Archive for Marcus du Sautoy

The Curious Case of Weinstein’s Theory

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by telescoper

I’m late onto this topic, but that’s probably no bad thing given how heated it seems to have been. Most of you have probably heard that, last week,  Marcus du Sautoy (who is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford), wrote a lengthy piece in the Grauniad about some work by a friend of his, Eric Weinstein. The Guardian piece was headed

Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics’ biggest problems
A physicist has formulated a mathematical theory that purports to explain why the universe works the way it does – and it feels like ‘the answer’

I’m not sure whether du Sautoy wrote this heading or whether it was added by staff at the newspaper, but Weinstein is not actually working as a physicist; he has a PhD from Harvard in Mathematical Physics, right enough, but has been working for some time as an economics consultant. Anyway, Weinstein also presented his work in a two-hour lecture at the Mathematics Department at Oxford University. Unfortunately, it appears that few (if any) of Oxford’s physicists received an invitation to attend the lecture which, together with the fact that there isn’t an actual paper (not even a draft, unrefereed one) laying out the details, led to some rather scathing responses from Twitterland and Blogshire. Andrew Pontzen’s New Scientist blog piece is fairly typical. This talk was followed by a retraction of an allegation that physicists were not invited to the talk; it turns out the invitation was sent, but not distributed as widely as it should.

Anyway, what are we to make of this spat? Well, I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. I think we should all give theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from. And although Marcus du Sautoy is also not a physicist, he no doubt knows enough about physics to know whether Weinstein’s work is flawed at a trivial level. And even if it is wrong (which, arguably, all theories are) then it may well be wrong in a way that’s interesting, possibly precisely because it does come from outside the current mainstream (which, in my opinion, is too obsessed with string theory for its own good).

That aside, I do have a serious issue with the way Marcus du Sautoy used his media connections to plug some work that hasn’t even been submitted to, let alone passed, the gold standard of peer review. I can’t comment on the work because I wasn’t at the talk and there is no paper for me to study and form my own conclusions. The accompanying blog post isn’t enough to make an informed decision either. It may or not be brilliant. I assure you I have an open mind on that, but I don’t think it’s apppropriate for a Professor of Public Understand of Science to indulge in such hype. It reminds me of a recent episode involving another famous Oxford mathematician, Roger Penrose. Perhaps he’ll get together with Eric Weinstein and look for evidence supporting the new theory in the cosmic microwave background?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t at all object to Weinstein being given an opportunity to air his work at a departmental seminar or colloquium. Actually, I wish more departmental talks were of a speculative and challenging nature, rather than just being rehashes of already published work. The problem with talking about work in progress, though, is (as I know from experience) is that if you talk too openly about ideas then someone quicker and cleverer than yourself can work out the details faster than you can; while it’s a bit frustrating when that happens, in the long run it’s good for science. Or so I tell myself. Anyway, the problem is not with that: it’s with airing this in the wider media inappropriately early, i.e. before it has received proper scrutiny. This could give the impression to the public that science is just a free-for-fall and that anyone’s ideas, however half-baked, are equally valid. That is irresponsible.

Anyway, that’s my take on this strange business. I’d be interested to hear other opinions through the comments box. Please bear in mind, however, that the word “defamation” has been bandied about, so be careful, and note that this piece expresses my opinion. That’s all.

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