Friday, January 29, 2010

Division by Zero

It started when I was an undergraduate. In his email he explained he had found a theory for the indeterminism in quantum mechanics. I spent 2 weeks trying to explain that dividing both sides of an equation by zero does not create a non-deterministic measurement outcome, but simply nonsense. He insisted I misunderstand his idea and accused me of being narrow-minded.

This was 15 years ago when the internet was young. Since then, I've received hundreds of emails from self-declared geniuses who urgently want me to read their attached paper or visit their website. Some are trying to politely convince (with your qualifications... I would be honored...), some are outright offensive (intellectual elitism!), some are asking for pity (I have nobody to talk to.) Most of them write emails, some write letters, others send their self-printed books. I guess everybody with a PhD in physics has received one or the other such "theory." Baez' crackpot index tells this tale. Writing a blog makes you a preferred target. And during the last week, my inbox has seen a sharp increase in unsolicited mailings which I totally blame on winning a 2nd price in the FQXi essay contest.

I realize that some fraction of this blog's readership very likely consists of people who have themselves written such emails and who are hoping that I recognize their ingenuity. Not despite but exactly because of this I want to offer you some open words. I will not read your paper. I will not visit your website. And, no, I am not interested in your "theory." That's for several reasons. First, I generally will not open any attachments or click on links in emails from people I don't know, period. Second, I have no lack on interesting things to read and don't need your inspiration either. If I add your paper to the pile, I might get around to reading it sometime in the next century, so forget about it. Third, it is entirely obvious from your email that you have never read any of my papers, and have no clue who I am or what I am working on. Why should I waste a single second of my day reading what you wrote?

Let me be clear on this. I totally acknowledge the possibility that your theory is indeed groundbreaking and will fundamentally change our understanding of Nature. Not having read what you wrote, I am not judging your work whatsoever. But I am crucially aware my time on this planet is finite and I select the information that I pipe into my brain carefully. And yes, this means I use the most common crap-filters, peer review and personal connections. It is not impossible your work is groundbreaking. But it's unlikely. More likely, it's just a waste of my time. You can call that ignorant if you like, but it's effective. Tell me a better filter and I'll use it. You can go and complain about the arrogance of PhD holders. But I hope you realize that you and your spiritual brothers (if you have sisters, they are rare) have to blame yourself for this protective wall. If you wouldn't constantly bother us with immature ideas, we'd maybe take you more seriously.

The point is you have to know the rules before you break them. That's true in politics, in the arts, and it's also true in the sciences. No, you don't need a PhD to contribute to research in theoretical physics. But whether you have a title or not, you need the equivalent knowledge. You're not getting there by reading blogs, or posting in a forum. It takes time, it takes effort. And it is abundantly clear if your educational background is insufficient. You're not fooling anyone. You wouldn't go tell your doctor you have a great new idea for how he's supposed to do your bypass, would you? And why not? Because you know he has more education and experience than you. Time to realize that it also takes education and experience to write a paper in theoretical physics.


Having said that, let's look at the lighter side of things. I frequently scribble notes on papers. Most often used are "?" and "!," closely followed by "Check this!" and "nice." Inspired by this site with funny rubber stamps, you'll see in this post a few stamps I'd sometimes like to use ;-) Click to enlarge. And here's for the sisters:






128 comments:

nortoncommando said...

Bee,

Most excellent post. I've heard such complaints often, but never so throughly and concisely written.

David (who has no 'new theories' to pawn)

Andrew Thomas said...

I think it comes down to motivation. A quality physicist is in it because he/she wants to advance the subject, answer some questions, and enjoy the challenge. However, someone just trying to peddle a theory is probably in it for the fame/money/recognition as a genius whatever.

A top physicist asks what he can do for physics, whereas theory-peddlers are in it for what physics can do for them.

Bee said...

David: Thanks :-)

Andrew: Not sure about that. Some of them seem to genuinely think they are helping.

Vagelford said...

"It started when I was an undergraduate. In his email he explained he had found a theory for the indeterminism in quantum mechanics. I spent 2 weeks trying to explain that dividing both sides of an equation by zero does not create a non-deterministic measurement outcome, but simply nonsense. He insisted I misunderstand his idea and accused me of being narrow-minded.

Bee, if the name was Tsolkas and instead of QM you said Relativity, then you would be telling my story. :P

He is of the type that is trying to save the world.

Andrew Thomas said...

That is an awesome site, Christos. Is that you in the videos? I am sure you are sincere and committed.

Here's a time dilation experiment, though. Einstein was probably right after all!

Christine said...

Excellent post! Now I know where to forward some emails I get: a link to your post will work fine!

Giotis said...

You surprise me Bee and I'm more surprised that other people find this post excellent; personally I don't agree at all with the tone of your post.

You have every right not to read their mails and to ignore them if you like but really, there is no need for this public ridicule; especially for people you don't know anything about. You hurt people's feelings and make them feel like dirt when you talk down to them like that. Everyone deserves our respect in advance otherwise there is no society of people and this is not just corny rhetoric.

Practice tolerance.

lccarson said...

You will probably enjoy an analogous posting from a screenwriter that caused a stir recently, "I will not read your fucking script" by Josh Olsen. The arts and the sciences have a lot in common

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/09/i_will_not_read.php?page=1

Steven Colyer said...

Bee, you could have sent that division by zero fellow away lost in thought and possibly Mathematics (for life!) if you'd given him a copy of "50 mathematical ideas you really need to Know" by Tony Crilly of the UK. In chapter 1, "Zero", he states:

"The main difficulty with zero is division by zero. If we attempt to divide say 7 by 0 we would have the equation:

7/0 = b

My cross-multiplication, 0 x b = 7 and we wind up with the nonsense that 0 = 7. By admitting the possibility of 7/0 being a number we have the potential for numerical mayhem on a grand scale. The way out of this is to say that 7/0 is undefined. It is not possible to get any sense from the operation of 7 or any other nonzero number by 0 and we simply do not allow this operation to take place. In a similar way it is not permissible to to place a comma in the mid,dle of a sentence without descending into nonsense.

The 12th century Indian mathematician Bhaskara, following in the footsteps of Brahmagupta, considered division by zero and suggested a number divided by 0 was infinite, based on numbers approaching zero in the denominator making the answer larger and larger. By adopting this form of reasoning, we are put in a position of explaining an even more bizarre concept - that is, infinity. Wrestling with infinity does not help, infinity does not conform to the usual rules of arithmetic and is not a number in the usual sense.

If 7/0 presented a problem, what can be done with the even more bizarre 0/0 ? If 0/0=c, by cross-multiplication, we arrive at the equation 0=0xc and the fact that 0=0. This is not particularly illuminating but it is not nonsense either. In fact, c can be any number and we do not arrive at an impossibility. We reach the conclusion that 0/0 can be anything; in polite mathematical circles it is called 'indeterminate.'"

Bee said...

Giotis: The thing is that tolerance doesn't solve the problem. In fact, it seems to me it only makes it worse. I think that it is necessary to occasionally speak up. I frankly don't see what of my writing is "public ridicule," could you clarify what you find offensive? I have not named anybody in particular, and I have explicitly said that I am not judging on work I didn't read. I have all respect for these people's aspirations. I am just telling them there's a way to do it, and a way not to do it.

Let me add though that I understand where you're coming from because I once stood at the same place. Why don't you go and visit the link Vagelford offered above which makes a good example. Maybe you get a second perspective on who is lacking respect and attempts to make others feel like dirt.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

lccarson: Hah. Very nice. Yes, it's not surprising to me. Sometimes I think we have a global attention deficit issue. Everybody wants attention, but nobody has time to give it. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Steven: If I recall correctly I tried (rather unsuccessfully) to argue with the definition of the action "multiplication" on the field of real numbers (if you recall, I studied math not physics at that time). Your explanation would probably have been vastly more successful. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

This post was actually triggered by a conversation we had some weeks back. It made me think it would be worth summing up my thoughts, so thanks for the exchange. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

There are profound counterexamples, Bee.

Physical theory is overturned not perturbation extended. By Christmas 1956 Yang and Lee were pariahs. By Christmas 1957 they were Nobel Laureates. Parity punched their tickets, for particle theory was demonstrably wrong. Feynman's Nobel for beta-decay depended upon discarding scalar,tensor for vector,axial vector.

A fully discontinuous symmetry is not Noether-coupled to a conserved observable. Parity does not play well with others.

Massed sector vacuum isotropy is testable (pdf) in four independent ways: Parity Eötvös, parity calorimetry, parity gyroballs, parity rotation spectra. Physical theory cannot transcend itself. Theory predicts what observation tells it to predict. Somebody should look.

Neither SUSY nor quantized gravitations risk success as of 29 January 2010. Disclose a test of either or run massed sector parity tests of physics as whole. The worst a parity test can do is succeed.

Bee said...

Counterexamples for what?

Steven Colyer said...

Thanks Bee, I had a bet whether you'd be mad because we all know you know that stuff. I like it because darn it if the English don't have a way with words in their own language. Makes sense though since they've been speaking it the longest. They certainly love the word: "nonsense." Not "crackpot" so much though, unless the person is truly mentally ill.

There's a companion book for Physics, btw. Well done in each case. Cost $6 each at Borders Xpress where my youngest son bought them for me for Xmas cuz he knows I like this stuff.

I'm sure you're aware of this article "Did Einstein Cheat? with quotes from Smolin, Rovelli and Baez from a 2000 article in Salon.com?

Odd how I found that, by exploring Le Sage Gravity (which is crackpot) that I'd never heard of yet the most cantankerous person in MathPhys make me aware of in a recent blog at his the reference frame. :-P

Also, I recently changed the name of my blog to Bananafish in honor of the just-passed J.D. Salinger, author of "The Catcher in the Rye," as "Multiple Musings in Mathematical physics" was "a bit" to wordy, albeit descriptive.

Bee said...

Steven: What did you bet on? The catcher in the rye was the only book we had to read in school that I liked. Didn't read the bananafish story though. Best,

B.

OMG said...

Hi Bee,

If you don't want the great unwashed laity to think about why there has been a 30 year stagnation in theoretical physics which you yourself assert in your fqxi essay, why bother with your outreach programs which anyway have made no significant dent in actually educating the public.

Why pay such lip service to the importance of simple ideas in physics and how these can change the interpretational landscape in the blink of an eye 'suddenly' allowing a re-interpretation of the analytical work ?

Why is there no formal reporting channel for claims of serendipitous uncredentialed insights. In a panel discussion with Lee Smolin in 2005 on the occasion of the Einstein Centennary, the panel was split as to the appropriateness of lay persons writing 'papers' as this is an implicit form of impersonation i guess.

With no formal reporting channel available such persons are left with no option but to send you and other high profile researchers unsolicited emails wherein we are expected to freely disclose potential intellectual property without assurance of even a reply !

We worry that 6 months later, those ideas we effectively put into public domain ( your brain and computer's trash folder) become the germ of your new Nobel winning 'breakthrough' and you (not personally, collectively) have completely forgotten where that seed idea came from.

Just ask Jacob Beckenstein how well that worked out for him when he talked to Hawking about temperature considerations in black holes.

Instead of wasting time creating handy quack checklists like Baez did, why not simply solve your collective dilemma by setting up a formal reporting system that would relieve you of that 'unsolicited emails' burden and possibly lead to actual harnessing of any true 'ideas' which can, in principle, emerge from the wild ?

Perimeter Institute's charter essentially vows to leave no stone unturned in the search for QG so i propose a simple 1-800-EUREKAS hotline or ideas@PI.ca that you could automatically forward your 'nuissance' emails to ? This could be staffed on a rotating basis by Grad students so they will know what they are getting into viv a vis their 'public' and prizes could even be awarded for actual 'publishable' insights and the papers themselves could, in that instance, be formally written by these Grad students or escalated to a more credentialed researcher .... whatever.

If the 30 year stagnation in physics is in fact due to some poorly perceived institutional, cognitive or social bias which is having the effect of veiling some subtle, deeply embedded philosophical misapprehension the correction of which might unlock everything, then the necessary 'corrective insight' could be very simple and accesible to many outside credentialed physics, for instance a Science journalist could easily know enought correct physics to suddenly perceive such an insight. In principle, many of us could.

