Lee Smolin has a piece in the latest Physics Today entitled Why no “new Einstein”?. Unfortunately it’s only available to Physics Today subscribers, although Lee tells me he will see if he can put it on-line on his web-page. Tony Smith previously mentioned this in a comment to an earlier posting.
The problem Lee addresses seems to me to be an extremely important one. Pretty much every knowledgeable particle theorist that I talk to these days, string theorist and non-string theorist, agrees that current ideas about how to go beyond the standard model are not working very well. Everyone hopes that some big new idea will come along and show the way forward, with people often wistfully speaking about how maybe some bright post-doc out there may be at this very moment working on the needed new idea. The problem with this is that what is needed is probably something quite different than any of the current popular research programs, and finding it may be difficult enough to require someone’s concerted effort over quite a few years. If this is so, it’s very hard to see how anyone on the standard career path in the US is going to be able to do this. A young post-doc here generally only has a couple years in between needing to apply for new jobs, and if he or she were to devote those years to working hard on a very speculative new idea, this would most likely be suicidal for their career.
Some will argue that young theorists should just try and work on speculative ideas in their spare time, spending enough time working on currently fashionable topics such as string theory to impress people enough to ultimately get a permanent job, at which point they can work more seriously on their speculative idea. The problem with this is that getting up to speed and participating in the latest trendy research in string theory is a very demanding task, one that isn’t likely to leave much time or energy for other projects. In addition, it’s not at all clear that being willing to work hard on an obviously failed research program like string theory is consistent with having the intelligence and drive needed to do something really new. Instead of working on string theory, a young theorist could try and work on one of the other popular topics such as cosmology or phenomenology, but these are very different subjects than fundamental work in quantum field theory. A young theorist would be more likely to be able to find the necessary time if he or she went to work as a night-time security guard.
Lee makes several excellent proposals about how to restructure the way hiring is done to encourage young people who want to try something new. I hope he has some success in getting the powers-that-be to realize what a serious problem the field is facing and take some of the actions he suggests.
Two completely unrelated topics:
Lubos Motl has a posting about the Harvard Commencement, where it seems they’re giving Witten an honorary degree (Columbia already did this in 1996). He also writes about a new web-site for the Sidneyfest, the conference in Sidney Coleman’s honor that was discussed here and on many other weblogs. The new web-site includes copies of letters to Coleman from people who couldn’t attend the conference. In one of them Greg Moore recalls and reproduces Coleman’s proof from the late eighties that string theory is the unique theory of nature.
For something pretty weird, see this from the latest Notices of the AMS. There’s more about the activities of its author on Robert Helling’s weblog. The new issue of the Notices also contains an article about the 2006 NSF budget request for mathematics.
Update: Lubos Motl has his own comments on Smolin’s article, together with a link to some site where someone seems to have posted the article without attribution.
Quantoken now i am understand some of your topics.
You said “The real Einstein did not go to graduate school either.” I think that he was.
“They can write to some of the most famous physicists at the time and very likely they will get some respose and discussion.”
You also can. I say this by own experience. I have talked with leader physicists in several disciplines inclusding several Nobel laureates like Prigogine (for discussing about thermodynamics), Weinberg (for discussing about QFT), etc.
Almost all of my mails were read and correctly replied, including formulas, references, etc.
When i began to talk with Prigogine i clearly say to him that i was undergraduate, but my mansucripts were interesting for him and contacted to a post-PhD of his group with me and both collaborate in a hot thermodynamical topic.
I see that if your work is minimally serious, it is read by people with interest and comments/suggestions received.
On Edward Witten I can say nothing.
I have hard often that Einstein was not studied and therefore any can do a revolution in science without go to the university.
I don’t know if it is your case (i didn’t understand well your post), but I thought that Einstein was a graduate (physicist) with good experience in scientific research. Moreover, I think he was did a PhD in a molecular hot topic. Am I wrong?
