Lately, we are witnessing a strange state of affairs in modern physics where hope has given place to a state of unrest. A shiver of weirdness seems to have crept under some famous physicist’s pillows giving them bad dreams. Like Joesph Conrad’s character of Kurtz trapped in the Heart of Darkness they have been heard whispering “Oh, The Unnaturalness, The Unnaturalness!”
Perhaps it is most discouraging that this situation occurred immediately after success with one of the most expensive experiments in the history of physics – the search for and discovery of the Higgs Boson at the LHC. Yet, this success brought with it the more mundane absence of what many physicists hoped to find!
In sum, the whole business has perhaps turned out to be similar to the case of old gold-miners who expected to find a whole cave filled with gold and what they got instead was just a handful of shiny flakes of metal from a nearby river.
The physicist’s gold was the widespread expectation of evidence for Supersymmetry also nicknamed SUSY. There were several reasons for high expectations that SUSY might be real. Key were the speculations by various theoreticians on how to address important cosmological problems such as the origin of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Another reason is the many “God given” parameters of the present Standard Model and their fine tuning, otherwise known as the problem of Naturalness.
Sadly, the fountain of new supersymmetric particles have not turned up in the LHC experiments. Subsequently, several more blows were dealt to the SUSY idea up to the point that any attempt to resuscitate it now appears rather hopeless. Part of the story is summarized in this blog as well as in a recent high precision measurement of the electron dipole moment.
Of course, future experiments may turn out unexpected result only that our poor gold miners may now need accelerators of the order of the solar system to perform them!
Be it as it may, one certainly feels a bit of a melancholy in the atmosphere for all the studies, doctoral theses and career hopes invested in SUSY. One finds it appropriate to say a most poetic farewell to the extinct SUSYsaurus utilizing the verses of Ozymandias, the 19th century poem by Shelley
“And on the pedestal these words appear: My name is SUSYmandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
One of the key reasons why I abandoned Academic Physics was the extraordinarily narrow-minded approach of the mainstream to scientific thinking. It was not always so, and certainly it did not feel that way in high school. However, once I got into the post-doctoral game it became clear that the operating ethos was political.
People did not appear to be responding to research results with dispassionate scientific interest. Rather the game had taken on some typical aspects of political economy. Pay attention to the existing structures of power, work out where the dominant economic interest lay and then dutifully do or say anything to support that clique.
This is not a bad way to live and probably quite sensible to build a career and to feed a family. However, it does not seem much like the Scientific Attitude which attracted me to study science as a child. Quite the opposite, it felt exactly like the religious environment of faith that I grew up with as a child. I had rejected Religion at the age of three, and did not want a physics career badly enough to concede defeat at thirty three.
So you proved mathematically that the Copenhagen Interpretation was incomplete? Who cares? We will still think that way because otherwise String Theory would not make any physical sense. We would prefer not to listen and will simply ignore you.
Did we ever get any evidence for String Theory? No! Who cares? You can get public funding to do String Theory so it must be right. In short, the game has become an economically driven contest for survival and not knowledge.
That is okay by the way. It simply means that Academic Science will cease to advance. It becomes a turgid backwater not unlike the Priesthood in Medieval times. In those days, the Monastery was a great storehouse of learning, but it did not really advance knowledge. It simply perpetuated the established and inherited views of classical Greece. The authority of Aristotle dominated and could not be challenged.
I am sure that the Medieval Scriptorium probably had a career structure with something like an H-index. The more you copied, the higher your reputation!
For some odd reason, which I do not comprehend, Western Society seems to have stepped backwards towards this old kind of close-minded perpetuation of established truths and verities. They even had a name for it. When you did an experiment and got exactly what you expected they called it a: Brilliant Confirmation!.
This situation is very odd. Indeed, the contemporary scientific literature is positively bulging with speculative innovations that purport to be new. However, what seems to unite this innovation thrust in physics is an unspoken agreement not to ever try and place any new idea in its proper historical context. Further, the Golden Rule of New Stuff is: don’t be stupid enough to make it testable.
It is okay to plant 10^1000 Angels on sundry pins in 10^500 Universes! However, thou shalt not explore anything testable which contradicts the Copenhagen Canon!
For instance, you find many thinking physicists today happily espousing the Everett theory of Many-Worlds. However, they generally fail to acknowledge that: 1) this is considerably less economical as a theory than the realist view of Erwin Schrödinger; 2) is not testable with any new predictions; and 3) is not robust to any failure of the super-position principle. Put simply: folks are inherently signing up to a world view (a Cosmographia) of positively Byzantine complexity which is:
1) at odds with direct experience (so must be sold as received wisdom)
2) not robust to changing a single assumption (such as relaxing quantum linearity)
3) computationally useless (provides no point of difference or expanded scope)
4) untestable for deviations (makes a real nice Faith but not a good Science)
This type of situation seems symptomatic of our time.
