Peter Thiel has hired Eric Weinstein as a part-time economist, part-time talking head about science – someone who produces far-reaching and emotionally loaded statements about the value of science, its future, the relationship between scientists and the establishment and, as we will see... the need for the majority society or the rich to conquer the scientists' brains and turn the scientists into obedient slaves.
Last week, Weinstein gave an 80-minute-long very unfocused interview about music, humor, labor... (I don't have patience for all this cheesy and distracting stuff and sorry to say, it is very clear that I don't belong to the target audience – it's just talk addressed to the mass culture) and after 50:00 or so, he talks about his "love-hate relationship" with theoretical physicists.
On one hand, Weinstein sometimes seems to understand mathematical logic and the problems with logical contradictions. For example, hours ago, he tweeted
A lot of people think transparency is simply a good thing. Those same people who feel comfortable working at that level of generality tend to think privacy is also a good thing.— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) 26. března 2019
I guess I don’t know how those two thoughts don’t bump into each other in the hallways of the mind.
And I "liked" the tweet because indeed, there is a general or potential contradiction between transparency and privacy. Some people advocate both principles and they do so to the extent that they're running into rather sharp contradictions. I still believe that many of us have a reasonable taste where the boundary should lie and where transparency should replace privacy (the most important principle is that the more personal, individual, and non-essential for other people's lives some information is, the more privacy should be respected).
But some people don't seem to realize that they're sometimes religiously defending words that contradict each other in the zeroth approximation.
Great. So Weinstein sometimes realizes that logical contradictions are a problem. But in the interview, he says things like
There is nothing that could intellectually match or beat the theoretical physics community. They do amazing things and may produce things like the molecular biology as a small side effect of their research.Can't you see the obvious contradiction, Eric? According to proper logic, you either believe that it's constructive to allow some bright people like XY (or a vaguely defined group of folks similar to XY) to think for themselves and reach their own opinions about what is true and what is worth thinking about (related to physics); or you don't. Assuming the logical consistency, your answer just cannot be both Yes and No!
Theoretical physicists have been on the wrong track for half a century or so and they need people like me to fix it and end the epoch of failures.
But your answer is both Yes and No, Eric. You believe that there's some "pile of mental gold" but you seem to believe that its powers may only exploited if someone like you who isn't a part of that pile of gold makes all the important decisions – and probably determines the rough conclusions that the scientists in the pile should reach. Sorry, science just cannot work like that. It makes absolutely no sense because the gold is composed of all the mental steps and decisions that you apparently want to take from them.
In Germany of the 1930s, they enjoyed the Aryan Physics. The politicians also saw some potential in the body of physicists but to optimize the usage of the potential, the physicists had to be constrained. For example, they had to be shielded from the evil Jewish and theoretical physics – starting with Einstein's relativity. Folks like Werner Heisenberg found themselves in between a rock and a hard place, seeing their patriotism collide with their scientific knowledge, passion, and integrity (Heisenberg obviously knew that relativity was right and he could mostly keep that view which indicates some tolerance of the system of that time, perhaps higher than what we are seeing today). Too bad, the "mainstream" thinking about these matters that you represent has returned to this discourse of the 1930s.
Theoretical physicists may be average or worse in tons of ordinary things. But what defines them is that they're better – or reasonably expected to be better – exactly in the kind of abstract, demanding, extraordinary things that the ordinary people are naive about. This is exactly where their freedom to think is absolutely essential for the exploitation of their intellectual potential. To suggest that they should be "led" by some outsiders or ordinary people when it comes to the big questions directly linked to the topic of the research means to say that they're really useless.
Weinstein dramatically discusses that in the mid 1980s, he could have joined theoretical physics but he didn't because he disliked string theory. Why do you discuss it so dramatically, Eric? You just never became a theoretical physicist. Many other people considered becoming astronauts but they didn't become astronauts, e.g. because NASA decided that their amputated leg was a problem, after all. What's the difference? Or consider a lad in the mid 19th century: "Dear professor, I want to become a famous physicist but I don't like thermodynamics and electrodynamics, those are useless failures. Kepler's laws were nice." What can the professor do with him? You were born in 1965 and around 1985, you were approximately 20 years old, a not very mature man, you weren't "getting" string theory and similar things that defined the field at that time, and you made a bet that string theory would be a fad that would go away. And maybe you could return to theoretical physics then.
