Autistic String Theorist Accused of Ecoterrorism and Being a Police Informant

In the comment section of the last post, Lubos Motl points to the story of Billy Cottrell, a young string theorist at Caltech accused of being involved in the vandalism of SUVs. Evidently he has now testified against others at his trial, so the “Free Billy Support Network” (which was asking people to send string theory papers to him in prison) has been disbanded and he is being referred to as a “police informant”.

Despite being a string theorist, Cottrell seems to not be the brightest bulb around, having supposedly used a Caltech computer he was logged into to send an anonymous e-mail to the media claiming responsibility for the SUV vandalism.

The local Pasadena newspaper’s report on his testimony at his trial says that he corrected Judge Gary Klausner “when the judge asked if string theory, Cottrell’s focus at Caltech, is “an area of physics.’

“It’s the area of physics,’ Cottrell said.”

His lawyers “attributed his odd behavior in testifying to Asperger’s syndrome”, a mild form of autism.

Funny, Cottrell isn’t the only one who goes on like this about string theory. Maybe there’s a lot of autism going around.

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22 Responses to Autistic String Theorist Accused of Ecoterrorism and Being a Police Informant

  1. feh says:

    I hope he languishes in jail for the rest of his life as an example to the other anarchists who want to destroy this country. If they were serious about helping working people, they wouldn’t put construction workers at medium-sized businesses out of work by bankrupting businesses with their nihilistic vandalism.

    Smash the ELF.

  2. Lubos Motl says:

    Asperger’s syndrome was really a not-quite-working attempt of Billy’s attorneys.

    I don’t know whom you think you’ve insulted. Autism is an unusual condition, but the people with autism have done a great deal of work for the humankind.

    It’s not quite clear whether they have done more for the humankind than the string theorists combined – but it is pretty likely.

    In this sense, it would be hard to be insulted by this comparison. On the other hand, I think that the people who have autism will not be insulted by a comparison with string theorists either.

    So if I summarize – you did not do anything wrong even though you wanted to. 😉

  3. plato says:

    I think I have a better defintion of a rebel here

    I decided to change the subject from autistic to artistic. Is that okay?

    In Canada, BC challenged the right of government to help fund autistic rehabilitation for those who need this help, and the Provincial Government won.

    This sets precedence in Canada, although new challenges will be forth coming.

    We have a different view on heathcare then you Americans. It was established by a very good citizen, like Tommy Douglas.

    Today it is being eroded by the very powerful elite, with plans to move towards American systems. Ole Tommy would not of be very happy and it is the little people who will again gather to make sure all are equal.:)

    The Republic, is very interesting written work by Plato.

  4. Peter says:

    I don’t think I was either joking about autism or making fun of those who suffer from it, and I apologize to anyone who feels that I was.

    On the other hand, I definitely was making fun of string theorists. Sorry you were offended.

  5. Bob McNees says:

    “Funny, Cottrell isn’t the only one who goes on like this about string theory. Maybe there’s a lot of autism going around.”

    That is funny, Peter. Especially the part where you joke about autism. Family and friends of autistic people everywhere salute your discriminating use of completely appropriate comparisons.

  6. Fabio says:

    Sorry Matt, my bad.

    Still, shouldn’t you be studying for quals or something?

  7. Fabio says:

    Looking at Mr. Cottrell’s extracurricular activities, as well as Matt’s and Lubos’s frequent long-winded postings on this forum, one can’t help but conclude that string theorists have alot of free time on their hands, and that there are better ways of spending it than working on “the language in which god wrote the universe”.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Well, in general ethics and moral seems to be quite independent of talent.

  9. Thomas Larsson says:

    but Billy instead wanted us to go back to two dimensions and focus on Teichmueller theory.

    Teichmueller wasn’t God’s best child neither, sending his Jewish colleagues at Goettingen to Auschwitz, before he disappeared on the eastern front.

  10. Tim M. says:

    Indeed there is much autism: the second Google hit when searching “not even wrong” is a link to a book on Amazon about autism called Not Even Wrong.

