The art of being a humble adult

Brevis Gravitas

My attitude in these blogs has often been flavored with a soupçon of flippancy, occasionally falling well short of conventional adult seriousness that let’s one know where one is, what to expect, and signifies there is a shared notion of what it is to be a grownup. Starting right now I shall attempt to mend my ways for an extended period of time during which I shall exude gravitas. … There. Done. I hope that suffices.

Conway in the 24-dimensional celestial sphere

John Horton Conway died recently, sadly succumbing to the fucking covid-19 virus that hovers like the cloud belched forth from Mount Doom at Sauron’s behest over Mordor and surrounding counties. I don’t do heroes, but Conway comes very close.

A couple decades or more ago, having already spent a couple of prior decades demonstrating that the very resonant (Hurwitz) division algebras (C, H, O, with resonant dimensions 2,4,8) provide a natural architecture for the Standard Model of elementary particles, I happened upon Conway and Sloane’s book, Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups. In this I discovered that in lattice theory the resonant dimensions are 2, 8, and 24 (1×2, 2×4, 3×8), associated with the lattices A₂, E₈, and Λ₂₄. That last one is the Leech lattice. It is remarkable, and there are a few people in the world who understand why, to some extent. I am not one of them. I’m like a fan of a sports team, not willing (able?) to put in the years of work needed to become a proficient player, but still able to write about the sport, which I did most recently here.

I never met Conway, nor ever communicated with him, but my readings in Sphere Packings, and elsewhere, convinced me that the fellow was beyond brilliant. In an online obituary I encountered this:

“During what Dr. Conway called his ‘annus mirabilis,’ roughly 1969 to 1970, he discovered what’s known as the Conway group, an entity in the realm of mathematical symmetry that inhabits 24-dimensional space. He discovered a new type of number, ‘surreal numbers.’ And he invented the cellular automaton Game of Life, which is among the most beautiful mathematical models of computation. He described it as a ‘no-player never-ending’ game.

“’In mathematics and physics there are two kinds of geniuses,’ Dr. Kochen said by phone from his home in Princeton, echoing something once said about the physicist Richard Feynman. ‘There are the ordinary geniuses — they are just like you and me but they are better at it; if we’d worked hard enough, maybe we could get some of the same results.

“‘But then there are the magical geniuses,’ he added. ‘Richard Feynman was a magical genius. And the same always struck me about John — he was a magical mathematician. He was a magical genius rather than an ordinary genius.’”

By the way, Conway wrote another book (with Derek A. Smith) – On quaternions and octonions: Their geometry, arithmetic, and symmetry, and quite a few years ago, at the request of an editor of The Mathematical Intelligencer, I wrote a review of that book, which appeared in that journal. Something odd happened as a consequence – a glitch in The Matrix – and if you do a search for that title you will sometimes see my name listed with Conway and Smith’s in a way that gives the impression I was a coauthor. I was not. In life Conway inhabited a more rarefied plane of existence than do I, and now – sadly – it is even more rarefied.

And speaking of being humble: WPP

Stephen Wolfram, polymath, genius, and a model of self effacement we would all benefit from emulating, has initiated “a project to find the fundamental theory of physics”: The Wolfram Physics Project.

Let’s look into his bona fides, and things he has let go to his head:

> He published his first physics paper when he was 15. I misremembered that number; I thought he had said it was 2, but upon rereading his backstory I discovered that that was just a general impression he was generating. The real number is 15, which is still impressive.

> He got seriously involved with physics in the 1970s. He evidently frequently rubbed elbows with Feynman, an association that he definitely let go to his head, and one that I suspect prevented him from thinking more out of the box at that time. “Not that I was trying to find a fundamental theory of physics back then. Like essentially all physicists, I spent my time on the hard work of figuring out the consequences of the theories we already had.” So, that phrase – “essentially all” – is, methinks, intentionally dismissive of any theorists – like Gürsey and Günaydin at Yale – who were not “figuring out the consequences of the theories we already had”, but were involved in a search for the mathematical roots of “theories we already had”. (Their work inspired mine, and although they surrendered their efforts when faced with mainstream ridicule, I participated in keeping the flame alive in the wilderness, and although it took decades, that flame is now pretty much self sustaining.) Anyway, it’s just a guess, but the problem with being young, bright, AND a friend with the likes of Feynman, is that such friendships dampen the potential of youth and brilliance, leading one to avoid any thoughts or actions that could jeopardize the friendships and diminish the perceived respect those theory gods might have for your malleable young mind.

> The siren call of computers became un-ignorable at some point, and SW succumbed to the allure of its dulcet tones. He founded Wolfram Research, and used the Wolfram Language (See? Humble.) programming language to create the kernel of Mathematica, a now nearly ubiquitous STEM computing research tool. But he never forgot physics.

> And now we have the WPP. Ideas gleaned from decades of thinking digitally have led to this inherently digital approach to solving some – or all – of the big mysteries of physics. According to wikipedia it was Abraham Maslow, writing in the book The Psychology of Science, who used the phrase: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” I suspect that the WPP is a classic example of this. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or misconceived, but … well, you know, if it doesn’t involved the C, H, O trio at some point in its architecture, then even if the WPP succeeds in explaining everything, I won’t care, and I’ll lose all respect for Mother Nature. So, that’s my opinion; it’s not humble. I don’t do humble opinions. And just to be clear, the WPP has to do more than succeed; it has to explain why its success – and the particular path to that end – was inevitable.

> SW also says: “But what about other approaches to finding a fundamental theory of physics? Realistically I think the landscape has been quite barren of late. There’s a steady stream of people outside the physics community making proposals. But most of them are deeply handicapped by not connecting to quantum field theory and general relativity. Yes, these are mathematically sophisticated theories that pretty much take a physics PhD’s worth of study to understand. But they’re [QFT and GR] the best operational summaries we have right now of what’s known in physics, and if one doesn’t connect to them, one’s basically throwing away everything that was achieved in 20th-century physics.” It may be just my own ego speaking, but this blanket dismissal of things that do not include QFT and GR might include my own work. Keep in mind, I’d be happy to have another lifetime with which to shoehorn those notions into my work, and I’ve never dismissed their utility, but … I’m reminded of the excitement I felt years ago when I saw I was cited in a Roger Penrose tome, only to discover he felt my work, by involving division algebras beyond C, was thereby rendered unworthy. But maybe Wolfram is unaware of my dabblings. Is that better? Maybe I’m just being sensitive. Sniff.

Anyway, Stephen, good luck with that. It’d be nice were a ToE developed before I die, even if my efforts are beside the point. But please hurry.

More ABC conjecture humility

Although Peter Woit’s latest blog has taken a small step away from the ABC conjecture proof controversy, the debate that played out in his ABC blog comments – by some of the preeminent mathematicians in the field – was fascinating. I can’t pretend to understand much more than a small fraction …

“What my post above attempts to show, is: if passing to poly-isomorphism has the effect of doing no gluing/no identification of ring structures (arising from π₁, just the gluing from the actual log map), then the only gluing left is the actual log map, which gives one global chart, and no transition functions needed, essentially(?) since just one chart. I before never really seriously considered that full poly-isomorphism could have the effect of ‘no gluing arising from this part’ (instead of ‘choose your favourite gluing’), but a similar thing is (I think) asserted for the case of the theta-link in …”

… Holy crap. Anyway, Peter W is adamant that the purity of mathematics would be sullied by the publication of a “proof” of the conjecture that is viewed by many as flawed. (My comment that physicists publish flawed work all the time did not go over well, and it was dismissed.) I don’t disagree with PW, but I do wonder if this >500 page proof – the semantics of which is not understood by its critics, according to its author – has entered a zone of near unknowable-ness. I suggest we create an AI that can not only look into this vexing problem far more quickly than can a human, but also far more dispassionately.

You know, I’m only half kidding. Actually I’m not at all kidding. We then should turn the AI’s attention to physics, and turn the attention of mathematicians and physicists – who’ll no longer be needed doing what they’d been doing – to other areas, like farming, and web design.

Be careful, Alice

Follow the White Rabbit

Let’s assume you know as little of the intricacies of the abc conjecture proof controversy as I do. Actually, let’s not assume that; forget I said that. However, before I carry on, a caveat: I very likely have no idea what I’m going to be talking about, and likely would be well advised to refrain from offering an opinion. However, having no one but myself to provide said advice, and being personally disinclined to offer it …

So, I decided to go as far as I could and was able, or as far as my motivation to do so would take me, to understanding what the hubbub was all about. And to begin, here is one wiki-way of expressing the conjecture:

If a, b, and c are coprime positive integers such that a + b = c, it turns out that “usually” c < rad(abc). The abc conjecture deals with the exceptions. Specifically, it states that:

ABC conjecture. For every positive real number ε, there exist only finitely many triples (a, b, c) of coprime positive integers, with a + b = c, such that
c > rad(abc) (1 + ε)

Let’s parse this. So, coprime means a, b and c have no prime factors in common. For example,

a = 125 = 5³;
b = 91 = 7×13;
c = 216 = 2³×3³.

So, what is rad(abc), the “radical” of this integer? Well,

abc = 5³×7×13× 2³×3³.