Sadly, people born around 1965 are already leaving us. A crazy and eccentric yet privately introvert blonde Czech singer who loved tropics, delights, and plush toys, Daniel Infinite (Daniel Nekonečný) who was born in 1966 as Daniel Finite (Daniel Konečný, no kidding), and a key person in the bands "Laura And Her Tigers" and the "Roaring of the Swist", suddenly died of heart attack today (well, a few days ago, but was found today). See e.g. his I Am the Boss/Barefoot [And You Are Bosa Nova/Barefoot, a pun] or more.
Well, 34 years later, this bet still seems to be completely wrong and in these subsequent 34 years, you haven't done any – stringy or non-stringy – stuff that would be considered a valuable contribution to physics by anyone similar to Mr XY mentioned above. But you're trying to paint yourself as a hero because you didn't ever become a physicist. What sort of a hero status is it? You can see that you're just pandering to the egos of the most ordinary people who just want to hear that physicists are bad in some way, right?
You didn't become a physicist because you weren't capable of doing any research that would be considered interesting at that time. So you weren't hired by the people who really understand stuff. You could have hypothetically had some non-stringy interesting stuff but you didn't have it. In the subsequent 34-year-long era, the outcome would have probably been the same. You may be hired as a theoretical physicist by Peter Thiel who knows virtually nothing about theoretical physics. Great. Why do you think it is a reason to brag? It's not.
And now, in Weinstein's comments, there are some real gems such as:
The youngest person who has contributed to the Standard Model is Frank Wilczek now.Right. The youngest person who has co-built the Standard Model is a rather old man now – simply because the Standard Model is a rather old theory, too. And, if you have missed it, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton have already died. Rest in peace, Isaac and Albert. What's the big issue here? The Standard Model was really completed in the early to mid 1970s. In other words, the Standard Model hasn't been a cutting edge of theoretical physics that could pick the brightest minds for some 45 years.
Other topics have become the hot topics since the 1970s. Many questions have been basically settled while in others, theoretical physicists have found many possibilities and we don't know which of them is right if any. You don't appreciate these advances which is too bad. But the reason why you don't appreciate them is that you're just another ordinary layman. Your lack of appreciation isn't any different from the lack of appreciation for the cutting-edge science that most laymen have displayed in any other previous epoch of physics – or science.
It is frustrating that the broader society doesn't appreciate amazing things that were settled by theoretical physicists since that time – the fact that the spacetime we inhabit has some 6-8 extra dimensions, elementary building blocks are extended and may melt into each other, dualities imply that seemingly very different pictures of the Universe are actually equivalent, black holes evaporate yet preserve the information, there is AdS/CFT and its pp-wave limit and F-theory compactifications with fluxes that are at least cousins of our Universe, and so on.
And indeed, it has a personal dimension. Honestly, I also think it is utterly terrible that the broader public doesn't understand or appreciate e.g. matrix string theory and its founder! You could do better than the average member of the general public but you don't. It is very clear from the "worshiping" part of your monologue that you treat the membership in the "theoretical physics community" as a matter of one's big ego and (like in the case of a couple of other people) this ego was simply hurt when you didn't become a real theoretical physicist. So you're simply trying to revenge for that hurt ego.
There are tons of other weird statements made in the monologue. For example:
The theoretical physics also sits on some golden knowledge such as the renormalization group techniques which could be used everywhere. And theoretical physicists fail to communicate it...Renormalization group is indeed considered a great conceptual discovery by the "likes of XY" above. But what you don't seem to understand is that a physics researcher is something else (and, within the intellectual hierarchy, much more) than a communicator or a teacher or a journalist. People do various things. Particle physicists use the renormalization group in the particle physics research. Condensed matter physicists use it in condensed matter research. And the renormalization group philosophy and techniques may also gradually penetrate to "less hard" disciplines of the human activity because it can be useful there, too. But it is probably not quite as useful and it is also harder for the people in those "softer" disciplines because the renormalization group may be too hard.
Maybe the renormalization group techniques could advance many other fields. I find it totally plausible. Maybe it's a great project for very smart people similar to the physicist XY above. But "spreading the gospel of the renormalization group" simply isn't the job for the top minds in research. They have more important things to do. To "spread the gospel", it is enough to have "less special" people to do it. If the gospel isn't being spread, it's primarily the fault of the communicators, not the researchers. You don't really seem to understand the differences between the different occupations, Eric. The top researchers with extraordinary brains should have the room to do research – and especially the room to investigate possible ideas with far-reaching, surprising, and counterintuitive conclusions because that's where their comparative advantage lies. No one should intimidate them and force them to accept a layman's opinion about the number of dimensions in the Universe, if I pick a very simple yet important example. If you hire ordinary people to decide about the big enough questions – like whether string theory is correct, you know – while you violently downgrade top researchers to some journalists who promote 40-year-old physics discoveries such as the renormalization group, you will basically destroy science as a part of our civilization. This is no detail, it's no laughing matter.
