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[UPDATED] Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!

Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently  includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardian was seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.

Admittedly, it’s a very seductive narrative. Who doesn’t thrill to the idea of an obscure unknown genius toiling away in the shadows, snubbed by the stuffy, closed-minded academic establishment, who defies the odds and manages to achieve what all those brilliant scholars failed to do, thereby ensuring his or her scientific immortality? I love a good story! But this is science, not Good Will Hunting, and that narrative just isn’t true — or rather, it’s too simplistic.

Granted, sometimes there is such an odds-defying breakthrough, quite notably in mathematics. Ramanujam was largely self-taught and worked in isolation, and nonetheless made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory and infinite series. And just this last week, there was a major advance in prime numbers by a relatively obscure math professor at the University of New Hampshire who hadn’t published a paper since 2001. But by and large, most significant breakthroughs occur through established scientific channels — especially when it comes to modern cosmology and theoretical physics.

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists. [UPDATE 5/26/13: Pontzen emailed me over the weekend correcting his original statement: "Unfortunately this statement now turns out to be wrong. Marcus Du Sautoy did in fact think to invite the Oxford physicists, sending an email to the head of department along with A3 posters; unfortunately no-one spotted the talk because the email, unbeknown to Du Sautoy, was not widely circulated or advertised on the internal web page. Apologies to all concerned that I didn't look into this deeply enough to uncover the extra complication to the story. The remainder of my piece stands."] You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.

I do give props to reporter Alok Jha — whom I like and respect enormously, so this is a doubly painful post for me to write — for at least TRYING to inject some common sense into the piece, via theoretical physicists David Kaplan — who affirms that Weinstein is “serious” and not your typical crackpot, in that his theory actually exhibits coherence — and the University of Surrey’s Jim al-Khalili. [corrected spelling] Both men strike appropriate notes of caution, emphasizing that — du Sautoy’s insistence that Weinstein’s ideas “feel right” notwithstanding — ultimately, any such theory must go beyond pretty mathematics and fit the real-world data. Per al-Khalili:

“My main concern with Weinstein’s claims is that they are simply too grand – too sweeping. It would be one thing if he argued for some modest prediction that his theory was making, and importantly one that could be tested experimentally, or that it explained a phenomenon or mechanism that other theories have failed to do, but he makes the mistake of claiming too much for it.”

Credit: Sidney Harris. http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/index.php

Nicely put. I’d like to buy both of them a pint for their measured restraint on the record. But those qualifiers are utterly lost in the surrounding hype, such as breathlessly noting the similarity between “Weinstein” and “Einstein” — as if that means anything. (Also, as the Time Lord tartly observed on Twitter: “Pretty sure Einstein actually wrote research papers, not just gave interviews to newspapers.”)

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.

This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like. The tradition is alive and well in that stuffy old academic establishment. I’ll let Pontzen have the last word:

At what point during this long and difficult process does it become legitimate to proclaim a breakthrough? It’s a line in shifting sands, but that line has certainly been crossed. Du Sautoy – the University of Oxford’s professor of the public understanding of science, no less – has short-circuited science’s basic checks and balances. Yesterday’s shenanigans were anything but scientific.

Preach it.

ADDENDUM #1 (5/29/13): As more details have emerged, a few other voices have chimed in over the last few days and I thought I’d link to them in this original post — rather than writing a new one — for those interested in following the ongoing discussion.

Cosmologist Richard Easther provides some insight into some potential sticking points — albeit with the most limited of information. Du Sautoy’s op-ed mentions that Weinstein’s theory posits a dynamical dark energy (cosmological constant), which is contradicted by all our observational data to date, showing a constant cosmological constant. Important point: this does not mean Weinstein’s theory is flat-out wrong and Easther (and others), as responsible scientists, are not saying that. Not until they’ve had a chance to see the details. But it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either.

