Friday, May 31, 2013

On Weinstein and Ouellette and Theories of Everything or "Can't We Just All Get Along???"

I tried, I tried really really hard not to write this post. I failed though, so here goes.  A few months ago I came across what looked like it should be a great little column about physics, "Cocktail Physics" by +Jennifer Ouellette. Reading one of her week in review articles, I was led to a couple of interesting stories before I came across one that looked great! I enjoy a good science yarn so I was excited to see a headline:

"...Mark Chu-Carroll took on new dimensions of crackpottery:..."

I was shocked to wind up reading an extremely mean spirited article written about another internet posting, (one very few people would have ever seen otherwise), that waxed philosophical and speculatively about special relativity, (think Einstein meets karma and self-actualization) . Worst of all, the author, Mark Chu-Carroll, a computer scientist didn't have a necessarily complete grasp on the science himself. So, that was a bummer. I wrote up a little article about the science of meanness and moved on. My mother gave me a sage piece of advice when I was little. If something you see in a newspaper or book upsets you, it doesn't really matter, you don't have to look at it. So, even though it would have been nice if there was a good little physics column in Scientific American that I enjoyed, it just wasn't to be. I simply resolved not to read Cocktail Physics again. Problem solved. Except it wasn't.

Two days ago, a few short weeks after my original disappointment had faded, I came across an update by +Jon Wilkins on the status of the recent talk by +Eric Weinstein. I'd heard about Weinstein's talk a few days before. It promised to be about a 'theory of everything' he had developed. Unified field theories are one of my key physics interests, so I clicked through to the article only to find, not Eric Weinstein, not a brilliant theory, but instead a post about Jennifer Ouellette's article "Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played". From what I can grasp from the article, the really important thing to Ouellette isn't the science, or communicating the joy of a possible discovery.  It isn't even the possibility of inspiring the public to think that maybe they could pursue careers in science, seeing as how an individual came up with what may be a plausible theory on his own.

Nope, the important facets of this story are that Weinstein dared to give a colloquium on scientific information he hadn't published and that the host of the colloquium dared to publicize it in the Guardian.  Yup, that's clearly what' really important here. Oh, and did I mention that darn in it, Weinstein was just too cotton-pickin' uppity? This quote from Ouellette's article sums it all up.
"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.
So, basically it's OK to give a colloquium without published data as long as you're not working on a 'theory of everything'. Smaller ideas presented more contritely are really what we're looking for.

It should be pointed out that great care was taken in both Guardian articles, (the interview piece, and the article written by Du Sautoy's), to stress that what Weinstein was presenting to the public for the first time was just a theory and was very possibly not correct, but that they felt like communication and feedback would be valuable to the scientific process.  Here we go:
"Du Sautoy defends the unorthodox way that Weinstein's ideas have filtered into the world and expects corrections and updates to become apparent. "We live in an age where everything has to be sealed and delivered and complete when it's delivered and complete when it meets a journal and, in fact, that's not how science is done," he says.

"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," says du Sautoy. "Science is very much an evolutionary process and [Weinstein's] is such a wide-ranging theory and involves such a wide area of mathematics and physics, this is an invitation to say, 'This is speculative and it's claiming a lot so let's see where it can go.'"

I'll leave you with one final gripe from Ouellette's article.  Apparently 5 paragraphs out of 28 in the article written by Du Sautoy where he extols the fact that Weinstein is from outside academia as possibly heralding a new way of doing science was actually a subtle and clever ruse to shame anyone from reporting that Weinstein's theory might not be true.  Personally, I think maybe Du Sautoy didn't have a multi-layered agenda and was simply discussing what he thought was a clever idea he'd had.  Maybe he wasn't intentionally trying to 'manipulate the media'.  Here's what Ouellette had to say about it.
"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."
Hunh, a closed-minded big ol' meanie.  I'm glad Jennifer Ouellette said it and not me.

On  a not wholly unrelated positive note, I leave you with a brief story of how physicists and outsiders, (this time outsiders with money and dreams rather than theories), worked together to create one of the first instiutes for the study of quantum gravity in the United States.  Click the picture below for the photo essay.

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