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What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists (aeon.co)
563 points by tbrownaw on Aug 11, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 318 comments



Whenever I talk about physics (to non-scientists), I notice that people have a tendency to start veering away from the math and onto irrelevant metaphysical tangents. For instance, I'll be trying to explain the history of renormalization in quantum field theory, and someone will suggest, "Well maybe we don't really understand infinity". No, we understand "infinity" just fine. It's a concept that's clearly defined using a set of axioms that have been around for thousands of years. "Well maybe the mathematicians are wrong." I start losing my patience pretty quickly at this point. The other big one that annoys me is "Well it's just a theory". Sure, and gravity is just a theory too. If you doubt it, you're free to go skydiving without a parachute, but personally, I'm not taking any chances.


I'll be trying to explain the history of renormalization in quantum field theory

I'm hard pressed to think of a situation where this would come up in a conversation with non-scientists.


As a PhD candidate in high energy nuclear theory, I've observed a lot of 'math wacking', i.e. reading theory papers which include pages and pages of detailed equations without a single experimental data point. Just take a look at arXiv/nucl-th if you want to see what I'm talking about. These same guys go to conferences, poo-poo less first-principle calculations which at least attempt to describe experiment, and espouse their untested pet theories as if it were gospel.

To be honest, I've been extremely disappointed by the scientific process in high-energy particle physics. People are so tethered to their theory convictions, that they accept derivations as physical realities and dismiss the importance of experimental validation. The old farts in the field are also completely averse to computational/numerical methods and dismiss the importance of production quality code development.

So while I embrace the sentiment that 'math is the essential language of physics', if you can't embed the mathematics into a simulation which describes reality, then what are you doing as a scientist?


I agree that they hate production quality code and numerical methods, but in some of these DFT codes for example (HF is only somewhat better), you fix some numerical bug and a bunch of theoretical results agreeing with experiment go straight out the window and with it your confidence in the computational model. These 'old farts' have probably seen this happen way too many times and on top of it from people who lack the basic theory knowledge, let along experimental, to point out a crap result from the code.


The space of possible experiments is enormous. If someone takes time to find a conclusion that the theory predicts from the first principles but for which experimental data are lacking, may it be somehow valuable? Especially if the theoretically predicted effect is somehow interesting.


The goal is to disprove theory's not to validate them. Remember any valid counter example can disprove a trillion pieces of supporting evidence.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/03/upshot/a-quick...

You can always over fit for existing data. Useful theory's should suggest a novel experiments to test them.


The experimental data may prove or disprove a theory. But when it's lacking, there's no way to tell. So finding areas where experiments were not made, but can be made, and where the theory predicts some clear results, can serve as a means of falsification.


I can see it happening. As a non-physicist programmer who knows a little bit about a little bit through popular science (like the people being discussed in the article), I know "just enough to be dangerous" about renormalization. i.e., that it was for a while a controversial practice derided by opponents as "handwaving problems away with division by infinity".

I also know that much smarter people than me don't consider it a problem anymore, but it's exactly the kind of gap in the door that self-taught "experts" would use to say that the whole edifice of science needs to be torn down as incorrect and replaced with their personal theory.


"handwaving problems away with division by infinity"

I'm being very pedantic here but it's a bit better to think of it as subtracting infinity from another infinity.


Renormalization is not the same thing as regularization. Regularization is a mathematical trick while renormalization has a very physical interpretation, for example, its use in statistical mechanics. In QFT, they are related and I think sometimes conflated, which is unfortunate.

You can easily describe renormalization without math because it's a physical concept. Regularization is more difficult. If the OP decided divergent integral regularization was an interesting conversation topic then I am on your side.


Please do then. Explain it without math, I mean.


The entire content of renormalization is summarized as this, given a calculation, you make it match the interaction at some energy. Assuming that the fix is essentially choosing the "scale" of quantities (say, voltage of the electric field, or how strongly electrons tug on other electrons) you are calculating, you fix that scale by making sure that after including it in your theory now, that your result matches the measured interaction at your chosen energy scale exactly. That is renormalization.

If you do this, you find that you need to choose a scale that "absorbs" the infinities of your calculations (yes, an "infinite" scale). But, the stuff that is not absorbed is a function of energy, and this actually agrees very well with experiment beyond the scale you normalized to.


In log scale yes.


eh, raise the terms as an exponent and subtraction becomes division. :)


Pretty sure he means people like you when he talks about his non-physicist friends.


If it's a part of Xcelerate's work, and he knows people who are not physicists, but are genuinely interested in what he does all day, I can see it coming up.


You'd be surprised, a mutual friend brings up your occupation (I'm a computational astrophysics grad), and then they inevitably ask you about black holes, and then you have to start delving into pretty complex topics.


>and onto irrelevant metaphysical tangents.

For those with some time to spare, you might enjoy:

Clearing Up Mysteries -- The Original Goal

http://bayes.wustl.edu/etj/articles/cmystery.pdf

"Put most briefly, Einstein held that the QM formalism is incomplete and that it is the job of theoretical physics to supply the missing parts; Bohr claimed that there are no missing parts. To most, their positions seemed diametrically opposed; however, if we can understand better what Bohr was trying to say, it is possible to reconcile their positions and believe them both. Each had an important truth to tell us. But Bohr and Einstein could never understand each other because they were thinking on different levels. When Einstein says QM is incomplete, he means it in the ontological sense; when Bohr says QM is complete, he means it in the epistemological sense. Recognizing this, their statements are no longer contradictory. Indeed, Bohr's vague, puzzling sentences -- always groping for the right word, never finding it -- emerge from the fog and we see their underlying sense, if we keep in mind that Bohr's thinking is never on the ontological level traditional in physics. Always he is discussing not Nature, but our information about Nature. But physics did not have the vocabulary for expressing ideas on that level, hence the groping."

>we understand "infinity" just fine.

I enjoyed "Meta Math" by Gregory Chaitin:

http://arxiv.org/abs/math/0404335

"So the set of real numbers, while natural—indeed, immediately given— geometrically, nevertheless remains quite elusive: Why should I believe in a real number if I can’t calculate it, if I can’t prove what its bits are, and if I can’t even refer to it? And each of these things happens with probability one! The real line from 0 to 1 looks more and more like a Swiss cheese, more and more like a stunningly black high-mountain sky studded with pin-pricks of light."


>"So the set of real numbers, while natural—indeed, immediately given— geometrically, nevertheless remains quite elusive: Why should I believe in a real number if I can’t calculate it, if I can’t prove what its bits are, and if I can’t even refer to it? And each of these things happens with probability one! The real line from 0 to 1 looks more and more like a Swiss cheese, more and more like a stunningly black high-mountain sky studded with pin-pricks of light."

Bah! Chaitin makes so much of his discovery that there is randomness in mathematics, but doesn't ever seem to have made the shift to thinking of structures as parametric over randomness.

To wit, generating random real numbers by simply flipping a countable number of coins and writing down the bits is trivial, and from that point of view:

1) An open set is just a set about which we can have finite information.

2) A closed set is just a set about which we can have complete information.

3) A compact set is just one we can quantify over and prove theorems about given only finite information.

4) A continuous function is one that has finite character: producing finite information about an element of the image only ever requires finite information about the argument.

These statements are a bit rough, but hey, if I ever have a gajillion dollars I can spend my newfound spare time merging the computational view on synthetic topology, Chaitin's algorithmic information theory, and the old "Age of Stochasticity" talk to get a view of mathematics that properly accounts for its finities and infinities.

http://www.stat.uchicago.edu/~lekheng/courses/191f09/mumford...


See also "abstract stone duality". https://ncatlab.org/nlab/show/abstract+Stone+duality


> if I can’t calculate it, if I can’t prove what its bits are, and if I can’t even refer to it?

That guy is just a constructivist. Nothing new here.


It doesn't appear that the set of rel numbers exists. If it did, someone should be able to point to it and say, "this is the set". No one can do that because the available space to present the set appears finite, but producing the set would require an infinite amount of space (assuming you need some exclusive space to represent each number).

It is no surprise that the set remains elusive, it doesn't exist.


The set of real numbers most certainly exists, it is defined as the unique such set (up to an isomorphism) that satisfies the following properties:

It is at the same time a commutative additive group and a commutative multiplicative group such that the two group neutrals aren't the same. Furthermore the multiplication distributes over addition.

There exists a total order relation such that the addition distributes over the order relation and multiplication agrees with the order relation (if (0 leq x) and (0 leq y) then (0 leq x*y)).

Another axiom is required, which comes in many forms (all of which are equivallent) so take your pick, for example the supremum axiom https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Least-upper-bound_property

You can read about any of this in any texbook of real analysis (for example Spivak or baby Rudin).

If the axiomatic formulation of real numbers doesn't appeal to you, there is another way to define real numbers, namely to contruct them from natural numbers (and you seem convinced that natural numbers indeed exist). You can read about that in the appendix to chapter 1 of baby Rudin (Principles of Mathematical Analysis by Walter Rudin).


By no means am I an expert in this stuff, but don't you need the axiom of choice (or maybe something just a little bit weaker) to construct the reals?

I don't think it's fair to say the reals 'most certainly exist' without being misleading to a layman. They exist given some axioms that are used overwhelmingly often in mathematics, but you can still do some interesting stuff without those axioms, or with their negation.


You're correct. There is one object in all of mathematics that isn't defined (you've got to start from somewhere), it is just assumed that humans implicitly understand this concept, and it's the concept of a set (denoting a collection of objects).

Along with it, certain properties of this object are assumed (among them the ability to choose an element of a non empty set - this is typically called the axiom of choice). For a full list you can take a look at http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Zermelo-FraenkelAxioms.html


But the axiom of choice is logically independent of the other zermelo frankel axioms. You can assume zermelo franked plus choice, and get the standard framework (ZFC) that let's you build the reals.

But you can also assume ZF plus the negation of the axiom of choice, and get a system that is consistent if and only if ZF is consistent. It's not clear (to me, at least) that this other system will let you build the real numbers.


Clearly real numbers exist. I just don't believe you can have the set of every single real (they are unlimited).


Sets of numbers aren't physical things. Physical things can't be infinite, but I don't see why you think a set can't. By this thinking, not even the natural numbers can exist, since you can't point to them either.



The universe may be infinite.


Natural numbers are easy to write: 1, 2, 3

You can even write a set of them: {1, 2, 3, 4}

You cannot write the set of real numbers.


{1, 2, 3, 4} is also a set of real numbers. Why is it a valid existence proof of the naturals, but not the reals?


Possible linguistic pedantry; he used "a" set of natural numbers, but "the" set of real numbers. It's equally difficult to represent the set of natural numbers.


It's not pedantry, it's just what the words mean.

To the question: I'm only saying that the "set of real numbers" and the "set of natural numbers" don't seem to exist.

Despite numerous downvotes, no one has yet produced them here (or even a link to them).


I can't produce the set of all humans on Earth either, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

Both real and natural numbers can be reasoned about despite their infinite size (and we even know that e.g. there must be "more" real numbers than natural numbers, even though both sets are infinite)


The set of all humans is produceable, you simply bound by the planet, or solar system.

There are no bounds in the universe that can contain all the real or natural numbers.


here is a representation of the real numbers: ℝ

and here is one of the natural numbers: ℕ


How can I select an arbitrary, or even random, element from either?


Who said that you could?


Zermelo?

Axiom of choice says I should be able to select an element from the set of real numbers (assuming it exists; but, I believe the assumption to be counterfactual).


I agree. Even though the axiom of choice is independent of ZF, I don't think it is self-evident axiom. It actually seems pretty counter-intuitive if you believe in infinite-precision real numbers that have an infinite amount of information and can't be compressed. I have more to say on this in "Digital Physics" (the movie). -Khatchig


According to Wikipedia, Zermelo formulated the axiom of choice.

I think it makes sense though; if I (claim to) have a thing, I should be able to choose/pick/select/point-to it (seems to be almost[?] tautological).