In the unrelenting thirst for Novelty at All Costs we seem to have forgotten the roots of science. As an antidote to this Scientific Rot I composed my own Cosmographical Glass. This diagram is my attempt to sum up the Conundrum of Modern Physics.
In this picture, I display a tree with a forked trunk. On one side, the views handed us by Bohr. On the other side, the views handed us by Schrödinger.
The tree metaphor simply records that knowledge builds upon itself. It accretes over time, but must build on solid roots and a firm foundation. However, any student of history should know that the path of history is crooked. The tree is forked because Physics took a turn at the 1927 Solvay conference to socially endorse one true path (that of Bohr). As a result, interest in alternatives fell away and is now treated as a philosophical pursuit.
At one time we believe one thing; at another our view takes a turn on some nuance. The journalistic view of modern times is quite false in its assessments. We are supposed to believe that only the last three minutes matters and that all which came before is usurped in a day. Of course that is nonsense.
In the above diagram, I clearly display a real dichotomy of thought from the last one hundred years. The dichotomy stems from two separate (and ancient) contending views of Nature. Each was present in the Ancient times of Greece. On one view, Nature is discrete and composed of separated and separable pieces, particles, lumps… whatever. In the other view, Nature is continuous and composed of one holistic unity, wave, fluid… whatever. These two views contend today, as they have for 2000 years.
The scientific training of our time is exceedingly poor in that it fails to even acknowledge that such a story can be legitimately told about our understanding of quantum nature. Far worse, the collective progress of the last 87 years since the original papers of Schrödinger seems to be passively ignored, if not actively suppressed.
It is a situation akin to that wonderful poem by Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken. The mainstream has gone one way (Bohr), and I the other (Schrödinger).
Personally, I do not think this state of affairs is malicious. I simply think that humanity went through a major psychological disruption during the last century (World Wars, Atomic Weapons, Biological Weapons etc). This is now coming to a head with the present mass denial of Climate Change Science. It is (as if) the human race considers this moment to be always and perpetually disconnected and special, as though it has no real historical context. Hey, it is all Going up in Smoke so Who the Hell Cares?
Of course, this is a false viewpoint. Every social trend that happens today has occurred before: widespread fraud; banking crises; public distrust of leaders; the disconnect of plutocracy beside poverty; high learning and low conceit. There is nothing new under the sun. The forces of change forever contend with the forces of denial.
A little over a year ago, I dusted off some old scientific work to resurrect a few ideas in blog form. Now, through the power of the internet, I have discovered a community of like minds and a vast repository of search accessible historical literature. This is fantastic for the development of human knowledge.
While the Academy may struggle with the issues of the Medieval Monastery we have Freemen Now! The feudal days of Paying Obeisance to some Liege for Tenure are over forever. The world of Privateer Science is now alive and active with potentially enormous trans-formative economic power.
In the Cosmographic frame, let me fill in the above picture with one closing remark.
The left hand side of the tree is Copenhagen Physics.
The right hand side of the tree is Mongol Physics.
What is Mongol Physics? It is the systematic exploration and development of the un-named, un-explored, un-acknowledged Other Physics that Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and others refused to explore. It is what Schrödinger, Einstein, de Broglie, Barut and others thought feasible. It is a continuum field theory based upon a realist interpretation.
It is the knowledge that the Academy refuses to collate, develop, classify and codify.
I continue to be enthused by the efforts of D-Wave Systems from Burnaby, Canada:
The Quantum Computing Company That Could
These intrepid folks have overcome the most extreme and vitriolic attacks from other members of the physics community. Rather than welcome the new approach signified by quantum annealing and adiabatic computing, the Academic Physics community issued a constant stream of negative commentary, ridicule and invective.
In their minds, the idea was pure poison, an idea to be opposed because it undermined their faith that a quantum computer should look like a classical computer! It must use gates and support the belief in quantum parallelism. Any other ideas about what constitutes computation were Verboten!
To anybody, like me, who researched quantum computing in the early days (for me starting in 1986) who was familiar with other approaches, this extreme fixity of mind always seemed as foolish as it was ignorant. Unknown, to quantum computing zealots, von Neumann himself had rejected the model of computation embodied in the von Neumann architecture. He did not think gates, or circuits based on switches, were anything but an interim idea. Physical computing is engineering, it requires creativity.
Not so for the Zealots! They had imbibed Feynman and they knew that gate based computing was the way to do things properly. Such certainty must be Bliss!
It is Bliss until it becomes a Living Hell.