  11. Mubos Lotl says:

    “>”He has a hostility toward anyone with different views,’ Riordan said.
    >”It’s a dripping hostility, it’s powerful sarcasm, it’s a passionate

    Obviously not a physicist.

  12. Lubos Motl says:

    Right, the opposite holds for me, too! 😉 I still find it more likely that I would share the opinions about string theory, maths, and physics with Billy rather than the opinions how to deal with the SUVs.

    Peter Woit is the ideal mixture because he has terrorist opinions both about SUVs as well as about string theory. 😉

  13. Lubos Motl says:

    Fascinating, Matt! BA about p-adic numbers in string theory is really cool. I hope that he will have access to the arxiv in the prison. 😉

  14. Peter says:

    Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the interesting story about Billy Cottrell. I still think he and I may share opinions about SUVs more than we would share an opinion about math and physics.

  15. Chris W. says:

    In a free market, SUV owners will decide for themselves what is easy to pay for. Ask the airlines (and their laid-off former employees) how easy it is to pay for fuel with crude at $45-60 a barrel.

    For now, consumption is declining seasonally, and oil prices are slacking off somewhat. The bottom line remains that increasing production and low prices cannot be taken for granted anymore, even if one assumes that the Mideast remains (relatively) stable. That assessment comes from the oil industry itself, which has been bailing out of some recent allegedly major oil finds that haven’t panned out:

    “One simple fact has never changed. Before oil can be produced it must first be found. Global oil discoveries peaked in 1964 and have been declining for 40 years. M. King Hubbert predicted the US oil production peak to occur 40 years after US oil discoveries peaked around 1930. He was right. Last year not a single field of 500 million barrels was discovered (for the first time since the 1920s) anywhere on the planet. The world uses a billion barrels of oil every eleven and one half days. We are now roughly 40 years after the peak of global discovery. This simple arithmetic has never changed. The outcome hasn’t changed either.”

  16. Lubos Motl says:

    It’s easy for Billy to find time for such things, and it’s also easy for the SUV owners to pay for the gasoline even if the price doubles. Don’t be ridiculous, Chris.

  17. Chris W. says:

    How would a grad student in physics at Cal Tech find the time to run around the Los Angeles area spray painting and/or torching SUVs?

    Anyway, such symbolic acts are becoming irrelevant. Given the way fuel prices are rising, SUV owners are going to start torching their own vehicles and buying gas-electric hydrids with the insurance payout (if they don’t get caught).

  18. Lubos Motl says:

    Poor guy who had no other choice. He faced up to 40 years in prison, for the damage of 2.3 million dollars on the SUV.

    If I were left-wing, I would have definitely tried to help him out of his troubles!

    Could he get amnesty? He may deserve one for knowing that string theory is not just “an area of physics” but also “the area of physics”! 🙂

    Now he does not need it because he has become a police informant, and hopefully he will help to catch all these other ecoterrorist assholes. 😉

  19. Matt says:

    Billy and I were undergrads at Chicago at overlapping times. He wrote his BA thesis on “tachyon condensation in p-adic string theory,” working with Freund, IIRC, so he was already quite into string theory at the time. (Apparently the mathematics actually simplifies in the p-adic case. I assume this was some calculation in string field theory, but I don’t really know.)

    I recall him as being highly talented in mathematics. The one class I took with him was a small (about six students, I think) proseminar on low-dimensional geometry and topology, taught by Benson Farb, focusing on Thurston’s book. At one point there was a vote on what topic we should focus on for the last few weeks. Most of us wanted to study the eight Thurston three-dimensional geometries, consistent with the original plan for the course, but Billy instead wanted us to go back to two dimensions and focus on Teichmueller theory. At the time I knew little about string theory and this was somewhat mysterious to me, but in retrospect I know why he was so insistent. Still, he was outvoted.

    Anyway, there isn’t too much point to this anecdote, but Peter, you and Billy might have more in common with regard to thinking about the relationships between mathematics and physics than you would expect.

  20. Matt says:

    I’m a bit confused by that last comment — I’m not a string theorist (I’m a particle theorist, and just in my first year of grad school), and I’ve rarely posted long comments here.

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