A friend sent me an interesting representation of the jock culture of physics and mathematics. It is a video interview between two guys who did PhDs in physics and mathematics on two opposite coasts of the US. One became a surfer after getting lucky with a bet on Apple stock and the other became a financier who works for Peter Thiel. They shared an interest in fundamental questions in physics and the financier set out to undermine the surfer’s claim to have constructed a valid theory of everything.
For the first ten minutes of the video, these guys were basically bragging about how manly and brave one has to be to tackle the problem of constructing a theory of everything and how one must be an egomaniac to even attempt such a feat. It was a lot of chest-thumping and I had a hard time forcing myself to keep watching after seeing that. My friend assured me that this sort of behavior is perfectly normal for men. It is how they establish camraderie.
I did watch the two hour video to the end and I recorded a timeline of their discussion:
- first 10 minutes — ego build up: It takes a lot of confidence to make a theory of everything because the institution as a whole attacks anyone who attempts to solve longstanding problems. General relativity and quantum mechanics have very different cultures and approaches and this makes unifying them even more difficult.
- second 10 minutes — ego attack: In the 1980s, the charisma of Edward Witten brought about the quasi-religious belief in the potential of string theory to unify general relativity and quantum mechanics, but today we view the effort as pointless because none of the ideas can ever be tested experimentally.
- third 10 minutes — ego rebuild: Theoretical physics gave birth to all of our technological developments and attracted the best people, rewarding intellectual achievement like no other field. The field attracted people who often lack social abilities, but physics is the best, most ambitious, pure, universal, and difficult thing that humans do and we are close to having the source code of the universe so that we can commune with aliens.
- fourth 10 minutes — ego attack: There are others who believe in the anthropic principle. They say that we just pick and choose the mathematics that we find the most aesthetically pleasing and then use those pretty pieces to construct our favourite theories. This anthropic principle is cowardly. The pattern at the fundamental scale appears complete and beautiful.. except for dark matter and spinners — weird things that execute a revolution in 720 degrees instead of 360 degrees.
- fifth 10 minutes — ego rebuild: I explained spinners with an incredibly complicated, beautiful mathematical object that is what everything is made of and it connects to a theory of everything because gravitational charge isn’t just mass, it is spin. I’ve taken something from the world of bosons and connected it to the world of fermions by constructing a mathematical object that makes the two worlds symmetrical and I find this intensely stimulating and beautiful. Then I combine those mathematical objects into a 248 dimensional object that is even more beautiful.
- sixth 10 minutes — ego attack: You’ve found a way to transform bosons so that they have the same properties as fermions. You did this by multiplying them by spinners, but there is a huge problem with this approach. You can’t extract any useful predictions from it that can be compared to other approaches. This spinner construction also lacks any acknowledgement of the asymmetry observed in nature – chirality.
- seventh 10 minutes — ego rebuild: You are correct that 248 dimensions isn’t enough to describe the transformation from fermions to bosons. You need infinite dimensions, but that doesn’t change the appeal of the beauty of this mathematical approximation. It is really unfair that string theory is allowed to have all sorts of obvious flaws, but anyone who thinks outside of their box is instantly excommunicated over flaws that are of a similar magnitude. I think I have created a consistent whole, a theory of everything.
- eighth 10 minutes — ego attack: The problem with your theory is that our data doesn’t come in infinite dimensions or 248 dimensions. It comes in 4 dimensions that we can break up into, say 28 quantifiable properties. What do we learn from infinite dimensions or 248 dimensions? We learn to talk to aliens? Is that what this is all about? Beauty leading physics astray? A religion based on worshipping complicated mathematical objects and the men who constructed them?
- ninth 10 minutes — ego rebuild: I’m not religious. I follow the ideas where they lead me. I attacked the geometry of quantum field theory and no one has done this before. I was only able to do this because I have a healthy social support network and financial independence. Within academia, I would’ve been under far more pressure to follow the group and the sources of funding that support the group. I have an estate in Neverland and invite physics friends out to discuss stuff. It is fun.
- tenth 10 minutes — ego attack: I tried to solve this problem back in the early 90s from within the university system and I was blocked at every turn. Then I gave up and went into finance. I’ve finally achieved enough financial freedom that I can pursue my old, academic interests, but I find that a surfer in Neverland has taken up the torch and claimed to have solved everything. This is frustrating.
- eleventh 10 minutes — ego rebuild: We are trying to build a framework that avoids “no-go theorems” and we are trying to do so while confronted by hostile string theorists who are used to being the only game in town. But perhaps it is to be expected that theories in development must pass through no-go territory in order to arrive at a sufficiently complex and beautiful result that can be used to bamboozle the next generation of baby physicists — which is what this is all about. We must maintain a system of tools that reliably crush even the strongest of egos, so that that the older generation can maintain its position at the top of the monkey heirarchy.
I twisted their words and didn’t track this down to the minute, but I believe that the mood of the interview could be plotted out as a square wave. An engineer might call this waveform a dither. I just call it exhausting. Proof by exhaustion. It works, believe me.
