Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Excuse me, where is the mainstream?

More than once I went away from a discussion, confused about what exactly my conversation partners meant with “physics mainstream”. The “mainstream,” it seems, is typically employed as reference point for why some research projects get funded and others not. If it’s not “mainstream physics”, I gather, it’s difficult to get it funded. But can we come up with a good explanation for what is “mainstream”?

My first attempt to define the “mainstream” would be by the context it is most often used, the ease by which a research topic can be funded: the easier, the more mainstream. But on second thought this is not a helpful definition because it’s not based on properties of the research itself, which makes it circular. We could as well say a topic attracts funding easily because it’s mainstream, and so we are none the wiser. What is it that puts a research area into the main of the stream to begin with?

Reference to “mainstream science” is often made by pseudoscientists who are using the term in an attempt to downgrade scientific research and to appear original. (Ironically they then often boldly use and abuse vocabulary from the unoriginal mainstream. Google for quantum healing to see what I mean.) In that case the “mainstream” is just all that deserves to be called scientific research.

The way that pseudoscientists use the expression is not what I want to discuss today. It’s the way that researchers themselves speak about the “mainstream” that has left me wondering if it is possible to make this a meaningful, and useful, terminology. The way the expression is used by researchers it seems to have connotations of popularity, fashionableness, timeliness, and attracting large numbers of people. Below I have tried to make sense of each of these properties, and then I’ll offer the best definition that I could come up with. I invite you to submit your own!

Public attention

At any given time, some topics are popular. In physics there is presently direct detection of dark matter, quantum computing, topologic insulators and cold atom gases, for just to mention a few. But in many cases these popular topics constitute only a small fraction of the research that is actually happening. The multiverse, to name another example, is in reality a fringe area of gr-qc that just happens to capture public attention. The same is the case for the black hole firewall. In fact, in many cases what makes headlines in the press are singular or controversial findings. It’s not the type of research that funding agencies have on their agenda, which is why popularity is not a good defining property for the mainstream.

Fashionableness

High energy physics is a very fad-driven area of physics and quite often you can see a topic appearing and gathering momentum within a matter of months, just to then exponentially decay and hardly be mentioned some years later. Anybody remembers unparticles? The pentaquark? The so-called OPERA anomaly? These fads aren’t as extreme in other areas of physics (or so I am told) but they exist, if less pronounced.

Fashionableness indeed seems to some extent correlated with the ease of getting funding. But a trend must have been around for a while and have attracted a base of research findings to appear solid and worthy of funding, so that cannot be the whole story. This brings me to the next point.

Occupation number

The more people work on a topic, the easier it is to make a case that the topic is relevant and deserves being funded. Thus the number of researchers in an area seems a plausible measure for it being mainstream. Or does it?

The total number of people is in fact a highly misleading quantity. A topic may attract many researchers because it’s very rich and there is a lot that can be done. Another topic might just not support such a large number of researchers, but this says more about the nature of research in an area than about its relevance or its promise.

String theory is an example of a research area that is very rich and supports many independent studies, which I believe is reason it has become so dominant in quantum gravity – there’s just a lot that can be done. But does that make it mainstream research? Nanoscience is another example of a research area that attracts a lot of people, but does so for an entirely different reason, that being the potential of developing patents and applications. Throwing them both together doesn’t seem to make much sense. The total number of people does not seem a good defining property for the mainstream either.

The important factor for the ease of obtaining funding is not so much the total number of people, but the amount of tangible open problems that can be attacked. This then leads me to the next point.

Saturation level

A refinement of the occupation number is the amount to which a research area attracts people that study presently open questions on the topic. Mainstream physics, then, would be those areas that attract at least as many researchers as are necessary to push forward on all presently open questions. Since this is a property relative to the number of possible research projects, a small research area can be mainstream as much as a large one. It has some aspects of fashionableness, yet requires a more solid base already.

This definition makes sense to me because ease of funding should have something to do with the availability of research projects as well as their promise, which would be reflected in the willingness of researchers to spend time on these projects.