"Say you are playing a game that needs you to pick a real number. If you choose a computable real number, you lose the game. If you choose a real number that is not computable, which the majority real numbers are, then you win. You can imagine yourself choosing a non-computable real number, and winning the game, if you build in the axiom of choice. But in the real world version of the game you will never have enough time or space to non-ambiguously specify this infinitely precise real number which has an infinite amount of non-compressible information (see Kolmogorov complexity)."-Khatchig, from "Digital Physics" (the movie)


If real numbers exist or not is irrelevant. The question is if we can solve some problems by assuming one way or another.


The set of real numbers is as big as the set of functions from the naturals to themselves. In fact, that's a pretty convenient way of modeling the real numbers sometimes: as systematic names for functions on natural numbers.


The free will conversations drive me insane. People can't shut up about how Heisenberg's uncertainty principle proves random phenomena (which isn't exactly true) but worse, they insist it indicates that we have free will.

But a) what it really indicates is that it would be unmeasurable whether we have free will, and b) it also doesn't really prove that, because while electron positions are unpredictable, molecular reactions, the sort that happen in the human brain are pretty predictable.

Basically, my response to this is "That would be relevant if we had black holes or large hadron colliders in our heads, but we don't, so...". But people really really want to believe in free will and will use any sliver of half-truth to believe they've proved it.

EDIT: To be clear, I do not believe free will has been proven OR disproven.

EDIT 2: More sophisticated wrong people argue from Bell's Inequalities rather than the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but that also results from a misunderstanding of the theory and also neither proves nor disproves determinism.


> [W]hile electron positions are unpredictable, molecular reactions, the sort that happen in the human brain are pretty predictable. Basically, my response to this is "That would be relevant if we had black holes or large hadron colliders in our heads, but we don't, so...".

What about those quantum effects that have recently been shown to potentially be part of brain activity:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140116085105.h...


You could make the same argument to say that your PC adding 2+2 is indeterminate because it has the same underlay of supposed random quantum behavior. But at our material level, the world is pretty deterministic just as your PC or phone adding 2+2 is. And as far as neuroscience has gathered, quantum randomness hasn't affected it enough for those scientists to think it's non-deterministic, or else they wouldn't have a job.


Quantum effects are part of brain activity because they underly all electrochemistry--that's never been in question. The question is whether those quantum effects impart any non-determinism to the brain system, and the link you posted doesn't make any claims that they do or don't.


Given what we know about brains so far, doesn't it need to be proven, rather than disproven? Surely the burden of proof here is on people claiming a non-biological and non-predictable basis for brain function?


Even if we don't have free will, it's better to pretend we do. There is a difference between a driver that falls asleep at the wheel and causes an accident and a driver that flies into a rage and crashes their car into another driver. It's hard to justify the distinction if neither driver has a choice. I'd argue it's better for society to maintain that distinction.

Perhaps someone can reframe that in terms of types of error, and people prone to more serious types of error (road rage) face different consequences. But that gets real complicated real quick.

I dunno. I suspect the majority of the time i'm on autopilot. Alarm goes off, get up, brush teeth, shower. I pretend i'm capable of not doing that. i just don't choose the other way.


> Even if we don't have free will, it's better to pretend we do. There is a difference between a driver that falls asleep at the wheel and causes an accident and a driver that flies into a rage and crashes their car into another driver. It's hard to justify the distinction if neither driver has a choice. I'd argue it's better for society to maintain that distinction.

The distinction still matters without free will, because it's still a predictor of future behavior. A driver who crashes because of a preventable cause shouldn't be allowed to drive until the problem is resolved. If the problem is falling asleep, the solution may be simple (get more sleep?) or hard (narcolepsy), while anger issues are probably pretty difficult to provably solve.

Belief in free will has some seriously harmful effects on the way we deal with these situations. Most notably, it's the basis for a focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation. Deterrents don't work, largely because they don't fix the causes for bad behavior. Rehabilitation is the only sensible approach if you don't believe in free will, whereas punishment makes a bit more sense if you believe that people have free will.

> Perhaps someone can reframe that in terms of types of error, and people prone to more serious types of error (road rage) face different consequences. But that gets real complicated real quick.

This is fundamentally a free-will-based way of seeing the problem. "Consequences" are completely irrelevant in a deterministic worldview unless you can prove that they act as a deterrent (that is, that they are part of the cause). Since consequences are provably not significant deterrents for many crimes, I don't think that works.

Your argument basically that "this idea of punishment/consequences (which only makes sense in a free-will-based ideology) doesn't work in a deterministic ideology, and punishment/consequences are good in my free-will-based ideology, therefore deterministic ideologies are wrong". But you have to hold a free-will-based ideology for the preconditions of your argument to make sense.


Yes, i see that now. The distinction depends on free will, so isn't a good test.

Very insightful. Thank you.


Your talk of punishment vs rehabilitation is spot on, and very relevant to the "Doesn't the whole justice system collapse if there is no free will?" question. Have you ever heard of how some South American prisons are treating inmates with Ayahuasca, in order to rehabilitate their mind? Very interesting stuff considering the success rate.


There are a lot of people who will not commit crime only because they fear the consequences. So it would be rational to punish criminals regardless of your thoughts on free-will. And if you don't believe in free-will then you have to accept that you have no "free" choice about punishing criminals.

Myself, I do not even know what the will is, or what it could possibly be free from. The influence of the universe?


> There are a lot of people who will not commit crime only because they fear the consequences.

Fear sounds like an implicit assertion of choice, but i think you mean something more subtle.

Let my try to put it another way. People are complex systems that can be influenced. Water tends to flow downhill, we can set up troughs to control the flow of water. The flow is complex, and some water will splash out, but generally the water does follows the system. Likewise, we can set up legal troughs to guide people to the behavior we want. (I know argument by analogy is crappy, i'm just hoping we can agree on this point, and i think we do.) There's a whole other argument about why we would set up those legal rules, but i'd like to set that aside for a moment (if it's a big deal, or fundamental in some way, i'd like to hear your side. I'm not sure i can meaningfully engage that point)

It seems like, punishment would need to be interpreted purely as societal cost. So you tally up the wreckage from the car accident example above, say $25,000 and 2 lives.

I don't really see how we can have both manslaughter and murder, without free will. What extra thing did the angry guy do? He didn't make a choice, because (for the sake of argument) he has no free will. What is the characteristic that makes what he did worse? The cost to society is the same.

> Myself, I do not even know what the will is, or what it could possibly be free from. The influence of the universe?

My personal interpretation (which is probably wrong, but something i'm willing to go back and forth on to come to consensus) Free will the mind having a choice in taking action, rather than the body just doing whatever, and the mind rationalizing it after the fact. Perhaps every action we take is just like a heartbeat. I have no control over that. Perhaps when i hold my breath, i'm not actually choosing to hold my breath, but the complex system that is my body holds it's breath and my mind is claims that it was responsible for that holding of breath. Or typing this comment, or whatever. I don't think there's any way i can know. It feels like my mind is in control, but my mind gets all of its information from (and the software runs on!) my body. my mind seems to control the hardware, but maybe i'm just rationalizing after the fact.


> I don't really see how we can have both manslaughter and murder, without free will. What extra thing did the angry guy do? He didn't make a choice, because (for the sake of argument) he has no free will. What is the characteristic that makes what he did worse? The cost to society is the same.

That doesn't require the concept of free will. Because for manslaughter and murder the reasons are different for the death. One is deliberate, one isn't.

> It seems like, punishment would need to be interpreted purely as societal cost. So you tally up the wreckage from the car accident example above, say $25,000 and 2 lives.

You would also want to calculate predicted future costs from that person, mainly from the point of view of harm to other people. If someone like them is likely to kill on average one or more people in the rest of their life then they aren't going to be allowed to interact with general society again. This doesn't need the concept of free will to implement. It only needs a sufficiently sophisticated way of determining of what harm a person like them will likely cause. This is in addition to the harm they have already caused, so there is no reason for someone to become a one time killer. And yes, getting the predictions right may be really tricky, and the way the courts currently sentence people may be a good as or better than trying to predict what people do on average. But the way courts sentence at the moment doesn't require the concept of free will anyway, because people do what they do because of reasons, human reasons, and they can differentiate there.


> It seems like, punishment would need to be interpreted purely as societal cost. So you tally up the wreckage from the car accident example above, say $25,000 and 2 lives.

I don't think so. I think determinism makes "punishment" as a concept, completely nonsensical--you can't punish someone for something they didn't choose to do. I think determinism pushes the focus to rehabilitation rather than punishment, which for many types of crimes (i.e. drug use, computer hacking, nonviolent robbery) is clearly more effective in preventing recidivism (and I'd argue that for crimes where it's not effective, that we haven't really explored rehabilititation because of the widespread belief in free will).

> I don't really see how we can have both manslaughter and murder, without free will. What extra thing did the angry guy do? He didn't make a choice, because (for the sake of argument) he has no free will. What is the characteristic that makes what he did worse? The cost to society is the same.

Agreed. But does this highlight a problem with a deterministic world view, or does it highlight a problem with the distinction between manslaughter and murder?


> But does this highlight a problem with a deterministic world view, or does it highlight a problem with the distinction between manslaughter and murder?

That is a really interesting point. I'm not convinced, but you've given me a ton to think about.


    > There are a lot of people
    > who will not commit crime
    > only because they fear the
    > consequences
Really? I'd say both crime rate and severity of consequences have taken a plunge over the last few centuries.


I used to feel this way too - I remember writing up drunken notes when I was at college saying exactly the same thing.

Punishments from crime have decreased substantially - nobody gets transported or hung for sheep theft anymore. The world has never been a safer place. States with the death penalty are no safer than those without. Fewer people genuinely believe in a Christian (or whatever) hell than in years past. At the same time, religion has faltered as a source in many people's lives.

I would argue this means that circumstances that lead people in to crime have decreased rather than a suggestion that people are making choices to commit crime but don't based on deterrence. I appreciate there exist counter arguments to this too, but also feel that if we treated crime as a function of situation rather than morality, we'd find ways to decrease it more cheaply.


I guess i'd ask the same question i asked of jeremyjh.

With no notion of free will, how do we distinguish between manslaughter and murder? When someone dies, the cost to society is the same either way. A consequence of no free will seems to be it's a distinction without difference. I disagree, but it might just be deeply embedded beliefs that are wrong.


> With no notion of free will, how do we distinguish between manslaughter and murder?

I'd argue that the distinction is not indicative of a phenomenon that exists.

I think a much better model would be predictive and preventive rather than punitive--the level assignment to rehabilitation should be based on the probability and severity of recidivism, rather than the level of punishment being based on the severity of the crime.


You cannot derive is from ought.


That's the argument I use for not believing in assertions of existence ("God exists", "Pink unicorns exist"), because people basically don't think things exist that can't be proven to exist, but make a special pleading for Gods.

I guess you could argue that we generally assume a deterministic model exists and try to find it, but I hadn't considered that before.


I don't see how subjective experience, i.e. consciousness, can come about from purely material interactions as currently understood. That means that a Turing Machine would be able to produce them, which means that a bunch of monks working with paper and pencil for thousands of years would be able to produce them. There's something fundamental that we don't understand and the scientific community is very opposed to talking about it, dismissing any and all speculation as quackery. This taboo is holding back serious inquiry into the matter.


> I don't see how subjective experience, i.e. consciousness, can come about from purely material interactions as currently understood. That means that a Turing Machine would be able to produce them, which means that a bunch of monks working with paper and pencil for thousands of years would be able to produce them.

Not without input data, they couldn't. You can produce a model, but unless you collect data to validate your model against, you're just speculating in a void.

> There's something fundamental that we don't understand and the scientific community is very opposed to talking about it, dismissing any and all speculation as quackery.

We're talking about it right now, and I haven't heard anyone opposed to talking about it.

However, I'll fully dismiss opinions as quackery if they clearly misrepresent the facts, i.e. claims that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle or Bell's Inequalities prove free will are quackery. This isn't because the ideas are taboo or because I'm opposed to talking about them, it's because they're misrepresentations or misunderstandings of facts which are clearly established.

In my experience, when people claim that scientists are opposed to talking about their hypothesis, it's because their hypothesis has been thoroughly and concretely disproven.


No. The topic has simply been ceded to a subset of philosophers who fill large volumes that still don't manage to say more about this topic than you do. One big problem is that your thought experiments are designed specifically to make the null hypothesis sound silly. That's the same strategy you guys have been uding for thousands of years. Not so long ago people claimed that life couldn't be explained without some special substance.


