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Rob Sheldon on the physics wars: Stagnation or no?


Our physics color commentator, Rob Sheldon, was looking at two physicists’ recent salvos and offers some thoughts:

Nicole Yunger Halpern (Theoretical physicist: My field is not going to the dogs


The point of view represented by Sabine Hossenfelder (Theoretical physicist: Present phase of physics “not normal” – stagnation, not crisis) and Sarah Scoles (Is cosmology in crisis over how to measure the universe?)

Halpern’s response is typical. She’s a young, female, postdoc with jobs at MIT and Harvard. Of course, the future looks bright! Now if it had been a white, male, 40-ish, on his third-postdoc at a 2nd tier school, the story would have been very different.

But Halpern is exactly who Sabine Hossenfelder is talking to. What she wrote was:

How long can they go on with this, you ask? How long can they keep on spinning theory-tales?

I am afraid there is nothing that can stop them. They review each other’s papers. They review each other’s grant proposals. And they constantly tell each other that what they are doing is good science. Why should they stop? For them, all is going well. They hold conferences, they publish papers, they discuss their great new ideas. From the inside, it looks like business as usual, just that nothing comes out of it.

This is not a problem that will go away by itself.

What Nicole Halpern says is all true—non-equilibrium stat mech is great progress after stagnation in the equilibrium variety. And these theorems are interesting—even if they don’t result in any new techniques, motors, computers, or Wall Street algorithms. But her very enthusiasm belies her words.

She wants to say it is new. My officemate in grad school, admittedly a far geekier genius than I, had worked out the “power-law” tails of non-equilibrium systems in 1989 under some prodding of my own. The “founding paper” that gives the theory for these results, was published in 1999.

She is a recent graduate, say, 22 years of age. And the work she is so excited about was done before she was born.

Oh sure, more data, there’s always more data. But new? Hardly.

That is exactly the sort of stagnation Sabine Hossenfelder is talking about. An entire graduate student lifetime without anything new to report.

The Long Ascent: Genesis 1â 11 in Science & Myth, Volume 1 by [Sheldon, Robert] Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent

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See also: Theoretical physicist: My field is not going to the dogs Fair enough. But when you need a press agent, Madam Physicist, you need one. Why are you letting crackpots control the news stream from your field?

Is cosmology in crisis over how to measure the universe? One wonders how much of the problem stems from the need for a different universe from the one we have.

Theoretical physicist: Present phase of physics “not normal” – stagnation, not crisis Sabine Hossenfelder notes that working on the hard mathematical problems led to breakthroughs in physics but fears that, once again, the continued organization of conferences and production of papers will be the choice. Oh, and nonsense: “blathering about naturalness and multiverses and shifting their ‘predictions,’ once again, to the next larger particle collider.”


Physicist: The ultimate theory will be “geometrically natural” Garrett Lisi at Sabine Hossenfelder’s blog: “The high energy physics community has spent far too much time following the bandwagon of superstring theory, long after the music has stopped playing. It’s time for theorists to spread out into the vast realm of theoretical possibilities and explore different ideas.” He also thinks that the “naturalness” aesthetic that the fundamental constants should be near 1 is a “red herring” because “the universe doesn’t seem to care about that.” Many will likely welcome the freedom to explore new ideas.


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