Saturday, July 11, 2009

FQXi on the Azores

As previously mentioned, I am currently at the FQXi conference in Ponta Delgada on San Miguel, Azores. Some of you correctly noticed the only purpose of this meeting is to annoy everybody who isn't here. San Miguel is stunningly beautiful, though the weather has been mostly cloudy and rainy. On the other hand, it doesn't hurt so much then to sit in a deep-frozen seminar room. The Azorians seem to live mostly from agriculture and tourism. They have a university, but it's distributed over three islands and focuses on the hands-on fields, engineering, economics, medicine etc.



It has taken me a while to pin down why I find the meeting considerably more interesting than conferences I usually go to. One reason is certainly the variety of topics. Most conferences these days feature a monoculture of specialists in one particular area. And while that is very efficient for exchanging recent results, it also becomes repetitive rather easily. Here, we have a mix of "fundamental" fields, covering cosmology, quantum mechanics, quantum information and quantum gravity. There are also some philosophers here, and one experimentalist. (I think it's by accident rather than design he's the only one.)

But what really stands that the topics discussed are bold. There's Olaf Dreyer speculating on the origin of space and time from matter, Paul Davies on the relevance of increasing complexity in the evolution of the universe and the role of the observer, Anthony Agiurre about false vacuum bubbles, Eduardo Guendelman on the possibiliy to create universes, Fotini Markopoulou on the emergence of space from a non-geometric phase in the early universe, and Louis Crane on black holes as power sources. Depending on your taste, you might call them courageous or nuts. Laura Mersini-Houghton who talked about the possibility of finding evidence for the multiverse through entanglement on super-horizon scales is one of the more conservative here. There is also lot of talk about the arrow of time, alien civilisations, and the Future of Sex.

I also met another blogger many of you will know, Scott Aaronson, who turned out to be younger and more, oohm, entertaining than I thought

[Scott Aaronson]

Then there are the usual suspects, Garrett Lisi, Julian Barbour, Max Tegmark etc. You find the full list of participants here.


[Julian Barbour and Olaf Dreyer]


I further meet Zeeya Merali who wrote the article for New Scientist on Garrett's "Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything." Zeeya turned out to be a very charming young women with a PhD in physics who finds writing about science a great way to follow her fascination with physics. Over dinner, we had an interesting discussion about science journalism and science blogging.

The multiverse is a recurring issue that people seem to be very divided on, both with respect to existence and interpretation. Interestingly, on the list with questions that were thought to become/remain relevant within the next ten years "Understanding String Theory" ended up having one of the lowest scores. I'm not sure though this reflects more than the interests of the participants.

Yesterday we had a group discussion on what is "fundamental," I will tell you about that some other time.

You find a lot more details on the conference and the talks on the FQXi blog.

101 comments:

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

So, it seems Garrett unfortunantely either gave up of his theory or couldn't fix it...

garrett said...

MTd2: Well, it doesn't seem that way to me. ;)

It's even more amusing to see Sabine watching someone in front of her read her blog, and comment on that.

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

thanks for sharing photos, impressions, and thoughts :-)

Cheers, Stefan

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

"Well, it doesn't seem that way to me. ;)"

So, what did you find? Could you finally get the SM? How did you do that?

Uncle Al said...

It's all talk and no experiment.
Science without experiment is science fiction (sci-fi not sf). Theory rules given the grant funding trinity: Business plan, PERT chart, zero risk.

Do left and right shoes vacuum free fall identically? You don't know. If they empirically do not, both gravitation (Equivalence Principle) and QFT (conservation of angular momentum) are incomplete. Somebody should look.

Progress was once run by thinkers, but now management is in charge - and the job gets smaller every day.

PhilG said...

What a wonderful location for a conference. Rachel and I honeymooned there 13 years ago. We scuba dived off the South coast and came within touching distance of wild dolphins. Look out to sea on a calm day and you may spot some.

FXQi have gathered together an impressive collection of imaginative physicists. I look forward to watching the videos when they put them up.

Christine said...

IMHO the place is interesting, but the subjects -- more and more -- not.

(Even for science fiction).

It's all getting boring, futile and leading nowhere, scientifically speaking. At least, if the subjects were approached from a philosophical point of view perhaps the conference would have more intrinsic meaning.

(At least, that was my motivation for participating in the first FQXi essay contest -- I have given emphasis on philosophy --, but given the subject of the second contest, I happily gave up going on participating... Not science, not philosophy, not science-fiction... so what is it anyway?)

Of course, I was not in that conference, so it's my subjective impression from reading this and the FQXi blog entries. I hope not to sound now like Andrei! :)

On the other hand, one must admit that the issues debated were compatible with FQXi's fuzzy quests, so there is a lot of internal coherence in this conference.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks for sharing your impressions of the conference. You might recall when you earlier listed the ones you would be attending in the coming months I mentioned this looked to be the best of the lot Not just did the list present as impressive and diverse, yet many of them are writers (of one sort or another) as well. This suggested not only a mixture of interesting thoughts, yet also some demonstrated ability to express them.

Best,

Phil

P.S. Did any of the Bohmian's show up? Careful now, I asked about Bohmian's and not Bohemians ;-)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

Interesting that you would be mentioning the philosophical aspect of it all, yet judging from the list of characters this presents to be one of the strongest aspects of this conference. I would however agree too often this aspect is only superficially examined. That is from what each believes, rather then what the implication might be as far as what the evidence shows, contrary to their theories what they would like it to be. This comprised to be one of Einstein’s least heard warnings to physicists as to why they should not leave the philosophizing just to philosophers when he said:

“It has been often said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why, then, should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher to the philosophizing? Such might indeed be the right thing at a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental concepts and fundamental laws which are also well established that waves of doubt cannot reach them; but, it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself become problematic as they are now. At a time like the present, when experience forces us to seek a newer and more solid foundation, the physicist cannot simply surrender to the philosopher the critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations; for, he himself knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches. In looking for a new foundation he must make clear in his own mind just how far such concepts which he uses are justified, and are necessities.”

The most critical point in all this is his reminding that the physicists themselves “ knows best, and feels more surely where the shoe pinches”. Which is they should be the most ware as to what the implications their theories have in the face of reality as revealed by experiment and how far this can be logically and reasonably extended as to be considered truth.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Daniel: Well, Garrett was faster than me with replying, so let me just add I have no clue where you got that impression from.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

As I have said previously, I am wondering how you and Andrei and others manage to conclude with certainty such efforts are futile and lead nowhere. You can find them boring, that's a personal impression and I frankly could care less, for I too do find a lot of things boring other people spend their lifetime on. But the whole purpose of supporting research on the foundations of physics is that it's not clear where it will lead. So how do you know?

Yes, one could say FQXi's quest is fuzzy. I would find it rather disturbing if they would claim to have a three-step program to discover the fundamental nature of reality. I think they are doing a pretty good job to remain open minded. If you have a suggestion for improvement, I am sure they would be interested to hear. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

The first word of my previous comment was

IMHO

"In my humble opinion"

Yes, just my impression. But you are saying

"to conclude with certainty"

No, I'm not conlcuding with certainty.

Another thing: futile is not the effort; futile is the choice of themes, which are not scientific in the sense of the word.

I completely agree with the effort of funding "foundations of physics", this is not my main criticism. I think Phil got the idea better.

"Foundations of physics" is the understanding of space/time and matter/energy, this has nothing to do with, for instance:

* how to create universes;

* speculations on multiverses (meaningless, there is only one universe *by definition*);

* alien civilizations;

* black holes as power sources;

* sex in 1000 years.

So on an so forth.


"Foundations of physics" cannot be approached without a philosophical scrutiny. Specially when the use of scientific method is fragile in the context -- the experimental part.

**IHMO**

I'm sorry if I did not make myself clear enough. I hope you now understand what my point is (although not necessarily agree with it, which is perfectly fine!).

And I hope you're not angry with my comments.

Best wishes,
Christine

PS - And *no*, I do not think like Andrei, although I may agree with a little (5% ?) of what he says, although not on his method of writting.

Plato said...

Nice fiddlehead and good for eating. See more on Fiddlehead here.

Surprised Garrett has not come up with a good image logo for his boards.

Looks like a nice place. Lucky people to access information in this way. I look forward to what is put to catalogue.

Best,

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

"Daniel: Well, Garrett was faster than me with replying, so let me just add I have no clue where you got that impression from."

The complete lack of news about fixing his model or anything else. For example, Garrett hinted with a workshop about his ideas as well Smolin hinted an article of his co authored by Garrett. Both did not happen, and it's been almost 2 years since he uploaded his paper...

Uncle Al said...

The "foundations of physics" are its philosophy and its postulates. Military command adapted to business management applied to science funding is lethal. Efficiency, sychophancy, and war games abhor discovery.

Weak postulates are lethal. Euclid fell to Bolyai/Lobechevsky, Reimann, then Thurston. Newton fell to Maxwell, Einstein, and Planck. Abject failures of SUSY, quantized gravitation, and the Higgs are postulate failure.

Physics assumes extrinsic and emergent properties are not fundamental. Physics assumes vacuum isotropy in the massed sector given overwheming empirical support in the massless sector. Nothing observed is contradicted if both are selectively wrong.

Quantum gravitation theories supplement Einstein-Hilbert action with an odd-parity Chern-Simons term. Perform a parity Eotvos experiment opposing single crystal chemically and macroscopically identical, opposite parity space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 quartz or P3(1) and P3(2) glycine gamma-polymorph (79.6 and 127 atoms/nm^3 respectively). If there is a net non-zero signal, there's your problem. Nothing in physics is a more novel, more insubordinate observation.

Arun said...

After seeing Bee's first picture, with that blue sky, I checked. Strangely, "azure" is derived from a place name, while "Azores" is derived from a bird name.

Christine said...

One more thing to add. I think there is a growing confusion between foundational at one side and speculative at the other.

The scientific method has been disparaged. I see the decline of science (along with the arts).

Bee, please, do elucidate me how most of the themes of that conference are scientific. I really would like to learn about your point of view on this matter. Are really those themes "foundational" scientific questions in your opinion? If so, why? Don't you think there is a deep confusion here?

Also, I would like to learn more about your own talk, if possible.


@Uncle Al:

How much does your experiment cost? You've been talking about this for years and I wonder what is so difficult/expensive or dubious about your experiment so that nobody looked?

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

"The scientific method has been disparaged. I see the decline of science (along with the arts)."

Have you seen Astro and Cond Matter? And do not forget that just a tiny part of the experimental physics preprints are posted on arxiv.org.

Christine said...

@Daniel:

Yes, of course, I've seen them, I even work on both fields -- see my papers here. Yes, of course many advances, specially on new data and new techniques. There is a lot to explore in normal science. But science is much more than that. I would digress too much. I'm tired.

.
.
.

Let me just make my understanding of some terms a little more clear:

"foundational": engaged in knowledge of underlying physical principles through the scientific method;

"speculative": engaged in unproven or unprovable conjectures and/or opinions

Foundational questions are usually a "hard terrain" to cross, because the search for knowledge must adhere to the scientific method, and this is specially difficult when we are dealing with physical building blocks. This is the main reason why some end up into the speculative terrain, which is much easier to cross and, even worse, they end up elevating their speculative terrain into a foundational terrain altogether.

At some point, philosophical considerations serve as a guide, some qualitative methodology -- to a certain level -- in order to address questions such as: what are the metaphysical elements of the problem, what is blurring our analysis on what is scientific and what is not, what are the possible articulations (what are the false problems and what are not) and so on.

