Sunday, August 12, 2012

What is transformative research and why do we need it?

Since 2007, the US-American National Science Foundation (NSF) has an explicit call for “transformative research” in their funding criteria. Transformative research, according to the NSF, is the type of research that can “radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or educational practice or leads to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science, engineering, or education.” The European Research Council (ERC) calls it “frontier research” and explains that this frontier research is “at the forefront of creating new knowledge[. It] is an intrinsically risky endeavour that involves the pursuit of questions without regard for established disciplinary boundaries or national borders.”

The best way to understand this type of research is that it’s of high risk with a potential high payoff. It’s the type of blue-sky research that is very unlikely to be pursued in for-profit organizations because it might have no tangible outcome for decades. Since one doesn’t actually know if some research has a high payoff before it’s been done, one should better call it “Potentially Transformative Research.”

Why do we need it?

If you think of science being an incremental slow push on the boundaries of knowledge, then transformative research is a jump across the border in the hope to land on save ground. Most likely, you’ll jump and drown, or be eaten by dragons. But if you’re lucky and, let’s not forget about that, smart, you might discover a whole new field of science and noticeably redefine the boundaries of knowledge.

The difficulty is of course to find out if the potential benefit justifies the risk. So there needs to be an assessment of both, and a weighting of them against each other.

Most of science is not transformative. Science is, by function, conservative. It conserves the accumulated knowledge and defends it. We need some transformative research to overcome this conservatism, otherwise we’ll get stuck. That’s why the NSF and ERC acknowledge the necessity of high-risk, high-payoff research.

But while it is clear that we need some of it, it’s not a priori clear we need more of it than we already have. Not all research should aspire to be transformative. How do we know we’re too conservative?

The only way to reliably know is to take lots of data over a long time and try to understand where the optimal balance lies. Unfortunately, the type of payoff that we’re talking about might take decades to centuries to appear, so that is, at present, not very feasible.

In lack of this the only thing we can do is to find a good argument for how to move towards the optimal balance.

One way you can do this is with measures for scientific success. I think this is the wrong approach. It’s like setting prices in a market economy by calculating them from the product’s properties and future plans. It’s not a good way to aggregate information and there’s no reason to trust whoever comes up with the formula for the success measure knows what they’re doing.

The other way is to enable a natural optimization process, much like the free market prices goods. Just that in science the goal isn’t to price goods but to distribute researchers over research projects. How many people should optimally work on which research so their skills are used efficiently and progress is as fast as possible? Most scientists have the aspiration to make good use of their skills and to contribute to progress, so the only thing we need to do is to let them follow their interests.

Yes, that’s right. I’m saying the best we can do is trust the experts to find out themselves where their skills are of best use. Of course one needs to provide a useful infrastructure for this to work. Note that this does not mean everybody necessarily works on the topic they’re most interested in, because the more people work on a topic the smaller the chances become that there are significant discoveries for each of them to be made.

The tragedy is of course that this is nowhere like science is organized today. Scientists are not free to choose on which problem to use their skills. Instead, they are subject to all sorts of pressures which prevent the optimal distribution of researchers over projects.

The most obvious pressures are financial and time pressure. Short term contracts put a large incentive on short-term thinking. Another problem is the difficulty for researchers to change topics, which has the effect that there is a large (generational) time-lag in the population of research fields. Both of these problems cause a trend towards conservative rather than transformative research. Worse: They cause a trend towards conservative rather than transformative thinking and, by selection, a too small ratio of transformative rather than conservative researchers. This is why we have reason to believe the fraction of transformative research and researchers is presently smaller than optimal.

How can we support potentially transformative research?

The right way to solve this problem is to reduce external pressure on researchers and to ensure the system can self-optimize efficiently. But this is difficult to realize. If that is not possible, one can still try to promote transformative research by other means in the hope of coming closer to the optimal balance. How can one do this?

The first thing that comes to mind is to write transformative research explicitly into the goals of the funding agencies, encourage researchers to propose such projects, and peers to review them favorably. This most likely will not work very well because it doesn’t change anything about the too conservative communities. If you random sample a peer review group for a project, you’re more likely to get conservative opinions just because they’re more common. As a result, transformative research projects are unlikely to be reviewed favorably. It doesn’t matter if you tell people that transformative research is desirable, because they still have to evaluate if the high risk justifies the potential high payoff. And assessment of tolerable risk is subjective.

So what can be done?