To get rad(abc) we take that product of primes with exponents and replace all the exponents by 1. So,

rad(abc) = 5×7×13×2×3 = 2730.

Evidently, we are assured, “usually” c < rad(abc), and in this case this is true.

216 < 2730.

Keep in mind, a week ago I knew nothing about this conjecture, but I became a number theorist dilettante in my early teens, so you can trust me.

It should be fairly obvious that if c is prime, then certainly

c < rad(abc) = (something > 1)×c.

This suggests that if we want to find a counterexample to the “usually”, then maybe c should be very un-prime. For example,

a = 27;
b = 5;
c = 32.

In this case,

c = 32 > rad(abc) = 3×5×2 = 30.

[Note added 2020.04.12]
Regarding that positive real number ε:
What if ε = 0? Well, for all positive integers k, if
log2 3k is very close to an integer m,
then set a equal to the lesser of 3k and 2m, and c the greater. b is the difference.
In this case, if a and c are sufficiently close, then
c > rad(abc) = 6×rad(b).
In this way an infinite number of positive integer triples (I believe) can be obtained for which
c > rad(abc).
This means for all positive ε, if the conjecture is correct, there are infinitely many triples satisfying
rad(abc) < c < rad(abc) (1 + ε),
and finitely many outside that range. That is, satisfying
rad(abc) < rad(abc) (1 + ε) < c.
And that is indeed interesting.
[Note added 2020.04.16]
Of course, there is a simple example of that kind of thing. For every positive real ε, there are infinitely many fractions on the form 1/k between 0 and ε, but finitely many greater than or equal to ε, where k is a positive integer. Anyway, …

Drink the magic potion

If you are like me – or if you are me (at least one of us is) – then you are wondering, WTF? In particular, these are the thoughts bubbling in my witches cauldron of a brain:

A. Yes, like Fermat’s last theorem, this conjecture is fairly easy to write down and comprehend;

B. Personally, were I asked to prove this conjecture I wouldn’t know where to start, except finding a book in my library with the widest possible margins in which to do my work;

C. And, again, being asked to prove this conjecture my initial response would likely be something of the form, “I’m pretty busy at the moment, what with counting bits of bellybutton lint and staring vacantly at the ceiling and all, so no, find someone else.”

Not being a highly trained PhD number theorist, I’m probably missing something important, but at my dilettantish level I can’t conceive of any reason one would need to nail this conjecture down with a proof. As mentioned, I spent years playing with prime numbers, which resulted in my conviction that the gods and Mother Nature have set

ln(lcm(n)) =~ n-1,

(natural log of the least common multiple of the integers from 1 to some positive integer n is best fitted (approximated) by n-1). This leads to a really great continuous approximation to π(n), again receiving Mother Nature’s seal of approval. And how did I reach this stunning conclusion? By fussing about with primes and graphing things.

Consequently, I can’t convince myself that the abc conjecture originated with anything more profound than a similar kind of fussing with numbers. My thinking is, someone famous and highly respected suggested this, and it became a longstanding mathematics meme. Proving it became something mathematicians could busy themselves with, and agreement on that became justification enough. However, I wouldn’t take my word for any of this.

Turmoil in the rabbit hole

So why do I care at all? Because the popular STEM media have recently been unignorably full of the following controversy: A Japanese mathematician (Shinichi Mochizuki) claims to have a proof (more than 500 pages long); Other mathematicians, including one Fields Medal winner (Peter Scholze) have questioned the validity of the proof; Ordinarily resolving their doubts would be required before the proof would be eligible for publication in a respected journal; It was published anyway in Publications of the Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS); Mochizuki is a lead – if not the head – editor of RIMS.



I mean, really, what are the odds someone is going to happen upon this 500 page publication, have the time to look it over, have the chops to understand a significant portion of it, and not be familiar with the controversy. Has this person been living in a cave? (I think I know this person. I must have a word with them.)

Rabbit hole asphyxiation

Unable to restrain myself, I decided to look into this matter and see how far I could get before … Well, it turns out, not very far. Maybe it’s just the kinds of things that I find interesting, but notions kept popping up in my reading that I’ve encountered before. Like the Langlands program, which wiki says “is a web of far-reaching and influential conjectures about connections between number theory and geometry”. My gut feeling is that the Langlands program is very cool stuff, but the communication between my gut and my higher brain functions is a little sparse, and likely to remain so.

Another concept that pops up in much of my casual STEM reading is elliptic curves, which also figured in Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. I gather that elliptic curves are an integral part of the Langlands program. And what are they?

“In mathematics, an elliptic curve is a plane algebraic curve defined by an equation of the form

y² = x³ + ax + b

which is non-singular; that is, the curve has no cusps or self-intersections.” And evidently this may employ a mathematical field different from the real numbers. (In particular, there is a finite field of order pk for every prime p, and every positive integer k (numbers of this form play an important part in my excellent conjecture:
ln(lcm(n)) =~ n-1).)

And this is where my eyes start to glass over, and I start thinking I should maybe go outside and play. I mean, that equation is just so damned specific. And although there are evidently some nifty things that come out of studying elliptic curves, …

Anyway, reading more deeply into the controversy – and evidently it remains a controversy because the proof is so dense, and involves many concepts invented by its author, so few experts in this field understand it – so, yeah, anyway, I eventually encounter references to Category Theory and Functors, at which point I fall into a deep coma from which I am only able to awaken upon hearing some soothing Ibiza music. As a graduate student of mathematics, decades ago, my reaction was similar.

Bad rabbit

Although I despair of ever being able to offer a cogent opinion on the proof – and indeed, were that even remotely possible my mathematical interests and proclivities would prohibit the attempt – I do have an opinion about the scandalous publication of the insufficiently refereed thing: I don’t care. All STEM communities take themselves way too seriously, and this small community is no exception (which I precluded by the use of the word “all”). I do not foresee an imminent collapse of the community’s social order arising out of this event. This isn’t covid-19, after all.

Belaboring the obvious

Annus Mirabilis

Is there a silver lining to pandemics? No, not really. Knowing my skinny old ass could be dead of this #%&@4$ disease in the next 6 months tends to color my thinking on the matter. Still, pop sci authors, working from home, have been quick to point out a potential bright side.

In 1665 Cambridge University sent its students home to continue their studies in an effort to protect them from the plague (according to Wikipedia the bubonic plague stemmed from China – quelle surprise – in 1331). Among the students fleeing Cambridge in 1665 was one Isaac Newton, then in his early 20s. Over the next year+, referred to as his annus mirabilis, he revolutionized our understanding of the universe. The key ingredients leading to this revolution were:

> Genius (well, duh);

> Isolation (no cheery faces poking in the door wondering if you want to join the crew for a trip to their favorite pub);

> Focus (same as above – I mean, what else are you going to do out in the boonies? Molest sheep?);

> Ripe times (an international atmosphere brimming with ideas, all waiting for the right brain with enough time to make sense of them);

> A la Feynman, a willingness to disregard the opinions of others (much easier to disregard the tyranny of other voices when they are stilled by distance; but you also need to carry an independent streak with you, for without it, intellectual pollutants clinging to your mind from your non-quarantined life will mar the brew);

> A population of thinkers and researchers in your field not overwhelmingly large, powerful and persuasive (directed cacophony is difficult to ignore, even if one is in seclusion).

Absent any of these ingredients and you run the risk of succumbing to the herd, and producing nothing remotely original. Newton’s annus mirabilis is the archetypal example of genius in isolation producing a paradigm shift, but there are many others. Hell, just an obstinate proclivity to yield to one’s own maverick instincts can lead to a variety of isolation from the herd. The herd has a kind of inbuilt antibody response to nonconformist thinking. This manifests as a cloud of nudge-nudge-wink-wink derogatory remarks aimed at the offending individual, rapidly followed by a circling of the wagons, with all eyes steadfastly focused only on ideas and people within the circle. Newton’s great advantage was being both isolated for a year, and having the kind of bona fides others in the field could not ignore; and the time was right. Just ask Herr Leibniz. (Keep in mind, pointing out self evident human foibles will not bring about change, for they are self evident in being part of human nature.)

Anus Mirabilis

Speaking of humanity and its imperfections, let’s pause for a second and discuss homicidal tyrants, with which our history is replete. (This is always fun.) Accounts of their atrocities will generally lead off with something like this: “Stalin killed millions”. (I just did a google search and found an article with that in its title.) Ok, pause for another second. Look at a fluffy cloud, if one is available, and cooly reflect. Did Stalin kill millions? No, of course not. No one kills millions. There isn’t time. They need to eat, poop, sleep, and in general brush up on their copies of “12 Easy Rules to be an Effective Tyrant”. No, the writer of the article put the blame on Stalin because the truth would come dangerously close to blaming the writer him or her self. See, the actual deaths were caused by minions, many of whom were just average Joes, malleable and compliant when confronted by Stalin, and the times that produced him. It was minions (people) who imprisoned Galileo for heresy, tortured thousands during the Inquisition (again with the heresy; a pattern is forming), and sent millions to be retrained in the name of Mao. Anyway, as Pogo summed up more than half century ago: “Yep, son. We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Tyrants are shepherds; people – the herd – they’re the actual freedom deniers and death dealers.