Except that this definition doesn’t seem to agree with reality because funding usually lags behind, leaving research areas overpopulated: It is easy to obtain funding for projects in areas whose promise is already on the decline because funding decisions are made based on reports by people who work in the very same area. So this definition, though appealing at first sight, just doesn’t seem to work.

Timeliness

Thus, in the end neither popularity, fads, the number of people, nor the availability of promising research topics seem to make for a good definition of the mainstream. Then let me try something entirely different, based on an analogy I used in the Nordita video.

Knowledge discovery is like the mapping of unknown territory. At any time, we have a map with a boundary beyond which we do not know what to expect. Applied research is building on the territory that we have mapped. Basic research is planning expeditions into the unknown to extend the map and with it the area that we can build on.

In either case, building on known territory and planning expeditions, researchers can take small steps and stay close to the known base. Or they can aim high and far and risk both failure and disconnect from colleagues.

This image offers the following definition for mainstream research.

Mainstream research is the research that aims just far enough to be novel and contribute to knowledge discovery, but not so far as to disconnect from what is already known. It’s new, but not too new. It’s familiar, but not too familiar. It’s baby steps. It builds on what is known without creating uncomfortable gaps.  It uses known methods. It connects. It doesn’t shock. It’s neither too ambitious nor too yesterday. It’s neither too conservative nor too tomorrow. It is what makes the community nod in appraisal.

Mainstream research is what surprises, but doesn’t surprise too much.

We previously discussed the relevance of familiarity in an entirely different context, that of appreciating musing. There too, you want it to be predictable, but not too predictable. You want it to have just the right amount of complexity.

I think that’s really the essence of what makes a field mainstream: how tight the connection is to existing knowledge and how well the research is embedded into what is already known. If a new field comes up, there will be a phase when there aren’t many connections to anything. But over the course of time, given all goes well, research on the topic will create a map of new territory that then can be built upon.

28 comments:

DocG said...

Depending on how you look at it, "mainstream" physics is either: totally bankrupt, hopping about from this theory to that, desperately hoping against hope for a breakthrough with nothing meaningful in sight; OR extremely exciting, brimming with all sorts of new methods, ideas and maths, and on the brink of earth shattering new developments. All I can say is that, for me, it continues to be an endless source of fascination, "mainstream" or not.

Giotis said...

Hi Sabine,

That's easy.

Mainstream physics is the corpus of theories with dominant position in large American (USA) Universities.

uair01 said...

Your definition of mainstream reminded me of "Kakanien" that extremely rational country in Middle Europe as described in Robert Musils "The man without qualities":

Of course cars rolled on these roads too, but not too many! The conquest of the air was being prepared here too, but not too intensively.

A ship would now and then be sent off to South America or East Asia, but not too often. There was no ambition for world markets or world power. Here at the very center of Europe, where the world’s old axes crossed, words such as “colony” and “overseas” sounded like something quite untried and remote.

There was some show of luxury, but by no means as in such overrefined ways as the French.

People went in for sports, but not as fanatically as the English.

Ruinous sums of money were spent on the army, but only just enough to secure its position as the second-weakest among he great powers.

The capital, too, was somewhat smaller than all the other biggest cities of the world, but considerably bigger than a mere big city.

And the country’s administration was conducted in an enlightened, unobtrusive manner, with all sharp edges cautiously smoothed over, by the best bureaucracy in Europe, which could be faulted only in that it regarded genius, and any brilliant individual initiative not backed by noble birth or official status, as insolent and presumptuous.

Alex W. said...

The definition of "mainstream" you end up with is not too different from Thomas Kuhn's definition of "normal science" in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn describes this mode of scientific work as "puzzle solving," seeking to tie up loose ends of the currently reigning "paradigm" rather than overthrow it. Kuhn also argues that anomalies discovered in the course of "normal science" can lead to some people deciding the reigning paradigm is incorrect, and start searching around for radical new approaches ("revolutionary science").

(Kuhn's notion of a paradigm is a notoriously fuzzy concept, but it means something like worldview, dominant theoretical or meta-theoretical model, practices and instruments in current use, or unquestioned assumptions.)

