Science Sundays with John Duffield: Fairytale Physics

     Image credit: “Peer review” by Nick Kim, see

Image credit: “Peer review” by Nick Kim, see

I’ve just read an interesting book called Farewell to Reality. I liked it. It’s by a guy called Jim Baggott, who sticks the boot in on theories such as supersymmetry, M-theory, and the multiverse. There’s no actual evidence to support these things, and yet they’re often presented on Horizon and in New Scientist as if they’re settled science. They aren’t. Like Jim says, what they are is Fairytale Physics, and they’re getting in the way of scientific progress. That’s what gave us electricity and iPhones, along with cold beer and Sky TV. It makes the world a better place. Only scientific progress has been in short supply recently. And for a lot of people, the world isn’t a better place, it’s worse.

Jim talks about a “Grand Delusion”, which should ring a bell or two. Like with bankers and the financial crash, with immigration and the political class, and with climate change and the threat of power cuts. And whether it’s the EEC or the BBC, or foreign aid or NHS patient care, grand delusions are everywhere you turn. Only you know full well that it isn’t just delusion. Sometimes it’s vested interest, and downright dishonesty too. And that there’s people out there who seek to muzzle the free press and the internet so you can’t find out about it. Then they can spin you a line, and you’re none the wiser. Until a guy like Jim comes along.

Only what Jim doesn’t know is that in physics, the press has been muzzled for a long long time. By peer-review, where “experts in the field” are able to fend off challenges to their standing. They tend to control departmental funding too, so if you’re a young researcher, there’s no talking back to your elders.  This is why there hasn’t been much scientific progress. And because fairytale physics infects Jim’s “authorized version” too. That’s where he talks about quantum field theory and the standard model, along with relativity and big-bang cosmology. Jim knows that science isn’t always black and white, and he knows that the “authorized version” isn’t quite correct. But what he doesn’t know is that he’s been spun a line.

For example relativity is one of the most robust and best-tested theories we’ve got. You can read about that in a paper by Clifford M Will. And yet when you compare what Einstein said with what some celebrity physicist tells you on the Discovery Channel, something doesn’t add up. Space doesn’t fall inwards like a waterfall, and light doesn’t curve because spacetime is curved, it curves because “die Ausbreitungs-geschwindigkeit des Lichtes mit dem Orte variiert”. That’s in section 22 of Einstein’s 1916 book Relativity: The Special and General Theory. It means “the speed of light varies with position”. He said the speed of light was constant in 1905, but retracted that in 1911 and never went back. See The VSL Discussion by Alexander Unzicker. And whilst Einstein did away with the “luminiferous aether” in 1905, he described space as the aether of general relativity in his 1920 Leyden Address. Relativity is no fairytale, but what that celebrity physicist is telling you, is.

When you play detective you start to develop a copper’s nose for fairytale physics. You learn to sniff it out like a cancer dog. Another robust and well-tested theory is QED or  Quantum ElectroDynamics, championed by the great Richard Feynman who once gave a lecture on cargo-cult science.  QED works, it gives accurate predictions, but when you take a look at two-photon physics on Wikipedia, there’s a fairy tale right there. It concerns something called pair production, where we convert light into matter. The Wikipedia article is faithful to the “authorized version”, and it says this: “A photon can, within the bounds of the uncertainty principle, fluctuate into a charged fermion-antifermion pair, to either of which the other photon can couple”. Narrow your eyes. Take a sniff. That’s saying pair production occurs because pair production occurs, spontaneously, like worms from mud.  And that a photon of light, a single wave, spends its time constantly morphing into an electron and a positron, which then magically morph back into a photon, which nevertheless manages to keep on going at the speed of light. It isn’t true. QED employs virtual particles as “field quanta”, they’re like accounting units. They’re virtual particles, not real particles. A photon doesn’t really turn into a real electron-positron pair all on its own. So the “authorized version” offers a cargo-cult explanation, a fairy tale, and that turbine hum is Feynman turning in his grave.