And at the end, nature itself. Experiments, observation.

But people want to create universes and draw energy from black holes. I've been into the science fiction world for a long time, have read the best authors of the genre and since I was a child have written tons of SF short stories and even a novel: I am positive that those themes are completely tiresome even for SF.

Uncle Al said...

Sawyer Laboratories growing single crystal x-plate quartz in both space groups to chemical extreme purity, low included water (Grade A), low etch channel dislocation density, and sufficent seed-free thickness is $20-30K and 12-18 months lead. Cutting and shaping the eight test masses is another $10K. Wholly $unremarkable. Running any Eotvos experiment is by the book.

http://www.npl.washington.edu/eotwash/publications/pdf/lowfrontier2.pdf
Signal-impossible Eotvos experiments form a long queue. Epsilon for largest signal allowed by thermodynamics (10^(-12) relative), epsilon for largest possible net active mass concentration (2.4x10^(-3) relative for differential nuclear binding energy), epsilon for violating orthodox physics. Maximim instrument sensitivity is 5x10^(-14) relative. They haven't got a chance with any Eotvos composition experiment. At least 99.97% of quartz total mass is active parity mass (location of its atomic nuclei). That net signal is detectable - and no third epsilon re Chern-Simons.

Two reasons it will never be run: 1) "There is no precedent." No novel experiment may ever be run. 2) They do it as my technicians and get a reproducible 10^(-13) relative net signal. Who goes to Sweden?

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Well, for one I think you get a little weird impression from the conference if the only information you consider is my two blogposts. In the previous post on the "Future of Sex" I explicitly mentioned this was a spin-off in a fun discussion that I thought would make for a nice blog topic. As far as the thing with AI and alien civilizations is concerned, it shouldn't surprise you that most of the people I talked to agreed it was pretty nonsensical. But I think spending an epsilon of conference time on nonsense is okay and makes for a nice atmosphere. If you want to get a better impression, I'd encourage you to look at the websites. I didn't really feel like repeating the schedule or FQXi's mission.

I understand that it is your opinion, as I do assume everything anybody says is their opinion unless otherwise stated or backed up with reference to scientific studies. It is one thing though to have an opinion on what is boring and another thing to conclude because you think it's boring it can't be useful to think about it. You are implicitly assuming that your opinion represents something true about Nature, something that is more relevant than other people's opinion and that is what I am objecting on.

As to the specific topics you dislike. I totally agree with you saying the "multiverse" is a meaningless word. In fact, that was exactly what I said to Laura too. But that is a linguistic problem, so let's put the nomenclature aside for a moment. I think it's a relevant question to ask whether there are parts of our universe (that others might call the "multiverse") that have other laws of nature, or other values of constants, than the one we observe, or realize all other possible initial conditions etc etc. If these are by construction non-observable I'll leave that question to philosophy. There are scenarios though in which their existence gives rise to observable effects in our universe. I think that's a "fundamental" question about the reality we live in.

The thing with the black holes as power sources was more or less a joke. Louis Crane said he couldn't possibly talk about his work if he has less than 2 hours time, so he'd talk about something short and weird. In fact, he said in the beginning of his talk that he applied for an FQXi grant for that research and it was not accepted. (He turned this into a good motivation to do it.) I'm not in the mood to elaborate on the connection to Smolin's Cosmological Natural Selection that Crane talked about since it didn't make sense anyway.

In any case, Christine, if you have suggestions what FQXi can do better, if you think you can do better than they do with selecting topics or people, why don't you let us all know how?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Daniel: What's your point? What makes you think you can set a time-constraint in which other people should be writing their papers? Theoretical physics isn't a field in which projects can be neatly made to fit in 3-year plans, which is one of the reasons I have written an endless amount of posts about how inappropriate typical proposal requirements are for that field. It takes how long it will take, so you'll have to be patient and give Garrett and his collaborators time to finish their thoughts and get them in a presentable format.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

HI Christine,

To be sure the term foundational is tossed around a lot and perhaps has lost some of its meaning in recent years. I would suggest however it is in part due to the very search for a new foundational base, rather than the ignoring the need for one. I like you have reservations about the extension of theories, such as strings and others before their bases secured. Personally I would like to see physics first address what is still unresolved, with the non local nature of the quanta being of the highest priority.

In the main there are two ways to approach this dilemma, one being to consider some underlying holistic structure to be the key, with the other to say it relates to not understanding the true nature of time. When I scan the list of this conference I do see many who are concerned primarily with these unresolved questions for which there needs to be found resolution.

For instance you have Davies, Barbour and Smolin, representing those that take the time issue seriously and have their differing approaches and views. Then there are those like Tegmark and Lisi, with the latter saying holism relates back to the restrictions placed on nature it being a mathematical construct of a specific design and the former saying it being all mathematics, with the construct being what serves to be the illusion.

I would then ask, what should we call such ideas, other than to consider them being the contemplations of those who actually recognize ‘where that shoe pinches’ and thus representing their own attempts to understand why. I think just as those first Solvay conferences, held more than a century ago, their true value rests not so much with what’s being formally presented, yet the conversations they might foster between the attendees outside of them.

The hope being of course, that at least one of them being so exposed and engaged may suddenly come to realize a totally new happy thought, upon which to build and strengthen the foundations. Your only compliant then would be to insist such things are done better in the backdrop of a harsh environment, rather than a comfortable one. Some may insist necessity is the mother of invention, while others think it is done ambivalent to it. I can only say I believe it to be the latter and thus why make things more difficult than they already are?

Best,

Phil

P.S. When are we going to put you plan for a conference in motion, where some of the antagonists within this group struggle with the more general nature of understanding. Perhaps this could be considered to be the very basis of any foundation :-)

Christine said...

Bee wrote:

"You are implicitly assuming that your opinion represents something true about Nature, something that is more relevant than other people's opinion and that is what I am objecting on."

??

No, my opinion is just my opinion, and I think you understand well what an opinion is.

In my previous comments, I have elaborated a little more on why I think most of the themes are not scientific. What is scientific and what is not, what is speculation and what is not, is not an opinion of mine that must represent the truth: it is a set of rules that every scientist is supposed to understand and agree upon.

When I say most of the themes are boring, I mean, besides being speculative, they are boring speculation, but you can disregard the adjective, the main point is the noun.

Yes, of course a conference does not need to be 100% solemn and serious, no problem for people to digress on whatever and relax. Again, this is not my point.

Multiverse- sure, physical laws can change in space and time, at regions or epochs unreachable to us, I have no problem with this possibility, although if you cannot ever measure in principle, it is speculation. Some use the word multiverse also for many "detached", isolated universes, in the sense of being universes by their own with their own physical laws, not one universe with different physical laws. Whatever their semantic use, the result is the same for both words. Is it scientific?

I have no problem with someone working on non-scientific problem. Everyone is free to do whatever one wishes, I don't care. The question that I do care, that bothers me is this: is it correct to elevate these non-scientific problems to scientific ones? (This is pseudo-science according to Carl Sagan).

If one is working with a non-scientific theme then, spell it out, and separate it well. Say it is a rambling and work on it in your spare time. If one is a professional scientist, then so be it.

I am quite aware that FQXi gives financial support to subjects that are too risky to be funded by conventional agencies. But there is a whole abysm between risky scientific research and speculative engagement. This should be sorted out into clear light: this is a question of science ethics.

There are a plethora of unsolved problems in physics, you know them better than I do, some of them are being funded by conventional agencies, yet some are not, specially if one approaches them in an unconventional -- non-mainstream way. (Note here: non-mainstream does not mean speculative). I think these would be good programs for FQXi funding: non-mainstream approaches advanced in a perfectly scientific way.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine, Phil,

About the question what is foundational, how about we have a post about that specifically. As I mentioned above, I meant to write one anyway. Feel free to continue your discussion here, I will try to include your points of view as far as possible.

As to Christine's question if I think the topics discussed at the conference were fundamental, yes, most of them were, and I also think FQXi has collected a very interesting group of people there (I am not a member btw, so this isn't meant as self-praise).

About my own talk, it's a (very brief) summary of this paper.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Sorry, but I just don't see what your criticism is addressed at. Could you be clearer on which FQXi-supported research project is "non-scientific" and why?

I already said above that I agree with you on the multiverse issue.

I also agree that speculative isn't the same as foundational, but a lot of foundational research is speculative, so one should expect a correlation between both. Best,

B.

Bee said...

PS: ??

No, my opinion is just my opinion, and I think you understand well what an opinion is.


Sure. I was just pointing out, that the opinion you put forward

It's all getting boring, futile and leading nowhere, scientifically speaking.

means you think your assessment on what is boring overlaps with what is useless and will lead nowhere. I don't mean that personally, and I think we've found many times that our interests have a large overlap, but I don't think the opinion of any one person is a good criterion to decide what will lead somewhere and what won't.

What I am trying to say, in brief, is not that you are not entitled to your opinion, but that you are making quite a leap from your opinion on what is boring to your opinion on what is useless, and I can't quite follow how you are making that leap.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

Ok, the point was my use of "boring" and "futile" and concluding that it is "useless". Right! :)

Believe it or not, but that was not how my mind operated in order to reach my conclusions on this question. It's a long road of years. What I wrote was a completely secondary, emotional reaction that perhaps I should have kept to myself before hitting the sent button.

Yet, you have another more useful option: you can get back to my other previous comments in this section and re-read statements based on more formal criteria. These have more weight and usefulness, I believe.

Best,
Christine

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Thanks for the clarification. I would be interested to learn how you came to that conclusion, for it is certainly a question that is on my mind too. So if you find the time at some point, please let us know. Best,

B.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Not bad, Christine, for my 5 % in your realisation! :) If it's like that when you're active, I don't even need to engage my other 95 %! :)

You're right, of course, it's neither science (dealing with concrete parts of observed reality), nor philosophy (dealing with much larger parts of and the entire observed reality), all that “advanced” PI-FQXi and similar activities, which unfortunately dominate not only on this conference but everywhere in official science establishment and are exclusively supported by public and private funds. This now dominating tendency is known as “post-modern science” and has one distinctive feature you correctly mention as “futility”: it is when empty talk, mere words (from certain self-chosen “sages”) and nothing more, no physical meaning or real problem solution (= “useless”!), acquire absolute importance excluding anything else. One could say also “speculation”, but this can also make part of creative science and philosophy, designating the “border of the unknown”. By contrast, in that now officially dominating (and officially great) post-modern science, there should be nothing except arbitrary (inconsistent) plays of words and abstract symbols that constitute themselves the uniquely accepted subject of study. Everything like physical reality we live in, its consistent understanding and related problem solution is excluded from this post-modern agenda.

Indeed, everything one can find on this conference web site and all its content discussion in dedicated professional blogs by participants, belongs to this kind of “amusement” (with a characteristically dominating proportion of real and quite physical prepaid amusement! :) ). It's not surprising because the same is true for other official “results” presented everywhere: they may occasionally operate with physical notions to clarify and problems to solve, but without any progress with it for decades and without real intention of progress (= “useless”!): they talk only about their personally preferred, always futile word/symbol plays and they vote themselves for the “best quality” of such “results”. [A characteristic feature of post-modern pseudo-science is that play in “deep questions” supposed to remain without answers: one can find it in the “Questions” link of the conference web site and actually in so many other materials from FQXi, PI and other sites. Indeed, imagine now that somebody comes and does provide consistent answers, with unified problem solution, etc. What then all these officially “top” scientists and millionaire sages, tackling those questions without the slightest consistent answer, will do? They will accept the provided consistent answers, of course, or show that they have more consistent ones, what else?]

