I got an email Monday from a philosophy-professor friend asking what I thought of the new “theory of everything” (“TOE”) developed by one Garrett Lisi, who apparently is being talked up on the Internet and in some newspapers as a “new Einstein”. Lisi does not have a job at a university or research lab (although he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from UC San Diego in 1999), and is portrayed in some accounts as a “surfer dude” who does physics in his spare time. My friend’s email caused me a momentary twinge of embarrassment, as I had never even heard of Lisi or his theory. I did a quick search and found the paper that was causing all the ruckus. It is called “A Surprisingly Simple Theory of Everything.” My own impression (based on a cursory reading) is that the paper does not propose a consistent theory of anything , let alone everything. Investigating further, I found that people who have looked more closely at the paper than I am inclined to do have come to the same conclusion. The physicist and indefatigable physics blogger LuboÅ¡ Motl goes so far as to use the word crackpot to describe this work.

Anyone who works in cosmology or particle physics—fields where sexy things like quarks, grand unified theories, and expanding universes are discussed—will, over the course of his career, get approached by people claiming to have revolutionary new theories. Some of them are merely Walter Mitty types, whose dreams of scientific glory are undisturbed by any real knowledge of the nitty-gritty realities of science or research. Others are probably nuts in some clinically recognized sense. One always wonders, when visited by such people, whether they will become violent if one is too honest with them. Recently, a rather hulking fellow in a leather jacket came to my office to explain his “unified field theory” to me. He began by asking politely if I would mind if he closed my office door behind him. I replied, “I’d rather the door remained open, actually,” adding to myself, “so they’ll be able to hear my screams.” Between the crazies and the dreamers lies a broad spectrum of crackpots. I don’t know whether there is a technical term in psychiatry for crackpots, or whether psychologists even study the phenomenon of crackpottery—but if they don’t, they should, because it is real and not at all rare.

Some of these crackpots are amusing characters. When I was at the University of Washington in the early 1980s, a fellow who styled himself Rheo H. Star came breezing into the physics department claiming to have a theory that explained everything from the interactions of quarks to the propulsion systems of flying saucers. He had a gift for impressive terminology. One of his equations he called the “Tri-gon Tensor Equation.” And he had invented a device (it looked like an electric chair) called the “psycho-dynamometer.” I sure hope he never used it on anyone.

Over the years, I suppose I have talked to, or been sent material by, dozens of would-be scientific revolutionaries. Much of the blame for this kind of thing lies with the Einstein myth. We have all heard that Einstein flunked math in school. We have all heard that Einstein was a nobody, an outsider working alone in a patent office who was, by the force of his untutored genius, able to sweep away all that went before. All nonsense, of course. Einstein did very well in subjects like math and physics in school. (He did poorly in French, though, because he hated it and didn’t study.) Einstein obtained a doctorate in physics. He had a profound and detailed knowledge of the cutting-edge physics of his day. His theory of relativity did not sweep away all that went before but was an entirely logical outgrowth of earlier physics.

It is not just the crackpots who are victims of the Einstein myth. Some graduate students suffer from Einstein complexes, too. They don’t want to work on anything that does not have the possibility of radically revising our view of the universe. Anything less than that is too pedestrian. Not for them the patient step-by-step progress of science. That was not Einstein’s attitude. One of his most important contributions—the one for which he won the Nobel Prize, in fact—came from thinking carefully about a rather dry, technical, and mundane-seeming phenomenon called the photo-electric effect.

The Einstein myth is part of the larger Romantic myth of the genius as rebel: Beethoven shaking his fist at the heavens. Nothing is great unless it’s “transgressive.” Fortunately, science is not much affected by this idiocy. Partly this is because experimental data serves as a reality principle. Partly it is because science is so technical that the crackpot is simply weeded out when he proves unable to acquire the necessary technical skills. It seems that the humanities are not in so fortunate a condition.

In the final analysis, it is the experts who must police things. Generally, in the natural sciences this works. The kooks are kept out and largely ignored. Of course the kooks bitterly complain that “the establishment” is out to get them, as it was out to get all the other great rebel-geniuses they imagine scientific history to be full of. The problem in so many other fields is that not a few of the experts give every appearance of being kooks themselves. Architectural experts destroy beautiful old Catholic churches. Liturgical experts give us liturgies that are painful and embarrassing ordeals. Literary theorists write impenetrable prose. Psychologists give us twinky defenses. The question arises: When is one to trust the experts and when is one to trust one’s own instincts? It may be the central problem of our times.

My own guiding principle is to trust the experts (generally speaking) on anything purely technical, but to rely more on my own judgment as far as human realities go. I trust the architect on what will keep the building up but not on what is beautiful. I trust the pediatrician, but not the child psychologist. When we had our first child, my wife read a number of books on how to raise one’s kids. I never wanted to hear what they had to say, much to her annoyance. She noted that they had degrees in the subject and I didn’t. My own feeling was that if it took a degree to raise a child properly, the human race would have died out 100,000 years ago. I’d rather trust my parents’ advice and example and my own instincts in such matters than some egghead of dubious sanity.

But physics is a technical field, and so, if you want to know whether a theory of physics makes any sense, it is a pretty safe bet to trust the professional physics community. Trust me on that. I am an expert.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr

Loading...