Dyson on Fringe Physics, String Cosmology and Hermann Weyl

The latest New York Review of Books has a review by Freeman Dyson of Margaret Wertheim’s recent book Physics on the Fringe (which I wrote about here).

Dyson is much more sympathetic than most physicists to “fringe physicists” like Jim Carter who is the main figure in Wertheim’s book. He compares Carter to William Thomson and Peter Tait, well-known 19th century scientific figures, while making clear that Carter’s “Circlon” theory is not worth taking seriously. He then goes on to discuss two cases of “fringe physics” that he had personal experience with:

In my career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.

About the later speculative work which he was exposed to as a student in Eddington’s class at Cambridge, Dyson writes:

Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man. For the small class of students, it was a privilege to come faithfully to his lectures and to share his pain. Two years later he was dead.

This sympathy for a great physicist who headed down a wrong path in his later years is easy to understand, but the case of Velikovsky is less so. Velikovsky was a well-known author of crackpot best-sellers starting in the 1950s (lots got explained by Venus and Mars moving out of their orbits and colliding with the Earth a few thousand years ago), and a neighbor of Dyson’s in Princeton. Here’s what he wrote as a proposed blurb for Velikovsky in 1977:

First, as a scientist, I disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.

He goes on to explain:

Why do I value so highly the memory of Eddington and Velikovsky, and why does Margaret Wertheim treasure the memory of William Thomson and Jim Carter? We honor them because science is only a small part of human capability. We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature. Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Dyson’s sympathy for mystics, even ones spouting nonsense, is of a piece with his views on religion and science (which helped win him the Templeton Prize for 2000). These views are hard to do justice to here, if interested to know more, his 2002 review in the NYRB of a book on theology by physicist John Polkinghorne is a good place to look.

The review goes on to address a different sort of “fringe physics”, the somewhat mainstream topic of “string cosmology”, which Wertheim compared to the work of Jim Carter.

Over most of the territory of physics, theorists and experimenters are engaged in a common enterprise, and theories are tested rigorously by experiment. The theorists listen to the voice of nature speaking through experimental tools. This was true for the great theorists of the early twentieth century, Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrödinger, whose revolutionary theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were tested by precise experiments and found to fit the facts of nature. The new mathematical abstractions fit the facts, while the old mechanical models did not.

String cosmology is different. String cosmology is a part of theoretical physics that has become detached from experiments. String cosmologists are free to imagine universes and multiverses, guided by intuition and aesthetic judgment alone. Their creations must be logically consistent and mathematically elegant, but they are otherwise unconstrained. That is why Wertheim found the official string cosmology conference disconcertingly similar to the unofficial Natural Philosophy conference. The insiders and the outsiders seem to be following the same rules. Both groups are telling stories of imagined worlds, and neither has an assured way of deciding who is right. If the title Physics on the Fringe fits the natural philosophers, the same title also fits the string cosmologists.

The fringe of physics is not a sharp boundary with truth on one side and fantasy on the other. All of science is uncertain and subject to revision. The glory of science is to imagine more than we can prove. The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled. Hermann Weyl, who was one of the main architects of the relativity and quantum revolutions, said to me once, “I always try to combine the true with the beautiful, but when I have to choose one or the other, I usually choose the beautiful.” Following Weyl’s good example, our string cosmologists are making the same choice.

I strongly disagree with Dyson that “string cosmology” is beautiful, and suspect that he hasn’t bothered to look closely into it. Even the people most enthusiastic about the anthropic string theory landscape don’t generally characterize it as beautiful. Brian Greene’s characterization of string theory as “Elegant” concerns the idea of a highly predictive unified theory based on a Calabi-Yau, but I don’t think he has tried to characterize the Multiverse in this way. There’s lots to say about the problem of “beauty” and string theory, at one point I wrote a whole book chapter about it, so won’t say more here.

The Hermann Weyl quote is very famous, and I had always assumed that it was something that Weyl wrote somewhere. It turns out that the source is not Weyl, but Dyson himself, who wrote after Weyl’s death in the March 10, 1956 issue of Nature:

Characteristic of Weyl was an aesthetic sense which dominated his thinking on all subjects. He once said to me, half joking, ‘My work always tried to unite the true with the beautiful; but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful’. This remark sums up his personality perfectly. It shows his profound faith in an ultimate harmony of Nature, in which the laws should inevitably express themselves in a mathematically beautiful form. It shows also his recognition of human frailty, and his humor, which always stopped him short of being pompous.