The problem with Kuhn in general is that this kind of approach works best when looking at something in the past (if then); trying to deploy such a definition contemporaneously with the work being done is pretty tricky.

Your initial rejection of "mainstream is what gets funded" is arguably not as circular as you think it is, if you see it as a sociological definition. That is, "mainstream science is what physicists think it is." How do you measure that? By looking at funding patterns, for example. What is unsatisfying about this is that it does not take into account all of the variables that go into funding decisions (which are more than "whether it is mainstream"), of course.

Frank Burdge said...

Sabine, I agree with your conclusion and I found your analysis interesting and thought provoking, but also, in a rather tangential aspect, somewhat unsettling. As I read your discussion, I found myself relating your ideas to the context of my own efforts in amateur theoretical physics. The question I am reluctant, but compelled, to ask is whether those of you who are legitimately in the mainstream, consider the efforts of amateur physicists to be pseudoscience?

My friend and I are a couple of old retired,fairly unqualified, wannabe, amateur cosmologists, collaborating on a cosmological model which may well explain quantum gravity, dark energy, dark matter, inertia, and much more.

Since we lack the tools & expertise to complete our model to a level acceptable by mainstream physicists and academics, are our efforts nothing more than pseudoscience?

Uncle Al said...

Mainstream is flashy mediocrity holding a vast audience diligently converting glitter into a tyranny of immersive falsehoods, an abusive hegemony of beige, pluralistic ignorance, compulsory degradative egalitarianism. Mainstream is a peer vote by administration not peers. Mainstream is drinking downstream from the herd.

Mainstream is showing a little thigh as an exercise of platitudinous amorality. Mainstream believes electricity comes from the holes in a wall outlet. Mainstream kills the future, for the only trusted purveyor is one whose sole marketable asset is loyalty. Mainstream is Persephone Throckmorton (anagram it).

Euclid was mainstream for 2000 years. Look what Bolyai did, then Thurston. Mainstream is the streetlight paradox, white swans, clothed emperors, believing anything can be magnified or log-logged into linearity. A good idea need only be testable. It is believable afterward, smothered by acceptance, and forbidden from evolving.

Anonymous Snowboarder said...

Bee - I think your definition is in part correct but I would include something along the lines of "research which does not presuppose a significant conflict with currently accepted principles/theories/data."

I don't think that prima facie means only small steps, just that the step not require a leap into the very speculative or areas which would have little or no sound underpinning in current theory or experiment.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Giotis,

Ah, good point, there are local differences of course. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Uair,

Exactly... :) thanks for making the connection! Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Frank,

Let me put it like this: You cannot come up with an explanation for quantum gravity, dark energy and dark matter without understanding in depth what these problems entail to begin with. I don't know what exactly you mean when you write that your attempts are not "at a level acceptable by mainstream physicists", but I suspect it means they're not up to the state of the art in technical rigor. If that is so, I hate to break the news to you, but your contribution will not be relevant because the very nature of the problems you're looking at is in the technical details and nobody working in these areas will be interested if the technical rigor isn't there.

That having been said, I want to encourage you to look into the literature and bring your model up to the presently accepted level in physics. It isn't as difficult as it might seem at first sight, you just have to build up from the bottom and not start on the topc.

And don't say "mainstream" if what you mean is really all of physics, it's the fasted way to get people stop listening to you :p Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I like and agree with your definition of what mainstream research should boil down to be and yet never liked the term itself, as resultant of the mental image it imparts; well at least in me. That is a mainstream could be said to be equated with a river, whose waters are dependent upon the smaller streams ond tributaries which supply it with the water it contains. This part of the analogy I like, as it could be said, as in your example to be what such research represents to be, and if left there to being a good one. However it’s the destination of these waters that has me left unsatisfied, for as all rivers run eventually to the oceans from which the waters originated to begin with and from where they will once again be supplied. This for me leaves research to be equated with futility, as it never takes us to new places, yet to only able to return again and again to those open as allowed to being explored. Such I would like research not to be connected with being a stream, yet rather a road, a road understood despite perhaps never having one to arrive at the wished for destination and yet still one having it realized, it’s that which we discover on the journey itself and not the road that has the journey to be worthwhile.