> That means that a Turing Machine would be able to produce them, which means that a bunch of monks working with paper and pencil for thousands of years would be able to produce them.

Yes. What's not to see? I think appealing to something other than Turing machines shows a lack of imagination; it takes a lot of thought to even scratch the surface of how profound Turing machines are.


Are you really arguing that a scribbling numbers on a piece of paper could give rise to a conscious being?


In another comment, you said:

> I'm not suggesting anything supernatural. I'm suggesting that there's possibly physical phenomenon that do not fit our current materialist model.

Absolutely. Sure, there are of course physical phenomenon that do not fit our current materialist model.

Let's say we discover those additional phenomenon. Ultimately, we'd want to build a machine to model that phenomenon. Perhaps encode a model of that phenomenon in software. Once that happens, scribbling numbers on a piece of paper indeed could give rise to a conscious being.

If it's some system that can't be covered by scientific understanding, isn't that what supernatural means? It's either some internally consistent (but possibly very complicated) set of rules, or it's supernatural.


No, it could be that the universe actually cannot be modeled computationally, that it exceeds the constraints of a Turing machine. This is an open question.


I think you're giving a good example of how poorly people visualize and understand infinity. A Turing Machine's capabilities are based on its infinite memory and infinite computation time, yet you imagine it as "a bunch of monks scribbling" and immediately dismiss its capabilities.


I would actually restrict things further, since introducing infinity can lead to unintuitive results orthogonal to computability ;)

Rather than 'possessing' an infinite tape and infinite time, I prefer to think of turing machines as always being allowed to perform one more step, and always being allowed to use one more tape cell. I find this characterisation of time quite intuitive as-is, whilst the tape can be made intuitive by imagining tape factories on each end, which produce more cells whenever the read/write head gets close.

In fact, such "tape factories" have been used to build universal turing machines in the game of life http://rendell-attic.org/gol/fullutm/index.htm


An order of non-celibate monks can also work for infinite amount of time and hold infinite data. Anyhow, it's not really relevant to my point. An infinite number of scribbles doesn't seem any more likely to give rise to consciousness than any finite number.


> Are you really arguing that a scribbling numbers on a piece of paper could give rise to a conscious being?

Yes. I find that no less plausible than a warm sack of meat giving rise to a conscious being.


I agree, which is why I suspect that consciousness is the result of some fundamental non-computable phenomenon that our minds tap into to perform some useful function.


    > I don't see how
Isn't that just The God of The Gaps? I suspect that many intelligent people 500 years ago wouldn't have been able to "see how" a 500 ton metal object could take controlled flight.

    > That means that a Turing Machine would be able to
    > produce them
Is there any specific reason to think it wouldn't?

    > the scientific community is very opposed to talking
    > about it
It sounds like you're suggesting there's a super-natural force at play, in which case, the scientific community is entirely justified in being opposed to talking about it.


I'm not suggesting anything supernatural. I'm suggesting that there's possibly physical phenomenon that do not fit our current materialist model.

Further, my big problem is with people trying to ignore the problem completely by claiming that there is no Hard Problem or even suggesting that consciousness is not real. It's a total head-in-the-sand position to take but it's the dominant stance.


Who is saying consciousness is not real? It just not non-physical and has no single set of hard properties from which to form a definitive boundary for discussion.


I'm curious at what point you think agency becomes consciousness. Is it self-awareness? Is a dog conscious? A mouse? A snail? An ant? A bacteria? A tree?


It has nothing to do with agency. I'm talking about the phenomenon of subjective experience. The difference between a computer that analyzes camera input and a being that actually sees the world. It would be the difference between you and a philosophical zombie.


If you aren't that "artificial" intelligence and can't put yourself in that subjective experience, how would you know that the AI's subjective experience differs from yours? Because you're relying on material observance? You realize your conundrum now? You have to rely on the material to gauge the material yet you try to invalidate the material experience using material observations.


> The difference between a computer that analyzes camera input and a being that actually sees the world.

How do you know there is a qualitative difference?


You're aware of John Searle's Chinese Room gag?


Free will is the sensation of being in a brain that models counterfactuals. It is also a token concept that people like to use to do their "worship the mystery" so they can secretly believe that scientists are stupid and thus not have to be held responsible for their failure to understand them or their work.

Free will is akin to an emotion. Just because physicists haven't explained it in excruciating detail doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or we'd all be running around debating the existence of fear and love and curiosity.


We all understand fear and love and curiosity well enough that we can make rudimentary predictions about them. If I point a gun at someone they will experience fear and respond with fight or flight. If I spend a lot of time with someone and certain compatibility conditions are met, we will experience love and respond with caring behaviors. If I show someone something that they don't understand fully but that has properties that interest them, they'll likely experience curiosity and respond with questions and exploration.

Someone who studies these things (a psychologist or neurologist) could make even more sophisticated predictions.

We may not have a complete low-level electrochemical model of these phenomenon, but we have a good enough model to make some predictions. But if anything, one of the most salient criticisms of free will is that it doesn't allow us to model and make predictions--in fact, it eschews predictions altogether.


> Free will is the sensation of being in a brain that models counterfactuals

No. Free will is the ability to make a choice not completely dependent on history.


That depends on the person defining it. Why can't it be the outcome my brain has determined for me to take which I subjectively understand as a self-chosen action? That may well depend on my history--my emotions, memories and all the things that shape me--but those are more reasons than constraints.

Isn't that like saying I want to fly, so I don't have free will if I can't?


Would flipping a coin count?

If you respond, "No, because the particles that make up the coin and the muscles that drive my thumbnail have a history that determines the outcome," then how about a slight variation? "I can't decide what to do. I have no idea what time it is, so if the minute digit on my clock is odd, I'll do X, otherwise I'll do Y."

Here I've explicitly refrained from using either a source of randomness or anything else with its own history to determine my fate. The decision to consult the clock might have been an act of free will on my part, but the outcome certainly wasn't.


I don't consider that free will then, that would just be "not completely" free will. If it's not dependent on a history, what would be the directive that effects the choice? To me, the notion of free will just defeats the ubiquitous cause-effect nature in everyday life and observance. What would be the nature of the effector that makes the "free" choice then?


I don't see why anyone should accept a useless definition as a correct one.

Nobody would argue that they had free will if they didn't feel like they had free will. Nobody is positing baseless metaphysical nonsense without some reverence in their actual experiences. If you want to usefully discuss free will, you have to account for the sensation of free will, not just some abstract model that you've merely assembled grammatical statements from.


Right, I would clarify though, "single electron positions are unpredictable exactly[0]" but, I know that there are more electrons on this side of the cap than the other side, and it's physics at that scale (S >> \hbar) that matters.

[0] To be more pedantic than enlightening, add before wavefunction collapse.


Exactly.


On the flip side of this, superdeterminism (that we have absolutely no free will at all) is a third way of explaining Bell inequality violations (apart from Copenhagen and hidden variables), but essentially everyone in the physics community refuses to consider superdeterminism seriously.


It's not that they don't take it seriously -- it's that it's boring and says nothing useful. Yes, everything could be a giant conspiracy that makes it appear as if the standard ways of approaching quantum mechanics are simple, nice, and right, but ...


That's not what superdeterminism would indicate at all.

"Conspiracy" indicates free will on a large number of actors.

And a superdeterministic system could exist which differs from standard ways of approaching quantum mechanics. One obvious way in which it could exist is if our means of gathering data remain as limited as they are currently--i.e. we don't ever find a way around Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and therefore can't ever model quanta deterministically. Superdeterminism doesn't mean that we'd always be able to measure the deterministic phenomena.


Many people believe that free will and determinism are not incompatible (compatibilists).

Personally, I'm not even sure introducing non-determinism matters much. What would it even mean? That beyond determinsitic actions defined by our precise history, we get a bit of randomness permuting the whole thing? Does that really make it any freer?


> Many people believe that free will and determinism are not incompatible (compatibilists).

Could you explain how that works? I'm unfamiliar with that, but I suspect that they may be using a different definition of "free will" than I am familiar with.

> Personally, I'm not even sure introducing non-determinism matters much. What would it even mean? That beyond determinsitic actions defined by our precise history, we get a bit of randomness permuting the whole thing? Does that really make it any freer?

I think free will and randomness are both forms of non-determinism. Non-determinism doesn't prove free will, but it allows for the possibility that it might exist (and post people intuit that randomness could be indistinguishable from non-determinism).


To me, free will is the lack of external forces controlling my decisions and actions. That is, I can decide things for myself, even if those decisions are a deterministic product of my current state.

How are you defining it such that it must be non-deterministic and distinct from randomness? I don't really understand what that means. Assuming there's a single shared reality, what's the source of the non-determinism? Even if you say that's the free will itself, you'd be asserting that our "wills" are somehow capable of randomness.


> To me, free will is the lack of external forces controlling my decisions and actions. That is, I can decide things for myself, even if those decisions are a deterministic product of my current state.

Without some place in the sequence of events that isn't deterministic, I don't see how you can separate your current state from external forces. That is, if your decisions are a deterministic product of your current state and your current state is a deterministic product of other states before it (including states that existed before you did, such as your parents) then I don't see that as "the lack of external forces controlling my decisions and actions".

> How are you defining it such that it must be non-deterministic and distinct from randomness? I don't really understand what that means. Assuming there's a single shared reality, what's the source of the non-determinism? Even if you say that's the free will itself, you'd be asserting that our "wills" are somehow capable of randomness.

Part of the difficulty with talking about free will is that there isn't a clear definition of what it is. However, I do think I can say what it isn't--I think most people don't consider randomness or determinism to be free will. But I also think that it would be nigh impossible to distinguish randomness from free will without a clearer definition of free will.

The fallout of this belief is that I think we could disprove free will if we could prove determinism (but, I don't think we can prove determinism currently). But I don't think we can prove free will, even if we could disprove determinism (I don't think we can do that either). In order to prove free will we would have to disprove both determinism and randomness.


I think in the end we will find out that both interpretations of whether free will exists might be correct, but with determinism being more fundamental. Think about a deterministic machine learning algorithm with a fixed input of training data. The agent/algorithm learns by reacting to it's data input/environment, has goals in the form of a cost function it is actively trying to minimize, has options to adjust its neural weights depending on what it experiences, yet we know the system including the environment is predetermined from the moment we kick off the program. -Khatchig, from "Digital Physics" (the movie).


Can tou explain why qm and bell's inequality do not categorically undermine determinism and prove deep randomness ?

Is it because on a macro scale amd normal energy levels effects are negligible? Because there are well followed probability distributions?


Bell's inequality refutes theories with local hidden variables (e.g. some unknown property of particles or spacetime). That leaves two possibilities: no hidden variables (the results truly are non-deterministic) or non-local hidden variables (e.g. some property which exists outside the spacetime which we're constrained to)


There's a third possibility, superdeterminism, in which literally everything is determined by previous conditions, so that no communication is needed, even via a property outside of our spacetime, because everything was determined by preconditions.

Think of it this way: you set two clocks to the same time. The next day, they both have the same time on them. This isn't because the clocks are communicating via nonlocal hidden variables, it's because their precondition was the same and the sequence of events which followed was deterministic.


How would you test free will?


someone will suggest, "Well maybe we don't really understand infinity". No, we understand "infinity" just fine. It's a concept that's clearly defined using a set of axioms that have been around for thousands of years.

I am not a mathematician, but my understanding is that a considerable amount of research into how to properly address /use infinity in math was ongoing as recently as the early 20th century. Not that I disagree with your overall point though.


The word 'infinity' refers to a few different concepts in different branches of mathematics. Some of them have been well-defined and well-understood for a long time. The point named "Infinity" as a limit in analysis/topology (which I think is what renormalization is related to) is very un-mysterious.

Cantor's work in the early 20th century was on infinite objects in the context of set theory. That work is also fairly well-understood but starts to get a bit esoteric. More recent research goes further in the same direction, and then you start getting the point where you can't prove whether a certain type of infinity exists or not, because the existence of an infinity that large would prove that set theory is consistent.