Bee (to Christine): “You are implicitly assuming that your opinion represents something true about Nature, something that is more relevant than other people's opinion and that is what I am objecting on.” That's it, that kind of “science” by “relevant” voting! Indeed, who are you, Christine, to have any “relevant” opinion about Nature? There are “other people” for that, and it is their opinion, my poor friend, which is exclusively relevant, underlies multi-billion investments in futile studies, etc. But if you want, you can address those people and tell them that their studies are futile, and they will listen to your convincing arguments and propositions of other studies and quite probably will change completely their attitudes and practices. Why didn't you let them know? Or maybe you did, many times, like many others? Unfortunately, your ideas were not selected as relevant by their committees. But you're always welcome to try, again and again... Life is not that long, after all...

Christine said...

@Andrei:

Concerning "speculative": you are right that one cannot purify science at the frontier of knowledge from some dose of speculation, but there is a limit to that, and speculation is at most a means (usually, weak -- Nature does not care about our fertile minds), not an end on itself, for any hard scientific problem that succumbs to mentioning it.

The message is, I think: a speculation is always a speculation anyway, and this is all; a scientific activity cannot be based on it. And if it does (viz., if the scientific method cannot be applied even in principle to ascertain the validity of the speculation, but you use it anyway as a principle and work up from it), then please cast your activity as non-scientific and stop deceiving yourself and others...

For the rest, please, take it easy: Bee and I are beginning to reach a common denominator...

Christine said...

Bee wrote:

"I would be interested to learn how you came to that conclusion"

But, Bee, from the criteria of what is scientific and what is not! This is what renders something scientifically useless or not.

What renders something boring or futile is a personal opinion, all right. One could think that something non-scientific is either fascinating or boring, futile or not, but anyway, the criteria for being scientific or not is what matters.

Since I have mentioned that "most" of the themes, not all of them, are non-scientific, perhaps it would be an interesting excercise to make a list of them and evaluate the question. I could be wrong, and if I am, I admit my error publically. I could not see the list of talks and abstracts from their site:

http://www.fqxi.org/conference/schedule

So I am relying on the information on your blog concerning the themes presented.

Christine said...

Ok, the link appears to be this one:

http://www.fqxi.org/conference/questions

Christine said...

Perhaps it would be better to wait for this one:

http://www.fqxi.org/conference/talks

So the question perhaps is -- did you mention in your post some of the talks that were: more interesting, more speculative, more representative, or what?

The link that I mentioned in my previous comment is about the themes of the Iceland conference in 2007. I'd say it is a mixture of foundational, philosophical and non-scientific themes...

Christine said...

Bee wrote:

"which FQXi-supported research project is "non-scientific" and why? "

One a second thought, I do not think it would be a good idea or even productive to be openly criticizing specific projects. I want to believe each of them have a good notion of what they are doing... because all that one just needs is the understanding of what is scientific and what is not to locate oneself on the matter...

My criticism is general: disentangle what is a risky, non-mainstream scientific project from pure speculative, non-verifiable conjectures, pseudo-science, or science-fiction themes.

Sorry for the burst of sequencial comments.

Giotis said...

Christine, it depends of course on the speculation.
If the speculation relies on a well defined reasoning supported by a consistent theoretical and mathematical structure then it is
science even if it is not based on observation or other data. So it's pretty easy to disentagle them. This is just common sense and I can't understand why you make things so complicate.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Christine: “For the rest, please, take it easy: Bee and I are beginning to reach a common denominator...”

No problem, provided that the common denominator is me. :) I know that it's all but one big joke to be taken extremely easy, all that “science”, and you're just the second one after me missing the salt. But for the case where there's a yet greater joke disproving this one (e.g. monkey world in a deep impasse, absent progress, this world still being real - who could believe it!, etc.), I hope that some things are even too obvious.

First, “very important” and “fundamental” problems stated with the great pomp for many decades not only remain scandalously unsolved (reduced to supernatural “mysteries” postulated within “objective” knowledge “opposed” to religion, etc.), but as this top-level “foundational” activity clearly demonstrates, become the less and less solvable in principle, giving place to obviously futile word plays taking close to 100 % of practically available resources, etc. In other words, it's the situation of critically deepening impasse: we're practically losing her, our dear objective science!

Second, the desired, provably consistent (and fully “scientific”, not “speculative”!) problem solution does exist, at least in one working, multiply confirmed version (directly extending, for fundamental physics, previous “high” efforts and attitude of genuine founding fathers, such as Louis de Broglie, Planck and Schrödinger, and coinciding with older and recent experimental results that disprove official “models”), but is rejected without consideration by “relevant” (and self-interested!) voting priests.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Third, with this my or any other attempt, the key task and critical choice for today are clear: either one finds such an intrinsically unified solution to various accumulated problems, now (at least in fundamental physics!), or one will be left with a chaotically falling establishment of objective science as such. Already now, as you can clearly see, we deal with the dominating extreme “relativism” in this establishment, based on totally subjective “relevant voting” and multiple coexisting “models”, all being simultaneously right and wrong, post-modern play of futile speculation and no criteria of truth (“but what is truth?”, etc. - they don't know, professional scientists, and tell you nobody can know, ever!).

Just look at the overwhelming technical power of exponentially progressing technology and no - hey, wake up, people of the world! - NO progress in fundamental science (in consistent understanding of huge volumes of data), despite generally huge investments and luxurious working conditions in the “best” places of science (but are they really, after that?).

Specifically, for the simplest, “physical” levels of being, that official, officially great and overfed fundamental science cannot even provide any sensible answer to such an elementary question as what is the world?, that common, reproducible physical reality we live in and variously touch all the time! When they imply something like “well... it may be 26-dimensional abstract space with mysteriously hidden dimensions and missing other entities” or maybe not, because it may also be equally abstract and equally arbitrarily postulated “spin network”, kind of mathematical graph (that explains nothing consistently, even in theory!), including your eternal soul and my mindless cry, or it can be anything else, any equally abstract, inconsistent, simplified and mystified artificial (unobservable) construction - this surely cannot be an answer to that major, unavoidable question, even in principle. So we have an extremely advanced science within extremely (really!) technically developed, super-powerful, world-changing civilisation that cannot say consistently even what the hell is the world we live in, what it is made of, why and how exactly it works, in a basically complete, unified version! And there are also infinitely more complicated and extremely urgent problems in genetics/medicine, brain science, AI, ecology, economy, the whole apocalyptic, chaotically convulsing and increasingly lost world bordello...

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

And finally, for those who still continue to think that there are only “isolated opinions” of few “crackpot” opponents to the great and prosperous official science establishment, just have a look at this Growing mass of evidence coming from a huge number of experienced, mainly experimental science professionals and try to answer the posed question “Why the silence?”. You can find numerous other materials and references, well known for years, at the same site or in our book. And then appreciate this striking contrast: it all so clearly, very professionally, undoubtedly demonstrates today's “scientific-revolution” situation at least in cosmology (but actually elsewhere too as it has been rather easy to see, for years), while the entire luxuriously supported, world-resource-concentrating activity in the same fundamental science does not even mention, let alone tackle, that critical, revolutionary situation opening so many new frontiers for extraordinary science development otherwise critically stagnating! Now it's for me to say “take it easy” because anyone with at least a minimum interest in science at such a critical moment never would! Other, equally strong, even overripe possibilities for a unified and efficient science progress are known but also need truly new approach and well-defined support.

Conclusion: take it easy, Christine, but please find us a millionaire, “our”, the right one, interested in objective science development, rather than in support of premeditated, self-interested killing of objective knowledge and intelligence in the corrupt official establishment. “Millionaire” here is a genuine, creative, problem-solving research possibility, possibly but not necessarily on a luxury resort, because everything - EVERYTHING - people and ideas is ready to initiate a well-specified, important and rapid (rather than indefinitely “future”) progress in objective science development today and thus reload the whole process of intelligence-based human progress, which otherwise will inevitably perish and already catastrophically perishes, for now objectively, scientifically specified reason. Discussions are welcome but explicitly creative, real-problem-solving ones, while discussion of personal post-modern, subjectively “foundational” word plays is to be avoided as it's precisely what kills science today, unfortunately with the leading role of certain particularly “advanced” and “innovative” scientific institutes and activities consuming best world's resources. Explicit, consistent, unified solution to real problems should be the main criterion for support of science as such (apart from dissemination, further practical application, etc.). And there should be practical responsibility for failure and especially obvious deception, in science too.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Giotis: “If the speculation relies on a well defined reasoning supported by a consistent theoretical and mathematical structure then it is science even if it is not based on observation or other data. So it's pretty easy to disentagle them. This is just common sense and I can't understand why you make things so complicate.”

Yes, my happy friend, everything should be so basically easy in this life, with honest attitudes, respective objectively efficient actions and the resulting optimal progress. If this is not really the case, it means that the initial assumption is wrong: one may even suspect that not everybody is totally honest and attached exclusively to objective truth. The criterion of truth is basically obvious, you're right, to Christine, to me and to you, as far as I can see, but if you have read previous discussions and follow the news, you could note that we're not the dominating species on this planet. Bad luck! Those who take more “flexible” position just happen to determine practically everything in today's research practice. In practical-life activities, it's massive estimates accessible to everybody that help to separate “good” and “bad”, but as science results are practically, immediately accessible to exclusively “human” estimates within the same, extremely narrow professional community that produces those results, the criterion of elementary (and reasonable!) honesty becomes uniquely important... One should be interested only in objective science progress, basically irrespective of one's personal role...

I used to propose another, more objectively acting organisation of science, here and elsewhere, but it's evident that transition to that system would also need increased honesty and exclusive motivation by objective science development purposes...

So “common” sense you evoke is not the dominating sense on this planet, which means that in practice it's not that “common”: it seems to be broken instead into a variety of “private senses”, even in science. Stupid, of course, but it is “experimentally falsifiable” hypothesis and entity, common sense. And the poor thing suffers from permanent falsification by hard reality...

Christine said...

Here we go again.

Giotis wrote:

"Christine, it depends of course on the speculation.
If the speculation relies on a well defined reasoning supported by a consistent theoretical and mathematical structure then it is
science even if it is not based on observation or other data. So it's pretty easy to disentagle them. This is just common sense and I can't understand why you make things so complicate."

I wrote:

"speculative: engaged in unproven or unprovable conjectures and/or opinions"

I also wrote:

"(...)one cannot purify science at the frontier of knowledge from some dose of speculation, but there is a limit to that, and speculation is at most a means (usually, weak -- Nature does not care about our fertile minds), not an end on itself, for any hard scientific problem that succumbs to mentioning it."

My italics.

Do you think it is ethical to consider the following classes equivalent:

A) science at the frontier -- non-mainstream approaches/insights -- but otherwise following the scientific method

B) intrinsically unprovable conjectures, purely speculative conceptions, pseudo-scientific themes

Or is it my complicated mind that is making things horribly confusing?

Theory is dangerous, dangerous thing. Some people run too fast to call one's speculation (unprovable conjectures) the comfortable euphemism named "theory". It is not that simple.

This is why one must adhere to the scientific method-- even if you are working on a theory you must provide a means to test it in principle.

Things may be changing, all right.

Well, I'll be watching the comments that follow. I do not think there is much I can add to the discussion.

Giotis said...

Christine,

It may happen that the phenomena you are trying to describe with your theory do not have any detectable effects with today's experimental tools. If this is the case you can only rely on the theoretical and mathematical consistency of your theory.