The “half-joking” and “his humor” part of this quote just about always gets left off, making Weyl sound, well, kind of pompous.

The Institute for Advanced Study now has some new web-pages devoted to Weyl and his work, the main one is here.

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17 Responses to Dyson on Fringe Physics, String Cosmology and Hermann Weyl

  1. Have you seen Ira Flatow’s documentary “Big Ideas” about the IAS? He interviews several string theorists including Witten, and Dyson emerges as the lone dissenting voice on string theory. He says that he thinks that string theory might end up being like Lie groups, a very interesting and elegant piece of mathematics that may find unexpected applications in physics a hundred years from now.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, I did see that documentary, and noticed that Dyson was the only one at the IAS expressing skepticism about string theory. This was nearly 10 years ago, it would be interesting to see the results if Flatow went back and asked what people think now. I suspect Dyson wouldn’t have changed his views, other people might have…

  3. Bee says:

    Here’s what Heisenberg had to say about Weyl’s book

    I’m not sure though Dyson is being fair to string cosmology. He seems to be talking about the multiverse, but for me that isn’t really the interesting part. String cosmology is imo presently the most promising area to make contact between string theory and experiment, see eg this paper. For a very brief summary see also this paper, section 2.4.8 and 3.3.

  4. Nige Cook says:

    On mathematical physics “crackpotism”, can I point out that Weyl invented the key idea of first quantization quantum mechanics in his quantum gravity gauge theory of 1915. Weyl scaled the metric for curvature in general relativity by exp(iX) where X is a function of the electromagnetic field (the periodic real plane solutions to the complex exponent do the quantization). [Weyl, “Gravitation und Elektrizitat”, Sitzungsberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, v. 26 (1918), pp. 465-480.]

    After Einstein dismissed this Weyl quantization of gravity, Schroedinger applied Weyl’s exp(iX) in 1922 to model the quantized energy levels in the Bohr atom [Schroedinger, “On a Remarkable Property of the Quantum-Orbits of a single Electron”, Zeitschrift f. Physik, v. 12 (1922), pp. 13-23], from which he derived the Schroedinger wave equation – the solution to which shows that the wavefunction is proportional to exp(-iHt), simply Weyl quantization – in 1926 to explain de Broglie’s work on wave-particle duality.

    Naturally, nobody dismisses Weyl as a crackpot who first misapplied gauge theory to the metric rather than the wavefunction, because the wavefunction didn’t exist in 1915. This is typical real world science: people do the best they can, sometimes make mistakes, and others correct those mistakes, ignoring the errors and trying to build on what is useful. There is nothing “professional” about subjectively picking out straw man trivia to “ridicule” someone for making errors. That is just paranoid.

  5. chris says:

    speaking of Dyson and the fringe, i think it is worthwhile to point to one of his former projects


  6. Peter Woit says:


    From what I’ve seen, the only possible “contact between string theory and experiment” coming out of forseeable cosmology experiment is results like “this class of string theory scenarios is ruled out, this class isn’t”. In a situation where a huge variety of string theory models can be constructed, matching any plausible experimental result, falsifiability and distinctive predictions are gone, so you’re not doing conventional science. All you’re doing is parametrizing experimental results in a rather baroque way, chosen to keep a certain speculative framework alive rather than admit it doesn’t really tell you anything.

    More specifically, Planck results are probably already known to some (who aren’t telling). When they’re announced, what will they tell us about string theory? I don’t see how it can be anything significant.

  7. Bane says:

    Speaking of all things Dyson, Peter, have you read, and will you review, “Turing’s Cathedral” by George Dyson, son of Freeman? I think you might enjoy it quite a bit.

  8. Tom says:

    Opening paragraph – “John Carter” ?

  9. Tom says:

    Oops, hit enter too fast!
    “John Carter” is the protagonist in the Edgar Rice Burroughs “Barsoom” books, and the title of a recent Disney scifi film based on the books.
    Dyson’s book review refers to “Jim Carter” !

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Tom!
    Fixed. I must have had that film name somewhere in the back of my mind…

  11. harryb says:

    Re Dyson’s review in NYRB – I felt he was soft on string theory at the end: having mauled it with the “imagination detached from experiments” line, he then seems to imply its search for beauty saves it, suggesting it may actually be Visionary. Frustrating fence-sitting.