In talking about the arxiv, I said that it was “(mostly) open.” I think this is pretty much the best way to go, with an automated, and hence near zero cost, system to screen out obvious cranks. A system of endorsements, with a very broad base of endorsers, does a good job of this. However, I think it’s bad when the arxiv administrators mess with this submission criteria by hand — deleting articles or restricting endorsed posters, based solely on their opinions. It’s bad because this sort of judgement should be carried out by the community, as the next step. By deleting articles or censoring posts, the reviewers are overstepping their bounds and potentially killing good and maybe even groundbreaking articles based on their opinions. This has unfortunately happened several times, to Tony Smith and Brian Josephson and others, and it’s just not the administrator’s place. If they take great pains to establish a good and fair system, the administrators should realize that in messing with it by hand they’re doing something wrong — they’re practicing exactly the kind of heavy handed censorship that an open forum is supposed to prevent.
I thought this was about why their was no “new Einstein,” sill me. Adding to Smolin and Peters comments on why this is as well as discussing additional changes besides the general diversification ideas are in no way offtopic.
this blog discussion is supposed to be about Smolin’s proposals?
Here are 3 of them. they seem totally uncontroversial to me: no brainers. Any disagreement?
To prevent overinvestment in speculatative directions that may end up as dead ends, departments should ensure that different points of view about unsolved problems, and rival research programs, are represented on their faculties.
Research groups should seek out people who pursue rival approaches, and include them as postdocs, students, and visitors. Conferences in one research program should be encouraged, by those funding them, to invite speakers from rival programs. Instructors should encourage students to learn about competing approaches to unsolved problems, so that the students are equipped to choose for themselves the most promising directions as their careers advance.
Funding agencies and foundations should take steps to see that at every level scientists are encouraged to freely explore and develop all viable proposals to solve deep and difficult problems. Funding should go to individual scientists for individual thought and not to research programs. A research program should not be allowed to become institutionally dominant until supported by convincing scientific proof of the usual kind. Before such proof is demonstrated, alternative and rival approaches should receive encouragement to ensure that the progress of science is not stalled by overinvestment in a direction that turns out to be wrong.
Wasn’t “portfolio diversification” in the theory section of a department approved and fairly common practice a few academic generations back? Isn’t it still far from rare in major universities outside the US?
“One reason, there are no new einsteins is that many may quit before even finishing gradschool.”
Please note: The real Einstein did not go to graduate school either. He finished colleage as an average and could not find a job for two years. Then only with some help from some one influential he got the job of a patent clerk.
The big difference is at Einstein’s time science was still the activity of a small elite group, not a massive modern industry. As an average Joe, Einstein and his friends can access the academy easily: They can read the most advanced science journals and can underdstand and discuss the stuff. They can also submit papers and it is more likely than not that they can get their papers published. They can write to some of the most famous physicists at the time and very likely they will get some respose and discussion.
But all that is no longer possible today since science has grown into a huge huge massive full fleged modern industry. The kind of communication Einstein enjoyed is no longer possible, despite the availability of the internet.
Just try to think about a new Einstein, who is a college graduate, but who miraculously get it all figured out, write to Edward Witten, telling him Sir you are wrong, don’t waste any more of your time studying super string theory, bla bla bla? What kind of response do you expect?
Now think about the real Einstein living today, and there hasn’t been SR and GR yet, But QM and SST have been fully developed today. So the establishments includes the classical Newtonian mechanics, QM, SST, and the Universe was a static model, and of course the spacetime is absolute. Assumping that’s what we got today.
Now this guy called Einstein, who nobody knows, comes forward in the year 2005, and tell everybody: It’s all wrong, Newton got it wrong, there is no absolute spacetime, bla bla. I have a whole set of new theories which describes the experimental evidences better than the Newton Mechanics. And the universe could not be static at all. Depend on the critical density, either all stars will fly away, or one day the sky will collapse on us. Not only that, my new theory (GR) is also incompatible with QM, so I believe that QM could also be wrong or at least it is not a complete theory, bla bla bla. Would any one take him seriously? This guy doesn’t even have a Ph.D., thank God, why would any one even bother to read his paper?
Think about that, wouldn’t you say that Einstein was lucky to be born in 1879, not in 1979?
