The Edge of Physics

Nature this week has two stories about the Perimeter Institute. There’s a long one entitled The edge of physics, which emphasizes Perimeter’s wealth and success, starting off:

Working at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics comes with certain perquisites. Whenever recruits arrive at the Toronto airport, for example, they are met by a limousine and driven west along Canada’s Route 401 into the rich farmlands of Ontario. Eighty-five kilometres later, the limousine works its way through the streets of the town of Waterloo, and lets them out in front of a sleek building of black, green and glass squares that stands next to a pond in Waterloo Park. Stepping inside, the recruits find wall-to-wall blackboards, working fireplaces, a sauna, multiple dispensers of free coffee and the Black Hole Bistro, which serves free lunches on Wednesdays.

Neil Turok is the new director, and he plans to double the full-time faculty from 12 to 25. The institute already has more theory postdocs than anywhere else in the world (44) and is aiming for a research staff of 250, including visitors. For comparison, the Princeton IAS has 5 permanent faculty in physics and about 20 postdocs. Perimeter has an endowment of 200 million Canadian dollars, a figure they hope to double.

The same issue has a review by Joao Magueijo of Howard Burton’s book about his experience as first director of Perimeter (my own review is here). Magueijo’s take on Perimeter is rather scathing, seeing it as a “sad tale”, having sold out on its original anti-establishment concept:

The institute’s aim was to “make waves, big waves”, and it got off to a promising start. Burton — a youthful outsider who had only just finished his physics PhD went about his job with maverick flair, challenging the scientific establishment, attacking its tribalism and allergy to innovation. Here was an opportunity to do things differently: to promote originality, to flatten hierarchy and empower the young researchers actively driving the field. It sounded utopian, but it was worth a try.

Unfortunately, reality failed to comply with Burton’s plan. The best days of this haven of free-thinking came while it was still a ‘theoretical’ theoretical physics institute — before the scientists arrived. The anecdotes Burton narrates in the chapter ‘The Trouble with Physicists’ ring hilariously true. But there was also a fatal flaw in Perimeter’s concept — scientists tend to define ‘originality’ as what they personally do. Soon the institute’s quest for novelty became hijacked by the agendas of the field’s usual culprits, and Burton himself came under attack from them….

Burton tried to replicate the US establishment in Canada, but he was often outbid and exploited by opportunists who used Perimeter as a trampoline to boost their US careers.

By the time Perimeter matured, five years later, the divide between the quixotic first hires and the new wave was painfully evident. The openness of the early days was replaced by Princeton-style hush-hush and invitation-only meetings. The idealists openly confessed that they wished they could find another benefactor, to “start anew and this time do it right”. Something had gone wrong: the sought utopia had become a dystopia.

Scientific originality has become big business: being anti-establishment sounds great. Yet few want to take the risks necessary to achieve it. Originality is encouraged in public pronouncements only to be punished when practical decisions are made. Perhaps Perimeter’s tale proves that there is no recipe for original science: it happens anarchically and by accident, in spite of, rather than because of, scientific institutions.

Update: Sabine Hossenfelder, who recently spent three years at PI, has her take on the Nature articles here.

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51 Responses to The Edge of Physics

  1. tom s. says:

    Speaking as someone who knows nothing about the internals or personnel at PI, how does one tell brilliant, quixotic, anti-establishment hires from flakes? I do remember that the first public talk was by Roger Penrose, whom I have always thought closer to the second.

  2. tytung says:

    1. It’s hard to distinguish anti-establishments from cranks
    2. The established people are unhappy that such anti-establishment young people can be allowed to possess such a good environment/opportunity.

  3. peter shor says:

    The “right” way to do anti-establishment science is first to get tenure by doing brilliant establishment work, and then to do your truly original, anti-establishment stuff. Otherwise, everyone will ignore you because you don’t have any credentials.

    This is easier said than done.

  4. volunteer says:

    @peter shor

    Yes, but what about grants?