One thing that can be done is to take a very small sample of reviewers, because the smaller the sample the larger the chance of a statistical fluctuation. Unfortunately, this also increases the risk that nonsense will go through because the reviewers just weren’t in the mood to actually read the proposal. The other thing you can do is to pre-select researchers so you have a subsample with a higher ratio of transformative to conservative researchers.

This is essentially what FQXi is doing. And, in their research area, they’re doing remarkably well actually. That is to say, if I look at the projects that they fund, I think most of it won’t lead anywhere. And that’s how it should be. On the downside, it’s all short-term projects. The NSF is also trying to exploit preselection in a different form in their new EAGER and CREATIV funding mechanism that are not at all assessed by peers but exclusively by NSF staff. In this case the NSF staff is the preselected group. However, I am afraid that the group might be too small to be able to accurately assess the scientific risk. Time will tell.

Putting a focus on transformative research is very difficult for institutions with a local presence. That’s because when it comes to hire colleagues who you have to get along with, people naturally tend to select those who fit in, both in type of research and in type of personality. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it benefits collaborations, but it can promote homogeneity and lead to “more of the same” research. It takes a constant effort to avoid this trend. It also takes courage and a long-term vision to go for the high-risk, high payoff research(er), and not many institutions can afford this courage. So here is again the financial pressure that hinders leaps of progress just because of lacking institutional funding.

It doesn’t help that during the last weeks I had to read that my colleagues in basic research in Canada, the UK and also the USA are looking forward to severe budget cuts:

“Of paramount concern for basic scientists [in Canada] is the elimination of the Can$25-million (US$24.6-million) RTI, administered by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), which funds equipment purchases of Can$7,000–150,000. An accompanying Can$36-million Major Resources Support Program, which funds operations at dozens of experimental-research facilities, will also be axed.” [Source: Nature]
“Hanging over the effective decrease in support proposed by the House of Representatives last week is the ‘sequester’, a pre-programmed budget cut that research advocates say would starve US science-funding agencies.” [Source: Nature]
“[The] Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) [is] the government body that holds the biggest public purse for physics, mathematics and engineering research in the United Kingdom. Facing a growing cash squeeze and pressure from the government to demonstrate the economic benefits of research, in 2009 the council's chief executive, David Delpy, embarked on a series of controversial reforms… The changes incensed many physical scientists, who protested that the policy to blacklist grant applicants was draconian. They complained that the EPSRC's decision to exert more control over the fields it funds risked sidelining peer review and would favour short-term, applied research over curiosity-driven, blue-skies work in a way that would be detrimental to British science.” [Source:Nature]
So now more than ever we should make sure that investments in basic research are used efficiently. And one of the most promising ways to do this is presently to enable more potentially transformative research.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Maybe we should ask you for some explicit examples of some transformative research and why do you consider them transformative...

  3. Hi Zephir,

    I just wrote a whole blogpost about the difficulty to identify transformative research and how it can be done. I did not write "Ask me and I'll tell you." Though that seems to be what you have read. Maybe read it again.

    It is very difficult to judge on the promise of a research project, even in the own research area, and it is impossible without reading a proposal carefully. Your comments only document that you have absolutely no experience with this process.



  4. OK, how do you want to support the transformative research, if you cannot recognize it?

  5. "transformative research... can 'radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept...'." Total empirical failure of string/M-theory, quantum gravitation; SUSY and all the parity violations and symmetry breakings in the standard model are exactly what they appear to be - fundamental. Vacuum symmetries measured by massless boson photons with f(x) = f(-x) are not exact toward massed fermions wherein f(x) =-f(-x). Observed: no composition or field observable violates the Equivalence Principle: Eotvos experiments, Nordtvedt effect, astronomic mixed binary systems (solar stars, white dwarfs, neutron stars/pulsars, black holes). Observed: Spacetime geometry is trace divergent toward fermionic mass hence physical chirality. Single crystal test masses in enantiomorphic space groups insert into the vacuum with trace non-identical energies - spacetime geometry challenged with atomic mass distribution geometry. Test: Said geometric test masses vacuum free fall along trace non-identical minimum action trajectories.

    Newton in 1687 was wrong by a tiny factor of sqrt[1 -(v^2/c^2)]. Given local gravitational acceleration "a," photons are observed to fall with acceleration "2a." Little error, big consequences. "...the type of payoff that we’re talking about might take decades to centuries to appear..." 90 days in existing apparatus,
    Emergent property geometric chirality is a black swan in physics. Contemporary theory, as with Newton, could be in trifling error (wrong). Somebody should look.