So yes, research is still ongoing into the nature of infinity, but it's the nature of a different infinity.


Fair enough. Like I said, IANAM. I just enjoy reading books like Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity and Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. It's certainly a wildly fascinating topic.


Is this related to that whole -1/12 business, which they talk about in this Numberphile video[0]? Because the video suggests it's ongoing work in mathematics and that it shows up in unexpected places in theoretical physics.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Oazb7IWzbA


The Numerphile video has been debunked by everyone else in the math-popularization community: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/roots-of-unity/does-123-... (and also see discussion of that article on HN

The "-1/12" "mystery" is well settled math (but mathematicians are always looking for more elegant or general perspectives on things), and (standard-issue) sloppy notation in physics.

The only "mystery" is why people who should know better intentionally use incorrect terminology to dazzle lay-people, creating a mystery where there is none.


Thanks for that follow-up!


The issue is that there are different infinities. The infinity the parent is talking about, the one that you generally run into in calculus class and the like, is straightforward. The research in the past century was about what happens _past_ infinity, e.g. ordinal numbers.

I'm no mathematician either, so I'll stop there before I embarrass myself. The most accessible resource I found was this VSauce video [1].

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrU9YDoXE88


Regarding the video: The contraproductive and unnecessary use of pretty loud 'background-music' is pretty distracting and ruining this for me. It's a disregard for music and i view it also as a disregard me as a viewer, like it's assumed i wouldn't be able to listen to someone speak without the elevator soundsystem blaring around. They also do this on the radio when they tell you the weather forecast: of course only with loud music playing. And i then have to separate and throw away most of that audio info to get the information i want. Like everything wants to be a horrible rap song. I don't get it. This needs to stop.


That was a very interesting video, thanks for sharing. Now I'm going to be addicted to VSauce...


That video is surprisingly decent given the abstract nature of the subject.


As a theorist, theories in physics describe experiments and mathematics is the study of formal axiom systems. So if you want to reject the axiom of infinity, that is fine. If you want to have stronger axioms, like large cardinal axioms, equally fine.^1 However from experience, babbling on about truth in mathematics does almost never lead anywhere interesting.

^1 Basically large cardinal axioms give you additional types of infinity.


I'm guessing mindcrime's talking about Cantor and Godel and the continuum hypothesis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuum_hypothesis

I remember learning about them in the philosophy of maths, but have no idea if they have any consequences in Physics. And like /u/lasfter I'll stop there before I embarrass myself.


Probably, but in my view Godel's theorem basically states that there are limits to axiom systems. (In much the same way that you can not write a web server without touching sockets.) My point is, if it would be necessary to switch to a stronger axiom system than ZFC in physics, then one would do that, without claiming that that stronger system is real.


I honestly can't tell if this is utter gibberish or a real comment...


Yeah, I should stop commenting publicly on an ongoing thought process, before I figured out how to communicate that thought :/ Basically I am drifting towards hard mathematical anti-realism and towards a rather minimal scientific realism. (And when I saw the discussion I jumped the gun...)


My experience has been that experts in most fields tend to shy away from using precise, professional language when speaking to a layperson. I think this tendency indirectly results in the sort of dialogs you're describing.


That's true, and being able to describe complex concepts in a simple (yet still accurate) way is a skill in itself — one that requires a lot of practice. Feynman was notoriously good at this.


Given the rarity of such expert in any/all field, I'd dare say it's more like nature instead of nurture.

The best we can nurture is 'good' analogy, that still somewhat valid even if the analogy is expanded further

p/s: If only we have a list of Feynman-like experts in most of the fields :D


I'm glad I'm not the only one. Just today, I was in a conversation when trying explain broadly what Number Theory is and a little bit why I find it fascinating and pursuing Masters then Docterate. What annoyed me the most was being told that Mathematicians cannot simply understand not comprehend infinity. Shortly after explaining the number systems and infinity. I was asked about my favourite number. What was truly cringe worthy was the topic of Proofs, apparently i was told that they don't really exist! xD What a waste of 5 year ax in maths.


What is your favorite number?

Take comfort, I believe you exist.


"n" That usually messes with them a little bit.


Not the OP -- Pi.i -- sounds like a cockney insult.


When they say "it's a theory" they're probably hinting towards the fact that it's a model, and not that they think they are floating around.

It's interesting the top-comment displays such a supercilious attitude while the takeaway from article, at least for me, was the exact opposite.

Maybe you could have helped at least some of the people by using it as an opportunity to teach rather than deride?

Of course gravity exists, but to suggest we understand it 100% through what models we have seems silly. But, I'm not a physicist, and I don't play one at dinner parties.


Honestly, just because many particle physicists feel okay at this point what Feynman called 'hocus-pocus' doesn't mean it really is okay. Mathematically, it's just as unsound as saying the sum of all integers is -1/12.

There have been attempts at avoiding the regularization magic altogether but from what I gather, they are developments from mathematicians, and physicists don't really care about it.

EDIT: I knew it was a magic related term, not black magic.


Care to enlighten some of us unwashed? I'm a physics grad student and I certainly learned things like Borel resummation in school (er, it was in textbooks they assigned us on QFT at least...)


  Mathematically, it's just as unsound as saying the   
  sum of all integers is -1/12.
But that is not unsound at all: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/roots-of-unity/does-123-...


This is a form of bike-shedding, is it not?


Yes, exactly. If you can't understand the details, you can only talk about irrelevancies. People (like me!) who have only the slightest grasp on the math involved probably shouldn't form strong opinions just because they saw a pop sci documentary that used some terrible analogies.


Most physicists are happy to talk to you about things if you're not veering off like the top comment described. If explained properly, you might just understand the details, and if not now, maybe next time (happens to the best of us during studies, sometimes understanding takes repeated exposure).

Actually, that is something I noticed: Many people are scared off for good if they don't understand something at once. Most of my physicist peers don't understand things at once, it's normal. The question is how to deal with that - do you run away or do you try again, and what are your tools for that?

I'm not sure what triggers the need to argue in people. It's just so far removed from the ideal most of us strive towards in discussions, which is trying to understand things by all means possible, and not defend a preconceived notion. This sounds obvious and easy, but for many people, I found it's not. They identify so much with their state of knowledge and arguments (not to say opinions, which I can kind of get) that one has to tread very carefully. One wrong expression and they turn into fighting mode, and the discussion turns from a search for understanding and rightness into a match for which derailing is a valid technique.

Lack of focus is also an issue, and can be a derailing method. (Ask questions faster than they can be answered and don't listen to the person trying to explain. In the end console yourself that we can't really know anything and thus all questions are unanswerable. End monologue, walk away. God, these people.)

As far as physics topics go, it is the worst in GRT (general relativity) lectures followed by quantum things. Biologists told me they get strange argumentative older people in evolution lectures too.

</rant>


> "Well maybe we don't really understand infinity".

Not a specialist, but "infinity" is indeed a tricky thing to make sense of.

First, if you decide to use and define it only in a "theoretical" sense (constructed through the set of axioms you mentioned) things are fine, there are lots of things we have constructed in an abstract way in the past which have proved to be intellectually solid (think of the idea of God constructed by the scholastics).

The problem appears when you want to apply your idea constructed on a "set of axioms" back to the real life. The scholastics' idea of God had a very short life when that happened (more or less during the early Renaissance), and I wouldn't say that the mathematical idea of "infinity" would have a better life were people to view it in a more critical way.

Because were you to apply the idea of infinity to the real life (the life made up of stars, planets and Hacker News) that would mean that there are an infinity of planets and stars out there (some of us have started to be ok with that) but that would else mean that there are an infinity of Hacker News instances out there and there are an infinity of "me", the user paganel, making this comment on HN. This is hard for a lot of people to grasp, including me.


There's a good general (mathematical) sense to what something "infinite" is: a thing able to contain something the same size as itself.

As an example, the natural numbers are infinite because they contain the even numbers and the even numbers are the same "size" (or cardinality) as the natural numbers themselves.

As a second example, the real numbers are infinite because they contain the interval (-1, 1), which has the same "size" as all of the real numbers.


Yeah, I'm aware of this (especially the second example, ever since my Calculus teacher in high-school used a very similar definition to it in order to make us understand what real numbers are), what I was trying to say is that, at the end of it all, the science of Physics should be about making sense of the real world (using mathematical concepts, if the need arises, but not to see those concepts as reality itself).

More exactly, I say that translating the concept/idea of infinity from mathematics to physics is not idempotent (not sure if this it's the correct term, but you get the idea), saying that infinity "exists" in the physical world the same as it does in mathematics is kind of tricky when you think of the consequences through and through. To take your second example, applied to Physics that would mean that no matter what two small particles we choose as being "fundamental" there will always be an infinity of (presumably even more small) particles separating the two, and so on and so forth (it's "turtles all the way down", so to speak).

Like I said, I'm not a specialist, just a programmer, but I think we should be aware of the presumptions we implicitly make when discussing about different topics but using the same language (in this case the of concept of "infinity" in maths vs physics). Hume explained it better than me (maybe in an "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" ?!) when he said that the mathematical idea of a straight line (I'm talking about the geometrical line) is just that, an human-constructed idea, there's no absolute straight line in the real world (not sure what he thought about the idea of infinity, probably not much, judging by his being critical against mathematical induction).


No, we don't really understand infinity. We don't even know what is an infinite in our reality, unless I missed some really important news. You can understand perfectly infinity in the mathematical abstraction of reality. You can use it for renormalization or whatever theoretical instrument you want, but please don't tell me that you know everything about infinites when all the empirical observations at the moment go against an infinite universe and an infinitely divisible space-time that is probably discrete rather than continuous.

Stepping back in topic, from my point of view of a completely amateur physicist, I really appreciate her work. Whoever contributes to spreading knowledge is making the world a bit better than it was before (B.P.) I wish there were more people in the world keen to explain things rather than ridiculing others just because they don't understand something that for us is very obvious.

Just my two pence.


My situation is similar as a math grad student, but worse in a way. When people hear I'm in mathematics, they often assume I know physics. Worse, they often seem to have the expectation that I can provide some insightful feedback into how <Insert Latest Physics Discovery> fits into <Insert Pet Theory About the Universe>.


> A typical problem is that, in the absence of equations, they project literal meanings onto words such as ‘grains’ of space-time or particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence. Science writers should be more careful to point out when we are using metaphors. My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash. Illustrators should be more careful to point out what is relevant information and what is artistic freedom. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?

Just the other day I went to a talk by a prestigious physicist who, on top of telling only half-truths _at best_, made all of these mistakes and more. And the audience ate it up! As a mathematician and guy-who-writes-about-math-online, it makes me feel very frustrated. I also realized the difference between a physicist and a mathematician: a physicist is openly willing to compromise their principles and stretch the truth for the sake of press, while a mathematician sticks to the truth and as a result nobody cares.


>I also realized the difference between a physicist and a mathematician: a physicist is openly willing to compromise their principles and stretch the truth for the sake of press, while a mathematician sticks to the truth and as a result nobody cares.

1.) This is an over generalization that's insulting to physicists. That physicist you saw was clearly not a good speaker. I've seen mathematicians give poor talks and I've seen plenty of physicists give good talks.

2.) I think you have things backwards. Physicists get a lot of press for their work (CERN has it's own PR department and I'm sure plenty of other national labs do as well). Mathematicians, in comparison, do not get that much press for what they do. As a results, physicists are constantly forced to "compromise their principles and stretch the truth" in order to fit an explanation/justification of their work into a five paragraph news article. Mathematicians do not get the same level of press and public interest and are therefor not under as much (or any) pressure to simplify their results for the media to abuse.

I'll admit that this is a biased opinion but I'm not trying to compare the importance of each subject here. But in my experience I've noticed that the general population is much more interested in modern physics than mathematics.


a physicist is openly willing to compromise their principles and stretch the truth for the sake of press, while a mathematician sticks to the truth and as a result nobody cares.

I think it goes deeper than this. I was in the same undergraduate mathematics and physics classes as Nima Arkani-Hamed[1]. In calculus class, we learned very formal, epsilon-delta calculus (from Spivak's textbook). In physics, we learned from Feynman's Lectures on Physics.