  5. Peter Jackson says:

    What Perimeter really needs to be doing is not just ensuring nice jobs for scientists to persue their own agendas, but something no academic institutes do, properly check out what’s really out there.
    At present everything original gets thrown into the crackpot pit if it’s not direct from academia (and some that is!) without even a look.
    Perhaps the best unification of GR and QM we have is Einsteins comment that we dont yet “know 1,000th of 1% of what nature HAS REVEALED to us” and the Quantum tendancy for everything that CAN happen TO happen. Somewhere out there the answer lies, someone, who perhaps thinks differently, has found it, yet it’s all being ignored and consigned to the pit without a glance.
    It just needs a policy and minimal time checking over models and evidence proffered. It should be the duty of all staff to spend say an hour a day doing so!
    Perimeter has become as self serving and non-inclusive as most other institutes. This includes, yes, the Royal Society, which started with free thinkers like Sir Christopher Wren, but is now as packed with clones as anywhere else. I hope Neil Turok can get back to fundamentals, but I’m not holding my breath.

  6. bane says:

    Peter Shor’s comment may well be true in “no scutwork or lab equipment” disciplines like mathematics, theoretical physics and theoretical computer science. In other areas of research, volunteers comment about grants is highly significant.

    As a side-bar, I think it’s probably noticeably easier to find a place to be “orthogonal-establishment” (with respect to your immediate colleagues, not the whole field) rather than “anti-establishment”: if the rest of the faculty don’t really understand what you’re doing but it looks to have solid foundations then they’re generally reasonably supportive. On the other hand if your work is, however politely, suggesting what they’re doing is misguided then there’s a lot more criticism. I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s why some of the most “original” thinkers seem to be situated in strange departments in smaller places where everyone else in the department seems to work in other areas: if they were somewhere bigger or with more related faculty they’d probably face more friction.

  7. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the link.

    Tom, Tytung, Peter Shor:

    Using “anti-establishment” as a criterion to select promising scientists it a completely misguided attempt. It is not only easy to fake, it isn’t any scientific criterion whatsoever. It just sometimes happens to be a beneficial attitude for those scientists who chose to take the path less traveled, mostly out of a sense of self-protection. After all, they are smart people who know they are making their life unnecessarily complicated, so there’s a tendency to rationalize that with an anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment, anti-something philosophy. That however is neither a necessary nor a sufficient ingredient to find people who have the qualification and courage to work on what the NSF calls “transformative” research (and what others like to call risky research).

    There is a very nice song by a German group called “Rebell” (rebel), the chorus being “I am against it, no matter what it is.” Unfortunately, this is an equally dumb attitude as brainlessly swimming with the stream.

    There are a whole bunch of other criteria that I have found frequently being thrown around, and that are nothing but secondary criteria that are to some extend correlated with what one is actually looking for, yet shouldn’t be confused with it. You can count to that “independence” which is easily confused with being unable to work with collaborators, and “broadness,” a frequent change of topics, which for some people happens because they jump on any boat that crosses their path.

    Bottomline is, there is no way to summarize the necessary characteristics for a scientist likely to cause a great breakthrough with a couple of adjectives.



  8. steph handel says:

    is garret lisi perhaps the only successful “anti-establishment” physicist who has been affiliated with PI?

  9. Steve Satak says:

    I believe it was CS Lewis who wrote, in a passage I cannot now find, that the more original a person tried to be, the less likely he was to achieve his goal. The truly original, if you ask them, are found to have been focusing on the task at hand, *not* being ‘original’.

  10. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Steph,

    “Is garret lisi perhaps the only successful “anti-establishment” physicist who has been affiliated with PI? ”

    I don’t know if the term “anti-establishment” is the right word , rather than unorthodox or ones not following the current trend. If taken as the latter Lee Smolin could be seen as such a person or Lucien Hardy, both of which are not simply associated with Perimeter, yet are actually faculty. If you want a more poignant example it would be someone like Antony Valentini ,who after completing his doctorate spent many years in the wilderness outside of mainstream academia. I believe it was Lee Smolin who was instrumental in having him come to Perimeter as a visitor, which turned out to a visit of a few years. After this he struck out on his own again and received some funding from a a source that is designed to lend such people assistance. One should also be mindful that Einstein spent a few years working in a patent office until his papers of 1905 changed his destiny and with it the course of physics.