  6. Hi Zephir,

    Whether I personally am or am not able to correctly asses the promise and risk of any one particular proposal is absolutely irrelevant to the content of my blogpost. I cannot take from you the effort of actually reading what I wrote. I have explained in my blogpost what is the most promising way to identify and support transformative research, so why don't you just read it before producing irrelevant comments. Best,


  7. “Most of science is not transformative. Science is, by function, conservative. It conserves the accumulated knowledge and defends it.” Are you sure you’re not confusing science with religion?

    Now, seriously speaking, this “non-transformative” science absolutely dominating today in “officially recognised” research (including its mentioned “officially transformative” divisions) is so generously supported for what kind of result? All those privileged departments, institutes and huge experimental facilities only for “conservation” and “defence”?! At the age of severely needed qualitative progress and ever more limited resources?! Parasitism is a simple waste of resources, but this “non-transformative” mafia makes also everything to stop any truly transformative (and badly needed) research.

    Any useful “research” can only be “transformative”, by definition - or else a waste of money and a growing obstacle to progress. A small parasitic lie about “incremental slow push on the boundaries of knowledge” can deceive nobody any more, after decades of pushing so far away from the boundaries of knowledge. The idea of relatively slow but useful progress comes from the preceding epoch of working in the aftermath of previous truly transformative advances, at the beginning of the 20th century. No “slow push” at all, only moving by (decreasing) inertia of a previous very strong and highly transformative jump.

    Even more, previous transformative jumps were practically always related to purely empirical, technological advances revealing “new realities” asking for “theoretical understanding” suggesting further experiments etc. But today practically all reasonably accessible empirical realities have already been discovered with the help of ultimately “fine” empirical tools. Remaining interpretational problems can be solved only by “purely transformative” insights of a new type, not heavily relying on simultaneous “experimental verification” (which becomes ultimately ambiguous). And after this is done, any knowledge progress at all can only be performed within a yet more advanced, “extremely transformative” search that at the origin cannot rely on any purely empirical discovery at all, but only on human creativity. Starting from now, any true progress of knowledge (if ever) will be indistinguishable from progress of human mind (as opposed to basically stagnating mind until now).

  8. Transformative research is like finding the New World. Incremental progress in science is like mapping the New World. Both are necessary.

    Let us remember that in a particular field, transformative work is sporadic, and an enormous amount of incremental work intervenes. Contemplate a history of theories of gravity, or of electromagnetism, for instance.

  9. /*..I have explained in my blogpost what is the most promising way to identify and support transformative research.. whether I personally am or am not able to correctly asses the promise and risk of any one particular proposal is absolutely irrelevant... */

    ...?!? Is being a theorist a synonym of incompetence to do the things practically?

  10. As someone who has for many years done what I like to think of as transformative research (NOT in physics, but in aesthetics and the social sciences), I must say it is a very lonely road. It is also imo futile to attempt to promote this sort of research because it is almost by definition going to elude exactly those who claim to be looking for it.

    I have to laugh whenever I attempt to deal with a publisher or institution that makes a big deal about how they are looking for truly innovative, path breaking work -- invariably interdisciplinary, natch -- because when I read these blurbs I know very well that I am exactly the sort of person they claim to be looking for, but I know as well that I won't stand a chance, because what they are really looking for is more of the same dressed up with fancy sounding rhetoric.

    Don't worry, it hasn't made me bitter, because I understand how difficult it is to do what I am attempting. I'm just grateful that the Internet has made it possible for me to get my work out there, and find some sympathetic souls that appreciate what I'm doing.

  11. My studies of the history of science (esp. physics/astronomy) suggest that those doing the most important transformative work do not need or want a lot of money.

    Also, the members of this rare subset of scientists would probably not have been selected for support by the experts chosen to evaluate research potentials.

    Same as it ever was.

  12. Hi Zephir,

    You are evidently not able or not willing to understand what I write. I will delete any further of your comments as they are just a waste of time. Best,


  13. Hi Robert,

    This depends greatly on the field. Note that the NSF and also the ERC do include experiment and engineering. Equipment can be very costly. Theoretical physicists, or everybody else who works mostly with pen and paper, are comparably inexpensive. Best,


  14. Hi Arun,

    Yes, that's a good way to put it. Also, much shorter than what I wrote so clumsily. Best,


  15. Hi DocG,

    I see what you mean. In fact I've made the same experience whenever I've tried to step across the boundary line of physics. Which is why I've come to believe that it's not sufficient to just identify transformative research as in principle useful to be able to effectively support it.