Years later I went to lunch with him, and he mentioned that he spent much of his time fighting the formalist instincts from our Calculus class, and thinking more intuitively about mathematics. I do think physicists play more fast-and-loose with mathematics, e.g. using approximations like a few terms from a Taylor series, or other assumptions. When talking to the public, I can see how that would turn into playing fast-and-loose with the facts in order to "project" their knowledge into the space spanned by laypeople's knowledge, even if that projection loses important aspects of the work.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nima_Arkani-Hamed


I think the "fast and loose" goes much deeper than using a few terms of a Taylor series approximation (more like ignoring non-convergence!). Because mathematicians have to go through the same process of shrugging off the formal rigor to think intuitively about mathematics. (Terry Tao wrote at length about this process)

I can understand the desire to appeal to a wide audience, but in this particular talk I couldn't identify a single bit of "projected" knowledge that one could hope to retain from the talk.


> In calculus class, we learned very formal, epsilon-delta calculus (from Spivak's textbook). In physics, we learned from Feynman's Lectures on Physics.

Did you ever consider that this is because your physics instructor new you were taking such a math class and didn't want to waste his time teaching you what someone else was already teaching you? If you spent all your time in physics classes learning rigorous math, you'd never get around to learning what physics is about. You'd have to get your math degree first.


> I also realized the difference between a physicist and a mathematician: a physicist is openly willing to compromise their principles and stretch the truth for the sake of press, while a mathematician sticks to the truth and as a result nobody cares.

Ironic, really. As a mathematician, you should be aware of the problems of making such gross overgeneralisations. Not to mention that one of the most famous sayings about stretching the truth comes from mathematics: "Lies, damned lies, and statistics"


This is about statistics used to try to convince the public of something, not about the mathematics itself


> the difference between a physicist and a mathematician

I don't think I've ever linked to xkcd here before because I assume every HN reader has read every xckd, but this is just screaming for https://xkcd.com/435/


That's an uncharitable characterization, for sure. Though I do remember in my first graduate probability class, the instructor would often say something like "So what do we think the answer should be? Just change the order of integration like so and it falls out. If you're a physicist, you're done! Now we prove it."


This is redolent of eau'd Michio Kaku.


*eau d'

but yeah, absolutely.


I am definitely going to use "the difference between a physicist and a mathematician: a physicist is openly willing to compromise their principles and stretch the truth...."


Well, theoretical physics is not mathematics. (For some reason, that's a point mathematician are apparently unable to understand.) In (theoretical) physics mathematics is a tool, the important thing is the physical interpretation.


Some of these folks could probably benefit from reading a book that I just bought: The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need To Know To Start Doing Physics.

https://www.amazon.com/Theoretical-Minimum-Start-Doing-Physi...

It's a cool book... written to be relatively accessible, but is actually grounded in the real principles and math used in physics. As somebody who considers himself an autodidact of sorts (in that I'm as much self-taught as formally educated), but who has some awareness of "what I don't know" (and therefore doesn't sit around coming up with crackpot theories about quantum mechanics and what-not), I love this kind of stuff.

One of the authors is Leonard Susskind who is pretty credible. This is a book that is serious, but succinct (as you might guess from the title). Note that there is also a companion volume that is specifically about Quantum Mechanics. https://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mechanics-Theoretical-Leonard...

All of that said, I do think it's important to note (as others already have) that "autodidact != crank". Plenty of autodidacts are just people who study physics (or whatever) because they find it interesting, but they are aware of their limitations and don't pretend to have amazing new insights that have escaped physics for decades, etc. Likewise I'm pretty sure you can find cranks who have a formal education as well.


> autodidact != crank

This. Unless you consider Charles Darwin, Oliver Heaviside, James Watt and Thomas Edison cranks. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, as you can see here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_autodidacts


That being said, there are cranks on that list.


> The Theoretical Minimum: What You Need To Know To Start Doing Physics.

Terrible typesetting, by the way. I have no idea what imbecile thought it was a good idea to use a version of Garamond where the italic letters don't even have the same slant. Looks disgusting.


The last paragraph of the article says the same as the last paragraph of your comment, that autodidacts aren't necessarily cranks.


When I first started asking friends about SR/GR, they pointed me to 'Gravitation' by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. I really appreciated the "dual track" nature of the book, and for a long time it acted as my "What do I need to learn next, to understand the concept I was trying to read about?"

Many times, I've tried to get other people interested as I was to pick it up, and I've noticed something; the ones who want a textbook tend to stick with it. The ones who take a look and say "No no, I don't want all of that technical stuff", don't actually want to learn, they just want to magically know.

I'll never have the knowledge or abilities of a graduate student in this field, but I think there's value in learning what I can, while (in a positive way) knowing where I am in relation to the field I'm interested in.

And stay away from pop-sci, it does more harm than good once it gets you interested in science.


When I first started asking friends about SR/GR, they pointed me to 'Gravitation' by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. I really appreciated the "dual track" nature of the book, and for a long time it acted as my "What do I need to learn next, to understand the concept I was trying to read about?"

Looks like it's out of print? Used copies on Amazon are north of $150.00. Shame... luckily a pdf is "out there" for those who are willing to circumvent copyright law.


Here's a couple of tips for getting books like that when they are otherwise not "out there". Try an inter-library loan from your local library. Chances are there is a library out there somewhere which will lend it to you. Also, on the out-of-print books on Amazon with sky-high prices. You'll note that all of the listing agents have tens to hundreds of thousands of feedback reviews. Usually there are several of those that have automated bots that keep their offering at the lowest price. So you merely create a listing to sell it yourself, slowly walk it down in price, and watch the bots follow you down. When it gets to a low enough level, buy it and cancel your own listing.


Usually there are several of those that have automated bots that keep their offering at the lowest price. So you merely create a listing to sell it yourself, slowly walk it down in price, and watch the bots follow you down. When it gets to a low enough level, buy it and cancel your own listing.

Hey, that sounds like a pretty nifty idea. I'll look into that down the road. Thanks!


I think the authors would appreciate you learning more than you giving money for an out of print book, that probably doesn't net them (or their estates) a dime. It really is a good read, and the first book that really helped me to begin to understand the Schwarzschild geometry, just what the hell a "4-vector" was, and in general how many mathematical concepts relate to heuristic ones.


A very long time ago, I worked for Seymour Cray. He received a surprising amount of crank mail (and back then, it was real postal mail, not e-mail). His secretary filtered out the crank mail, spared him from it, and was good enough to pass the best stuff on to some of the engineers that would appreciate it.

I still have some of it, including a long treatise from an inmate at the county jail who had a theory of interplanetary transportation involving kangaroos whose energy output would be measured in "gigahops".

EDIT: two minor typos


I'm tremendously amused by the kangaroo theory!


I suppose that we'd be talking about "exahops" today.


Better than turtles I suppose.


1.21 GigaHops!? 1.21 GigaHops!!?!


> Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one.

So generally for sciences (and for compsci cranks as well) we have a direct answer because either your theories can be experimentally verified or they cannot. This is normally a solid position but it puts for example the decades of work on string theory in a bind - since they haven't produced a single verifiable result either.

So the author offers a tangential and more broadly encompassing but subjectively experiential position:

> During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.

Sure, that's great you've verified membership in a social group - but that's really insufficient when you are trying to identify crank science. This sentence can also be applied to all kinds of cults and secular belief systems, hell, I think most of academic humanities fall under this as well.

Anecdotal - I know someone who is a well accomplished researcher in their respective experimental physics field (with numerous citations), as a hobby they also happen to have an interest in theoretical physics, where they have published several papers entirely to no response (which to my understanding would be pretty awesome of they were not incorrect) . So it's not just in and out of 'professional physics', the number of people specializing in a particular area can be very small and closed off in an even more domain particular kind of way.


If you read many many scientific articles for a living, you can begin to tell from the writing style whether this is a crank or not.


>My clients almost exclusively get their information from the popular science media. Often, they get something utterly wrong in the process. Once I hear their reading of an article about, say, space-time foam or black hole firewalls, I can see where their misunderstanding stems from. But they come up with interpretations that never would have crossed my mind when writing an article.

This isn't just physics articles, and isn't just cranks. Most of the popular reporting on science gets things very wrong. I can't say whether physics is more correct or less correct, but I think I notice less eye-rolling and complaints from physicists about popular news articles than I do from other fields.

Something to keep in mind for people that are getting their science news from the media.


As a (former) physicist I have to say that there is plenty of eye-rolling about how physics is portrayed in the news. However, in any branch of modern physics it is accepted that no news article aimed at the general public could ever possibly convey the science with complete accuracy. Simply because it requires years of study and specialization to really understand it.

I did my graduate research at the LHC and I was there when the Higgs boson was discovered. I can't tell you how many people (non physicists) came to me with questions about it that were completely misguided because of it's misrepresentation in the news ("God particle" - holy mother of terrible catch phrases). But at the same time how can anyone expect to convey the full scope of the Standard Model in a news article?

The problem isn't that simplifying science with nice metaphors and analogies is wrong, it's that people who read the articles don't understand that what they're reading is just that: a nice metaphor or analogy. People think that because the science is dumbed down for a general audience that it must be simple enough for a general audience to understand. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in physics (and most other fields) for over a hundred years and never will be again.


Often I wish articles were written targeting a person with an undergrad or grad degree in physics rather than the typical 6th grade reading level. If people don't understand stuff they can google it or just not read the article.


At the very least, sneak one relevant equation into each article (not just as decoration) and spend a paragraph explaining something about it. Over time, readers will gain a lot more from that than from a data center full of 3D cartoons and raisin bread and rubber sheet analogies.


>If people don't understand stuff they can google it or just not read the article.

Or if you are interested beyond an elementary level, you can Google for more complicated subject matter. There's more than enough out there to wet your whistle.

Do you really think most normal people are going to look further into some random subject they didn't understand? Because that's who the mainstream media is appealing to. One of my pet peeves is coming into these very comment sections and someone criticizing an article for being "dumbed down". If you know the subject matter and find it "easy" then the article was probably not targeted at you. Why ask the author to write a "harder" article?


The reason to demand articles which push the limits of public understanding in discourse of complex topics is because that's the only way you get a more informed public, and more informed discussion.

It comes down to basic communications theory -- Claude Shannon stuff (though this may be a comparison made by others, I need to check sources). An informative communication is based on both and established common understanding and new material. The common understanding provides the basis for contextualising the issue, the novel material, for extending the receiver's understanding.

A communication which is completely novel simply won't be understood. A communication which is completely known conveys no new information. You need a balance.

I think I first encountered this concept in Grammatical Man, a 1980s-ish book by Jeremy Campbell on information and chaos theory, exceptionally well written, and highly recommended.

More recently, recalling as I write this, I've seen a plot of the level of understanding of an audience by different types of lecturers. Most start high and proceed low, though it's the specific plots they follow which provide the amusement value.

Here we are: The Nine Kinds of Physics Seminar https://manyworldstheory.com/2013/10/03/the-9-kinds-of-physi...


Yes you do have a point. I do also like the other reply to your comment but I do think about your point as well.


I don't think that all physics articles in the press should be written this way, but I think there's a place for it. I would certainly be interested in such a publication (does my master's in fluid mechanics count?)


I've been fascinated for a long time by just how much effective autodidactism there is in software vs. other fields. There are tons of people who have made major contributions here that are completely self-taught.

Software is uniquely suited to autodidactism for three reasons:

(1) The tools are easy to obtain and easy to start using. Capital cost is low to non-existent.

(2) The learning feedback loop is nearly instantaneous and the results are almost always perfectly objective. Things either work or they don't. There is not much room for delusional or wishful thinking.

(3) Resources for learning are readily available and are mostly written in a style that is utilitarian and straightforward rather than cliquish and arcane.

Theoretical physics passes on point #1 until you hit the need to do serious experimentation, but it fails on points #2 and #3. There is no command prompt that will tell you in 10ms if a theory is at least rational and internally consistent, and advanced mathematics has an arcane symbology and jargon that seems almost intentionally designed to resist penetration by those outside the academic circles where it is used and taught.


I think (2) is the crux. You can deceive yourself about your completeness of understanding, but you can't implement an idea in code until you understand (or are at least aware of) a complete set of components.


