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Geometric Unity: phenomenal advance, or crazy theory?

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.

More information

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.

  1. 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“. []

13 Responses to “Geometric Unity: phenomenal advance, or crazy theory?”

  1. Christian Perfect

    I’ve spent the last few days wondering why nobody has mentioned in all the hundreds of comment pieces that he founded the excellent Wolfram MathWorld, but I just checked and that’s Eric Weisstein.
    Silly me.

    Reply
    • Peter Rowlett

      Haha! The original first line I wrote contained “Eric Weinstein (not that one)”, but then I realised and deleted it (thank goodness I didn’t reveal that mistake to the world).

      Reply
      • Colin Beveridge

        I would have made exactly the same error, and not checked it.

        My opinion: this is not the way to present new results; in some respects, it’s little better than a ‘boffin discovers perfect formula for particle physics’ article; in others, it’s worse because they ought to know better.

        Reply
  2. F Pait

    Well perhaps more likely than a practicing economist solving the big mathematical problem that all physicists are asking would by a physicist answering the big question that all economists should be asking, but are not: what is money? Mathematically, I mean: what is the mathematical structure that corresponds to the concept (in fact multiple concepts) of money supply, the amount of money in circulation?

    Ask an economist, you’ll get the concentrated scorn of the establishment. Waiting for someone outside the field to answer.

    Reply
  3. Keith Ramsay

    When I knew Eric, when we were students, he was never one to stand on formalities when it came to sharing ideas. I appreciate that about him. I’m glad to see he’s continued to think about physics.

    It’s naive to imagine that being able to work full-time on these things (as a professional) isn’t a big help, but I wouldn’t assume he couldn’t produce a good idea just because he is now making his paycheck doing something else. If it is a good enough idea, things like arXiv preprints and so on will follow soon enough.

    Reply
  4. Able Lawrence

    If you look at the history of the theories that are considered Orthodox today including General Relativity, Quantum field theories and standard models, or even string theory, they all were presented initially in an incomplete form (String theory remains incomplete and perhaps unattainable experimentally) and took decades to develop.
    State of Physics today is pathetic with leading string theorists citing “lack of viable alternatives” as an argument for validity (Read Peter Woitt in Not Even Wrong).
    Even if the Geometric Unity Theory is wrong, we might gain knowledge by exploring. Dismissing it without studying is unscientific and no different from the reactions of the Pope and clergy to Galileo

    Reply
      • Anonymous

        The Alok Jha and Marcus du Sautoy articles are interesting but don’t give much detail. It would be good to have a chance to look at something more technical and see others views of it.
        Marcus’s views certainly suggest that the maths is interesting even if it doesn’t prove over time to be as powerful in unifying physics as Weinstein believes it will.

        Reply
  5. Luca Turin

    It seems to me there are two issues here:

    1- Eric Weinstein did not hand out a preprint to go with the lecture, which apparently is the norm in this field. In biology, btw, the paranoia is such that people usually don’t give talks until the work is _accepted_ for publication by a refereed journal.

    2- Marcus du Sautoy —somewhat rashly— wrote an article in a high-profile daily about this lecture which he organised, thereby giving the whole thing “undue” prominence.

    Add 1 and 2 together and you find that you have given leave to every envious, bitchy colleague to rant self-righteously about the whole thing, which is what happened. None of this, of course, has anything to do with whether or not Eric actually figured out something important. The notion, btw, that he is an _amateur_ is laughable. Regardless of his publications record, does anyone actually know how much time he has spent thinking about this over the years ? I don’t, but I believe that’s the only thing that counts.

    Reply
  6. Jimi Cullen

    Regarding the update on whether the Physics community was made aware of the lecture before it was given, I am an undergraduate at Oxford and received an email which was sent to (at least) all mathematics undergraduates here inviting us to the talk. It gave a similar description for the talk as the one given here http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/simonyi-lectures/special-simonyi-lecture-2013-eric-weinstein and said that rather than being aimed at the general public, this talk would announce “exciting new progress on open problems in Mathematics and Physics”. A number of my friends studying Physics went to the talk, so I assume that they received a similar email. I’m not in a position to know what the physics academics at the university knew about the talk, but it was advertised to us students.

    Reply
  7. Fernandos

    I believe that the proposed theory can be true and that’s not because I’ve had access to the yet unpublished paper, but because I’ve come up with similar conclusions from reading the constructor theory, interference theory, the finding of the univalence axiom and the HoTT paper.

    I really don’t know howto explain it without drawing a picture or taking 30minutes to find a simple explanation to it, that everyone can understand. But I’ll leave this here, so that maybe someone who has the same thinking as me can come up with an explanation.

    Reply

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