    I recently finished reading Kahneman's book "Thinking, fast and slow" and he spends some time discussing that perception of risk is an individual assessment. It made me think that the problem with funding transformative research is that the risk assessment that you get if you do peer review with a random sample is with high probability the average assessment, which is the conservative one. You don't change that just by telling people to look out for "high risk, high payoff" because it doesn't change their individual perception of what is too high risk. Thus, my point is that we'd be better off taking reviewers out of a subset with a higher risk tolerance. A subset like this can be pretty much self-selecting, one just needs a good seed. It doesn't matter if the selection isn't perfect, it's sufficient if it's not average.

    I am thus not very optimistic about the NSF's newly introduced programs to support transformative research, because I don't really see how they avoid this problem. I think they'd be better off supporting institutions who have made a focus of transformative research. Like, for example, FQXi does in their area of research. Best,


  16. Hi Andrei,

    Well, re-reading it I realize this sentence can be misunderstood. Of course science that's only there to conserve doesn't make any progress, and doesn't make much sense either. I meant this conservative science not as not doing anything, but slowly expanding on the existing knowledge, in contrast to the science that's there to overthrow part of the accumulated knowledge to replace it with a new paradigm. Best,


  17. “I meant this conservative science not as not doing anything, but slowly expanding on the existing knowledge, in contrast to the science that's there to overthrow part of the accumulated knowledge to replace it with a new paradigm.”

    So it’s time to overthrow the dominating bullshit science, right now. You seem to “forget” that science is a system (in addition, a largely state-supported, highly centralised one), and therefore that dominating “slowly expanding” mode (in reality just fruitlessly dancing in the impasse, for its own sake) automatically rejects and severely suppresses those other, truly transformative directions. We have the same journals, know the peer review system, also for all grants and positions, no need to repeat here those too familiar details revealing but ruthless killing of everything truly novel. Those FQXi imitations and others make integral parts of the same system, with the same people from “our best universities” getting their positions with “small variations” of the same, fruitless “research” (proved by already long enough experience of those indeed luxuriously supported pseudo-transformative efforts). Sorry for personal details, just for example, I remember some “transformative” efforts called something like “Lightcone Institute”… Now, after all extended experiences and high relations in all their Perimeter transformations, it’s nothing like that but rather most banal “incremental” dancing in the same fruitless circle that wins the real support, in the most conservative but life-guaranteed Swedish official establishment (nothing really new ever - and everybody nicely survives who’s already there, call it “socialism”).

  18. Hi Andrei,

    Your comment merely makes me think that you have only a faint idea of how science works. The attitude that all of current science must be "bullshit" because you think so is terribly tiresome. Best,


  19. As I stressed many times, it's the absence (real) or presence of true progress in results (problem solutions) that is the objective criterion of the quality of work, not anyone's opinion, mine or yours. In the meanwhile, even the non-scientific community of social-economy professionals points out the absence of scientific progress as a major reason for the current increasing degradation (and respectively for any imaginable issue from it). It's evident anyway, for any "developed" society. And in this situation you, well-paid, best supplied and well-positioned professional scientists advance long "philosophical" discussions about what science is and how it should be done, so as to preserve everything unchanged. Efficient, problem-solving transformative research exists and should simply be given elementary real chances of development.


  20. Hi Bee,

    thank you for a nice analysis. I have pondered a lot about the possibility of supporting transformative research.

    It would be wonderful if transformative research could be somehow identified, supported, and even induced by some actions. I am skeptic about the possibility of this kind of control. Conservatism characterizes academic environment but maybe at deeper level this conservatism derives from the basic character of science that I would call instrumentalism, seeing the external world as an instrument to achieve goals.

    Instrumentalism permeates every corner of science. For researchers the specialization is an instrument for building a career with a good social status. Scientific institutions in turn use scientists as instruments and drive them to work like mad in the hope of getting the ultimate recognition. Our technology is manipulation of Nature seen as a passive storage of various resources to be harnessed. Global economy has become the tool of large scale venturers to achieve personal profits using the latest information technology for their purposes. Instrumentalism is the key ideology of our technological civilization born in industrial revolution and probably living its last decades before the final collapse caused by instrumentalism taken to extreme.

    Even the well-intentioned idea that it might be possible to fasten the progress of science by some mechanisms encouraging transformative research could be seen as one aspect of instrumentalism.