One reason, there are no new einsteins is that many may quit before even finishing gradschool. The amount of stuff needed to learn to catch up on the physics of today is alot longer then in einsteins day and someone of einseins character may not like having to spend all of this time learning what their school’s say to learn instead of following wherever their thoughts bring them. My roomate quit school earlier this year for among other things. Would he have been a “new einsein” i don’t know he definately loved thinking about physics and is smart as hell. I personally almost decided to quit this semester for the same reasons, and even though I didn’t my constant thinking about things from how to get america cheap health insurance or getting rid of political parties, to thinking about fundamental problems in physics the reconciliation of GR and QM or the missing antimatter in the universe ect almost caused me to fail despite my decision to the contrary.
Another factor is the impression gotten that from most of the methods used today is that figuring out the new physics will take crazy mathematics skills and large research programs(ST and LQG) to work through and that there is no place for individual creative input that they could make despite not being a genius as far as mathematics is concerned. The only way for the creative individual to think otherwise is if they have a severe messianic complex like me. Luckily that is a common complex for smart people who can think up new ideas however it often gives them to much overconfidence in their particular ideas which can lead to crackpotism if the individual is not carefull.
Juan I like the idea of an open forum to talk about the paper in question, but a couple of points. Also a conveniant multiple ranking system to replace the how much is it cited model.
by which i mean seperate ranking for different categories such as:
scienceness,revolutionary/proggression of standard ideasness,effect on own workness(this one is measures the same thing that citations does but by person instead of by person weighted by papers),ect
then you would be able to see the number of people that gave each rating in each category as well as being able to sperate who(by category such as HEP and sub categories like string theorists) gave which ratings.
Also I would suggest having a seperate forum for pointing out actuall mathematical type errors.
Simply to say an important detail that i forgot!!
My old example of why a minimum review in science is needed, is based in a joung guy that a year ago claimed to be the new Einstein in certain science forum.
Some formulas of his “revolutionary” theory appear in the project page. You can value by yourself, why minimum review is needed. I wonder if Smolin proposal for detecting new Einsteins can effectively detect real geniouses from charlatans. I think that is possible but an really expensive task.
Probably from each 100000 hoaxes one find a single new Einstein. I agree with Smolin and think that humanity would waste time and money in this class of projects.
Only a last question, who will decide what is Einsteinian-like and what is hoaxers-like scientific work?
Below link don’t work (i think that is a bug with preview buttom).
The link is González-Álvarez reply to “Science without denominations”
I think that current misunderstanding about string theory from outsiders would be eliminated if the system of publication was open with open discussion.
Any nonspecialist could simply read the criticism to string theory and see that the real status of string theory is not that of “Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene.
Students could obtain a good idea of that is being done in each field, if that field is open to debate and choose future careers.
I openly invite to any to discuss the future model of scientific publication and submit comments.
Your suggestion is exactly the posted by Shagaev, peer review may be substituted by open forum at journals pages. As said, I cannot post the page of project for reformulation of publication system here because Peter’s blog offers an error with the link; it is a Russian page and blog cgi says that is not “adequate” (?).
From González-Álvarez reply to “Science without denominations” you can link to Shagaev own suggestions in the page of the project for new model of publication.
I think that zero review is bad for science, and my specific proposal adds a minimum review process. It is compatible with some proposals at last 01 conference in electronic publishing. I added in the project page an example of why minimum review (split between adequate and inadequate) is necessary. The final validity of adequate papers will be based in open discussion within community.
I think that many anti-string theory (like Peter) would love i) an elimination of censure in some anti-string papers, ii) possibility for open forum of submitted papers. Now, one can see last papers in string fad in ArXiv and after one become here to read interesting comments.
Peter, a question for you, would be more effective if you could post your comments in string theory (e.g. in Landscape stuff) directly like an attachment to each ArXiv preprint instead of here? That model did already exist in the CPS preprint (unfortunately closed) and worked very well, because one could see the preprint and in the same html page comments/discussion by people.
Garrett on your If your stuff is decent, you should be able to find an endorsement.” I did extensive comments in this. An expertise in ArXiv said to me that usually ArXiv administrators provide to you a list of endorsers pro string theory and is best ignore it and search for others endorsers. Moreover, even if your work is finally endorsed and accepted, administrators (pro string theory) can erase it without explaining to you why, and violating own ArXiv policies.