Newton’s FOMO

Ok, gosh. Humanity is imperfect. Scarcely an indigestible notion, or new, so let’s carry on.

Among the things listed above as – well, not really required for, but certainly aiding and promoting the possibility of some genius having an annus mirabilis while isolated and otherwise socially distanced during the present pandemic – focus on the last one. There are just too many people doing physics nowadays, and the clamorous tyranny of their bleating is enough to dull the maverick tendencies of all but very very few. And even when not, their collective voices – appearing as journal articles and pop sci pieces – will easily drown out any voice calling plaintively from the wilderness.

But now, late in March, 2020, that is the least of the things missing from the list. You can go live in the country, separating yourself physically from the rest of humanity for however long you want, but if you don’t shut off the internet, you will never be truly isolated, free from the pollution of the herd. Yes, academics the world over are presently physically more isolated than they’ve ever been, but intellectually they are no more isolated than the Borg, and like the Borg they each are subservient to the whole – to groupthink. The internet makes originality extremely unlikely.

Had Newton had the internet, a blessing and a curse – well, the mind boggles. Failing to develop calculus and a theory of why things fall down, we’d likely have fallen back on the notion that all things that don’t fall down long ago drifted into space, ergo … Personally I’d be happy in a world that believed that. But it’s wrong. Probably.

Anyhow, Newton didn’t have the internet. He had his brain, and time. However, had he come back from isolation to the presently huge population of physicists, all of whom were content with the status quo, his ideas would likely not have failed, but gaining traction may have taken much longer.

Ok, so, he didn’t have those problems, and he became a titan. History records it thus. The end. Another pointless screed in which I say in slightly different terms things I’ve been saying for years. Perhaps I should get help. One or two sessions per week should suffice.

Deus ex dystopia

The genre

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that cultures the world over have become increasingly intrigued by the notion of dystopia. The horrors of the first half of the 20th century – let’s recap some of it: World War I (the war to end all wars); 1918 flu; 10 years of giddy creative euphoria the excesses of which led inevitably to; the Great Depression; and in our desperation to be free of that we embraced Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and watched in horror (but not disbelief) as they murdered 10s of millions of civilians and started World War II; and let’s not forget The Bomb – so, yeah, small wonder then that writers like George Orwell were inspired to write the archetypal dystopian novels that formed the rich soil from which more modern dystopian fiction has sprung.

Personally I’m a fan of the genre – parts of it, anyway. Big fan of both Blade Runners; and The Matrix (number 1) blew me away. Avengers Endgame began dystopic, and it was great. I’ve mentioned Girls’ Last Tour already, which starts out almost as dystopic as you can get, but then in a very weird way descends even further – in fact, all the way. (So, it’s odd, but really, think about it: dystopia requires elements of humanity struggling against heavy odds to be worthy of the name; once humanity is gone, it’s not dystopia anymore. Put a colony of humans on the surface of Mercury, and you’ve got instant dystopia. But until then, it’s just a rock in space.)

And then there are the immersive computer games. Fallout 4 could hardly be more dystopic, but in my opinion it is surpassed by The Last of Us, which even when finished – when won, as it were – leaves one with a feeling of hopelessness. There is no real victory in that game. (Not sure I’ll play The Last of Us 2 when it comes out; the creeping dread of number 1 lingers still. As an antidote to dystopia I’m now playing No Man’s Sky, and while one can “die” in the game, that requires some ineptitude; once one learns how to avoid that, the game is all about space exploration, building bases, and … sure, it gets repetitive, and there are hints that you may only be a computer simulation, but I’ve taken the Blue Pill, and for now I am content; I’ve just entered galaxy number 4 (the game is to all extents and purposes infinite).)

All bets are losers

Many people harbor dark thoughts about how the world – or even just civilization – may end. What passes for science on television these days spends more time discussing how your daily routine might be disrupted should the earth fall into a black hole … pfft. You know, in the early days of the public tv science series, NOVA, as a poor graduate student I sometimes showed my support by sending them a check. However, although better able to afford such philanthropy now, I no longer do so. Maybe it’s me – which I doubt – but the density of real science information on the show has diminished over the years. It has become lurid, more likely to discuss death by tsunami, earthquake, asteroid, venom, disease – whatever – and all backed up by musical scoring more appropriate to the MCU than … Anyway, I’m more crotchety than I was as a graduate student, so maybe it is just me. Pfft.

So, the point is there’s a steady stream of apocalypse in our lives now, and my significant other (and, whoa, she’s very significant indeed), myself, and a couple of our friends, have a friendly wager going on as to how the apocalypse will come about. We’ve labeled the subsequent dystopic ages of humanity according to cause. For example, the Dougocene is caused by anthropogenic environmental decay, assumed to lead to the loss of much of what makes life worth living now, like Paris cafes (which covers about 90% of what I’d miss most). Wars, and other human on human acts of communal violence, might lead to the Denisocene (she’s not really playing, but we’ve given her this honorary -ocene just because she’s a friend). The scariest -ocene is the Suzocene, arising from fucking microbes.

The last -ocene is the Geocene, which is mine. You know how in Harry Potter they have this game, Quidditch, played on flying brooms? And the majority of players are flying around making points in what is essentially aerial basketball? And how none of their points ultimately matter because there are special players, one on each team, who are trying to locate the elusive Golden Snitch, and whichever of these players manages to catch the Snitch – well, their team instantly wins, so what was the point of all that flying basketball? You know what I’m talking about? Well, the Geocene is the Golden Snitch of apocalyptic events. These include all nonbiological catastrophes, like a comet impact, or the eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano. Of course, the Geocene needs to be careful; in particular, an asteroid impact runs the risk surpassing dystopia and turning the earth into just a rock in space – or several rocks. In that case I’d have to surrender my -ocene trophy and declare the game winner-less; then head to a Paris cafe to mope on the unfairness of it all.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

It’s all good fun until someone gets hurt. I mean, ideally one wants to be on one’s deathbed, and minutes before expiring learn that shortly after demise the apocalypse will commence. That’s the ideal apocalypse.

In a previous blog post I mentioned the curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I also mentioned that upon first encountering the phrase I did not understand it to be a curse; I did not understand that “interesting” was a euphemism for disruptive upheaval, like either of the world wars, or the Spanish flu of 1918, or the plague of earlier ages … or the Fall of Rome, or … well, that word, “interesting”, I was all like, yeah, man, lay it on me; I like being interested. Alas …

Asinine animal husbandry practices, in a country I shall not name, have given rise to yet another global viral infestation, and this one is offering an unpleasant foretaste of dystopia – of Suzocene. SWMBO and I had planned a springtime trip to Paris and Milan. Now we’re leaning towards checking out the cafe scene in uninhabited portions of Canada.

I was born after WWII, and I experienced the Cuban missile crisis, which left my grammar school aged brain unfazed. My life was not disrupted. The neighborhood kids still played (literally) sandlot baseball. Or hockey on Johny’s Pond. In short, my entire life has left me comfortably inured to the notion that the heavily disruptive, “interesting”, times through which my ancestors may have lived – well, that was all in the past, relegated now to history books, and movies. Like most people, I did not expect the Spanish Inquisition.

The universe uses irony

So, one of the -ocene friends has a Star Trek calendar. Each month has a picture drawn from some episode of original Trek. It is now March, 2020, and this month’s picture is from the episode in which disease has ravaged a planet, leaving only children to carry on. This is disturbingly ironic, given that this present viral pandemic is over 10 times as likely to kill Boomers as Gen Alphas (if that’s what those younger than Gen Zs are to be called). As to me, although in many ways I have the intellectual and emotional depth of a ten year old, I doubt that the virus will take that into account. Damn it.

Nerds on alert

In an effort to slow down the progression of the infestation, events worldwide that were expected to attract large gatherings of people have been canceled. MIT – as tech savvy an institution of higher education as imaginable – decided to shift to online learning. Many other universities and colleges have followed suit, including where I got my PhD (I get emails), and where SWMBO (oh, come on: She Who Must Be Obeyed) is a professor.

Closer to home, while I am retired and unlikely to attend physics conferences anymore, should I even want to now, it is presently even more unlikely, because they’re being canceled in droves. Still, my blogs on physics and physicists, you may have noticed, have not been commendatory, and this enforced physics community “time out” cannot help but benefit in the long run. They should all sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done – and failed to do. And why.

Just seconds ago this notification from Bloomberg flashed atop my iPad: “Coronavirus Will Change How We Shop, Travel and Work for Years”. This, ironically, may lead to the threat of Dougocene (anthropogenic environmental disruption) being diminished. Satellites have detected reductions in pollutants in many places in the world. So, Suzocene and Dougocene, while both can ultimately be laid at the feet of overpopulation, the former is likely to diminish the latter, whereas the latter could enhance the former. Anyway, just saying.

On the bright side (ok, but less dim, anyway), the reputations of science and scientists (non-physicists), which have been in decline over the last couple of decades, should improve as the many-headed come to realize that their safety may be in the hands of nerds. Prayer might work, but my money is on nerds.

