The nerds and the jocks, the saga continues

Recently, after reading another blog, I was reminded of this issue. There are jocks and there are nerds. The jocks are popular and influential. They like to run the show and order others around. Nerds, on the other hand, are not popular. They are not good at running the show, but they make everything else runs smoothly. They tend to be the backroom boys and the behind-the-scene people that make sure things work.

Image from Revenge of the Nerds movie

The one place where the nerds use to hold their own was the academic world. They are particularly excellent at figuring out how things work and therefore they thrived in the sciences. Much of what we know about the physical world is thanks to the nerds who passionately, tenaciously and meticulously studied the physical phenomena.

That was how things were up until roughly the second world war. Then their knowledge started to have a big enough impact that they appeared on the radar screen of the jocks. So, the jock said to themselves, “Wait a minute, what is going on here? Why are we not aware of this?” And so the jocks started to infiltrate the academic scene.

Today the situation is very different. The jock are running the show in the academic world. They are involved in academic research. The most prominent academic are, with almost no exception, all jocks.

Make no mistake, the jocks are not stupid. They are good enough to maintain successful academic programs. In fact, the way that currently works has to a large extent been invented by the jocks. The funding process, the way academics are currently recruited, and even the way publications are evaluated and judged for suitability are based on the methods typical of the way that jocks would run things. It’s all based on popularity, impact and influence.

However, the jock are not as good at academic research as the nerds are. The consequences can be seen in the lack of progress in fundamental research. You see, jocks are more concerned about their egos and they are only doing this research thing for the fame and glory that first popped onto their radar at the time of the second world war. They are not primarily interested to gain an understanding. No, it is all about the glory. Ostensibly, the goal is still to gain the understanding, and for that the reward comes with all the fame and glory. However, when the reward and goal is not one and the same thing, it is always possible to reap the reward without achieving the goal. This is something I call rewardism.

For the nerds, the understanding itself is the reward. Anything less is simply not good enough. Sure, it is good to receive recognition, but that is not the reason for getting up in the morning.

So, the more I think about the situation in fundamental physics, the more convinced I become that the reason for the lack of progress is at least partly due to the bloated egos of those people running the show there. There may still be some nerds that are actively trying the figure out how nature works, but they are marginalized to the point of being totally ignored. Instead, we have all these people with their crazy predictions and unjustified inventions, that has reached the point where they even consider dispensing with the scientific method itself.

I don’t see how this will ever change. Perhaps several generations need to pass to weed out the jocks by depriving them of the fame and glory that they were hoping for. Then the nerds can come back and pick up where they left off. Who knows? I won’t be around by then.

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Postulates or principles?

Sometimes an idea runs away from us. It may start in a certain direction, perhaps to achieve a certain goal, but then at some point down the line it becomes something else. It may be an undesirable situation, or it may be a new opportunity. Often, only time will tell.

Quantum mechanics is such an idea. It is ostensibly a subfield of physics, but when we take a hard look at quantum mechanics, it looks more and more like mathematics. It has taken on a life of its own, which often seems to have very little to do with physics.

To be sure, physics would not get far without mathematics. However, mathematics has a very specific role to play in physics. We use mathematics to model the physical world. It allows us to calculate what we expect to see when we make observations of the phenomena associated with that model.

Quantum mechanics is different from other physical theories. While other physical theories tend to describe very specific sets of phenomena associated with a specific physical context, quantum mechanics is more general in that is describes a large variety of phenomena in different contexts. For example, all electric and magnetic phenomena provide the context for Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism. On the other hand, the context of quantum mechanics is any phenomenon that can be found in the micro world. As such quantum mechanics is much more abstract.

We can say that quantum mechanics is not a theory, but instead a formalism in terms of which theories about the micro world can be formulated. It is therefore not strange that quantum mechanics looks more like mathematics. It even has a set of postulates from which the formalism of quantum mechanics can be derived.

But quantum mechanics still needs to be associated with the physical world. Even if it exits as a mathematical formalism, it must make some connection to the physical world. Otherwise, how would we know that it is doing a good job? Comparisons between predictions of theories formulated in terms quantum mechanics and experimental results of the physical phenomena associated with those theories show that quantum mechanics is very successful. However, in the pursuit of understanding the overlap between quantum physics and gravity in fundamental physics, the role of quantum mechanics needs to be understood not as a mere mathematical formalism, but as a fundamental mechanism in the physical world.

It is therefore not sufficient to provide mathematical postulates for the derivation of quantum mechanics as a mathematical formalism. What we need are the physical principles of nature at the fundamental level that leads to quantum mechanics as seen in quantum physics.

Principles differ from postulates. They are not expressed in terms of mathematical concepts, but rather in terms of physical concepts. In other words, instead of talking about non-commuting operators and Hilbert spaces, we would instead be talking about interactions, particle or fields, velocities, trajectories and things like that.