The impact on the credibility and prestige of Science would be significant if some Gilligan or basement researcher were to be the one to uncover such an embedded 'error' and given the status quo, your collective embarrassement would be deserved.
Physics is presently vulnerable to a (predicted?) Kuhnian style Paradigm shift of epic proportions which would be damaging rather than beneficial if triggered by a Gilligan scenario.

You and your colleagues similarly plagued need to get a grip. You have reported a non-problem here today which could easily, as i have proposed, be converted to a useful research strategy.

Thanks

Christine said...

Giotis,

I don't think that the tone of the post is aggressive, but yes, quite direct and tough. Notice however, that the intention of the post is exactly to be very honest on a recurrent issue that is in fact becoming worse with the internet.

More than anything else, her post should be read as a constructive advice for those who are willing to "learn" good practices among scientists and science enthusiasts.

A criticism could be that the post does not offer a "guideline" for the really interested one. For example, a link to t'Hooft HOW to BECOME a GOOD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST, or a similar one, would add value to the post and perhaps make it clearer the intention of it.

It could be said that the tone of the post comes somewhat as a protest. But I like it, as I want to protest too.

Best,
Christine

Christine said...

"The Catcher in the Rye" is excellent, I read it last year, in English.

Alejandro Rivero said...

As a fringe author myself (albet I think I defend orthodoxy in the recent years) I will read any theory reaching my email box in a readable format (I use mostly linux, in any case I do not use MSword). I will not navigate to websites, not to exchange correspondence, not even any receipt confirmation. But if it arrives I will read it.

Bee said...

OMG:

You might not believe it, but I have indeed proposed a similar setup previously. It is not a bad idea, but the problem (as always) is where do you get the money and the people. My suggestion was the following: Offer a website where anybody can submit an idea and offer some amount of money for a review. Then people with a confirmed educational/professional status can write are review, make some bucks, and the review is publicly available, avoiding that others have to repeat the same thing. This has the advantage that people who get corrected once don't just send their paper to the next person which vastly multiplies efforts. I can imagine that there are many sufficiently qualified people around who'd be willing to write a report for some moderate fee. Maybe not the Nobelprize winners, but some postdocs who can need some extra bucks, or some who get a kick out of finding errors. These people exists. The idea would be that such a record provides some moderate quality standard that can be used as a better filter than a name. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Yes, it's true. It's not a good guideline. Maybe topic for another post ;-) Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Alejandro,

That's nice. The problem I have outlined is the following: it gets to the point where you just can't read all these emails. It takes up too much time. Time you don't have for your research. What to do then? That's my dilemma. It adds to this that I can't read things without thinking about them, thus I'm very picky with my input. Best,

B.

Michael Varney said...

Here is a small bit on Compactified Dementia - The hierarchy problem of cranks (crackpots)

http://users.telenet.be/vdmoortel/dirk/Physics/Gems/CompactifiedDementia.html

=)

Bee said...

Michael: Thanks, I hadn't known that. Sounds eerily familiar, esp. the part about wasting taxpayer's money and hiding the truth. Best,

B.

Steven Colyer said...

Christine, I love the way your BS detectors are set on high and getting higher. Good call :-) That will serve us all well in the years ahead. Yeah, "It's a Perfect day for Bananafish" was a New Yorker short story that Salinger wrote and that established his fame. I never read Catcher, but it's the number one book teenagers love in America, for sure, since its publication. R.I.P., J.D.

Bee, I had a bet with myself. If we divide ourselves into three parts, either Ego, Superego, and Id (with advice to keep one's Id asleep ... are you listening, Lubos?), or "Me, Myself, and I", then I won AND lost. lol

Typical day. :-P Changed my avatar as well.

OMG said...

Hi Bee,

Kudos to you for that suggestion then. My suggestion is that the website would be staffed by a rotating staff of grad students and that this would be a formal part of their grad 'education' duties and they would not be paid for such shared, short term duty. With the funding that PI has, i am sure it is affordable.


The problem is, once again, that there currently exist NO formal reporting channel for such 'ideas'

Kuhn informs us in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that groundbreaking, paradigm shifting 'ideas' of the type i describe in my comment, are unlikely to arise in the course of "Normal Research" .... which is possibly crippled by undetected error effectively hiding in plain sight. So Christine's link to t'Hooft: HOW to BECOME a GOOD THEORETICAL PHYSICIST misses the point i am specifically raising in line with Kuhn re Abnormal Science.

Consider: 3 years or 10 years before Darwin published, some reasonable effort to 'coax him out' of the wild might easily have succeeded.

If there is a simple, paradigm shifting idea in our near future, isn't it very likely that it is undergoing unreported confirmation in literature RIGHT NOW, in secret, given it's easy to anticipate the perturbing effect such an idea will have when somehow reported in the near future.

Of course it's unlikely but 'ideas' always come as a 'surprise' from puzzle pieces already on the table and these are usually immediately compelling (ring of truth), no?

Create a friendly, receptive reporting mechanism which protects our potential intellectual claims and see what happens.

Thanks again.

Bee said...

OMG: I didn't suggest PI should host it. It's a bad idea if a particular physics institution hosts it because it risks being biased. I believe I was talking to Bora from Blog around the clock about it. Not sure he recalls though. Must have been a year or two back. Best,

B.

Christine said...

It is true that there is a need for a "channel" as pointed out by OMG and replied by Bee. I think that science is and should be for *all* -- at different levels nonetheless. When my son asks a question about nature he is really being a scientist, evidently at a very simple level (although I'd say that kids often do very deep and nontrivial questions that are at the forefront of professional research). No scientist can really disregard the fact that there are enthusiasts out there willing to participate in this wonderful endeavor which is science, and we all should participate *at the level within our reach* (intellectual, educational, experience level).

However, as much as channels (scientists <-> enthusiasts) are extremely important, there should be a means to realize them adequately, exactly because they are important. This should be debated and solutions be found.

In any case, specifically concerning unsolicited emails on scientific theories, in my case, at first I always tried to acknowledge them, but as Bee points out, how one can give any feedback without reading and thinking on the contents? That takes time and it is true that there are other responsabilities and priorities. One cannot receive all possible input and deliver feedbacks the whole day. It is impractible unless this becames your main professional activity.

There is a final issue that should be pointed out. The "insistence factor". I'm not sure why some people insist, even though you have already made it clear that you cannot or are not interested in their theories. This is something that has to do with pure and simple education. I think that Bee is protesting on the "insistence factor" as well.

Best,
Christine

OMG said...

Hi Bee,

addendum to last comment last paragraph ...

... because without such a reporting mechanism, you should expect to see Science by Press Conference when that researcher decides to bypass formal reporting altogether by reporting directly to his/her peers.

If you didn't like Science by Press Conference when it happened in the Cold Fusion incident, you will like it even less if an actual breakthrough were to bypass formal review before being made public.

But i suspect your colleagues would dismiss these thoughts based on sheer unlikelyhood, thus proving their adeptness at not learning from history, as Kuhn describes/predicts.

Thanks

Alejandro Rivero said...

I am not sure about not having time to read; it depends what we do mean by "reading". Of course -here I agree with Christine- a carefull reading at the level of a paper on your speciality is impossible, it takes time. But I was thinking on a marginal "hearing", same as in a conference room where the speaker is talking on a topic marginal to you so you do not put full attention.

What happens, usually, is that it *hurts* to read them. Bad language, bad physics, and bad mathematics, all combined. Hans and myself, in PF, got some limitation time ago by asking for actual calculation and 1% agreement with some observational data. But it does not work for agreement with integer quantities (say, number of generations or charge of leptons).

A request: can you put some numbers? How many unsolicited request do you get per week or per month, and how has it increased after the prize?

Christine said...

Alejandro Rivero wrote:

"What happens, usually, is that it *hurts* to read them. Bad language, bad physics, and bad mathematics, all combined."

It's like an opera audition where the candidates have a very bad voice, bad technique and bad ear, all combined. But they love opera and want to participate (for whatever reasons). They need advice, but the point is whether they want to get it.

In any case, there must be ways to improve the situation on both sides.

Concerning numbers, I don't know for Bee, she surely must receive a lot of email, and I'd be interested to learn on her numbers as well; as for myself I used to receive for some time during my former "Background Independence" blog days several per week. It was enough to clutter my "to respond" folder. When closing that and moving to Theorema Egregium, I set it up intentionally very low profile and highly moderated -- I suppose that scared a lot of people, and also the interest was lower because most people want to really see is polemics. Now that one is closed as well, and I am moving to more educational grounds, with a math blog for kids in Portuguese. Up to now, no more unsolicited emails.

Best,
Christine

OMG said...

Hi Bee,

Here is a final thought to leave you with regarding my comments today which links to a previous blog question you ask regarding a dystopia scenario for Science and Society.

New ideas frequently reveal that previous cherished notions were not just wrong but, the new-truth is frequently found to be the diametrical opposite of the old-truth. We see this frequently in medical news and advice but there are many examples in history of Science which Kuhn cites.

We might reasonably expect that the cherished notions most vulnurable to such reversal would be Conjectures, especially those unsupported by any observations.

Science would do well to consider then that the credibility and prestige of Science would be severely damaged for generations to come in a dystopia of epic proportions if the BH-evaporation conjecture/interpretation of Hawking Radiation were to be suddenly put into reasonable doubt, or worse.

Mankind's backlash against Science would know no limits as we shut down the LHC and begin to recover from our collective brush with death.

This paper: http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0912/0912.5480.pdf
for example, is very disquieting in reviewing all the many factors (in the practice of Science)which could lead to such a dystopia if 'probable cause' to doubt were to be succesfully argued prior to LHC high energy collisions. The only other line of argument seeming to support BH-evap is yet another potentially vulnerable Conjecture namely, Hawking radiation as Info-Recovery, the flip side of Info Loss.

I know this is a 'touchy' example to invoke given your papers on this topic but it is intended as an illustration of a 'worst case scenario' per the guidelines of your recent dystopia blog posting.

Please do not view this specific illustration as off topic because my point is that the ultimate worst case is that case where such 'probable cause' originates from our putative Gilligan but is nearly as bad no matter who might succesfully make such a case.

Thanks very much again.

Giotis said...

"could you clarify what you find offensive?"

"some are asking for pity (I have nobody to talk to.)"

That especially. I mean, WTF is that?!


I refuse to tolerate cruelty in any form. I'm appalled by it and I'm not willing to justify it or accept it as natural like our modern inhumane times dictate.

I won't ride on your wagon people.

adios, au revoir and goodbye!

Christine said...

@Steven Colyer:

"I love the way your BS detectors are set on high and getting higher"

Not BS detectors, but skeptic-meters. There is a big difference!

Best,
Christine

Alex said...

Dear Bee,

the thing is: you don't even have to wait until you get your PhD until you get in touch with such people.

I'm a second-year math and theoretical physics student, and last week in our student union there was an elderly man with grey-ish hair who apparently came there because he was looking for someone to calculate an integral numerically for him.
He told us that he has no internet at home and doesn't know anything about the programs he could do that with. He told us that he had been working on a problem involving QFT for 20 years, and that he doesn't know whether he's right, but thinks that he might, so he keeps working on it.
I don't know much about QFT but the integral looked quite basic (it had a pretty ugly solution though, involving a lot of trigonometric functions and square roots) and I can't imagine that this is *the* solution for *the* major QFT problem and that no-one in our faculty came up with that yet.

The sad thing is that he had studied math at university as well.

I'm still wondering how people end up becoming like that and how one can avoid this.

OMG said...

@ Alex

"... and how one can avoid this."

This can be avoided by simply giving people a formal reporting channel as i proposed above like an ideas@wherever.com inbox, staffed by a rotating group of grad students.

There are likely only 10 or 20 themes all these flawed ideas fall into so, in no time at all, a databanks of canned replies can be used for these people.

There is nothing wrong with having ideas. The only dysfunction here is the 'persistence' issue raised by Bee and Christine. So re-submissions to ideas@wherever.com would have to include previous submissions to show that something new is being(re)submitted.