Easther points out that despite all the hyperventilated comparisons of Weinstein to Einstein, “the Swiss-German patent clerk played by the rules.” And he also has the single best take I’ve read so far on why a bit of conservatism and rectitude is a good thing when it comes to promoting cutting-edge science:

“My own favorite example of this sort of rectitude is the discovery of the microwave background, which was announced in a paper entitled ‘A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second,’ as opposed to ‘We Have Discovered the Birth of the Universe, Now Can We Please Have a Nobel Prize.’ Really good work usually sells itself. Conversely, over-hyped proposals typically under-deliver.”

University of Richmond physicist Ted Bunn echoes my own concerns about how the Guardian coverage implicitly reinforces the stereotype of a hidebound academic “establishment” not open to new ideas, insisting on people following those pesky rules and procedures, which just cramp a lone genius’s style, dude! It’s The Man being all elitist and exclusive! (I am opting for snark because that’s my style; Bunn is more measured in his take.) As Peter Coles pointed out,

“I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. [JLP: But see Easther's earlier point about Einstein nonetheless playing by the rules.] I think we should give all theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from.”

For a curmudgeonly counter-take, Weinstein’s fellow academic outsider, the Ronin Institute’s Jon Wilkins, has a bit of harrumphing about this silly notion that one should have some kind of actual paper for one’s scientific peers to check details before giving a colloquium or whatever. I think Wilkins misunderstands the spirit of the objections in a pretty fundamental way — but read it and make your own assessment.

I haven’t seen anybody claim Weinstein shouldn’t have been invited to give a colloquium at Oxford, and had his claims been less extraordinary, I’m sure nobody would have minded if he gave some preliminary details without a paper. They’re more informal affairs, these colloquia; they should be about exciting new ideas. But given his grandiose claims, it would have been wise to have provided physicists with the gory details beforehand so they could better assess the merits and target their questions accordingly. That’s how science advances. Combine that with an ill-advised major media splash — well, that’s a recipe for a PR trainwreck, which is precisely what happened.

For my part, I’ve been especially struck by how careful every single physicist I’ve seen comment on this publicly has been to correct this misperception that the physics community is unwilling to listen to radical new ideas from outside some kind of elistist “Inner Circle.” Again, it’s an appealing narrative; that’s why this particular framing was used, to cut off any immediate objections at the knees. No doubt there are some hidebound traditionalists lurking in the Ivory Tower, but there are far more dynamic, passionately engaged physicists excited about any new revolutionary ideas that could set physics on an exciting new course — regardless of where they come from.

As always, the reality is far more nuanced than the stereotype.

ADDENDUM #2 (6/1/13): One last addendum before laying this tempest in a teapot to rest. Via private email exchanges, I’ve been advised that the Guardian did go through the usual journalistic SOP when assessing the “Case for Weinstein” — as, indeed, we longtime fans of the Guardian have come to expect from their usually stellar science coverage. And I have been chastised for not contacting Alok Jha and/or the Guardian to give them a chance to respond before running my post. Mea culpa. As blogs continue to evolve, so, too, do the standards for blogging. While I have complete editorial freedom here at the SciAm blog network, I am always striving to be responsible with the platform, and this is an instance where I should have made an extra effort, if only out of professional courtesy.

Having said all that — it doesn’t change my basic assessment. I still find it kind of astonishing that one could look at the facts of the case, so to speak, and choose not only to run with the story, but to present it in that particular narrative framework. I still think it was a bad call. Here the Guardian and I shall have to agree to disagree. It’s an excellent example of how we can agree 100% on the basic fundamental principles, and disagree sharply on how they were applied in this case. But I hope we can do so in the spirit of mutual professional respect.