Fait accompli

Winding down

Forbes, a business magazine, publishes a surprising number of articles on science topics that are not half bad. These are generally (always?) attributed to Ethan Siegel, and his recent contribution in the perennial struggle to counter human doofiness was devoted to string theory. He had words of praise for the theory, but there was a soupçon of eulogizing to the whole thing.

Naturally Peter latched onto the article. More versed on the subject than Ethan, Peter was able to diminish the praise, and point out that no further nails were needed in that coffin.

I’ve been following Peter’s blog (Not Even Wrong) for years. During all that time he cogently made the case that the emperor had no clothes. It was great fun. But then, as we all know, the LHC finished doing its smashing, and found nothing new. Well, in particular, it found nothing that anyone other than the most deluded optimist could interpret as supporting string theory. This gave the emperor a bad flu, and the poor fellow died. The naked corpse still sits on the throne, but it no longer pontificates and is largely ignored.

What to do? Should Peter change his blog title from “Not Even Wrong” to “Not Even There”? I mean, really … Forbes? It provided but the most meager excuse to post a blog in response. Peter, it would seem, once a Samurai, is now a Ronin – at least as it relates to string theory. Still, string theory is not the only idea that is/was not even wrong. There are many other pretenders to the throne in similar states of advanced dishabille.

Voice in the wilderness

Well, speaking of titles, I chose to call this blog “Three Spheres to Rule Them All” for a reason. That it exists at all has a lot to do with “Not Even Wrong”. Peter occasionally struggles to keep comments added to his entries on topic. He has rules, and they are enforced. They are reasonable. Violations simply do not appear; they are expunged. Many of my comments have met this fate, although half of those were submitted knowing full well they would be rejected; sometimes I just feel naughty, and poke the bear.

Still, starting my own blog was in some measure a response to rules I found it difficult to abide. In my own blog I could say whatever I wanted to, even to the point of extolling the virtues of a particular set of theoretical ideas, viz., my own. And I could do it without the onerous burden of accepting or rejecting comments. All comments are by default rejected. I don’t handle criticism well, and I don’t want to see it. I handle praise only marginally better. And, truth be told, I don’t really care if anyone reads this blog. As I get older, I write more, but mostly just to and for myself, a most appreciative audience; kind of a Gandalf thing going on there.

Humanity is capable of all sorts of heinous behavior, from the hanging of the decapitated corpses of one’s enemies on the underside of bridges, to the less egregious, and somewhat less annoying, Tammany Hall style corruption into which unfettered elites invariably slide if there is no equally powerful countervailing … well, Animal Farm anyone?

TP elites have been Tammany Hall for the last several decades, and many of my blog entries have excoriated their narrow focus and wrong thinking. But, so, ok, we’ve covered that territory. It’s time to …

Close the circle

Unlike Peter, whose leery attitude to the mainstream arises from a highly educated understanding of their foibles, I base my negative assessment of the last 40 or so years of TP theorizing on one simple idea: my ideas are fundamentally correct – in their essentials – and ideas at odds with mine are therefore wrong. As I mentioned somewhere back in the depths of this blog site, the fact that those 40 years of theorizing came up empty was to all extents and purposes a prediction of my own work. Let’s talk about this.

I’m going to coin a new word. I can’t help myself; it’s really neat. So, in mathematics there are Ur-objects, which I’ll call, Ubjects (See? Neat, huh?); and there are tools (let’s get crazy and call them Mools (mathematical tools)). Ubjects are things that in some sense exist without the intervention of sentient creatures – should the universe ever produce any. Prime numbers and parallelizable spheres are examples of Ubjects. Mools are things invented to help the inventors better understand Ubjects. Ubjects are objective – invariable from species to species; Mools are subjective – and should we ever encounter an alien source of Mools, differences in approach will likely give rise to schisms and intergalactic wars. (The search for ET, as a consequence, should be squashed, and that posthaste.)

As regards my own work, the underlying Ubjects are the (connected) parallelizable spheres, which exist only in dimensions 2, 4 and 8 (so the spheres have dimensions 1, 3 and 7). I am thoroughly convinced that there exists some (spinor) field theoretic Ur-reason that these spheres are an essential part of the design of our universe – any universe. I have only the vaguest notion how one would go about proving this, but, hey, give me a break. Hundreds of some of the brightest people on the planet spent decades mucking about with string theory, so … you know, give me a break.

Associated with these Ubjects – the parallelizable spheres – is an equally finite collection of Mools – the Hurwitz division algebras: C (complex numbers), H (quaternions), and O (octonions). The quantity and importance of the mathematical concepts to which these algebras give rise and/or link can not be exaggerated. They are extremely resonant.

Ok, so, the Pauli algebra, from which is built the Dirac algebra, is isomorphic to P=CH. You can get an SU(2) doublet of Dirac spinors by stacking a pair of elements of P, and voilà, all the algebraic elements with which to build a U(1)xSU(2) Yang-Mills theory are there and ready to be exploited.

So what happens if you start from T=CHO instead? In this case the expanded collection of elements is ready to be turned into:

> A U(1)xSU(2)xSU(3) gauge theory (this occurs naturally);
> There are distinctions in the ways SU(2) and SU(3) manifest, and these explain why …
> SU(2) is broken and chiral;
> SU(3) is exact and non-chiral;
> The elements of the SU(2)xSU(3) multiplets are ordinary Dirac spinors;
> Neutrinos are Dirac, and massive;

In my first book I built the various Lego bits into a semi-coherent model, essentially the Standard Model. In my second book, I threw a bunch of the Legos on the floor for people to either play with, or step on barefoot in the dark on the way to the kitchen to have a midnight snack. Subsequently I wrote a paper that I consider my pièce de résistance (there is also a longer, fuller version). From all this one gets:

> The hyperspinor built from T contains a full family and antifamily of leptons, quarks, antileptons, and antiquarks;
> The spacetime associated with a model built from P is 1,3-dimensional; the expanded model built from T has an associated 1,9-dimensional spacetime;
> Projectable from this 1,9-dimensional spacetime is a 6-dimensional subspace (carrying color charges);
> And a 1,3-dimensional sub-spacetime that manifests as matter, or antimatter;
> We live in the matter version; we simply don’t see the antimatter version (but this mirror universe also exists).

That last bit, if it has escaped your attention, provides an explanation of one of the biggest mysteries in TP. Pop sci articles, like this one, will not mention my work on this mystery. But then, if a pop sci journalist asks mainstream theorists their thoughts on a maverick idea X, the mainstreamer will provide a dismissive response, with an underlying threat to withhold their wisdom in future should the journalist even mention idea X. Sadly, this is understandable behavior, and it is difficult to fault.

The list of niceness arising from T is longer than this, but I’ve begun to forget a lot of it, so screw it. Anyway, it is inconceivable that all of this is mere coincidence. I mean, really, don’t even try to conceive that; you’ll hurt yourself. Some of the most important and resonant Ubjects in all of mathematics give rise to Mools from which the Standard Symmetry, multiplets of Dirac spinors, and all the rest … I mean, sure, it could be coincidence. Nature might be that stupid and perverse. Sure.

Not included in the model building, as I envisioned it, are:

> Axions;
> Wimps and any other of the panoply of particles and fields people have predicted, but for which there is no evidence.

And that’s why the fact that 40 years of efforts to find the Next Big Thing, and win the Next Nobel Prize … the fact that all that came up empty is not at all surprising to me. And it’s why I am now perfectly content to sit back and watch the future of TP unfold as a nonparticipant. I do not expect to be surprised. Well, there’s always quantum gravity, which may yet surprise (but not without T); and astrophysics has still more secrets, I’d wager, if it can avoid talk of wormholes (which is just goofy in the absence of a coherent theory of quantum gravity).

Wrapping up

So, I’m not sure I’m going to contribute many – if any – more blog posts devoted to TP. I don’t have the depth of knowledge of Peter or Sabine. Really, I’m only an expert in ideas to which I gave rise, and as they are not integral to any of the directions in which mainstream TP is moving itself, I’d only embarrass myself if I tried.

But no matter …

All the generally unflattering attributes that define us as humans, however violent and/or underhanded, can not alter the reality of Truth, only its perception. Physical Truth is immune to prejudice and self interest. It is what it is, and even if it is in the interest of a coterie – or even cabal – to create a fiction at variance with the Truth, as a means of maintaining influence and power, in Science, far more than in politics, … well, in politics, if an idea lives long enough, it becomes perceived Truth. In science, an idea that varies from Truth will always be fiction. Although this may never be understood. Unlike in politics, you can not change the context and make it true.

In my last blog I discussed the anime, “Girls’ Last Tour”. Recently I shared a further thought on it in an email (a fitting way of ending this blog entry):

“The anime is a work of art on several levels.  Visually, certainly, but the story of two doomed tweens who use each other’s company to stave off gloom is enchanting.  And for me the most magical moment comes when they encounter a now defunct art museum.  They aren’t 100% sure what it’s all about, but there is a replica of a cave drawing, essentially humanity’s first work of art, on a wall.  One of the girls draws, and she pins her last drawing – humanity’s last work of art – next to humanity’s first.  Then they wander off, and neither work will ever be seen again – at least not by a human.”