    I see transformative research as the spiritual aspect of science. Whatever spiritual is, it is not instrumental and is also beyond control. When I enjoy the beauty of sunrise I just experience: I am not planning how to make money by arranging guided tours for those who want to pay for experiencing the sunrise and perhaps buy a drink to enhance the experience. Transformative research cannot be controlled. Transformative research is initiated by an non-predictable spark of genius which just occurs. What follows is mostly hard work and is indeed rather predictable process. I however find it hard to believe that academic community would identify some-one doing this kind of hard work as a transformative researcher deserving support: the labeling as academic village fool is a more probable reaction;-). Our luck is that the support is un-necessary. Transformative idea creates so immense motivation that the only manner that academic world can stop the process is by killing the transformative researcher;-).

  21. Hi Andrei,

    You seem to mistakenly believe that there exists an "objective criterion of the quality of [scientific] work" for research on which experimental test is not yet feasible, which means you basically advocate the use of measures of scientific success, though not for researchers, but, if I understand you correctly, for their papers. More bizarrely, you seem to believe that everybody must agree on your assessment of what the quality of somebody else's work is. Best,


  22. If objective criterion doesn't exist including experiments that become practically unfeasible or strongly ambiguous, then it's not science any more. Maybe a special kind of fiction literature for a narrow circle of adherents combined with a yet more special kind of religion assuming a "mathematical reality"... (Honestly, is this far from truth, for today's official "theoretical physics"?) Of course, objective criterion exists, as well as true, problem-solving and always transformative scientific research using this criterion. Unfortunately not within the official system of science trying to conserve forever its blind beliefs, contradictory, fruitless theories and outdated dogmas multiply compromised by observations.

  23. Well, I would certainly agree that the responses of the overwhelming majority of string theory and supersymmetry advocates to the negative observational results produced so far at the LHC have been alarmingly unscientific, if you advocate theories of principle and are bone-tired of endless "model-building".

    A little bit of m-b is understandable when a field is new and when the empirical data is sparse. However, if that is the only tool in your tool-kit then you are going to end up with untestable pseudo-science.

    Personally, I believe that the pressure for a new theory of principle that can make and pass definitive predictions is definitely increasing.

    Alas, it will have to swim in an ocean of rubbish.

  24. Hi Andrei,

    The whole point of my post was to explain that you don't need an objective criterion. You don't need it for the same reason that you don't need an objective criterion to value a product in an economy. The idea of self-organization seems have passed you by entirely. You also don't seem to know much about the history of science. There are countless examples where research that didn't seem to have any practical relevance later turned out to be highly relevant. Electromagnetic radiation is my favorite example. There's a guy here who is collecting examples. Best,


  25. "negative observational results produced so far at the LHC"

    What negative observational results do you mean?

    As Robert Pirsig wrote, the television scientist who sighs "The experiment is a failure; we didn't find what we expected" is suffering mainly from a bad script writer.

  26. Bee: “The idea of self-organization seems have passed you by entirely.”

    Not at all, I just consider it as a strongly negative, rather than positive factor. Indeed, groups of “governing” priests are very well “self-organised” and continue to dominate science agenda, despite the evident total failure of their concepts, both in theory and experimental verification. But nobody can change anything. Public that pays for it all (through intermediating but not actually deciding agencies and foundations) can only rely on opinions of those “self-organised” priests and their multiple “servants” (this is a sad state of public awareness, but that’s what we have). “Objective criteria” are indeed neglected (despite being officially maintained, contrary to your attitude). And all really alternative approaches and however promising and problem-solving results are neglected and excluded from support (just because of problem solving!). Young researchers sometimes can see it, but don’t have any practical choice within this effectively totalitarian “self-organisation”. Can YOU “self-organise” in a “transformative” and truly creative “Lightcone Institute”?

    As to the “history of science”, reread my first comment. It’s impossible anyway to imagine that anything in today’s obviously “saturated” state of knowledge can be compared to previous epochs of strongly incomplete knowledge of even major physical entities. In any case, it’s not a matter of immediate “practical relevance” of fundamental results, it’s the fact of total and lasting absence of any, maybe not practically relevant, but genuine, problem-solving results. Official science exercises don’t solve genuine problems any more even in theory, even within its own framework, already strongly limited, and even apart from any practical relevance (this one had been firmly forgotten already long ago, precisely since major and basically sufficient applications were successfully realised). They only play infinitely with their senseless, separated “models”, strongly limited and leading nowhere, already by formulation.

  27. Hi Andrei,

    To repeat what I already said earlier, that there are no "problem-solving results" is your opinion, and it's a subjective opinion. It is an opinion that very few researchers will share. Every paper that is published is a problem-solving result. Apparently people are just solving problems you don't think are relevant. But why should anybody care what you think?

