Science Sundays with John Duffield: Bankrupting Physics

We smashed into the barn with ringing steel and clattering armour, only to be halted by the sight. We stood agape with torches, for there before us bathed in light was a golden cup. A stream of blood flowed from it, unto a fleece atop the cask on which it stood. Above the cup was a shimmering halo, behind it a rainbow, surmounted by a choir of ghostly angels. A pair of cherubs blew trumpets, the angels sang all robes a-flowing, heavenly music filled the air. “Behold” cried Sir Monty, raising his sword. “Behold the work of the Devil!” He swung down and there came a crash and flash and a clap of thunder. Then a sharp odour met the nose, and the angels and cherubs were gone, and the rainbow, and the halo and all. What remained was mere crumpled pewter and a fleece and a cask amidst the straw. “Smell the brimstone lads, smell the work of the Devil. Our work here is done.”

Of course ozone isn’t brimstone. But the moral of the tale is that if you appoint a bunch of knights in shining armour to search for the Holy Grail, and treat them like heroes and pay them handsomely, you can guarantee that it will never be found. Because if it is, the noble quest is over, and it’s back to the manor and poverty and obscurity. So if you ask them how it’s going, they’ll spin you a line and try to pull the wool over your eyes just like they pulled it over their own. That’s the message I got from Bankrupting Physics, by Alexander Unzicker and Sheilla Jones. I liked it. It says cosmology is relatively OK, but it rips into stuff like the holographic principle, which you probably expect. And then it rips into other physics, like the standard model, which you probably don’t. In a nutshell, it says theoretical physics has succumbed to fantasy, and has “gotten lost in bizarre constructs that are completely disconnected from reality”. On page 240 it says “right now the situation is worse than if we didn’t pay theoreticians at all”. I know what they mean. And I know they’re sharp, because on the same page they talk about Yuri Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize of “$3 million each to nine researchers who worked on string theory, cosmic inflation, and the holographic principle”. And how “Milner’s decision to let the nine theorists who won the first awards select the future winners was a real masterpiece”. I had a laugh at that. Anyway, I know what they mean because NHS spending has tripled since 1997, staff numbers have increased by a third, but the number of beds has halved and the scandals are coming thick and fast. Sometimes when a body of people isn’t functioning well, it’s because of “sociological” problems. Imagine you’re the beekeeper, and one fine day you get a visitor from one of your hives. It’s a drone, who explains that they don’t have enough honey to see them through the winter. So you triple their honey. But come the spring the drone comes to see you again asking for more. Then when you look into the hive, you find it’s full of drones who threw out the workers. To save honey.

Physics has its “sociological” problems too. Because it’s like a feudal system, controlled by knights in shining armour. They’re the celebrity physicists and the Nobel prizewinners and the experts in their field. They’re the “mainstream” guys who are journal editors or peer-reviewers or collaboration spokesmen. They’re the “choirmasters” who control funding and recruitment, and who don’t take kindly to talking back to your elders. Einstein was only 26 when he had his miracle year. He didn’t even have his PhD at the time. He didn’t have to worry about talking back to his elders, or peer review, because he had no peers. All he had to worry about was Max Planck, who said “science advances one funeral at a time”. And that “new scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher”. Hence Einstein is on the T-shirts, right? Ah, but there’s a little something I forgot to tell you. Einstein didn’t have problems getting his papers into Annalen der Physik, but he did have problems with the scientific mainstream. Take a look at page 6 of  Clifford M Will’s relativity paper. See the bit that says special relativity wasn’t mainstream until the late nineteen twenties? Now look up the history of general relativity on Wikipedia. See the bit that says general relativity only entered the mainstream in the sixties? That’s twenty-five years and fifty years respectively. You didn’t know about that did you? Because the choirmasters don’t want you to. They don’t want you thinking that people like them put up huge resistance to scientific progress. They don’t want some peasant’s revolt from their underlings, those individually inspired researchers who will challenge their standing and say everything they’ve been banging on about for the last twenty years is total horseshit.