TP’s Last Tour

Sometimes play is less fun, more traumatic

Avid readers of this blog – which, admittedly, is probably just me (and, yes, I do avidly read my own writing) – will recall that I more than once suggested to Tony Smith that choosing a more playful activity than obsessing about the cool to frigid reception (when received at all) of his theoretical physicists (TP) ideas by the Establishment might improve his state of mind. Since his passing I came to the conclusion I should have just kept my advice to myself. It could be likened to trying to convince a tiger to go vegetarian. It’s simply not in the tiger’s nature to thrive on beans and kale, and their health would suffer in making the effort.

In my Tony Smith eulogy blog I quoted from several of his emails, one of which ended with this:

“PS – As to Girls Last Tour – if it or its author is suicidal then I do not need to get into it. From what the web says of the Manga ending it seems as though they die without either clear victory or defeat with respect to their life goals.”

Let’s talk about this.

I have been a fan of animation from early childhood through to right now, where that “right now” will be every “right now” from this “right now”, at this very moment, until I breath my last and end experiencing any more “right nows” (although I am not averse to having more after breathing my last, but my hopes are not high on that score). I mentioned to Tony at one point that my latest animation fixation was an anime series call Girls’ Last Tour, and I was finding it a quietly enthralling work of art – the anime; I have since gone through the entire manga series. The former is video; the latter a series of graphic novels.

For many of you, I’m guessing, anime viewing is not a proper adult pastime, and it conjures images of large-eyed teens emoting dramatically, and perhaps carrying big-ass swords that may be used on monsters. This is a signal to noise problem. In this case the noise is the surfeit of animes devoted to big eyed teens with magical powers, or just moping about in school experiencing angst. The signal, if you will, are those far less frequently encountered gems, like almost anything from Studio Ghibli. (Oh, and if it isn’t clear by now, let it be known that I am not a proper adult, and proper adult pastimes I often find soporific.)

Ghibli animations involve very inventive stories that evolve in ways that I find thematically unWestern. One frequently encounters characters who early on behave in ways that my rearing in the USA has inured me to think of as villainous. One disapproves, and one expects these characters to get a heaping helping of comeuppance in the final act. This very rarely if ever happens in Ghibli stories. Not only is there a dearth of comeuppance, but the purported villain may actually in the end move in with the central characters as part of a congenial family unit. It’s all oddly refreshing.

Anyway, Girls’ Last Tour is none of the above. Yes, its central characters are school age, and yes, their eyes are on the large size. But they aren’t in school, because there are no more schools. There are hardly any other people at all, and you only ever encounter two, and neither of these are central to the story. As to that, there is very little story in any conventional sense. It’s just these two young girls wandering through a post apocalyptic cityscape in a mechanical conveyance called a Kettenkrad. At one point, we are informed in flashbacks, there was a world of adults at war. A parental figure, wanting to save the girls, sent them away from the war zone on the Kettenkrad. They were evidently told to get to the highest part of the city.

In episode 1 of the animation the warring adults are gone. Exterminated. We don’t know this yet. We just see the Kettenkrad and its occupants tootling along in a dark interior space. This space is an old industrial space full of pipes and fans and dripping and loose screws. And dark. So dark.

Initially you have no idea who the kids are, whither they are traveling, and why. As to the where – the milieu – this future city is ultimately revealed to be very bizarre, with whole conventional cityscapes built in levels stacked very very high above each other, held up and connected by gigantic columns. It’s hyper-industrial, and much of it is in decay. This is due to the war – now some years in the past – and the subsequent lack of maintenance.

At the end of the first episode I felt confused and bemused. What was this? Did anything happen? The kids traveled, ate (food is a running theme), and argued. Is there a story arc? I wasn’t sure, and for some time I didn’t watch any more. But two things brought me back finally: the artwork was grand in a darkly mysterious way; and I needed to know what I had watched. Oh, and I lack the maturity to forego.

The anime does not take the girls as far as the manga, although it is rumored there will be a season 2 following the final journey of the potatoes (which is the endearing term applied to the girls by fans of this work of art). Season 1 of the anime ends on a note that is potentially upbeat. Things have happened. They’ve had encounters with two other people, and some things that weren’t people, but all these people and things are out of the picture at the end, and the potatoes continue their travels, heading where we believe they were told to go by the parental figure long ago. Well, I was now hooked, so …

Then I bought the manga books and finished the story. Dark and mysterious. Metaphorically dark. Existentially dark. In fact, they do get to the highest level, and it is a flat snow covered plain with a single feature: a (possibly) concrete cube thing with markings under the outermost layer (that we do not see at first). It’s not big – maybe six feet high or so. To get to this point the girls have lost or left behind almost everything that was of value to them. But the view is spectacular. They have a snowball fight, look at the sunset, then sit next to the cube and eat the last of their food. Then they decide they should get some sleep.

The End.


As Tony wrote after looking online for more information, “… it seems as though they die without either clear victory or defeat with respect to their life goals.” Well, we never see them die, and in the last frame of the manga the girls are gone, and a portion of the cube has broken off revealing glyphs on an inner layer. But many have argued that this open end is devoid of hope. They had just enough food to get to the top, and now to escape that place they’d need to walk, for the Kettenkrad is irreparably broken. Moreover, the city itself – oh yes, the city – the world – well … but I’ve said too much.

Tony (as well as the creator of Girls’ Last Tour, online gossip would lead us to believe) fought depression for many years. And Tony died like the potatoes, without either clear victory or defeat with respect to his life goals. I myself expect to die like that, but in the meantime I’m going to emulate the potatoes, watch the sunset, have a snowball fight when the opportunity affords itself, and in general bathe in the warm waters of my immaturity.

Yet another metaphor

So, yes, the TP mainstream (to which I’ll assign an endearing moniker: the tomatoes), spent over 40 years tootling in their Kettenkrad through a huge dark and mysterious cityscape. Mixing metaphors, the tomatoes had created a theoretical speculative bubble, buying on margin, and hoping JP Morgan (the LHC) would bail them out and prevent the collapse of their businesses. But JP Morgan didn’t bail them out, and those bright young souls drifted disconsolately away to other things – intellectual hobos, as it were. Once cutting edge, they are now the old guard, loitering outside the local candy store hoping for a handout.

String theory, in particular, very rarely gets discussed in the pop sci press anymore, nor are there very many colloquia on the topic – at least in the Boston area. Its two most prominent spokespeople – Michio Kaku and Brian Greene (both of whom were in the past involved with some quite saccharine video content extolling the wonders of string theory), have drifted into podcasts and books with a more generic sort of content. Still, they’re bright and have creative energies that need an outlet or two, so I’ve no problem with any of that.

Ishii’s story

Ok, that’s enough for the nonce of TP’s Last Tour. I’m not done discussing Girls’ Last Tour. You can build your own metaphors.

One of the two adults the potatoes encounter in their tour is a woman named Ishii. She has been living by herself and is trying to make an airplane – sort of a Wright brothers like machine. She wants to use it to escape the city. She needs help, and promises the potatoes that she will fix their wonky Kettenkrad in return for help getting her plane together. All this done, she hops on board, flies off, and the plane seems to be working fine. But then in the distance the potatoes see a wing break, and Ishii is forced to bail out and parachute down to a much lower part of the city. We focus on her face, see her wan smile as she drifts down. And she says (or maybe just thinks): “But, well, once you fail, you feel so carefree.” She drifts out of sight, and we never see her again. One review online had this to say:

“Ishii’s story was one of my favorites in the comic and in the anime, there’s something really beautiful about a little story centered around the highly optimistic concept of ‘Even if you fail, it’s still okay’ framed against the actual apocalypse. The last Pilot on earth crashed, and it’s okay.”

I hope string theorists, and supporters of other TOE ideas – ideas that will likely fail to escape the city in their lifetimes – can achieve that carefree feeling. I wish that Tony had. I hope that I do. Sometimes I think I’m there.

So … snowball fight, anyone?

Not going gently into that good night

I’ve been thinking a bit about the ways in which I am not now, and have never really been, a physicist.

Einstein was a physicist. His Gendanken experiments (which involved thinking about physical objects doing physical things in a space our minds have evolved to handle reasonably well) famously – or so we are told – led in part to special and general relativity. These theories seem to do a good job describing how a bunch of hot and cold balls – planets and stars and such – interact with each other in the big universe. Clearly it falls short of perfection, for it allows for, and in so doing predicts, singularities. They’re bad. Differing opinions are wrong.

On the other side of the 20th century physics coin is quantum mechanics. Long before its inception Joseph-Louis Lagrange devised elegant equations and methodologies for describing the dynamics of physical systems, like bouncing balls, and even planetary balls and stars, and such. So elegant and powerful were Lagrange’s ideas that they easily weathered the storm of quantum ideas, and ultimately the elementary particle zoo to which they gave birth. One can not study QM and HEP without encountering a Lagrangian or ten.

All of this is “physics” in a deep sense, as all these notions rest on methods that are useful in describing the dynamics of bouncing balls. QM may take the balls and spread them out in very non-intuitive ways, and evolution has evidently not equipped us to think about such matters clearly, or even rationally, but the mathematical methodology used to describe these bizarre physical systems can also be used to describe the motion of a bouncing ball. It’s all very physics-y. We connect with it. It’s somehow, shall we say, bosonic.

