Eric Weinstein on Geometric Unity

Eric Weinstein is a Harvard math Ph. D. who has been working as an economist here in New York for many years, and someone I’ve often enjoyed talking to over the years. Going back to his days as a graduate student, he has been working on some of his own far out of the mainstream ideas about geometry and physics (which I’ve never seen the details of). Eric has finally gotten to the point where he is willing to talk about these ideas publicly, and he is giving a lecture today in Oxford, something that was arranged by Marcus du Sautoy. The Guardian has a long article about him and his work here.

There’s a bit of an analogy with the Garrett Lisi physics outsider story here, although I think Eric will get less media attention since he doesn’t have the surfing angle going for him. Both he and Garrett are pursuing what seems to me one of the deepest questions around: what is the relationship between the SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) geometry of the Standard Model, and the 4d pseudo-Riemannian geometry of space-time and general relativity? Garrett was trying to understand this in terms of E(8) symmetry, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Eric’s ideas about this are. I’m not sure when he’ll have a paper out on the arXiv, or whether some sort of version of his lecture will be available.

Update: The Guardian now has a very enthusiastic article about this by Marcus du Sautoy, while New Scientist has a skeptical take here.

Update: See Jennifer Ouellette for a critical take on the Guardian coverage.

Update: It seems that claims that physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk are not true: an announcement and posters were sent to the physics department, but did not get widely disseminated. For a small amount of info about the talk, see the comment here from “Leaker”.

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76 Responses to Eric Weinstein on Geometric Unity

  1. FWIW, his economic theories are considered heterodox as well (see Eric Falkenstein’s post on EW) but I think they make sense.

  2. fuzzy says:

    i’d like to recall that garret lisi’s paper http://arxiv.org/abs/arXiv:0711.0770 was preceeded by fabrizio nesti’s one http://arxiv.org/abs/arXiv:0706.3307 (published). fabrizio doesn’t surf, though he is a good sailor; hope this helps to give him consideration.

  3. Nameless says:

    I’m not sure if even getting access to the lecture would be helpful. Simonyi Lectures exist “… to promote the public understanding of science”. If the intended audience is higher level than Guardian readership, it’s not much higher than that. The lecture is certainly not directed at experts in high energy physics. We’ll have to wait for an arxiv paper to make judgments.

  4. On Friday 24th May from 10:00 — 12:00 in L3,
    Eric Weinstein (Oxford)
    Geometric Unity

    A more detailed exposition of Thursday’s Simonyi Lecture.”

    Anyone willing to go and take notes?

  5. Garrett says:

    Eric’s been working on this for a long time — I’m happy he’s now publicly airing some of his ideas. And I’m looking forward to seeing what he puts on the arXiv.

    To answer the raised issue of Nesti’s previous work: I did have some good conversations with Nesti, and even climbed a mountain with Percacci — and I cited their work. The idea, in general, of graviweak unification is groundbreaking and needs more attention.

  6. fuzzy says:

    hi garrett,

    it is very kind from you to mention this, and i hope it will help the italian academia, a bit stiff and hard-eared, to recognize the great talent of nesti.

    (of course, i am a friend of nesti, not him. He would not use silly nicks as those i use, he would have signed with his name, just as you did)

    finally, i apologize for the offline statements here above — but i hope they will offer you other occasions of mutual exchanges.

  7. A.J. says:

    Paper, or it didn’t happen.

  8. tea says:

    The Theory of Everything is by now old hat. What we need is a Theory Explaining it All. The author of the New Scientist article claims that the Oxford physicists were not invited to Weinstein’s talk. That is curious, considering that the talk was publicly advertised on websites. However, if there was indeed a scheduling conflict with a physics talk on alternative sources of CP violation, then that indeed was poor planning. There seems to be no statement that Weinstein has been invited, or is meeting, with multiple people at Oxford (physicists … Penrose?) to discuss/answer his ideas one on one. That is strange, but who knows. Hopefully an arXiv preprint or other public document will appear soon.

  9. NuclearHobbit says:

    Although not an abstract of this lecture, I think Mr. Weinstein may have outlined its content here:
    http://edge.org/responses/what-is-your-favorite-deep-elegant-or-beautiful-explanation
    (scroll down to Mr. Weinstein’s answer)

  10. Nameless says:

    @NuclearHobbit his answer seems to be half history, half lyrics, and, if there’s any of his own work in there, it’s well hidden. (However, that does not exclude the possibility that it is, in fact, an abstract of his lecture.)

  11. Bob Jones says:

    Can someone tell me where Ed Frenkel endorsed this guy?

  12. Bob Jones says:

    Never mind. I didn’t see the first Guardian article.