And here’s two final links, exploring not this specific teapot-scale tempest, but the broader question of how science is done. Because perspective is so important (for all of us). First, Katie Mack (AstroKatie) has a beautiful post expressing why, lone genius narratives aside, being part of the broader physics community is so important to making progress in one’s research. Second, Ethan Siegel of Starts With a Bang rightly explains that most scientific theories are wrong — and that’s all right:

[T]he next time you hear about some theory, it’s totally reasonable to ask, “What overwhelming evidence do we have that this is correct?” But rather than simply dismiss it, if it sets off your internal BS-detector, I want to assure you of a number of things:

1. Your BS-detector is probably right (and honestly, it’s probably not sensitive enough), and this isn’t likely to be the next great revolution in our understanding of the Universe,
2. This research is still important, as it’s exploring a hitherto unexplored possibility, which could teach us something about the Universe,
3. and if there’s even a germ of a good idea in there, scientific inquiry is what will grow that into a full-fledged theory that means something.

Exactly. That’s the beauty of the null result. This is why I, and most of those I have linked to, have stressed repeated that regardless of whether they’re right or not, Weinstein’s ideas deserve to be heard and fairly evaluated by his peers. By all means, let’s strive to bring the lone geniuses into the physics fold — it’s the only way they can test and refine their ideas, and contribute (even in a small way) to science.

PS: New Scientist has an excellent, non-hyped, even-handed summary of Weinstein’s second talk at Oxford. If this had been the tenor of the Guardian coverage, I, for one, would have had little issue.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Shecky R. 5:19 pm 05/24/2013

    me thinkest ye protesteth too much (on more grounds than worth getting into)… though it is indeed dismaying to hear that Oxford physicists didn’t receive a direct invite to the talk. Anyway, I don’t want to judge too much without seeing a transcript or video of Weinstein’s actual material… is it available anywhere?
    As to ‘wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas”(and conferences and books) in physics — yeah, there’s been a lot of that (dime-a-dozen perhaps?), and I think John Horgan and others might say it’s OFTEN in the service of “playing” the media… even if some conferences are better (and more attuned to peer groups, not media) than others.

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  2. 2. TheEponymousBob 5:32 pm 05/24/2013

    What concerns me about “story”-led science reporting is that simply reinforces the silly “science doesn’t progress by ‘consensus’” canard. Whether it’s climate change, vaccination, alternative medicine or whatever else, there is a perception that science lies dormant most of the time, only ever progressing when some unknown genius comes along to disprove everything we thought we knew.

    It’d be fantastic if Weinstein’s ideas pan out, but in the meantime we have to be careful of sensationalism further undermining the public’s faith in the scientific corpus.

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  3. 3. Jennifer Ouellette 5:45 pm 05/24/2013

    I don’t have a problem with using a good story in science writing in principle, if it’s well done. That wasn’t the case here: just the usual underdog/lone genius narrative to obscure the fact that, as yet, there’s nothing here for physicists to evaluate, not even a technical paper.

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  4. 4. Percival 5:50 pm 05/24/2013

    Wait, did Eric Weinstein “offer a narrative”, or did Alok Jha seek him out for “the story of the century”? Newspaper play themselves all the time- an editor will say “go find me a big story” and reporters will do their best. What do Jha’s second sources know of Weinstein’s “grand, sweeping claims” besides what Jha told them? There’s a story behind this story.

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  5. 5. notreallydavid 10:33 pm 05/24/2013

    Very interesting, well-written article. One small thing: ‘simplistic’ means ‘too simple’, not ‘simple’. Writing ‘too simplistic’ is like writing ‘too excessive’ or ‘too insufficient’. That’s all. No need to thank me.

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  6. 6. OkiePC 12:56 am 05/25/2013

    Weinstein may have been out of physics for a long time, but wasn’t he pretty darn good at it for a long time? I find this author’s criticism a bit thin an redundant. I think Weinstein is a genius with a lot to share and he is good at sharing it from what little I have seen so far. If it is worthy of the effort I am sure it will take a team to prepare a paper for peer review. It’s good to criticize but find more nuts and bolts to build your case with, please.

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  7. 7. Jennifer Ouellette 1:55 am 05/25/2013

    Please re-read the post more carefully, especially the second paragraph. This is not an attempt to criticize Weinstein’s work. There’s nothing to criticize, since there is as yet no paper. Nor am I in any way disparaging his intelligence, etc. The point of the post is that it was far too premature for a hyped-up article in the Guardian. The criticism is (rightly) focused on that.