In a perfect world – universe – all particles would be bosons. Of course, we wouldn’t exist in that case, but that merely heightens the perfection of the purely bosonic universe. But less than a century ago this bouncing bosonic perfection was upended by the need to introduce fermions into the mix.

Many of the things that make sense to our ape brains, at least when thinking about bosons, completely befuddle the ape when thinking about fermions. Equations used to describe bouncing bosons do not apply to fermions.

To bring fermions into the fold required the introduction of the Dirac algebra, Dirac spinors, and the Dirac equation, exploiting mathematical methods that are decidedly not of the bouncing ball variety. In a sense, Dirac theory was the least physics-y theory of the last century. But very quickly ways were developed to incorporate Dirac’s mathematical objects into Lagrange’s. And all was well. Our ape brains were happy, and from that point onward treated this intrusion of fairly pure mathematics into the comfortable world of bouncing physics as a fluke.

Maybe that’s too strong, but the science media, when it turns its focus to TP, concentrates on the mysteries of black holes, and the weirdness of quantum entanglement. Needing eyeballs to stay in business, they frequently use both of these phenomena to hypothesize the possibility of time travel, or warping to a distant part of this universe – or even into another. Zounds! (Look, mom, I’m a hologram!) Let me see that article! This is huge – or at least it will be for the next 15 minutes.

But that’s all bouncing ball/ape brain pop science. We like it. (Hell, I like some of it.) What we, the people, do not like is your nerdy abstract Dirac theory. We spit on it – ptui.

And yet, of all the brilliant notions to which the 20th century gave birth (other than Duchamp’s toilet, of course), none is even remotely as important as the Dirac spinor, and all the mathematical machinery surrounding it. But ape brains short circuit when thinking about this stuff – spzzzt crackle spork. “Nerds! I want to hear more about worm holes and entanglement!”

Sigh. And this is why I am not a physicist. My thinking does not follow a line from Lagrange (or Newton) onward, it starts with Dirac. As a consequence, over the last 50 years, my failure to understand the intellectual motivations of physicists has been profound. Worse, I even didn’t understand that I didn’t understand.

My published research in some fundamental sense arose out of a desire to make sense of, and generalize, Dirac spinors. A lot of this research is just pure mathematics, but nearly all of it was focused on that one goal. (It goes without saying – or, no, it doesn’t go without saying, which is why I feel the need to say it – but personally I am quite happy with the progress I made, ending with a hyper-spinor that includes leptons and quarks and all their antiparticles, and their internal symmetries, and resting on extremely elegant mathematics. Resonant mathematics, as I like to call it. Anyway, it’s cool. So cool.)

But, ok, so big deal. These ideas did not catch fire, either because they’re misconceived (chortle), or for the reasons outlined above. In truth, during the decades of work on the hyper-spinor the reaction of the mainstream was often to douse it liberally with fire retardant piss. Well, I’m not a physicist, and that’s their prerogative, and during those decades of pushing that work into publication I had little choice but to allow myself to be pissed upon, and to encounter this antipathy with counter arguments as best I could. Still, although frequently unpleasant, the effort did lead to a publication or two.

But whatever demons drove me to that sometimes self-destructive obsession have mostly left the building. I no longer publish anything that would require me to deal with, and respond to, antipathetic bile. Which is why I have elected to have this blog be comment-free. So why do I bother? Well, I love writing. And in the words of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ignoring is Bliss

Let’s review. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn came out with a book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you’re unfamiliar with the thing, well … moving right along. Actually, as I have not read it, well, you know, it’s no big deal. It’s one of those books I feel I understand just from the title … and maybe a book jacket blurb … but it doesn’t take much. And to check that my complaisance is warranted, I went to Wikipedia. There I found a summary, but one written in a more stilted style than I felt necessary, so here is my rewrite, summarizing the voyage from normal science, to paradigm shift, and beyond, where all men and women have gone before, because they can’t bloody help themselves.

Normal Science – Resistance is futile; obedience is mandatory. Given the absence of any reason to question the dominant paradigm, if you do not already have an established career, but aspire to have one, then do not question the authority of the keepers of the holy flame.

Extraordinary Research – Oh, fuck, who ordered that? Anomalies accrue. Think a car windshield in the morning after a night of freezing rain (data inconsistent with dominant paradigm). On the assumption the vehicle was left out all night, its windshield is now useless.

Adoption of a New Paradigm – Obviously the only course of action open to the theoretical researcher is to break the windshield and replace it with a new paradigm that is not made unusable by a layer of anomalous ice that prevents any view into the future.

Aftermath of Scientific Revolution – The new windshield in place, everyone settles back into the lowest energy state (Normal Science), and the old windshield, when mentioned at all, is done so with an air of insufferable superiority over the old farts who for years felt it was sufficient, and resisted its replacement. New farts rule!

So, 1962. Theoretical physics (TP), and many other sciences, were popping at the time. The TP revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were crystallizing into a form that would withstand just about everything the experimentalists could throw at them. What to do.

Here’s the problem. Think back to the revolutions in the art world beginning, say, with Monet, and going as far as Picasso. Old paradigms of what art meant were being augmented with new techniques and styles, to the displeasure of many. But the needs of the old farts were ignored, and the young turks achieved fame and glory. A paradigm had shifted … but what paradigm? For many the takeaway of this 60 year revolution was that revolution for revolution’s sake would lead to fame and glory for anyone “brave” enough to continue shattering paradigms. But in this context the ideas of Kuhn do not readily apply. The paradigms that broke in the world of art were like windows: you can only break a window once. (Not to be confused with the windshield mentioned earlier, so make it a locked door. You can only unlock the door once.) But the need to be perceived as a young turk overthrowing tired ideas – and the glory to which this would lead – was overpowering, with the result that a toilet was presented as a work of art. And in fact you’ll find a picture of that toilet in most books on the history of modern art; and not because it was in any sense groundbreaking, but because the art critics saw their futures wrapped up in this now avalanche of need to be considered cutting edge. The “artists”, and those who wrote about their “art”, had conspired together to create a fantasy world of nouveau kitsch. Ok, wait. That’s not right. It’s too organic to be labeled a conspiracy. It’s a phenomenon akin to a plant growing in the direction of the sun. Still …

The point is, there are parallels in the story of TP. Instead of Monet, we have Maxwell, and we replace Picasso with Dirac. As to the toilet, I would proffer the annoyingly persistent notion that observation – and even specifically human observation – is required for the collapse of a quantum wave function. (If you have a better toilet, use it.) And for sure the science media, and the ideas and practitioners about which they write, organically collude, together seeking out the sunshine of secure funding sources.

However, unlike the art world – at least I think it’s unlike – TP is viewed as working towards a goal. (Older and wiser (or at least crankier), I am no longer convinced that this goal is achievable, nor even that we would recognize it, were the TOE given to us on a silver platter by some really really advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. Oh, and by the way, they – the ETs – did give me bits of it, and these ETs are neither green nor grey; nor do they have the slightest interest in probing anyone’s anal passages.)

So, yeah, where was I? Right – so, there is one other parallel between the art world and TP: the erroneous takeaway from the successes of the past that being a young turk was all that was required to get an invitation to Stockholm. This lesson was reinforced by decades of such invitations being handed out from its inception in 1895, up to some time in the 1970s when the standard model (SM) was effectively complete. Since that time (Sabine’s 40 years), we’ve had GUTs, SuSy, strings, loops, WIMPs, axions – in short, a cornucopia of “Hey, look at my new idea … over here … no, it’s really great … look, look, mommy!” ideas promoted as passages forward beyond the SM.

Does any of this constitute Extraordinary Research, a la Kuhn? Is it based on the need to address accrued experimental anomalies? Well, not really. It was just busy work while the contestants waited for the LHC – if not to provide evidence that their shots in the dark were on the mark – at least to provide some juicy anomaly that they could sink their teeth into.

Anyway, I and others have beat this dead horse sufficient for the nonce. The LHC shut down, and the contestants raced away. Meanwhile the media have jumped on every Bigfoot sighting that could open a door to extending the SM. As my own work explains exactly the SM, I have little faith that the next out of focus picture of Bigfoot will prove The Chosen One.

I know I’ve said that – as far as TP is concerned – we now live in uninteresting times, but it’s worse than that. We now live in mushy times, times in which the notion of verification by consensus and similarly mushy ideas are taken seriously, promoted in support of old paradigms. We are locked in Normal Science, and getting beyond that may entail little or nothing more exciting than a slow drift away from where we are.

On your marks; get set; go!

Ok Boomer … STAR WARS!

In which the author strains to stay coherent

Like most of my generation, I missed Woodstock, an event frequently submitted as a pinnacle of the Boomer era … but then we screwed it up at Altamont – fucking California … Mediterranean climate, but compared to the French Riviera and Italian Liguria, so angry. No calcium in their drinking water; that’s the problem. And furthermore, um … wait … hmm, I got sidetracked. La la la … hold on a second. Let me reread. Woodstock – check; didn’t go – check; touted as Boomer high point – check. Right, right. So, ok, yeah … but in particular, it was a high point for elder Boomers, someone 21 plus or minus 5 in 1969.