  11. Bee says:

    Last time I looked, Garrett wasn’t affiliated with PI.

  12. I suspect that Magueijo is right. PI is going totally mainstream. PI’s mission now seems more focused on accruing prestige than than supporting self-directed individuals who are unaccommodated by existing research programs.

    Speaking of G. Lisi, does anybody know what ever became of his idea to establish “Science Hostels” ?

  13. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve just deleted several content-free comments about Garrett Lisi, both anonymous attacks or claims for his genius. If you have something interesting to contribute about Perimeter, please do so. If you have a stupid comment about Garrett, find someplace else…

  14. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Erik,

    I suspect that Magueijo is right. PI is going totally mainstream.

    When Howard Burton’s contract as director of Perimeter wasn’t renewed, I would say it marked a point in its evolution and not so much indicative of a change in direction. Burton acted mainly as an instrument of Mike Lazadisis’ vision and I would say he did a commendable job a far as the initial stages where concerned.

    Likewise, I see Turok representing simply the one chosen to shape Perimeter through the next phase of its development. Its current expansion demonstrates the continued commitment to the vision and yes the growing pains will continue. I would ask you to be more specific, as to name names of who you would recruit as faculty and those as post docs. I find Magueijo’s comments not much more than sour grapes and find him to hold no less of an elitist attitude than those he criticizes. I don’t mean this so much as a criticism of him, yet more to acknowledge that as demonstrated by many sharp minded, free thinkers, comes a feeling that one’s direction being the only correct one.

    One could say that the vision of what Perimeter represents to be is the product of one man and that being Mike Lazardisis, which continues to be the case. The thing that Lazardisis’ vision is focused around is expressed in what he conveyed to Burton when he hired him; that being he believes the world is on the verge of something groundbreaking and earth shaking and he would like to help expedite its fruition. Mike is a man of action and not one of analyzing methodology, past knowing that in any endeavour or enterprise of scale one is required to have a clear vision, which must be shared by those who are to bring it about.

    Thus I argue that the main tension we are feeling here is that since Mike is not one of those who will actually have it come to be, he should have no part other than to be the banker. I would counter this opinion with asking if Neil Armstrong would have stepped on the moon as early as 1969 without having the force of vision and will supplied by John F. Kennedy. One thing I can assure is if Mike contunues and is allowed to play his role PI will become the place and accomplish the things he has imagined. This dynamic will assure it, as the normal model of academia has seldom been able to manage, for it places goals above the people who serve achieve them and not the other way around.



  15. Phil,

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. It just so happens that last March I did send a letter of recommendation in support of an applicant for a PI faculty position. Suffice to say that the limousine was not summoned. You may now wonder if I too have a sour-grapes complex, but that’s not where I’m coming from.

    I agree with the notion that we are long overdue for groundbreaking innovations in theoretical physics, but I don’t believe that the endeavor can be properly compared to the Apollo program. Cultivating innovation has little in common with a massively blueprinted engineering project. Nor is lavish spending required. Frugality, on the same budget, would go so much further.

    You have a nice selection of favorite books listened on your webpage. May I recommend to you Norbert Wiener’s classic “Invention: The Care and Feeding of Ideas” (a manuscript from the 1950’s published in 1993)? The culture of ‘Megabuck Science’ was coined by Wiener to describe pathological tendencies of industrial science. Woit’s and Smolin’s most recent books have convinced me that parallel tendencies have spilled over into the theoretical sciences as well.

    Kind Regards,

  16. Kea says:

    Just a warm bed, a desk and enough food to eat. Is that too much to ask?

  17. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Erik.

    First let me thank you for your considered response. Thanks also for the books you recommend and I will surely have a look. I would most certainly agree with you that one can’t directly compare the race to the moon with fundamental research, for as you remind the former being more the development of technology, rather the new science; although there was some of that as a result.