  13. outsider says:

    It is perfectly possible for an outsider to have ideas which fundamentally alter our world view, for example a clerk working in a patent office in Switzerland. But Einstein published his ideas in papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect and special relativity, with detailed formalisms and calculations to back up his ideas. Weinstein really needs to put out a concrete preprint, and in fact he should have done it before giving his lecture. “Paper, or it didn’t happen” — absolutely spot on.

  14. Nameless says:

    @outsider The amount of background information Einstein needed to come up with special relativity and the amount of information needed for a scientist today to unify QFT and GR are so vastly different that it’s hard even to compare them. We are talking two, maybe three orders of magnitude.

    Special relativity involved some out of the box thinking, but, as far as background information, he needed basics of Maxwell’s electromagnetism, kinematics, null result of Michelson-Morley experiment, and some knowledge of the theory of aether as it existed in 1905.

    To unify QFT and GR, you need to be familiar at least with QFT and GR. An adequate exposition of QFT that covers all progress through, say, 1980, without any prerequisites, would fill 1000 pages. Add another 500 pages for GR. If you want to include any fancy new stuff, volume of background information keeps growing and growing. Any half-hearted attempt at unification should probably give Einstein-Cartan in the continuum limit, E-C is not included in standard GR textbooks and you need to pick it up on the side. If you want to go in the same general direction as Garrett Lisi, you need to understand algebraic group theory and know a thing or two about E(8) (add another 1000 pages of mind-bending mathematical theory to your reading list.) Current situation is that a even a random third year physics grad student, who spent years and years on full time study and who has already covered everything up to and including fundamentals of QFT and GR, would find most articles in theoretical high energy physics section of Arxiv so incomprehensible that they might as well have been written in Greek.

  15. Peter Orland says:

    Nameless,

    Nobody knows everything. We learn things as we go along. Though it is true that learning without thought is ill advised and thought without learning is perilous (as someone famous once said), you can do both, just by working seriously on a real problem.

    Speaking of real problems, however, I am not sure unifying QFT with GR qualifies as one.

  16. Nameless says:

    What I’m not sure about is whether one can learn everything necessary to unify QFT with GR while working full time as a Wall Street quant and writing papers on economics in one’s spare time.

  17. David Nataf says:

    Einstein was much more than a clerk at the patent office. He had a full PhD in theoretical physics, and he had written thoughtful papers on thermodynamics prior to his steps forward in 1905.

    The stereotype of Einstein is that he was bad at math in school, he failed all his math courses and he sucked, and then he was out of the field and had to work at the patent office, and then he solved every problem in physics at the time completely out of the blue, and there were no precursors in the literature that could motivate any of his advances. The idea is that he made his advanced entirely from pure thought, by visualizing himself riding a wave of light. This is of course absolute fiction, and it’s extremely harmful to science.

    Albert Einstein was in fact very gifted at mathematics, and he had a full PhD in physics, where the standards might have been far higher in ~1900 than they are today. Relativity, for example, did not come out of the blue, as he and many other physicists had already seen the Lorentz equations in Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, he was merely the first one to make the connection to inertial reference frames.

  18. outsider says:

    Weinstein has a Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Harvard, and while I have not checked his publications list, I have no doubt that he has many published papers of highly accomplished research. Not exactly a nobody tinkering in his garage with no formal training. But he really needs to put out a preprint.

  19. fuzzy says:

    hi outsider, there is one database that is used by all physicists working in this field, named inspire. you can check that there is only 1 record there, his thesis
    http://inspirehep.net/search?ln=en&p=f+a+weinstein%2Ce&action_search=find

  20. Narad says:

    you can check that there is only 1 record there, his thesis

    Given the title, I have to wonder whether it has an epigraph.

  21. nasren says:

    The case of Weinstein is interestingly dual to the other problem that has come up recently: that of established (ie employed) theoretical physicists talking absolute rubbish. I would think that physicists would be more concerned about THAT trend, rather that the possibility of a bright, qualified outsider saying something novel and interesting. So this adverse press reaction smacks of vested interests. (And I would like to see some clarification on what it means when a physicist claims that “physicists weren’t invited”. Does that mean they weren’t informed about it? Or that they weren’t sent an engraved invitation and a pretty-please?)

  22. David Nataf says:

    nasren,

    It probably means that the email to the math department inviting them to the colloquium was probably not cc:ed to the physics department, which is common practice in inter-disciplinary talks.

  23. momerathe says:

    wake me up when there’s a testable prediction.

  24. Tom Andersen says:

    There have been a few comments to the effect that without knowing QFT/Standard Model/GR/ in detail, its impossible to formulate a new theory. Rubbish. Why would Kepler have to know the Ptolemaic theory of deferent and epicycle in order to discover elliptical orbits?