It is easy to forget how simple and compelling an idea can be when there hasn't been one in 30 years. Can you think of what the last pure idea in theoretical physics was ? Maybe the AdS/CFT correspondence qualifies but before that what ? Let the fundamental entity of our theory be a String or loop string ( so small hat it is effectively the infinitesimal point concept it purports to replace ?) How's that idea working out ?

I suggest that someday soon the dam is going to break and someone is going to crack the unification issue and then all those disparate expectations and criteria we had in place regarding Quantum Gravity will suddenly become 'consistency checks' and the idea will have overwhelming ring of truth requiring no credentialed verification at all because it will be simple, elegant even beautiful right ?

There is no better example of a macroscopic quantum leap than the Gestalt shift of a simple great idea.

The notion that such an idea can come from the wild is mimicked to the point of cliche in fiction and boardrooms every day. Dr. House almost always solves his problems as a result of chance conversations with others and it is their words which prompt the insight. Gilligan says (insert something stupid) and the professor says "That's it ! " The most peripheral person in a boardroom ( say a secretary ) who nevertheless is aware of the issues at hand, meekly suggests something that begins with "I don't know if this is important but ..." and boom, a solution is naively but succesfully born.

The persistence of this phenomenon in all walks of life remains unharnessed in Science, even obstructed, and Kuhn spoke of this too in pointing out that people on the 'fringe' can often have the necessary perspective to see things with childlike eyes and presto, the emperor is, in fact, naked.

What is the impact then of a Gilligan cracking not just one major open question but several at once as a 'unification' would by definition imply ?

My thesis is that Science should not leave itself open to such a vulnerability and the immediate creation of some kind of viable reporting channel for ideas in the wild should be viewed as important and urgent. Your inbox will love you for it.

Thanks

Andrew Thomas said...

I'm just going to repeat what I said on an earlier thread and that is that there really is no "conspiracy of silence" trying to suppress great ideas which might just be the secret of the universe. In fact, quite the opposite is true: everyone wants to know the secret of the universe, all physicists are just dying for someone to come up with the next great idea.


However, surely whoever gets that great idea (which they know is superior to everyone else's idea) is going to take their time and present their idea in the best possible light, showing precisely why it is superior to everyone else's idea, anticipating and answering possible criticisms, possibly suggesting experiments to verify the idea, doing an extensive literature survey, presenting plenty of references showing that you have taken your time to see that no one else has had the idea before you and your idea is original and important. Basically, you're going to write a top-notch scientific paper which is going to convince anyone who reads it that your idea is superb. That is certainly what I would expect - nothing less. I know if I had the idea for the secret of the universe, or I had proven Einstein wrong or something, that is what I would do. And that is what I would expect anyone else to do.

So I was to receive a 50 line email saying that a person has discovered the secret of the universe, I am not going to be impressed. Because that person has not enough confidence in his idea to spend 6 months to a year of his life putting a killer paper together. And that is why it is fair to dismiss ideas - if the person submitting the idea has such little confidence in the idea, and shows so little commitment, then why should I show any commitment in return?

Everyone is waiting for the next killer idea. If anyone out there in blogger land reading this thinks they are in possession of the next killer idea, then just do what I suggest and then it will be impossible to ignore you!

It really is a very fair world out there. No one is out to get you.

But don't just tap your idea into an email and bother people with it.

Anonymous Snowboarder said...

Bee has Lubos been sending you emails again? ;)

Phil Warnell said...

Stephen Gray via John Flamsteed

Michael Faraday via Humphrey Davy

Scinivasa Ramanujan via G.H. Hardy

John Moffat via Albert Einstein

” His ideas as to what constructed a mathematical proof were of the most shadowy description. All his results, new and old, right and wrong,have been arrived at by a process of of mingled argument, intuition and induction, of which he was totally unable to give a coherent account,,,,,,,It was his insight into algebraical, formulas, transformations of infinite series,and so forth that was so amazing. On this side I most certainly have never meet his equal....He worked, far more then most mathematicians, by inductions from numerical examples in a way that [was] often realy startling (and] without a rival in his day.”

- G.H. Hardy (in reference to Srinivasa Ramanujan) –Sourced from (Pie in The Sky, Counting, Thinking and Being – John D. Barrow (page 184)

” My greatest contribution to mathematics was discovering Ramanujan”

- G.H. Hardy

Filters are fine and of course necessary and yet as it has been recently confirmed this filter of reason inherent in the human mind works in the region that borders between order and chaos. So although it can’t and shouldn’t be denied that everyone has a right to choose as to what is filtered and how, if solely based on perceived efficiency, one could miss, rather than find to enjoy, what might otherwise be there to discover.

Arun said...

I'm trying, but failing, to see what is unkind in this:

Since then, I've received hundreds of emails from self-declared geniuses who urgently want me to read their attached paper or visit their website. Some are trying to politely convince (with your qualifications... I would be honored...), some are outright offensive (intellectual elitism!), some are asking for pity (I have nobody to talk to.)

I assume Bee is merely being factual here. Asking an unknown person to write to you because "I have no one to talk to" may be an extreme case of loneliness, that I can have sympathy for; but it is nevertheless an appeal for pity. But maybe such appeals should not be mentioned in public on a blog?

My first encounter with scientific crackpotism was in my undergrad days where the university library had a book on Einstein, that I picked up, and saw that it was a rant on how relativity was wrong. The author had self-published it and somehow mistakenly - presumably because of a well-structured title - had made it to the library's purchase list.

Anonymous said...

What's all this about Parroty Tests anyway?

For goodness sakes they're engendered species. They should be left alone in the rain forest.

(Psst, it's parity tests.)

Oh, ya don't say!

Nevermind.

[with apologies to Gilda and SNL]
U

Bee said...

Hi Giotis:

Sorry, but I totally fail to see what your problem is with this sentence. You confused me so much I even looked up "pity" in the dictionary, but it seems to mean what I thought it means, at least in the literal translation (one never knows how it's colloquially used). I think you're overreacting here. Best,

B.

Bee said...

OMG: I think you haven't got the problem quite right. The question isn't whether something should be made public or not. For what I am concerned everybody can make public whatever they want. The problem how to select what of that abundance of information should be paid attention to. This is a problem that has to be solved. If you don't solve it intelligently, it's solved by whatever comes to people's minds first. At some point it becomes simply impossible to keep track of everything everybody writes somewhere. What happens naturally is that people use simple selection mechanisms that are readily available. These might work on some level and at least guarantee functionality, but they might not be the best possible solution. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

From your comment I gather that we have made pretty much the same experience. I also first tried to read these papers/emails and explain what issues there are with the idea, giving advice for how to move forward. In some cases this was appreciated, in other cases people just ignored what I said. In any case, I had to realize I don't learn anything from that and it's not what I'm paid for. This then caused me the conundrum I'm in now. I have to find a way to decide what emails I read and what I delete. Needless to say, I remain to have a bad consciousness for every email I delete.

I like the way you put it that what is missing is an adequate communication channel. The present status cannot be a comfortable solution either for the sender of these emails. At least I can imagine I'd find it very frustrating (and I can imagine getting cynical about it, complaining about the intellectual elitism etc etc). Best,

B.

Bee said...

Arun: What I meant with no one to talk to is elaborations of the sort I'm not at a university, I have no library access, can't go to conferences because of other job, etc etc. Maybe I should have been clearer that I meant nobody to talk to about my theory, but I thought this was obvious. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Alex,

This is a weird story indeed. I've been told somebody (a physicist) wrote a book where he's studied such cases (unfortunately can't recall neither the name of the book, nor the author, nor who told me that *argh*). One common theme seems to have been that these people typically have a background in science or engineering - though a different field than the one they now try to contribute to - and, when retirement approaches, feel like they didn't live up to their potential. I don't know if that's true (it is true that many will tell you they have a degree in this or that) or if there are any good psychological studies, but it seems plausible to me that one aspect is simply trying to give a meaning to one's life. The other thing that seems to have come out in this book is that these people with their theories are often the heroes of their family/peer group (because their family can't tell if it makes sense). So if somebody tells them they're wrong they just ignore it because it endangers their status. Again, I don't know how much of that is true (and then everybody has their own story), but it sounds plausible to some extend. These are aspects I think one can't do anything about. It's a psychological problems, maybe some sort of self-therapy. What one can do something about is however to provide a good way to channel this interest. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Alejandro: Numbers are hard because sometimes it's more, sometimes less. In the last week, it's like one or two every day, but that's extreme (and it's already gotten better). Usually it's like one per week or so (not counting those one the blog). One of the problem is that I have like 5 different email addresses and receive the same thing 5 times because they don't figure I'm the same person. That doesn't sound much, but as I said, if I start reading it, then I start thinking about it, etc. I actually frequently start typing emails and then delete them thinking I should do something else! If I estimate the time it takes me on the average, it would be several hours reading, trying to understand, writing, looking up references etc etc. That's half of a work-day. It adds to this that I typically have a couple of referee reports to write and I'm like if I read any paper I'll read the ones submitted for publication first (at least they passed the editor!). I guess the bottomline is that I'm not good at what you call "marginal hearing." Incidentally, this is also why I sometimes don't go to seminars when I'm trying to work. Because I'll spend hours thinking about what I just heard. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

I decided after that not to comment or read your blog again but I'll make a last exception.

You publicly ridicule people who asked for your help for some reason. They are just people asking for help and they deserve respect in advance. How a person who sent you such an e-mail would feel when he reads your post? He would feel like dirt. Why you want to hurt people like this? Because your mail has been overflowed by messages? Tough!

You psychoanalyse people you don't anything about with an attitude like you are a therapist or something. Who told you that you can talk to people like this or judge them cursorily this way? Who told you that you can be so bald and direct with other people and treat them like garbage? It helps you feel important and superior maybe?


I'm sorry that you don't understand this (or you just pretend you don't). I really am.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis:

No, sorry, I really don't understand this. I will repeat it again: I have not named anybody, and I do not see what in my post is "ridicule." I also do not see what in my post might make somebody "feel like dirt." I have been writing this simply to explain my position, and I know I'm not the only one who is facing this problem. I don't want to be mean, but it's not my job to reply to these emails either. The sentence that you found offending: It is very unprofessional to appeal to my emotions when they want a scientific opinion. I have all sympathy for their problem, but I'm not the solution. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Goitis,

Your entire dispute with Bee centers around what should be rightfully assigned as a guestion of motive, with you saying it’s to mock and ridicule, while for Bee it’s to have known why such attempts are futile as far as she and many of her colleagues are concerned. . You say no one should have the right to judge others motives, while this is exactly what you are doing. There is a word for this and it’s called hypocrisy. What I expressed to Bee is a little different however, which is to suggest that filters seldom have the ability to act as qualifiers very well, yet rather only as quantifiers as to be able to assure result.

That’s simply as filters are rarely able to be made unidirectional and thus have no ability to reasonably differentiate. So although I find I can emphasize with her position, I find myself also sympathetic as it being so rigid that the consequence at the same time being that something important, which might have been significant and important to her will be assuredly lost. To be honest I don’t know how it could be modified and as such find this rather as a dilemma for someone who has by their own actions through the maintenance of this blog as having no such motives as you suspect and accuse. G.H. Hardy referred to his discovery and subsequent collaboration with Ramanujan “as the one romantic incident in my life", and such I find her decision as more of a personal sacrifice, born not out of malice, yet rather of practicality, which I find as ironically tragic.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, it is very true that the ignorance I feel forced into for practical reasons means I might miss something valuable, and that is unfortunate. As I said to Christine above, it is an uncomfortable situation for both sides. But I presently see no other good solution. It also seems to me, for what I have noticed, that most of my colleagues deal with the issue the same way, ie just not replying. It happens quite frequently actually that I receive emails that go cc to a dozen or so other people (most of which I typically know, since they are working in the same field). Such behavior is borderline to spamming. You find a particularly bold example here. Tolerance doesn't help. Neither does it help to reply (with something similar to what I've written here). I tried this a couple of times and it typically results only in even more eager attempts trying to involve me into a discussion, thus has exactly the opposite effect of what was intended (not to mention that I doubt it stops them from sending the same email to other people.)