I get the e-mail for the EFF Cooperative Computing Awards

https://www.eff.org/awards/coop

so, despite having put lots of effort into not having people make spurious claims, I hear from a whole lot of math cranks.

Two things that I find striking are many people's level of confidence that they can personally "solve the problem" (in this case, by inventing some kind of "formula for primes" that has eluded the organized mathematics world for decades), and many people's lack of understanding of what a solution would consist of (in terms of knowing that mathematical proofs exist, and being able to understand whether they have a theorem or just a conjecture).

Our situation is especially tricky because we chose a problem that experts said would require lots of computational resources and couldn't be solved by new mathematical insight, but then we didn't outright forbid people from trying to solve it by insight. So a lot of people see an exciting challenge, like "they think it will take a lot of computer time, but if I can just see the pattern, I can skip all of that!". Also, we have a large monetary reward for solutions and so people are excited by the idea that they have them and are about to receive a bunch of money.

I think it's true that many of the people who contact me about this are excited about mathematics in the way that people who contacted Dr. Hossenfelder were excited about physics (and, as pdkl95 said, that Carl Sagan's cab driver was excited about science). But it's still frustrating that, after we've gone to some lengths to say that you need a proof and not just a guess, and that decades of research indicate that you can't find primes of this size without significant computer time, people are still so confident that their guesses are right and so resistant to accepting that they haven't met the awards criteria.

It would be interesting to see an equivalent service for talking to mathematicians and to see what some of the people who contact us might get out of it, and whether it might inspire them to pursue more constructive things. (I always wish that our awards would motivate someone to start doing Project Euler problems or something...) If someone set up that "talk to a mathematician" service, I would probably try to send lots of people their way.


This raises the meta-question of how best to run filters for possibly-interesting-but-expensive-to-assess claims, posts, and traffic.

One model I've heard of is to put the cranks in contact with each other, which at least offloads the problem. I'm not sure it's an effective filtering mechanism, however.

This is related to the general problem of innovation (in maths or otherwise), in which the view that inventors simply toss ideas out at random but the good inventors are far better at sussing out the good ideas and rejecting bad ones may hold some validity. See J. Doyne Farmer, John Muth (whom Farmer cites: John F. Muth, (1986) Search Theory and the Manufacturing Progress Function. Management Science 32(8):948-962. http:// dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.32.8.948), John Holland, etc.

There are implications for online collaborative filtering, both in general discussions (e.g., HN) and academic publishing (e.g., PLOS ONE).


> put the cranks in contact with each other

Three Cranks of Ypsilanti, so to speak?


Not familiar with the reference. I think Feynman may have used this technique though.

More seriously, I was hoping you'd pick up on the overarching theme: is there an effective way to sort through the autodidact chaff to find wheat?

My own area of crankdom is economic theory. I have (and I believe this earns me John Baez crank points) studied the topic in school, and am doing a boatload of research on both current state and history of theory and the dynamics of its spread. Interesting stuff. I'm actively trying to shut the fuck up for the most part, other than 1) noting what I'm currently pursuing, 2) questions of interest, 3) references of interest (e.g., the Santa Fe Institute mafia generally, mentioned above), and 4). occasionally contacting specific academics with specific questions, usually about some element of theory, historical item, etc., rather than a full-fledged Theory of Everything. Then withdraw for further mulling. I'm batting about 50-50 on responses, some quite helpful.

But it does put to mind the question of how one ought approach questions quite fundamental to the nature of a large field of study and/or propaganda (economics is ... curious in many regards).


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Christs_of_Ypsilanti

To your point, I was talking to someone about the idea of evaluating proposed proofs (like for the awards I was talking about) by requiring them to be submitted in a formal proof system. Apparently even for large computations there can be ways to submit spot-checkable logs or summaries of the computation, kind of like zero-knowledge proofs, where you can randomly pick locations in the log and confirm that it's internally consistent, even without repeating the entire computation.

I don't think any of these techniques will help for anything outside of mathematics or computational projects, though!


I've been kicking around a few thoughts over the past few decades.

There's a fundamental limit to the number of distinct messages a person can assimilate in a day. I've noticed from several reports of personal email patterns (Wolfram and others), that about 300/day is a typical upper bound. That's 1.6 minutes per email (or an email every 1.6 minutes) in an 8 hour day, though it's not atypical to see patterns where someone dedicates a few hours of the day to managing emails.

I ran across a truly staggering statistic of the rise in the number of communications a manager received per year from 1970 to 2015. On the order of ~400 (per year) to 30,000. I suspect some possible undercounting (phone and direct in-person messages, as well as, say, message slips may have been omitted from the earlier tally), but that's a change from ~2 messages per day to about 120. The time and consideration given each has to fall.

I've spent quite some time pondering collaborative filtering systems. Typically, these strive to rate and rank, and sort by significance individual messages. On a typical Web or online service, all visitors will see all messages, eventually. This can produce problems when, say, a top-ranked subreddit has several thousand comments in it -- it's unreasonable to expect anyone to read them all, but also somewhat unfair to those who contribute later to be fated to not be seen at all.

The HN front page and new submissions pages suffer a somewhat similar problem.

One model might be to target a given page or platform for a set number of visible submissions at any one time, but using the content filtering system to adjust not the position on a page, but the probability that any given user would see the content.

An alternative might be to divide content into several categories, a logarithmic progression of quality. I'm fond of Likert scales, usually 5-9 levels. Here, the idea is that each level is an order of magnitude "better" (I'll explain the quotes) than the previous, with increasing likelihood to be seen. All content should be seen by someone. Better content is seen by more people. With a five level scale, L-1 content is seen by 1:10,000 visitors, L-2 by 1:1,000, L-3 by 1:100, L-2 by 1:10, and L-1 by 1:1. It might well be possible to work with smaller numbers of categories.

Another advantage is that this system would tend to reduce the filtering overhead as content was more highly rated, such that more trusted / discriminating raters could be explicitly called in to assess the small number of highly-ranked posts. The slush pile, as it were, is fanned out among many, the good content filters toward the top, where it's multi-checked for quality (I'm assuming here that the objective is quality and not just "attracts eyeballs"), including being flaggable for various negative characteristics (misleading, spam, social norms violations, low-effort posts, etc.).

There's also the challenge that explicit content rating tends to be problematic -- there are a few too many incentives to game any rating system, and much behavioral indication of quality or interest which isn't explicit.

In the cranks'n'geniuses model, you'd divvy up your recipient pool such that incoming submissions get farmed out and no one evaluator has to see too many of them, but all submissions have at least a reasonable likelihood of being reviewed. Better submissions go up the set (perhaps subject to specific tests, e.g., can someone find an example which contradicts the claim). And expert's time wastage is minimised.

And whether or not the submitters think they themselves are Jesus and/or the others dead beings manipulated by experimenters largely doesn't matter.


With a five level scale, L-1 content is seen by 1:10,000 visitors, L-2 by 1:1,000, L-3 by 1:100, L-2 by 1:10, and L-1 by 1:1.

I'm lost. Does the repetition of L-1 and L-2 for two different values have a meaning that I haven't figured out yet, or are these typos?


I have no idea how that happened.

Should have been L-1, L-2, L-3, and L-4. Presumably an L-5 given I started off talking about 5-point scales.

Log10 might be a bit much. Log2 or log-e might well be more appropriate, or other scaling factors.

Memo to self: no HN commenting when brainfarting.


Oh god. "Formula for primes" - I was involved in a way too long forum discussion where everyone involved was trying to convince the guy putting forth his idea for generating primes that he was merely going round in circles, proving and reproving identities.

As a former physicist, I think that math is way harder to talk about to laypeople, though there can be a wide variation in difficulty by subfield. Maybe number theory can be accessible, but analysis, say, would be pretty opaque. Not to mention some of the more exotic branches of math.


I've unfortunately received somewhere around 100 supposed formulas for primes in the past decade and a half. :-(

There's a great Wikipedia article about this:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formula_for_primes

But most of what people send me is along the lines of "numbers containing only odd digits, that don't end in 5" or "4k+1 for any k, if it contains only odd digits", or "(p-1)²+7 for any prime p" or whatever. A kind of unfortunate example was an elementary school girl who became convinced that numbers containing only odd digits are always prime (many people are tempted by some form of this idea), and spent several weeks writing such digits down in a composition notebook in order to form an integer that would be big enough to qualify for one of our awards.


And the counterexample of 15 didn't work?


I've come up with counterexamples for every such formula or rule that people have sent me (usually running a Python loop with gmpy2.is_prime() or something), but unfortunately the existence of the counterexamples somehow didn't occur to them before they wrote in in the first place.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_coincidence is a big problem because people will sometimes conjecture a pattern and then find that it holds for 6 or 7 integers and conclude that it's right. Or if they find a counterexample, they might just make a minimal modification to the conjecture and conclude that they're fixed it! So there are lots of these that will say "unless the number is..." and presumably give some other random property that the counterexample that the claimant found had.

It feels like some people think that mathematics works by people guessing rules and then checking them, and regarding the rules as right if they "check out" in practice. (I know that there's been lots of progress made from guesses and conjectures and numerical experiments; the issue is just what comes after the guess!)


> mathematics works by people guessing rules and then checking them

This will sound facetious, but I suspect many people treat great swathes of life this way. My wife has a friend who tries any random googled herb-based cure any time she gets ill. Recovery from this illness, this cold or flu, is always taken as proof of the validity of the cure, regardless of how long she's had to ingest it.

You, reading this, have already thought of half a dozen ways to disprove her cures, as have I, however no amount of evidence can assuage this need to believe. At this point my theory is that this belief forms an intractable part of her personal identity.

At the core of all of this, and perhaps for these "autodidact physicists" as well, seems to be a very primal need to understand the universe in terms comprehendible one's self, regardless the cost.


> mathematics works by people guessing rules and then checking them

This will sound facetious, but I suspect many people treat great swathes of life this way

Including programming. Good programmers are the ones who try to derive the underlying rules, instead of trying something and checking if it works for a couple cases.


Or 9.


Ah. I took "digits" to mean "must be plural", not "could be".


I don't know if we're talking about the same guy and the same forum, but I remember a very similar story on a forum I used to frequent. The guy also had a plan for interplanetary spacecraft propulsion, that involved a weight moving to the back of the craft, being thrown towards the front of the craft where it's caught, and repeating the cycle.

The theory in his mind depended on there being a difference between the weight being 'thrown' and merely being 'moved and released' towards the front of the craft. It took a few patient techies, one of whom was a professional physicist, quite a while to explain that there was no physical difference between 'throw' and 'release'.

Nice bloke, but a classic example of 'not being able to talk the talk', as discussed in the article.


There are many people who decide not to go into research but enter industry instead. Some of them don't have the intellectual chops, but others are turned off by the politics, long hours that professors work, spending more time writing grant proposals and managing students than doing research, etc.

Some of them have spare time, or maybe will have spare time after their kids are grown, or will be able to retire early. Then they could become citizen scientists [1], independent scientists [2], etc.

I wonder how to organize and encourage them? How to redirect or weed out the cranks, and encourage those who are motivated and can look at things from a new perspective?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_science [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independent_scientist


I like this idea, but how much time would be spent re-teaching the citizen scientists the prerequisites needed to do research? Since most of the knowledge at the forefront of research is in papers and not books, that seems like the biggest hurdle.


It would be up to the citizen scientist to keep up with newly published papers.

I think it would be interesting to create an environment that encourages the hobby scientist to follow the forefront of research. Maybe something like the Recurse Center but for maths and physics. I'm not sure where the funding would come from since the Recurse Center seems to make money from corporate recruiting. Maybe universities?


Nothing's stopping them even now (at least in most theoretical sciences). Almost all books and papers are freely if not always legally available in the internet. If they discover something they can write up a paper and submit it to an appropriate journal.


Well, we could just clean up academia.


'Clean up academia' sounds vaguely Stalinist to me.


I think there is a very large difference (in ability to contribute to science and barrier to entry) between roughly three groups of people who once had academic background.