Now we are at the very early stages of One Giant Backlash.
Perhaps the most manful of the early detractors to step up is Seth Lloyd. A researcher of significant accomplishment in quantum computing theory, Lloyd was recently quoted in a BBC story on the D-Wave-NASA-Google tie up as saying:
“I was probably wrong, and [Lockheed and D-Wave] were probably right”
This is in reference to his opinion that the device would not work, in spite of his own early involvement in the theoretical development of adiabatic quantum computing.
It is to be hoped that other scientists have the decency and honesty of Seth Lloyd.
The last two decades in quantum computing and quantum information sciences research have been ones of stupendous Lost Opportunity.
Very early in the development of the subject, somewhere around 1990, there was an unwarranted “closing of the mind”. We saw a select few approaches, a few among many, anointed as conventional wisdom. These select few ideas then garnered all the attention and funding dollars. The result has been an unmitigated disaster of scientific puffery of the worst kind. It has been a dreadful period of unscientific misadventure.
Thankfully, one very committed group of researchers and their investors have now shattered that world for good. Creativity is now unbound and possible.
I had gotten heartily fed up with the claims made by a few defending their “superior” knowledge and insight to distort the scientific landscape of what is “known” and what is considered “fact” and what is held as “viable” for research purposes.
This has led to a greatly distorted and warped research agenda which is overly narrow and has proven to be spectacularly unsuccessful as compared with the committed program of exploration pursued by Geordie Rose and his team at D-Wave.
Hat’s off to D-Wave!
They may well end this suffocating Dark Age which has so restricted scientific progress over the last twenty years. There is so much more that can be done in taking physics to the next level of scientific inquiry.
If we are to take those giant leaps forward we must end the Zealotry and Academic Feather-Bedding which has so bedeviled research in quantum measurement, quantum information, quantum computing and quantum cryptography.
We need a return to principles of honest scientific discourse. A properly engaged dialogue that is not caught up in the endless perpetuation of whatever dogmatic viewpoint serves the self-interest of so-called leaders in the field.
There are real advances to made in quantum theory.
Hell, in the field of self-field electrodynamics we already have a candidate new theory of quantum fields! In the work of Barut and others, you have an actual live body of referred work going back twenty-five years, which lays out a cogent and very credible basis for a new version of QED that is non-perturbative.
Why has nobody heard of this? Why are funding dollars not committed to figuring out experimental signatures of that theory and its fuller development?
I think I know why… it is the same reason D-Wave attracted such opprobrium. Those reckless Canadians at D-Wave dared to back the Dark Horse and it came home.
They were punished mercilessly for breaking ranks and trying something original!
Elsewhere, you now have a bunch of overweight, overfed and inbred Nags to put down.
It is the same in many fields of Academic physics. Money goes to whomever can form the greatest and most vocal Mystery Cult. It is not science anymore to back crap when there are better avenues available, however unpopular they may have been.
Those are the actions of a self-perpetuating Priesthood, not a community of minds who are committed to find the truth. Once you allow such attitudes to take root, as they have done, then you are left with a stupid H-Index Fueled Fund Feast:
Who can garner the most Funding Heat for the least amount of Scientific Light.
The contemporary patterns of behavior are insane!
I am hopeful that the D-Wave affair, once the true scale of it becomes public, will at least shame a few of the worst perpetrators to clean up their own scientific act.
It has been a shambles for two decades and the time for real change is now upon us.
I have my own wee challenge to get on with. When that is done, I think we can put a whole stable full of Old Nags down and fire up the glue factory.
The book seems to have received the same attention as his talks.
I find this perplexing.
How can people claim that it is legitimate to run around claiming all kinds of grand insights into speculative physics such as String Theory and then Pooh Pooh every considered effort to understand the: Goddam Theory We Already Got?
In my opinion, Mead is spot on in his critique. Laser sharp and right on target.
You may think his solution poor, but he goddam tried.
All the Big Egos are off very safely speculating on things that will never be examined.
The solution, I feel, is obvious.
Let Engineering Inherit the Earth.
Physics is One Lame Mule.
Put it down now. We could take the theory we got and just work hard at simplifying it.
I can see massive opportunity to do this already, and society is alive to understand Quantum Mechanics. For some bizarre reason, the public want to understand it.
Not the Teleportation Bullshit…
I mean understand how the world actually works without the Holy Wow Shit.
People want “To Get It!” They are hungry for actual real live working understanding.
So: Stop Bullshitting Folks! Stop pretending that blowing Opaque Colored Smoke out of Every High Priest Orifice counts for understanding. It Counts for Nothing.
It is a Ruffle Collar and a Purple Robe and Bunch Of Cryptic Latin Verse.
