Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Einstein, new Galois, new Margalef...

Firs a clarification about the title. Most people know who Einstein or Galois are, but maybe not so many will know Margalef. He is an Spanish ecologist who begun his career as a self educated amateur and ended up with a tenure. I choose him because I needed a somewhat Spanish equivalent of the other two personalities.

All those people share a common point. They were brilliant scientifcs (Einstein and Galois simply top notch genius) who did at least part of it´s work outside academia.

The posts, as some can have supposed, is related to the famous "new Einstein" issue initiated by Lee Smollin. For those who don't know this affair simply to say that Lee Smollin published an article entitled "why no new Einstein" where he asked for somewhat who would revolutionize the nowadays physic in a similar way to what Einstein did in its time. Smollin was particularly interested in the philosophical nature of the Einstein contributions.

Well, I think that Einstein had a great intuition and that he presented his ideas in a very elegant way. But I don't think that to consider them Philosophy would make them any justice.

Possibly most interesting was his other consideration about Einstein. He did part of his work (the work in his "anni mirabilis") outside academy, you know, when he was in the patent office. In this respect Einstein was not alone. Before him many well known names had a similar role. Galois never had an academic position (possibly because he was killed before his work was broadly known). Lagrange was a self educated guy. Faraday made significant contributions to physics without a formal academic formation. The list is long and includes a large amount of well known scientifics in the ninety century. Also in the twenty century there are some names beyond Einstein (I am not totally sure but I guess that Banach was one of them).

But the truth is hat nowadays seemingly there are not too many examples (if any) of them. Maybe Perelman is the nearest example. He proved the Poincares conjecture which deserved him the corresponding Claymath prize. Also he was honoured with Fields medal, but he rejected it. He declined his academic position and now works in his home (or his mother home). But it is not the exact situation because as fr as I know he , until them, has followed a conventional way in academy.

Well, Smollin stated that he expected that the revolution of physic would come from out of the academy and was very interested in searching the "new Einstein".

I will say some comments about this particular. There is a difference between Einstein and previous times to nowadays. The scientific knowledge has growth a lot and it is necessary much more time to get the right preparation to be in conditions to publish important and revolutionary things. For example the gap between graduate studies and cutting edge physics is a lot greater now that in Einstein times (I would say that in Einstein times were around two or three years and now is 40 years). that means that an intelligent guy who has ended his undergraduate studies in physics and elaborates creatively with them has very few possibilities to create something valuable.

Another aspect is that in Einstein times there were no computers (nor financial markets). It is very easy that the "should be new Einstein" would end programming in an anonymous software company or doing "econophysic" in the financial markets.

I would add other thing. The goodbeeing state doesn't aim people to make a big effort to make big contributions that would give them fame, and, consequently money if they can live reasonably well without them. Anyone with the intelligent to be a "should be Einstein" surely knows hot to make some money without too much effort so creating something terribly special that would make him famous is not a priority.

Said that, is impossible a "new Einstein"?. I totally agree with Lubos that the most probable place to find him is inside academy. I totally recommend to anyone interested in purchasing a research position to care his expedient and all that. Certainly academy has is dark points (Lubos apparently is out of it because he doesn't like them) but it is not that bad.

Still there is a point about the new Einstein issue that is interesting. To become famous and doing great contributions being inside academy is "easy" (haha). But if you are a real genius it is possible that you would think precisely that, that is too easy and that the good point is to do your great work outside academy. Only the "minor minds" need to depend on good teachers and all the facilities that a first class university offers. Certainly it sound more "fashion", but I wouldn't recommend none to do that way.

And no, I am not at all trying to, subtlety, qualify myself as a "new Einstein" candidate. The main point of this post is to clarify th issue of the gap between undergraduate (or graduate, I always get lost with the correspondence between the Spanish word "licenciatura" and the corresponding English equivalent)and the cutting edge physic. If someone dreams about doing valuable work outside academy after finishing his studies he would be aware that he would need at least five years of intensive study to become near the frontier of knowledge. He would consider seriously if his economic/personal positions would allow him to do that, specially in this incoming years of economic crisis. I think that in that sense the claims of Smollin, and in fact not inly him, are dangerous because in a certain sense they make look glamorous a path that is mainly destined to fail.