Things start to unravel after that, because QED is part of the standard model. And in the standard model, the electron is a “fundamental” particle. How can it be fundamental if you can create it in pair production, and destroy it in annihilation? How does pair production actually work anyway? What is an electron? Ask a particle physicist, and what you get is “the electron is an excitation of the electron field”. A non-answer. A fairy tale. Because the standard model doesn’t tie in with classical electromagnetism, where the field concerned is the electromagnetic field. Physicists who’ve read the original Maxwell or Baldomir and Hammond know this, because they know that electromagnetism is all to do with “curl” and stress and a geometry of its own. It’s different to the geometry of general relativity: think frame-dragging and gravitomagnetism. Something called Topological Quantum Field Theory doesn’t feature either, which relates to knot theory, which goes back to Thomson and Tait. They’re the guys who introduced the term spherical harmonics, which is used in atomic orbitals. In atomic orbitals electrons do not orbit the nucleus in the sense of a planet orbiting the sun, but instead exist as standing waves”. Standing waves? That strikes a chord when it comes to pair production and annihilation. And you can diffract an electron. That fits with the wave nature of matter. But ask a standard-model physicist, and he’ll likely tell you the electron is a point particle. A fairy tale. Ask him where the “fundamental” quarks and gluons go in low-energy proton-antiproton annihilation which ultimately produces “nothing but gamma rays, electrons, positrons, and neutrinos”, and you won’t get an answer, you’ll get a fairy tale.

Don’t get me wrong, the standard model isn’t wrong per se, it’s incomplete. Very incomplete. It’s no ivory tower, but it’s more like a scaffolding tower, with gaps in it, and shaky, because it isn’t built onto or tied into those other things I mentioned. Instead of appreciating that it needs completing, many physicists try to build on top of it, with things like supersymmetry, predicting all manner of particles that just haven’t turned up. Another thing they can’t appreciate in their desire for “discovery” to satisfy the public and politicians, is that one part of the standard model is… flawed.  It’s called the Higgs sector. If you were lucky enough to read Matthew Chalmer’s Particle Headache in the 12 November 2012 issue of New Scientist, you will have seen this:

“The minimal standard model Higgs is like a fairy tale,” says Guido Altarelli of CERN near Geneva, Switzerland.

But that’s one for another day.

15 comments on “Science Sundays with John Duffield: Fairytale Physics

  1. Graham N Booth
    August 4, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Goodness me this is way beyond me. But I guess that is how the world of science comes to be manipulated by governments. As James Delingpole says in ‘Watermelons’, the key is funding: buck the cosy consensus and you’re out.

    (Incidentally, I looked at your link for M-Theory, and was reminded that the concept of three (or four, if you include time) dimensions always seems odd to me. Like most things humans think, they are rooted in experience. We live in houses and own cars. Being more or less square or rectangular, they can be easily measured. Specifically they have length, width and height. To apply this very sublunary concept to space, or indeed to atomic theory, is surely flawed? Look at planets and stars – are they square? Look at a skyrocket at a fireworks display. When it bursts, it goes out in all directions (although it looks like a flat circle to our eyes). Surely physics should be thought of as starting not from three dimensions, but from one. Not necessarily a uni-dimension, more of an omni-dimensional concept. Gravity pulls things in in this same way as the skyrocket (and the big-bang) forces things out.

    Just a thought. Perhaps someone far cleverer than I might explain.

  2. duffieldjohn
    August 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    I wouldn’t say the world of science is manipulated by government, Graham. It’s more like what Max Planck said, that “science advances one funeral at a time”. We have many examples where in a group of people, those at the top exhibit self-interest which is not conducive to the common good. It would be unwise to assume that science is immune to this. The dimension thing is straightforward by the way. A room in a house can be measured in terms of length width and height.