Right now, I see zero evidence of that among the carefully groomed Egos of Big Shots.
I see an endless: Fan the Flames of Confusion Ego Trip.
A droning dull as dog crap incantation: This stuff is so weird you will never ever get it.
Bullshit! That is why I am not a Physicist anymore.
We have a skein of geese, a coffle of asses, a parliament of baboons and a bellowing of bullfinches. With this many Naked Emperors one must have the proper word…
Enter an obvious Thought Experiment.
Suppose we were to place a number of Naked Emperors in a darkened room behind one-way glass. What would happen?
A whole bunch of Naked Cavorting in the Dark, I would guess.
That whole pirouetting Naked Emperor thing!
There is an old Danish proverb which speaks to this situation:
Necessity teaches the naked woman to spin.
Naked Emperors are no different, only the rate of spin is much higher. Indeed, in a sufficiently dense medium – such as Physical Review Letters – we can often witness Naked Emperors spinning much faster than the phase velocity of light in such a medium. The result is the brilliant blue light known as Eminence Radiation.
This is positively blinding to the General Public. Hence our collective noun:
A Blinding of Naked Emperors.
Your most Scintillating Spinning Eminence… I am Blind before your Nakedness.
I grew up in a religious family but am not myself a believer. This upbringing shaped my attitudes to life, belief, certainty and respect for contrary views. When members of your family harbor beliefs that you do not share then it is necessary to come to some accommodation. You cannot simply discount matters of the human spirit.
In my view, that which moves the human spirit is ultimately some form of faith. It may be faith in an External God, for the Spiritually Minded. It may be faith in the Scientific Method, for those who believe in a Rational World. Or, something else entirely.
In my case, I developed Faith in Creativity. To me the God was innate in the ability of us all to create. We may not be able to create in the Biblical sense, but we sure can be creative in our lives, thoughts, actions and artifacts. This idea has proven to be a meaningful motor for my spirit. It gets me out of bed each morning.
However, many other Scientists seem contemptuous towards matters of faith. There grew up in the 1990s a form of Scientific Triumphalism which irritates me immensely. On the one hand, you had scientists lambasting faith-based religion as lacking any sound basis. However, they then trumpeted ideas such as The Theory of Everything, Many Worlds, Parallel Universes and a host of other bits and pieces of histrionic nonsense. None of these had evidence to support them – pure mind fluff.
All of this happened in the context of a quantum theory which has never once seemed self-consistent. It makes no direct statement of how the objects of the theory relate to observable reality. It is based on a panoply of rules without coherent foundation and a set of recipes for throwing away any results that should prove embarrassing.
Infinite predictions? Don’t worry, just settle on a cut-off and re-normalize away.
Infinite zero-point energy? Don’t worry, just ignore it.
Paradoxes of measurement and self-reference? Don’t worry, just kick the cat.
It is not bad to be pragmatic. It is sensible to press on and see what can be done in face of these difficulties. However, there also seems to be a stark double standard.
On the one hand, Scientists lambast faith as an arcane and primitive deficiency of the intellect. They trumpet rationalism in place of this and then laud Science as its most perfect exemplar. On the other hand, they hound and pillory those within their ranks who would fix the cracked foundations of their own glorious theories.
You simply cannot have it both ways.
If Scientists want the Public to be humble before their own God of Rationalism then they must be humble before the Flaws in Their Own Theories.
However, this is not the spirit of our age…
Much as a messianic leader of old, there is an attitude among Scientists, especially Physicists, that questions are unwelcome for the answers have been given.
I do believe in Rationalism, but I also believe in what the philosopher-investor George Soros described as Rational Fallibility. No theory is perfect. There is no Final Theory.
When you think you know it all, a surprise is surely in store.
In this connection, Weinberg once said that:
Science has Heroes but no Prophets.
Perhaps that is true, but who then will show the way to new theories? Is not prophecy the art of foreseeing that which the multitude will not see?
No rational mind would attribute divine qualities to a Hedge Fund manager. However, what equipped George Soros with the gift of financial prophecy was an understanding of Human Fallibility, both his own, and that of other market players.
The Prophet sees what could happen which the multitude do not want to happen.
Hence I am led to a small prophecy about Physics.
I think physics has become very authoritarian. What is done and what is praised no longer seems to bear a strong relationship with scientific method. Instead, it seems to have become a game to garner social favor. Ideas are presented and then canonized seemingly without regard to their level of empirical support.
Once we develop a social caste of High Priests then the destination is clear:
Physics will have Popes but no God.
Once a community stops asking the searching questions, the rational basis of Science is lost. Not for ever, but until the boil is lanced.
Until that day, there is next to no difference between Science and Religion.
It will be High Priests versus the Heathen Mongols.