 8, 2021 at 6:41 pm

      Sommerfeld’s mechanics of deformable bodies has a whole section on relativistically invariant ether theory that is in total accord with how the universe works (other than being massless matter that carries E&M waves -it’s kind of not true by Occam). E&M waves are pretty non intuitive! Most waves we’re familiar with are something propagating in a liquid or gas.

      We may get pushed forward again. Honestly it no longer bugs me that nothing interesting happens in physics; it’s the impostures of the clowns who pretend to do it.

  5. Daniel H said, on April 8, 2021 at 11:25 pm

    There is genuine stagnation in physics. However, part of the issue is that many of the problems in physics today are far more difficult than they were in the last century. The reality is one does not need to go to string theory to see mathematical complexity, but any nonlinear system which has multiple-scales that are not cleanly separated are very difficult to deal with. Turbulent flow is a classic example, specially when you involve electromagnetic fields in them (so plasma turbulence): the electron scales are 1e12 or so separated but in many situations of practical interest they can’t be simply decoupled from rest of the physics by an “ordering-out” argument. Now, the unfortunate reality is that getting a handle on such multi-scale nonlinear problems will be far more useful than “noodle theory” for sure, but there is little prestige in modern physics departments to do that type of “classical and applied” work. Instead, we have departments filled with string theorists and people who spend all their life calculating loop diagrams to obtain the 12th decimal place for some physical constant. Not that in itself it is a bad thing, but this type of work is merely plowing already furrowed fields.

    You mentioned in a previous post about weak-field GR used to explain galaxy rotation curves. The reality is that classical GR of this sort basically died for several decades and hardly anyone worked on these topics (though it is coming back a bit now). There was no way to obtain tenure or funding to do classical GR. The tokamak guy who wrote the paper on this probably did this on the side while he was working on plasma physics. No one from mainstream astrophysics would have thought of this as they now accept dark matter as the default explanation of galactic rotation curves. In fact, in modern astrophysics departments people spend uncounted hours running huge N-body simulations and then more uncounted hours analyzing the simulation output. Many grad students do nothing but take such simulation output and try and do stuff with it. However, even the question of equilibrium of a self-gravitating system is still unclear but very few people want to work on it as it can’t be answered by current N-body codes. (Or, to put it another way, the math and algorithms are hard and it is easier to run code you did not write and do not understand).

    At national labs (I have some experience with these beasts) the situation in several places is dire. There is serious stagnation and with the advent of bigger computing machines the competition to achieve rock-bottom has accelerated. What I mean is: the govt agencies love to hear that the newest monster with millions of cores they built was used at 90% capacity. These same agencies, though, don’t really care about the outcome and when they do have reviews the people on the panels all know the game and never call this criminal behavior out for what it is. For example, there are examples of calculations in combustion, fusion, climate etc that run on these behemoths and produce results that could be computed on a laptop. So a huge scam.

    The situation is made worse by the extreme bureaucratic red-tape involved in getting funding for innovative experimental or theory ideas. Forget it if you are planning to do something new or different. Chances of getting anywhere with these ideas is nearly zero. Hence we are stuck with aging machines and experiments that have not done anything new in 20-30 years and there is little new on the horizon either. So in this situation the national labs become a self-selecting lot of people wanting to make PowerPoint slides with boxes on them, rather than actually take a risk of doing something new. In my experience, about 80% of time at labs is spent in meetings to decide on getting incremental funding via “field-work proposals” and making boxes on slides. Almost no senior people have any bandwidth left to do serious work after 8 hours of meetings non-stop!

    Sadly, I do not see this situation improving either. There are many exciting problems to work on that can have major impact of the level that occurred in the period of 1860-1940s or so. However, if all the best talent is wasting time working on some obscure string-theory crap, running huge simulations with code you have no clue on how it works or is even suitable for the job, or worse, on Zoom and making PowerPoint slides there is little chance this will happen.

  6. Igor Bukanov said, on April 9, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    Hm, no mentioning of Richard C. Tolman? I still consider his book “Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology” one of the best introduction to General Relativity. It was translated into Russian 40 years after its initial publication in 1934 and that book was very well read in the library in Minsk where I studied physics at the beginning of the nineties.

  7. JCR said, on April 10, 2021 at 10:48 pm

    Correction Scott, Loomis served in WWI not WWII.

  8. Chiral3 said, on April 15, 2021 at 3:08 am

    Pencils down everyone.

    Click to access 2104.03902.pdf

    • Scott Locklin said, on April 15, 2021 at 10:27 am

      As I think you know, I give Stephon shit for this kind of gorp in person.

      • Chiral3 said, on April 15, 2021 at 12:13 pm

        Fun gedenken experiment to bring back some of the names in Kevles book and imagine their reaction to lines like:

        “But research in string theory, loop quantum gravity and other approaches to quantum gravity point to the opposite conclusion: there is a vast landscape of equally consistent theories”. Said differently: all this time nothing has been working; in reality, everything has been working. So we’re good. 1970-present is all foundational. Carry on.