    Yes, the present mode of self-organization has multiple problems and the trend towards conservatism is only one of them. As I said, in principle one should fix the problems preventing that the self-organization is maximally beneficial to knowledge discovery. Alas, that's difficult to do. The second best you can do is to recognize if the balance is off and try to adjust it by other means. I cannot "self-organize" a system, that's an oxymoron. Best,


  28. No, they don’t solve (true, major, essential) problems, only artifacts of their models (definitely irrelevant from the outset). Proof: the list of major problems doesn’t shrink, even worse, it quickly grows. End of proof.

    Everyone should care what everyone else thinks, in a normal state of science (because it’s all about thinking). Scientist, transform thyself.

    Among other things and points of view, do you consider it to be normal for a system of science in a highly-developed, knowledge-based society (yours apparently), if any its experienced professional, like you or me, or anyone else, cannot change essentially one’s own “individual state” as one wishes, including “official” establishment (publication, popularisation, etc.) of any kind of result YOU consider worthwhile, your entire direction of research, your interaction with any structure of interest, etc. Kind of “secret service privilege”, but not so much of “practical” as of proper “scientific”, knowledge-creation and social development origin? To compare, in the existing system, including all its “self-organised” and “transformative” imitations, usual experienced professional can (essentially) change virtually nothing, even in his/her own research agenda, let alone technological or social applications and development. And even the “high priests” produce only an illusion of the power to change. Who really knows and values them beyond professional circles, and what for anyone would? What the essential overall result of your, my, ... anyone's highly intense and intellectual professional life gonna be (actually = already is)? Quite a lot of things to (really) transform, indeed. And it's urgent.


  29. Hi Helbig,

    How are things in the world of high finance these days?

    Here is what the LHC has not found.

    no string/brane exotica,
    no sparticles,
    no WIMPs,
    no supersymmetry exotica,
    no extra-dimensions,
    no mini-black holes,
    no Randall-Sundrum 5-D phenomena (gravitons, K-K gluons, etc.),
    no evidence for ADS/CFT duality,
    no colorons,
    no leptoquarks,
    no lazy photons.

    Are you familiar with what people like Weinberg, Kane, Wilczek, Ellis, and the whole string/SUSY confederacy were telling us about what should be found at the LHC before it started up? Or would you prefer to forget all this falsified hype?

    All I see is denial and rationalization. These do not seem to be scientific virtues to me.

    And have a nice day

  30. What is the lifetime of a particle accelerator? Are all discoveries made only at the beginning of its lifetime, or are some made only after more data is collected?

    Of course, the idea is to test theories which make testable predictions by looking to see which, if any, predictions are falsified (ruling out the theory) and which are not (strengthening confidence in the theory). This is called science. Things like particle accelerators are built because we don't know exactly what they will find.

    How long did it take from the postulation of the neutrino to its experimental detection? Was Pauli a deluded jerk for 26 years?

  31. Transformative experiments require mixing bureaucratically orthogonal folks. "Interdisciplinary" is a sound bite. Dump money on a PERT chartless project? That's crazy talk! All it gets you are penicillin, sulfa drugs, Valium, cyclosporin, valproic acid, cis-platin, Super Glue, nylon, polycarbonate, olefin polymerization, polyacetylene... alpha-particles rebounding from gold leaf, muons in photographic emulsion. "Who ordered that?" I.I. Rabi.

    A transformative experiment is sound bite tasty to bureaucrats until the wrong thing is discovered. That happy day is embezzlement of laboratory funding and insubordination (exposed Bednorz and Müeller - except it worked). Collman's reagent - an alcoholic roommate. The Creutz-Taube ion - early lunch. The Stern-Gerlach experiment - cheap cigars. Polymerase chain reaction - stoned Cary Mullis driving a winding mountain road. Go fund that.

    Suppose Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden under Rutherford had used not eyeballs on ZnS but a photographic plate, and let it cook for a month in 1909. Von Laue in 1912 might have been derivative. Discover hypersensitizing photographic media early on... but that's astronomy.

  32. I think Robert nailed it on this one. This whole idea of transformative research just reeks of the mindset, in which the previous failed ideas Robert mentions, came out of. There is nothing new in the idea of transformative research that we haven't already seen before. They are high sounding words with the whiff of bullshit about them.

    The problem (as I see it) is that there is a far reaching interconnectedness about science. When you find a new explanation for an old observation it must, a priori, fit all the old observational evidence also. For that matter, if you observe a new phenomena, or absence of same, you must fit it into the whole. Just like a jigsaw puzzle the individual parts must fit together. This is hard work and not only requires high technical mastery but also the tedious ability to endless try to fit a new idea with the old data and new data with old ideas. This tedious pattern fitting requires above all humility because it is so seldom a success.

