Lower the standard of living … Gran Torino and “The Trouble with Physics”

An email written on Jan. 19, 2009:
Half an hour ago or so, I heard an American guy (in HK) give his opinions in CNBC World — who is frequently talking in CNBC (Asia).  He said something I’ve hoped to say/hear … He said that there is no fix to the American financial turmoil and the Obama govt. should be honest to tell the Americans to prepare to lower their living standard — which is the only real solution.   He said that the US govt. shouldn’t try to tell people to spend to help the economy … and if the govt. forces banks to lend the money in this situation, how could the banks make the right decision in a hurry in this dangerous situation ?? It’d be a mistake all over again — mostly in my words with my interpretation my digestion.
That’s something that I’ve been saying and I’ve never heard people say it so bluntly and honestly in public !!!   I say he should be the guy who advises Obama !!!!!!  I think the Democratic system doesn’t have the mechanism to correct itself when the integral (after the integration of all infinitesimal — ie. individual — minds ) of the system is heading to the wrong direction.  I guess the voters don’t want to be told to lower their living standards … It’s easy to blame the Bush (or his administration) for all the mistakes. But after all, wasn’t he elected TWICE ?!!  If the Iraqian war is as easy as like pushing a TV button and all of us are now gaining the benefits (be it security or money etc.) from the war, I doubt how much lower the decibel of  the anti-war voices would be and how many would say the war was wrong (and probably Obama would not be elected).  People think it’s wrong (I think) mainly because people have now see the consequence … And years ago who were blaming the banks to lend them easy money to buy houses that they couldn’t afford ??   { By the way, I’m only 3-4 months away from paying off all my mortgage — an important reason was my (non-)investment strategy. }  Now everybody is blaming the govt. …. 
Seeing that the Congress is proposing budget (at least in the current version), my Dept. is again optimistic (though we’d all learnt all the lessons for so many years) and worrying how early the additional money would come to us … Ah !  Maybe things like "energy conservation" aren’t  applicable in US … so that we (in US) can get rich(er) by spending more …. ( But I’d certainly continue to save money — so that there will be 1 fewer people who will beg for govt. "bail-out". )
I cannot but remember the Tolstoy’s interpretation of history — the result of the integration of all the individual minds …
In passing, I have to say that, this afternoon, I went to see a movie called "Gran Torino".  I think these days, I kill my time by either reading or watching movies (last Wed’s skiing was rare).   Though I had expected that it might not be so straightforward for Clint Eastwood’s role to play the heroic part. The ending has  surprised me yet. I don’t completely enjoy how Hmong people were described in this movie, kind of too cliché in showing the differences and too patronizing. But I have to say that I’ve been quite touched throughout the entire watching experience in the theater. My rather exotic view (most probably not what Eastwood has been thinking) at the end of the movie is that when one realizes how meaningless one’s life is, one may just as well let the people who haven’t realized its meaninglessness to "enjoy"/live one’s life.  Clint Eastwood has directed and acted for quite a few movies and he seems to be quite successful in doing both … It’s like talking about life and death at times (between Eastwood and the priest).  There is no lack of humor and want of funny moments. 