As I said to Giotis above, I have some sympathy for the problem these people are facing. That is probably because I know the problem from both sides. On some occasions it's been me trying to get some feedback from people in other fields than physics and it's hard. Maybe one out of 100 replied (the reply rate was dramatically higher in Europe than in the USA for whatever reason). And most of these replies were not helpful. (I eventually figured that's not going to work and tried differently.)

In any case, let me add that I am confident that if somebody has a really good idea, it will eventually be recognized as such. In the current situation, it might take more time than necessary though, which only brings me back to what Christine said above, that we lack adequate communication channels. Best,

B.

Plato said...

I understand Goitis's sensitivity.

Some of the current bloggers that participate here understand the score, and as a "long time blogger here" you understand what my status is, as well as others.

Just as there is the need to "ring the bell for a correction of sorts" to what happens to you behind the scenes or what can you can reflect on as to what you carry into this platform "from bias," we might subjectively consider "might reflect on our participation."

So while setting the record straight, set it straight( I see your guideline below) as well as to who you want participating here so as to understand where we might have crossed the line. Some might like to "give the apple to the teacher," but do not forget the reasons they come back.

As I have stated before the Baez crackpot index is an affront to what good people have to deal with while making their way through, while trying to be sincere in the pursuance toward excellence that we have to contend with such pompousness "that seeks to ride above" rather then by extending the hand to relay understanding and truth to our participation.

Ah! so what collateral damage?

You do not have to answer. You set the limit by demonstrating your tolerance. Last chance.

I understand what Baez has done toward educating, but this is one time where he has hurt the population in a way that many will never understand.

As juniors here, one indeed needs to understand the stripes to what has to been earned and what a pupil has to endure as they make their way, but toward the excellence that one were to espouse by ringing that bell, I feel would tend toward demonstrating the highest standard of excellence in the goals by demonstrating these qualities "of the good in people" as well.

While a scientist, sometimes one cannot be "all together" that smart in other areas. Just my opinion.

We like to temper what we like expressed in others, as to faults in our own self, and in the end falter by demonstrating "an arrogance" that Goitis was right on to perceive.

The checks and balances do come home to roost as to how we must reexamine the routes we have taken regardless of scientist or not.

I see Goitis is trying hard to keep a handle on perspective.


Best,

Bee said...

Hi Georg:
The interesting question is though why is it in particular these few areas of theoretical physics (unification, quantization, general relativity) and to a lesser extend a couple of famous theorems in mathematics that attract so many people? I mean, the guy in the office down the corridor is in condensed matter. The problem is virtually unknown there. Best,

B.

Georg said...

Hello bee,
I think this problem is not to be
understood by psychologic "reasoning".
The problem is psychiatric. Such malfunction
of brain is rather uncommon, but
nevertheless there are hundreds of millions
capable of reading and - today -
having access to the internet.
So, some hundred or thousand crackpots
specializing on physics are not
really astonishing.
A certain amount of those people suffer from
those maladies coming with age.
And, in rare cases such illness
starts at age well before beeing
"old".
The combination of the variability of
human brains with the internet,
which is a kind of worldwide
"speakers corner" prodcuces this
problem.
In "old days" before the internet,
it was difficult to get Your adress, so crackpots could not write to You.
Part of the problem is that GR or
QT make statements which are against
"common sense". This is a kind of invitation to crackpots.
200 years ago a certain Goethe
wrote nonsense about colors,
and that nonsense is still alive in
Steiners Anthroposophic followers.
Summary: silliness of man is
without limits, Your reaction is
the only appropriate one.
Georg
PS

"Besser ein schlechtes Gewissen,
als gar kein Gewissen" :=)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Yes as I said I understand your dilemma. At the same time I have often wondered how those like Einstein and Hardy managed to find their diamonds in the rough, as I know that both received regularly many unsolicited letters of the kind you speak of, which would be to disagree with Georg to some extent. Perhaps however the change in media accounts in part for this and as a suggestion you might then only scan snail mail you receive, rather than emails. At the very least, if it serves as nothing else to have a twofold effect, first to reduce the amount of such requests and second to increase employment at a time when most needed, as the stationary and post office will have more to do, other then deliver all that truly environmentally unfriendly and callous stuff that forms now to be their main function.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, I think it is the case that emails make it much, much easier to contact people and that this leads to an increase in such contact attempts. I am sure that this effect can be seen in many other areas of our lives too. (Eg I would guess that newspapers receive more reader's letters, politicians more complaints, actors more fan mail, etc etc). I also guess (we discussed that elsewhere) that many places receive more applications, just because it is very easy to send your documents to hundreds of places just by clicking on "send." This does of course have advantages, but it also increases the noise. And that noise has to be dealt with in some way. Best,

B.

Georg said...

Hello Bee,
beg Your pardon, now my post is
after Your answer :=(
Why not "condensed Matter"?
Why not chemistry, biology,
or civil engeneering?
Part of the problem is, as I stated
above, the "anti common sense"
factor of OM ans GR, another is
due to the fact that science frontier
is in GR and related fields,
at least in public poinion,
which is made by the popular
science magazines.
Just browse the last ten years SciAm,
then look into say, the issues of the sixties
and You have the answer.
on a much smaller scale, I have had such problems.
Among the maybe 100 lab workers I
had contact to when working as
a chemist in industry, there were
two, who tried to debate all the
nonsense they read in books of
Däniken and the like.
(Being the only "Doktor" within their reach)
I remember a famous Professor of
Chemistry roaminmg the offices
and labs of his sucessor at nighttime and writing letters to
other Professors with outlandish
complaints against the successor.
At the same time he urged him
dayly to sythesize Vitamin B12
with platinum as a core atom,
because that would be the ultimate
cure for all cancer.
I hope fate will be less ironic to me.
Regards
Georg

Steven Colyer said...

With all due respect, Giotis, I found nothing offensive in Bee's original statements or defense of your accusations. How many crank ideas come into your e-mail Giotis, or are you a fellow who sends them out, hmm, and has been rejected or ignored?

Also, you can't get mad at me Giotos because I did start this post off with "with all due respect."

Short story, Bee: take Christine's advice as to how she handles it, it's fantastic.

Longer story: There will always be such persons. I guess it comes from Einstein's "God does not play with dice" comment, and a rejection of either Quantum Mechanics or General Relativity. I would have a standard boilerplate to bounce back at these people, because we all understand how hurtful it is to be ignored. If they persist give them Lubos' e-mail address, or point them to The Reference Frame. Before long he'll cut'n'paste some maths from a paper by Susskind at them and that should keep them busy.

Suggested boilerplate would be something like:

Thank you for your interest. As I'm sure you are well aware, we live in a quantum mechanical universe in which special and general relativity hold on macroscopic to large scales. I'm sure you understand the importance of having full knowledge of partial differential equations, differential geometry, and quantum field theory as it pertains to your point of view, however I noticed your views showed a lack of knowledge in at least one of these well-established areas of endeavor. There are likely several highly respected institutions of cutting-edge research in your local area whose administrative assistants would, I'm sure, be happy to direct you to the appropriate location to get the information you need to complete the final mathematical and physics education you require. Also and with all due respect, I am an extremely busy person who is up to my ass in alligators here, and since this bird chirps for seed and I didn't notice an increase in my financial situation upon the receipt of your e-mail, your request is taking valuable time away from that which does pay my bills, so kindly get the appropriate education before responding back in say a year or three.

OK, maybe leave that last sentence out for the sake of propriety, and because the person may be psychotic.

Arun said...

For people who have no access to a library, arxiv.org is a great resource.

The slowly increasing practice of making conference talks available through internet video is also a great one.

Now one can be a fly on the wall at least.

Neil B said...

Yes, a new theory is hard for anyone to come up with - and even harder for a non-specialist, sure. But amateurs and outsiders (to varying degrees) can IMHO find loose ends in the current perspective, odd examples or thought experiments that might provide significant insights, ask good questions that provoke reflection, etc. Carl Brannen is IIRC "just" an engineer at an ethanol/diesel plant, but has made advances in particle physics. (Comments here sometimes etc.)

And despite complaints about limited time etc, I think your best filter should not be any ad hominem perspectives. That's bad practice IMHO, not just a logical fallacy. Instead, you should gather some impression about the idea itself and the quality of presentation. (There is a reason that "anonymous review" is allowed by many journals for contributors.)

Finally, getting wired about somebody's "outsider" attempt at contribution can lead to literal mistakes of understanding or fact:
prompted OP admits target did not make math error.

Bee said...

Neil: The point I've tried to get across is that it takes too much time off my research to get an honest impression. A filter is asked for, and that ought to be a filter that saves time and effort. See my discussion with OMG and Christine above. Look, the world is full with people who have questions and want an answer. But the way this particular question-and-answer game is presently played is enormously inefficient. Questions are typically addressed to people who have little incentive to answer them, and if an answer isn't desirable for the person asking, the question will just be passed on to the next person. There are better ways to deal with that. Best,

B.

Neil B said...

OK Bee, I acknowledge your concerns and that you, yourself, wouldn't have lots of time for such evaluation. Well, I think it's good if someone does, and can sort through various notions looking for gems. Maybe a blogger can specialize in that. Question for all: is anyone/s doing that? Or, journal: anyone remember now-defunct Speculations in Science and Technology? Physics Essays (three of my pieces on relativistic dynamics of extended bodies - what a mess!) are in) does similar work giving a forum for more diverse contributors. The results aren't always pretty, but I applaud the effort.

Another question to all: instead of just speculation about the mere likelihood that some amateur will provide an interesting insight, I'd like to see more examples of such if can be found. And not just from way back either. Times have changed. tx

Bee said...

Neil: afaik no, which is exactly why I was suggestion to have an interface dedicated to that purpose. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Steven Colyer wrote:

"take Christine's advice as to how she handles it, it's fantastic."

????

I did nothing. Actually, it is embarrassing for me because I do not have any solution to the problem.

It's embarrassing because as a scientist it is part of my work to have a "channel" with the non-scientist (interested public in general). So if someone emails me asking for advice or a scientific question that I am able to answer, it is my duty to do so, and I try to do so my best, when possible. But the issue with crackpottery (which is not a question of asking for advice, etc, but pure insistence on doubtful material) is difficult to address, and I end up dismissing it completely.

As I said, I did receive previously emails with theories and claims, which I did not have the time to give full attention, although many of them were clearly crackpot material and I simply did not respond.

Today I find that focusing my energy to math education in Portuguese is quite gratifying and helpful. Not crackpot emails until now. :) (See, I'm running out from the problem.)

So the question is how to properly advice these kind of public -- "crackpots" at one extreme side, and enthusiasts with points that deserve feedbacks at the other. According to Baez's index the former won't listen, the latter appear to have no professional available to send feedback for free.

Best,
Christine

Zephir said...

/*...I am not interested in your "theory."...*/
Some links from your e-mails could be interesting for others, who aren't such ignorants.

Zephir said...

/*..personally I don't agree at all with the tone of your post...*/
The 2nd name of contemporary science is an defensive ignorance, known from Galileo opponents: "if you're not about reading my articles, I will not read those of yours".

OMG said...

@ Neil B.

You ask:

" ... Well, I think it's good if someone does, and can sort through various notions looking for gems. Maybe a blogger can specialize in that. Question for all: is anyone/s doing that? ..."

See (ie) www.ToeQuest.com (forum) so this is not really a 'formal reportng channel' that i (and Bee and Christine) have called for but i once traced ownership of the site to an american physicist who may be in fact keeping a watchful eye for 'gems' foolishly being dumped into public domain under pseudonym. many people don't realize that ideas dumped into public domain, along with all other ideas and papers and established results and such, become the 'toolkit' we all have access to in out own research persuits. After all, credit and citation can only be given if it is known.

Anyway Bee, how about this 'idea' ?

Proposal: Let the first of every month on BackReaction be IDEA DAY where anyone is invited to publish their succint, interesting or potentially publishable IDEAs and let your readership handle the scientific criticism in comments with respect to errors or interest value etc.

