Discussion in the comment section of the previous blog entry led me to do a little bit of historical research this morning, and I thought I’d write up the results here. First of all, for some interesting comments from people around back then about how attitudes in the physics community changed during the 1970s, see here, here and here.
What I looked into is one specific story, trying to figure out what was behind Sean Carroll’s claim in the New York Times that
For years, the leading journal in physics had an explicit policy that papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics were to be rejected out of hand.
Mark Hillery here notes that this is likely a reference to the Physical Review, and that it very much has not been true for the past 15 years, during which he has been an editor there.
Tracing back where Carroll got this from, I guessed that (since it’s the historical source he recommends in his book) it came from Adam Becker’s book, What is Real?. Looking at that book one finds on page 214:
Physical Review actually had an explicit editorial policy barring papers on quantum foundations unless they could be related to existing experimental data or made new predictions that coulhered be tested in the laboratory.
This matches Carroll’s claim (with the part inconvenient for his case deleted…). Becker’s source notes for this text refer to an editorial in the July 15, 1973 issue of Physical Review D (Particles and Fields) written by Samuel Goudsmit, the editor-in-chief. The editorial is entitled “IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Regarding Papers about Fundamental Theories”. Goudsmit does not specifically refer to quantum foundations papers, but writes:
The subject matter of these papers usually concerns a fundamental aspect of theoretical physics. Extreme verbosity and vagueness of expression makes these papers hard to read and understand. A paucity of mathematics as compared to wordage distinguishes them from the more conventional theoretical papers. The author proposes new theories, but their specific assumptions are usually hidden behind very lengthy arguments. Sometimes the paper contains a reinterpretation of existing theories which the author considers more satisfactory than the prevailing views, though no new experimental consequences are expected.
He sets forth the following as features expected of articles publishable by the Physical Review:
All implied assumptions must be stated clearly and concisely and as much as possible expressed in mathematical form.
The author must convincingly show
- that these assumptions lead to the explanation of hither to unexplained observations, or
- that these assumptions expose new relations between known data or theories, or
- that these assumptions are simpler and fewer than in existing theories.
Moreover, the author must show that the new assumptions do not contradict existing experimental facts.
He must also investigate possible new consequences of his assumptions and whether these could be tested by new experiments.
Looking some more into this, I realized that I had first seen this story in David Kaiser’s book How the Hippies Saved Physics (see review here), which clearly is Becker’s source (Becker’s next note refers to this). On page 121 Kaiser has:
The longtime editor of the Physical Review… actually banned articles on the interpretation of quantum mechanic. He went so far as to draw up a special instruction sheet to be mailed to referees of potentially offending submissions: referees were to reject all submissions on interpretive matters out of hand, unless the papers derived quantitative predictions for new experiments.
Kaiser goes on to quote John Clauser as pointing out that according to this policy, Bohr’s response to the 1935 EPR paper would not have been publishable. His source notes refer to the Goudsmit editorial and private emails from Clauser on July 8, 2009. The same note also refers to an article by Clauser, Early History of Bell’s Theorem, which has a lot of detailed information about the story of the reception of Bell’s theorem and early efforts to do experimental tests (but nothing about the Physical Review policy). By the way, back in 1964, Bell decided not to submit his important paper to Physical Review, not because of any policy they might have had, but because they had page charges.
So, as far as I can tell, the historical record shows that the documented Physical Review policy didn’t, as the descriptions by Kaiser, Becker and Carroll suggest, explicitly refer to papers on the interpretation of quantum mechanics or quantum foundations. Possibly it was such papers that were annoying Goudsmit and led to his editorial, but I’d be curious to know if anyone knows more about what was specifically bothering Goudsmit. What sort of papers were being submitted to Physical Review D around 1972-73 that would uncharitably fit the negative description he gives quoted above?
Update: In the comments Blake Stacey suggests that the 1972 experiment of Freedman-Clauser may have been what led to papers being submitted to Physical Review that inspired Goudsmit’s July 1973 editorial. Looking more into this, it’s quite possible that the kind of thing Goudsmit was concerned about were the sorts of papers Jack Sarfatti was writing around this time. According to Kaiser’s book (pages 62-63), it was just a few months before this that Sarfatti decided to change the sorts of papers he was writing:
By the early 1970s, having published a few articles in prestigious journals on quantum theory, elementary particles, and even some idiosyncratic ideas about miniature black holes, Sarfatti could list half a dozen distinguished physicists scattered across the United States, Britain and France as references to vouch for the quality of his work…
… Sarfatti began to lose enthusiasm for his position at San Diego State during the early 1970s, and indeed for the sterile direction in which he saw theoretical physics heading. He announced his new plans in a letter to renowned Princeton physicist John Wheeler in the spring of 1973… Sarfatti declared that he would leave his “uninspiring institution” and seek out “the best possible environment to create a great and historic piece of physics. I feel impelled by history – a certain sense of destiny,” he explained. (“I recognize that I may be suffering under some sort of ‘crackpot’ delusion, but I cannot accept that as likely. In any case, I must try,” he averred).