JE – is that a whine? Just put it out there.
I like the publishing model of the physics arxiv, as propounded by Paul Ginsparg. I think, instead of the peer review process, it’s best if researchers post to a (mostly) open forum, and have their work rated collaboratively by the community. Right now citations act as this collaborative rating. The arxiv, as some point out, is not completely open, but I haven’t encountered a problem with its barriers, as I usually have some affiliation or another with academic institutions. If your stuff is decent, you should be able to find an endorsement. It may be the case that I’m academically shooting myself in the foot by not publishing through traditional journals, but I like to make the future happen by embracing it.
Quantoken and J.E. — I always like reading good new stuff. But I can’t comment on it unless it’s out there to be seen.
Me, too! I am interested in seeing what J.E. has, although I will be quite skeptical.
garrett, how do you manage to get anything published at all? I don’t think it’s possible. Not that I have tried. I haven’t, I am holding off publication of my research until I can figure it all out. But I am on a right track to getting pretty close to solve some of the most puzzling fundamental physics problems. So close that I no longer even bother to discuss my ideas on my own BLOG any more.
I would certainly be interested in your paper. Why not post a PDF version on your web site, or something?
I liked Smolin’s article. Probably because, though no Einstein, I do fit Smolin’s criteria for a young researcher on the fringe — working on hard fundamental problems, with only a few articles published because I thought they were good. And I’ve got a lot of good stuff I’m working on. But it’s tough, and lonely, doing this all on my own. I looked at the web page for PI, thinking it might be a cool place to go spend some time, but it looks like it too is dominated by string theorists. I’d love if some other options were to open up, but I suspect Smolin’s “modest proposal” for change will go over with the establishment about as well as Jonathon Swift’s.
I agree with Aaron and Chris. Journals and ArXiV (that, btw, seems to be more relaxed this semester) policies are symptoms, not the cause.
As I told in Lubos’s blog, my read of (/into?/) Smolin’s article is a request for anarchy in modern science, opposed to the Order of “group thinking”. Tony likes to speak of the “Golden Bars of Consensus”. Consensus is a part of every assembly, of course, but it must be counterweighted by Initiative.
Read “The Dawning of Gauge Theory” by Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh for a real happy shot of pure physics in contrast to all this bitching.
I was gonna send him email, but unfortunately he’s dead. What is it about the Irish and Italians that makes them such great geometers? Catholicism?
Guinnes. I remember O’Raifeartaigh vividly describing us the smell of Dublin streets in the morning coming some days of the week, depending of the brewery works, and how the citizens were able to decide from it the best day to go out for a beer.
Well, I’m no new Einstein for sure, only a theoretical physicist who works and lives as a translator. But in case it can help explain the current lack of new ideas in the field, let me say that several years ago I took the challenge of trying to remove infinities from QFT (specially from QED, which is where they first appeared), as I felt pretty uncomfortable with them during my student years (not to speak of renormalization). By realizing that something was missing and by introducing minor changes into the standard QED approach, I managed to reproduce all cross section values and to compute the electron MMA at third order with about the same accuracy as the standard value (and without any need for renormalization). Once the task was completed and the paper was prepared, I realized that I had no apetite to fail or succeed to publish it, gain recognition or anything like that. Why bother to face critics and indulge into endless discussions instead of turning my efforts into another problem which I felt more appealing?
Mike Crowley said
“Or perhaps breakthrough ideas were written about in a paper decades ago but never noticed.”
There are well documented cases of breakthrough ideas ignored during decades and finally aknowledged like great. For example, Onsager Nobel Prize.
I think that situation now is poor with a order of 10^2 journals in a specific field. Nobody can read all. I suspect that really someone good idea is hidden in a non-top journal. Perhaps some great idea that permits to me solve some of unsolved problems that i am working now with few success:
Perelman had no “departmental elders” to answer to. As far as I know he was essentially working outside the academic system in Russia, supporting himself on his savings.