Put an extra line in your blog header that "unsolicited emails are required to GET your attention and interest within their first paragraph or will be summarily deleted without reply" This gives everyone fair warning beyond today's post and relieves you of your bad feelings when you have to do so.

IDEAs posted on IDEAS DAY intended as potentially publishable must be posted using real names. Now they might start to receive their own unsolicited communications.

This will relieve your inbox and have a side effect of cutting down on off topic contributions on other days as well.

If an IDEA is deemed by you to be sufficiently interesting to actually be publishable, you might then consider acting as a thesis advisor via email with that someone or even possibly write a paper for ArXiv yourself with due citation to the originator of the IDEA if the IDEA is that good. This will obviously be rarely the case of course.

This idea is not the 'formal reporting channel' for anyone that is sorely needed but it might solve *your* problem. This will also not especially add to the already very generous amount of time you commit to your very prolific blogging frequency and the volume of comment exchanges you take time to engage in.

Speaking of which, thank you so much for the excellence of your blog and what i just said given the strains on your time that today's post has revealed.

I hope you will consider experimenting at least with some version of my proposal.

Thanks very much again.

Neil B said...

OMG, that or similar sounds good. (Heh, I mean to "OMG" the commenter...)
However, I don't agree with this, from Andrew:
So I was to receive a 50 line email saying that a person has discovered the secret of the universe, I am not going to be impressed.
Well, first of all there is a lot of range between "something interesting" and "the secret of the universe." Second, a person with a great idea may have trouble getting published. If so, do you really want to wade through a 500-line email equivalent to a paper, from such a person? (They may easily also have such a paper too.) Why not the email equivalent to an abstract? I mean, shouldn't someone be able to summarize enough to show it's worth further attention? That too, is a skill! And with Bee and others complaining about time, a 50-line email "abstract" is just about what you need IMHO.

Also, don't the specialists send seed ideas or notions around in ~50-line emails to each other? Then so should anyone else, if it's good enough.

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Neil, yes, you're right, if the 50 line email is an abstract (i.e., it's summarising an in-depth paper) then that's fine. But if the 50 line email is all there is, then that's no good. It just shows the person hasn't done their background research.

The thing is, if anyone is going to prove Einstein wron (I'll just take that as an example) then it is going to be a MAJOR operation. Thousands upon thousands of brilliant physicists have pored over the work of Einstein for a hundred years and found no fault. So if a person is in any way suggesting that Einstein is wrong then what they are actually implying by that is that thousands upon thousands of brilliant physicists are wrong. And that is going to take a huge amount of substantiation. There's absolutely no shortcuts: to prove Einstein wrong would be a massive undertaking. It is simply not possible to do that in 50 lines: you've got to consider all the evidence, all the arguments, all the counter-arguments, all the beliefs of thousands of brilliant physicists.

So, yes, a 50 line absrtract is of course fine. But in itself it would never be enough to prove the scientific consensus is wrong. And this is what the theory peddlers try to do - they are trying to prove the consensus wrong. And that means proving thousands of briliant minds are wrong. Yes, OK, a revolutionary theory might well be right, and it's probably quite possible to describe the theory in 50 lines, but the huge task comes from presenting a convincing case for your theory. It's all the background, all the research, all the reading, checking no one has thought of it before (do these people ever check that?), seeing how the idea fits into the scientific landscape, that's the huge job. The initial flash of inspiration is the easy bit - it's just the start of the hard work.

Neil B said...

tx for quick reply, Andrew ...
OK, good point about "major change" or new theory etc, but just some interesting loose end or intriguing thought experiment - that point might easily be made in 50-L-EM etc. And again, no easy way to tell how much work went into what you see - other than how good it sounds.

I hope I'm not taking advantage of Bee by linking to it here, but how else to see if something interesting can indeed be made into a short bite?
I proposed here and there a thought-experiment. Check my name link, so to not type it here and that allows further comments there.

Well, agree or not maybe that suggests something worth looking at more: study repetitive quantum interactions instead of just the stale old, one pass for one "hit" experiments. (Compare to Y. Aharonov's weak measurements.) And if you thought up such a thought experiment, isn't that the way you'd send in an email to a colleague? I mean, before writing some long paper - to get quick feedback etc.

Can I make a "real paper" out of that concept? I can and have for SRT dynamics, but might mess up QM! REM it's about subject matter and not just "are you a real scientist." Hence I might need the sort of venues proposed here. (BTW, if you're hesitant due to a recent infamous controversy, pls. note critic finally admitted I did not make a math error - maybe my snark had been excessive and my result not relevant to the problem. I tried to learn from that.)

Anonymous said...

Andrew,

"In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual" - Galileo

Einstein heartily subscribed to this credo. Thousands of "brilliant" scholars have been wrong before and no doubt will be again.

No one is going to show that Einstein was "wrong" within the context in which he worked, but someone will show the limits of General Relativity [and probably other theories as well], and how take the next paradigmatic step.

Give it some thought. When the next major paradigm shift occurs we will discover that much of what we now hold to be true is not true. Same as it ever was.

Ulrich

janne said...

The crackpot index should be complemented with the academic boy/girl scout index.

Phil Warnell said...

HI Andrew,

I liked everything you said to Neil accept two words, the first being “wrong” and the last “scientific consensus”. First science has nothing to do with right and wrong as absolutes, yet only that its theories are to be logically consistent with nature and are falsifiable by way of direct or indirect experiment. As for scientific consensus that is to be formed by the first consideration and not by anything that represents to appear to require a majority of opinion. Simply put, good science is not dependent upon consensus other then the weight of scientific evidence. Personally I think this word consensus should be banished from the vernacular of science as it is nature’s truth that are important and not that of those who seek them. The fact is in the normal way such things are considered all good scientists are required to be potential anarchists.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Neil: If you can summarize it in 50 lines and I'd understand it, it's probably not a new idea. If you're coming up with something genuinely new, it very likely brings along the development of a whole mathematical apparatus. Think of trying to explain GR to one of Newton's contemporaries. It is depressing indeed, how many of the "new" ideas people spam around are in fact ideas that were tried and failed decades ago already. Best,

B.

Bee said...

OMG: Not on this blog. This blog is currently operating at the limit of what time I can invest. Long term readers will have noticed that frequency of my posts and comments has slowed down considerable during the last months and that's not an accident, but a consequence of my realization that this blog reached the limit of what time I can put into it without harming my research.

It also totally doesn't address the problem I've pointed out. There's thousands of people out there who want a qualified opinion on an idea they are putting forward in a field where they don't have an education. Then there's the specialists out there who could offer this opinion, but it's not their job and they are not interested in wasting their time. If you're sending your case to a lawyer to get an opinion you have to pay for it. Thus I'm suggesting to reimburse people for the time spent on obtaining and communicating an opinion and I want that opinion to be publicly available as to avoid duplication of efforts. This is an interface this blog cannot provide. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Zephir: I certainly will not publicly post sender addresses of emails I receive. Best,


B.

Michael Varney said...

Debate with crackpots is wasted time. They will not listen, and neither of you will learn.

Teaching a crackpot is wasted time, for they will not learn, and neither will you. (except frustration)

Ridicule of crackpots is also wasted time, but can be fun. However, this is thin gruel, and therefore still a waste of time.

Studying crackpots is a waste of time, unless you make it your job to understand their para-psychologies.

Consider that an average usenet post or blog post/comment reply can take as much as 5 min to compose. That is time you could be spending doing things you love, like physics, or spending time with those whom you love.

Crackpots are a waste of time, and EVERY practicing physicist has dealt with them, and thus wasted their time.
After a while, one learns not to waste any more time with them (at least most of the time).

You have better things to do than deal with crackpots, or even discuss and defend your comments and opinions about them.
Waste no more time with them, and you can start by not having to reply to this comment! ;)
(or even better, not have read it at all!)

Regards,

Mike

Bee said...

Shit, I read it! More time wasted ;-p More seriously, I suppose we just have different approaches to avoid wasting more time. You tell others not to bother with these emails at all. I'm trying to say there are more intelligent ways to deal with it, but they require some effort. Best,

B.

Christine said...

One thing that crossed my mind is: there are organized amateur astronomy clubs, with organized events and magazines. It can be a very expansive hobby. Some of these clubs even contribute to professional astronomy.

On the other hand, there are no amateur physics organizations as far as I know. Theoretical physics amateur participants would not need much money to explore their hobby.

The point is: could they become a respected and serious organized group like some astronomy clubs? Could they even make a "real" contribution to the field?

Although the idea to organize themselves to "gain respect" could be a good one, I think it could never work, and maybe that is why there are no physics amateur groups (at least not of the caliber of some astronomy groups -- as far as I know).

You cannot easily "cheat" with astronomy -- you must effectively observe the phenomena (of course you could cheat with a fake picture and so on, but that could be easily shown to be a fake). So there is a strong internal "regulator".

But in theoretical physics... phew. Sure, there are some ideas that can be quickly and clearly shown to be wrong. But at the same time, other ideas cannot be so easily evaluated. It comes again the issue of how to make serious peer review of their contributions. Without it, such a club could easily become a big crackpot club. (Crackpots organized? I'd better be quiet!)

Anyway, what I mean is that really interested and serious amateurs (non-professionals, with or without PhDs) *could* in principle get organized themselves. A very serious club *could* gain the respect from the professional community. However, I guess it would be more difficult to gain such a respect than in astronomy because of the issues mentioned above, so we get back to square one.

Best,
Christine

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Anonymous: "In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual" - Galileo

Yeah, but things have changed a bit since Galileo's time. I'm not saying that it's impossible to prove Einstein wrong (or any other part of the scientific consensus wrong), but the thing is, Stephen Hawking has had a look at Einstein and thought is was OK, and so did Feynman, and so did Wheeler, and so did Dirac, and even bloody Lubos Motl can't find fault with that particular theory!! So I'm not saying it's impossible to prove Einstein wrong (or any other part of the consensus wrong), I'm just saying that in order to do that you've got to prove that a lot of very clever people were wrong. Like I say, things have changed a lot since Galileo's time.

So, bearing that in mind, next time you come up with a theory which goes against the scientific consensus, the first thought which should come into your mind should be: "This is really simple, so how come thousands of brilliant scientists have not thought of this before? There is likely to be some fault in my theory so I will check it extensively for a fault before I get too excited." The first thought that enters your mind should not be: "This is really simple and proves Einstein and the scientific consensus is wrong. I won't bother checking it thoroughly as I am too excited! Instead, I'll write a huge website about it and fire off a lot of emails to famous physicists!"

There's just a complete lack of objective self-criticism there, a complete inability to ask the difficult questions of the theory: "Why has no one thought of this before?" As Bee said: "It is depressing indeed, how many of the "new" ideas people spam around are in fact ideas that were tried and failed decades ago already."

And it's not just in physics you get this. You get people who have had ideas for an invention, and they will spend YEARS taking this invention around business people trying to get their idea adopted. And they will get refused time and time again, and they will get told why their invention is no good ("Someone thought of it before", "It's not practical") time-and-time again, yet they will not listen and they will not learn and they will remortgage their house to get a prototype made and STILL no one will want their stupid invention because it is a BAD IDEA!! And it was a BAD IDEA right at the start, and if only they had been a bit more self-critical and asked some tough questions to themselves they would have realised that it was a BAD IDEA and they would have saved themselves so much grief and rejection and they would still have owned their own house!

Hi Phil: "Simply put, good science is not dependent upon consensus other then the weight of scientific evidence. Personally I think this word consensus should be banished from the vernacular of science as it is nature’s truth that are important and not that of those who seek them." Well, I disagree because the scientific consensus is the most valuable thing we have. It represents the combined insight of Galileo and Newton and Einstein and Planck. As Newton said: "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." If we get rid of the consensus then we have to consider any old theory which comes along as being off equal weight to that consensus. I don't want that "anarchy" as you suggest.

(Apologies for the deleted posts, Bee).