1969. Woof. That was 51 years ago. I mean just think, if you’re 21 now, 1969 is really ancient history. In 1969, 51 years prior to that WWI was just ending, a war in which, at least initially, horses were still used in battle. My father hadn’t been born. Crikey. Ok, sorry. Focus – focus.

Of course, now, 51 years after Woodstock, all Boomers – the elders and the not quite so elderly – have for many years been inundated with floods of exhortations to join AARP and get that annual colonoscopy. The Boomer luster has tarnished. Even their children are likely over 30, so untrustworthy according to their own tenets. Still, we’ll always have Woodstock.

But I won’t, and not merely because I didn’t attend. Even had I attended, I would not really have been in attendance. I am not a party-hearty type, nor one prone to absorption into mass euphoria or hysteria. North Korea will never be asking me to join in on their pre-Olympic ritualized, synchronized dance routines. (Just imagine: 499 people all bizarrely doing exactly the same thing at the same time, and person 500, in the midst of all that, sitting on the grass reading a book. Decaf cappuccino, s’il vous plait. The mind boggles. They’d send me to their version of a gulag for sure.) There’s a spectrum sometimes mentioned that I am on, and if you know what I mean, then enough said. Consider, I saw Jimi Hendrix in concert at Newport, RI. But I drove myself, watched in a solitary manner, then slept alone under the stars that night, a feast for mosquitoes.

What does all this have to do with Star Wars? So far it appears to be semi-rational rambling, akin to speaking in tongues. The lede; where is the lede? Someone get a shovel.

In which the author establishes his bona fides, finally

Still, for someone like me, a math/physics geek and science fiction nerd, there was an event in May, 1977, that surpassed any dream I might have had about Woodstock. (Ok, I admit it, I didn’t have any dreams. I didn’t really care.) I was a student at a Boston area university at the time. Six months prior to May, 1977, I saw an ad in the Boston Globe (probably) about a movie called Star Wars due out in the spring. My Geist registered this information in a very indelible fashion. It wasn’t much of an ad, and it didn’t make much of a splash, but it didn’t have to.

There are many university towns in the world, but I maintain there is no place in the world with the density of colleges and universities one finds in the greater Boston area. Harvard; MIT; Tufts; Northeastern; Brandeis; UMass/Boston; Babson; Bentley; Emerson; Regis; Wellesley; … This is just a few. (At one time I taught mathematics and/or physics at 7 of these institutions, and managed to find a wife at one of those.) Boston is a university city. Naturally, with so many largely high quality institutions, and so many of those excelling in the sciences, my Geist was not alone in registering the coming of The Force. But here’s the thing – a thing that even having experienced it I find mind boggling – I mean, in this age of billion dollar sci fi movies, what happened on May 25, 1977, was truly remarkable. What the hell am I talking about? Ready?

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened, showing in 32 theaters nationwide. 32. California, New York and New Jersey accounted for 14 of those 32, leaving 18 theaters for the remaining 47 states of the union.

In New England, a region with 6 states, one of which is Massachusetts, the capital of which is Boston … in that whole region, on opening night, it showed in one cinema, The Charles Street Cinema (Sack) not far from Boston’s North Station. And 2 hours (or was it 3?) before the 7 o’clock show, every sci fi fanatic in the area was sitting on the floor of the cinema’s lobby, tickets in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. I was one of them, and my life was about to change.

In which the author’s life changes

The hours on the floor waiting were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There was excited chatter all around me, and some very creative paper planes cruised the lobby for nearly the whole time. I know I said I’m not easily absorbed by mass hysteria, but this was different. Surely you see that. These were people far more my kin than the muddy rock fans at Woodstock. Hysteria was oozing into my mind. I was excited. And then the doors opened, and we all streamed in.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but most of those present likely had a better idea, being more fervent fans of the genre. Some had likely been discussing the upcoming event in small clusters of likeminded friends. If I had likeminded friends, it never occurred to me to discuss the film with them, and on the night I went alone.

So, anyway, the lights dimmed, but the chatter did not abate, and would not throughout the film. This was ok. Booing, hissing, and cheering – it all belonged. And then that amazing script rolls into space giving us some context, followed by a spaceship fleeing something. It is being fired upon. It was all so cool. And then the enemy ship starts to come into view, making an ominous rumbling noise – which of course it wouldn’t have in the vacuum of space, but physics be damned. That was cool too.

Gosh, that ship is big. And we still couldn’t see the back end. And it kept emerging onto the screen. Holy mackerel, it’s huge. So unbelievably cool. But it wasn’t done; it was much bigger still, and by the time it could be seen in its entirety, my mind was breathless.

Boooo! Darth Vader’s first appearance, breathing with threatening severity. Hiss, boo! And then down on the planet, what are those? Jawas. And their big tractor thingies are scruffy. I don’t think I’d ever seen a sci fi machine before that wasn’t gleaming, shiny, and appearing fresh off the sci fi assembly line floor. Everything was scruffy, and looked used … so cool. Even the heroes were scruffy, which is sort of how you knew they were heroic. The Empire’s demands of sartorial nattiness were strict and labeled them right off as anal hardliners. For that, if for nothing else, they needed to go down.

Anyway, you get the idea. Super cool movie, unlike anything I’d ever seen, and a super cool crowd, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I wanted to experience it again. It was like surfing. If you’re halfway decent at the sport, every good wave well caught produces a kind of addictive euphoria that you want to experience over and over.

Which explains why, as I drove across the country that summer (which may have had something to do with physics), I saw the film again, and again, and … a total of 7 times more. I remember especially Denver, and somewhere in California. I so desperately wanted that feeling again – that first night with excited über-nerds feeling. Alas, …

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

In Denver and California, and everywhere else I went, the crowds of fellow attendees, relative to that I encountered in Boston on the first night, were lumps. Had they been Star Wars characters, they’d have been crowd extras seen in a distance doing indiscernible things.

This was an important life lesson. Unlike good waves well ridden, for which there is always a realistic hope of repetition, the Boston first night experience was unrepeatable. Woodstock was unrepeatable. And the 1960’s film Ocean’s 11 was unrepeatable, despite a lame attempt by movie moguls 40 years later to recreate the chemistry and pizzazz of the original. Hollywood! Am I right?

So, … sigh. That’s why I feel I am entitled to share my opinion about what happened in the ensuing 42 years. So pay attention.

(Holy crap on a stick … it took 42 years to complete the 9+ film saga? Think of all the early fans who died before the final film. Hmm.)

In which the author’s dreams are fulfilled, then shattered

3 years. It took 3 years before the Empire struck back. That was a long wait, but worth it. Then another 3 years before the Jedi could have their turn at bat. Again, good film, so while not condoned, the wait was eventually forgiven.

And then there were umpteen years before the prequel films, numbers 1,2,3. The original three films, now 4,5,6, took place later in that galaxy far far away. And here’s the thing, where I really start getting to the point of this diatribe: relative to 4,5,6 I remember very little of films 1,2,3.

So … 1,2,3. Something about trade wars (yawn); and some weird alien bureaucrats working for the wrong side of said trade wars, and they had accents that sounded, what, Japanese? Hard to say. And then there was Jar Jar with his pseudo-Jamaican (?) accent. He was painful to watch, and even the Jedi who interacted with him did so with a patronizing forbearance that was also painful to watch. And the spaceships – all gleaming, shinier than Star Trek. Even the heroes had lost their scruff.

In short, Star Wars was being destroyed, beaten down beneath the steel toed boots of The (Hollywood) Empire.

Still, hope remained while we waited for episodes 7,8,9. Hard to say where it would go since the evil baddie of 4,5,6 had died in 6, and the galaxy partied and celebrated like nobody’s business. He’d been a good baddie, sitting ominously in a big ass sci fi throne seat, full of obnoxiously sinister overbearing confidence that he would win.

So, umpteen more years pass, and finally we get episode 7 … or wait, was that just episode 6 with a different title? Big ass sci fi throne – check; sinister baddie filled with overbearing confidence that he would win – check; sinister henchman with black helmet and black flowing robes – check; yet another version of the death star – check; plucky band of rebels fighting against the odds – check. They ripped off everything fine and wonderful from 4,5,6, to that point the only good Star Wars films.

I was there in 1977 that first night in Boston. Did I mention that? This new film was a travesty, as bad as episode 2 of Highlander. You can’t just keep throwing sinister baddies at us speaking down from their big ass thrones with annoying evil certainty. What’s the point of rebelling if every time the rebellion succeeds Evil just restarts the game with a new evil tyrant? Why not just let the Empire win, choosing the least bad evil guy they throw at the galaxy?

In which the author has a plan to defeat The Evil Empire

Ok, episode 8 was not without merit, and now episode 9 has come and gone, and opinions are varied. Palpatine, the evil emperor who dominated 1-6, and “died” in 6, only to be replaced in 7,8 with his uglier twin … anyway, in 9 he was back. Many people felt this was an annoying and disappointing cheat. We saw him die. Still, my biggest disappointment was Palpatine’s successor, #2 of what one could only assume might be an infinite sequence of badness in big ass thrones. So, when it turned out #2 had been “constructed” by Palpatine, and that there had only been one big baddie all along, I was relieved. Palpatine gets vaporized in #9, rebels wash hands, done. Sequence finite.