Let me give an example of what I mean. The quantized relativistic spin-2 field as a theory of quantum gravity was not abonded because experimentally we couldn't detect a graviton but because the theory was not normalizable i.e. purely for theoretical reasons.

As for your question. No I don't think that A and B are equivalent and that's why I gave you a criterion you keep ignoring for some reason. I repeat it again. If it impossible to test a theory due to the nature of the phenomena is trying to describe then the theory should be judged by the experts for its theoretical and mathematical consistency.

Anonymous said...

I actually think there are real answers to some of the "fundamental" questions in physics. Unfortunately, unless the answers come from an officially sanctioned representative of the physics community they are loudly ignored.

The more true those answers appear the more loudly the gatekeepers invoke speculative ideas that inherently have no answers, by definition. It is the only way to react to the group who actually have a clue about physics at the fundamental level. Convince everyone that we really can't know the answers so that everyone will ignore the answers right in front of their faces.

Christine said...

"It may happen that the phenomena you are trying to describe with your theory do not have any detectable effects with today's experimental tools. "--Giotis.

No problem with that, if you read carefully what I wrote:

"This is why one must adhere to the scientific method-- even if you are working on a theory you must provide a means to test it in principle."-- Christine

But then you wrote:

" If it impossible to test a theory due to the nature of the phenomena is trying to describe then the theory should be judged by the experts for its theoretical and mathematical consistency."

This is different from the situation above. First you provide a theory and a means to test it. OK. But then there is no way to test it due to technological restrictions. So you have an untested theory, or a hypothesis. We end here. Do not elevate your hypothesis anywhere else, because then we will fall into speculation.

OTOH, a theory can be mathematically consistent and be wrong. So that is not a criteria.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

I think we are still partly talking past each other, but first an apology. Stefan pointed out that the FQXi website indeed does not have the schedule with the talks. I mistakenly assumed the schedule on the website is the same as the one I was sent, and thus didn't see any use in repeating it. I don't know why that is. (Since I don't see any good reason why the schedule is a secret, I've uploaded it here.)

The talks that I mentioned in my post where picked by the criterion that I could recall the names of the speakers, which doesn't say anything about the quality of content.

"I would be interested to learn how you came to that conclusion"

But, Bee, from the criteria of what is scientific and what is not! This is what renders something scientifically useless or not.


You must be aware that you aren't explaining anything by pushing around adjectives. What of that FQXi is supporting and/or was discussed at the conference do you think is "non-scientific" and why have you come to the conclusion that it does not lead anywhere, after the "long road of years" of thinking about it?

perhaps it would be an interesting excercise to make a list of them and evaluate the question ... One a second thought, I do not think it would be a good idea or even productive to be openly criticizing specific projects

Well, that is exactly what you have done and that in a very general and entirely unconstructive manner. You have judged on a conference you didn't attend, talks you didn't hear, people and projects you don't know. You have told us that in your humble opinion, you find them "boring," "futile," "leading nowhere" and "non-scientific," despite the fact that FQXi's applicants go through a peer review process and are certainly not picked to do non-scientific and futile stuff. That means you must believe you know better than the selection committee. I have been asking you, leaving aside your idea of what is boring or not, what lets you believe your judgement is superior to theirs?

My criticism is general: disentangle what is a risky, non-mainstream scientific project from pure speculative, non-verifiable conjectures, pseudo-science, or science-fiction themes.

Sure. I would be surprised if FQXi specifically selected topics because they were thought to be pseudo-science. I am afraid you will have to be more concrete on that matter. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

"I have been asking you, leaving aside your idea of what is boring or not, what lets you believe your judgement is superior to theirs?"

Sorry to intervene to your discussion but Bee you are well aware that this question can't be answered and moreover it's not fair. What you are expecting Christine to answer? That my judgment is superior because I'm more qualified or more clever? Sorry to say but unintentionally maybe you put her on the spot with such a question.

Christine of course has the right to ask criticism to any committee or authority she wants to. We can't and we shouldn't blindly agree with any decision or judgment of any kind of authority or committee. The issue is that we should have convincing arguments to support our criticism. In that respect my objection is that Christine doesn't present any convincing arguments but she judges an entire conference based on the titles of a few talks and on certain prejudices she has.

Christine said...

Well, Sabine, given all that I have written in this comment section, the best way I could, and still at this point you ask:

"I have been asking you, leaving aside your idea of what is boring or not, what lets you believe your judgement is superior to theirs? "

despite all my previous comments explaining my point of view, all I can conclude is that what you want to hear from me is an acknowledgement that I am an inferior human being, with an inferior capacity for judgement, having evaluated people/FQXi or whoever without any objective basis. What else is expected from your last comment? It's all very disturbing, to realize all that I have written explicitly was not understood or neglected.

(You want me to be concrete, I was, see my comment dated 7:46 AM, July 13, 2009, there is a list of non-scientific themes there.)

So this was all uncontstructive, right? Well, all I can say is to apologize you and the readers for the intrusion.

And if that was all unconstructive, you have the right to delete all my comments and related ones if you like, and leave your space clear. That would do a good service for the community, and easy through the great virtual life out there.

Best,
Christine

Arun said...

There has always been the problem of how a scientific explanation preserves the appearances. E.g., when Copernicus talked about the earth moving around the sun, he also needed to explain why it appears the other way.

But the problem has become really acute in recent times. I think it all arose out of the success of the idea of the broken/hidden symmetry that the Standard Model uses. So now we can have Super-Symmetry, all kinds of other particles, N additional dimensions, multiverses, you name it, and increasingly ingenious ways about why we don't see them. These are the "fix-ups" in this quote below, purportedly from Feynman:

I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say, “Well, it might be true.” For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s all possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight out of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experience. So the fact that it might disagree with experience is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.

Unfortunately, mathematical consistency and experts cannot solve this problem. At some point there has to be a positive contact with nature. Otherwise the whole thing is not very different from postulating the Biblical God and coming up with all the reasons why this God is absent from all the experiments we can do and observations that we can make.

We cannot infer that theoretical concepts are valid because we have successfully made them invisible in their effects; but that seems to be a dominant theoretical trend.

Anonymous said...

Arun: "Unfortunately, mathematical consistency and experts cannot solve this problem."

Arun, if you are interested in this question (why six dimensions remain wrapped) read the 1989 Brandenberger Vafa paper.

Tim said...

These kinds of trips used to be called "junkets."

It was common for conferences and seminars to be held in exotic locales, often in Hawaii, sometimes in the Bahamas, Bermuda, etc.

When I entered the corporate world, Intel Corp., in 1974, the IRS and other tax people were already "cracking down" on these "junkets." (In fact, I never got to go on any junkets. Even though my papers got some big awards, they were usually "close to home," with Las Vegas, San Diego, and Austin being typical places. Oh, Philadelphia and NYC, too._

(I certainly don't support these tax rules, just noting that they dominated my corporate experience, 1974-86.)

If the academic physics community can still send people to the Azores, to Fiji, to Hawaii, to Greece, to Kerala, more power to them.

Though there is much to be said for doing it on the cheap in a motel in Phoenix with a 2 liter per night per person budget for cheap vodka, "Russian-style."

(Something I think I saw John Baez describing.)

Fact is, if your conference location is heavy on side trips to volcanoes, marlin fishing, swimming with dolphins, its' probably an untaxed fringe benefit.


--Tim May

Bee said...

Hi Giotis,

Sorry to intervene to your discussion but Bee you are well aware that this question can't be answered and moreover it's not fair. What you are expecting Christine to answer? That my judgment is superior because I'm more qualified or more clever? Sorry to say but unintentionally maybe you put her on the spot with such a question.

No, I have completely intentionally put her on the spot with that question. She comes here, complains about the topics FQXi supports, makes dismissive remarks about the conference, but when asked offers only vague reasons like she finds some things "pseudo-scientific" or "leading nowhere." When I inquire what that judgement is based on, I hear it's a "road of long years." Ah-hum. Exactly why do you think it's "not fair" to ask Christine why she thinks we should listen to what she says? Because she won't be able to answer? Sorry, I'm not polite enough for that.

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

despite all my previous comments explaining my point of view, all I can conclude is that what you want to hear from me is an acknowledgement that I am an inferior human being, with an inferior capacity for judgement, having evaluated people/FQXi or whoever without any objective basis. What else is expected from your last comment? It's all very disturbing, to realize all that I have written explicitly was not understood or neglected.

(You want me to be concrete, I was, see my comment dated 7:46 AM, July 13, 2009, there is a list of non-scientific themes there.)


Which I addressed in my above comment dated 6:23 AM, July 14, 2009.

I of course do not want you to acknowledge you are "an inferior human being," please spare me the drama. What I have been telling you, and I think you got the point, is that the topics FQXi supports have not been chosen in a random process. While it is certainly possible that some of them don't make very much sense, and most of them eventually won't lead anywhere - that being the nature of the business - it is always easier to criticize somebody than doing it better.

While it happens constantly that this blog attracts content-free criticism (that I usually just ignore) this exchange has bothered me for three reasons.

For one, because these comments came from somebody I had gotten to know as being very considerate, intelligent, and offering insightful contributions. Thus, I have been wondering why you have been so dismissive.

Second, because I think FQXi is doing, certainly not a perfect, but a pretty good job in supporting non-mainstream work in theoretical physics. Where plenty of people have complained about the "risk-averseness" of present research, the FQXi people have actually done more than babbling. They have invested a lot of time and effort into creating a community and working towards their goals. They might not do everything right, but they are trying to do the right thing. (In fact, they've been asking us during the conference repeatedly for suggestions for improvement.)

Third, when I wonder why somebody is interested in what they are working on I usually assume I might be missing something that explains why it is relevant. I tend to start with the assumption nobody has an interest in working on irrelevant or pseudo-scientific stuff and if I don't get it, it is my fault. As a consequence, I am then puzzled how people come to conclusions based on very little information about the topic or the person.

I hope this explains my point of view. I would still be interested if you'd explain at some point what topics you think are not very promising ie follow up on the above exchange.

Best,

B.

Doug said...

I think some of the things being objected to are due to a particular attitude Max pointed out at the beginning of the conference. It especially effected what the blog posts are like. "We take our scientific research seriously, but we do not take ourselves seriously." I think this is an altogether healthy attitude.

Bee said...

Hi Doug,

I think it was actually Anthony who said that (reception first evening). In any case, I guess it wasn't quite clear to me how prevalent still the expectation is that scientists have to be serious 24/7. Oh yeah, you're allowed to make jokes, but please don't have fun with your job. And if you do, don't tell anybody. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

It sounds like a really fascinating conference. I just think it's a shame we just get the same few groups of names appearing over again (Tegmark, Davies, ...). It's a shame there aren't more people working in this area. I guess there's no money in it, no prospect of useful application. Frankly, I don't care if it's "scientific" or "unscientific" - people considering the most fundamental questions of existence will always be fascinating. Very un-boring.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee & Christine,

For what it's worth a word from your friendly neighbourhood layperson in regards to the foundations of physics is to remind it is the most dangerous of all lines of research. The risks are many, first resultant of being unlike other aspects of science where one normally succeeds by following a trail well blazed, rather in this case there is usually not even a direction let alone a path to follow. The next of course is if one does have some success, it can be years before it is ever acknowledged as being such. Yet the most frightening aspect of it all for many is chances are one will spent an entire lifetime to have never succeeded at all.