    Instead, what we have is a bunch of prima donnas today who exclaim loudly how beautiful their idea and then go on endless self promotional book tours without a thought to all the contradictions their ideas have with facts. We don't need any more "big" ideas if they don't come with the requisite humility and hard work required to fit them in with known world.


  33. But if you finesse the testable predictions when they fail by adding epicycles, or by adjusting the theory so that it makes new testable predictions that are safely beyond current empirical limits, then that is not science.

    That is postmodern pseudo-science.

    Like Eric, I see a large amount of hype and arrogance (not to mention unseemly commercialism) - but a dearth of integrity and dedication to the traditional scientific method, especially the definitive predictions/ testing part.

  34. Hi Eric, Robert,

    I notice you repeating the same mistake over and over again. You take some few exceptions and argue that they are the rule. You have totally lost perspective what most of physics is like. Of course there isn't really anything new about the idea of transformative research. It's just a name attached to something that has always existed. What's new is the attempt to identify and harness it in an organized way. Best,


  35. Hi Andrei,

    Everybody will tell you that their research is an important step on the way to solve the great problem X, whatever that is. You evidently don't think this is relevant. But, as I've now told you several times, almost every researcher will disagree with you, after all that's the point of their research. There's nothing "objective" about your opinion. It is interesting that you fail to notice that. Best,


  36. "But if you finesse the testable predictions when they fail by adding epicycles, or by adjusting the theory so that it makes new testable predictions that are safely beyond current empirical limits, then that is not science.

    That is postmodern pseudo-science."

    I couldn't agree more. Here is a paper which makes a definitive prediction. It is called "The self-similar cosmological paradigm - A new test and two new predictions". I quote from the abstract: "Two definitive predictions are also pointed out: (1) the model predicts that the electron will be found to have structure with radius of about 4 x 10 to the -17th cm, at just below the current empirical resolution capability". Reference: Astrophysical Journal, Part 1 (ISSN 0004-637X), vol. 322, Nov. 1, 1987, p. 34-36.

    Would you agree that this "definitive prediction" has been ruled out?

    Almost everything detected by particle accelerators are background events. In fact, not much else interesting was found in the energy range of the PETRA accelerator, so the background could be used to quite precisely measure the electron-positron cross section. Since then, this has been measured at higher energies, corresponding to smaller scale. The agreement with theory is very, very good. This theory treats electrons as point particles. If the electron had substructure on the scale claimed above, then this would be obvious.

    So, is the example above ruled out? By your own admission, saving appearances by adding epicycles or predicted something beyond the limits of observation would not be good science. "Definitive prediction" is right there in the abstract, and "prediction" is in the title. This looks like a paper which makes a testable prediction and has been ruled out.

    If you disagree, can you give a reference which discusses the substructure of the electron?

  37. Sabine wrote:

    What's new is the attempt to identify and harness it in an organized way.

    If I read Uncle Al correctly, transformative research can't be a priori "identified" or "organized" due to its own nature. I agree with him.


  38. Hi Christine,

    Which is why I said better call it potentially transformative. Right, you can't identify it previously, but you can increase the chances that it's in your sample. Forget about the "transformative" stuff for a moment because that's just misleading. Think of it as high risk, high payoff. Of course you can't predict the future and so you can't say with certainty what's the risk and what's the potential for payoff. But you can still try to pick a selection, based on the information that you have, that increases risk and payoff rather than staying on the conservative and safe side. Best,


  39. Hi Sabine,

    Do you mean to use some statistical inference method to pick your selection? If so, what would be the assumptions and dataset? Depending of those you could end up being even more conservative than the usual flow of the system. Or not. I don't see how this could work in a real situation, with concrete examples. I have an admittedly more idealistic view in which the value is on the formative part of the scientist. IMO that is the most important aspect for improving the conditions and potential for transformative research outputs.


  40. Good Grief Helbig!

    We have been thoroughly through this issue of the electron substructure at least 2 different times. You keep pretending you are totally clueless about this. That is dishonest!

    I have patiently explained how research after 1987 has led me to believe that the electron is more accurately modeled in terms of a nearly naked singularity with a sparse halo of subquantum particles extending out to 4 x 10^-17 cm.

    Also mentioned in the 1987 ApJ paper is the possibility that the electron could be a naked singularity.

