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.
Goudsmit sounds a bit like the mathematicians who got tired of receiving proofs of Fermat’s Last Theorem in the mail.
He does say that “there exist excellent journals publishing articles on the foundations and on the philosophy of science”, which is not really the blanket condemnation of quantum foundations one had been led to expect, just a “stop sending it here, please”.
As I mentioned in the previous thread, David Mermin was publishing on Bell inequalities in the Physical Review family in 1980 (Phys. Rev. D 22, 356). Bernard d’Espagnat was doing so even earlier (for example, Phys. Rev. D 11, 1424, received in 1974 and published in 1975). McGuire and Fry published there in 1973 (Phys. Rev. D 7, 555), following up on Freedman and Clauser’s “Experimental Test of Local Hidden-Variable Theories” from 1972 (Phys. Rev. Lett. 28, 938). At a guess, the Freedman–Clauser experiment had made Bell-inequality tests enough of a thing that people started writing shoddy papers on the topic.
“At a guess, the Freedman–Clauser experiment had made Bell-inequality tests enough of a thing that people started writing shoddy papers on the topic.”
That sounds quite plausible. I was trying to think of what could have happened around 1972 that might have been the impetus for the Goudsmit editorial. Given the traditional pattern in HEP theory of new advances quickly being followed by lots of papers rushed into print by people trying to get near the front of a bandwagon, there may have been a lot of such papers coming into Physical Review in late 1972-early 1973. Perhaps Goudsmit was trying to lay down some rules as to what they would require of such papers to consider them.
An interesting historical tidbit from Clauser’s article is that the very term Bell’s theorem was coined in the august pages of PRL.
In my experience Phys. Rev. could always turn difficult when it wanted to… still does sometimes. A classic in Phys. Rev. Lett. history was the years when they decided Lagrangean instead of Lagrangian…. https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/pdf/10.1063/1.2811374
They also wouldn’t publish Wino/Zino for the superpartners of the W/Z for a while.
Not sure if any journal initially wanted to publish quarks (Gell-Mann) or aces (Zwieg).
Encouraging well-thought out quantum models that have empirical consequences is a good thing. No surprise to me that the terrific Stuart Freedman was involved in an early Bell test…
He was one of the many terrific students of the late Gene Commins, and, later on, he helped give birth to the KamLAND experiment, which showed that antineutrino oscillations measured entirely on Earth were consistent with the solar neutrino problem.
Thanks for digging this up. On the one hand, this explains some of the frustration felt by those of us who actually were interested in quantum foundations in the early ’70s.
On the other hand, those of us who have followed quantum foundational work for the last fifty years can only note that Goudsmit’s complaints are just about as timely today as when he wrote them:
Although I would note a more recent twist: papers that present some very complex mathematics that, it is claimed, reveal the secrets of quantum mechanics — except that no effort is actually made to connect this complicated math with actual physical issues such as the “collapse of the wave function,” the Born rule, or the measurement problem.
So, even a low verbiage to math ratio is not enough.
I do, however, have some information on your conjecture:
From 1977 onward, I was a grad student at SLAC and tried to be fairly diligent about looking at the SLAC library’s collection of new preprints: I was very interested at the time in quantum foundational issues but I recall very few preprints on quantum foundations (and the library did get lots of preprints on lots of topics, not just HEP)..
I also recall no seminars at either SLAC or on-campus on quantum foundations (except, curiously, for some guys in the Engineering and Economic Systems Department who had somehow gotten interested in quantum foundations). And, I do still recall a number of those seminars — one on perturbative quantum gravity, one by Sidney Coleman, one by Haim Harari on preons, a horrible seminar by Zichichi, etc.
In retrospect, of course, there was a lot of important work being done by pioneers testing Bell’s theorem. But, the visibility in the physics community was low, and it seems to have been a very small fraction of the overall work in physics.
Have you ever considered going on Sean Carrolls podcast? I think this kind fact-checking and gentle push back would make for a way better conversation then what is currently on offer.
I think it’s also important to note that the mid-seventies was a period when the Standard Model had just come together, the November revolution of 1974, GUTs, SUSY had just appeared, the non-perturbative study of QCD had begun, etc. There were a lot of exciting things going on in fundamental physics at high energies, which I think had a lot to do with relative lack of interest in the measurement problem.
I haven’t been invited.
Yes, we were all excited by the Standard Model coming together, and people were also starting to think about supersymmetry/supergravity, quantizing gravity, etc. I actually heard about the November Revolution in November ’74 from Feynman who had been in touch with the guys at SLAC and passed the information on to our QM class.
Strangely, Feynman never mentioned QCD or non-abelian gauge theories, even in his Intro to Particle Physics class that I took in ’75-’76!
I think I first heard about non-abelian gauge theories in the summer of ’76 from some experimentalist grad students I was working with at SLAC before I officially started grad school.