Incidentally, I would be thrilled to join as a champion of the "renormalization group for other fields". But back in the real world, I have to be one of the warriors who want to preserve variables such as \(x\) and \(y\) in the elementary schools, among similar things, and we're still apparently losing even this battle! How do you want to increase the knowledge of the renormalization group by folks in other fields in a society that is increasingly hostile towards science (and mathematics)? And you, Eric, are contributing to this anti-science hostility – much more than you have ever contributed to science itself.
There is nothing generally wrong about theoretical physics since the 1970s and all the propaganda claiming otherwise is just the postmodern version of the Aryan Physics or Aryan Physics v2.0. Everyone who participates in it should be deeply ashamed. What is actually wrong are the external political pressures acting against the scientific environment and the scholars' very freedom of thought.
And don't make a mistake about it: Superstring/M-theory is the language in which God wrote the ten-dimensional world.
Amen to that – no one else says this for me, either. ;-)
A rant against the relevance of quantum computers
A bonus example showing how journalists are serving anti-science sentiments everywhere
Reader P.F. has enjoyed an article Quantum No Threat to Supercomputing As We Know it. It's quite annoying because that text is almost certainly the worst demagogic text I read about quantum computers in years.
The girl who wrote it created a heroic story from the proposition "Cray, a supercomputer company, hasn't joined efforts to build a quantum computer". Great, it hasn't but what's so wonderful about it? Just a small number of companies did – and those are more interesting here, aren't they? Most companies in the world didn't. Exxon, Tesla, Nestle and other not-really-high-tech companies don't work on their quantum computer. If you really appreciate that passivity, Peter, let me say that I don't own any experimental lab for quantum computing, either! ;-)
And indeed, quantum computers aren't "direct competitors" to supercomputers. Like Philip Morris International, Cray will probably do fine commercially without any quantum computing platform. But the research of quantum computers isn't just some business as usual. It's a disruptive activity - to exploit a buzzword that the journalists who love to spread hype choose in tons of wrong contexts but don't pick e.g. here where it's appropriate – meant to create a whole new industry. Some companies that have worked in adjacent industries are working on it. The current stage is a gradual transition from applied physics to commercially feasible products. It's not yet an established industry which is why it's wrong to look at this activity from a "business as usual" perspective. The companies who invest into it should better not overpay. But that doesn't mean that there aren't wonderful reasons to join these efforts.
Supercomputers and quantum computers are like the companies producing high-caffeinated sodas (Kofola) and alcoholic beverages (Stock Spirits) – choose which of them is the high-energy novel field LOL. They just don't "directly" compete because the beverages are qualitatively different and have different audiences and contexts when they're consumed. Or a more technical analogy: producers of tanks vs anti-tank missiles. They don't directly compete with each other except that the products sometimes do fight against each other. An anti-tank missile may do a very special task – like a quantum computer – a task that rips a tank apart.
Are anti-tank missiles good or bad for the producers of tanks? They're probably good. When tanks are being eliminated by missiles, a straightforward solution is to replete the reservoir of tanks. So tank companies produce more and have higher profits. It's analogous with supercomputers whose applications may be "ripped apart" by some quantum algorithms. When some codes are broken by quantum computers, the first defense strategy will probably be to make the codes harder by using more of the ordinary supercomputer tricks, won't it?
So the claim that supercomputers and quantum computers don't directly compete is probably true – but it's not new at all. And everything else that is being served to the reader is just some kind of misleading delusion. In between the lines, the readers is being served that quantum computers can't have far-reaching implications. They may very well have very far-reaching (and perhaps dangerous) implications for our IT world that depends on cryptography. The reader is served that quantum computers aren't a big deal or they're not very new and fancy applied science. They are a very big deal, surely from a scientific viewpoint. Unlike all the stuff that average journalists love to hype – climate change or electric cars, for example (which aren't new or scientifically interesting at all) – quantum computers are both novel and deep.
And the readers are being persuaded that it's heroic for Cray to ignore this potentially emerging field, quantum computing. There is nothing heroic about it at all. And there's nothing intelligent about praising similar would-be high-brow articles written by girls who don't have a clue about the things that actually matter. By the way, this article is what the "politically correct" articles about quantum computing will look like – hostile rants by authors who don't have a clue how quantum mechanics works but who present themselves as important pundits by spitting on its tangible applications.