    Bottom Lines: (1) The definitive predictions in that paper have not changed - neither the ones relating to the dark matter, nor the ones relating to the electron.
    I still predict substructure at 4 x 10^-17 cm, but realize that it is quite ephemeral and detection may be a long way off.

    (2) I note that you avoid any mention of successful vindication of other definitive predictions: pulsar-planets, trillions of unbound planetary-mass "nomad" objects, the M-Dwarf-planet anomaly. What's the matter, does this evidence not fit your agenda?

    (3) DSR can retrodict the mass of the electron in a simple and natural manner. What other theory can do this?

    Since you obviously have a malignant and persistent bias against my research, and since you have been repeatedly dishonest in your debating tactics, I will ignore all future barking from you.

    And have a nice life.

  41. "I have patiently explained how research after 1987 has led me to believe that the electron is more accurately modeled in terms of a nearly naked singularity with a sparse halo of subquantum particles extending out to 4 x 10^-17 cm.

    Also mentioned in the 1987 ApJ paper is the possibility that the electron could be a naked singularity."

    Last try: If you also mention an alternative possibility, then where is the definitive prediction in the abstract? If structure is seen, then it is confirmed. If not, then the alternative kicks in. That is not a definitive prediction; it is no prediction at all. Also, when experiments became better (so that what was just below the threshold of detectability a quarter of a century ago is now well above it), you say the structure is there, but is "a sparse halo of subquantum particles" such that it can't be detected. To me, that sounds exactly like the moving of the goalposts, the introduction of epicycles, the revision of predictions such that they cannot be disproved by current experiment etc that you so (rightly) criticize in others. Let me quote: "But if you finesse the testable predictions when they fail by adding epicycles, or by adjusting the theory so that it makes new testable predictions that are safely beyond current empirical limits, then that is not science. That is postmodern pseudo-science.

  42. Hi Christine,

    I am assuming that personal risk tolerance is is knoweable data, if not very precise and available in data form. It is then possible to pre-select peers who will make the assessment about a proposal of whether the potential payoff justifies the risk, and that sample will be biased towards being more risk taking. As I wrote, that is not what one ideally should be doing because it's not clear it will actually lead to an optimal balance. It's basically an artificial readjustment if you have reason to believe (which I have explained above) that the balance is off towards more conservative research. Best,



  43. A completely bogus "try".

    But of course, you have an agenda and cannot evaluate things objectively.

    Here is some enlightenment even you might have trouble misrepresenting.

    1. If you predict that low-mass "sparticles" will be found when LHC starts up. Then that is falsified, so you say: "Well, they must have higher masses". That is unscientific fudging of a pseudo-prediction.

    2. In the electron structure case, I clearly said that there should be structure at 4 x 10^-17 cm, given a Schwarschild approximation, but that a naked singularity is also a possible structure. I still say there will be some structure at 4 x 10^-17 cm. Everything in the definitive prediction has remained the same except that the Kerr-Newman solution clearly shows that the electron is a nearly naked singularity and the sparse halo of subquantum particles at 4 x 10^-17 cm is going to be harder to observe.

    Can you process that? Do you need it explained to you a 4th time?

  44. "Can you process that? Do you need it explained to you a 4th time? "

    Yes, already have. I think readers of this blog now have enough evidence to make up their own minds whether you hold your own research to the same standards you hold that of others.

    Since accelerators have probed much smaller scales by now, why has no structure been detected? Or is it always below the limit of detectability?

    What is "subquantum"?

    An abstract which mentions a "definitive prediction" is bad style if the text of the article mentions alternatives to this "definitive prediction".

  45. In spite of my pledge to ignore the barkings of Helbig, I thought this one last post might be of interest to some readers.

    1. Scientific discussion implies that one tries sincerely to understand the other's ideas, and there is the implicit understanding that one might learn something new from the other's ideas. It is a cooperative effort, even if there is considerable disagreement over particulars.

    2. Debating is something entirely different. Here one is trying to win a competition with the other. Common debating strategies include selective use of available information, ignoring evidence that supports one's opponents, and misrepresenting the other person's motives and positions.

    Debating is inherently at odds with scientific reasoning.

    As I have no interest in 2, I will let Helbig bark to himself.

  46. @Uncle Al,

    "Total empirical failure of string/M-theory, quantum gravitation; SUSY and all the parity violations and symmetry breakings in the standard model are exactly what they appear to be - fundamental."

    Have you changed your mind about SUSY? Also, my understanding is that SUSY isn't part of the standard model and hasn't been empirically validated yet. Did I missread you on this?



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