Meanwhile, in the midst of waiting for 7,8,9 to play out a film appeared that was also a prequel to 4,5,6. Rogue One was actually really good. So good, in fact, that I have a plan, simply stated.

1. Throw out 1,2,3 and merge into one film that I personally might find memorable. This will require a total rewrite.

2. Rogue One should be number 2.

3. 4,5,6 should be 3,4,5, but modify 6 (now 5) so that Palpatine’s survival makes sense.

4. All copies of 7 should be destroyed.

5. The killing of Han Solo was pathetically undramatic. Stop trying to recreate the “No, I am your father” moment. Nobody is buying it.

6. Merge 8,9 into one film. If you must, make it 3 hours, but make me personally derive enjoyment from it. Consult me frequently throughout the process of re-creation.

7. Keep ALL moguls, Hollywood power players and bureaucrats out of the loop. Send them to North Korea … in perpetuity. Get some creatives that understand the wonder of 4,5,6. Do it right, like Serenity was done right.

8. And for gods’ sake, make Ahsoka Tano part of the story, central to the new episode 1.

So there you have it, my Star Wars rant. I was there the first night in Boston in 1977, so …

And it just occurs to me that the entire history of Star Wars coincides precisely with the years during which theoretical physics wandered aimlessly in a decades long stretch of Empire dominated fruitless speculation. In the real world the Empire wins, and the rebels are shunted off to gen-ph. Let that be a lesson to you.

I was there the first night …

May you live in interesting times

“May you live in interesting times.” When I first heard this phrase I understood the “interesting times” it referred to were times of upheaval and disruption, but I assumed that was a positive thing. It didn’t occur to me that the saying was meant as a curse, and in the majority of human occupations – farmer, merchant – I suppose it is. But it needn’t be. A century ago, there was riotous upheaval taking place in both the Arts and Sciences (you really should watch the documentary, Paris: The Luminous Years). Surely a great many of the staid and hidebound were discommoded by the revolutions taking place in the Arts and Sciences, but those revolutions gave us the modern world, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit. My thoughts on those times are very positive, but I am a disruptor, so it is understandable. I am reminded of this quote by Graham Greene:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

So, yes, revolutions took place, and in particular in theoretical physics (TP). Modern day practitioners of TP – those who are disruptors by nature, as well as those who are not, and may presently be resisting further disruption with every fibre of their being – are united in their admiration of those century old ideas and those who gave birth to them. Few of those who resisted those advances are much remembered, which makes it easier for present day resistors of new ideas to avoid identification with their predecessors. But they are the same, and they too ought not be very much remembered.

Still, they might be. Let me explain.

Sabine (Hossenfelder), a practitioner of TP and vigorous blogger about its shortcomings, recently posted a blog with the title: Why Physics has made no Progress in 50 Years (since toned down to 40). She says:

Instead of examining the way that they propose hypotheses and revising their methods, theoretical physicists have developed a habit of putting forward entirely baseless speculations. Over and over again I have heard them justifying their mindless production of mathematical fiction as “healthy speculation” – entirely ignoring that this type of speculation has demonstrably not worked for decades and continues to not work. There is nothing healthy about this. It’s sick science. And, embarrassingly enough, that’s plain to see for everyone who does not work in the field.

This behavior is based on the hopelessly naïve, not to mention ill-informed, belief that science always progresses somehow, and that sooner or later certainly someone will stumble over something interesting. But even if that happened – even if someone found a piece of the puzzle – at this point we wouldn’t notice, because today any drop of genuine theoretical progress would drown in an ocean of “healthy speculation”.

Why don’t physicists have a hard look at their history and learn from their failure? Because the existing scientific system does not encourage learning. Physicists today can happily make career by writing papers about things no one has ever observed, and never will observe. This continues to go on because there is nothing and no one that can stop it.

(Of course, it being highly unlikely she is aware of my own TP efforts, I can happily conclude that she does not include me in her excoriations.)

So, anyway, this differs little in intent from my own ranting, save that Sabine believes that there is a solution. As this would involve a fundamental change in human nature, I do not share this belief. You know, I wasn’t going to write another screed about the failings of TP; I wanted to write about science fiction, and Star Wars in particular, but then I made the mistake of reading Peter’s latest, which arose in response to an article by Misha Shifman. Misha says:

Standard Model is still unchallenged: today no observed natural phenomena require its expansion.

That, of course, doesn’t mean efforts won’t be made to expand it, such “healthy speculation” generally involving the introduction of new forms of matter (axions, etc.), or the application of new mathematical methods (string theory, etc.), but nothing in all the reams of experimental data accumulated over the last century points to a clear path forward. Misha continues:

What should happen for today’s HEP theory to reincarnate itself? It is not clear to me. It seems that I see a renewed interest in this endeavor among bright young people. Hopefully, it is not wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, more traditional HEP physicists do not hibernate. The routine work goes on unabated, people work hard to polish the ideas that had been put forward previously. Theorists revisit corners which were ignored on the previous journeys.

This is all moderately annoying to people like me, people who decades ago who were bright and young, and who did produce ideas that … well, fuck that. Water under the bridge; spilt milk; a penny saved is a penny earned; the chicken crossed the road, obviously, to get to the other side.

But there is an unspoken hope in what Misha says, that the renewed interest of the bright and young, and the corners being revisited by the dim and old, will lead to advances that will in no way mar the status quo. Misha doesn’t want upheaval, and only a modicum of disruption.

Sabine bemoans 50 years of stagnation. Misha would probably make that 46 years. He says:

Approximately at the same time, after the discovery of the c quark and τ lepton, the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model of electroweak interactions evolved in the Standard Model. This was the triumph of HEP, a success achieved because theory and experiment went hand in hand with each other being powered by each other. A remarkably thorough understanding of empiric data accumulated by this time was achieved. Theorists worked with joy and enthusiasm, all disconnected pieces suddenly came together and – within a decade – conceptual questions on strong and electroweak interactions were understood and answered. I was lucky that my professional career started in 1973. Till now I vividly remember the stormy days of the “November revolution” in 1974. The few months following the discovery of J/ψ were the star days of QCD and probably the highest emotional peak in my career.

I was a youngish graduate student at the time, frequently attending colloquia in the many Boston area universities. TP was exciting. I personally was excited by the work of Gürsey and Günaydin at Yale, little realizing that it would shortly be sidelined, along with the career hopes of any who became obsessed with that seminal work. Of course, at the time no one realized – because it was unthinkable – that TP was about to enter several decades of “healthy speculation” that would lead to nothing. The party was over; everything was sidelined, even things that got, and continue to get, lots of attention. Misha continues:

… the minimal supersymmetric standard model (MSSM) no longer seems relevant, as well as the very idea of low-energy supersymmetry which was put forward to solve the hierarchy problem. Basically, experimental data from CERN (or, better to say, their absence) ruled MSSM out. The concept of naturalness seemingly lost its appeal.

(As a graduate student I was pressured to become one with the body of supersymmetry theorists. However, resistance being then not futile, I chose my own path, a path that avoided what Misha avers was a dead end. So that’s good. Right?)

Misha carries on:

With increasing complexity of experiments and the need for more and more public funding it seems natural that the ratio exp/th would continue to fall in the near future. The peak on the right may well be shrinking for a while, while the peak on the left is growing unconstrained by rigors of nature. This is a new scientific environment to which we, the physicists, will have to adapt, as it usually happens in nature, through self-regulation. In the same way humankind adapts to new political and social conditions. In response to environmental changes populations grow or shrink. Theorists in their community are subject to the same social regularities.

I understand that uncovering the fundamental laws of nature became harder due to scarcity of adequate probes for experimentation. Does it mean that we have to give up right now?

Yikes. He then talks about someone named Dawid who has ideas of which I was ignorant, and I wish to continue in this blissful state:

According to Dawid, three principles of non-empirical confirmation are to replace experimental data/observations:

(i) The absence of alternatives in the community;

(ii) The degree to which a theory is connected to already confirmed theories (also referred to as meta-induction);

(iii) The amount of unexpected insights that the candidate “non-empirically confirmed” theory gives rise to.

With all due respect I strongly disagree with Richard Dawid and all supporting speakers at the conference and beyond. David Gross suggested a reconciling compromise. Here is a brief paraphrase of one of his statements: “It is only theories which need experimental confirmation, frameworks do not. The Standard Model is a theory, and it was triumphantly confirmed. But QM, QFT and ST are frameworks, not theories, they need not be confirmed in the usual way. With regards to frameworks, Dawid’s criteria (i), (ii), and (iii) should be applied.”

Oh, crap. See, the point is we now live in very uninteresting times, which is good for farmers and merchants, including merchants of staid dogma like Gross and his ilk. But the bigger point that many are now making, in the absence of disruptive results from the LHC, and the exorbitant cost of improving on that machine (and even if we did, we’d use it to check the validity of tired old ideas, like sparticles) … anyway, the big point, if I allow myself to get to it, is that these uninteresting times could well stretch into the foreseeable future, up to and encompassing whatever dystopia awaits us, at which point all funding will turn to survival, war, and fighting off zombies.