Friday, December 09, 2005

Utter confusion

David Gross has not only organized the prestigious Solvay conference but he also summarized it by the following words published in one article and second article in New Scientist:
  • We don't know what we're talking about
  • We are much like the physicists in 1911 who did not understand radioactivity
  • We are missing perhaps something as profound as they were back then
  • The field is in a period of utter confusion

These words are slightly uncharacteristic for one of the greatest optimists among theoretical physicists but on the other hand, they are expected from a great physicist who also knows very well how to criticize. ;-)

The word "confusion" was also used by another leading theoretical physicist in a private debate with me. Be sure that these two gentlemen are not complete dissidents. Well, there have probably been many things going on that do not make much sense. Many things that do not make sense to me. Many things that they do not make sense to the big shots. And I am afraid that the percentage is too sensitive a number for me to estimate it here.

One should however exaggerate neither the importance of one confusing conference nor the importance of one or a couple of discouraging years in the search for something that may be with us for centuries. David Gross has also given a summary of the 1938 Warsaw conference which was very entertaining. These big guys really did not know what they were talking about - except for Klein, of course. (Those who speak German know very well that Gross has all the rights to judge Klein.)

We are certainly in a much better shape today. Nevertheless, the people in the year XY will definitely be humiliating the 2005 Solvay conference, too - because they will know the fundamental insights that we are missing today. It remains our task to try to make the number XY as small as possible.

Peter Woit celebrates the words about the trouble, in a way that resembles the jihadists' celebrations of the Private Katrina, here. ;-) Nowadays, it has become extremely fashionable to criticize string theory and physics beyond the Standard Model in general.

I would like to emphasize that while we are in a period of utter confusion about several questions at the cutting edge, we are not too confused about many other fundamental insights - some of which are newer than 5 years - and we are not confused at all about thousands of other things. Think twice before you replace the whole community of confused physicists - because confusion is the natural state of the theoretical physicist throughout most of his or her life.

You may start with physicists who are confused whether XY may become a solution of the cosmological constant - but if you promote real "diversity of approaches", you may end up with a general confusion about the difference between a force and voltage.


  1. Dear Lubos,

    Very good, except toward the end.

    "Voltage" in the UK is used by technicians and engineers, but not by physics professors, who prefer "potential difference, pd", or chemists who prefer "electromotive force, emf". However the nuclear physicist speaks of it as mass-energy equivalent, in terms of "electron volts", eV, so 0.511 MeV is the rest mass of an electron in terms of energy.

    Physicists don't only reject "voltage" as improper, they are consistent creatures and don't use the term "mileage" to refer to how far their car goes, preferring "displacement". Since his car ends up back home in the driveway each evening, his car has zero "mileage". Neat!

    The best one of course is the distinction between "mass" and "weight". Instead of explaining this is given by Newton's second law: weight = 9.8m Newtons where 9.8 is a conversion factor that depends on your elevation, latitude and your home planet, and m is mass in kg and weight has units Newtons, they use the same units for both mass and weight!

    Physics then degenerates into a farce, because you can't use Newton's second law if you try to measure both the force of gravity (weight) and mass in the same units. I suppose you would simply say you can use the same units, but gravity acceleration then becomes a dimensionless factor.

    1 kg weight on earth = 1 kg mass
    0.17 kg weight on moon = 1kg mass

    This is a good way to get the "utter confusion". Before theorists work out how many dimensions, they should clarify basis issues. When I was at school in the 80s they were only just moving on from ergs and cgs units to mks (the school teachers were old, and couldn't adapt). At university, it was even worse, everyone using different systems.

    Best wishes,

  2. what do you think of this:

    String theory gets a lot of bad press for not being beautiful enough. So I devised a framework for anyone interested that has shapes instead of strings.

    Empty space has two shapes that exist in four dimensions. One is the corollary of the other. Matter and energy are the relationship relatioship between these two shapes as they interact with each other. What we observe to be mass is really the absence of it, in relation to the extreme "density" of these shapes. Time is the rotational vibration of these shapes along the 4th dimensional axis. In effect: motion.

    The speed of light and effect of gravity are constant because their mediums are constant. The curvature of space-time is the geometrical approximation of the vibration of these two fundamental shapes. The stable configurations of these shapes based on their geometry form what we know to be the elementary particles. It is kind of like a 4 dimensional negative where the opposite defines what we are able to perceive after it has been “developed” by our minds.

    I imagine these shapes to be the interior and exterior of a 4 dimensional icosahedron, so in essence, two sides of the same thing. this shape has the unique quality of being the only regular polyhedron in 4 dimensions which also happens to be asymetrical with its interior.

    what this is saying is that the universe is rather like a mold where energy is defined as matter by space and does not have an intrinsic geometry unto itself. it is also recursive because energy would also be able to define the relationships in the mold.

    forces for example like the the one that hold nuclei together would really be imposed by this structure. particles for example would be different stable configurations of these shapes.