Saturday, June 21, 2014

Beware the Retired Engineer!

Physicists often complain about the volume of mail they receive from crackpots who want them to verify their badly conceived theories. What I didn’t realize is that any given crackpot has a high likelihood of being a retired engineer, and more specifically a retired electrical engineer! It came as quite a shock to learn this, since I happen to be a retired electrical engineer (and, some would say, a crackpot as well).

The most recent example of this complaint that I’ve come across is in cosmologist Peter Coles’ blog, In the Dark. In a post entitled “Why the Big Bang is Wrong” he says:

I suspect that I’m not the only physicist who has a filing cabinet filled with unsolicited correspondence from people with wacky views on everything from UFOs to Dark Matter. Being a cosmologist, I probably get more of this stuff than those working in less speculative branches of physics. Because I’ve written a few things that appeared in the public domain (and even appeared on TV and radio a few times), I probably even get more than most cosmologists (except the really famous ones of course). 

I would estimate that I get two or three items of correspondence of this kind per week. Many “alternative” cosmologists have now discovered email, but there are still a lot who send their ideas through regular post. In fact, whenever I get a envelope with an address on it that has been typed by an old-fashioned typewriter it’s usually a dead giveaway that it’s going to be one of those. Sometimes they are just letters (typed or handwritten), but sometimes they are complete manuscripts often with wonderfully batty illustrations. I have one in front of me now called Dark Matter, The Great Pyramid and the Theory of Crystal Healing. I might even go so far as to call that one bogus. I have an entire filing cabinet in my office at work filled with things like it. I could make a fortune if I set up a journal for these people. Alarmingly, electrical engineers figure prominently in my files. They seem particularly keen to explain why Einstein was wrong…

I never reply, of course. I don’t have time, for one thing.  I’m also doubtful whether there’s anything useful to be gained by trying to engage in a scientific argument with people whose grip on the basic concepts is so tenuous (as perhaps it is on reality). Even if they have some scientific training, their knowledge and understanding of physics is usually pretty poor.

I should explain that, whenever I can, if someone writes or emails with a genuine question about physics or astronomy – which often happens – I always reply. I think that’s a responsibility for anyone who gets taxpayers’ money. However, I don’t reply to letters that are confrontational or aggressive or which imply that modern science is some sort of conspiracy to conceal the real truth.

A few years ago I submitted my metaphysics paper to the Journal of Consciousness Studies. In his response, the editor expresses the same problem with retired engineers, although not specifically electrical.

It will not surprise you to know that I regularly receive communications from people who believe they have solved the question of the nature of consciousness, or of the universe, or of both. And it is noteworthy that these correspondents are nearly always retired, and in a high proportion of cases retired engineers. You will appreciate that dealing with these proposals is one of the hardest thing I do as an editor because I know that I am handling ideas on which the author has worked for decades and invested a huge amount of time and energy.

My starting point when looking at these proposals is always the same: one of them could be right, and this could be the one. But if one is right then all the rest are wrong and the odds are strongly in favour of this being one of the many that are wrong and against its being the one that is right.

Needless to say, my paper was rejected.

Now, my work has been rejected plenty of times on its own merit, thank you very much, by people who didn’t know I was a retired electrical engineer. But being rejected because of what you used to do for a living seems very much like being turned down for a job because of the color of your skin. Not fair at all. I hope this doesn’t become a common practice.

One hears it said that there have been such “tremendous advances“ in QFT that it’s impossible that anyone but a trained physicist of the highest level will be able to make the breakthrough that finally leads to a resumption of progress. However, these advances seem to add up to more and more complex mathematics and a multitude of unsuccessful theories and models, but few answers. It seems likely now that the highly trained physicist may be locked into a paradigm that has become stale and unproductive.  It may be time to take the crackpot—excuse me, the self-trained independent researcher—more seriously. Perhaps the needed breakthrough is incomprehensible to the trained mind because it looks like nonsense, in which case it will never be found except by someone who isn’t locked into the current paradigm.

How to find such a person? As a retired electrical engineer, I humbly suggest that such a background would be ideal for solving the puzzle of the universe. Engineers are trained and experienced in building models of systems to exhibit any desired behavior. Do we need a model? You bet we do. Space and time are fundamental to our existence and we don’t know what they are, really. We don’t have a good spacetime model. Without that, we’ll be stuck forever.

Not everybody will agree that the way forward lies in research collaborations between engineers and physicists. Yet, our great research universities are increasingly setting up interdisciplinary teams to attack the most difficult problems. I suggest that physicists might consider joining forces with engineers instead of insisting that only a top physicist can do the job. Engineers who have a deep interest in the universe and in physics may be just the right prescription for what ails physics these days, such as a lack of progress in explaining such things as dark matter and dark energy and in unifying quantum theory and general relativity. In my humble opinion, physicists have come to rely too heavily on the mathematics that has led to spectacular progress in the past. Now they need a breakthrough idea, but the same mathematics won’t provide it because it isn’t capable of describing the next level of reality. Physicists need to get back to physics, creating pictures in their heads, building models of how nature might work, and only when they have a promising model, then asking what new mathematics we need to develop so make the model predictive. People who are good at conceiving such models aren’t always good at mathematics. Engineers are good at this kind of conceptual modeling. Unfortunately, many don’t have a very good grasp of modern physics. But sooner or later, against all odds, one of us may be right.

My stuff is very predictive, so much so that I don’t see how it can be wrong. You’ll find all of it here, and I’ll import parts of it to this blog as appropriate.