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  8. 8. brodix 10:35 am 05/26/2013

    Jennifer,
    Sometimes progress is evolutionary and sometimes it is revolutionary. When the current models have been played out, there is a loss of momentum that is rarely recognized by those on the leading edge, but in physics this situation has been brewing for decades, so even some of those in the game are starting to agree that something is being missed.
    Last year FQXi held an interesting contest; “Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?” (http://fqxi.org/community/forum/category/31418?sort=community)
    It drew about 340 entries, including such notables as George Ellis and Julian Barbour. Many were off the wall, including some from those well ensconced in the Ivory Tower, but there were a few gems. Two unknowns that that I thought stood out were Eric Reiter(http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1344) and Robert McEachern(http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1372).
    If you do want to start looking outside the box for good ideas and not only rely on what everyone else is gossiping about, this might be a place to start.

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  9. 9. Jennifer Ouellette 12:50 pm 05/26/2013

    Where in my post do I say we should NOT be looking outside the box? Not only do I plainly say (in the second paragraph) that Eric is wicked smart and his ideas absolutely should be heard and taken seriously, I made the same point you do, namely that there are plenty of physicists who are at the cutting edge of physics proposing all manner of exciting, wacky ideas that, while likely not to be right, will lead in exciting new directions.

    I’ve been to fQXI conferences and I well remember that challenge; I cover physics for a living, why would you assume I am unfamiliar with their work? I love their approach and have tons of respect what they’re doing. But there are nonetheless well-established ways to go about testing ideas; eventually even the outsiders must contend with the wider physics community if their are going to advance their ideas. There are standards in journalism, too. What I wouldn’t advise is writing gushing op-eds and articles in a major media outlet declaring someone to be “the next Einstein” when they have yet to publish a single paper by which their peers could fairly evaluate their work. Which, you know, is what this post is ACTUALLY about.

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  10. 10. brodix 2:45 pm 05/26/2013

    Jennifer,
    I didn’t mean to criticize the gist of your commentary, as both science and journalism require a give and take, ebb and flow to locate and frame their objectives in a subjective environment. I readily admit to being one of the outsiders with opinions, but I like to think of myself as more conservative in nature. That when the conversation is about “inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth,” to me it is a situation akin to proposing where the next epicycle should be inserted. Math is a valuable tool, but it is a tool, not a God and when the algorithms seem to offer “junk out,” we should really go back and consider if there might be “junk in,” not automatically assume there is some unseen aspect of reality to be discovered. Often our tools do expose us to the unseen and unexplored, but they have been known to lead us astray, as well.
    Currently we have this theory of an expanding universe, based on the assumption that light travels as a point particle, yet what would hold a quanta of light to a point when released? It has no internal attractive element to hold it to a point and should naturally expand, with redshift of light that has traveled billions of years a natural result.
    This model also assumes space expands, yet the speed of light is otherwise stable. If two galaxies, x lightyears apart grow to be 2x lightyears apart, that is not “expanding space,” as measured in lightyears(our most basic measure of interstellar and galactic space), but an increased distance in stable space.
    Now when I try raising basic issues like this with those “on the cutting edge,” they don’t have a response, other than to ignore the point and go on about “multiverses.” Which raises my naturally conservative ire.

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  11. 11. Jennifer Ouellette 5:28 pm 05/26/2013

    I appreciate your clarification. And your general decency. :)

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  12. 12. brodix 6:21 pm 05/26/2013

    Jennifer,
    Thank you as well. There is a politics to physics, as there is a physics to politics and when someone questions assumptions, it creates friction, to which the response is not always polite.
    During that contest at FQXi I happened to get in a conversation with Julian Barbour, about his triangle model and his observation that distance cannot be judged, only the angles, to which I commented that is like grasping without reaching. Later it occurred to me that liberalism is to reach, while conservatism is to grasp. Just a side note, as to how everything ties together.