So the pursuit of the foundations are neither for the faint of heart or the conventional scientist, yet rather the domain of those few bright, brave and committed ones for whom the quest is more important than success. This was summed up for me quite clearly in reading a letter Einstein wrote to his lifelong friend Max Born. It should be reminded that although they were indeed true friends, never the less they staunchly opposed one another as to what constituted to be foundational physics and the direction required to improve the situation. In this letter Einstein remarked:

““We have become Antipodean in our scientific expectations. You believe in the God that plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I firmly believe, but I hope that someone will discover, a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find. Even the great initial success of quantum theory does not make me believe in the fundamental dice-game, although I am well aware that our younger colleagues interpret this as a consequence of senility. No doubt the day will come when we will see whose instinctive attitude was the correct one.”

Here it’s to be found that at such junctures in science Einstein suggests that in the beginning often all one has amounts to being not much more then wild speculation and the instincts born of a serious and committed scientist. He also concedes despite one’s commitment and seeming logic of it all, there can be only one arbitrator in the end and that being nature itself as to what the reality is. However, to begin one must speculate about nature and trust your instincts and never consider the reward being its discovery yet rather its pursuit. This he also summed up when discussing the subject of foundations in 1940 in saying:

“It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving: and also every man may draw from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession. “

However, the most compelling thing I find in all this, is despite his difference of opinion with many on this issue, he kept the channels open as to see all sides of the argument and although remaining certain and compassionate never had it cut off his ability to appreciate his friends and colleagues. Oh yes, and although he was on this quest from before 1916 to his death in 1954 and admitted to have failed, never once expressed regret in having tried.

Best,

Phil

Arun said...

Anonymous,
As Motl put it : There is a huge number of small problems and subtleties about this proposal {Brandenberger-Vafa} , but it is undoubtedly attractive to imagine that a cosmological mechanism explains things such as the dimensionality of the Universe.

Secondly, using the same arguments 3-branes and 7-branes also should be large? (at least, so I gather from Motl's page).

So we don't know if that is the answer.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Doug: “"We take our scientific research seriously, but we do not take ourselves seriously." I think this is an altogether healthy attitude.”

Exactly, Doug! That would be a very healthy attitude indeed. Unfortunately, what they are actually doing, in all their actions and practices (including but not only in this PI-FQXi “organisation”), is right the opposite, concentrating exclusively on scientists (and namely, exclusively themselves, those few who decide everything for “our science”!), rather than on science, its objective results appearing always in the form of existing problem solutions (again problems about real world origin, structure and dynamics, not artificially created problems of this or that abstract “model” having nothing to do with real world operation!). This dominating subjective rather than objective attitude (scientists rather than science) is very clearly seen in all “selections” made, but also very explicitly stated in Bee's repeated strong reference to the undeniable authority of their “peer review”, “selection committee”, etc. You know, guys that “successfully select” ... themselves, always the same, with the help of very objective peer review process, I mean, you don't need to invent jokes with that kind of exemplary “objectivity”!

Did you ever ask you, Doug, by which strange coincidence it so happens that people profiting from FQXi multi-million yearly investment (almost directly from God represented by the very religious John Templeton Foundation), including this “junket” conference (thank you, the Almighty, and hello, Tim!), overlap so closely with Perimeter Institute adherents and various affiliates, why it is always the same company of “top” and “promising” researchers, without any sensible result (real problem solution)? Is it “taking scientific research seriously” or taking their personal, unmerited profits seriously? And because it means also that other, including problem-solving, results are systematically and unconditionally rejected from these rather special resources and development possibilities, has it ever occurred to you that such “support” of science is practically directed against, rather than in favour of science, especially taking into account its “luxurious” quantities and “elitist” flavour? Oh, my God, what is their real God then?!

And then, Doug, even a very poor, third-world conference, with bad living conditions, dangerous food, and payment for everything from one's personal resources, usually succeeds today in clear publication on its web site of all scientific details, the only ones that matter if one “takes science seriously”, including extended and well-specified explanation of the conference idea and motivations, titles and abstracts of contributions, links to authors' personal pages and often even paper versions (all that before the conference, of course!). Now, this luxurious and super-advanced conference “taking science seriously” provides only two arbitrary paragraphs of zero content of this “science-oriented” style: “This meeting will be a unique gathering of the FQXi membership and other select invitees, a group comprised of top researchers who tackle big questions in fields including cosmology, astrophysics, gravity, quantum gravity, quantum theory, and high-energy physics.” Even scientific programme (talk titles, let alone abstracts and author links) is absent, being replaced by a “Draft Agenda” describing in detail uncountable amusements, but no science at all! And “Questions” link describes apparently “ideas of interest” specified at a previous gathering, but as it appears now with arbitrary relation to actual selection of talks.

So, Doug, buddy, for Christ's sake, is it about science or about self-chosen participants of never-ending prepaid picnic boldly calling themselves “top researchers who tackle big questions” (without real progress, one should add, for decades)?!

Andrew Thomas said...

So you weren't invited, then, Andrei?

Christine said...

No, I have completely intentionally put her on the spot with that question. She comes here, complains about the topics FQXi supports, makes dismissive remarks about the conference, but when asked offers only vague reasons like she finds some things "pseudo-scientific" or "leading nowhere." When I inquire what that judgement is based on, I hear it's a "road of long years." Ah-hum. Exactly why do you think it's "not fair" to ask Christine why she thinks we should listen to what she says? Because she won't be able to answer? Sorry, I'm not polite enough for that.

No problem with that.

Sabine writes that “most of them [the projects] eventually won’t lead anywhere – that being the nature of the business”.

The problem is not that some projects lead nowhere, but that any non-scientific project leads nowhere by construction. (If one’s work is based on an unproven hypothesis which is elevated to a principle of truth, from which all subsequent work is based, then it is highly probable that it will indeed lead nowhere. Or the conclusions will be most probably false.)

Sabine also insists that I point to specific projects that I consider non-scientific.

As I already emphasized, my comments were based on the themes that she highlighted on her post, not on the program, which was not made avaliable on the FQXi site at the time of the postings.

In any case, I leave the excercise to the reader to apply the scientific method to any specific work and find out the answer by him/herself.

Sabine also writes: "please spare me the drama". No I am not being dramatic, I am just emphasizing the nature of her question and what answer to expect from it, since she asks: "what lets you believe your judgement is superior to theirs?".

Sabine also points out that my criticisms are content-free. I do not agree.

In any case, I believe it is all relatively settled now. I think Sabine has all the right to contest my points of view. I, on the other hand, keep my position on every single word that I wrote; anyone is entitled not to agree with them and it is fine to me.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Bee: “Where plenty of people have complained about the "risk-averseness" of present research, the FQXi people have actually done more than babbling. They have invested a lot of time and effort into creating a community and working towards their goals.”

So this is a really valuable result in science, “creating a community and working towards their goals”. However, babbling children do the same and cockroaches do the same and everything else does the same. That's why they are great, FQXi PIple, such absolutely universal guys. And very, very fundamental ... parasites (oh, sorry, it's just spontaneous emergence of truth, a process completely unpredictable in detail).

“They might not do everything right, but they are trying to do the right thing.”

...And are carefully selected and paid for trying then (because there is no other result). No but they are really advanced, our best scientists: they are the first with this “unconventional” idea, I tell you that I'm trying to do the right thing, without any result, for years, and you please pay me, as much as I tell you, for having tried to do the right thing. Indeed, who knows, if they are not paid, they may be trying to do the wrong thing... Better to pay them. And simultaneously one obtains the actually used criterion of truth in official science: it's when people think that they are trying to do the right thing, without progress (or at least they tell others that they think it, it's enough). It is a very efficient criterion because it is always only these people themselves that can exclusively decide whether they are trying to do the right thing (others are obviously incompetent). So the criterion will be satisfied, par excellence. And it's very important not to have real progress because otherwise so many trying efforts will become explicitly senseless. Therefore no need for any problem solution, let alone relation to real world structure and dynamics, those difficult, contradictory and disappointing things. Just a community of good friends trying to do the right thing, according to them. Clear, beautiful and unlimited in time (unless the world collapses under the weight of this exponentially growing beauty).

“In fact, they've been asking us during the conference repeatedly for suggestions for improvement.”

So what did you propose? Nothing like “real problem solutions” or “fair competition” I hope? That would be so impolite, considering the divine gift of paradise amusements generously prepaid by the almighty Templeton Foundation, only within this conference... No need to dispute between science and religion, after that. The winner is evident: $ the Almighty.

“I tend to start with the assumption nobody has an interest in working on irrelevant or pseudo-scientific stuff and if I don't get it, it is my fault.”

Oh, really, you cannot even imagine that, after many years in theoretical physics, today? Then probably it's not your fault indeed...

“As a consequence, I am then puzzled how people come to conclusions based on very little information about the topic or the person.”

You mean even in our connected time, with all information on topics and persons being redundantly presented and easily accessible everywhere and actually multiply repeated, for the same topics and persons? What can I say then, “you don't get it, and it's your fault”. Because us others, we got it, quite clearly, and it's not our fault, it's theirs.

Uncle Al said...

Theory predicts what observation tells it to predict. Theory's failures ban experiment. Super-Kamiokande? Recalculate proton half-life. Axion telescope? Yukawa potential unlimited alpha-lambda studies. String theory and 10^(50,000) acceptable vacua? The multiverse! Dark matter? Euchre scalable JI Collar for small mass ultracryogenic farces. Higgs? No Higgs. Theory is a Creed of Nicaea.

45 years of $trillion/year social charity - voluntary and mandated - to the Officially Sad remade the world into a beshitted sty. So the grant funding process and managed research. FQXi is private money. Its pleasures hurt nobody.

Chemistry won't find a little man behind the curtain. EPA, the War on Drugs, and Homeland Severity quashed basement and garage amateur labs. You need a license to think. None are issued to agents of Goldstein.

Giotis said...

"Exactly why do you think it's "not fair" to ask Christine why she thinks we should listen to what she says?"

My point is that anyone has the right to criticize and challenge the judgment of any authority (academic, political, economical or other) as long as he presents valid, reasonable arguments to support his criticism. If he does that, then we should listen to what he has to say regardless of his individual status or authoritative position.

So the issue is not whether Christine's judgment is superior or inferior to the judgment of the FQXi committee but that she didn't backup her criticism adequately with reasonable arguments. As you said she based her criticism on vague reasons, adopting a priori a dismissive, negative attitude based on certain prejudices she has and without even knowing the true content of the conference.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Andrew Thomas: “So you weren't invited, then, Andrei?”

It goes without saying, Andrew, once I state that I do propose explicit - and which is much worse unified and allegedly realistic and consistent! - problem solution. The real, unreduced problem solution, Andrew! While their whole conference and “community” and activity and “top researchers” (according to those researchers themselves) and their advanced institutes (according to their adherents) are dealing only and exclusively with some very general ideas about how one should better “tackle a problem” (always one, purely abstract problem, absolutely separated from the rest!) and where one might look for a solution that nobody will ever find, of course, but still how it might be dreamed of, only very generally and theoretically (without any relation to real world, of course), etc. It's all hard principles of their exceptionally well supported work, Andrew, which a lady with a staircase to heaven calls “futile”. And if in addition the real solution was there all the time and can be explicitly demonstrated, do you imagine that really big bang, Andrew?

So it appears then, that there are two very different kinds of activity deceptively mixed under the same name of “science”. One of them takes science seriously and then looks for explicit problem solutions, directly, you know, straightforwardly: “problem formulated (about real world) - problem solved”, next problem, next solution, and without solution, there is no progress of knowledge and no science.