Almost a week ago, I’ve also finished a book called "The trouble with Physics" written by Lee Smolin.   It’s more interesting than I’d thought. It’s more than just attacking the string theory having nothing to show for after 30 years or so.  Smolin itself spent some time in string theorist and so I’ve learnt more from him about string theory and other aspects than the other anti-string-theorist Peter Woit @ Columbia (in his book "Not even wrong"). But I’ve probably learnt/realized even more in the philosophical and sociological aspects of fundamental physics research and the trends. Let me try to write down what the "newer" ideas I’ve learnt in addition to the obvious point that the community of string theorists takes away most of the resources available to fundamental research (ie. particle physics, cosmology, with quantum mechanics and special/general relativity) and leaves other researchers with almost no opportunity (especially in US).
1. Though string theorists thought (and other people thought, too) they were the smartest people, the string theorists actually have just followed what the leader(s) of the string theory field  think/say at the time  to choose to what to do !!!   The leader is obviously and mostly Edward Witten @ Princeton, (though Smolin most often uses the word "leader" instead of "Witten", it’s obvious after my reading 2 books talking about this subject).  To the point that when there are doubts and you ask what the string theorists (who may not be young >40 years old) think, they may say "What does Ed think ?" …. I remember hearing even Joseph Polchinski @ Stanford (who has introduced "D-branes" to string theory) said that Witten is so much smarter than the rest of "them".
2. Physics (or science) is certainly not far less open-minded than I thought.   The above phenomenon happens because if the people don’t follow a trendy research (even inside string theory), they wouldn’t be able to get funding, job and tenureship.  Before the so-called 1st superstring revolution (ie. adding supersymmetry may solve the main infinite/anomaly problem in string theory) in 1984/5, it’s actually very difficult for string theorists to find jobs. John Schwartz  was denied tenure in Princeton (in spite of his huge contribution to string theory at that time) and had to be research associate (postdoc !!) in Caltech for 12 years !  He was promptly promoted to be a full/tenured professor at Caltech after that revolution.
2.1  The opposite has happened afterwards.  Young theorists had to do string theories and see what Witten thinks it was the most important topics to do at that time so that his contribution would be acknowledged/noticed.  I had thought that the time that Einstein came in from outside to revolutionize physics has gone but this book actually tells me that  any revolution would probably come from those independent thinkers who don’t have good jobs or no job …. Very alarming !  Even Nobel Prize winner Gerard ‘t Hooft was laughed at and marginalized when he went to do research believing that quantum mechanics is wrong.
So, physicists are actually very snobbish and in small circles, just like every other career.  I’ve understood quite a bit of this after > 10 years in experimental particle physics  … but Smolin’s description seems even worse than I had imagined.
3. Another thing that I’ve learnt from Smolin is that string theorists are unjustly optimistic and self-confidence.  He’s expended a lot of words in this aspect.  Even though the M-theory (from Witten @ 2nd superstring revolution) is only a speculation, the string theorists have described it as a precise theory (especially to the public) that they’ve written down clearly … but it’s absolutely NOT — this part is also made very clear by P. Woit.  Nobody has any concrete/detailed formulation for the M-theory.
Another crucial example is string theory’s finiteness.  After a paper or 2 by somebody, it was just assumed that string theory would turn out to be finite.  This has been assumed by most people including Smolin himself (!) until he needed to write a review in 2002 !  It turns out that it’s not proven at all whether string theory is finite or not (apparently even now). 
{ By comparison, ‘t Hooft proved in 1970’s that Yang-Mills theory is renormalizable …and thus standard model …).
4.  Brian Greene in "The Fabric of the Cosmoc" has talked me a lot of new quantum mechanics development that I was completely ignorant of.  Smolin in this book has talked me some thoughts about "relativity" — how it might be wrong (including the limit of the speed of light and the distinction between motion and rest).  Interesting !  Though I know a bit about the Pierre Auger experiment or "Observatory" in Argentina, I didn’t know that it also tried to test relativity at the highest speed/energy of proton (far into the universe).
4.1 Thinking back, Greene is probably one of those conventional physicists who don’t think the Copenhagen interpretation or the quantum mechanics has to be wrong.  I’ve been under the impression that anybody who spends time in understanding the fundamentals of quantum mechanics is kind of wasting his/her time — Greene quoted one colleague say that. 
But reading from Smolin, he’s convinced me that this is the exact mistake/consequence why independent thinkers are rare in today’s field of research.  NSF (in US) wouldn’t fund people to try to dig more into (for example) Bohm’s version of quantum mechanics (which I knew a bit) as some senior people incorrectly thought Bell’s inequality/expts. had beaten  Bohm’s alternative.
Smolin uses the words "seers" vs "craftpeople" and revolutionary science vs normal science.  Obviously, most most string theorists (or any group of scientists I think) are "craftpeople".   Smolin makes the point that the peer review of publications and the tenureship system has made it difficult for the independent thinkers to survive in today’s academia.  It’s possible that the next revolution may be again initiated by people without real academic job (like Einstein) — which I once said to my friends that it’d not happen.
Interestingly, probably, the time that Feynman et. al. could make work QED etc. to unbelivable accuracy without having to understand what’s the fundamentals of quantum mechanics has come to an end or … we have done as much as we can do on this path.  Better than P. Woit, I think Smolin has given some plausible alternatives to string theory, quantum mechanics, relativity (light may travel faster in earlier universe or speed of light is not a constant beyond planck scale etc) and quantum gravity.
5. Smolin introduced to me about the idea of background-independence.  General Relativity is background-independent in that the geometry is not the background but part of the entire structure.  But string theory is not.  This is quite a persuasive argument that the string theory can’t be the ultimate theory (but rather at most another approximation leading to the ultimate theory) as string theory also wants to describe the gravity as least as fundamental as the General Relativity.   J. Polchinski, with the normal string theorists’ hope, said that it’s just that they hadn’t find the mathematical structure to attain background-independence — not very convincing (as there is no real/proven scheme but just a remote hope for miracle).
6.  Apparently, very recently (probably even more after Smolin has published this book in 2006),  the string theorists are not united any more as before.  People may have broken away from the leadership, when some still believe/hope that the ultimate string theory would be able to give us unique parameters in fundamental physics,  whereas the other group (Stanford seems to have the main concentration here !) embraces the anthropic landscape (as we have 10^500 versions of string theories, each one is as likely as the other ones).  It’s said that Susskind once claimed that the choice was between "Anthropic Landscape" and "Intelligent Design" !! 
7.  It’s clear from Smolin that fundamental physics needs badly a revolution (in time or space or …).  Just like investment, revolutionary is a high risk but it also has high gain.  I guess people these days don’t have this kind of appetite in today’s economy.  Interestingly, from Smolin and his examples, it seems that "UK has a soft spot for heretics" and that UK may be more open-minded in accepting independent thinkers than USA or Italy.   Smolin (from US) has helped found Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, which was possible by a huge donation from <>.  Apparently, they had hired quite a no. of physicists who are not doing the mainstream physics and very likely wouldn’t be hired in US academic circles.  Good for them !
This book hasn’t just ameliorated my knowledge in string theory or other non-mainstream possible ideas in physics, it also suddenly grants me the comfort that it’s not a waste of time to think about the meaning of life — even though I don’t have any results to show for. 



About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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