Bread and Circuses

Ground State

In need of a possibly trite metaphor for the human intellectual condition, but wanting it to be accurate, I googled “low energy state”. This came up at the top, probably a wiki:

“The lowest energy state an atom can be at is called its ground state. When an electron in an atom has absorbed energy it is said to be in an excited state. An excited atom is unstable and tends to rearrange itself to return to its lowest energy state.”

Applied to theoretical physics (TP) the lowest energy state is blind acceptance of the status quo – or at least that’s what I originally wrote. It’s not quite right, though. That word “blind” is wrong, methinks. “Willing” is more apropos – or even “eager”. The vast majority of individuals who’ve made careers in physics, while relishing stories of the disruptors of the past, are largely indifferent to disruption in the present, and occasionally aggressively against it. The lowest energy state is where security lies.

Of course, too much stability and there is a risk that funding may dry up. But excitement can be generated by a kind of scientific yellow journalism.

“The Universe Might Be a Giant Loop”

“Is a New Particle Changing the Fate of the Universe?”

“Even In A Quantum Universe, Space And Time Might Be Continuous, Not Discrete”

“Quantum physics: our study suggests objective reality doesn’t exist”

“A Link Between Dark Matter and Antimatter Could Be Why the Universe Exists”

These are actual titles of pop-sci articles strewn about the internet. Such titles often end in a question mark, or have one or more of the conditional words, “might”, “may”, “could”, etc. The titles are clickbait. My favorite type of clickbait title begins with words similar to these: “Scientists now believe [something moderately outrageous].” My first reaction – the reaction the title is intended to elicit – is, “Really?” And for a brief flash I am filled with self doubt, wondering how I missed word of this revelatory story. But wait a minute. What does “scientists” mean? It’s plural, so accepting the story’s accuracy the number of scientists sharing the moderately outrageous idea is greater than or equal to two, and less than or equal to the number of all scientists. The impression generated, in the absence of specificity, is that the number is close to all, which is a big deal. But it rarely if ever is nearly all. It’s usually two or three researchers who were overheard postulating something outrageous while sitting at a bar in an advanced state of inebriation – which is another metaphor.

Anyway, while I have nothing against a bunch of brainy folk having job security, I’m also a big fan of intellectual disruption. For several decades the ground state of TP was string theory. That ground state would have been cemented in place for many more decades, if not centuries, had the LHC found any evidence for anything SUSY related, but alas, it did not. Absence of evidence is not really disruption though. Had there been evidence of anything else, something requiring new ways of thinking, well, that might have boosted the atom to a higher energy state. Still, in finding nothing, the notion that there likely are higher energy states has not been precluded.

The Disruptor Meme

Disruption in TP can in fact negatively impact funding and careers, unless you are the disruptor, and you are already a member in high standing of the TP ecclesiastical bureaucracy. You know, I saw an article recently about the last scientist who knew everything. It doesn’t matter who the article’s author thought this person was, but the idea that things have now gone well beyond what any individual can mentally encompass is a valid one. There will be no more Swiss patent clerks overturning tired ideas, although many people – myself included – would love to be that. Some 50 years later, though, the illusion/delusion on my part has largely dissipated. It’s not all – or even mostly – my fault. I still believe in the core value of my body of work. But no matter.

What reputation I still have is that of an obstinate maverick. I am occasionally sent links to new articles by authors who want feedback on their potentially disruptive ideas. Their thought is: you (me) have been writing counterculture physics articles for decades, so your (my) sympathy is assured. The message I get from most of these is: your (my) work is counterculture, but let’s ignore it entirely and look at mine, which is different and unrelated to yours (mine, again). Your (my) feedback is requested.

The problem is, I believe with every fibre in my mind and body that my work is fundamentally correct, and that there are not many truths, but just one; so if your (not my) work is not building on mine, then, frankly my dear, …

The Wall

A couple days ago I encountered an online article about philosophers who believe there are limits to what we as a species can achieve intellectually. I quote:

“‘Mysterian’ thinkers give a prominent role to biological arguments and analogies. In his 1983 landmark book The Modularity of Mind, the late philosopher Jerry Fodor claimed that there are bound to be ‘thoughts that we are unequipped to think’.

“Similarly, the philosopher Colin McGinn has argued in a series of books and articles that all minds suffer from ‘cognitive closure’ with respect to certain problems. Just as dogs or cats will never understand prime numbers, human brains must be closed off from some of the world’s wonders. McGinn suspects that the reason why philosophical conundrums such as the mind/body problem – how physical processes in our brain give rise to consciousness – prove to be intractable is that their true solutions are simply inaccessible.”

So, yeah. But never mind that mind/body stuff; the idea also applies to TP. I must relate a quick anecdote. In my youth, full of a kind of boundless and obstinate enthusiasm stemming from a deep well of hubris, I visited a professor at Dartmouth to tell him about my burgeoning division algebra ideas. He shared a thought with me, that there may be limits to what humanity can achieve in TP. Did I mention the deep well of hubris? Yes, I see I did. Anyway, some time later I encountered him again, and I remembered some time in the past that someone had suggested there may be limits to what we can achieve in TP, an idea that my youthful arrogance totally dismissed, and I told him so. His reaction led my memory cells to the unfortunate recollection that he had been the one to share that opinion with me. Idiot! Me; not him.

Ok, let’s accept that there is a species specific TP wall, and we are close to it. The problem is, rather than admit that some mainstream idea shared by the ruling elite and their minions is wrong, this body of individuals has a vested interest in proclaiming the wall reached before it actually is … at least from an intellectual perspective. From a sociological perspective, maybe they’d not be wrong. If the ruling collective refuses to consider heretical ideas, then a wall – not the wall, just a wall – will have been reached. Happiness will ensue as we slide back to the ground state, a soup of exoplanets, dark matter speculation, and multiverses. Bread and circuses.