“The whole strenuous intellectual work of an industrious research worker would appear, after all, in vain and hopeless, if he were not occasionally through some striking facts to find that he had, at the end of all his criss-cross journeys, at last accomplished at least one step which was conclusively nearer the truth.”


Max Planck, “Opening of his lecture upon winning the Noble prize” (1920)


Best,

Phil

Christine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phillip Helbig said...

First, I would define "mainstream physics" as an area of physics where it is clear what the important problems are and also how progress is to be made. For example, back in the 1950s when several new elementary particles were discovered, it was mainstream physics to classify them. Something which is not mainstream is then an area where it is not clear what the important problems are and/or there is no obvious way ahead.

With regard to Frank: If your model can make testable predictions which distinguish it from other models, then publish those predictions. If not, it is worthless as a scientific theory.

Frank Burdge said...

Thanks Bee, for your reply and your encouragement. The greatest deficiency of our model is the absence of higher maths. Nether my partner, nor I, have the training or the ability to develop the field equations that are essential to any complete cosmological model. At ages 70 and 88 years, our math tools have substantially rusted. We perceive our model to be consistent with the state of the art, within our limits of understanding. We believe our model could be scientifically important. What we really need is a third collaborator, a respected professional theoretical physicist, such as you, to complete the model. So what are you doing in your spare time? :) Wouldn't you like to be a collaborator and coauthor of the theory that answers a double handful of the most important scientific questions of our time? We have a place for you on our team. Really!

Frank Burdge said...

Thanks Phillip Helbig, for the reality check, your valuable comment regarding the critical importance of unique, testable predictions.

Our focus, to this point, has been on the development of the fundamental physics that connect such diverse evolutionary phenomena as cosmic exponential inflation, the emergence of the fundamental particles and interactions of the standard model, the establishment of limits on the universal scale, the mechanisms of quantum gravity, the structure of dark matter, the source and essence of dark energy, the emergence of the geometry of spacetime, the nature of the bending and warping of space and the dilation of time,etc.

Obviously, predicting the upper limit of scale of the universe is not testable, even if the calculations are straightforward and easily understood. Our first proof of concept is likely to be the derivation of the gravitational constant, G, exclusively from the model. Although we will need some help with the math.

Thanks again for the practical advice. We will be seriously thinking about testable predictions.

Best,

Frank

Plato Hagel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plato Hagel said...

BeeKnowledge discovery is like the mapping of unknown territory. At any time, we have a map with a boundary beyond which we do not know what to expect. Applied research is building on the territory that we have mapped. Basic research is planning expeditions into the unknown to extend the map and with it the area that we can build on.

I like the way this is written. Knowing where our limitations are do help us to define the boundary with which we are able to see new things.

These boundaries are different for different people and those educated more then others about particular topics.

What may be describe as fad is a leading motivation factor toward requirement of how such a point has been reached, so you have to look for examples that will lead you onto that path of thinking.

See what science people are saying. You also have to be a good tracker.:)

Best,

Plato Hagel said...

......not just a tracker of people and their respective sciences but of the latest information as well.

So you at your black board showing the map with which took you to your point.....where does this then lead you?

If you are keeping track of the experiments and how hey are connected then this leads one's thought hopefully to the question of trying to ascertain the information being proofed.

Like those older gentlemen it does not stop with respect to the work they do, or have retired from, but show the spirit with which our interest of life and it's components are still a wonderful perspective on the mystery of life.

Where does your boundary of knowledge place you, and one always is increasing the knowledge base so as to understand their involvement with reality, or even, the question of it. If your not into that that's okay.

There must be an expression then that leaves no room other then what is testable and leads from that perspective only.

Internally, you know where you are at whether you have seen the global perspective of your life while moving through the day to day events. There is an "internal measure" no matter how subjective this is interpreted to be, you are measuring life?

Best,

Zephir said...