Wiles was tenured at Princeton, and had made his reputation based on earlier work. Someone I know who saw one of his grant applications from that period claimed that although Wiles wasn’t explicitly saying so, reading between the lines you could tell that he was trying to prove Taniyama-Shimura-Weil. He was one of relatively few people with a strong enough reputation that he could be pretty sure he could get a grant based mostly just on his reputation, without having to give away what he was up to.
I’ve always thought the funniest part of the Wiles story was that near the end of his work on this problem, he scheduled an advanced graduate course, in which he went over in great detail one of the more obscure technical parts of the proof. The only one in the audience in on why he was doing this was Nick Katz, so slowly all the other students drifted away, since the course just seemed pointless and obscure to them. The funny thing is that this was normal enough for the Princeton math department that no one noticed anything unusual was going on.
Fantastic post, Peter. I’ve always tried to read everything Smolin writes (and also Rovelli). Once I was fortunate enough to meet Smolin in person, which despite the extremely high risk of intellectual embarrassment (at the time, I was a grad student), was like bathing in neural fireworks. Smolin opened up more new intellectual horizons for me in 15 minutes than innumerable string theory discussions ever did.
Still, no “new Einstein”? When it comes to gravity, perhaps we should be asking why there is no ‘new Newton’. If Einstein and Newton are on a par as regards their understanding of a force as elusive as gravitation, we might be better off reserving optimism for the 2160’s.
Seven years of intensive hard work seems like a small price to pay for relative immortality. It’s got to be worth it. But if so, why don’t more people try to solve the big problems? Anyway, just what did Wiles and Perelman do to satisfy their departmental elders that they were doing what mathematicians ‘usually’ do whilst patiently conquering major unsolved problems? Does any one remember?
One thought that sends shivers up my spine that there may indeed be another Einstein–or several–out there who simply cannot get the attention of the scientific community. Or perhaps breakthrough ideas were written about in a paper decades ago but never noticed.
Another thought–and I could be way off base here–is that a breakthrough of some sort might come from another discipline altogether, from dynamic systems or complexity (?). The interdisciplinary approach of complexity seems to have encouraged some new ideas in other fields.
Lastly, perhaps there is a possibility for “lone wolves” who have a limitless passion for physics (and intensely want answers) but, because they do not particularly care one way or the other whether they are accepted into the community of science, and have not been indoctrinated to think in terms of what is professionally acceptable or too risky, have nothing to lose by considering unconventional theories. These would most likely have to be individuals who are not dependent upon the scientific community itself for survival. But then the problem becomes one of being heard or taken seriously.
One hope I have is that the desire to know the truth about the origin of the universe, what came before, how the universe operates and why we are here would be so strong that it would eventually override the superficial considerations that might be obstructing new and better ideas. Discovering this and other blogs has been a true revelation because I had no idea until recently that these controversies existed.
I did comments in that, see references. See data extracted from papers, science citation index and own experience of Nobel laureates, whic work was rejected many times for peer review publication.
Scott, you forget that photoelectric articles was based in some ideas already thought for others, and a few of luck for the publication.
You forget that GR was rejected by Nobel commite like “speculation without many importance”.
I agree with Arun. ArXiv and the journals just reflect the attitudes and prejudices of the clique who decide the worthwhile research topics. With a few notable exceptions the rule is that if ArXiv do not want your papers then probably no-one will want to hire you either. This is not cause and effect: it is just two sides of the same coin.
Re: arxiv, and rejection policies – I don’t think an Einstein thought, oh, there is a journal that will accept my papers, so I’ll think revolutionary thoughts. arxiv problems are a symptom of a conformist culture, not the cause of such a culture.
your forgetting the explanation of the photoelectric effect as well. One of Einstiens greatest accomplishments and the his 1905 paper he thought was most revolutionary. Einsteins claim over poincare has mainly to do with the clear new conceptual breaks in his paper and his production of the Lorentz’s math from the two postulates that physics is the same in all reference flames and the speed of light is always c.
Why no new Einstein? I did some comments about this in the past in this blog (e.g. last PITP Showcase Conference and in other sites.
