Maybe Eric Weinstein is the next Einstein, but I doubt it

A couple of people have asked me about the recent gushing piece in the Guardian about the physicist Eric Weinstein, who appears to be claiming to have found a theory of everything.

Here’s the short answer: Read what Jennifer Ouellette has to say. I think she’s got it exactly right.

For those who don’t know, the story goes something like this. Eric Weinstein has a Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Harvard University and left academia for finance a long time ago. He thinks that he has figured out a new theory that would solve most of the big problems in theoretical physics (unification of the forces, dark matter, dark energy, etc.). Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of the Public Understanding of Science invited him to give a lecture on it. du Sautoy published an op-ed in the Guardian about how revolutionary Weinstein’s ideas were going to be, and Guardian science reporter Alok Jha fulsomely blogged about it.

The  thing that makes this story unusual is that Weinstein has not produced any sort of paper explaining his ideas, so that others can evaluate them.

Incidentally, some people have said that du Sautoy failed to invite any physicists to Weinstein’s talk. (du Sautoy is a mathematician, not a physicist.) That turns out not to be true: du Sautoy did send an email to the Oxford physics department, which ended up not being widely seen for some reason.

Ouellette:

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

It was stupid for the Guardian to hype this story in the absence of any evidence that Weinstein actually has anything. If he does, he should show the world, in enough detail that others can check his theory out in detail. At that point, if he’s really got something, hype away!

People often get annoyed when newspapers report on results that haven’t yet gone through formal peer review by a journal. That’s not the point here at all. If Weinstein had a paper on the arxiv explaining what he’s talking about, that’d be fine.

Like Ouellette, I’m mostly irritated by the way the Guardian pieces play into myths about the way science is done:

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

I’m sure it’s true that established physicists tend to pay more attention to people they know, with jobs at elite universities, than to contributions from relatively unknown strangers. That’s human nature. But this is a lousy case study to illustrate this point, at least right now. When Weinstein shows experts his ideas in enough detail to evaluate them, then we can talk.

One of the biggest myths in the popular conception of science is that of the lone genius coming up with brilliant insights with no contact with the established hierarchy. It’s worth remembering that, to an excellent approximation, this never happens. Maybe Weinstein is the exception, but I doubt it.

 

6 Responses to “Maybe Eric Weinstein is the next Einstein, but I doubt it”

  1. Walter says:

    This is SOP for cranks. Say enough to bamboozle the people who aren’t in science. Don’t actually write anything that could be shown to be wrong. When scientists complain, fire back that they just don’t like the fact that the idea came from outside the ivory tower.

    There’s no real way for a scientist to respond except by ignoring the crank until they make the mistake of committing their ideas to paper.

  2. I agree with what you say.

    Check out Cusp’s take: http://cosmic-horizons.blogspot.de/2013/05/the-theory-of-nothing.html

    I am disappointed by du Sautoy.

    Maybe the physicists were aware of the invitation but, with not even a preliminary draft to look at, decided not to waste their time. Every talk doesn’t have to have a draft paper available, but a talk like this one does.

    Garrett Lisi was also hyped a bit, but anyone who wants to criticize him can read his stuff on the arXiv.

  3. Anthony Barker says:

    It may interest you to know that the entire Rutgers Physics department just got this email on the subject from a Jonathan Tooker on the subject. It seems like more edgy self aggrandizement to me, but at least there are preprinted to refer to.

    “Many of us read the recent Guardian article about Eric Weinstein and Geometric Unity.  If you read the Guardian article closely, you will see that they never actually say Weinstein developed it, only that he showed it to people and it was in his area of study. The reason no one has seen the technical papers by Weinstein is that the technical papers by Weinstein do not exist.  The 14D model being popularized by Weinstein is the 14D model developed by Tooker (4D in H, 5D in Sigma+, 5D in Sigma-).

    Here is the mathematical foundation
    http://vixra.org/abs/1209.0010

    Here is the paper called “Geometric Cosmology” which develops the math further and arrives at 14D
    http://vixra.org/abs/1301.0032

    Here is the one showing that the SM is a geometric property of the 14D model
    http://vixra.org/abs/1302.0037

    An early study of this model yielded a novel solution to dark energy
    http://vixra.org/abs/1208.0077

  4. Two comments. First, are you implying that Weinstein was presenting (i.e. stole) the ideas mentioned in the preprints above? Second, vixra is certainly not known for high-quality research, but seems to be mostly a place for preprints which, for whatever reason, cannot be posted to arXiv.

  5. sun hong rhie says:

    Was the second talk on 31 May 2013 recorded? Didn’t the guardian article indicate that the (emerged) symmetry group has “novel” (or unfamiliar) structures? Why doesn’t Weinstein and Sautoy have the content of the seminar available in the internet?

  6. sun hong rhie says:

    @Phiilip Helberg No. it seems to be a coincident. Eric’s seems to be a fiber bundle: π: M14 -> M4 where the metric is derived from the connection. No paper nor no power point slides of the talks, and I don’t know anything further. http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_23430541/stanford-x-ray-reveals-long-lost-notes-historic?nstrack=sid:6565041|met:0000300|cat:0|order:3&/?source=dailyme

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