It's quite easy to distinguish what the mainstream science is and what isn't by peer-reviewed replication criterion. The findings, which are never attempted to replicate in peer-reviewed journals belong into alternative science. In this way, the mainstream physics doesn't recognize an aether, scalar waves, cold fusion, magnetic motors, antigravity, psychic phenomena, memory of water and many other concepts. These concepts are never researched in peer-review journals and their occasional findings are never attempted to replicate in these journals, despite nothing actually prohibits it.

Zephir said...

Of course, many mainstream physicists (including the Bee) are starting to realize, they're an ignorants - so they tend to pretend, that the findings which were researched for many years outside of mainstream belong to mainstream from their very beginning at the moment, when their effectiveness becomes proven finally. This is IMO the way, in which the hypocritical stance presented in this article should be understood by layman publics. I'm very well aware of fact, that many liberal opinions presented with Sabine here would be never published just before few years.

Zephir said...

The typical aspect of mainstream science is just the plain ignorance of opposition. For me it's symptomatic if not funny, when some mainstream physicist claims, that the mainstream science doesn't exist and that only "pseudoscientists" are saying it. Well - just these "pseudoscientists" are who belong into alternative science, which the mainstream scientists refuse to take into account, because it doesn't play their game.

Zephir said...

/* Anybody remembers unparticles? The pentaquark? The so-called OPERA anomaly? These fads aren’t as extreme in other areas of physics (or so I am told) but they exist, if less pronounced... */

The mainstream and alternative science may overlap in time, but not in space. Many occasional findings or insights of mainstream physics become alternative physics for long time and vice-versa. As Max Planck once said, the "Truth never triumphs — its opponents just die out". Such an evolution indicates the presence of firewall boundary (brane duality) between alternative and mainstream physics.

id said...

I think you'll have to accept that the "mainstream" you're looking for is not a criterion of the research itself but of the sociology of research.

I think he main stream is first defined by famous/successful scientists and what they find interesting, and then flows outward by association - either topical ("... tests an aspect of famous person's conjecture") or personal ("... worked with famous person").

This does of course not prove that there aren't objective properties of the research that could yield a similar classification of research proposals, it's just that following Deutsch's dictum, at the moment I'm considering the sociology "real" since it features in the best explanations I've seen of how science works.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Frank,

Thanks for the kind offer. Unfortunately, I presently just don't have spare time and I have too many projects on my hand already. I wish you good luck anyway, and don't be afraid of maths, no matter what your age, you can learn it. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Phil,

It's a nice analogy, and I don't mind it indicating a process that repeats, for that is the case also in science. Every answer brings a new question and so it all starts over again. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Hi Snowboarder,

Yes, that's right that mainstream research "does not presuppose a significant conflict with currently accepted principles/theories/data", but I would argue that this is pretty much a consequence of it not being "too surprising."

About the small steps, I agree. "Not too far into the speculative" is what I meant, but you are right that that you can still make "large" steps that do not require this, so it's not a good way to express it. Best,

B.

Giotis said...

Frank, that's a noble goal of yours (I turned 40 and I wish I could have your ambitions or energy) but don't you think your assertions are a bit grandiose?

You must be modest for people to take you seriously otherwise you might fall into the crackpot/pseudoscience category, especially by acknowledging that you theory is not mathematical backed up.

Plato Hagel said...

Hmmm.....let me try something different here.

Nano particulates for instance.

New area research being developed for applicability, but not really that new. In recognition of powers of ten it most certainly can focus one's perception and vision toward a domain of activity that is important when considering it's production value. Existing manufacturing processes.

Considering an emergent process what factor would drive you even deeper into the physics of being to ask what patterns exists in nature that all we've done is represent the deepening of our perception about the structure of nature and matter?

So one might say what effect a particular branch of theoretical physics may consolidate condense matter bottom up view from a perception about what began in our universe?

So while traveling along the road in development you can see our progress is being developed about the microcosm of our reality?

Perhaps patterns hidden deep in the idea of quasi-crystals as possible emergent signals toward manifestation into reality?

Then there is this fellow that draws a E8 structure manifestation pattern?:) It's important because he develops a map. This map is very good, but remains to be seen if it is a good representation of such an emergent reality? But the fact that such a map has been drawn is very important realization into the development of a structural perspective about our matter constitutions you see.

Best,