Garrett’s triumphant epiphany that fermions are just bosons under a transformation involving spinners is somehow hollow and trivial to me because matter (a localized rotation) will clearly look like a wave (a nonlocalized rotation) if you change your perspective, and that is all that a spinner transformation does, moving the viewer’s perspective to a more abstract, strange vantage that doesn’t allow for useful connections to concrete, measureable concepts. In order to conserve angular momentum, when a thing propagating in a volume gets trapped within a surface it is going to have to rotate through 720 degrees rather than 360. This should be intuitively clear if one understands that a boson is a wave that moves a volume and a fermion is defined by a surface, yet most physics students have been so detatched from thier intuition that they find such rotations mysterious.
I shouldn’t be so mystified by what motivates men like Garrett. From a historical and psychological perspective, it is no surprise that someone attempts to add another layer to the cake of physical abstraction since it is what Hilbert space did with the Hamiltonian and it is what the Hamiltonian did with the Lagrangian. Why not add another layer? Baby physicists need things to occupy their time and the Poincare disc model is too simple and easy to understand.
Garrett’s triumphant epiphany that “gravity is spin” also strikes me as hollow because I’m okay with acknowledging that spinning things exert a pressure that can be used to express gravity, but I think he is missing out on equipartition. “Gravity is spin and vibration” is what I’d say, but then I’d be playing his game and I really just disapprove of the game in general. Spinning things look like they are vibrating when viewed from a certain vantage, after all, but what do we as a cultural entity really learn from insights like this? I think we learn the limits of naval gazing.
Based on the comments on their video, they have an appreciative audience. Then again audiences tend to cheer when they watch a person use obscure keywords that they recognize but don’t fully understand. Just seeing the keywords makes them feel smart and connected and that is all an audience really wants. Just ask Patton Oswalt. He knows a thing or two about how people think.
I’m not gonna lie. I didn’t really enjoy watching Eric Weinstein’s video because I don’t like the jocular world that shaped their attitudes, but it was a fascinating look at two products of the US physics instruction system (TM). They are highly confident in the value of what they worked very hard to learn but also confident that more confidence is what is needed to make sense of the topic’s absurdity. That might not be incorrect, but I find it instructive to compare these products of the system to a portrait of someone who has not yet been inducted into the higher mysteries.
Andrew Dotson has been YouTubing his thoughts about his physics PhD experience and he has as many viewers as Eric Weinstein. My oh my, how the internet flattens heirarchies! The book he is holding is, of course, Jackson, a book designed to reduce the confidence of young men and establish their place within the physics heirarchy.
In Andrew Dotson’s series, we see him struggle to put what he is learning in context and to justify why he is pursuing a PhD in physics. In the video above, he compares David Griffiths’ undergraduate text to Jackson’s graduate text in E&M. His first conclusion is that they cover the same topics, but Jackson offers much lengthier, more opaque explanations and makes the problems much more difficult.
I know of one person who fully mastered Jackson and he is a 70 year old Russian accelerator physicist who was fully aware of the uneccessary complexity of the system of instruction. In a rebellious move, he encouraged his student to challenge physics dogma with a document composed primarily in words. His counterpart within the US wrote a response that was composed almost exclusively in equations. i.e. code. Such is the price of admission to the higher mysteries, but is it worth the price? I don’t think so.
Tja, I think it is all just a silly game.
I see the problem of a “theory of everything” as a problem of deliberately terrible teachers, deliberately terrible heuristics, smoke and mirrors, no-go theorems, and deliberately compartmentalized instruction that is encoded via complexity. I think that the simplest way to extract ourselves from the mess we have made is to drop our egos and our paranoia and look back to physics from before the world wars. They already had a theory of everything back then and the only problem today is that modern physicists so often don’t understand it enough to connect their encoded, compartmentalized languages to the languages that came before them. Instead of studying tops and vorticity, they studied quantum chromodynamics — a useless invention. If we drop our egos and paranoia, then we can see that our problem does not require more ego to solve, rather it requires less ego. Egos make people unable to look around their blind spots or to even acknowledge their blind spots.
While I respect my friend‘s effort to build a new theory of everything and show how a simple pattern underlies all of the particles detected in colliders over the years, I can’t help but view it as yet another set of smoke and mirrors that distracts from the more fundamental problem of compartmentalization, excess complexity, and emperors with no clothes.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
While I do not think that my friend or that Garrett are laying claim to more knowledge than they have – as does the Wizard of Oz. I do think that they are both making an ad hoc addition to the standard model that doesn’t add predictive power. It just adds a layer of narrative complexity and comfort. Their concepts may be more comforting than the overly complex approach of string theory, but they both seem to fill the same niche: holding the attention of ambitious young men. The message conveyed is: don’t worry kids, we’ve got it all figured out.