See the comment here for some of the sort of papers Sarfatti was writing at the time, quite possibly submitting them to Physical Review. The opening sentence of Goudsmit’s description of the problem (and the fact that he was publishing it in Phys. Rev. D, Particles and Fields)
The subject matter of these papers usually concerns a fundamental aspect of theoretical physics.
seems to me more likely to be referring to the sort of thing Sarfatti was writing than to papers on the interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Update: It turns out that Goudsmit’s papers are available online, here. A non-exhaustive search turned up no evidence pro or con for my conjecture about Sarfatti or similar papers. I only found one set of files (Box 50, Folder 45, “Leibowitz refereeing, 1973”) referring to his 1973 editorial. These have to do with this paper, which was published September 1973, after two years of refereeing. This publication led to another author writing a paper criticizing the first, leading to another refereeing problem. Goudsmit weighed in (January 5, 1976) by noting that it was exactly this kind of paper and the problems with refereeing such things that his editorial had been concerned with. Note that the paper in question is NOT an interpretation/foundations paper. Goudsmit writes:
The event shows again clearly the necessity of rapid rejections of questionable papers in vague borderline areas. There is a class of long theoretical papers which deal with problems of interpretation of quantum and relativistic phenomena. Most of them are terribly boring and belong to the category of which Pauli said, “It is not even wrong”. Many of them are wrong. A few of the wrong ones turn out to be valuable and interesting because they throw a brighter light on the correct understanding of the problem. I have earlier expressed my strong opinion that most of these papers don’t belong in the Physical Review but in journals specializing in the philosophy and fundamental concepts of physics.
He then refers to his earlier editorial.
Looking at the exchange in these letters, the referee of the second paper writes “I would suggest that [the author] understands neither relativity nor quantum theory.” This example suggests that the problem Goudsmit had in mind when writing his editorial was not a need for “an explicit policy that papers on the foundations of quantum mechanics were to be rejected out of hand”, but just a need to deal with the common problem that is still with us, for both journals and the arXiv. There are lots and lots of people writing low quality papers claiming to say something new about the foundations of physics, on a continuum from the crank to the not so bad. Refereeing such things is difficult and time-consuming, so a journal needs a policy to deal with them quickly and efficiently, otherwise they end up with the mess described in these letters. Goudsmit’s editorial I think was an attempt to come up with such a policy.
Update: Jorge Pullin wrote to remind me of an earlier Goudsmit story, which I described on the blog here, but had completely forgotten about. In 2008 an undated paper from Bryce DeWitt’s files (he passed away in 2004) was posted on the arXiv. It included a claim much like the ones discussed here that refer to the 1973 editorial, but about a much earlier incident:
Most of you can have no idea how hostile the physics community was, in those days, to persons who studied general relativity. It was worse than the hostility emanating from some quarters today toward the string-theory community. In the mid fifties Sam Goudsmidt, then Editor-in-Chief of the Physical Review, let it be known that an editorial would soon appear saying that the Physical Review and Physical Review Letters would no longer accept “papers on gravitation or other fundamental theory.” That this editorial did not appear was due to the behind-the-scenes efforts of John Wheeler.
I don’t know of any other evidence for this (took a quick look in the Goudsmit online archive, didn’t see anything). It seems highly likely that this claim about Goudsmit and the Physical Review is not accurate. One minor problem with a claimed “mid-fifties” planned editorial for Physical Review Letters is that PRL wasn’t even started until mid-1958. More seriously, the idea that the Physical Review in the mid-fifties would consider banning “papers on gravitation or other fundamental theory” is just completely implausible, and if that phrase is accurate, it surely is very much taken out of context. This story is very similar to the Carroll one about the 1973 editorial, and I’m guessing the true story about the mid-fifties incident is again just that Goudsmit was even then struggling with how to deal with bad “not even wrong” theory papers about fundamental physics.
Update: Steven Weinberg has a version of the “mid-fifties” Goudsmit story, in his biographical notice for DeWitt, in the context of a discussion of the January 1957 Chapel Hill conference on gravity:
Samuel Goudsmit had recently threatened to ban all papers on gravitation from Physical Review and Physical Review Letters because he and most American physicists felt that gravity research was a waste of time.
Again, there’s a problem with this that PRL wasn’t even started until a year and a half later, and he has Goudsmit specifying just GR research, not the wider “gravitation or other fundamental theory” which DeWitt gave in quotes.