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  13. 13. coraifeartaigh 1:01 pm 05/27/2013

    V interesting post Jennifer and I like your Skeptical Cat – is this a trademark or can anyone borrow it?
    Re Weinstein paper, I’m enjoying the inversion of the usual battles between traditional media and the blogosphere. I too thought the Guardian piece rather unbalanced, while the reaction on most physics blogs has been much more measured, reflective of good old-fashioned scientific scepticism!
    Re UC Davis conference, I can concur with that experience. I was at a Cambridge workshop at Easter where some the Planck results were announced for the first time, and the discussions on topics like dark energy roamed far and wide, albeit with the constraints of the new observations. The idea that the physics community somehow gets locked into groupthink on issues like an explanation for dark energy, desperately in need of an outside view, seems to me to be extremely far-fetched. Regards, Cormac

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  14. 14. coraifeartaigh 1:17 pm 05/28/2013

    By the way Brodix, it’s a classic mistake to blithely assume dark matter and dark energy are the modern-day equivalent to epicycles. On DM, the simple point is that there is no reason to assume that all matter should interact with the electromagnetic force. On DE, such a term arises naturally from the Einstein field equations – it is much more of a fix to assume it to be zero. For this reason, du Sautoy’s sentence in the Guardian “this cosmological constant has always seemed very arbitrary and a retrospective fix.”
    has raised a few eyebrows among physicists…

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  15. 15. brodix 12:42 pm 05/29/2013

    Cormac,
    While I realize it’s a conversation killer to question the whole expanding universe model, I am skeptical. As I pointed out in the 5/26, 2:45 post, there is an inherent contradiction built into it, in assuming the very geometry of space expands, yet still presuming a stable speed of light as intergalactic yardstick. Presumably it is not an expansion in space, or we would appear at the center of the universe, but of space. So if space expands, why does our most basic measure of it not expand accordingly?
    One other point I try making is that while we experience time as a sequence of events and physics treats it as a measure of duration, the cause is action. So it is not the present moving from past to future, but change causing future to become past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth rotates. Duration does not transcend the present, but is the state of the present between events. This makes time an effect of action, similar to temperature, so the whole geometric “fabric of spacetime” is an effective mathematical model, like epicycles, but not physically causal. No giant cosmic clockworks. Which would seriously affect the premises on which such factors as dark energy and dark matter are based.
    I could go on, but my experience is this is more than enough cause irritation.
    Regards,
    John B. Merryman
    Ps, Time is to temperature what frequency is to amplitude.

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  16. 16. mfrasca 4:10 pm 05/29/2013

    Dear Jennifer,

    There is something strange going on here for me. I am doing research out form academia since 1990 and I have about 70 papers published in refereed journals (e.g. see http://arxiv.org/find/grp_physics/1/au:+frasca_marco/0/1/0/all/0/1). In these papers there is just my home address having no academic affiliation. Should I be considered an Einstein? Should I have a talk at Oxford?

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  17. 17. mpiktas 6:40 am 05/30/2013

    There are two Indian mathematicians C. P. Ramanujam and S. Ramanujan. I suspect that the latter was mentioned in the article, not the former.

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  18. 18. DrJehr1 8:32 pm 05/30/2013

    Some patent clerk outside academic physics once issued a few ideas about 100 years back. Whatever became of him? A university isn’t the only place people can think.

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  19. 19. Jennifer Ouellette 8:57 pm 05/30/2013

    Honestly, did you even read the article before leaving such an ill-informed comment? You’re arguing with an imaginary strawman. Or just trolling. Not a single person on record as objecting has made such a statement; in fact, we have all bent over backwards to say the opposite. Also? Please note that the patent clerk nonetheless published papers and followed the established academic procedures.

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  20. 20. Dr. Strangelove 10:27 pm 05/30/2013

    “Who doesn’t thrill to the idea of an obscure unknown genius toiling away in the shadows, snubbed by the stuffy, closed-minded academic establishment, who defies the odds and manages to achieve what all those brilliant scholars failed to do, thereby ensuring his or her scientific immortality? I love a good story!”