        Gauge theory is a neural net? Love to insert that into Gian-Carlo Rota’s conversation on the subject at Los Almos in 1949. Physics is biology and biology is a GA? Wasn’t that the whole Santa Fe thing in 1992? Wasn’t Kauffman et al hoisted by their petards and not their fitness landscapes?

        The Kevles book is sufficiently interesting that I found a nice signed first ed for $10. That led me to the Baltimore Incident, which I wasn’t aware of, and a nice Nature article from the 90’s that summarized it all well. I can’t tell if the guy was really complicit or like most egomaniacs in research that achieve a certain level they just have their name on papers they don’t know are being written. The story seems sanitized.

        • Chiral3 said, on April 15, 2021 at 12:19 pm

          I read the Jazz of Physics when it was published, about the extent of my knowledge on him. Everything is connected, QED.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 15, 2021 at 12:41 pm

          What is “the Baltimore incident?”

          Have you read Rota’s “indiscretions?” It was one of the best things I read in 2017.

          • chiral3 said, on April 15, 2021 at 1:00 pm

            Maybe it’s called the Baltimore Case. David Baltimore. Kevles wrote a book.

            Click to access Baltimore.pdf

            I did read Indiscretions! That was my reference. If I recall, after they realized (via high altitude air sampling) that Russia was working on a H bomb, people were called back to NM. I seem to recall a passage where Rota was walking around discussing “AI” and the implications on science and society.

            • Scott Locklin said, on April 15, 2021 at 8:29 pm

              This was before my time and I only have vague recollections of it. Seemed like it freaked out a lot of academics, the idea the peasants might contradict them. I have used O’Toole’s moving company though, and it is really excellent.

              FWIIW I think Victor Ninov successfully sued the UC system for libel, despite the fact the dude was too stupid to understand how VMS file system works when he falsified the element 118 data.

          • anonymous said, on April 20, 2021 at 1:15 pm

            I assume you’re talking about “Indiscrete Thoughts”: How did you obtain it without mortgaging your kidney to springer?

            • Scott Locklin said, on April 20, 2021 at 1:40 pm

              libgen and a kobo forma. Works great for things like that you read from one end to the other.

              On the other hand, it’s kind of ass for math books you need to flip around to remember definitions and such. Still better than not having the book because you live in no-amazon place or it’s out of print.

              • anonymous said, on April 20, 2021 at 3:16 pm

                Thanks for the libgen pointer!

                The internet seems like one of these right-of-passage tests of character: If you can master it, it’s an awe inspiring tool that opens the door to all of human knowledge, and lets you talk to people about actual thoughts. If it masters you, you end up wasting infinite time and being conditioned until you’re the monkey hitting the heroin button. Same with anything really, but it seems like it’s more so wrt computers. (Orthogonal to how the designers of modern shit-software want to bias things.)

                Trying hard to use it for the former, but I’ve lost some time to the latter.

                • chiral3 said, on April 21, 2021 at 2:10 pm

                  I think I bought mine from AMZN for $20

      • anonymous said, on April 20, 2021 at 2:09 pm

        This is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if it’s worth trying to learn theoretical physics on the QFT side. On the one hand, I do want to understand how the universe works. On the other hand, if I put in the time to climb your mathematical mount everest, I want to see some physical content at the top over and above being able to juggle matrices to do anything to anything else, and nevermind the state space you’re supposedly operating on. (And the matrices is if they’re feeling generous and will condescend to define their operators!)

        I suppose my position is that of the kid in class wanting to know if this is going anywhere. The kid doesn’t know, and the teacher will swear that of course this is profound and relevant whether it is or not. If the kid is in a calculus class, he’s in good hands. If he’s in some cult-compound learning Kabbalah, he’s going to have his time wasted.

        • Scott Locklin said, on April 20, 2021 at 2:13 pm

          I think if you want to know what particle jackanapes are yammering about you don’t need to get beyond Mandelstahm variables and the high end approach in this:

          More group theory is pretty neat. Actual field theory … meh. Frankly particle physics is pretty goofy and uninteresting as a field.

          This assuming you know QM in detail. If you don’t, just learn that part and special relativity.

          • anonymous said, on May 3, 2021 at 12:16 pm

            I’m in the process of reading this. I like that this book leads with the experimental results that motivated the theory. So far so good. Thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Frank said, on April 16, 2021 at 6:02 am

    You might want to take a look at this https://marianamazzucato.com/ and this https://marianamazzucato.com/books/the-entrepreneurial-state

    • Euler said, on April 19, 2021 at 12:58 am

      Her argument for classical economic theory leading us to the path of harmful neoliberal agendas sounds obviously true https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urLFQ4Ov_7U but any useless “leader” who takes this academic’s advice is suffering from a bad case of The Peter Principle. Wait… were you mentioning this self-proclaimed global economist as a tool for good? Lol

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