Thursday, November 26, 2015

Smolin's untrustworthy, misguided advice to Canadian PM Trudeau

One (or a country) must catch up before he (or it) becomes a leader

Justin Trudeau became Canada's new centrist prime minister and Lee Smolin has already prescribed
Ten steps to make Canada a leader in science
to the new prime minister.

In his notorious book attacking modern physics, The Trouble With Physics, Smolin self-confidently categorized himself as a "seer" (a revolutionary physicist). In his text addressed to Trudeau, he reclassified himself as a "rock star physicist". Too bad that he doesn't mention that most physicists at better places consider him a crackpot. Check e.g. this discussion of Santa Barbara physicists with journalist George Johnson. Download the 24 MB MOV file and go to 22:00 to check what the physicists think.

Mr Trudeau, it's obvious that for the investment in science to be great, one has to hire the ingenious, hard-working, right people. So Smolin's recommendation #1 is basically right and trivial. But one must avoid some traps, at least simple traps, and all the other nine advises that Smolin offers:

Don't trust the people because they try to pay lip service to your politics, like Lee Smolin who inserts seemingly unrelated comments about "climate change" to his essay how to fund physics research. Don't trust the people who paint themselves as full-fledged Canadians but who were born in the New York City, like Lee Smolin, and who ended up in Canada because they were not competitive elsewhere.

Don't trust the people who try to elevate their apparent importance by affiliations in the past because they have never achieved anything beyond the affiliations. Don't trust the men, like Smolin, who praise as "physics revolutionaries" pretty much exactly the same female third-class physicists who have "accidentally" had a romantic relationship or marriage with the man. A bright observer or sponsor of sciences should be able to notice such patterns and deduce the most likely explanation and its implications for sensible decisions.

Avoid diversity-like quotas that Lee Smolin recommends in his advice #8 because they always hurt the quality of the research. Don't try to do things in unnecessarily complicated ways if simpler ways exist. For example, if there are equally good Canadian or nearby American candidates, you don't really need to hire Europeans or Asians. That's why you should ignore Smolin's recommendation #5.

Be careful when chronic liars talk about speaking the truth, like Lee Smolin does in #9. And avoid simple solutions and unrealistic promises, like the point that Lee Smolin repetitively made in most of his recommendations (at least #2, #3, #4, #6, #7, #10 but also others).

I want to discuss this frequently repeated point in the majority of this blog post.

Smolin says that Canada – which is not (yet?) a real power in science – should avoid "me-too" or "catch-up" or "incremental" science. It shouldn't hire students of famous professors at the U.S. universities because of the proximity to greatness. Instead, Smolin tells you, Canada should take the risk, fire all the people who did great things 10 or 20 years ago, and hire the people who are not connected to the global science in any way but who are young and who claim to be revolutionary etc. They will bring Canada to the top directly, Smolin promises.

But these promises are completely unrealistic. This is simply not how science (and other fields of human activity) work. It is not how science has ever worked and it is not how it will ever work in the future.

Instead, science is a tightly connected network of ideas and insights and every insight, including the most revolutionary ones, is connected to others. This is particularly the case near the cutting edge where the true leaders of science know about others doing similar things very well. Even the most revolutionary physicists have been connected to and appreciated by some other scientist – or, much more often, scientists – who were near the top. I am not saying that they were supported by a majority which they often weren't. But they were virtually never "seemingly random people disconnected from everyone else".

So Isaac Newton was a co-inventor of calculus and founder of the calculus-based science as we know it. He was perhaps the most ingenious man of the human history and his achievements were as singular as you can get. He saw further because, as he said, he was standing upon the shoulders of giants. (This famous quote was probably optimized to make fun of one of Newton's archrivals, Hooke, who was short.) Albert Einstein was also building on insights by James Clerk Maxwell, Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, and a few others, and as soon as the editor of the journal Max Planck saw Einstein's paper on relativity, he realized that Einstein was a top physicist in the world, one who had been previously up to that moment.

Yoichiro Nambu (who died five months ago) was a very special genius, Nobel prize winner (symmetry breaking etc.), and an early co-father of string theory, among other things. But he wasn't disconnected. See this paper which also contains a photograph of Einstein taken by Nambu before Nambu gave a ride to Einstein (who has never had a driving license). Even if they studied very different questions to become top physicists, they had to know about one another. They had to know about the intellectual quality of the other man. They couldn't have been just separated loud ambitious people from a Canadian village.

Niels Bohr was the founder of the Copenhagen school and became famous with his old quantized model of the hydrogen atom. Smolin mentions that Denmark is one country that punches above its weight but not even Bohr – perhaps the most famous 20th century Danish physicist – could have started his quantum mechanical school from scratch. Around 1911, he began to travel to the U.K. a lot and J.J. Thomson became a sort of Bohr's adviser. Thomson wasn't the greatest fan of Bohr's but it turned out that Ernest Rutherford was one. Rutherford became an advisor of Bohr's, too. Smolin wouldn't hire Bohr for that reason.

Great scientists have made nearly unprecedented, individualist contributions to science but they always had someone in the "higher circles of science" who appreciated them. Mr Trudeau and everyone with a similar power, you must simply avoid the temptation to decide about the quality of scientists and their science if you don't understand the science because this is the easiest way to get fooled and to make really bad – and perhaps even corrupt – decisions.

