I sat back and watched the whole thing play out. It was a sordid, nasty affair. Name-calling. Indignation. Condemnation. Blowback.
“How could he propose his theory and not have tested it!”
“His theory is not science!”
“How dare he use a back-door approach to promote his theory?”
“Who does he think he is, promoting this theory to the mainstream physics community while not being a member of the community?”
I’m not. But the similarity to the response I received is uncanny.
I’m talking about the response to Eric Weinstein and his “theory of everything.” Never heard of Weinstein? Well, he has been compared to Einstein. Yes, that Einstein.
The title of one of the articles that started the virtual cavalcade to Weinstein’s website and wikipedia page was, “Roll over Einstein: meet Weinstein,” published in the prestigious British newspaper, The Guardian. How could one not be intrigued by that title and this hook:
What are we to make of a man who left academia more than two decades ago but claims to have solved some of the most intractable problems in physics?
The paper goes on to describe Weinstein’s theory thusly:
In Weinstein’s theory, called Geometric Unity, he proposes a 14-dimensional “observerse” that has our familiar four-dimensional space-time continuum embedded within it.
Let me get this straight: Weinstein proposes a theory that invokes unity through geometric form and 14 (empirically undetectable) dimensions and he’s not called those pejorative terms reserved for scientists that propose neologisms or have “left the reservation?”
So, now, why was he treated with kid gloves in the article?
Well, he’s “serious,” or so says David Kaplan, a particle theorist at Johns Hopkins University:
There are many people who come from the outside with crazy theories, but they are not serious. Eric is serious.
Of course, this implies that most theoreticians who actually work within the scientific community aren’t serious. And incommensurable theories, by this line of thought, can never be considered serious; they’re just “crazy.”
Furthermore, and most importantly, he has been friends with Marcus du Sautoy since 1990. If you want friends in high places, you can’t do worse than du Sautoy, who is the Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford—Richard Dawkins’ old post and stomping grounds.
They’re such good friends, in fact, that du Sautoy wrote his own article about Eric for The Guardian, entitled, “Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics’ biggest problems.” As if the title didn’t express his true feelings, du Sautoy’s subtitle lays it all on the line:
A physicist has formulated a mathematical theory that purports to explain why the universe works the way it does – and it feels like ‘the answer’
“The Answer.” Let that digest.
Is that too much hype? Perhaps a tad. Peter Higgs has just come out against all of the media attention that was given to the so-called ‘God’ particle. “Overhyped” he says, in a word.
In all fairness and in full disclosue, I and the CWRU office of communication have been accused of the same thing, so I am in a good position to comment on this affair. I would say this: it is the obligation of scientists and theoreticians to seek complete truth. Not half-truth. Not partial truth. Truth with a capital ‘T.’ And the media is one mechanism for disseminating new theories and discussing their implications as it relates to that search.
How can a scientist or a layperson discriminate between theoretical hype and theoretical truth? Who is talkin’ smack and who is not?
du Sautoy is certain the Eric Weinberg’s theory is scientific truth, and claims in his article, “the mathematics [in Weinstein's theory] explains why it should work the way it does.”
I’m afraid that is just not so. Math does not, has not, and never will answer(ed) or explain(ed) the why. It describes things that can be quantified—the where (spatial), the when (temporal), and the what (form, behavior).
Mathematics cannot even explain itself, and the Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman reminds us [p. 152, QED]:
We use…numbers in all of our theories, but we don’t understand them—what they are, or where they come from. I believe that from a fundamental point of view, this is a very interesting and serious problem.
The response to the overhyping from the scientific blogosphere was swift and severe:
Jennifer Ouellette, blogger at Scientific American, laid down the hammer:
[M]y beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?
Then there’s my favorite cynic and libelist, PZ Meyers, who went after Weinstein as well. Well, at least I know that ‘PZ’ gives fair and equal treatment to anyone proposing solutions to the hard problems.
There were those who were sympathetic, like Peter Woit’s piece, “Eric Weinstein on Geometric Unity.” Basically, since Peter knows Eric, all is good with Eric’s ideas and how Eric is addressing the “deepest questions.”
And, despite the negative response from other news outlets and pundits, the New Scientist lent credence to the theory, calling it “provocative,” and suggesting ways it could be tested.
So, then, now we have yet another theory to test. How many theories is this now?
I have another composite question for the reader and my colleagues. Won’t the final and correct theory of everything be true? That is, won’t the final theory of everything be tested—that is, render all future tests unnecessary because all of the requisite tests have already been done?
But I digress.
Finally, showing sympathy for Weinstein but expressing concern over the damage to the “image” of science, the theoretical physicist Matt Strassler also weighed in. The theoretical astrophysicist Peter Coles feels the same way, mostly. Frankly, science’s “image” has needed a makeover for some time.
Sadly, the search for scientific truth is long-gone now. It’s been replaced by overhyping, cronyism, and ad hoc theorizing. What’s so striking is that scientists don’t know what they’re looking for any more. 14 dimensions? 150 new particles? No dark matter? Observerse?
Don’t physicists want to know? Or was Feyerabend right? Is this a Sisyphean tragedy? Seems that way, as Listverse lists “10 Theoretical Particles That Could Explain Everything.” Could explain everything? Don’t know about you, but I’m past “could.” We don’t need to find more particles. What science needs is definitive explanations and solutions. Humankind needs scientific truth.
I didn’t put my theory out there because I wanted tenure. I didn’t put it out there as a Sokal. I didn’t put it out there because I wanted attention.
I put it out there because it is the correct and final model of reality.
I put it out there because it is the scientific truth.
And if you care about such things like I do—if you care about solving fundamental problems like the ultimate nature of reality, the positioning of the conscious mind vis-à-vis matter, the origin and evolution of life, the warp and woof of the universe, and who and what you are—I welcome you to join me in an honest and open discussion of what the scientific truth, in fact, is.