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

You’re mentioning of armature astronomy clubs is a very good point. In fact I’m somewhat interested in astronomy myself and have had a few telescopes over the years. The trouble is not so much the expense yet easily getting to a place that presents a good sky, with the light pollution being such a problem in a city suc as Toronto. You were mentioning to Bee that you never seen snow in your life and I have to say I never see the stars in Toronto, unless of course there is a black out:-)

When Perimeter Institute started its outreach program I was hopeful they would form something like you mentioned out, yet it never happened. They used to have a thing called the “Black Hole Sessions” for a while, which had actual researchers and guest theorists give talks regarding their own work at times and the subject more generally. I myself frequented these quite a lot and proposed to the head of outreach, Damian Pope something like you talk about with using approachable resource material, such as David Albert’s book “Quantum Mechanics as guides. Unfortunately what defeated it in the end were the others that attended this meeting as I’m sensing more went to the meetings to be seen as connected with so called “smart people” then to actually learn more about or share a common passion. The attendees for the most part for their public lectures I find the same. The fact is there aren’t as many people who are truly interested as all would like to believe and that I find to be the biggest problem and challenge.

Just to demonstrate what I’m talking about I attended a Stephen Hawking lecture several years ago where the tickets for a 1500 seat venue at U of T sold out online in ten minutes. After the lecture a fellow seated next to me who was accompanied by his girlfriend asked how I liked the lecture. I forget exactly what I said yet it was something about Hawking pinning so much hope on the brane treatment of String theory in terms of cosmology, to which he replied to ask if I was a physicist. I laughed and answered that I wasn’t simply a lifelong enthusiast of science and physics in general and asked him what he thought. He answered he didn’t understand what I had just said or anything that Hawking had , this despite in this being a public lecture and not very technical. I then asked him why did he come and he replied are you kidding he is Stephan Hawking a famous and brilliant man. I didn’t know what to reply after that beyond have a nice day.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Zephir: Since you think you are eligible to complain about my ignorance, let me refresh your memory. I have repeatedly patiently explained to you several of your misconceptions, for example here, here and here. To thank me for that effort you called me incompetent and insisted on your mistaken beliefs. You are the only commenter on this blog who has ever forced Stefan and me to delete comments because of your insistence to repeat faulty claims while at the same time ignoring other people's explanations as well as their exasperation with you.

Let me quote one particularly obvious remark of yours from this post. I mentioned that you better not comment on work you didn't read, to which you reply

"Try to be a bit more realistic, Bee. Why I should be interested about your work?"

Followed by a justification for your attitude that only reveals you don't know what I am actually working on (which is even more depressing because it wouldn't have taken more than a look at my homepage to find out.) And you call me ignorant?

What you are actually doing is quite obvious. There are only few people like Christine, me, and some other bloggers who make an effort trying to communicate today's research in the fields you pretend to be interested in. Your reaction to this is to offend these few people since they endanger your habitat and (as in the posts I linked to above) demonstrate your lacking knowledge about even basic physics. You have shown zero interest to actual learning something. What you have shown instead is a remarkable self-confirmation bias when it comes to the alleged ignorance of academics that is best demonstrated in your repeated self-comparison to Galileo when I ask you to respect our comment rules.

Since I have told you this before it is probably useless, but I'll repeat it once again. Your attitude is not helpful to your goal of understanding Nature. It either isn't your goal, or you are on the totally wrong track. I sincerely hope that you wake up and realize that. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

This is an interesting suggestion. I guess that some forums (and blogs) around perform such a function already to some extend, but it could probably be better organized (and it shouldn't remain entirely virtual.) I am afraid though that the problem remains what to do with these people who don't actually want to learn something, and who pleasantly want to continue living in their dream world. My suggestion was that it should be sufficient to debunk nonsense once and be done with it, whereas currently it's pretty much futile to explain a mistake to somebody because they'll just ignore it, call you narrow-minded, and then bother other people. Best,

B.

Christine said...

Hi Bee,

I think that we are dealing with basically two groups (with possibly borderline cases):

1) interested, enthusiastic, amateur, devoted, non-professional (some possibly with formal education in physics and related areas, but not working on their field, or left the field for many years ago), people really interested in learning, self-study, performing private research. These people can be adviced, directed, feedbacks can be reasonably given, ideas can be exchanged (in principle, let us forget time constraint issues). One can reason with them, most are really interested people, some with quite a large eruditon. Examples?? Phil Warnell (Hi Phil!) :)

2) Crackpots. They won't listen, they won't take any advice, one cannot maintain reasonable conversation, they are not self-critical, they are insistent. Examples? Zephir!

Sorry to give names here, but I think it serves a good purpose. I think that one *never* wastes time with the number 1 group, but number 2 is a complete waste of time.

So I think the question is how to advance a channel to group number 1, which is unfair to mix with number 2. I think that Giotis over-reacted because he might have thought you were putting all them together.

In any case, there is the problem of how to properly "set up a channel" with group number 1. They deserve it and it is our obligation as scientists to think of options.

Best,
Christine

Christine said...

Hi Phil,

Interesting to learn about your previous experiences. It gives some concrete example of how distorted the situation can be.

Best,
Christine

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Christine,

You have me to blush when you apply a word like erudition to me and yeti I’m glad that at least you find me as interesting, which is why I like to look in on this blog on a regular basis, as the hosts of this blog and others like yourself I find the same. As for your different categories if there is one thing I feel I have some expertise in it would be this. That’s in part because in not being a physicist people approach me with even more outlandish things that I suspect you and Bee have never encountered. What I find discouraging most is that this superficial pretence to understanding and interest doesn’t just extend to science, yet to many things of a broader nature.

I can recall when Stephen Hawking’s first book came out how many home library shelves it appeared on, having me to initially think he had made a dent in what I considered as part of a more general ignorance; then the truth was revealed. This happened as when I attended parties at peoples homes I would ask those that had the book proudly displayed in their bookshelves something about it and I’m sad to report that most admitted to never have read it or so intended, with the rest at best saying they started and then stopped. Now writing aspects aside and in light of the fact that this book is as non technical as one can get, what would you have to say this indicates? I can tell you what it indicates to me, is that we live in a world where perception is seen as more important then truth and that I find this both discouraging and worrisome for the future more generally.

Oh yes, I tested this show library hypothesis of mine out regarding non science books both in general classic literature and other things with the results being the same. By the way if one goes to a library lately you will find most are there to either use the internet or borrow a movie, which I find even more symptomatic of what I’m talking about. Actually I’m more hopeful in regards to your own current focus regarding the children, for I fear we will have to write off the adults, as sad and pessimistic as that may sound.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Christine,

Yes, I think it is very useful to clearly distinguish these both groups. Eventually, one only wants to deal with the first, I agree. I can relate very well to what you said above that one wants to help, but then how to without wasting time unduly? One problem that remains though is how to find out who is in which group?

One would think that an interface like the one I outlined above would weed out those who just repeat nonsense. Vaguely I was thinking that instead of just deleting theories of no-names, one could then check at the website if the person had been previously debunked or maybe instead obtained a positive review. (Or, more likely, those who obtained a positive review would mention it.) Over the course of time, this could serve as some low-level qualification, avoiding to mistakenly ignore worthwhile ideas (rspt worthwhile criticism, there's a non-negligible fraction of people who insist on something being wrong).

Let me add that I find this exchange very constructive.

Best,

B.

Neil B said...

Well, this is getting interesting! First, I give kudos to Christine for most recently reminding against polar dichotomy about possible kinds of contributions, and the sorts of people that would try. The ideas: Like I said, it isn't just about "new theories" or big deal issues. It could be some new wrinkle to try (like, get information by passing the same photon many times through a retarder plate instead of one-time interactions.) It could be a new example of an offbeat situation like about accelerating, extended bodies in SRT (the wrinkles are not all worked out, and people still argue about e.g. the "right-angle lever paradox"!)

Thought of before? That can and should be checked rather than assumed. I proposed such an idea years ago in the moderated sci.physics.research (a possible venue for such ideas.) Some agreed, some not - but no one found a precedent. I got some hat tips for originality, and attention propelled my posts on that and similar in search for "quantum measurement paradox" - FWIW it still does; I was #1, checking this AM. (Yes I know that isn't demonstration of validity, nor the most common phrase which is "... problem" - but who wouldn't dig getting there?!) BTW anyone is welcome to ride my link and comment - why not try a proposed example instead of just thinking about them in the abstract (no pun here.)

Then, if originator couldn't summarize such a notion in 50L, how could one make an abstract for it? Since abstracts are so common, brevity of summarization can hardly detract from the possible importance of the subject, can it? So again, I am wary of these clunky rules of thumb and excuses for something not likely being valid. I do sympathize with anyone's time and effort issues - this is a separate point.

The people: dividing the world into cleanly and clearly demarcated camps of "real scientists" and "cranks" is indeed pernicious. Christine realizes there are plenty of (us, may I say) modestly-educated people who didn't make PhD, with supporting roles or contract work in sciences etc. that learn enough to find interesting "loose ends" or Socratic challenges if that's their talent. I mentioned Carl Brannen. You just have to look at ideas directly (yes, if you have time) and not rely on the crutch of presumption-based short cuts.

Andrew wrote: And it [an invention, etc.] was a BAD IDEA right at the start, and if only they had been a bit more self-critical and asked some tough questions to themselves they would have realised that it was a BAD IDEA... Yeah, that happens sometimes, maybe most often. What about the inventions that were good ideas but met the same reflexive objection? How much have we lost thereby?

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Neil, yes, you make a good point about good inventions which never get taken up. In the UK the most famous example is the Dyson vacuum cleaner. James Dyson could not persuade any company to manufacture his invention, so he ended up making it himself and it became a tremendous success.

I think the key thing is when a person submits a proposal (for physics of vacuum cleaners) and it gets rejected, do they listen to the rejector's comments? Do they listen to the criticism? If they do listen carefully, and consider the rejections to be invalid, then fair enough they are entitled to continue trying to sell their theory. But if they reject the comments without giving careful consideration to the advice given to them, then they are very foolish and heading for a fall. The problem occurs when people just refuse to listen - as Bee says, you just get people in a dream state totally in denial about the limitations of their inadequate theories.

Neil B said...

Andrew, good example and good points (surely you meant "for physics or vacuum cleaners".) Yes, learn from critique - and I'm happy to get critique at all from specialists. So tx for commenting at my decoherence post. I answered some of your questions. I hope my newer idea is worth checking too, and as sample "can you say it in 50 lines."

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Andrew,

I think you missed my point as I was saying that what the majority of scientists think at any given time has no bearing on the matter. For instance what that would mean in terms of an election, poll or yes even a jury for that matter, although I can imagine the ghost of Bacon protesting. The fact is the whole concept of science has been conceived as to lead to overturning previously held and widel6y accepted notions thought to rest on sound footings.

I would however agree that past discovery does have a vital role in it all, yet from the aspect of what from the past in combination can lead to greater insights, which is what Newton was referring to, while at the same time eliminating what no longer satisfies to remain as part of the consideration. The fact being a lot of the current firestorm currently raging in theoretical physics among the professionals is focused largely around what the weight of consensus should stand as being, with the threat further fuelled by a growing fear that we have now entered a period where the theories are no longer falsifiable and as such what is to have science be distinguished from any other philosophy rooted in logic.

The irony of it all is just a little over a century ago some claimed physics was ending, since they felt there was little left to discover, to now have it considered as ending because the method has hit the wall in terms of what can be proven as to relieve doubt. Personally I think those that think this way are as wrong as those were before, as it more signifies personal limitations , rather than any science may have. One thing to be said is if consensus is all we are in the end left with, it then truly has ended.

Best,

Phil

Zephir said...

/*..I certainly will not publicly post sender addresses of emails ...*/
I certainly wasn't interested about it.

/*..the crackpot index should be complemented with the academic boy/girl scout index...*/
Why not, some bloggers could score high. The referring to such indexes could be one of robust criterions.

Zephir said...

/*..they won't listen, they won't take any advice, one cannot maintain reasonable conversation, they are not self-critical, they are insistent. Examples? Zephir!..*/
Only people, who know about me and my stuff as well, as I know about them could criticize my way of listening.

stefan said...