I’m not sure that such messages are necessary, true, or kind, but I could be wrong about that. Kids like to feel that the world is all sorted out in a religious sense, but why must physics play the role of religion? And don’t such assurances channel our sense of wonder into strange directions? Religion inspires such wonderful communal production of art and music while physics inspires none of that. I am frankly appalled at the lack of musical and artistic talent at the local, college-track, technically oriented high school. My daughter is bored out of her mind there. She says that the music class is intolerable and this comes from a girl who sings non-stop from the moment she walks in our front door. She used to love to draw, but she came home from art class with a sad picture she’d made of a distorted, melting corporate logo.
I think she is drowning in noise that is stealing her energy and focus.
I wrote my novels to make something that might help people like my daughter and I’ve made videos of my writing to help people tune out some of the noise surrounding them.
6 thoughts on “Jocularity, Jocks, Jokes, and Jackson’s E&M”
Friend here, responding. I also see the ego jockeying in the video but not with the same disdain as Kirsten. In my view is mostly low level and playful, except a few more direct shots where the punch is not pulled. The parts where the punch was not pulled I did find uncomfortable, as I would prefer a ego controlled discussion. As Kirsten mentions, the behaviour is typical men as a generalization (many men, to varying degrees, often but not always?). I had a career in the hardware and software engineering world and the ego skirmishes at the senior engineer/architect level and higher were often far more severe because the battle was to impregnate the corporation with ones idea or to gather power.
I’ve been watching a lot of nature videos lately, in particular lions and various apes. The babies play fight seriously, but with soft blows designed only for training. The teen males fight more seriously to practice physically and mentally this game of dominance and submsission. The young males fight more violently because they are driven to pass on their genes. The ruling male has some level of power and respect and this alone will often cause a young male challenger to back down. Of course then there is the male-female dynamic which is a discussion for another day in a psychologically safe venue, but suffice to say we have all seen the increasing focus on this in past decades and especially more recently as women are more emboldened to speak their mind and bravely and rightly challenge offensive behaviour. The nature videos I’ve seen don’t show much about the female to female interaction. In any case, humans are descended from apes, so we humans naturally have these inclinations and in the academic or professional world they play out as idea and power struggles.
There is a push in the STEM fields to encourage and foster women, LGBTQ, and racial minorities to enter and stay in the field because there is truth to the idea that these groups have been thwarted or discouraged from these fields for a variety of reasons. I don’t believe that every field should have a demographic that matches the population, but I 100% support the idea that every individual should be able to pursue whatever field(s) and careeers interest them as long as they have the normal non-tribal qualifiers, like talent, perseverance, etc. Artificial barriers such as discrimination, misogyny, harassment, bias, economic background, etc., would fall in what I call the tribal barriers where one tribe inhibits another. (A tribe can be any set based on characteristics other than the generic ‘individual’).
Even if we could solve the egregious barriers discussed above, in the technical fields it seems there is always a competition of ideas. Competition is good, right? But what are the ground rules of competition? Must we play by men’s rules descended from ape dominance/submission fights? Certainly that is how it works in every environment I have seen or heard about in engineering or acadamia, at least at the senior engineer, architect, Ph.D, and post-doc level (at higher management levels it is more political and underhanded). In my experience in engineering, Type A white men were the incumbents and defined the rules of competition and were also the ones who succeeded more often than demographic parity. Still, there were also many white men didn’t want to be aggressive, who would have preferred a meritocracy of ideas discussed in a low ego process. It seemed to me that Chinese, Japanese, and women “in general” also did not want to compete aggressively. Some did, more did not. These are ad hoc observations, not scientific data, yet we often hear these touted as issues caused by the white male patriarchy. What is the solution? Are there significant examples of idea competition that are on a level playing field for all individuals? As much as I wish there were, I think it will continue to be a constant struggle to find ‘fair’ competition venues for ideas and individuals. I mean after all, we haven’t even discussed some of the truly evil forms of tipping the scales such as nepotism/legacy, quid pro quo, narcissistic favoritism, and etc.
Now, to turn to the search for a Theory of Everything, my motivation is very different than what Kirsten attributes to me. I have no particular desire to hold the attention of ambitious young men. To the contrary, if my ideas were a breakthrough, it would turn the current worlds of physics and cosmology upside down and lead to a revolution where the younger more enlightened generations could remake the fields to be far more supportive of diversity of individuals and ideas. I would like to help individual-kind** understand nature and the universe for altruistic purposes. I imagine that a fundamental understanding would lead to individual-kind spreading far more rapidly in the universe, but before that even, I would think that the technologies that would emerge from that understanding would help to alleviate suffering and inequality and improve the environment on Earth, i.e., imagine if energy was 100x or more less expensive. So while I imagine a very small number of fundamental ingredients to the universe, that is a grand simplifer, because everything else would emerge from that set. What could be simpler than two particle types, a 3D Euclidean volume, energy, and Maxwell’s equations?
** ‘individual-kind’ includes human individuals and eventually general artificial intelligence individuals and of course hybrids. Fun subject: imagine any contentious moral issue in the context of general individual-kind. What is homosexuality in the context of GAI robots? What is abortion on the assembly line of a GAI robot? Once these beings are legally defined as individuals, it can help us in our understanding of the same issue as applied to humans.
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