Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Waiting For The Revolution In Physics

June 16, 2010

As I indicated in The String Theory Calamity, I am extremely skeptical that string theory will eventually turn out to have been the road to unification of gravitation and quantum theory (as well as deeply cynical about the sociology of the field).  The reasons for that skepticism are in part the “technical” reasons concerning the development of the theory, which are discussed very knowledgeably in two books, “The Trouble With Physics”, by Lee Smolin, and “Not Even Wrong”, by Peter Woit — two books that I recommend to anyone interested in understanding how high-energy theory came to this pass.

However, I have another set of reasons for being skeptical, which have not really been set forth anywhere else, so far as I am aware.  These are not so much technical, as historical/philosophical, and have to do with patterns in how crises in science tend to be resolved by the Kuhnian revolutions that they unleash.
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The String Theory Calamity

May 30, 2010

The status of string theory in physics has no historical analogue in modern science, at least so far as I can see.  The theory is at the same time a smashing “success” and a colossal, catastrophic failure.

String theory is a success in the sense that for all intents and purposes, for the subset of physicists concerned with theorizing about the unification of gravity and quantum theory, it appears to be the only game in town.  As documented in Peter Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong”, string theorists have swept the board, seizing control of faculty appointments and grant committees pertaining to high-energy theory (in the U.S., at least), dominating the publication of results, determining the research directions to which resources are allocated, and largely ensuring that graduate students are trained to regard string theory as the single worthwhile stream of research.  Alternative directions are marginalized, and students quickly understand that exploration cutting at cross-purposes to string theory will almost certainly result in unread work and unrequited careers.

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What Are Crowds Good For?

May 21, 2010

The book “The Wisdom Of Crowds”, by James Surowiecki, evoked a surprising amount of interest upon its publication in 2004.  The book sets forth a thesis that seems to have struck a chord with many people.  Actually, there are two forms of the thesis, which it is helpful to distinguish:

Wisdom Of Crowds Thesis, Weak Form
: By properly selecting a large number of people with a good mix of skills and knowledge about some subject, and by adopting a carefully-designed procedure for distilling their views into some kind of weighted-average consensus view, it is possible to arrange matters so that this consensus view is almost always more accurate and reliable than any individual view held by any member of the group.

Wisdom Of Crowds Thesis, Strong Form: Given a sufficiently large group of people, if their average or consensus view on any subject is somehow ascertained, that view is always more reliable than the views of any individual.  Expertise on the subject in question is nice, but not required, since knowledge will emerge of its own accord once some “Large Number of Participants” threshold has been reached.

As a brief assessment of these two versions of the “Wisdom” Thesis, the Weak Thesis is demonstrably true, while the Strong Thesis is, not to put too fine a point on it, bunk.  On this, more below.

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Ed Fenimore, Scientist

May 20, 2010

Ed Fenimore is probably not a household name, unless you’re a high-energy astrophysicist, in which case he’s ED FENIMORE, scientist, instrument builder extraordinaire, theorist, rare case of honest and able data analyst in a field of charlatans, mentor of dozens of front-rank students.  Ed was a key figure in the process of turning the field of Gamma-Ray Burst studies from a freak show into an actual science.  He was also a key member of the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE) team, of which I also was a member.

We had a scientific meeting in September 2009 to celebrate Ed’s retirement from Los Alamos National Lab (actually he’s not really retiring, just taking evasive action from management responsibilities.  Rumor has it he’s still in his office 6 days a week, to his wife Sue’s chagrin).  There were talks all day, mostly on GRBs, and on Ed’s influence on the subject.  I gave the final talk of the day, by the title of “HETE-WXM: Fenimorean GRB Localization On A Shoestring”.  The PDF of my presentation is here.

At the end of the presentation, there’s a largely blank slide, entitled “Why Does Ed Always Think He Might Be Wrong (Even When He’s Right)?”. The slide has a single bullet, “A meditation on Ed’s unyielding commitment to scientific truth.” I showed that slide, then talked for about 15 minutes about some fairly deep things about science that I had learned from watching Ed at work. None of it was written down, which I’ve since felt was a shame, since I’m pretty sure it was worth preserving (and several other attendees told me they felt the same way). So here, now, as best I can reconstruct them (and cleaned up a bit, so as to be closer to what I would have said were I a better extemporaneous speaker), are those remarks.

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