And another one takes scientists seriously, after which it's certainly not problem solution that is the purpose, but rather the progress of scientists themselves, their self-organised “community” (as they call it), for which problem solutions can rather be detrimental, with their inevitable competition and especially changes they bring in so “well-established”, comfortable scientific programmes and related academic positions and ambitions, all their never-ending “re-search”, with prepaid parties and picnics on paradise islands passing for separately compensated hard job... Can you imagine those millionaire sages acknowledging these “extraordinary” efforts under their “unconventional” but wise leadership have been “futile” and they were actually “searching” for nothing nowhere?

That's why those two kinds of science should not be mixed, but should instead be separated and developed separately. Unfortunately not only these two attitudes are mixed, but it's only the second one that gets real support, public and private, including very specially “advanced” institutes, underground activities and unconventional divine initiatives of always the same, official science doctrine. And it is easy to guess the result: no problem solutions for decades in fundamental science, on the background of accumulating experimental contradictions and exponential progress in empirical technology that finally tends to become destructive, without the guiding role of problem-solving, explanatory, creative science. So the balance between the two kinds of science, creative and parasitic ones, is severely violated (in favour of the latter, unfortunately), and therefore the whole enterprise of human knowledge and thus civilisation progress is in serious danger.

So, Andrew, if you don't quickly find us the right millionaire to support that science-oriented, problem-solving kind of knowledge development, we may lose it all (millionaires and their business including). I think we can start on Seychelles or Bahamas or maybe at least on Balearic Islands, :) in order to provide a due response to scientist-oriented science and restore the lost balance of knowledge progress.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Giotis: “So the issue is not whether Christine's judgment is superior or inferior to the judgment of the FQXi committee but that she didn't backup her criticism adequately with reasonable arguments. As you said she based her criticism on vague reasons, adopting a priori a dismissive, negative attitude based on certain prejudices she has and without even knowing the true content of the conference.”

I agree with your support of unconditional liberty of criticism of any authority, or “liberal values” (contrary to Bee's reverence for dominating authority, also dominating in establishment science), but I don't agree with your objection to the content of Christine's criticism. I perfectly understand her special point from the beginning and have specified its maybe slightly extended version in other terms as “post-modern science”. The main point is that it doesn't even attempt at any real problem solution, from the beginning, after which there is no sense to discuss details of vain speculations (whether verbal or symbolic). We all know those logical or mathematical “sophisms”, where one can “derive” everything by arbitrary play with logic and words. This is very similar to it. And any available presentation of the conference content (its change in real time is interesting in itself) only supports that conclusion: no existing problem solutions, but many empty, and sometimes openly “futile”, discourse about “possible solutions” or the reason of their absence or arbitrary “related issues”, which ... accepts everything, could be right or wrong or simply meaningless, you'll never know and it changes nothing for scientific, objective knowledge progress. Unfortunately, it has much to do with real situation in today's fundamental science in general.

A remedy for it exists: it is as much as possible over-all, unified consistency of a holistic solution (we know that various discussed entities and aspects are closely related anyway). It will immediately “close” so many “would-be” solutions and abstract “possibilities” as either contradictory or incomplete. But that's precisely why the “community” of lovers of never-ending re-re-re-...-search avoids it by all possible means, using precisely and exclusively those “authoritarian” methods which you so correctly denounce. Science enters in critical contradiction with scientists, their dominating breed and practice. See my above comment for supporting references to other concrete, including experimental, evidence.

Christine said...

As you said she based her criticism on vague reasons, adopting a priori a dismissive, negative attitude based on certain prejudices she has and without even knowing the true content of the conference.

Ha! This reminds me the game when you whisper a message in a kids' ear and they pass the message they understood to each other in a row of kids, and at the end the message comes out distorted from the original one.

The bad part is when people consider the last word the truth.

I went back to every message of this post, and all I can conclude is that people do not read comments carefully, have their own interpretation and jump to conclusions beyond my wildest dreams.

So here let me emphasize again:

My comments were an attempt at a criticism on the topics based on those that Sabine have mentioned her your post, which I had assumed to be representative of the conference.

Concerning prejudice: none. Absolutely none. I repreatedly mentioned that anyone may work on whatever they like, my point was:

I consider that professional scientists working on non-scientific issues and considering them as scientific is very non-ehtical and a dis-service to the public.

And yes, that is applied to the themes mentioned by Sabine on her post, and yes, I do not need to watch a conference to ascertain whether a given topic is or is not scientific.

As a scientist, I am qualified, YES, to state which themes are non-scientific given the simple rule that they cannot be (even in principle) experimentally verified.

Is this a problem?

NO.

The problem is to deceive: if you are a professional scientist working on purely speculative ideas, which are:

unproven or unprovable set of conjectures,

and receiving a grant for that, then

make it clear to you, to your colleagues and the public the nature of your work, science is science, pseudo-science is pseudo-science.

I never, ever, did make any hand-waven accusations towards FQXi or the conference, but yes,

questioned the nature of several of the themes exclusively presented by Sabine, based on a list of her post.

I will not repeat myself again, this very tiresome, and it is incredible how difficult is to maintain a reasonable exchange over a blog.

Giotis said...

Christine, you are basically saying that physicists should not explore, construct theories or even speculate about the nature of things, outside the experimental boundaries. But you are a *theoretical* physicist for crying out loud, not a toaster designer. I could understand your point if you were an engineer like me but you are not.

Moreover who knows if today's untested conjecture becomes tomorrow's verifiable possibility?
Who knows if this conjecture triggers research in other fields and produce concrete results?
In other words who knows what might come out of research?

Scientists should explore all possibilities and follow their "speculations". That's their job; particularly in theoretical physics due to its very nature and its role to explore the boundaries of the cosmos and the fundamental substance of all things.

Plato said...

Andrew Thomas:Frankly, I don't care if it's "scientific" or "unscientific" - people considering the most fundamental questions of existence will always be fascinating. Very un-boring.

In Truth seeking then there is something that needs to be said about "the journey as a basis of experience" toward how one may interpret the Fabric of Reality?

So a scientist by trade is better qualified? If such a step forward rests within consciousness itself, then how better prepared is the scientist without this consideration?

Oh sure Uncle Al, you think you must discard the geometrical propensity of evolution in terms of Euclid and successions, leading too, then what use to ever consider "projective geometry" as leading toward something, then, away from it? :)

Best,

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Still, all in all, despite the particularly “hot” discussion and multiple confusions in this exchange (but it is still limited to “virtual” dimensions!), I think that basically such interaction is positive and actually close to the best part of today's activity around science. Exchange here is open and diverse and finally efficient taking into account its “Babylonian” world scale. I think that existing negative notes and impressions come eventually not from blog itself or its interaction but from deficient science organisation and its really critical development point in that real, hard-copy outside reality. But this is something presently “given” and external to the blog, hopefully changeable and in any case not to be confused with this possibility of interaction as such.

It would also be nice to understand that we may really be quite close, if not already within, the next and rather unique scientific revolution (coinciding with a much greater transition in human societies beyond science!), though unfortunately yet at its “decadent-previous-state” side (with no guarantee of anything better being really possible!), which simply changes the scale of things and relevant level of the hierarchy of values and attitudes. Of course, it is a subject for discussion itself, but there are catastrophically accumulating “unsolvable” problems and these various “contradictions” we discuss here, and so if this is true, then it would certainly provide a new meaning to (all) our discussions here, where emerging change and progress, general and individual, would be more important than detailed (dis)agreements and subjectively exaggerated opinions.

Where the hell is the agency able to clearly support the real, unreduced scientific revolution, in its full power (with huge technological and social/development changes), rather than only supposed “unconventional research” of selected “fundamental” issues or any other “particular” features?! This is what would make things really much more interesting, for everybody!

Bee said...

Hi Giotis, Christine,

I would suggest we put aside the who-said-what-and-meant-what (since this comment section is a good record for everybody who is really interested) and focus on the central questions that being:

- what is scientific and what isn't

- what are topics that are worth pursuing and aren't

- what is useful for progress and what isn't (progress meaning increasing our understanding of nature, not necessarily applications)

From the above discussion I think these might not overlap for all of us. We even have Andrew saying he cares more for the entertainment value than for scientific content, though I think most of us care more for understanding Nature. My comment addressed at Christine was supposed to point towards the fact that I doubt the goal of FQXi is to support useless pseudo-science, thus the actual question is how to decide what is and isn't.

To offer my own opinion, even though I work on phenomenology I think the requirement to stick closely to what is experimentally testable reduces possible avenues for progress. Thus, while I think the final goal should be to have a theory that is testable, I think theoretical physics needs room to explore areas that might deviate from that ideal temporarily. The big question is of course how much deviation from immediate experimental testability is too much. I have no good answer to that. I doubt it is a question we can settle, and I don't even think it is desirable to settle it. Instead I think it is one of the topics that should be subject to constant debate (so, on a meta-level, I think it's quite healthy we are talking about it and disagree).

Best,

B.

Christine said...

@Giotis:

Your conclusions are incorrect. Do, please, read my previous comments, it would be unwise to repeat them and I am sure that Sabine is also tired of this circular discussion.

You must know how your theory is to be verified (in principle, if that is the case), if you do not know, you have an hypothesis: untested or untestable, whichever the case.

I am not restraining people from not looking for alternatives, explore ideas, and so on, I am just criticizing that people are not using the terms correctly, and this can be deceiving and damaging.

A scientific conference must deal with scientific content. Grants for scientific research must be given for scientific research. In the astrophysics community, a work can be criticized much more severely for much, much less (regarding speculative content) than I have seen in the themes that Sabine mentioned in this post.

I am the first person you can imagine to have an open mind concerning any research program. There must be a means to elucidate the nature of a given research project. Fundamental? Speculative? Philosophical? At the frontier of any of the former(s)? Then work according to the nature of the work at hand.

So ok, several professional scientists have their theories that cannot be tested, will never be tested, are impossible to be tested, but who cares and who knows? Let us speculate further on the theory, it's so fun!

Not for me, this is deceiving, this is against what science is!

Here is what I wrote to Sabine (also at my blog post):

"Theory must provide a means to experimental verification (in principle, at least), if not, you have an unproven hypothesis. Some people at the frontier of physics are not taking care of this very important concept and elevate their unproven hypotheses to principles of truth, from which they base all their subsequent work. We cannot rely on our subjective judgements to consider some theory acceptable or not: this is why the scientific method exists as a pillar for science."

Best,
Christine

Christine said...

Sorry, my comment crossed with Sabine's.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the comment from the friendly neighbourhood layperson :-) There is a tension in all these pursuits of knowledge that I believe many scientists must have felt. On the one hand you have to be convinced you are on the right track to unravel some fundamental truth about Nature, on the other hand you have to caution yourself constantly that you are very likely fooling yourself. I think it is for this reason why it's so important to be part of a healthy community: to have people who save you from fooling yourself. Best,

B.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Giotis: “Scientists should explore all possibilities and follow their "speculations". That's their job; particularly in theoretical physics due to its very nature and its role to explore the boundaries of the cosmos and the fundamental substance of all things.”

There is an essential mistake/problem here, related to the essence of this discussion and maybe to modern science “crisis” as a whole. The problem is that one has not only exponentially large but what I call “exponentially huge” number (where exponent is already a large number) of “all possibilities” and “speculations” to “follow”. But we have only limited, or slowly growing, number of practical possibilities to study all those “practically infinite” theoretical possibilities. So there is no way to have any non-zero efficiency in science if we consider these theoretical possibilities in a sequential way, however accelerated. One can only succeed by applying a “hierarchical” selection, by whole “levels” of possibilities (as our brain always does in its “empirical” activity), but that just implies clearly specified “criteria” of this “exponentially more selective” choice. Without specifying details, it means that one cannot avoid some complex “intelligence engineering”, in fundamental science development too. It's rather not the case today and one just “considers” those “possibilities” one by one (just as you assume it should be), chaotically and according to subjective preferences of subjectively chosen (and unfortunately rather unconditionally fixed) “leaders” of research system. The result is the current “end of science”, the factual absence of progress on the background of huge efforts applied and growing unsolved problems faced, even apart from any estimates of its detailed structure. This provides a well-specified sense to the above discussion.