    Jennifer, this is not just a good story. This is quite common in the history of science and mathematics. Einstein was an unknown patent clerk. Yes he published his special relativity paper but it was not generally accepted until 14 yrs later.

    The famous Poincare conjecture was finally proven in 2002 by Perelman, an obscure Russian mathematician, after 100 yrs of trying by the world’s best mathematicians. Galois was an unknown teenager when he invented Group theory and solved the 5th degree polynomial equation, a problem that eluded the greatest mathematicians for 500 yrs. Famous mathematicians reviewed his paper and rejected it. His genius was recognized long after his death at age 20.

    Newton was working alone in a farm when he invented calculus, law of gravity, laws of motion, and kept these to himself for 20 yrs before publication. Watt was an instrument maker, Faraday was a bookbinder, Edison was a school dropout, etc., etc.

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  21. 21. coraifeartaigh 7:11 pm 05/31/2013

    Jennifer: Yes, I inherited a volume of the Collected Papers from my Dad, and E. published 4 or 5 papers before 1905, a good many during 1905 (not just the big 3), and a great many reviews of other books and papers…so he may not have had an academci *position* but he was certainly an active academic
    Brodix: those are 1st year questions and more than a bit off topic. If you’re genuinely interested, a good place for the non-physicist to start would be the recent volume of papers on the discovery of the expanding universe by Micheal Way

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  22. 22. brodix 11:35 pm 05/31/2013

    Cormac,
    Interesting that in the several decades I’ve followed the topic, I seem to have missed that chapter!
    Interesting as well that the fair number of others who have similarly dismissed these observations could not offer an actual reason. One argued lightspeed is only measured locally. Yes, we don’t have signaling apparatus on other planets or galaxies, but we do still use it as the measure of intergalactic distance.
    I would think that given the simple nature of the points raised, there would be lots of specific references to link on the internet, but no one seems able to come up with any, other than the usual broad suggestion to go read a book.

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  23. 23. brodix 6:52 am 06/1/2013

    Cormac,
    As for topicality, when discussing the architecture of the top floors of a building, any rumblings in the lower floors may not be of interest, but they can be of consequence.

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  24. 24. coraifeartaigh 2:42 pm 06/1/2013

    Brodix: Perhaps you’re right, after all it’s not for me to say what is off-topic on Jennfer’s blog. Certainly, I agree that fundamentals are of great importance to any theory, including empirical evidence for the expansion of the universe for the big bang model. It’s just that I don’t see the connection with Jennifer’s post on a paper concerning grand unification.
    I’m at a hotel computer right now and the only link I know from memory (with lots of references)is my own paper in Micheal Way’s book
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.5499

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  25. 25. brodix 5:22 pm 06/1/2013

    Cormac,
    Thank you for the link and it is a very interesting read, but doesn’t resolve my question; Einstein said space is what you measure with a ruler. The cosmic ruler is lightyears. If two galaxies are x lightyears apart and they grow to 2x lightyears apart, that is not expanding space, but increasing distance. It is expansion IN space, not OF space.
    It is a simple point, though the implications are complicated, so I will not go into those.

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  26. 26. Dr. Strangelove 9:30 pm 06/2/2013

    Brodix,
    Lightyear can be either distance in space or expansion of space. Think of it as a ruler to measure distance from point A to point B on a rubber sheet. You can move point B farther away from point A. That’s distance in space. Or you can stretch the rubber sheet and measure point A to point B. That’s expansion of space. Notice you can use the ruler to measure both. But the rules of measurement are different. You cannot exceed speed of light when measuring distance in space but expansion of space can exceed light speed.

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  27. 27. brodix 5:51 am 06/3/2013

    Dr. S,
    So what sets the speed of light, if space is expanding? If you stretch the ruler, it will still measure only a foot. The only way to know it is stretched is to have another, conveniently non-stretched ruler to compare. What is the basis of this non-stretched ruler, since it seems to pre-exist, or otherwise not be defined by the expanding universe?
    Zeeya Merali posted a blog at FQXI on the various recent observations that should, in an objective situation, raise questions about the current model. If anyone wants to discuss it, that might be a place to go.

