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.
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.