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Whistleblowers at the Perimeter Institute

A former director of the Perimeter Institute has written a text - that will be explicitly promoted neither on TRF nor in the comments - about the insane beginnings of the Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics. The readers can see how easy it can be to suck money out of an impressionable, idealistic, and generous billionaire - in this case Mike Lazaridis.



Off-topic: Little red riding hood with technical documentation. ;-)

Nemanja Kaloper (UC Davis) is a very serious phenomenologist, with roughly 100 technical publications in particle phenomenology. He has had many students. But for one of them, who was just a de facto student of Nemanja because Nemanja was still just a postdoc at that time, the PhD defense in 1998 was the maximum that Nemanja could have hoped for. At the end, this student managed to co-author two very similar 15-page papers. One year after the defense, this "doctor of physics" received his first citation. The total score is eight citations as of today.




Let me call this not-exactly-stellar student Wolowitz Richter. ;-) He didn't like string theory but he did like money.

Now, you should understand that Nemanja's opinions about string theory are somewhat neutral. Like other phenomenologists, he realizes that it is likely to be the only possible theory in the deep ultraviolet. But more importantly for him, it leads to some phenomenologically interesting ideas for low-energy physics. Nemanja often combines them with other ideas about low-energy particle phenomenology that he can find by other methods. And he simply uses whatever he can to find some interesting new results.

OK, the student, Wolowitz Richter, who just defended his PhD, was very different. His dogmatic dislike for string theory (and probably any other well-developed machinery where people have to work somewhat seriously to find something new and equally meaningful) and his positive attitude to wealth could have been combined. After some negotiations, Lazaridis - eager to do something really crazy - made him the director of the Perimeter Institute, the world's main institute for theoretical physics among those that are funded primarily by the private sector. Wow.

Of course, such an anomalous situation couldn't last because it is bizarre to have an irrelevant scientific zero as the chair of an institute whose name and generosity has been memorized after a few years, so Neil Turok was recently chosen to replace interim boss Rob Myers and to be the new director. Before Wolowitz Richter was fired, he managed to write a public text that exposes pretty much all the business (and personal) secrets of the Perimeter Institute. He wants to earn money by publishing this sensitive stuff. It's not the kind of guy whom you want to trust or pay if you're a billionaire.

It's not the kind of guy whom you want to pay if you're anyone, after all.

Choosing hiring strategies

But what I want to discuss is the hypothesis that one can create systematically good results just by being "against the establishment".

That's, of course, nonsense. Only positive plans, ideas, knowledge, skills, good luck, and hard work can systematically lead to positive outcomes. They often turn out to be "anti-establishment" in one sense or another - because the establishment is often wrong - but this "contrarian" feature of theirs cannot be their definition.

Every establishment has problems but unless it is completely screwed - and I am sure that most of you agree that the physics establishment is not (or, at least, it wasn't in 1998) - it includes certain "natural selection" mechanisms that choose better things and abandon worse things, at least statistically in the long run. If your strategy is to be choosing the opposite things, without knowing any positive reasons, your results will surely be worse than with a "neutral approach".

Let us imagine that much like the companies want to maximize their profits, physics departments want to maximize the overall importance of the scientific results that will be found there.

Now, the detailed strategies of different companies - and different physics departments - differ. But each of them has to follow some semi-consistent guiding principles based on some positive values. One place can prefer powerful mathematicians, another place can prefer people who can think quickly, the third place may collect people who are good communicators, the fourth place may prefer researchers whose knowledge is extraordinarily broad or versatile, the fifth place may like experienced people who have already achieved something, while the sixth place may try to estimate the growth potential of those who are not yet achieved or famous.

One coast may consider cosmology or the anthropic principle paramount while another coast may prefer the detailed spectra of quantum field theories or anything else.

There is clearly no universal rule that would tell us what is the importance of all these values and ideas. There is no formula that would calculate the success as a function of these things. We are obviously talking about an uncertain business with too many unknowns. But the strategy to do "anything" as long as it is different than what others do is obviously inferior to almost all the other strategies.

In some general sense, physics departments or any other meaningful departments must approach the hiring and related problems in the same way - a way based on meritocracy (much like the companies that always want to maximize the profit). They just quantitatively differ in their appraisal of the value of different ideas and skills (again, this has analogies in the conventional markets). Clearly, you can't be doing just the things that are considered to be trash by everyone else - without knowing why it has a chance not to be trash - simply because most things that are being thrown away are trash, indeed. You can't pay millions for excrements, hoping that you will benefit because others are surely making a mistake.

In the short run, there are so many random effects and so many questions remain uncertain that the detailed strategy can't be observationally evaluated. Moreover, directors are not that important for physics institutes, anyway. But be sure that in the long run, a bad strategy will lead to bad results.

Imagine that you decide that everyone else undervalues a research direction - for example Acausal Kinematical Rectangulation (AKR). Well, if you rely on this sociological guess and you have no technical reasons for your belief, that's quite a bet. The probability that everyone else actually overestimates AKR are equal to the chances that they underestimate it. Although some people may fool themselves into believing otherwise, there can't ever exist any a priori knowledge about the question whether a product or a small group is undervalued or overpriced.

The conventional meritocratic places that follow one prescription or another are analogous to different types of value investors. A new place that is defined by its desire to be "anti-establishment" is a counterpart of a hedge fund, but a very unsophisticated one. More sophisticated traders can actually calculate the imperfections of other traders. Many of those are doing the same thing so the winners and losers are pretty much matters of chance.

But don't forget about one thing: while the other traders follow various strategies and counter-strategies that may resemble a lottery, a part of their decisions is always about a legitimate, meritocratic, value-based evaluation of the assets. So if you bet against everyone else, without making any more detailed calculations, you will statistically lose.

Let me admit that I am highly surprised by the currently popular desire to encourage the risk and to buy "risky assets" in physics. That happens despite the fact that we are just seeing where such an irresponsible behavior led in the case of the market with derivatives and similar stuff.

But what I find even crazier is the ability of many people to believe that the people who are actually the textbook examples of the problems with the current - and emergent - establishment are also the people who may bring "fresh ideas" and who have shown the courage to run against the wind.

Instead, they are self-promoting, slow, lazy, inefficient parasites. I am talking about all those male and female feminists and similar dishonest low-quality groups that complain that they are still not getting enough - even though they have pretty much flooded and contaminated all of Academia and they are already deciding about the fate of all employees including the university presidents.

If you're a billionaire, be sure that if you want to look for original people who can run against the wind and who are underrated, by orders of magnitude, by the status quo, you must look somewhere almost exactly in the opposite direction than what this politically correct pseudointellectual foam is instructing you to do.

And that's the memo.

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