    No what I meant mostly is that Lazardisis is the one who holds the vision and the will to maintain it, which I find is something common to both. The other thing I believe they share, is each has to reach some critical mass before they begin to show promise. This current expansion has more to do with growing the scope of the specialties, rather than expanding the numbers in of each discipline and I find that to be a good thing.

    To be honest, I find if anything has changed, not for the better, is the public outreach component of PI’s vision ,of which I’ve been a grateful benefactor almost since it’s beginnings. From my own observations it has shifted under from the direction of Burton , who emphasised the humanizing of scientists and along with it there science, to mainly being a PR imitative to promote and guarantee funding. I find this to be a mistake for I believe that science’s success is ultimately best achieved when a greater sector of the populous not only see it as a methodology for expanding our knowledge, but also as one for guiding us through every day life’s decisions. I’m thus reminded in this regard when Carl Sagan warned “It is suicide for a society that depends on science and technology to know nothing about science and technology.” . This I also find to be a important part of the mission to realize PI’s vision, for which I think Burton had the better feel.



  18. Chris W. says:

    Lest his last name be confused with an obscure medical disorder, here is the correct spelling of Mike’s name:

    — Mihalis “Mike” Lazaridis

  19. Thaler says:

    Just a warm bed, a desk and enough food to eat. Is that too much to ask?

    If that’s all you need, there are plenty of places offering it. But I suspect that you, and most people, want much more than just that.

    Most people want their warm bed, desk and food to be placed in Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton, Stanford or CERN. And that’s a completely different business.

  20. Hi again, Phil

    each has to reach some critical mass before they begin to show promise.

    Doubtful in the latter case. Which massive programs of support produced Kepler, Newton, or Einstein?

    Genius springs forth at the level of the individual — not collectives. So if philanthropy can be massive, then it ought to be massively parallel, widening the diversity of individual pursuits. This mode of support, I would think, would best enhance the prospects of genuine discoveries.

    But as a rule, money goes where money is. If Lazaridis wishes to make PI into another Princeton, then the redundancy he thereby creates does not advance the cause.

    – E

  21. Kea says:

    If that’s all you need, there are plenty of places offering it.

    Oh, yeah? WHERE?

  22. Andy says:


    only cranks cannot tell non-establishment scientists from cranks.

  23. Jarmo Makela says:

    Steve Satak,

    I think that the quotation from C. S. Lewis you are referring to, is this:

    “Even in art and literature, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C. S. Lewis: “Mere Christianity” p. 190 (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1960))

  24. Kea,

    Perhaps Thaler was making an oblique reference to homeless shelters. 😉

    Lisi’s ‘Science Hostel’ concept sounded more promising.

    At any rate, I agree with the spirit of your previous post. Dedicated researchers do not have a dire need for limousines, glass facades, saunas, fireplaces, etc. But I would add one item to your list of essentials: good Internet connectivity.


    – E

  25. Chris Oakley says:


    I disagree. Poor internet connectivity is far better. Then one might get some work done rather than pointlessly leaving comments on Science Blogs. Oh … but it looks as though … never mind … too late now (my own theoretical phys research is pretty much on ice anyway).

    I agree with C S Lewis about originality. Seeking out “original” researchers is only likely to turn up cranks. Equally, looking for the “big ideas” is also, IMHO, doomed to failure. Bear in mind that the non-universality of time and space was only generally accepted decades after Lorentz wrote down his transformations. And Heisenberg tried very hard to avoid non-commuting operators before finally acquiescing to matrix mechanics. No: I think that one should only take the “big” idea on when one is certain that nothing else will do.

  26. Thaler says:

    Oh, yeah? WHERE?

    Peripheral places. Maybe Northern Ireland, or Bosnia, but those are still Europe. Provincial universities in Latin America or Southeast Asia (Colombia, Peru, Philippines, …) I have no idea about Middle East or Africa.

