Marcus du Sautoy has this week presented to the world the physics of Eric Weinstein. ‘Geometric Unity’, apparently, argues “that the seemingly baroque features of the standard model of particle physics are in fact inexorable and geometrically natural when generalizations of the Yang-Mills and Dirac theories are unified with one of general relativity”.
Apparently, du Sautoy and Weinstein were postdocs together in the 1990s. Weinstein is a mathematical physicist turned economist who has been working on his these ideas privately for 20 years. Two years ago, he started to explain his thoughts to Marcus in a bar in New York.
Marcus describes this in an article in the Guardian, in which he calls the ideas “potential answers for many of the major problems in physics”. Alok Jha, also writing in the Guardian, reports the view of several people who have seen some of the ideas. He has David Kaplan saying this is not just a crazy theory from someone outside academia:
Kaplan says it is “phenomenal” that someone coming from outside academia could put together something so coherent. “There are many people who come from the outside with crazy theories, but they are not serious. Eric is serious.”
He is reported, however, saying that “the theory is incomplete and should have spent more time being critiqued by academics before receiving any wider public attention”.
Andrew Pontzen, writing in New Scientist, goes much further, criticising the way the theory has been presented to the world:
While Weinstein was delivering his lecture, the theoretical physicists were in a different room listening to a different speaker discuss a different topic… Only afterwards did anyone spot news of the revelatory talk that had taken place next door.
Hosting a lecture in a university physics department without inviting any physicists is, at best, an unforgivable oversight.1 As my colleague Subir Sarkar put it, “It’s surprising that the organisers did not invite the particle physicists to attend – if indeed the intention was to have a discussion.”
Jennifer Ouellette at Scientific American is unhappy with the Guardian’s part in all this:
My beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy?
Many amateur science revelations from nowhere, particularly on this scale, are likely to be treated highly sceptically, and a newspaper article and public lecture are strange ways to present new science for scrutiny (as commenter ‘A.J.’ says on a post at Not Even Wrong, “Paper, or it didn’t happen”). However, this comes with respected people saying we should take it seriously and comparisons (in both Guardian articles) with Albert Einstein. I’m left not quite knowing what to make of all this, and recommend reading all the links below. I would be interested to hear what you think in the comments.
Eric Weinstein may have found the answer to physics’ biggest problems by Marcus du Sautoy.
Roll over Einstein: meet Weinstein by Alok Jha.
Weinstein’s theory of everything is probably nothing by Andrew Pontzen.
Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played by Jennifer Ouellette.
- Correction: Andrew Pontzen has posted a message on Twitter 27/05/2013 saying that the article “is awaiting a clarification that @marcusdusautoy did try to invite physicists, the message just wasn’t widely circulated“. [↩]