  3. James Eadon
    August 5, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    “M-theory, and the multiverse” – Sting theory started out as a single theory treating nuclear particles as strings. That theory failed when the quark model pitched up, but it was ressurected as Superstring theory which treats fundamental particles as much smaller strings.
    Then five such superstring theories appeared, which was a downer. Then a guy named Ed Witten made a new theory, M-theory, which shows that those 5 Superstring theories are aspects of some hypthetical unknown theory, called M-theory.
    That looked promising, except that no one knows that M-theory even is, it’s actually a theory that another theory exists.
    In any case, after this initial M-theory euphoria has turned sour. It turns out that no useful predictions can be made, the more we learn the more hopeless the situation is.
    The excuse given by some String theorists for this failure is that we live in one of a neigh on infinitite number of universes (the “multiverse) each with random laws of physics, so we can’t explain those laws (which is the holy grail of physics).
    That argument is considered by the wise as giving up, just because a popular theory failed.
    String theory isn’t bad per se, but the researchers promote it as physics and science, when, actually, its metaphysics, in other words, philosophy, with no hope of connection with experiment or, indeed, physics.

  4. Tim Streater (@TimStreater)
    August 5, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    The things that you are railing against as “settled science” are not, and are not intended to be, settled. They are just ideas. And the Standard Model is well known to be flawed, it’s merely the best we have at present, and within its limitations it works very well.

    I don’t know who you’ve been speaking to, but you’re considerably off-base in complaining about the state of physics. You mention that a physicist will say that an electron is a point-particle. And so it is, under some conditions. But, like the photon, it also exhibits wave-like behaviour under the appropriate conditions. It just depends what experiment you do. Look for wave-like behaviour and you find it. Look for particle-like behaviour, you’ll find that too.

    String theory, and similar, are attempts to go beyond the standard model – which is as its name suggests only a model. It’s a model because to make it work, it is necessary to plug into it a set of arbitrary numbers, which if chosen correctly make the standard model perform very well. The mystery is why these values and not others, and that is what the theorists are pursuing. Once they have a theory that is self-consistent, the hope is that it will make predictions that can then be tested, in the same way that Einstein’s theories made predictions that were tested and found to occur in nature.

    And no, Feynman is not spinning in his grave. He developed much of what you are complaining about.

  5. Gareth Williams
    August 5, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

    A strange mix of sense and nonsense here.

    1) Physicists are well aware they do not have a “theory of everything”. In particular the two main theories describing the universe – relativity and quantum mechanics – are fundamentally incompatible. You can read about this in just about any issue of New Scientist.

    2) Plenty of mainstream physicists agree that the whole string theory, M-theory approach has gone off the rails. See e.g. Lee Smolin – The Trouble With Physics, or Time Reborn (Amazon them).

    3) But a lot of this article consists of non-sequiturs about non-problems, e.g. “the speed of light varies with position”. Well, as always in relativity, it depends what frame of reference you are talking about. In a local inertial frame the speed of light is always 299 792 458 m / s. But if you observe a beam of light, from a distance, passing near a black hole, it will appear to slow down. GR does not refute SR, it extends it.

    ‘And in the standard model, the electron is a “fundamental” particle. How can it be fundamental if you can create it in pair production, and destroy it in annihilation? How does pair production actually work anyway? What is an electron? Ask a particle physicist, and what you get is “the electron is an excitation of the electron field”. A non-answer. A fairy tale. Because the standard model doesn’t tie in with classical electromagnetism, where the field concerned is the electromagnetic field’

    But who says fundamental particles can’t be created or destroyed? As far as we know all particles can be created from, or return to, pure energy. And yes, an electron is a quantum of the electron field. That’s not a non-answer, it is just a verbal summary of a mathematical theory (QED) that is accurate to 10 significant figures. But it doesn’t explain everything – and doesn’t claim to. A photon is a quantum of the electromagnetic field. (Different field). Any plain-English explanation of a mathematical theory could be described as “cargo-cult”. The question is whether its aids understanding.