Arun said...

For the specific area of particle physics, I think that if what you're working on is speculative, as far as the physics goes, but is ground-breaking even if in only some small way mathematically, then it may continue to be legitimate to work on. Toy models with exact solutions or that lead to new analytic or numerical computation methods are legitimate, and so on.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Christine: “So ok, several professional scientists have their theories that cannot be tested, will never be tested, are impossible to be tested, but who cares and who knows? Let us speculate further on the theory, it's so fun!”

Well, one must acknowledge honestly, taking into account all available experience, that it is largely like that in today's fundamental physics (maybe much less in other branches), “science for fun” dominating beyond any limit (even though we are always talking about “intellectual” fun). One may regret it, but it's like that, and there is a respective history and tradition to this phenomenon. And as we have seen, here and elsewhere, today (not before) it even jumps to public interested in science and becomes there a sincere and “fashionable” conviction that science should be and is particularly “great” in that version of “intellectual fun”, accessible to everybody. And as today everything is unfortunately reduced to cheating financial support of over-producing industrial society (in any “non-profit” and now even profitable activity!), whether “objectively justified” or not, professional scientists tend to actively support this public tendency, which has the corresponding “back reaction” of its further progress in professional science, etc. The inevitable “attractor” of this tendency is the already emerging effectively dilettantish level of professional science, though superficially more accessible indeed to educated general public. But it's also related to particularly esoteric, very special and inaccessible character of traditional theory, which also cannot continue in that form truly understood often just by few persons in the whole world (so, for example, if such a “leading” guy occasionally disappears in an accident, a whole field of science development may practically stop, forever!).

As to the tradition of “pseudo-scientific speculation for fun”, it used to be quite nice when we had 95 % of very dynamic “truly scientific” development and 5 % of “intellectual fun”. But then that major, professional development tendency decelerated and now practically stopped (in official science!), for its own reasons (all particle species and forces discovered experimentally, while the next step is “revolutionary big” and therefore difficult, etc.), and so the previous “marginal” fun has taken close to 100 % now, as there can be no empty space! So it's but another, inevitable manifestation of the current crisis in science and related scientific revolution I announced before. Hence the cure: to the barricades, comrades! Plagues of the “old world” will disappear only together with the old world and the new, progressive kind of science and way of development will be naturally free of these old-age problems.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Bee: “I doubt the goal of FQXi is to support useless pseudo-science...”

Without knowing the origin of your “selbstverständlich” and therefore strong doubt, I would note the fact that FQXi is supported exclusively by the John Templeton Foundation, which is a very rich charitable foundation of strongly believing, almost “militant” Christians but also with strong financial/business origin. If you have any idea of the scope of “scientific” activities they support, you would accept it as a fact that supporting useless pseudo-science in physics would be the least of their sins and one of the most rigorous studies they ever supported. :) These guys pay for scientific studies of ... “attitudes” (can't even choose the word!) like “forgiveness”, etc. Maybe they are close to modern, “advanced” and “comprehensive” theology version. So for them practically everything is possible, in science (it's also somehow part of that American brave-business attitude: money can buy everything if properly directed). And if you still have any doubts, you should know the essence: God has already forgiven all Christian believers (the worst criminals including), provided one accepts, at a crucial moment, the domination of the Saviour (convenient, ah?). So if you implied that “useless pseudo-science” can be close to impossible sin, then it's time for you to repent and return to the true (and most convenient) way. I am not completely serious, of course, but they probably are! This is the advantage of a true believer (especially a billionaire!): everything is possible and nothing is excluded! Compare with your miserable scientific limitations :) ...

Now, you may say that scientific leaders of this initiative would never accept “useless pseudo-science”. Well, they are receiving not giving money in this affair, in addition to already quite “nice” profits in their main, “serious” professional activity, while there is that objectively dominating “science-for-fun” tendency from my previous comment. Do you see the situation? There is also related ultimate subjectivity in selected research preferences everywhere today. So, it's just a minor remark, but it's better to understand that today everything is possible indeed, from any point of view. General forgiveness, so to say. Maybe just before general fall (by the way predicted and known as apocalypse). Conclusion: today one can only rely upon iron-hard common sense (though occasionally also missing, too often :) ) and not on any “probable” or “obvious” assumption.

Christine said...

Arun wrote:

"(...) but is ground-breaking even if in only some small way mathematically, then it may continue to be legitimate to work on."

Nice "plan B". No problem to adhere one's research to the field of mathematics if it has been shown to be unsustainable in physics, it's honest afterall.

"Toy models with exact solutions or that lead to new analytic or numerical computation methods are legitimate, and so on."

No problem with that.

Uncle Al said...

Science 325(5937) 161 (2009)

Big Pharma's last managed battle was high throughput combinatorial chemistry. Noisome brains were swapped for docile technicians. The last blockbuster drugs are falling out of patent, techs are bewildered. "Quack, damn you." Jamie Hyneman, Mythbusters

The nuclear waste storage standard was 10,000 years. An expensively hot debate was symbology to convey the warning 10,000 years hence. The new storage standard (EPA, September 2008) is 1,000,000 years.

Let's all quit before we're fired.

Andrew Thomas said...

In this dicussion of what is "scientific" and what is not scientific, I wonder if you have read David Deutsch's "Fabric of Reality" in which he considers the scientific process in detail and comes to the conclusion that science has progressed by finding succesively superior explanations of the structure of reality. It's good stuff ...

Deutsch describes how Newton's theory of gravitation provided formulas to describe motion under gravity, so we could plug the numbers into the formula and get out the result. But Newton's theory was superceded by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity not just because the General Theory gave slightly more accurate results (i.e., you could still plug the numbers into the formulae and get the right results) but because the General Theory provided an explanation in terms of the underlying curvature of space and time. As Deutsch says, the most valuable attribute of a theory "is that it explains the fabric of reality itself".

So Deutsch sees science as a sequence of finding successively superior explanations, each one providing better explanation of the structure of reality. And it seems to me that this is what FQXi is trying to do - trying to find better, simpler, more powerful explanations of reality (with ideas such as Tegmark's multiverses). And Deutsch plays down the role of experimental testing in this respect:

"Experimental testing is by no means the only process involved in the growth of scientific knowledge. The overwhelming majority of theories are rejected because they contain bad explanations, not because they fail experimental tests. We reject them without ever bothering to test them. For example, consider the theory that eating a kilogram of grass is a cure for the common cold. That theory makes experimentally testable predictions: if people tried the grass cure and found it ineffective, the theory would be proved false. But it has never been tested and probably never will be, because it contains no explanation - either of how the cure would work, or of anything else. We rightly presume it to be false."

So science isn't just about performing experiments - it's about thinking, and talking, and conjectured explanations, and being criticised (as FQXi is here being criticised) and winning the argument. So I reckon the FQXi approach is almost the very definition of how to achieve scientific progress - by proposing new explanations for the structure of reality. And having those proposals criticised by people like you!

Christine said...

So science isn't just about performing experiments - it's about thinking, and talking, and conjectured explanations(...)

Science is the understanding of nature by the use of the scientific method.

Performing experiments *is* the final word. Evidently, one can disregard a theory already at the level of mathematical or logical inconsistency. I have never claimed otherwise.

Again and for the last time:

My problem is with “theories” that even in principle cannot be verified whatsoever, and still are considered “scientific”, and not something else (”philosophical”, or some other term — and treated accordingly).

Concerning "new explanations for the structure of reality". One may propose that it is God. How will you verifiy this "new explanation for the structure of reality" ? This is a very old explanation, many accept it as true -- is it scientific or not?

I am not against ideas, free thinking and wondering about the nature of the universe, but professional scientists must be ethical in their activities towards that aim.

Phil Warnell said...

If this post has served to demonstrate anything for me, is to better distinguish the difference between the usefulness at times in being an antagonist and the worthlessness in serving primarily as a tormentor. That is to say, that although Christine and Bee found themselves in opposition, through holding some differing views, it did serve to aid both themselves and others to better clarify and define the issue at hand. In contrast, in my view, there was nothing gained in the inflicting of torment, which some such as Andrei feels to be so necessary in the pursuit of truth. This once again has me mindful when asked about the character of the reality of nature, Einstein remarked:

"The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not"

So I would ask, if one finds nature itself has no utility in being malicious, why should it be considered to be a useful component of our own nature?

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Christine: "Evidently, one can disregard a theory already at the level of mathematical or logical inconsistency."

No, I'm not saying that we are disregarding theories on the basis of inconsistencies - the theory I mentioned of eating grass as a means of curing the common cold is in no way inconsistent. It would be disregarded because it contained no underlying explanation of why the cure worked. And so it would be disregarded as a bad theory.

And this is true of how we select our best physical theories: we select our theories that provide the best explanation of the underlying reality. It would be very simple to produce a formula that gave the correct results to an experiment - just a very complex numerical formula that fits experiments and churns out the right numbers. That would not be rejected by your rule that a theory has to pass experimental tests. In fact, I could dream up any number of crazy theories that would pass experimental testing. But, the scientific community would reject the underlying explanations as unconvincing.

Now, the problem is with something like a multiverse theory that cannot be eliminated by experimental testing (but still, it agrees with all the experiments we can perform). Do we still accept it because the underlying explanation is convincing? Surely science should not be bound to reject a convincing explanation on the basis that it cannot be experimentally tested (even though it fits all experiments), when science is willing to accept any number of crazy theories because they pass experimental tests. No, that's not right. That's not how we decide if a theory is correct.

I think Deutsch is right: science progresses on the basis of superior explanations being proposed, which agree with experimental results.

Christine said...

@Andrew:

I wonder what is it in my writtings that makes people think that I have some very limited understanding of the subject at hand.

I have repeated several times,

USE OF THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Please, read , e.g, here what it is all about:

- Article on the scientific method (Wikipedia).

If what you propose is something different form above, no problem, but what I am talking about, since the begining, is the use of the scientific method: one *must* use it even at the frontier, otherwise we are talking about something different altogether, and I am not really interested about talking on alternative ways of doing science, which for me is only a way to redefine the word "science" in order to fit into one's particular desires.

[Carl Sagan rolling inside his tomb]

I'm sorry, but I'm not willing to continue along such arguments. It's not that I am absolutely right and you are wrong, I hope you understand.

Christine said...

Excuse the rudeness of my last comment.

Here is an excerpt of what I have posted to Sabine over my blog, perhaps it is a helpful supplementary note:

"Well, maybe there is a problem here concerning how various sub-disciplines in physics work and operate. (...) But after a moment’s thought I do admit that this may well not be a consensus in other sub-disciplines. One may wonder how connected is indeed physics, how heterogeneously it operates amongst its sub-disciplines, it’s quite possible that the philosophies change as well as the concept of what is scientific or not. Given that possibility, I understand being myself more conservative, having an astrophysics background, so maybe it’s possible I’m entering in a foreign terrain after all, in which my view is considered narrow."

Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Christine, no problem! We're all friends here!