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  28. 28. brodix 5:53 am 06/3/2013

    http://fqxi.org/community/forum/topic/1578

    Link to this
  29. 29. Dr. Strangelove 9:15 pm 06/3/2013

    @brodix
    “So what sets the speed of light, if space is expanding?”

    Nothing. It is independent of spacetime. It is constant at vacuum.

    “If you stretch the ruler, it will still measure only a foot. The only way to know it is stretched is to have another, conveniently non-stretched ruler to compare. What is the basis of this non-stretched ruler, since it seems to pre-exist, or otherwise not be defined by the expanding universe?”

    The basis is the speed of light. That’s the gist of special relativity. Read the classic “The ABC of Relativity” by Bertrand Russell. It’s a good introductory to theory of relativity.

    Link to this
  30. 30. brodix 11:21 pm 06/3/2013

    Dr. S,
    Not sure of your understanding of the history of it, but originally it was simply an expansion in space, but after the realization that these distant galaxies, beyond local movements, were all redshifted proportionally to distance, it was then modified to an expansion of space, otherwise we would appear to be at the center of the universe.
    Yet there seems to remain this “vacuum” that is otherwise not affected by the “expansion” of the universe.
    Are space and the vacuum two different things? Since they both affect light, with the speed set by a constant and the spectrum by a variable, how do space and the vacuum interact?
    Wouldn’t redshift as an optical effect potentially solve this conundrum? How do we know light travels as a point particle? We only know it is absorbed at a point by an atom. It has no internal attractive force to hold it together, so wouldn’t it spread out and what is received is a quantum from the wave front.
    Here is an interesting essay: http://www.fqxi.org/data/forum-attachments/2008CChristov_WaveMotion_45_154_EvolutionWavePackets.pdf

    Link to this
  31. 31. Dr. Strangelove 1:58 am 06/4/2013

    “originally it was simply an expansion in space… it was then modified to an expansion of space”

    General relativity originally postulated an expansion of space but Einstein modified it to show a steady state universe. He modified it again upon Hubble’s discovery of expanding universe. Both Einstein and Hubble understood it as expansion of space not just moving galaxies.

    “Are space and the vacuum two different things?”

    Vacuum is space devoid of matter.

    “Wouldn’t redshift as an optical effect potentially solve this conundrum?”

    No conundrum. Redshift is wavelength. No effect on speed of light.

    “How do we know light travels as a point particle?”

    Light is both wave and particle. Wave property proven by Young’s interference experiment. Particle property by Planck’s quantum theory.

    Link to this
  32. 32. coraifeartaigh 2:02 pm 06/4/2013

    Dr S.
    Agree with many of your points, with a minor correction. *Hubble* did not interpret the recession of the galaxies as an expansion of spacetime. Yes, he refers in passing to the deSitter model at the end of his 1929 paper, but he resisted the idea of the expanding universe in almost all subsequent publications, preferring to confine himself to the raw data. This is one of the reasons that many historians and physicists claim that Hubble should be credited with the observation of the recession of the galaxies, but not with the discovery of the expanding universe, References in http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.5499

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  33. 33. brodix 3:23 pm 06/4/2013

    Dr. S,
    General relativity originally postulated a contraction of space, due to gravity, but Einstein modified it to show a steady state universe, by adding the cosmological constant. Since this was to balance gravity, this was a fudge factor that inserted expansion, which he later famously refuted upon Hubble’s discovery of redshift.
    The fact is that overall space does appear flat, which means expansion and gravity do balance out, just as the cosmological constant was originally proposed to explain. The current argument is that inflation blew the universe up so much the visible part is only a small percentage and so it only appears flat, much as a small potion of the earth’s surface appears flat. Yet why wouldn’t it actually be flat? Consider that since gravity on the cosmic scale is largely a function of galaxies, then the expansion would be between the galaxies. Think in terms of the rubber sheet analogy for gravity; Now to maintain an overall flatness, to counter the gravity wells, the space in between would “bulge” out. Now the light from distant sources would have to mostly travel this “expanded” intergalactic space in order to pass the intervening galaxies. Sort of like walking up the down escalator, this doesn’t actually mean the galaxies are moving apart, since what seems to be overlooked is that galaxies are not just inert points of reference, like raisins in the proverbial loaf, but are “space sinks,” that balance this expansion.

