Monday, June 3, 2013

Led by the beauty of the mathematics

NewScientist reports:
Physicists have a problem, and they will be the first to admit it. The two mathematical frameworks that govern modern physics, quantum mechanics and general relativity, just don't play nicely together despite decades of attempts at unification. Eric Weinstein, a consultant at a New York City hedge fund with a background in mathematics and physics, says the solution is to find beauty before seeking truth. ...

Weinstein says his approach follows in the footsteps of Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac and Chen Ning Yang, the physicists' whose equations he is attempting to unify. "The principal authors of all three of our most basic equations subscribe to the aesthetic school, while the rest of the profession had chased the consequence of beauty with adherence to data," he says.

For example, Dirac predicted the existence of the positron based on the symmetries of his equation describing the electron. He was led by the beauty of the mathematics, not the data at the time, which said such a thing did not exist, says Weinstein. ...

In addition, any modification to the central equations of physics would have to give results that are only a slight correction to existing theories – just as Einstein's equations offer very similar answers to the approximations of Newton's equations, says John March-Russell. Right now, equations and experiments are agreeing to 1 part in 10 billion, so Weinstein's theory would have to be a very small tweak indeed, and he has yet to reveal its size.
This illustrates what is wrong with physics. When the theory works to ten decimal places, it is silly to say that physics has a big problem. Second, Einstein, Dirac, and Yang never accomplished anything worthwhile after they jumped to the "aesthetic school" and attempted grand unifications while ignoring data.

As I have explained in my book, it is a big myth that Einstein discovered relativity by ignoring data.

Dirac was trying to understand the electron and the proton with his equations. Only after his theory did not match the data, did he suggest that maybe there is another particle. He was not attempting some sort of unified theory for the sake of beauty.

I don't know too much of Chen Ning Yang. His Nobel bio says:
Dr. Yang is a prolific author, his numerous articles appearing in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, The Physical Review, Reviews of Modern Physics, and the Chinese Journal of Physics. ...

Dr. Yang is a quiet, modest, and affable physicist;
From what little I know, he was not modest. I was surprised that the site would brag first about him publishing in a math journal, so I looked it up, and I could only find this paper. The paper is trivial. He must have earned his reputation in some other way.

At least NewScientist is skeptical, but there is no need to look at his equations. If someone proposes a grand theory that claims to unify and replace two theories that are accurate to 10 decimal places, but he cannot tell you whether or not his theory is accurate to any decimal places, then you can be pretty sure that he has not solved a physics problem.

Here is another example of someone with crackpot ideas. I just listened to the podcast, Rupert Sheldrake on "Science Set Free". I don't have to read his papers. Just listen to his justification, and note how little it has to do with reality. He suggests a million dollar prize for a perpetual motion machine, to be verified by neutral experts, not scientists who are prejudiced against such a thing. But the inventor of a source of useful free energy could probably make a trillion dollars from it, so such a prize would be of no consequence.


  1. "Einstein, Dirac, and Yang never accomplished anything worthwhile after they jumped to the 'aesthetic school' and attempted grand unifications while ignoring data."

    Except none of these people ever worked on grand unification...

  2. I guess you are drawing some technical terminological distinction. I'll just quote from Wikipedia.

    "During this period, Einstein tried to develop a unified field theory and to refute the accepted interpretation of quantum physics, both unsuccessfully." Albert Einstein

    "The "theory of everything" and Grand Unified Theory are closely related to unified field theory, but differ by not requiring the basis of nature to be fields, and often by attempting to explain physical constants of nature." Unified field theory

  3. A "grand unified theory" is a theory that embeds the gauge group of the standard model in some larger group of gauge symmetries. The first grand unified theories were formulated in the 1970s, so none of the people you mention would have worked on them.

    It's crazy that you're so critical of modern physics research when you don't even know these things...

  4. Symmetry, which is an element of beauty, has been an effective principle guiding physics research. Should you not acknowledge cases where unification and beauty led empirical research in the right direction and not just harp on the failure of Einstein's failed (late life) quest.

  5. I often post about the merits of symmetry, and its historical importance to physics. If you have some good examples, please go ahead and post them.