    Like most ‘outsider’ (is the ratio any better for the insiders?) papers, Eric’s ideas are likely flawed in some way, but that does not mean that his contribution will not be useful. I have not seen much value from the official theoretical physics team from the past 30 years, even though the amount of time spent on the subject was easily greater than all the previous time spent on this subject throughout history.

    There is so much baggage in the current theories of physics that ‘knowing all of it’ only serves to fasten the blinders on.

  25. Anonyrat says:

    The Guardian article says: “Weinstein begins the paper in which he explains his proposal with a quote from Einstein: “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” ”

    Where is this paper?

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,

    As far as I know, such a paper is not publicly available, and I haven’t seen a copy.

  27. Jeff M says:

    To follow up on @fuzzy, checked mathscinet, Weinstein has no papers there either. du Sautoy is of course a serious mathematician, and assuming he’s seen some sort of preprint (one hopes!!) then there might be some interesting math going on. Aesthetically I like the geometrization idea, and it might be possible that Weinstein has had an interesting insight somehow that Atiyah and Singer and all the rest missed somehow, but I wouldn’t bet my house on it :-) Also, keep in mind that as a research mathematician du Sautoy is a number theorist, his serious papers are mostly on zeta functions and groups, not infinite dimensional geometry.

  28. CPV says:

    Jennifer Ouelette is absolutely correct. Weinstein et al are master manipulators. I’ve seen his act trying to claim that economies are best modeled as quantum field theories and other complete nonsense. He is best called out as what he is – a high-falutin’ fraud. I have no idea how Frenkel got mixed up with him, but his movies show he is no stranger to publicity seeking activities. It’s not bad manners to call these things for what they are, and not to get duped by a smart huckster.

  29. op-ed etc says:

    What is also puzzling is du Sautoy’s behavior. He is after all an established math professor and knows ‘the system’ or the protocol to handle these claims. By his own admission, he met Weinstein at a bar in NY two years ago and heard Weinstein describe his ideas. Then he should have said something like “That’s really great. You should write up something on the arXiv and I’ll show it to people at Oxford. Let’s get their feedback (both physics and math). Then I can arrange for you to give a lecture and meet people privately … ” But instead there is no preprint of any kind, and physicists were apparently ‘not invited’ to the lecture, and du Sautoy goes so far as to write an op-ed piece for the Guardian. Puzzling.

  30. Kara Szathmary says:

    I hope that Weinstein’s eventual paper will NOT be the likes of Nassim Haramein’s “Schwarzchilds Proton”. I did like Garret Lisi’s paper and thought what a shame he’s gone surfing, and like Grigori Perelman vanishing after proving Poincare’s Conjecture.

  31. JoeMomma says:

    Has anybody seen this Geometric Unity? When and where can we access it if we’re not at Oxford? It’s kind of lame someone claims to have solved big problems but doesn’t give the public any papers/lectures/whatever.

  32. gu says:

    Geometric Unity is a self-applied label. You can’t access it if you’re not at Oxford, and the evidence indicates that you can’t access it even if you are are Oxford. Just about everyone has remarked that this is a glaring omission.

  33. Pingback: Geometric Unity | betaingegneria.it

  34. King Ray says:

    Perhaps they are stringing him along in the hopes of a large financial donation from him or his employer.

  35. Terry says:

    I met a guy at an APS conference in the 1990′s who gave me a hard bound book (the thesis kind, not the publishing company kind) that he wrote called “The theory of Unity” which he claimed solved all of the problems of physics and unified QFT and GR. I still have it. There are almost no equations in it and a lot of technical sounding words which were clearly invented by the author. At the time I complimented the author and assured him that I would look at it. I am sure almost everyone here has similar stories. Although it is not necessary to have a paper on the arxiv prior to giving your lecture (that happens all the time!), it is unusual that the slides, notes, audio, video, or even audience notes have, as yet, failed to appear.

    Personally, I would rather have talks like Frank Nelson Cole at the AMS in 1903, or Andrew Wiles’ lecture at Cambridge in 1993. I.e. the lecture is the place where the result comes out and the media fame follows that — not the other way around (like cold fusion, faster-than-light neutrinos, etc etc etc, and now Geometric Unity)

  36. hbar says:

    I attended an APS April Meeting once, where I saw in the abstracts that someone had a new proof from first principles that hbar = h/2pi. Unfortunately I was so stupid that I missed the talk by 20 min (these are 10 min talks in parallel sessions), so I regret to say I missed the proof.

  37. Terry says:

    Does anyone even know what group or space the theory is based on? How many dimensions? … or better yet, the predicted proton lifetime ;)

  38. Richard says:

    My take on this, for those who are interested — short version: this is not how science is done, and du Sautoy should know that.

    http://excursionset.com/blog/2013/5/25/trainwrecks-i-have-seen

    I think this does have similarities to Lisi, and also to Wolfram — stories about revolutions in science whose impact outside the community is greater than their impact on science itself.