My own graduate work was on the tau lepton, discovered just before I entered grad school, which was pretty cool: gave me a chance to work with Marty Perl.
Still, all of us students were puzzled then, as students are now, by the weirdness of QM, and we were discouraged from pursuing that interest at all.
Popular culture occasionally voices its own opinions on the foundations of quantum theory: https://www.facebook.com/berkeleybreathed/photos/a.114529165244512/2731285340235535/?type=3&theater
Given how nonspecific his editorial was, I suppose it’s possible that Goudsmit was motivated by more than one subject. Would 1972 have been a good year for the crop of bootstrap models?
The height of the bootstrap was earlier, with Chew’s book in 1966. Besides impetus from a specific physics craze, the other thing that occurred to me is that 1973 would have been about the time new people entering the field would have included a large number of dope-smoking long-hairs, and maybe this lifestyle was reflected in their writing. From the story told in Kaiser’s book, there would be a certain amount of overlap between this explanation and the “people interested in Freedman-Clauser” explanation.
Another possibility is that Goudsmit was looking at the early string/dual models, realized how much trouble they could lead to, and was trying to get ahead of the string theory problem early on…
The Freedman/Clauser paper was cited about 11 times per year throughout the 1970s… I recall a lot of discussion about experimental tests in that decade. Local peak in citations in 1977.
It was 1981-1997 that the average citations were low… less than 8 per year, but a steady dribble.
1998-2019… citations of that paper have increased to about 30/year, with 46 citations in 2017.
The deeper issue: what does “understand” mean, exactly? Experimentalists are pretty satisfied if the equations match their data, and when that match happens consistently and repeatedly… something about having hands-on the data takes the edge off, and further, choosing which experiments to perform is a big, big, deal for experimentalists… theorists do toss off ideas without much worry as to just how immense the undertaking is to really do the experiment.
By and large it is theorists who claim we don’t “understand”. A bit too trite to just quote Upton Sinclair… I’m not saying Sean Carroll falls under this quote, but it might be true that book contracts and royalties do…
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
Might add… “when his perceived national security w/r to the Chinese depends on him not understanding it”… where “it” might be… the intrinsic noise in all quantum systems.
Adapting Big Bill Haywood… “A theorist is someone who leaves the room when discussions of noise and background for a proposed experiment break out.”
Do the “dope-smoking long-hairs” referred to above include the Fundamental Fysiks Group? I take it quantum foundations and related philosophical concerns (as well as some acid-fueled musings of a more speculative nature) were right up their alley. Were they and their ilk especially prolific writers circa 1972?
Yes, one subset of the dope-smoking long-hairs would have been some of the Fundamental Fysiks Group members (surely there were plenty others though). Kaiser tells their story in great detail, with one of the main characters Jack Sarfatti. If you go to the HEP database INSPIRE, you can see that in late 1973 Sarfatti was producing lots of papers (five in the last three months of 1973), and it may very well have been those that Goudsmit was trying to find an excuse for rejecting without refereeing.
The funny thing is that the titles of these papers sound very modern, could be titles of papers on the arxiv today, e.g.
The World On A String
Jack Sarfatti (ICTP, Trieste). Nov 1973. 7 pp.
Toward A Unified Field Theory Of Gravitation And Strong Interactions
Jack Sarfatti (ICTP, Trieste). Oct 1973. 7 pp.
Quantum Gravitational Dual Strings: Violation Of Time Reversal Invariance
Jack Sarfatti (ICTP, Trieste). Nov 1973. 7 pp.
Explanation For The Asymmetry Between Matter And Antimatter In The Visible Universe
Jack Sarfatti (ICTP, Trieste). Nov 1973. 5 pp.
and, a few months later
Quantum Mechanics as a Consequence of General Relativity
Jack Sarfatti (ICTP, Trieste). Mar 1974. 4 pp.
It’s quite possible that Goudsmit’s problem was this kind of thing, not papers about interpretations of QM and the implications of Bell’s theorem.
Looking at this last paper by Sarfatti, it (embarrassingly?) looks not so different in (the lack of) content (and rigor) from a talk “QM=GR” delivered recently by Susskind in the t’Hooft Fest:
Maybe Susskind should start acknowledging Sarfatti’s priority on these matters!
Actually, Susskind and Sarfatti worked together back in the 1960s (or at least that’s what Sarfatti claims…).
As an aside, J.W. Stout referred to another Goudsmit comment in his 1986 article: The Journal Of Chemical Physics: The First 50 Years
“Sam Goudsmit once said that he suspected that the ratio of readers to
authors of Physical Review articles was less than unity, since it was evident
that some authors had not read their articles before submitting them. “
I should have reviewed your review of Kaiser’s book before posting, or it would have been obvious.
I wish to be clear I do not intend to besmirch the whole of long-haired, dope-smoking freakdom for the more offbeat behavior of a few notable individuals, however brilliant.