However, you have been making some fairly strong accusations that the work of FQXi is "unscientific" (pretty harsh), and I do not believe it is correct. In fact, I do not believe FQXi is remotely unscientific. It contains many excellent scientists whose work I respect. And if you're going to make such accusations, you have to be prepared to defend your stance in more depth!! You didn't consider my specific points, and posting a link to Wikipedia won't let you get away so easily!

Like I said, that David Deutsch book (very good) considers the scientific approach, and specifically considering the widespread mistaken belief that science progresses through inductivism. It refers "to what was, for most of the history of science, the prevailing theory of how science works". But Deutsch says that the inductivist approach (generalising from the results of experiments) is simply not how science has progressed, and is not an accurate picture of the scientific process. I'm stating this because Deutsch's proposed (more accurate) model of how science progresses seems a perfect match for FQXi.

What actually happens in reality is that scientists propose explanations which fit the observed facts, and the most elegant explanations (which are not falsified by experiment) get accepted by the scientific community. That is actually how science progresses, not through inductivism.
Experiments can be devised to remove some of the competing theories. And there's the scientific method in practice.

However, experiment cannot prove that a theory of reality is the correct one (it is always possible to think up a crazy theory which would pass those same experimental tests), and experiment cannot prove that all incorrect theories are false (by vice versa logic). All experiment can do is eliminate a certain amount of competing theories.

So experiment ON IT'S OWN can never be used to select correct theories. Let's just be clear about that.

Fortunately, this sole reliance on experiment to decide correct theories is not how science progresses: the scientific community reaches a consensus on which theory is most compelling and elegant and best explains underlying reality (though there will always be room for disagreement), given that the theory passes experimental tests.

Now, it seems that the work of FQXi is perfectly valid within this definition of how science progresses. They are proposing explanations of reality which pass all experimental tests (in much the same way that the various interpretations of quantum mechanics agree with all experimental results - would you consider those "unscientific"?).

The only part of FQXi which could possibly be considered "unscientific" are those parts which could never be falsified by experiment (such as multiverse theories). But I would presume these type of theories are only a very small part of FQXi's output. The rest seems perfectly scientific, and quite fascinating.

Plato said...

Bee:From the above discussion I think these might not overlap for all of us. We even have Andrew saying he cares more for the entertainment value than for scientific content, though I think most of us care more for understanding Nature.

So then, we see where a synopsis of "the current commentary event" has one redirect their attention "to the detail" in order to progress...while to me your confusing objectivity and truth seeking with elements of useless pseudo-science?:) And then, you give credit to a lay person for their reasoning?:) Sorry, I just had to add some humour here.

What's this world coming too:)

I mean sure we can use "Fabric of reality" so as to surmise according to David Deutsch's as Andrew points out, or by Novikov, or, by Brian Greene himself to demonstrate such progressions.

Like Uncle Al's discarding of the "geometrical propensities to evolution of "foundational"( some arguments about perspective and who holds what) or, Fabric of reality to such acceptance discarding seen by myself as also taking place, for a better view of?

IN my view "this discarding of" is part and parcel of "the whole in continuance needed" as progression of objectivity and should not be seen as "successive steps" but "all one step," or how could such a synopsis be built to encompass not just one life, but moved forward as a whole journey contained in the excursion of information and lives contingent on the result of, "by opinion of" to pursue perspective in the future??

So an adoption then of where we are at, and where we are going, when direction to me is focused "out there" in topological discourse as having some understanding of inherent details of that same fabric of reality. So encompassed then, with the very fabric of reality adopted and consumed by a whole portion of society of scientists who can be now labelled as "not truth seekers" but wasters of time?

Oh, so this can't be real? :)

Best,

(PS... on a side note, I wonder if Google's new operating system will be based on the "word verification" process?)

Plato said...

"The years of searching in the dark for a truth that one feels but cannot express, the intense desire and the alternations of confidence and misgiving until one breaks through to clarity and understanding, are known only to those who have themselves experienced them"Einstein

So young many here that I wonder if any might have felt this way about their "own understanding" of how things could exist for them, to have been "moved by introduction of," what was special to Einstein, now becomes ordinary to you. That altered perspective has now changed the "frame of reference" with which we had previously learnt to deal with?

To me now, this is an ordinary experience progressed by knowing where something ends and where experimentally and theoretical preposition ensues toward how ordinary and simple a concept this applies to gaining "one more bit" of truth?

You might be unconvinced of the inductive/deductive course with which you have engaged the reality sets the limits "for your own self" as to where such progressions will be made. This is a limitation you yourself have sought to disembark from, toward a suggestion of an "optimal future" in regard to where you have left off.

Best,

Giotis said...

Christine,

You repeat the same things over and over again and you ignore or you misinterpret other people's arguments.

This is not the right way to engage into a conversation.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Christine, while being an adherent to your attitude of “reasonable” science (let me call it like that), I want to ask you a question from within your attitude (as you state it). Apart from those “deviations” from elementary reason you denounce (let's ignore them for a moment), do you consider that the kind of science you like is in a good state today in itself or whether it would need instead a new, essential, more-than-usual progress, specifically now, much more than before? Because the underlying “justification” of “deviations” is that they are attempts of such needed progress in science. If we reject them, do we still consider that a much greater progress is needed and if yes, how can it be practically, efficiently initiated, in a “proper” version?

My own answer is always “yes” (or even yes, we can! :) ) to all questions. Of course, we need a much greater, qualitative progress in science (in that “rigorous” or “reasonable” science you prefer), but such progress would necessarily imply essential novelty of content (with the same, rigorous criteria of truth and quality) and this one is essentially, fundamentally (and increasingly!) restricted by the official establishment structure and operation mode, irrespective of novelty details. So lovers of “deviations” (without rigorous criteria and quality) are the first (as usual!) to try something different and provide “recycling” (cute expression by Jacques Distler on your blog) to Templeton's and other private millions.

The real problem is then to find a new possibility of development also for “reasonable” science of our preference, most probably with the help of other private or partially private initiative (where I'm afraid the one of Perimeter Institute is now totally infected with “deviation” kind of solution: false, imitative “novelty” by simple word play and/or departure from elementary logic and universally reasonable criteria of truth - it's essentially the same FQXi company). As I roughly put it: look for “our” millionaire. While criticising this pseudo-scientific picnic on Azores without content and any promised progress, the question remains whether one can organise a qualitatively different, efficient initiative of genuine progress of “reasonable”, high-quality science, with its own, but this time explicitly creative, problem-solving picnics and projects. And for the moment the answer is no I'm afraid, and that is the real problem: we can only criticise their “bad deviations”, while remaining severely constrained within the same, objectively too limited system of frustrated and split establishment science.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

By contrast, Christine, I don't think there is a sense to try to maintain the canonical unique science system by “fighting” with undesirable “deviations” and maintaining the dominating hard core of “good standards” (one could understand your critics as that kind of intention). It's already too late even practically for it because various deviations from high standards dominate and grow. And second, one cannot and shouldn't artificially force anybody once preferred personal attitudes are well established and stated (we have here a good illustration for it). If a guy strongly believes (like Andrew here) that Tegmark's “mathematical multiverse” or Deutsch's “quantum computer” trickery is a good, explanatory and consistent science, what is the sense to force him into understanding that it's worse than a sectarian, blind and unprovable religion full of empty speculations? These guys just like it for that, in the absence of previously dominating kinds of traditional “magic”! Let them have their pleasure, what else and why should we do? Perverts, of course, by if they intrinsically like doing sex (or “science”) that way, :) there's no sense to try to influence them, let alone “forbid”, suppress, etc.

It means simply that what was until now a relatively well-defined single enterprise of that rigorous and testable, “reasonable” science, is objectively and inevitably splitting now into various competing and interacting branches, not without a major influence of the general crisis of the “end of science”, but also because science has become big, too big to remain that classical, rigidly unified enterprise. It will inevitably evolve towards something resembling free-market economical diversity, with various basically independent enterprises and tendencies that can well coexist and generally constructively interact (though not without occasional problems), but whose success and quality standards will have an “emergent”, interactive origin and “guarantee” (with very active participation of general public, etc.). It's a big, but objectively inevitable modern change in the interests of everybody, and one should try to realise it in the best way, instead of trying to “save” the corrupt establishment that cannot be saved and restricts science development in the worst possible way. We deal already with “transitional” difficulties and could do better by acknowledging and facilitating this positive transition in the optimal way (by creating new, free-development opportunities, especially for explicitly promising, productive ways of science progress).

I don't think it can be promising to replace genuine novelty by a banal lowering of logic and reason (similar to PIple from FQXi), but also by artificial unification of preferred ways of development under one “best” initiative. A reasonable and actually great diversity is inevitable and wouldn't be bad, if we don't lose its key elements and a reasonable balance between well-paid but empty promises and problem-solving science initiatives, especially at these first stages of new development. After which it's largely the interactive development process itself that will “decide” what is more or less interesting and promising as “true” science.

Arun said...

Andrew Thomas:

The grass example is a case of why I think the philosophy of science is often quite useless.

It is trivially true that we don't look at a lot of ideas that can be put together at random (e.g., the vast majority of the theories of the form 'eating A cures B' or more generally, action A causes effect B, where A and B are picked at random) because they don't even pass the explanation test.

But these are not the theories that scientists deal with anyway.

Humans eating grass is a made-up phenomenon. It is a weakness of philosophers that they consider all grammatically well-formed sentences to potentially have the same value, and they struggle to find filters, algorithms that will isolate the interesting statements.

On the other hand, "why do cats eat grass?" is based on an observable phenomenon and is a legitimate scientific question. Scientists have no problem in figuring out interesting statements - Nature is the benchmark.

Since a priori knowledge of Nature is not possible, philosophers cannot possiby find interesting statements by pure thought. That is why they fall into the silliness of the grass example. There is already the beginnings of empirical knowledge about Nature in not spending time with silly hypotheses.

-Arun

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Arun, yes, the "grass eating curing the common cold" theory was presented by David Deutsch as a example of a theory which could be instantly rejected without needing an experiment. The vast majority of theories fall into that category.

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Ned said...

> the only purpose of this meeting is to annoy everybody who isn't here.

You can tell Max Tegmark that the mission was successful. Of course what I do is probably not fundamental: I only observe the actual Universe.

John Baez said...

Tim May writes:



Though there is much to be said for doing it on the cheap in a motel in Phoenix with a 2 liter per night per person budget for cheap vodka, "Russian-style."

(Something I think I saw John Baez describing.)



I don't remember describing such a conference. 2 liters of vodka might be enough to cause some memory loss, but I really don't think I've been to such a conference.

Still, I think the FQXi should try their next annual conference in this style. It might be more productive.

(I keep getting invited to these conferences, keep being too busy, and keep getting really jealous when I hear about the wonderful scenery and cool people. With my luck, the first time I'll be able to come it'll be in a cheap motel in Phoenix, in August.)

Slightly more seriously:

I've long thought it would be good to have some conferences where you take a small number of people who are passionately interested in the same problem - some problem on which progress can be made - and isolate them for a few weeks or a month, in a reasonably nice location, but where there isn't much to do. No lectures, no schedule. Just sit around and work on the problem, with some breaks for meals and hikes. (Physical exertion seems to help certain thought processes - when you get stuck, take a walk.)

This would not be very expensive, and I think you could really accomplish a lot this way. But for some reason I think it would be hard to get money for this.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi John,

“Though there is much to be said for doing it on the cheap in a motel in Phoenix with a 2 liter per night per person budget for cheap vodka, "Russian-style."

This recollection of Tim’s seems closely related to another old saying being:

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, then a frontal lobotomy”

Perhaps this is what he confused you with having said at one time:-)

Best,

Phil