Zephir,

I think they are not criticizing you as a person (which they do not know), but as an internet personality. Thus, the criticism refers to the image you yourself are conciously conveying to others, and this criticism you should be able to accept, don't you?

stefan said...

I am completely depressed because I see no chance to catch up with this long thread.

Giotis, if you are still around - it seems that Sabine's formulation has somehow triggered a reaction in you that I would not have expected - I think she has explained what she wanted to say, and that this was not meant to expose or ridicule anyone. I know she can be blunt in her formulations. But have you ever experienced a case where she has made public such a letter on this blog, let alone mentioned people involved by name?


The point with the astronomy clubs is a good one - however, I am not so sure what the "common activity" - replacing mounting and looking through telescopes, or taking astrophotographs - in a physics club could be. It's indeed a pity that there are not clubs or associations for "amateur pyhsicists" - in the "old-fashioned" sense of the word for people who have an non-professional but deep interest in the subject. I think that ideally, physics blogs could provide just such a setting.


But this doesn't really help to solve the problem where people could send their ideas for informed feedback, or does it?


I am wondering of organizations such as the IOP or AIP, or FQXi, could (or should) do something about this. Specifically, I thought a while a ago that a lot of the discussion threads at, say, physicsworld or FQXi posts, could be more focussed when they were not used by people who, for lack of better places, post their ideas there which are only marginally related to the topic.

So, the idea to create a place where to post unconventional ideas and to look for feedback is a really good one! So far, there exist a few discussion groups, such as physicsforums.com, but they often do not actively ask for input, or do they?

Anyway, I've learned a lot while trying to argue physics with "crackpots", and I am convinced that it would be a very important experience for every graduate student to go through a discussion with Einstein refuters - if anything, this helps to really understand special relativity...

stefan said...

Hi Christine,

Now I know where to forward some emails I get: a link to your post will work fine!

I suggest you forward them to Zephir instead. He will make sure no Galileo gets lost ;-)

Neil B said...

Stefan, this looks close to an answer to your dream:
Society of Amateur Scientists [from NCSE site]

The Society for Amateur Scientists was founded to place the power, process, and promise of science within reach of everyone. SAS links science enthusiasts of all backgrounds and interests with world-class professional scientists, to empower amateurs to take part in the great scientific debates of our time as full members of the scientific community. Our mission is two-fold: to advance science by bringing untapped talent into the field, and to help create a more scientifically literate public.
...


It may not be perfectly geared yet to "new proposals" but it sounds as good and close as I could expect. I want to join this outfit, so far as it sounds. Feedback?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Stefan,

I think the internet is a great tool , yet for real learning I don’t believe it is yet a substitute for one on one face to face meetings. For one simply the commitment to dragging yourself out forms as a qualifier and being known for who you are has an effect on ones social graces and responsibly. Like I related earlier to Christine Perimeter both has the budget and resources for such a thing,howver I’m afraid their greatest motivation for outreach is not so much to create larger public understanding, yet rather public relations designed primarily to quarantine public support for continued funding. In other words lots of sizzle yet little steak.

Best.

Phil

Zephir said...

/*..So, the idea to create a place where to post unconventional ideas and to look for feedback is a really good one! So far, there exist a few discussion groups, such as physicsforums.com, but they often do not actively ask for input, or do they?..*/
Nope, they're banning such inputs after first post.

/*..you don't know what I am actually working on......*/

You're trying to interpolate equations of relativity (insintric perspective) and quantum mechanics (exsintric perspective) by low dimensional stuff, because you cannot understand, it's impossible to do it in unique way (it's like to describe sphere both from inside, both from outside perspective by single set of equations).

Basically it's the same havenless job, like string theorists are doing.

Anonymous said...

Andrew,

We do not know what the dark matter is.

We do not understand what "dark energy" represents.

We do not know why galaxies exist or have the specific properties that they do.

We cannot retrodict the masses of subatomic particles without "heroic" effort.

We cannot explain the 120 orders-of-magnitude discrepancy of the vacuum energy density estimates of cosmology and HEP.

Exoplanet research has shown that we don't have a very good handle on stellar evolution and stellar physics.

QM works but few are satisfied that they know exactly why.

Theories of quantum gravity are crude and largely untestable.

... ... ...

Do we have reason to maintain an open mind? Are you kidding me!

Human nature, and especially our ability to fool ourselves into thinking we have a very accurate understanding of this or that, has not changed much in 400 years.

The only thing worse than a "crackpot" is a "true believer".

Same as it ever was.

Here endeth the lesson.

Ulrich

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Ulrich, what we're concerned with here is when people attack existing well-established theories (like relativity). Sure, it's possible to concoct any theory you like about dark energy as there is no consensus on a correct theory, and you can create any interpretation of quantum mechanics you like (as long as it fits the experimental evidence) and it will be just as valid as Copenhagen or Many Worlds, because no one knows the answer to any of these things.

But what we've got here is websites claiming Einstein was wrong, using totally invalid reasoning, or people trying to rewrite established physics. And they totally ignore the flaws in their reasoning when those flaws are pointed out to them - they're living in a dreamland. That's the problem we have here.

Zephir said...

/*..We cannot explain the 120 orders-of-magnitude discrepancy of the vacuum energy density estimates of cosmology and HEP...*/

If one set of equations is saying "a = 0.000001" and the second set of equations is saying "a = 10e+95", every normal mathematician could expect, these equations simply have no common solution.

But common theoretical physicist is still willing to find such solution and he is even able to find a grant support for it! This is what is fascinating me in contemporary physics. It's the best job possible.

Tumbledried said...

Dear Andrew,

I believe that I am with Ulrich in this instance.

I think there is an underlying (and quite common) confusion here, between between "wrong" as opposed to "incomplete".

Yes, there is a great deal of noise of the internet; but I believe that it is quite easy, usually, to tell the difference between fluff and serious stuff. Even serious research itself might only have one or two promising threads to it.

Instead of picking apart people ad hominem for trying to solve problems, and claiming that everything is already known and existing theories are complete (which they are not), perhaps it is best to sometimes suspend judgement, rather than arguing that something is wrong merely because it is different.

Tumbled

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Tumbledried, yes, there's always room for wildly-original theories, and I think this Verlinde entropic gravity theory would come under the category you suggest. That theory proposes to completely turn existing theories on their head.

But, you see, Verlinde did his background research. He knew his theory would have to comply with the well-established findings of Einstein's general relativity. He attempted to build on the latest theory of AdS/CFT. Basically, he did his homework. He did a lot of hard work. And, as a result, his radical new theory is being taken seriously.

What Verlinde did NOT do was lie in a bath one night, suddenly get an idea that Einstein was wrong, not bother to do a literature survey to see if the idea was original, not bother if his theory did not comply with established experimental results, not quickly create a web page about his idea and fire off a load of emails.

Basically, there is a correct way to go about proposing a radical new theory, and it involves hard work and reading, and if anyone does that they will be taken seriously. But random plunges on instinct in the bath with no convincing back-up and no background research have no value, and should quite rightly be ignored.

Andrew Thomas said...

Just to repeat, if you are going to try to prove the existing scientific consensus is wrong then absolutely go ahead - it would be fantastic to be successful to achieve that. But it would be a huge amount of work as you would have to present a convincing case as to why Einstein and Hawking and Feynman and untold other geniuses were wrong because they failed to see the loophole which you have discovered. You would have to present a phenomenally convincing case, and you would have to support your case with a huge amount of background analysis. Absolutely it's possible, but it would be very demanding, and there are NO shortcuts. It's hard work. It has to be. But it would be worth it.

But there is no obligation to read the wildly-original theories of people who can't even be bothered to do the background research on their theories. If they can't be bothered to do the work, they obviously have no real commitment, and their theory can be ignored.

Steven Colyer said...

Good points as usual, Andrew. For more on "why" "Eureka" thoughts pop into our brains, read this fascinating article from New Scientist in June, 2009. Hopefully the first three paragraphs will entice you:

HAVE you ever experienced that eerie feeling of a thought popping into your head as if from nowhere, with no clue as to why you had that particular idea at that particular time? You may think that such fleeting thoughts, however random they seem, must be the product of predictable and rational processes. After all, the brain cannot be random, can it? Surely it processes information using ordered, logical operations, like a powerful computer?

Actually, no. In reality, your brain operates on the edge of chaos. Though much of the time it runs in an orderly and stable way, every now and again it suddenly and unpredictably lurches into a blizzard of noise.

Neuroscientists have long suspected as much. Only recently, however, have they come up with proof that brains work this way. Now they are trying to work out why. Some believe that near-chaotic states may be crucial to memory, and could explain why some people are smarter than others.

Bee said...

Tumbledried: I am sorry to say, but you are totally wrong. For somebody who is not an expert it is not obvious to tell the difference. It has happened more than once that I had to clarify misconceptions about physics that people (typically: remote family members or friends of a friends) had picked up on such websites. And that includes people with an academic degree (in other fields than physics, partly even in the natural sciences). A prime example for such spreading nonsense is Maharishi's unified field theory. What makes this in particular so dangerous is that there's money behind it [read: websites look professional]. However, with shareware tools for website design spreading nowadays everybody can set up a professionally looking website in about no time. People fall for the looks.

This is one of the reasons why I keep writing that the absence of any quality measures on the web is highly problematic when it comes to common knowledge or general education. People tend to pay attention to what they read whether they like it or not, it enters their brain, and when they read it repeatedly the perceived truth value increases (there's research showing that). The more people there are claiming there is something "wrong" with quantum mechanics or general relativity, the more people will believe there really is something to it. This is just the way human perception works. We were not born to be critical, we were born to draw conclusions fast. It takes an effort to be critical and rational. You don't solve that problem by assuming everybody can tell right from wrong.

Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

That Maharishi scientific approach to gravity is really someting - I am so impressed by their yogic flying! People can really fly!!

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

Interesting as I’ve also been following this research yet it should be noted that there is a difference from the mathematical perspective between random and chaos, as chaos precludes outcome from being known for certain and yet determined, while random suggests certainty is not simply unknowable yet without reason. If one considers that ideas are something one comes to know it would have me exclude random as its root cause.

Best,

Phil

Andrew Thomas said...

Just think how much money you would save on air fares. Fancy a holiday in Spain? Just yogic fly down to Malaga!

(I suspect your knees might be very sore at the end, though ...)

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

Of course, Phil. "chaotic" and "random" are two totally different things, and your concerns are the first thing brought up in the replies section of that article I linked. I always read anything in Discover or New Scientist with the strongest grain of salt.

Andrew wrote: "That Maharishi scientific approach to gravity is really something - I am so impressed by their yogic flying! People can really fly!!"

But of course, David Blaine has been levitating for years! (smile & a smirk)

Neil B said...

I don't want to be repetitive, but again I have to say: the possible contributions from various outsider-ish people (anyone, for that matter) do not have to be as bold as disproving theories or proposing new ones. They can be "loose ends" - like thought experiments that perplex, and make us reconsider stale habits. Pros actually put stuff like that into e.g. American Journal of Physics, Foundations of Physics, etc. and motivated semi-amateurs could and surely have. (In AJP I have seen e.g. "no one thought to look at ..." about things like forces on dipoles in certain changing magnetic fields, etc - stinking classical EM, and still an interesting if not earth-shaking result!)

It is just not IMHO evident that pros would have thought of every such possible paradox or loose-end in the system of things. There are so many different "wrinkles" to find, and how many actually "look for trouble" directly?. I mentioned my proposal to think about multiple interactions in QM. Whatever it "means" or how valid, I was satisfied no one thought of it before. The same goes for other puzzlers that I (or some other folks) was complimented on as "thought-provoking" even if they didn't upend existing theory. (Nor would they need to, to be interesting and even important in some way.) (Hint, hint ... you don't need to talk abstractly ...)

I don't think most scientists are actually digging around much for "I wonder if there's an off-beat experiment I can design (at least in theory) that might reveal a distinction between things we used to think the same, or show them similar in a way we didn't realize before. Or find a paradoxical result from two approaches that should have given the same answer, but don't in this case" etc. Do you guys do that? Or, you did and never came up with anything interesting?