  39. King Ray says:

    I think that good scientists and mathematicians seek the truth and not publicity and attention. Compare others’ actions to those of Perelman.

  40. nasren says:

    With one breath people say that this is not how science is done — and usually it is not, agreed — but on the other it seems that Jennifer Ouellette and others are trumpeting the way science is usually done as the right way, even while we are being told that the way science is now done is not the way it was done in the past. If you follow me. :) What I see are professional norms being broken all over the place and a discipline that is happy with that provided tenure is given and the money keeps rolling in. So when someone comes from outside it is a threat — to a status quo that is impossibly broken anyway.

    New ideas are usually rubbishy old ideas repackaged — I have lost count of the number of times I have been handed a “book” with a solution to the entire universe — which usually ends up saying something like “it’s all energy man”. I was once handed such a thing from someone who claimed to square the circle (“hey, you just change the value of π to 22/7!”) We all have. But Weinstein is not one of those guys.

    P.S. Many years ago when I was on this site regularly (around 2004 or 5 I think) I heard of a guy who was doing maths physics outside of academia, while surfing in Hawaii. I thought this was very cool and have often thought of it since, wondering how it was going. And today I am delighted to find that it is Garrett Lisi and that he got his ideas out there! Amazeballs, as the kids say.

  41. momerathe says:

    look on the bright side: it may or may not be real, but maybe he’ll get 3 million Russian dollars out of it.

  42. Monty Python says:

    Half a theory, philosophically,
    Must ipso facto, half not be.
    But here the half, that’s not a theory,
    Is all we see. Do you agree?

    S U two, cross S U three,
    Eric the half a theory.
    G mu nu, is eight pi T,
    Eric the half a theory.

    Is this cryptic news story,
    About an unknown PhD,
    Scientific methodology?
    No! It’s Eric the half a theory…

  43. Daniel Tung says:

    It is great that people from outside of academia produce serious and significant work.
    However, I doubt that the next step of revolution in Physics will require only beautiful mathematics and no deep conceptual re-considerations.

  44. Terry says:

    @nasren There is a reason that “the way science is usually done” is the right way. We tried it the other ways – they didn’t work. Let’s be real about this folks. I know it seems fun and exciting to speculate about the unknown hero riding in from the outside and revolutionizing physics, but that isn’t going to happen here. The guy got a phd from Harvard a couple of decades ago and hasn’t even published a paper since and now his math buddy from grad school invited him to give a lecture about his sideline musings. We all know how this story is going to end. The fact that he has spent 20 years doing hedge fund math does not make his insights more insightful. In fact, the opposite is true. Hedge fund math is not grand unification. Not even close. Weinstein’s theory may contain one or two interesting mathematical ideas, but much more likely, and appropriately for this blog, it will end up being filed in the “not even wrong” bin of history.

  45. DLB says:

    Seems like everyone is debating reputations and speculating on whether an outsider can come with a new theory that correctly describes reality. That is not how science evaluates ideas.
    Let’s wait and see what this theory is, how well it describes reality and what predictions that are original to it that can be experimentally or observationally tested.
    Theories are not validated by degrees or titles, but by experiments and observations.

  46. S says:

    Terry,

    In fairness, it’s not clear to me that the theory is likely to be filed in the “not even wrong” bin of history if it predicts 150 new particles with exotic properties, especially if they’re at accessible energies. Wouldn’t that be just plain vanilla wrong (if it didn’t pan out)?

  47. mike says:

    Peter,

    Do you know of anyone who attended? Any reports about content?

  48. Terry says:

    S, good point. That seems more likely. I.e. just plain old wrong.

    DLB, when he goes to the press with vague statements, presents no paper, and no lecture notes or slides from the talk, there is little else we can do except speculate based on reputations of supporters, educational background, and what-not. The conversation would be much more technical and scientific if they had given us something tangible to discuss. (The conversation might also be much shorter. For example, “it predicts a proton lifetime of 10 nanoseconds, so no point wading through the rest of the screed”)

  49. Leaker says:

    Some comments on the talk by a mathematician that were forwarded to me:

    “The core idea seems to be to work with the 14-dimenional bundle of all metrics over a 4-dimensional manifold, as a way of generalising GR, the standard model, and QFT a the same time. The high dimensionality gives very large multiplets of as yet undiscovered particles, and he has no idea of their masses. …
    …He still hasn’t got all the details worked out and there’s no preprint. My general verdict would be that it’s certainly not nonsense, but I would take a lot more convincing that it’s heading in the right direction.”

  50. Oldster says:

    “Any half-hearted attempt at unification should probably give Einstein-Cartan in the continuum limit” —Nameless

    Why? It’s only one possibility.