  12. Peter Woit says:


    Probably worth reading, but life is short and I don’t think I’ve got time to really ever learn about computability…

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  14. harryb says:

    Bane / Peter

    I started the book, and persevered for several chapters, but – sorry – gave up. Its central story was interesting, fair enough – but its digressions and historical asides were bizarrely long and irrelevant. For example before getting to some material on computer development at Princeton NJ we get a whole chapter on its history from native American indians onwards. Why? How many books were being written here?

    Life is indeed too short I think for this book – TL:DR as 4chan would have it (too long / didn’t read)

  15. Hi Peter

    I am utterly delighted by Freeman Dyson’s poetic review of my book in the current NYRB and am charmed by his anecdotes about his own encounters with physics dissidents, especially his story of his friendship with Immanuel Velikovsky. What I like so much about Freeman’s piece is the sympathy he shows for people who have “aberrant ideas” but who are so passionately concerned with finding meaning in the world around them. Dyson compares Velikovsky to the poet William Blake: “Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience.”Though Dyson “profoundly disagrees” with much of Velikovsky’s science, he nonetheless writes that “I am proud to be numbered among your friends.”

    What a beautiful jewel of kinship is on display here – one of the great physicists of the past century and one of the great outsider science visionaries, profoundly disagreeing yet capable still of affection for one another.

    In an age when theoretical physics has sometimes come to seem like an elite competitive sport, Freeman Dyson reminds us of the enterprise’s intrinsic links to poetry. My book also aimed to foreground the aesthetic roots of this science. My intention was not to adjudicate the rightness of wrongness of any particular ideas but rather to raise the question of how we, as a society, decide which theories, and which experts, to listen to. I am deeply grateful and proud to class Dyson among my reviewers.

  16. harryb says:


    That’s all very poetic and conciliatory, but such an approach might be the death of progressive science. Your view seems to be to find all theories worthy irrespective of their predictive and empirical power. I find that a very pessimistic approach to science, assuming there are no theories “better” than others (ie more predictive, more insightful, more useable and so on).

    I love poetry – and view it somewhere strangely between fiction and fact – but I love science too, and want to lean heavily on its predictive reality as far as we can. Blending science with poetry and philosophy can create a great consilience, but only if we avoid rounding science down.

    I don’t believe that physics is now an “elite competitive sport”. Blogs like this developed from Peter’s book challenge any elite String Theorists for example – the Solvay group who spawned QM were surely more of an elite.

    But let me try to get half way – I do agree that if physics for example tried to be a bit more polymathic these days and embraced other arts such as biology or economics it might create some new BSM insights and bright leaps.

    However – that is a far cry for going further down the unidimensional dead-ends of strings or circlons – where is the – true – poetry in ersatz mainstream physics? I’d love more for the grafting Woits or Deutschs’s of this world to have a Eureka moment after watching the Hunger Games or reading a magical realism novel.

    And why isn’t your book in e-form yet?

  17. srp says:

    From an economic theory point of view, so long as individual seekers of truth and recognition decide which other work to pay attention to solely on the basis of what will best advance their own personal quests for discoveries and citations, all the incentives line up perfectly well. Everyone has an incentive to be sincere in a personal assessment of others’ work–useful, sloppy, genius, crackpot–because that work is only relevant to him as an input into his own project of inquiry and publication. His attention allocation to different sources of information is dictated by his best guess about what will aid his research. The impact of a decision to ignore another’s work as crackpottery is borne by the individual making it. (Similar incentive compatibility works for such issues as how much to disclose about one’s methods in a publication–each individual worker is led, as if by an invisible hand, to pick a level of detail and openness that collectively maximizes the rate of discovery.)

    This perfect incentive structure breaks down when an individual seeker becomes concerned with the behavior of third parties–funders, policy makers, the public–who are not themselves part of the scientific process. Now the sincerity principle fails to hold, because the individual seeker’s incentives include not only the desire to maximize his own rate of discovery and citation, but to influence these third parties. In a battle for resources, for example, getting a competitor’s funding cut off by calling him a crackpot, even if you’re not sure about whether he’s right, becomes a possible motivation. In a battle for public recognition, it may “pay” to disparage others’ work beyond one’s sincerely-held beliefs. (It may also pay to feign greater agreement than one actually has with some other ideas.)

    Short of returning to the days of wealthy, self-financing scientists whose only audience was a small number of cognoscenti, these imperfections in the “market” for scientific opinion will be with us always. Unquestionably, the expansion of science beyond the narrow aristocracy that once sustained it has been a huge net boon. But there has been a price to pay for that expansion, one aspect of which is the incentive distortion in assessing others’ work, leading to bigger problems with getting the crackpot/visionary boundary demarcated correctly.