Dedalus said...

por un instante se me ocurre que el nuevo Einstein (usaré el término aunque no me agrada para nada) aparecerá, sí, de la academia; pero no de la búsqueda de prestigio o glamour científico, no en la búsqueda de un nobel, ni nada por el estilo. Se me ocurre que quizás es la hora para que el genio, fuera de las circunstancias hostiles de nuestra sociedad, aparezca con nuevas verdades descubiertas por una sencilla y pura voluntad de descubrir.

Matti Pitkanen said...

To my opinion the reason for the impossibility of new Einstein's is the over technicalization of theoretical physics which has led to the disappearance of conceptual thinking. The people allowed to enter to the field are technically oriented left-brainies who love to calculate fast and effectively instead of thinking which is possible only in time scale of decades and means giving up any hopes about academic career.

Just by looking what is regarded as mini revolution in F theory shows how primitive the level of conceptualization is. People are happy if they can reproduce with enormous effects the results of some GUT, which themselves represent the absolute minimum of imaginative thinking, involve a lot of ad hoc assumptions, and not a single deep principle. Just a simplistic generalization of the recipe that worked is in question. Mountains giving birth to míce: this saying describes the situation excellently.

It is simply impossible to build a profound theory if the existence of deep problems is denied and of the starting assumptions are dictated by political correctness and dreams about career.

Einstein did not calculate much. Instead, he formulated some deep principles. That super symmetric generalization of his deepest theory might provide one of very few examples about finite quantum field theories demonstrates how enormous power this kind of approach has.

Javier said...

Hi Matti, welcome here again.

I would matizate some of your comments. I don't think that the lack of conceptual thinking is a "privilege" of string theorists. Most physicists, from the lower to the upper califications belong to that category.

Since the availability to everyone, bbye means of xeros, of large colections of solved problems there a lot of average non brilliant students whose only abiity is to read and memorize that collections and do a labor of patter recognitzion tosee wht problem of the list match the one proposed on the exam.

That people don't understand the theory and the concepts. They don't even even understand the problem they actually are solving. Of course they would be totally unable to make the problem by themselves but they can look like "problem solvers" at least for a certain time. And you can be sure that there are a lot of them with a degree and even a doctorate.

That is (part of) what I call "burocratic inteligence" and certainly is good for certain purposes. Pitty for them that physic and mathematic inteligence are not specially correlated with that kind of inteligence :P.

about the f-theory minirevolution I agree that it is not revolutionary i its conetps. But I don't think that it was intended to be so. It is phenomenology derived form theoretical developments principally stabblished in the D-brane revolution (althought the 7-brane of theory actually is not neceessarily a d-brane). It's point is to try to make predictions of string theory that could actually be tested in the LHC and in cosmology. In that respect I find perfectly reasonable that people try to work in it (if they know how to, that it is not an easy machinery).

Out of the f-theory minirevolution I dont think that string theory is necesarilly closed to conceptual thinking. certainly many presentations in books and review articles are of that kind. But there are also articles where conceptual considerations are addressed. ANd I don't see a reason why "conceptual thinkers" can't do string theory. Possibly they would end publishing paers on string theory that cited mostly among them, but may be not.

My positio in this scneary of string wars is well described by a phrase of Feynman: "open minded but not ampty minded".

By the way, not too time ago I saw a paper in string theory (related to dark energy) that remotely rememberd me your stuff about "many plnck scales", ni a most conventiona seetting, of course. I was to busy by them to leave you an advise in your about it andn now I can't find it again, sorry. Try to make a search if you are interested.

Javier said...


Antes que nada aprovecho para esclarecer que entre estar totalmente dentro de la academia y estar totalment fuera hay terminos medios (ese es mi caso).

Y bueno, si, posiblemente las revoluciones mas conceptuales no vayan a estar relacionadas con un premio nobel. por ejemplo Einstien mismo se llevo el nobel por el efecto fotoeléctrico y no por las teorias de la relatividad.