    “Vacuum is space devoid of matter.”

    But not light, as light travels through it at a constant rate. So if two points are x lightyears apart and they grow to 2x lightyears apart, that is an increased number of units of space, as measured by the speed of light. So we are saying the distance between these galaxies increases in stable units of measure, yet also saying the very “fabric” of this space is being stretched. Which is space? What is measured by lightspeed, or what is expanding, as measured by redshift?

    Link to this
  34. 34. coraifeartaigh 6:33 am 06/5/2013

    Brodix: rather than waste your time and everyone else’s with point by point rebuttals, I recommend that you spend some time with a cosmology textbook. Any book will do, but may I recommend the beautiful ‘Discovering the Expanding Universe’ by Nussbaumer and Bieri. http://www.amazon.com/Discovering-Expanding-Universe-Harry-Nussbaumer/dp/0521514843

    None of the points you raise are trivial or unimportant – it’s just that they have been answered comprehensively many many times.
    As a titbit, consider this: in the 1930s-1960s, many physicists and philosophers were skeptical of an expansion of space, and wondered how one could ever distinguish between a genuine expansion of space and things (galaxies)simply moving apart under the action of an unknown force. The discovery of a ubiquituous background radiation from the young hot universe that is red-shifted all the way down to microwave frequencies gave very strong support for the expanding universe…and that’s just one piece of evidence

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  35. 35. brodix 11:00 am 06/5/2013

    Cormac,
    Thanks for the recommendation. Not to keep raising points, but; Couldn’t that background radiation be the solution to Olber’s paradox? With the observed variations as shadows of ever more distant galaxies, rather than seeds of new ones. There wouldn’t even be the need for Inflation to match observation with theory.
    Given Inflation presumably expanded the universe to many times its visible size and thus diffusing that primordial radiation, it seems a rather short time frame for entire galaxies and galaxy clusters to coalesce and ignite in the considerably less than a billion years they appear to have, given it takes our galaxy 225 million years to make one revolution.
    I realize I am being a bit of a bore, but to an outsider, physics does appear headed for a crisis, with such efforts as susy and string theory looking very shaky, while the public focus switches every month, it seems, from one flight of fancy to the next. No one ever wants to question cherished beliefs, but science is supposed to be a bit more objective than this. Where are the voices of skepticism when multiverses is the topic du jour? Has the logic been so corrupted already that it’s just the next step into the unknowable?

    Link to this
  36. 36. brodix 7:34 pm 06/5/2013

    Ps,
    I have been following the saga since before Alan Guth came up with Inflation, so it’s doubtful any popular book on the subject is going to surprise me.

    Link to this
  37. 37. brodix 11:44 pm 06/5/2013

    Cormac,
    I’m not looking to waste anyone’s time on point by point rebuttals, or looking for suggestions on general books on the subject. I’m simply asking just one question; How can we say space expands, yet have an otherwise constant speed of light in the vacuum of space, against which to compare it?
    This should only take a simple explanation, since you say it is a basic issue that has long been resolved.

    Link to this
  38. 38. JohnSmith57 1:34 pm 06/9/2013

    The emotional tone of this piece seems a little overwrought. An event was held at Oxford. The Guardian published a piece on Weinstein that may have been a little gushy. So? Weinstein will either produce a paper eventually or fade into history. Nobody’s committed academic fraud here. Nobody’s been played. This is indeed a tempest in a teapot. Nothing more than that.

    Link to this

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