Another important difference is the notion of what is more fundamental than what. In mathematics, the postulates can be combined into sets of axioms from which theorems are derived. It would mean that the postulates are more fundamental. However, they may not be unique in the sense that different sets of axioms could be shown to be equivalent. In physics on the other hand, the principles are considered to be more fundamental than the theories in terms of which physical scenarios are modeled. There may be a cascade of different theories formulated in terms of more fundamental theories. Since, these theories are formulated in terms of mathematics, it can now happen that the axioms for the mathematics in terms of which some of these theories are formulated, are not fundamental from a physics point of view, but a consequence of more fundamental physical aspects.

An example is the non-commutation of operators in quantum mechanics. It is often considered as a fundamental aspect of quantum mechanics. However, it is only fundamental from a purely mathematical point of view. From a physical point of view, the non-commutation follows as a consequence of more fundamental aspects of quantum physics. Ultimately, the fundamental property of nature that leads to this non-commutation is the Planck relationship between energy (or momentum) and frequency (or the propagation vector).

Adrift in theory space

It is downright depressing to think that after all the effort to understand the overlap between gravity and quantum physics there is still no scientific theory that explains the situation. For several decades a veritable crowd of physicists worked on this problem and the best they have are conjectures that cannot be tested experimentally. The manpower that has been spent on this topic must be phenomenal. How is it possible that they are not making progress?

I do understand that it is a difficult problem. However, the quantum properties of nature was also a difficult problem, and so was the particle zoo that led to quantum field theory. And what about gravity, which was effectively solved singled-handedly by just one person? There must be another reason why the current challenge is evidently so much more formidable, or why the efforts to address the challenge are not successful.

It could be that we really have reached the end of science as far as fundamental physics is concerned. For a long time it was argued that the effects of the overlap between gravity and quantum physics will only show at energy scales that are much higher than what a particle collider could achieve. As a result, there is a lack of experimental observations that can point the way. However, with the increase in understanding of quantum physics, which led to the notion of entanglement, it has become evident that it should be possible to consider experiments where mass is entangled, leading to scenarios where gravity comes in confrontation with quantum physics at energy levels easily achievable with current technology. We should see results of such experiments in the not-too-distant future.

Another reason for the lack of progress is of a more cultural nature. Physics as a cultural activity that has gone through some changes, which I believe may be responsible for the lack of progress. I have written before about the problem with vanity and do not want to discuss that again here. Instead, I want to discuss the effect of the current physics culture on progress in fundamental physics.

The study of fundamental physics differs from other fields in physics in that it does not have an underlying well-establish theory in terms of which one can formulate the current problem. In other fields of physics, you always have more fundamental physical theories in terms of which you can model the problem under investigation. So how does one approach problems in fundamental physics? You basically need to make a leap into theory space hoping that the theory you end up with successfully describes the problem that you are studying. But theory space is vast and the number of directions you can leap into is infinite. You need something to guide you.

In the past, this guidance often came in the form of experimental results. However, there are cases where progress in fundamental physics was made without the benefit of experimental results. An prominent example is Einstein’s theory of general relativity. How did he do it? He spent a long time think about the problem until he came up with some guiding principles. He realized that gravity and acceleration are interchangeable.

So, if you want to make progress in fundamental physics and you don’t have experimental results to guide you, then you need a guiding principle to show you which direction to take in theory space. What are the guiding principles of the current effort? For string theory, it is the notion that fundamental particles are strings rather than points. But why would that be the case? It seems to be a rather ad hoc choice for a guiding principle. One justification is the fact that it seems to avoid some of the infinities that often appear in theories of fundamental physics. However, these infinities are mathematical artifacts of such theories that are to be expected when the theory must describe an infinite number of degrees of freedom. Using some mathematical approach to avoid such infinities, we may end up with a theory that is finite, but such an approach only address the mathematical properties of the theory and has nothing to do with physical reality. So, it does not serve as a physical guiding principle. After all the effort that has been poured into string theory, without having achieved success, one should perhaps ponder whether the departing assumption is not where the problem lies.

The problem with such a large effort is the investment that is being made. Eventually the investment is just too large to abandon. A large number of very intelligent people have spent their entire careers on this topic. They have reached prominence in the broader field of physics and simply cannot afford to give it up now. As a result, they drag most of the effort in fundamental physics, including a large number of young physicists, along with them on this failed endeavor.

There are other theories, such as loop quantum gravity, that tries to find an description of fundamental physics. These theories, together with string theory, all have it in common that they rely heavily on highly sophisticated mathematics. In fact, the “progress” in these theories often takes on the form of mathematical theorems. It does not look like physics anymore. Instead of physical guiding principles, they are using sets of mathematical axioms as their guiding principle.

To make things worse, physicists working on these fundamental aspect are starting to contemplate deviating from the basics of the scientific method. They judge the validity of their theories on various criteria that have nothing to do with the scientific approach of testing predictions against experimental observations. Hence, the emergence of non-falsifiable notions such as the multiverse.