The first are industry R&D staff (like me) -- usually we _do_ keep at the forefront of research but aren't allowed to give much time to anything that isn't going to sell in three years and have limited avenues to publish (usually patents, but patents cost money and unlike scientists we have zero incentive to make them readable). Those people technically do contribute to science but their contributions have very reduced public impact compared to what academia gets, and that's a shame.

The second are people in support roles in either industry or academia that still work directly with science and scientists -- lab technicians, patent examiners and patent attorneys, staff writers at journals, grant writers/reviewers and program managers, most admin staff at science organizations, etc. Those people have easy avenues to learn about science and usually are very knowledgeable in at least one subfield, but they are not given any time or platform to contribute their own thoughts and sometimes their background is insufficiently technical for original contributions. There is also something to gain from them in citizen science initiatives though, they know what the problems are and what is being done to address them.

Then you have the people profiled in the article -- non-scientists of varied backgrounds that have worked in 100% non science occupation (or raised children) since grad school (IF they went to grad school). Those people may or may not have the background but they almost invariably have no good access to papers, no knowledge of modern working methods and quality standards and (most important) no community of like minded scientists to exchange ideas with and accept feedback from. And if they stay isolated, they are not going to be useful and would mostly benefit from an internship or something to learn what the field is actually about.


"Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry ... After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country."

This matches my experience. During the final year of my Engineering degree I decided to take a third year particle physics elective because it sounded interesting. The course had no pre-requisites but it probably should have. I remember showing up to the first lecture and being one of the only non-science students in the theatre. The lecturer started talking about Hamiltonian's, Fermi-Dirac Statistics and Wave-Functions and it all just went completely over my head. There was a whole bunch of "foreign" concepts that were assumed. I ended up needing to check out a bunch of physics texts from the library and over the next few weeks I had to teach myself the 2+ years of physics knowledge the rest of the class was familiar with. I passed the course but it was a lot of work for what was supposed to be an elective.


Einstein famously couldn't find a teaching position after graduation, spent 2 years unemployed, then worked as a patent clerk in a patent office. According to wikipedia: "Much of his work at the patent office related to questions about transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time, two technical problems that show up conspicuously in the thought experiments that eventually led Einstein to his radical conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time."

So there's two lessons here, I think: 1. People outside academia can still make important contributions, and 2. spending a lot of time thinking about other people's proposals, separating the good from the bad, and inspire a new, fruitful way of looking at things, or at least overcoming standard mental traps.


Keep in mind that Einstein still went to grad school for physics. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Kleiner


If we need a more neutral term than "crank", rather than "autodidact," why not "outsider"?

An outsider artist is anyone who creates art not easily dismissed, despite not participating in the social and academic communities of their medium, so why can't there be outsider scientists and engineers as well?


There is a big difference here. In physics, the "outsiders" are easily dismissed. It's just that the outsiders themselves usually don't accept that they're just flat out wrong and convince themselves that it's the establishment working against them.


Haven't many outsiders become insiders? Or really even . . . beatified?

I recall some famous scientists being forced to recant and being . . . completely right. I additionally wouldn't by the argument that the scientific community was on his side. The "community in power" was not on his side. And that's what matters.


The vast majority of those situations are where the people are already scientists and experts in their field. We are talking about people who are not experts in physics.


Seems to bear comparison to phone sex lines, in that you're satisfying a basic human need - in this case, to be listened to.

John Baez keeps a 'Crackpot Index' score at http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html


"50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions."

Unfortunately, that describes string theory, as Smolin keeps pointing out.


Depending on your view, that might not be especially unfortunate. (String theory is, IMO, solidly a crackpot hypothesis until they start using the scientific method.)


Do you know what Witten has said in response to this criticism? That string theory predicts gravity. :-)


I like how apparently everyone dismisses string theory predicting Bethe Ansatz results as immaterial largely because no one outside of condensed matter and some math people bothers learning about BA.


This strikes me more as a success of science journalism (people are inspired to improve their understanding of physics) and a failure of science education (intelligent, motivated amateurs receive no support outside of formal education).

Along these lines, is there a good recommended contemporary popular work on quantum physics for non-physicists?


The "mechanics" of QM is linear algebra, so you should get a good base in LA before looking into QM.

My upcoming book on LA has chapter on QM, specifically "matrix" quantum mechanics, which is the subset of quantum physics phenomena that can be represented using finite-dimensional vectors, matrices, projections, etc. For the full "physicsy" QM course, you'll need to learn about the wave function formalism, which is a bit more complicated...


I am considering writing a blog post series on 'Quantum physics for programmers', would you find that interesting?


This is a fun idea for a service.

I happened to read 3 articles this week on labour productivity. My economics is undergraduate level with 15 years of rust, but I had an idea. I thought I was brilliant for the rest of the day. But, I'd like to know if my idea is an existing theorem, wrong for some reason I don't understand or (most likely) a novel, brilliant idea that economists just overlooked.

Dunno if I'd pay $50 to find out. 34.99 tops, maybe. :)


At the very least, you should write it up and post it. There are some people with more direct economics knowledge on HN.


>My clients almost exclusively get their information from the popular science media. Often, they get something utterly wrong in the process. Once I hear their reading of an article about, say, space-time foam or black hole firewalls, I can see where their misunderstanding stems from. But they come up with interpretations that never would have crossed my mind when writing an article.

Can you see the parallel with democracy? Autodidacts can not really harm the field of physics no matter how naively wrong they are. But we have voting rights and we believe we understand the complex issues in sociology, justice, economics ... I am depressed.


I've had my share trying to convince someone that a perpetual motion system they described did not conserve energy or momentum. They refused to believe my assertion that momentum and energy were conserved quantities.


But what if you were paid to convince them?


It was a long forum discussion, and well over a dozen engineers, mathematicians, and physicists kept saying the same thing. Some wrong long (>500 word) posts. We were all ignored. This person was invested in the idea that they had an insight that centuries' worth of work had overlooked.


  Many base their theories on images, 
  downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded 
  in long pamphlets. A few use basic 
  equations. Some add videos or applets. 
  Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, 
  cardboard or wires.
Actually these are perfectly good ways of communicating ideas and solving problems.


I don't think the author is suggesting that diagrams and visualizations are inherently bad. In fact, the vast majority of physics is done with help of diagrams. Even modern particle physics (Feynman diagrams). I believe the author is pointing out that a lot of people see a cartoon diagram in a news article and treat it like a scaled blueprint of the theory/concept.


Yes, apart from the long pamphlets.


"They are driven by the same desire to understand nature and make a contribution to science as we are. They just weren’t lucky enough to get the required education early in life, and now they have a hard time figuring out where to even begin."

Any chance of on-boarding via experimental work/data analysis in some way like in Astronomy?

http://www.iau.org/public/themes/citizen-science-projects/


The comments here are full of people who should be paying $50 for 20 minutes of a physicist's time. Maybe we should start taking up a collection and seeing if we can get a bulk discount.


I'm hardly a physicist, but I have a degree in "general engineering" (long story about how I managed to escape specialization there) and a master's in software engineering, and I've taken a few advanced math courses, including partial differential equations, computational theory, scientific computing, and a math-heavy course on relativity. I also spent a year and a half working for a Harvard physics professor, alongside his team of grad students. So, while I can't "do physics" I think I know enough to understand a little about what it takes to _be_ a physicist, and appreciate the work that they do.

My husband and I were listening to a radio program (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/293/a...) about a man convinced that he had found a mistake in Einstein's theory of relativity, and trying to communicate this idea to a physicist (futilely, obviously). My husband, who was a music major for a year before dropping out of college, and I started getting in an argument about this episode that was so heated, I felt like we were listening to two completely different stories!

I kept insisting that the advanced math and education wasn't just some funsies shibboleth the physicists had to keep the hoi polloi out of physics -- the devil's in the details and the man in the story didn't even understand the big picture correctly. My husband was angry and insulted that the physicist dismissed the man's theory out of hand, and felt that anyone could make a contribution to physics with perhaps a little help from a calculus book -- just look at history! I thought the hero of the story (if there was one) was clearly the physicist, while my husband was solidly on the side of the electrician with a little learning, trying dangerous things.

I was really shocked. We don't usually fight like that, and especially over something so seemingly trivial, but, in retrospect, I thought that it displayed huge tension in society as a whole, between academics and non-academics. We hear so much about the "one percent" and income-based class distinctions, but relatively little about academic barriers in society, whether real or artificially imposed. Should physics open up in a real way (not just "pop science" articles and occasional books for laymen)? Should we put a stronger "academic" focus in early public and high school education? Should we provide more resources for "physicists who just need a little help with the math" whether they're right or wrong?

Although I was staunchly in favor of the hallowed halls of academe, and it still holds a special place in my heart, I suspect that the correct solution lies somewhere in the middle. Anyway, fantastic article, and it really brings up an important point that is too seldom addressed, by physicists, or society as a whole!


Just a nitpick, but Bob Berenz is an electrician not an electrical engineer. Electrical engineering is firmly rooted in modern physics and an educated electrical engineer would not need "help with the math." Out of all engineering disciplines, an electrical engineer is possibly the most prepared to work side by side with a physicist.

As to your questions, no, I don't think academics should provide more resources to "physicists who just need a little help with the math." They are not physicists and there are plenty of resources at community colleges that can help them. We should not entertain the notions of those that refuse to learn the tools necessary to develop a deeper understanding. Math is not optional, it is the language by which we describe the structure of the universe.


> and an educated electrical engineer would not need "help with the math."

For doing EM no. For doing GR or QFT, he would most certainly need help with the math.


you missed the more general question

> Should physics open up in a real way (not just "pop science" articles and occasional books for laymen)?

The problem with the whole paragraph is, IMHO, maths and physics cannot be separated. There is no pure physics and neither pure mathematics.


Yup, sorry, just misspoke/typed. Will edit.


It's more the gap between experts and non-experts. Pop-sci has turned Dunning-Kruger into a religion, but pop-journalism of all kinds delights in reporting that experts are corrupt and/or hostile and/or wrong.

And often they are, especially in some fields. The problem is that non-experts see "science" and "experts" as single classes, with no understanding of the difference between a professional researcher at the Perimeter Institute and some paid-for PR shill wackjob dredged up to fill airtime on a talk show.

Let's not forget that "medical experts" literally promoted the health benefits of smoking, and of products that encouraged people to consume radium.

To an outsider, it must be very confusing. It's easier, as a heuristic, to dismiss everyone's expertise than it is to take the time to try to assess relative competence.

Unfortunately physics has a huge problem, because it's been made to seem sexy and mediafied.

It's been popularised to an extreme degree, and people who don't know what a differential equation is and would have no idea how to start a practical engineering project, whether it's bridge building or aerospace or electronics, believe they can talk with authority about quantum theory.

There's a subtext which is even more disturbing - the idea there's a democratic right to have opinions about these things (which is fair enough) and to have the opinions taken seriously by professionals (which isn't.)


There is a general problem where for laypeople it is difficult to tell the difference between bullshit and non-bullshit. Witness the success of Deepak Chopra.

The confounding factor is that the layperson's suspicion that some academics are lying or involved in some conspiracy is not always wrong. Then there are the culture wars between various factions. Witness how computer scientists think of the social scientists in general. Not much love being exchanged there, they might as well be different species.

I think the only thing you can really do educationally is teach logic and thinking from first principals as well as heuristics for bullshit detection.

My technique is to pin down the person with a clear definition for a piece of their explanation. I then write this down. Eventually I find their ideas to be either consistent or inconsistent. Being consistent doesn't make them right but it sure does filter out most bullshit. It's like being a detective!

Unfortunately bullshit detection, first principals + basic logic only take you so far because for many real world things you require large amounts of domain knowledge. Teaching all that is impossible. You can however teach about what Neal Stephenson called icongraphies in his book Anathem. There are historical patterns, mental models that are domain specific but which can enable you to rapidly detect whether something fits into a framework or whether it's off the rails.

Here is a fair warning though. There is some interesting ideas about the split between 'American science' and 'Russian science'. That is something that shouldn't have happened but the communication breakdown led to several fields taking different paths. For example Geology supposed in America that Oil was generated from a biological source in the distant past. You might take that idea for granted. But in Russia it was thought seriously for a long time that Oil was generated from a non-biological source. I don't know the real answer myself but it is worth knowing that this does happen. I mean... one of them is almost certainly wrong.