It’s not hard, however, to imagine the Fysicists and their fellow travelers might have been sufficiently irritating to their squarer elders to trigger a response, however far-sighted some of the pesky deviants proved to be.
In summer of 1969, I moved into an apartment in Berkeley, where John Clauser and his wife Marilee had the informal role as superintendent. He spoke of his hopes for the experiment he was setting up. He expected the opposite result to the one obtained. When he was done, he thought, quantum mechanics would be relegated to a branch of mathematics.
No criticism of anyone for dope-smoking or having long hair was implied. Those who still have all their hair are encouraged to enjoy it.
See an update to the posting for more about Sarfatti. I now think the conjecture that it was Sarfatti’s papers (and other similar ones) is the most likely explanation for the Goudsmit editorial, not an attempt by him to suppress study of the interpretation of quantum mechanics.
See the updates to this posting for more historical evidence, which I think shows that Goudsmit’s editorial was not particularly aimed at papers on interpretational issues in QM, but just concerned a long-standing problem of how to deal with low-quality “not even wrong” theory papers making claims about fundamental physics.
In the first decade of PRL’s existence, Goudsmit declared a subject non grata at least three times. In 1959, it was masers; in 1960, it was the Mössbauer effect; and in 1965, it was “internal symmetries”:
Potentially interesting in this context:
[Note: PRX = Physical Review X]
”when we are asked the question, “Does research on foundations of quantum mechanics fit into PRX’s scope?” our answer must be a clear “yes.” However, that is far from saying that any intellectually sound paper from that topical area merits a spot in PRX. Indeed, the task of judging whether an individual paper on foundations of quantum mechanics is suitable for PRX is an editorially challenging one, especially given the often unavoidable presence of philosophy in our efforts to understand, interpret, and apply quantum mechanics.”
Thanks! That policy description also includes something similar to the 1973 editorial:
“In the end, we came away with the following guideline: PRX will publish papers on foundations of quantum mechanics proposing highly original, scientifically sound approaches or models that already, or can potentially, suggest new experiments, and/or lead to new numerical tools for solving quantum-mechanical problems, or even significant new predictions.”
Again, the evidence is that Physical Review hasn’t ever had a policy banning a topic, be it gravity or quantum foundations, but has just struggled with how to deal with low-quality papers in these areas.
From deep in the bowls of my memory comments from Eyvind Wichmann about Bell percolated up, from the 1970’s, and at Berkeley.
Wichmann made the point that the Bell correlations between the two sides of an EPR pair were simply the consequence of angular momentum conservation.
Experimental work to test Bell correlations… well… do you really think there is a violation of rotational invariance? The EPR state, Wichmann emphasized, was the degree of freedom that the initial system could couple to. Now maybe Stuart Freedman was in the room. Maybe Stuart kinda stopped pursuing Bell tests.
Somewhat off topic but related to the last comment. Note that the Bell test experiment by Friedman and Clauser was published in PRL in 1972, Stuart J. Freidman and John F. Clauser, “Experimental Test of Local Hidden-Variable Theories,” Physical Review Letters 28 #4, (3 April 1972), 938-941.
From the AIP interview with John Clauser:
Townes was just the opposite. Without Townes, I could never have done that experiment. Townes was the guy who actually twisted Commins’ arm to put Stu Freedman on the experiment and to steer Atomic Beam Group funds into doing the experiment. And if I had not convinced Townes early on [it never would have happened]— In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived at Berkeley was that I gave a seminar describing this to Townes’ group, and Gene Commins was there, as he had done this previous experiment with Carl Kocher. And at the end of this, Townes kind of puts his arm around Gene Commins and says, “Well, what do you think of this, Gene? It looks like a very interesting experiment to me.” So if Townes puts his arm around your shoulder and says, “Looks like a very interesting experiment,” I mean, Commins thought it was a total crock. But when Townes says he thinks it’s interesting, it’s interesting. It becomes interesting at that point.
It’s surprising to me because Cummins’ experiment was precisely on the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox.
They did not understand Bell’s Theorem. Nor did they understand just the significance of what it all meant at that point, absolutely not. But it was Eyvind Wichmann, a theoretician at Berkeley, a very bright guy, I think, who actually suggested that they do the experiment. He’s a theoretician, a very bright guy. While I was at Berkeley, I actually audited a course he was giving. He apparently suggested to Commins that they can actually do this, and apparently they originally planned on doing that as a lecture demonstration. Originally it was built on this rolling table with wheels on it so they could roll it into a lecture. Kocher was going to do this kind of as just a little project, and polish it off, and then get on with a real thesis project. Well, it was much more difficult than they originally anticipated, and it became his thesis project. No, you could not have done it as a lecture demonstration. It took weeks of counting to get any decent statistics.