In view of these distortions that are currently plaguing the prevailing physics culture, I am not surprised at the lack of progress in fundamental physics. The remarkable understand in our physical world that humanity has gained has come through the healthy application of the scientific method. No alternative has made any comparable progress.

What I am proposing is that we go back to the basics. First and foremost, we need to establish the scientific method as the only approach to follow. And then, we need to discuss physical guiding principles that can show the way forward in our current effort to understand the interplay between gravity and quantum physics.

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No to science pledge

As a physicist, I understand what science is about. I have a good understanding of the scientific method and what science has achieved. But, unlike many other physicists it seems, I also know about the limits of science.

So, recently, I saw this “pledge for science” where people are asked to add their support to say that they put their trust in science. Unfortunately, I could not find a fully worded statement of this pledge to understand exactly what is meant by it. What does it mean to put your trust in science?

To be honest, I think I know where this is coming from. With all the anti-vaxxers, followings on the heals of global warming denial, and all those kinds of trends and misinformation that is being spread via social media, it is not surprising that some reaction would follow from the scientific community. However, one needs to guard against an over-reaction.global-warming-effects-1576273649696

Science does not have a clean track record. It is unfortunately responsible for several serious problems in our world today. Take for instance global warming. It does not take much to realize that in as far as it is caused by human activity, it is with the aid of scientific development that this human activity is able to cause global warming.

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Another example is weapons of mass destruction. Through scientific investigation humanity achieved the point where it can cause unprecedented death and destruction. Not exactly a highpoint in human cultural achievement. Once this door was opened, nothing could close it again. Forever, humanity will have this sword having over its head.

One can proceed to list other negative effects of scientific development such as pollution and the hole in the ozone layer, but I think the message is clear by now. An unconditional trust in science is a very dangerous thing. Instead, one should rather support an effort to get people educated and informed, not only about science and the scientific method, but also about other aspects of culture. For instance, if people have better knowledge of history, they would have a better understanding of how ignorance can lead to terrible things.

Let me emphasize then, I do not support an unconditional pledge to put my trust in science. In fact, it is a dangerous thing to put one’s unconditional trust in any specific thing on this earth.

The state of physics

One of the quirky things about me is that I don’t believe things I don’t understand. As a result of that, I’ve had a long turbulent relationship with the notion of black holes. See the thing is, for the longest time, I couldn’t understand how an event horizon can form if the time becomes frozen when the infalling matter approaches the point where the event horizon should form.

While I was grappling with this existential aspect of black holes, the rest of the world happily proceeded to invent wormholes, Hawking radiation, singularities, and eventually the information paradox. Together with event horizons, none of these ideas have entered the realm of establish scientific fact, which requires observational confirmation.

Eventually, I read somewhere that the reason an event horizon can form even though the time becomes frozen is because the location for the event horizon with and without this additional matter implies that the matter would past the point where a new event horizon would form in finite time. So, now I understand it and I believe that event horizons can form. But we are not done yet. What about the interior beyond the event horizon? It is still frozen in time. Where does the singularity come from? I still don’t believe that part, perhaps because I still don’t fully understand it.

In all this, the importance of the scientific method should be emphasized. Even if I don’t understand something, I would believe it if it has been observed. While event horizons may be difficult to observe directly, the singularity inside the black hole is completely impossible to observe. For that reason, it can never be part of our scientific understanding.

This year, the Nobel committee announced that the Nobel prize is award for work on black holes. Half of it goes to two people that inferred the existence of a massive black hole at the centre of the milky way galaxy based on the orbits of stars close to the centre. This work is based on scientific observation and therefore satisfies the requirements imposed by the scientific method.

The other half of the Nobel prize is awarded to Sir Roger Penrose “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” If I understand correctly, the award is based on the Penrose–Hawking singularity theorems. (Hawking did not share the Nobel prize because he passed away.) So what is meant by “a robust prediction” here?

Sir Roger Penrose

Sir Roger Penrose is a formidable person. During his lifetime, he has produced a remarkable collection of ideas that range over diverse fields. The originality and complexity of these ideas give evidence to Penrose’s uniquely creative intellect. However, these ideas are of a mathematical nature and they show very clearly that Penrose is primarily a mathematician. Many of these ideas have never been confirmed by scientific observations. This lack of scientific confirmation includes the work on singularities in black holes for obvious reasons explained above.

It now brings me to the question, why would the Nobel committee decide to award a prize for “a robust prediction,” instead of something that has been confirmed in a scientific manner? The answer is probably related to the current state of physics. If we look at the work that was awarded recent Nobel prizes in physics, one can see that there must a problem. The problem is that progress in fundamental physics is slowing down or has come to a complete stop. There simply is nothing else to be awarded a physics Nobel prize anymore.

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