You always have to leave such decisions to someone who actually knows what is going on. If someone gets an important enough scholarly job in Canada, it should be someone who could get at least some job in other countries, too. And most of those people actually have it.

So while Lee Smolin praises Art McDonald as a symbol of the achievements of Canadian physics, Art McDonald's life contradicts Smolin's theses, too. Art McDonald got his PhD degree at Caltech (1965-1969) where he was a student of William Alfred Fowler. Maybe you haven't heard the name yet but at least, this physicist (and later astrophysicist) managed to get the 1983 Nobel prize in physics. He was already famous in 1969 (for his explanations how stars created elements etc.) which was a good enough reason why his sufficiently appreciated student, Art McDonald, got a senior job at AECL Chalk River in Canada in the same year.

He did well and was later stolen by Princeton University (1982-1989) and his successful work at Princeton was a good reason why in 1989, he was rehired by Canada and could gradually become a leader of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory etc. All the hiring in Canada took place because of the reasons that Lee Smolin presents to be reasons not to hire – but it was totally sensible to hire him.

Just to be sure, I think that these have been nice experiments but they are not the real cutting edge of particle physics and they haven't been "quite" original, either. (And I think that people agree that neutrinos have been "over-Nobelized" at this point and there shouldn't be additional Nobel prizes for that subdiscipline in coming decades.) The Sudbury laboratory since the late 1980s was building on the experience of the Homestake experiment in South Dakota, Kamiokande in Japan, and others. But no theory and no experiment may be "totally entirely" different from everything that people previously knew.

What Smolin actually recommends you, Mr Trudeau, is to ignore the opinions of people who are leaders according to the status quo of the world science like William Alfred Fowler or the leaders at Princeton University. But if you don't care about the opinions of the top minds, you will probably have to rely on the opinions of average minds or, as in Smolin's case, subpar minds. This is no recipe to greatness. It's a way to waste lots of money.

At the end, I believe that most of the sensible people realize very well that Smolin's recommended "path to greatness" that avoids the "catch-up phase" is just plain nonsense. Every country had to become equally good as someone else before it became better. Every individual scientist or engineer or company had to catch up with the competition before he or she or they surpassed the competition.

China may or may not be a world leader of the most technologically advanced solutions in 20 or 50 years from now but if it will become the leader, everyone will understand that the past decades – when China was winning thanks to its cheap labor employed in mindless assembly plants – and the present – when China became capable of counterfeiting pretty much anything – will have been necessary steps towards the would-be leadership.

The same comments apply to everything else, too. For example, some countries have produced or are producing good cars. But they still had to start by learning how to produce "basically the same products" that already existed elsewhere.

It's also complete nonsense to throw away scientists – perhaps including Art McDonald, if I read Smolin's comments literally – who have done their famous work 10 or 20 years ago. You know, when someone seems to be able to control his mental abilities as well as 10 or 20 years when he or she did something important, he or she is still vastly more likely to do something now than others who have never done anything important.

Albert Einstein is a great example showing how this particular policy recommended by Smolin would have been unwise. He had the miraculous year 1905 when he co-authored two papers establishing the special theory of relativity, a Nobel-prize-winning paper explaining the photoelectric effect, and an important work clarifying the Brownian motion that has killed most of the opponents of the atomic theory. In fact, the term "miraculous year" understates the concentration of Einstein's breakthroughs because he had done all this work within a single six-week-long window!

So was he a "hasbeen" who should have been abandoned by 1915? You know what the answer is, don't you? 100 years and 1 day ago, on November 25th, 1915, he presented the final form of the general theory of relativity to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences. Einstein just wasn't finished after 1905, regardless of the "long break" (when he was rarely publishing, and only partly incorrect or highly incomplete papers about gravity and relativity). He was just working on an important theory during that decade. His contributions weren't over in 1915, either. Later, he would be crucial for the understanding of the Einstein emission/absorption coefficients, Bose-Einstein statistics, and even though his criticism of quantum mechanics had always been misguided, it was still clever enough so that he made people realize the existence and new features of the entanglement and other things.

Maybe Einstein has been a "hasbeen" after 1935 or so, especially because he began to ignore the truly important developments (which would require quantum mechanics) entirely. But in the last 20 years of his life, he was such a celebrity that you wanted to have him for "other" reasons, as a symbol and a reason to be proud.

The whole nontrivial part of Smolin's recommendation is completely wrong and counterproductive. He basically wants you – prime minister Trudeau or anyone else who matters – to abandon all the common-sense meritocratic considerations (like the success in the eyes of the world leaders in a scientific discipline) and focus on people's inclination to praise themselves and advance their personal interests by behind-the-scenes personal relationships with politicians, department chairs, and founders of institutes, by lies, and character assassinations – something that Lee Smolin is a template of.

That's wrong, wrong, wrong. Be careful not to abandon the common sense while making similar decisions. Be careful not to be fooled by people whose bizarre arguments are obviously tools to fool you and others and to serve their purely egotist interests. And if you want the Perimeter Institute to gain the ability to go up, make sure that Lee Smolin is fired.

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