    Many, if not most, of those places don’t advertise positions in Physics Today but some of them are willing to hire. You might try going to a conference in the region and finding out what’s available.

    The break is over, I’ll submerge now…

  27. weichi says:

    Isn’t all this talk about how to organize research groups pretty much beside the point? Theoreticians at Perimeter face the same problem faced by theoreticians elsewhere: history has demonstrated that unless your name is is Albert Einstein and you are working on a relativistic theory of non-quantum gravity, you aren’t going to make any important theoretical breakthroughs in the absence of new experimental results.

  28. Kea says:


    Thanks!! I do look for these jobs, all the time, but they are not advertised. I might just find some conferences in peru or south east asia to go to! Of course, travel costs will be tricky to arrange … but maybe I will manage.

  29. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Erik,

    Which massive programs of support produced Kepler, Newton, or Einstein?

    Not so much programs, rather technology, which in this case came with the advent of the printing press. And yes I would agree that breakthroughs are often exclaimated by what happens to present as being a few individuals. However, this hypothesis quickly starts to show cracks if you try to say that those you mentioned could have done it alone, that is without the accumulation of the thoughts and ideas of others. I personally believe we have reached a juncture where the problems we are presented with will only be solved by the collaboration of many minds, along with their ideas and not be attributable to those of any one individual. One could argue that Quantum Mechanics and its extensions marked the juncture where this became first to be evident.

    As for Perimeter simply representing being redundant, as such places having already been realized, I would point out it expands the overall numbers able to remain dedicated to fundamental research, instead of them being forced to find employment in things for which they haven’t been specifically trained for or more importantly what they enjoy. I also find it funny that many envision Perimeter somehow as being the Ritz hotel of research centres, for although it has excellent resources and perhaps a few niceties, it does provide what the average person would call a lavish existence. I can see many here have expressed the opinion that without some pain there can be no gain, with which I might agree if you were talking about athletes rather than scientists.



  30. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Erik,

    ” for although it has excellent resources and perhaps a few niceties, it does provide what the average person would call a lavish existence. ” </i?"

    Sorry that should have read:

    ” for although it has excellent resources and perhaps a few niceties, it doesn’t provide what the average person would call a lavish existence. ” </i?"

    This is one reason I prefer blogger over wordpress, as I could have simply erased the whole thing. Thus I find technology can make a difference:-)



  31. Mark Stuckey says:

    If PI is simply trying to serve as a launch site for young theorists (nothing wrong with that, but it is a duplication of effort), the theorists will have to work in established areas to guarantee success when they return to the “heat bath.” You shouldn’t really expect these researchers to find a new paradigm under those circumstances. If PI rather wants to facilitate the development of a new paradigm in physics (whatever that might be), they can drill or refine. Right now PI is drilling. Rockefeller made his fortune refining (oil in his case), letting others take the risk of drilling. PI could rather serve as a refinery, which would be something new in the community and it would have a higher probability of contributing to whatever becomes the next paradigm in physics.

  32. Marcus says:

    *and it would have a higher probability of contributing to whatever becomes the next paradigm in physics.*

    will there be a next paradigm if nobody drills?
    It sounds reasonable that one design a strategy to be more certain of having contributed, after one recognizes what the next paradigm was, after the fact. I’m skeptical though. Sounds like playing for credits rather than what Robert Frost was talking about—“for heaven and the future’s sakes”.

  33. Phil,

    this hypothesis quickly starts to show cracks if you try to say that those you mentioned could have done it alone, that is without the accumulation of the thoughts and ideas of others.

    But that’s not what I tried to say. The pertinent moral is that none of these gentlemen made their mark as a result of some massively collaborative research program. They unquestionably had good access to previous knowledge (unfairly delayed in Kepler’s case), but were otherwise working on their own.


    “will there be a next paradigm if nobody drills?”

    Well put. Individual ‘explorers’ do still exist, though no practical incentives exist to be one. The risk they assume is total. Institutions, however, are risk-averse. Hence the disconnect which Magueijo describes.