Bee said...

Yes, we guys do that. The interesting things end up being published. I agree though on your point with the "loose ends" though I suspect you find most of them in one or the other textbook.

Neil B said...

Great. I expected the answer would be, you guys do look and find some interesting "loose ends" and such. I still suspect not enough on average, but this means there are such loose ends still worth finding. It also means, you don't have to be Einstein or Hawking to find them. As for textbooks, it takes awhile for the finds to reach there, and such good catches likely didn't start in a "textbook", that's almost for sure!

Finally, I would add that an adequately educated semi-amateur (or writer out of specialty - REM that too!) could also find such things, if e.g. dedicated to looking. But they'd have a harder time getting it out in professional venues. I presume such thinkers are the ones that people here are trying to help.

Bee said...

Yes.

Jérôme CHAUVET said...

Bee: Oh sh...! I was just about to send MY theory to you. This is a theory which reveals anything about everything. It tells that if you speak a word, any word you want, the corresponding object appears in a symmetrical world, which is physically unlinked to ours. There is the fundamental principle of it. According to MY view, the fact that there is so many things to see on Earth is due to the fact that many is said about it in this symmetrical world, and reciprocally (get it?)... This means in turn that all crackpotteries here are real things out there...

No one understands me, tell me where else I can turn.

Best,

Bee said...

I recommend you read Michael Ende's "Neverending Story" (Don't watch the movie, it's awful.)

LastAncientGreek said...

( Formerly OMG, since Comment login options changed)

HI Bee, & everyone who has contributed thoughts to this thread which I am glad you found to be productive Bee.

A good IDEA is like those spanish ships in plain sight offshore that the natives could not 'see' because such ships did not fit into the worldview of a canoe sailing culture.

An IDEA is virtually invisible in foresight and obvious in hindsight.

The 'observation' of a cognitive or social or institutional bias can, once removed, lead to a clarification or re-interpretation which canlead to a breakthrough.

Such biases are the reasons why an insight, now obvious, remained elusive for so long. The identification of such biases is very unlikely to undermine well established results so quacks attempting to prove Einstein wrong are misunderstanding or mis-applying what i said in an earlier comment about cherished notions being upended. The cherished notions will be those in the more grey areas like a new take on currently open Conjectures.

The mere existence and 'observation' of such a bias(es) IS the reason however that a non-professionnal COULD find something previously overlooked and this is not quite the same as proving Einstein or any other established result 'wrong'.

The mere existence of such biases is the answer to the professionnal's first question " What makes you think you have found something which has eluded all of us ? " because outsiders are frequently not sharing those institutional biases and look at things with fresh eyes and fewer reflex prejudices.

Remember the Challenger shuttle explosion hearings when Richard Feynman settled the issue of how cold can affect O-rings with ruthless simplicity by demonstrationg what happens to an O-ring in a glass of icewater ?

Well, do you really think it so unlikely that history could easily have gone another way. What if some science journalist, in a burst of frustration at a press conference, had publically suggested exactly that experiment and Feynman had merely undertaken it in response.

NASA scientists and engineers can forgive themselves for making the wrong call and being shown up by a genius like Feynman but what would the impact on the credibility and prestige of NASA scientists and engineers have been had a reporter come up with this simple test ?

The ship of professional science is heading for some eventual iceberg and seems not to consider it a very urgent problem to solve.

Maybe I should have called myself KUHN2.0 instead of 'OMG', lol.

Thanks for indulging the discussion for so long Bee. Too bad you did not like any modified ( by you) version of my modest suggestion to at least partly address and answer this issue at BackReaction. Beyond changing your Comments Login options i mean.

Thanks very much again.

Tumbledried said...

"Basically, there is a correct way to go about proposing a radical new theory, and it involves hard work and reading, and if anyone does that they will be taken seriously. But random plunges on instinct in the bath with no convincing back-up and no background research have no value, and should quite rightly be ignored."

Ok, thanks Andrew. I think I misunderstood what you were driving at.

"People tend to pay attention to what they read whether they like it or not, it enters their brain, and when they read it repeatedly the perceived truth value increases (there's research showing that)"

Indeed, yes you are right Bee.

"This is just the way human perception works. We were not born to be critical, we were born to draw conclusions fast. It takes an effort to be critical and rational. You don't solve that problem by assuming everybody can tell right from wrong."

I guess I have made the common mistake of overestimating the ability of people to be rational. But of course there is considerable evidence to the contrary. I always forget this.

LastAncientGreek said...

( writing previously as OMG )

Given how this thread has evolved, I hope the following example or actual 'instance' of how conjectures can be put into question will be illustrative of what i've been trying to say. Is the simple oversight in this example reflecting institutional complacency ? Confirmation bias ( InfoLoss <-> Evaporation ) ? Who is 'wrong' ( other than hopefully me) ? So, then, the example ...

Since flattest spacetime where we live is a 'space' or volume it seems heuristically reasonable then to think of possible compactified dimensions or large extra dimensions ( either RS1 or RS2 or Universal or any non MWI or MUH 'dimensions' ) as compactified 'spaces' or 'volumes' or even waveguide-type cavities which must all add up to the One Universe. Is this not a kind of legitimate Unitarity viewpoint where all possibilities add up to 1 ( or the Oneness ) ?

So we might interpret say, neutrinos as living in one of these cavities and maybe dark matter as 'living' in another of these and virtual particles inhabiting yet another, etc. ?

If it's fair to say then that the 'whole' spacetime manifold is a sandwich of cavities/waveguides could someone please explain in some detail (or provide links) how it has been ruled out that Hawking radiation is not simply curvature induced blackbody or 'cavity radiation' instead of being assumed to be the energy of a black hole evaporating away ? Is this not a reasonable explanation for the persistent inability to find any 'information' in this blackbody/cavity radiation as well as our inability to observe the evaporation of primordial black holes ? Is this not a better 'fit' with observations ?

After all, in 1974 when Hawking 'decided' that Hawking radiation 'had' to be coming from the BH since there is 'nowhere else' this energy could be coming from, a seemingly simple Conservation argument against blatant 'matter creation' which, in that era, would have been philosophically associated with the then recently (1965 -CMB, Penzias-Wilson) refuted Steady State Theory ? Has that reasoning been re-evaluated anywhere since 1974 or since the notion of compactified spaces entered the picture ? If this question has the ring of an 'idea' then i guess it hasn't been discussed much.

So, HOW HAS this idea of an alternative source of Hawking Energy been ruled out to the point that we can safely bet our lives that Hawking energy indeed can only be coming from the Black Hole ?

It seems to me that Hawking radiation is being largely taken to be synonymous with 'Evaporation' in the LHC safety assessments and that the only questioning about Hawking Radiation taking place is whether it occurs 'at all' which is not 'at all' the same question.

Surely it cannot be too late to be asking such a potentially important question ? How has my specific concern been ruled out and if it has not, do we dare remain warm and fuzzy about impending LHC collisions ?

Although I have read your papers and blogs on this Bee, this page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_hair_theorem serves as a convenient single reference which discusses all these issues except the one I am specifically asking about and frankly contains many words like "may", "could", "presumed", "should", etc. which inclines me to think there is some room for re-interpretation if need be.

Anyway ...
Thanks again.

Neil B said...

The comment about BH radiation reminds me of my own non-specialist take on the issue. It allows illustration of the method of looking for "loose ends" in descriptions we hear at least, even if not changing the theories. The usual pop description of Hawking BH radiation posits it as being like virtual photon and particle pairs being "split" by the event horizon. One of the pair falls into the BH, the other escapes into space. Well the one falling in has to be count "negative" anyway or we'd gain net mass-energy total.

But my big gripe was that, accelerating reference frames have an effective "horizon" - the Rindler horizon - sort of like a BH EH. (It's at distance c^2/a from the accelerating point taken as reference.) I thought: if acceleration is "all relative" then the RH should "split" VP pairs like a real BH would. But it can't, since that would make real photons spontaneously emerge from a merely relational plane in space. (Physically to the rest of us, the RH is no more "real" than a line of longitude.)

Some knowing types at Newsgroup SPR (IIRC) told me that was a good objection and way to attack the simplistic pop model. They had solutions, but they were deep. The whole subject is more complicated than we hear about. So I didn't "disprove Hawking" but did ask a good Socratic question which showed the subject was deeper than it's being presented. In other cases, maybe something genuinely surprising may be revealed. (I have to "toot my own horn" since I know most and best about my own tries.)

LastAncientGreek said...

(writing previously as OMG )

Hi Neil,

My pointed example above was on topic but I am afraid comparing notes with you regarding the issues you raised ( Rindler, 'deeper' explanations for HawRad, etc) would be drifting off topic and risk Bee's ire.

So, by way of clarification only, I will just say that my example/question does not question the occurence of HawkRad, it posits a simpler, possibly overlooked source of that energy which better fits observational evidence.

I take as provisionally given that virtual particles not quite reaching 'existence' status in flat spacetime do successfully tunnel into real existence in very curved S/T but all the "...deeper ..." explanations you refer to ( that I have been able to find) START from the premise that the HawkRad energy 'must' be coming from the black hole because HawkRad 'must' be the flip side, after the fact 'compensation' for 'conjectured' InfoLoss.

My question didn't say so but the inability to find a convincing rationale for how Info gets 'out' reeks of an attempt to 'force fit' in accordance with a cherished notion. Exactly the kind of cherished notion which can become so 'obviously' reversible in hindsight when a new idea comes along, per my thesis throughout this thread.

Thanks

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

But Andrew,

What's the point arguing with people who do not play by the official rules of rational scientific inquiry?

You will not have any luck convincing them that they are wrong, or that your position is stronger and more sensible?

What's the problem? Just ignore them.

Of course, if they are some of the leaders of the theoretical physics community, then you do have a problem.

Ahh ... uh, oh ... HOUSTON!

;)
Ulrich

Bee said...

Ulrich/Robert: If you have nothing to say, shut up.

Neil: That's entirely off-topic. The RH does lead to particle creation, it's called the Unruh effect, you can find that in any decent textbook on the topic. You can indeed use it to explain the Hawking effect. (That's as far as the standard argument is concerned, call it the scientific consensus. I have some issues with the argument for reasons I presently don't want to elaborate on, just so you know I'm simply telling you what's the state of the art.)

OMG/LastAncientGreek: This is entirely off-topic. This thread is *not*, I repeat *not* the place to post your ideas about something. Please read our comment rules.

I have a post on the information loss problem in the pipe (some things came in the way thus the delay), so let me just briefly say your idea is wrong for several reasons. First, Hawking radiation is not universal, it depends on the mass of the black hole. Second, usual blackbody radiation also does not violate unitarity. Third, your attempt to "explain" Hawking radiation is misguided to begin with. It's not like there's an observation for which you have to come up with a theory. It's a prediction derived in various ways within a very uncontroversial setting. It is clearly not "induced" by any "cavity effect" since the calculation doesn't make use of the setting you suggest. Besides this, models in which particles live on different slices (branes) in the extra dimensions have been studied extensively (see arxiv). If one sort of particle lives in a different universe than the others then it's not compatible with reality.

I toto: you need to do more reading, in particular it seems you haven't understood the problem to begin with. I'll repeat it once again, this is *not* the place to discuss your idea how to solve the information loss problem.

Best,

B.

Neil B said...

Yes Bee, this is not the place to discuss the subject of e.g. Unruh radiation per se. Yet it was my example of how critiques of (simplistically presented?) "advanced theories" might come up in the minds of non-specialists, however it turned out. Importantly, I had critiqued the ordinary popularization - popularizations are an issue in this thread since they can mislead interested amateurs or non-specialists the most. Hence my respondents brought out "deeper explanations" like the relativity of particle identity. (Clearly, universally existent real photons cannot be summoned forth from a relational plane. Correction: RH is distanced from rest-point of accelerating observer.) Per Wikipedia: "There is also some doubt about whether the Unruh effect implies the existence of Unruh radiation."

LAG, you made very good topical points at 1:58 PM, February 01; but Bee is right that we must drop the direct physics promulgation, and she's B.O. too.