Lee Smolin talked about “sociology” in his 2006 book The Trouble with Physics. He had  string theory in his sights, as did Peter Woit with Not Even Wrong. But you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that a theory can’t be the problem. It’s a people problem. And what Unzicker and Jones are saying is that the problem isn’t just limited to string theory, it’s right there in the standard model too. Because peer-review protectionism, big-science groupthink, and propaganda-driven “consensus” have stifled scientific progress. And that as a result, physics is in mortal danger. They’re right. Funding pressures are growing. Because progress is stalled, because something is rotten in the state of physics. What’s particularly telling is that Unzicker’s earlier German version of the book was published by Springer, the scientific publisher. They don’t want physics to be in mortal danger. They want to head that off at the pass. So this is a wake-up call. So if you hear people calling Unzicker a crank and a crackpot and a charlatan, turn your bullshit detectors to max. Do the same with your irony meter when you hear those self-same people telling you all about M-theory and the anthropic principle and the Goldilocks multiverse. Or about the “mystery of mass” and “cosmic treacle” and damn statististics. Ask yourself whether you really understood it, or just nodded like a donkey at some Emperor’s New Clothes smoke-and-mirrors that explained nothing at all. Oh, and be wary of science writers too. Investigative journalists are like dogs, people try to muzzle them. But science writers are like children’s ponies, they get nuzzled, not muzzled. They get fed and watered with dinners and jollies, they get sugar-lump press releases, and they don’t bite the hand that feeds them. They don’t tell you about all this stuff. They’ll never admit that they’ve spun you the line. They’ll tell their editor that the book is junk, and isn’t worthy of review. They won’t tell him this though:

“In summary, the Higgs mechanism accounts for about 1 per cent of the mass of ordinary matter, and for only 0.2 per cent of the mass of the universe. This is not nearly enough to justify the claim of explaining the origin of mass”.

 

Houston, we have a problem.

18 comments on “Science Sundays with John Duffield: Bankrupting Physics

  1. David
    August 11, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    J.D loves stuff like this….” Because peer-review protectionism, big-science groupthink, and propaganda-driven “consensus” have stifled scientific progress.”
    I guess thats why he has let you say it all again.

    Also “they’ll tell their editor that the book is junk, and isn’t worthy of review.”

    Not your self published tome though?

  2. Bit Twiddler
    August 11, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

    “In summary, the Higgs mechanism accounts for about 1 per cent of the mass of ordinary matter, and for only 0.2 per cent of the mass of the universe. This is not nearly enough to justify the claim of explaining the origin of mass”

    It would be polite to credit your sources, John Duffield. That quote came from a pop science book (A Zeptospace Odyssey) by a theoretical physicist who works at CERN (Gian Francesco Giudice).

    • James Eadon
      August 11, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

      @Bit Twiddler Just so readers are aware, this is nothing new, it has been known for many decades that most of the mass that makes up atomic matter is generated from particle binding effects and not the “rest mass” of the elementary particles.

      • Bit Twiddler
        August 14, 2013 at 12:36 am #

        Given that’s it’s a well known fact, even mentioned in pop science books and non technical articles, why does Duffield seem to imply that it’s some dark secret?

      • duffieldjohn
        August 14, 2013 at 8:38 am #

        Bit Twiddler: google on “the mystery of mass” and compare with what Gian said.

      • Bit Twiddler
        August 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

        John: doing that led me to a SciAm article, which seemed pretty clear on the fact that the Higgs field is responsible for the masses of the elementary particles (like quarks and electrons) and not the majority of the proton and neutron masses. I’m just not seeing a problem here, let alone a widespread one.

  3. DrJohnGalan
    August 11, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    One relatively recent example occurred in 1989 when Martin Fleischmann (a world-renowned electrochemist, but not a physicist) and Stanley Pons announced cold fusion.

    Immediate response – that was debunked as junk science? Indeed, the ”celebrity physicists and the Nobel Prize winners and the experts in their field” decided that a chemist could not do in a test tube what they had been trying to do with huge expensive pieces of equipment and huge budgets for the past 55 years. And a very successful job they did. However, a few brave men have continued work in this field and confirmed beyond doubt that the effect is real and is indeed a low temperature nuclear reaction. These reactions produce very little radiation and no harmful by-products.

    Imagine a world where research on cold fusion had been supported and encouraged. By now we could have had energy locally generated without CO2 emissions (as if they mattered anyway) for a fraction of the price now being charged to include subsidies for windmills and solar panels.

    Max Planck’s words are prescient in this case: Martin Fleischmann died a year ago.

    • duffieldjohn
      August 12, 2013 at 6:26 am #

      I do find the cold fusion episode rather surprising, because at the subatomic level there’s no such thing as heat: a “hot” material contains fast-moving particles. Plus there’s a possible analogy in welding – an arc welder uses blue heat, a blacksmith uses red heat and hammering, and cold welding uses pressure alone. On top of that there’s the Farnsworth fusor. And yet here we are with eat-or-heat pensioners and power cuts looming. There’s not even any real UK interest in Thorium. Bob Cywinski et al in Huddersfield seem to be ploughing a lonely furrow.

      I note however that CERN hosted an LENR colloquium last year, see for example http://news.newenergytimes.net/2013/06/02/report-of-groundbreaking-2012-lenr-colloquium-at-cern/ .