    Duffield clearly knows some physics, and has even written a book abut it (which he is too modest to plug): “RELATIVITY+ : The Theory of Everything”. But note well what this Amazon reviewer has to say:

    ‘WARNING: This book contains a lot of personal theories about space, time and matter, and doesn’t bother to highlight for the reader what is established physics and what is not. Parts of it flatly contradict what modern theoretical and experimental physics have discovered.

    If you’d like to learn actual physics, even at a basic level, I recommend getting a book by an actual physicist instead’.

    • Tim Streater (@TimStreater)
      August 6, 2013 at 9:24 pm #

      Glad I was not the only one to conclude that Duffield is a charlatan. My advice to Dellingpole is to dump him; this will avoid an otherwise interesting site becoming suspect.

      As for books, if you’re a non-scientist (in terms of training) then reading some of the popular science books by the likes of John Gribbin or Paul Davies would be a good place to start.

    • Andy
      August 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      Relativity+ is John Duffield’s collection of crackpot ideas, not even worth the paper it’s printed on.

  6. Miles
    August 6, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    There is a great story of Richard Feynman being shown round an impressive constuction site for a collider, including tunnels under mountains and miles of accelerator apparatus. He apparently turned to the head of the project and said -“what – dont you trust my paper?!”

    I dont know what the point of this article is on this site, but if it is to fit in with some kind of ‘science is not to be trusted as portrayed by the leftie greenie BBC’ – it is misguided.

    You dont think at the edge of knowledge, where concepts of even simple mearsurment become blurred with the nature of consciousness itself – that things are going to seam a little misty? When the very nature of matter is being discussed – you thought it was all sown up?

    Next you’ll be saying medicine is not to be trusted because the rosy idea of men in white coats stops at cancer, alzheimer’s, M.S, etc – though they have some nice ‘stories’ about these things.

    And all that focusing on the human face of science – and the problems with peer review – it wont stop your computer working or your antibiotics keeping you alive.

    Just because science produces results you might not like does not mean you can bring down the entire edifice by pointing out its human failings. I know J.D. thinks he can do this – with a little help from his friends.

  7. duffieldjohn
    August 7, 2013 at 1:55 pm #

    Tim: read Jim Baggott’s book. He says the Horizon program “became a showcase for fairy tale physics”, that he became “deeply worried that many viewers might be accepting what they were being told at face value”, that he ended up shouting at the television, and decided to make a stand. As for the electron, its field is part of what it is. It’s never a point particle. Please advise me of theorists pursuing say electron mass.

    Gareth: another book critical of string theory is of course Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong. See and search arXiv on VSL and variants. One of the areas in which the standard model is incomplete is that it doesn’t explain gamma gamma pair production or model the electron. My book is no longer on sale, there’s just a few secondhand copies being punted by resellers.

    Miles: I have no issues with medicine. The issue for physics is that results have been in short supply in recent decades whilst bioscience has advanced in leaps and bounds. As for measurement, check out weak measurement along with Aephraim Steinberg and Jeff Lundeen. There’s no mistiness or consciousness involved.

    • Miles
      August 7, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

      Funnily enough, politics aside – I remember as a postgrad being good friends with a physics PhD, and being an engineer he had no time for theoretical physics. I remember being a bit shocked by this – physics to me was the realm of science gods so to hear this guy rubbish all these flights of mathematical fancy was quite enlightening. He reminded me of Eric Braithwaite – if anybody remembers him – a sort of breed of down to earth ‘hands on’ type of science personality that has gone out of fashion now.
      For that reason I prefer that bald guy on BBC4 to Brian Cox – sorry to insult him by forgetting his name – but tales of Leyden Jars and real experiments should always be mixed well with any cosmic wonder.

  8. Andy
    August 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    John (Duffield) is a well known internet crackpot better known as “Farsight”. He’s been banned on many forums for the same offense as the one seen in this blog: peddling crank theories.

  9. phands
    November 18, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    Why are you giving that idiot Duffield the oxygen of publicity? He is an exemplar of the net.kook type….but he’s “Not Even Wrong”.


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    […] Science Sundays with John Duffield: Fairytale Physics […]

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