I think a few things contribute to this in a big way:

1) Explanations of science (or the findings of science, anyway) in school are often awful and/or wrong, and not always for any good reason. See: how airplane wings work, for an exceptionally bad one. Finding this out for one thing after another as one grows up paints all of science as kinda bullshitty.

2) People who (apparently) know what's going on often have trouble explaining why something that seems like it ought to have a decent intuitive explanation works other than "the math says it does, so it does". See, for an example: basically any place online where several seemingly-knowledgable people try to explain how/why the Oberth effect works. Also the talk section for the wikipedia page about how airplane wings work :-(

3) Most people (I'd guess) are looking for satisfying answers to "why" in science, and often science actually does run out of answers to that question beyond "because the math says so" or "because we've observed that this happens, for whatever reason", and sometimes surprisingly far from the edge of our knowledge on a topic. These spaces are often filled with fairy tales, which may be tossed about as if they're "real", confusing laypersons. This obscures where the satisfying-to-a-layperson part of a given topic ends and where here-be-dragons-and-magic-and-mostly-just-math begins.

4) Common words overloaded to serve as highly specific scientific terminology are incredibly difficult to parse as a layperson, and they're all over in science. It's easy to get fairly deep into a topic before realizing that a term like this is barely mapped to any common meaning, if it is at all. Doubly so if the reason the term was originally used turns out to be wrong, but the term remains in use for whatever phenomenon/term it was describing just because all the experts are used to it. Physics is extremely bad about this, to the point that it comes off as intentional.

Given those things (among others), no wonder non-experts have trouble sorting BS from legit science.

[edit] "there" to "where"


> Explanations of science (or the findings of science, anyway) in school are often awful and/or wrong

One of the biggest problems in science education is the failure, I think, to distinguish enough between the teaching of the results of science (and simplifications of those results) and science itself. Related to that is insufficient teaching of the evaluation of scientific claims. (Which really overlaps with general critical thinking.)


>Witness how computer scientists think of the social scientists in general. Not much love being exchanged there

A lot of that is because social sciences are often genuinely non-rigorous, hand-wavey, and opinionated.

I was required to take a sociology class once. Some of what was presented was solid, like the observed stages of childhood development with respect to self-awareness and the issues with the poverty cycle, but in other areas a lot of theories were presented as the "right" thing to believe that had some combination of being unverifiable, having insufficient sample sizes in their foundational studies, having glaring methodological problems, contradicting other things also presented as factual, or having reaching conclusions.

There was an assignment to make a food plan based on an average food stamp allocation, that let you eat 2000 calories per day along with some other requirements that I don't remember. The professor claimed only one person had ever been able to do it. You weren't expected to be able to do it, but if you couldn't, you had to write an explanation of it and how the experience made you feel - assumedly an "eye opening experience" was expected. It was conveniently not mentioned that food stamps are intended to be supplemental, not for all of your food. The program even has the word supplemental in the title: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supplemental_Nutrition_Assista...

Regardless, even with unrealistic restrictions, I was able to do it without any trouble. Taking the high values of what the food prices ranged at the local budget food store, I had a result that was well-balanced and below-budget. Of course, the professor had to make some snide comment about "sodium poisoning" to the class about it, which this diet certainly cannot cause.

Here's a paste of it: http://pastebin.com/QnmnHXbA

Not everybody has access to as good of a budget store as ALDI, so results can vary, but this particular ALDI is located in a low-income area, and there's clearly no epidemic of malnourished low-income individuals nationwide given that poverty is correlated with obesity. This was just one example of the many problems in that curriculum. For another example, the wage gap was simply stated to be indisputably the common 77 cents per dollar figure, which carries certain implications of it being entirely discrimination when stated without any qualifiers; however, when just looking at the Wikipedia article, it can be seen that the problem has more subtleties to it, including which portions are "explained" vs "unexplained," and that widely varying figures have been reported. Motivating more women to participate in male-majority fields is a good thing, along with other proposed solutions to help the problem, but none of that was mentioned in the class.

Aside from this one biased professor, I've read from others that these problems are very common in social science classes. It would be nice if there were some data available on how students rate their professors' bias in this field.


Completely off-topic note, but I actually lived on food stamps for a while in 2009, and, yes, it's extremely easy to stay under-budget if you have access to a well-stocked kitchen, and you know how to cook and plan meals for yourself and your family (not a difficult skill, but not a trivial one either). Fortunately, I'm a decent cook, but for a couple months I lived in illegally-run housing where you had five units sharing a tiny unventilated kitchen and an old fridge.

The landlord would go through and unplug the communal appliances (including the fridge) regularly to reduce energy consumption. I thought it was odd that the fridge was empty, except for sodas, when I got there, but I found out why pretty fast. Food would get stolen, I was regularly harassed (not "oh, that guy hit on me and I didn't like it" harassment, but huge dudes with mental illnesses, prison records, and nothing better to do threatened to beat me up, and yelled at me over imaginary things they suspected me of, one guy threw a block of my cheese out the nearby bathroom window -- as a single female, I was an easy target), there was just a single bathroom for everyone, connected to the kitchen, and I watched people empty soda bottles of urine into the kitchen sink (yeah, super gross). The oven was so dirty the unventilated kitchen filled with smoke when you turned it on, and you had to stay there to make sure no one fucked with your food. Towards the end, everything I ate basically had to be shelf stable and require no preparation. Also, there were mice, so if you don't like mice in your tiny bedroom, keeping large amounts of food around is a problem.

Anyway, I was fortunate to have the resources to get out of that situation extremely quickly, but a huge problem for many people on food stamps is that they just don't have the ability to reasonably store and prepare food. Having your own kitchen (or a kitchen with responsible people you trust), buying appliances, providing electricity, and maintaining everything is expensive. My own kitchen, big-ticket appliances aside, probably has thousands of dollars worth of gadgets, dishes, and cutlery in it right now -- I certainly don't take that for granted anymore! We often assume that people have access to a kitchen where they feel safe, AND the knowledge to cook and plan meals. The next place I was at, I could get six meals out of a roast chicken and a few potatoes and was under-budget every month. But the first apartment was awful. I ate terribly, felt exhausted, and was struggling at the end of the month, with the exact same budget and skill set.

Preparing "food stamp menus" in a text file demonstrates very little about the program one way or another. There are much larger issues around food supplement programs that people don't often understand.


I've often felt I'm not smart enough to be a theoretical physicist, but smart enough to know the difference between a real explanation and word vomit.

And that is extremely stressful for me. There is a desire to feel like you can understand some key part of the world you live in.

Failing to get into academia feels like I've personally failed at calming this desire. And I hate it.

Sometimes I think people refuse to believe this course of life is necessary, it feels elite and exclusionary. Knowing your world shouldn't require this, it cant't.

But it does.


Speaking as an academic, "getting into academia" requires some combination of luck, perseverance, and personality fit. It has very little to do with being "smart enough".

Also, you end up being a specialist in a very, very tiny aspect of the world, rather than having a lot of general knowledge. A good illustration:

http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/


I mean sure. It's just when I look at my heroes, Feynman, Polya, Dirac, etc. They all went to places like princeton.

And near as I can tell, that seems to be important. The only person I can think of who blew the door open was faraday, a spooky good experimentalist.

Granted it's rediculous to compare oneself to people like this. I'm worried I'm half depressed.

Worrying about specialization seems, to me, misleading. At least in math. People regularly use their entire experience on problems. The specialty just reflects your values and talents. I dunno, maybe I am wrong, I appreciate your thoughts.

My goal with my original post was to explain a strong desire to be "right" about things one cares about. I think this emotion is destructive, and unproductive, but I see it in myself. I think others might cope by not fighting it, pretending to know, then moving on with their life. Then some scientist comes along, tells then they don't, and they get defensive.


If you want to be like them, focus on the process of science, not on being right about how nature "really" works. Those guys were driven by the desire to figure things out, to get some understanding of things but they knew when to stop worrying and move on to the next interesting thing where progress could be made. They were not so religious as to spend their life trying to achieve some sort of final absolute understanding.


Would people argue over the proper treatment for cancer as prescribed by physicians and oncologists?

Don't answer that.

Physicists who need a little help with the math become experimentalist. JK. (I was an experimental physicist.)

Physics is already open in a real way. It's just that the natural language of physics is math. And people don't like math, for whatever reason.

Re dismissing things out of hand: unfortunately, sometimes the errors are so obvious that all it takes is one look to see that it's wrong. I mean, if it's easy for a practicing musician to identify a chord by ear, why should one think a physicist is arrogant if they can spot the error right away?

(See my other comments here on arguing about conservation of energy and momentum in an online forum.)


You know, I suspect it's much more common to find people arguing over proper cancer treatment, because they want to believe their care is right. And if they don't like math, or science, they'll make sweeping wrong statements about their health, because they don't know how to make the right explanation feel right.


> Would people argue over the proper treatment for cancer as prescribed by physicians and oncologists?

of course they would. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdalin


While I agree with plenty the author wrote, I have seen plenty of people who are great with math, can speak the language, know how to promote their results in pubs and conferences, and yet are still completely and totally wrong.

My best example is a smart physics graduate that I went to grad school (in biophysics) with. An open problem at the time was how motor proteins couple the energy in ATP hydrolosis to directed motion. I said one day, "hmm, maybe it works like this..." and she said, "oh no, my advisor and I proved that mechanism was impossible."

A few years go by, we're getting ready to graduate. I ask her, "so, since you spent the last 7 years studying motor proteins, how do they work?" And she told me it was the mechanism I had proposed. I said, "but you disproved that!". And she said, "well, then I collected data, and it turns out our assumptions are wrong."

I constantly end up arguing with quantitative people in my own old field- for example, I used to argue with people who did GWAS, they insisted all their stats were great and perfect, then Ionnides and others showed their stats were abysmal, and they were massively overconfident in their results.

This is not to say all the cranks are right- they are almost certainly wrong. Anybody who attempts to get around the second law of thermodynamics is going to lose, unless there is something truly and fundamentally wrong with statistical mechanics.


That is why I believe society is not getting what it is paying for in physics and mathematics. Too much of the funds invested in physics knowledge is from taxpayers money, and all the knowledge produced is useless if we can't get it back and, with due dedication, understand it. I always felt most of the modern physics knowledge is completely inaccessible to me.

The latest physics book I could read and understand was one by Einstein himself, "Relativity: The Special and General Theory", which is 100 years old.

When I tackled to learn quantum mechanics, I couldn't find good accessible (cost-wise) material, and the supposedly good book appointed by a physicist friend of mine cost more than $100 on Amazon (which is about 1/3 of the minimum wage of where country I live). I end up buying the Indian print of the book much cheaper. But there was no chance I could read it at the time, because of my lack of calculus basis, what made me watch the entire Udacity course on differential equations.

Thanks to that, I had the bare minimum to be accepted in a PhD program on mechanical engineering (I am MSc on Computer Science) to work on computational fluid dynamics. Now, halfway through an engineering PhD, I believe am (more) able to tackle the QM book (look all that took me!)

That is why I deeply value the effort of Udacity, Coursera, Khan Academy and such, because without real efforts to bring actual knowledge to public, in an accessible way (both cost and didactic-wise), modern physics and mathematics are a waste of money on private clubs.


Just because you don't understand modern physics does not make it useless. Do you understand how nuclear magnetic resonance works? It's a good thing your MRI machine will still work regardless of your understanding. Do you think most people have any idea how transistors store a state value? These examples, along with countless other discoveries made by physicists, should make it pretty clear that your understanding of physics (and mathematics) in no way affects its usefulness or value.

The reason for pursuing physics is not to bestow new information on the general population, that's a completely different area called physics education.


> I always felt most of the modern physics knowledge is completely inaccessible to me.

Maybe you are just intellectually inadequate.

I'm inadequate to run the 100m in less than 15s or even to finish a marathon in less than 2h.

Doesn't mean these things are generally inaccessible.


Well, the entire human race is inadequate to run a marathon in less than 2h so far...


You're absolutely right, that was a typo.

I meant 3 hours.

I don't think I could finish in less than a day at all...


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