    The next paradigm is inevitably coming. But it will surely be brought about by a risk-taker — not by practical “men of action.”


  34. Haelfix says:

    PI is a worldclass facility. Most everything there is modern and schick and it probably costs a nice penny for the administrators and Canada.

    Unfortunately the truth is that in science, going down establishment roads typically yields far more steady, consistent results and revenues than 200 wild idea people, where 1 person of the lot has a legitamate breakthrough every ten years or so.

    Particularly so in fundamental theory, where there is no lucrative patent at the end of the process that could recoup the massive losses.

    They made the correct decision by bringing in Turok and a few establishment people to balance things out. Of course this will irratate some, but its really the only way for the place to make economic (not necessarily scientific) sense in the long run

  35. weichi says:

    In the driller/refiner metaphor, aren’t the drillers represented by experimentalists, and the theorists in general are the refiners? So that the risk-taking you want to encourage is by *experimentalists* at least as much as it is by theorists?

    Of course, funding experimentalists is a lot more expensive than theorists (especially the high-energy kind), and their duds are a lot more obvious …

  36. No, the role of experiment in this metaphor is to test whether a new well has produced real oil or snake oil. 😉

  37. Phil Warnell says:

    Hi Erik,

    My point being that we have entered a stage where collaboration has to be increased, both within and between the disciplines, with PI marking an effort where this is being attempted as a methodology. I would say it might also help if they expanded their faculty to include foundational mathematics and scientific philosophy. The trick of course is how to have these people interact positively or better yet even want to. This is the challenge that lays at the heart of the success or failure of it all, that is as far as I’m concerned.



  38. J.F. Moore says:

    “The best days of this haven of free-thinking came while it was still a ‘theoretical’ theoretical physics institute — before the scientists arrived.”

    This seems to me a really strange statement. Is there a missing word I wonder, or are there actually theoretical physicists who don’t consider themselves scientists?

  39. Peter Woit says:

    J.F. Moore,

    I think the author meant that the best days were when it was just a concept, before theorists were hired and it became a reality…

  40. Phil,

    Put that way, I think your point is an excellent one. The need for an interdisciplinary outlook today is acute. Meanwhile, the breadth and sheer bulk of today’s knowledge is such that one wonders if a single individual can ever acquire enough of it.

    To solve the trick of making it possible for people to productively share knowledge, I suggest that this mode of collaboration must have organic roots — i.e., spontaneously grown from the bottom-up — not orchestrated from the top-down. It’s a matter of which people want to associate with whom in the first place, and then: can they all be brought together. It’s not a matter of hiring top-experts in various fields and hoping for the best. Indeed, the kind of experts needed must include those who are deeply dissatisfied with their own respective fields — which is to say: unrecognized experts.


    – E

  41. Just to mention that Neil Turok has, of course, been the driving force behind the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), which he essentially founded six years ago. AIMS is situated just outside Cape Town in South Africa and basically offers a nine-month postgraduate training programme for students from all over the African continent in the math sciences (that includes physics!). Nowadays there are also opportunities for postdoctoral researchers. It’s been a big success, so kudos to Neil Turok. Off hand, if anyone is interested in coming to sunny Cape Town (world cup next year!) and delivering a three week postgrad lecture course, or simply spend some research time at the institute, visit the website.

  42. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Bruce,

    I was thinking of trying to get some mention of Turok’s role in AIMS into the posting but didn’t quite get around to it. Thanks for mentioning it here, AIMS seems to be a remarkable institution that deserves more attention and support.

  43. Andy says:

    Interesting and important institution, the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), and certainly ambitious—I quote from their job opening “Director: AIMS Next Einstein Initiative”:

    “By developing scientific talent in Africa, AIMS-NEI aims to discover people of rare creative genius, capable of revolutionary advances in various fields of human endeavour. By adding entrepreneurship and leadership skills to the existing AIMS curriculum, AIMS-NEI aims to catalyse the creation of spin-off companies and thereby to help generate wealth creation. As well as the Next Einstein, we hope to discover the Next Gates, Brin and Page in Africa.”