      • DrJohnGalan
        August 12, 2013 at 10:42 am #

        I am sure that, had I not known Martin Fleischmann, I would have followed the herd and dismissed this too-good-to-be-true discovery. But anyone more of a true scientist and less of a charlatan it would have been hard to meet. What F & P reported were observations after more than five years of painstaking work. They admitted that they did not understand the theoretical basis. (Neither did they coin the phrase “cold fusion”). However, mainly on the platform of “against established theory”, the observations were discounted after a matter of weeks (even though some replicated them).

        When it has run its course, the history of this episode will be fascinating for future generations to follow. Either, by then, we will have endless supplies of cheap, clean energy or cold fusion will have been found to be a phenomenon which cannot easily be exploited commercially. But why it will take so long for the debate to be settled is the question: why was science turned on its head and observations allowed to take second place to “established theory”. A good comparison would be the “settled science” of the global warming debate. A little humility and the re-establishment of the scientific method would go a long way in both examples.

        The latest conference (last month) was hosted by Rob Duncan, a former sceptic of cold fusion, at the University of Missouri.

    • albert ellul
      August 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

      Fleischmann and Pons were demonized by the Hot Fusion cabal at MIT, a corrupt group that included top scientists and mangers at MIT. This was revealed by an MIT science Journalist, Dr. Eugene Mallove who was found murdered soon after his revelations.

      http://www.infinite-energy.com/images/pdfs/mitcfreport.pdf

  4. James Eadon
    August 11, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    @David, if everything is rosy in the garden of High-Energy Physics, then please can you explain why there has not been any break through for nearly 40 years?
    Something is obviously deeply pathological, and that something, according to respected physicists such as Lee Smolin, is group think, it’s a sociological problem. This sociological problem has been holding us back for decades. If Duffield is wrong about it, so is Smolin, Baggot and others. Those guys are bone fide scientists. You are shooting the messenger here.
    The next break through will not come from within the HEP establishment but from outside it.
    If that does not happen, then we’re stuck with crap like multiverses and anthropic theory as excuses as to why modern theoretical physics has failed over the last 40 years.
    Cheers

    • albert ellul
      August 17, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

      The peer review process kills new science. It is so simple a deduction that it does not need explaining.

  5. David
    August 11, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

    I’m not sure – it is a combination of two things – what has been outlined by you and Duffiled – and possibly some natural limitations have been reached for now.

    I cant deny the negative way in which ‘group think’ permeates academia – there are countless examples of people being brushed off, people being wrongly given honours, research being pinched, supressed denied etc etc – I have been there – I have seen this in the most respected universities on earth – first hand. Science is a ruthless world that for all its outward appearence makes even showbizz look respectable

    I am just a bit suspicious why something that is well known anyhow in academia keeps coming up on a blog run by someone who basically thinks the entire scientific establishment is wrong while he is right.

    I know it is hard for J.D to stomach – but the sociology of science is perpendicular to ‘the truth’.

    Its useful, interesting and productive to discuss the sociology of science – but the reason why physics has stalled is not to be found there. You cant blame the boundaries of knowledge being unchanged on the peer review process.

    • James Eadon
      August 11, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

      Smolin’s opinion is that Universities should hire some unorthodox physics thinkers – as theoretical researchers, say, 10% of staff. Those are blind bets, and, naturally most researchers labelled “cranks” will fail to achieve anything significant. However, when you consider that most orthodox theoretical HEP research also leads to nothing (cough-supersymmetry-cough-string-theory-cough) then it seems to me that those blind bets are worth taking. The blind bets are essentially a hedge against the bias of group think and establishment bias.

    • duffieldjohn
      August 12, 2013 at 8:13 am #

      David: I’ve spoken to scientists who have given examples of the ruthless world you referred to. They’re part of the scientific establishment, and they’re not wrong. But they’re junior partners, they complain about peer review, and they come out with things like “don’t rock the boat or you’ll never make full professor”. When you read their papers you find they’re robust and rigorous and elegant and empirical, and they advance the boundaries of knowledge. But they never made it into a high-impact journal, they never received any media coverage, and they are studiously ignored by interest groups who peddle what is essentially propaganda, and tosh. Sociology might not be the best word for whatever the problem is, but there is a problem, and IMHO it is the reason why physics has stalled. As for your suspicions, I care about science, and physics is in mortal danger. I can’t just sit on my hands and say nothing. Fortunately, I am not alone.

  6. albert ellul
    August 17, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    Scientific discoveries are not made by those scientists who inhabit the central positions of the scientific platform, but by those who live dangerously on the fringes of that platform, risking falling off but making the grade if they don’t.

    All great scientists lived precariously on those edges of that scientific establishment and they suffered for it and most of those who tried fell off the edge into oblivion but those who survived are those whose name is today writ in stone.

    One other point; all great scientific discoveries were never peer reviewed.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] guy proving them wrong. They’ll wax lyrical about string theory or the multiverse or some other fantasy physics, and woe betide the guy who points out a problem. His comments get deleted, and he gets banned. And […]

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