Recently, Nobel laureate Laureate Brian Josephson critiqued the rejection model in ArXiv and in his web page claimed that today revolutionary ideas such as those by Einstein or Yang-Mills would be not considered for community. In the case of Einstein, he would find difficulties due to his lack of official affiliation.
Several editors, scientists (including several Nobel laureates), official science organizations, etc. are claiming in the last decade that current organization and publication system of science is the source of its clear stopping, without great advances or revolutions.
The problems are:
– Oriented research. Newer in the past the greatest achievement were obtained from rigid oriented research, specially Nobel laureated works. Nobel achievements are an elegant mixture of talent more luck.
– Archaic publication systems favoring old ideas. Usual peer review is the confrontation of your manuscript with established ideas. Referees are the guardians of standard knowledge. If your work is = establishment + small addition will be published. If your work breaks establishment at a great extension then will be rejected.
– A rigid hierarchic (military?) organization, where young promising science students are used like “brain extension” by senior tenured scientists for working in the “stupid” projects of later. It is really frustrating for a young scientist to work personally in some interesting (revolutionary) theme, comment with his chief and this say that your work is “either wrong or uninteresting” (curiously highly respected specialists in the topic say, “I like your approach” and similar after reading manuscripts). Peter did interesting comments relating high-energy physics in his legendary (physics/0102051).
There is available more information, (including information and open debate about recent “Science without denominations” Chemistry and Life 2005, 5, 6–10) in next sites:
González-Álvarez reply to “Science without denominations”
This site is “anticomunist” and say “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content:” quoting the Russian page of Shagaev and forum in the project of reformulation of publication system. For reading the content of Chemistry and Life and comments by editors and scientists, you may enter to Shagaev page from my web site or to Shagev comments from my above link
Further information is available in other forms. For example, see the conclusion of the 7-month investigation of the House of Commons Science and Technology on the validity of current system of scientific publication and the no progress of science in “(the center| for canonical science” section (pag. 7) of
Official launching letter
>What is it about the Irish and Italians that makes >them such great geometers? Catholicism?
Fantastic! Looks like I have a new email signature…
This is OT, but he’s dead and this is deserved:
Read “The Dawning of Gauge Theory” by Lochlainn O’Raifeartaigh for a real happy shot of pure physics in contrast to all this bitching.
I was gonna send him email, but unfortunately he’s dead. What is it about the Irish and Italians that makes them such great geometers? Catholicism?
No new Einsteins? What does it matter? No one listens to their elders anyway.
I was also thinking of Wiles and Perelman who are interesting evidence that it takes about 7 years to make progress on a big problem. Wiles did it after he had tenure at Princeton so could do what he wanted, Perelman by saving his money earned from several years of jobs in the states, and living cheaply in Russia.
I wasn’t thinking of Vilenkin, but rather a college friend (not Eric….) who advocated this as a way of getting intellectual work done.
Peter, you said “…A young theorist would be more likely to be able to find the necessary time if they went to work as a night-time security guard. …”.
Were you thinking of Alexander Vilenkin, about whom a February 1996 Discover Magazine article by David H. Freedman on the web at
says in part:
“… Vilenkin’s fascination with cosmology dates back to high school in the Ukraine … few professors at the university could do anything to satisfy Vilenkin’s curiosity about cosmology; his frustration grew worse when he was rejected by Soviet graduate schools. … Unable to get work as a physicist,[Vilenkin] took a job as a night watchman in a zoo and set about doing cosmology on his own. After being allowed to emigrate in 1976, he came across an advertisement for the graduate program in physics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He had better luck getting accepted in Buffalo than in the Ukraine, and he whipped through the Ph.D. program in just one year. Eventually he landed a job at Tufts …”.
In mathematics Perelman (Poincare) and Wiles (Fermat) managed to devote many years hunkered down to solve big problems in surprising and deep programs. I bet there’s hope in physics too.
I feel compelled to point out that I don’t endorse in any way the practice of using someone else’s login to gain access to a subscription-only website. If you do this you are opening both yourself and the person whose login you are using to potential legal trouble that I want no part of.
use http://www.bugmenot.com to access http://www.physicstoday.org