  44. Chris W. says:

    The next paradigm is inevitably coming. But it will surely be brought about by a risk-taker — not by practical “men of action.” (Marcus)

    Very often, practical “men of action” seem to regard themselves as the real risk-takers, and regard the supposed theoretical paradigm-creators as impractical dreamers who can’t function in the “real world” — right? That certainly seems to be true in the corporate world, which academic institutions increasingly resemble.

    Here is a question: Why wasn’t Albert Einstein dismissed as a crank, albeit an unusually talented and articulate crank? It seems that some of his eminent elders had to be willing to go out on a limb for his work to be published and acknowledged. His confidence and perhaps his sanity could have been crushed simply by being ignored for a couple of decades.

  45. Here is a question: Why wasn’t Albert Einstein dismissed as a crank, albeit an unusually talented and articulate crank?

    Because… Einstein’s ideas did not threaten anyone else’s entire career? Even as late as 1929, Michelson was still hunting ether with an even larger interferometer.

  46. Marcus says:

    Chris W.
    You have a quote there about “the next paradigm” which is actually not from me but from Erik
    which is perfectly all right with me. Hardly worth mentioning, unless Erik objects.

    I like the point you made which was essentially about the seriousness and honor of Einstein’s community elders—the scientific ethos that prevailed at the time.

    I have no way of measuring to what extent, if any, our scientific culture is different from those German Victorians of the class of 1890-1910.

    But you are telling me that some cultural intangibles helped to motivate Einstein and get him recognized. He expected that the scientific world would “play fair” and take an objective look, even if he contradicted received wisdom.
    And he was right. The physics community of the time did play fair. It recognized that he had done something important and it rewarded him.
    This is probably worth a lot, even compared with having lots of fellowships to support unconventional research.

    Giving an outsider recognition *at the possible cost of one’s own prestige or one’s friends’ prestige* being open-eyed to recognize the possible merit of an alien idea, is an act of seriousness. In our culture it may be that keeping one’s own prestige, funding, and public image intact is more important than that kind of integrity. The “we’re the only game in town” mentality, where anything positive said about a rival approach is met with hostile rebuke.

    Should be possible to measure these differences in scientific culture by some objective means, and compare different historical eras. I wouldn’t know how or if it has been done. But your second paragraph was pertinent. Thanks

  47. Chris Oakley says:

    Read Einstein’s Mistakes for a warts-and-all account of the great man and the environment in which he (eventually) prospered. He did not actually get particularly good grades but his relentless energy and curiosity won the professors over. This is something that could not happen now as the technical bar is so much higher. Creative students with less than excellent grades now would be weeded out very early on. This is probably inevitable, but I am sure that something is lost in the process.

  48. A.J. says:

    The next paradigm is inevitably coming. But it will surely be brought about by a risk-taker — not by practical “men of action.” (Marcus)

    It’s not clear to me that people fall clearly into one category or the other. Planck and Schrodinger, for example, both had long histories of “establishment” work before they found themselves with the opportunity to do something extraordinary.

  49. I am enjoying the ongoing momentum of this discussion (no big deal that a snippet of what I wrote keeps being attributed to Marcus).

    To A.J.,

    Ironically, the importance of Planck’ 1900 discovery was not initially recognized by Planck himself. He presented it as a curious phenomenon — not as an epoch-defining discovery. Planck’s demeanor was thoroughly unassuming. He did not even believe in the atomic hypothesis until very late in his life.

    Who are the risk takers? The risk takers are those theorists who, in the course of their research, make definite predictions which can be incontrovertibly arbitrated by future experiment. The risk is, of course, that experiment can rule against them.

    Those who are not risk takers are those theorists who immunize themselves from any such liability. Their theories are sprinkled with enough free parameters to weasel out of any experimental result. These folks are not in the business of sticking their necks out; they are in the business of covering their asses.

  50. Peter Woit says:

    Erik and others,

    Please, this discussion has gotten too far from any significant connection to the topic of this posting, the Perimeter Institute.

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