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Crackpot-rich December 14, 2007

Posted by dorigo in internet, personal, physics, science.

The anonymous comment left yesterday on the guest post by Tony Smith annoyed me quite a bit. The visitor, instead than discussing the topic presented in the post, decided to produce a personal attack on Tony, guilty of having a web site of his own, containing personal theories and ideas. At the heart of the comment was a question directed to me: why do you give credit to this person, who is evidently a crackpot ?

That kind of behavior is in my opinion to be strongly discouraged, because of the coward nature of the censor who expresses his views anonymously, attacking the post author personally without getting his hands dirty with the matter being discussed. Such a comment does not deserve an answer, so much so that I am providing an articulated one below.

So, why is this site not crackpot-free ? Why does a “respectable” physicist give room and voice to people who are not professionals like him, who work at their very own theories on their free time, who go against the mainstream ?

First of all, I would like to make it clear that, despite my explicit invitation to anybody who thinks he or she has something interesting to say in the field of science, I am not willing to publish just anything. The judgement is with me, since this is a personal blog before it is a public place.

Second, my choice is a principled one. This site would have no meaning if it was for scientists only. Physicists know where to find the information they need, and while they may enjoy reading a colleague’s viewpoint on this or that scientific result, well, that does not provide sufficient motivation for me. No, this site not just for scientists. It is actually mostly aimed at people with an interest in science, who are willing to spend some time to learn about particle physics through my posts, and most of all through the comments other knowledgeable people leave in the posts.

“But why then”, would our anonymous friend interrupt me here “do you think it is a good service for people willing to learn about science to provide them with untested theories, steep speculations, ungodly ideas that have no room in serious knowledge repositories such as the Arxiv or scientific journals ? Why diverting them from the correct path, why suggesting that mainstream theories might be wrong ?”

Because, my friend, science is made by human beings. And humans err. As beautiful and well-tested as the Standard Model is, it still is a theory: it is not god-given truth, but a human-made mathematical construct, subject to disproof, liable to be modified, and certainly incomplete. Science is a process, not a state. Doing science entails taking wrong turns, spending years on a silly idea, making untestable hypotheses. For instance, string theory is certainly science, although possibly a very expensive waste of human resources.

By giving voice to so-called crackpots, I am providing a richer panorama of the investigations of the theories of nature than the one you can find by checking new hep-th or hep-ph papers. And people, even non scientists, have a mind of their own, and can discern what has a red label from what is back-yard bricolage. This site is crackpot-rich, and everybody is allowed to speak, even anonymous commenters – the lowest-ranking caste in the web society.


1. Andrea Giammanco - December 14, 2007

> a “respectable” physicist

Who, *YOU*? 😉

Off topic: I suggest you to dedicate a post to today’s very nice slides by Jim Virdee about CMS. I think they would be perfectly suited to the target reader of this blog:

> people with an interest in science, who are willing to spend some time to learn about particle physics

2. dorigo - December 14, 2007

Hi Andrea,

yes, I did put quotes anyway…

Good idea to link Jim’s slides and video. Will do. I did not attend the talk though!


3. Kea - December 14, 2007

Hear, hear! Given the number of excellent thinkers who have been banned by the arxiv, its focus must be very narrow these days. Thanks again, Tony, for an interesting post. And anonymous, if you would like to visit UC and discuss particle physics with me, the door is open, but I have found that cowards never actually show up.

4. Guess Who - December 14, 2007

anonymous commenters – the lowest-ranking caste in the web society

Also known as “untouchables”. Which can be a pretty handy property, occasionally. 😉

5. Kea - December 14, 2007

Why the wink, guess who? We all know who you are.

6. Tony Smith - December 15, 2007

Tommaso, thanks for this post about crackpots and commenters,
and my regrets that you got attacked for allowing me to post.

Maybe you are just being true to Venetian tradition,
because as long as Galileo and Bruno remained in the Venice / Padua area, they were free to do the work that the Romans considered heretical.

Even a few hundred years earlier, around 1290 AD, Ramon Llull felt that his ideas were being unfairly attacked by the Paris establishment, so he sent manuscripts to the doge of Venice where they might be more fairly evaluated.
There is an interesting new book by Anthony Bonner just published (Brill 2007, available from Amazon) entitled

“The Art and Logic of Ramon Llull – A User’s Guide”
in which Anthony Bonner says (at page 187):

“… at the beginning of the manuscript Llull sent to the doge of Venice … he complains rather bitterly about the scandal caused (undoubtedly in Parisian university circles) by the title of “Ars demonstrativa”, and the mistaken assumption that it was a work which set out to prove … things … by means of the Aristotelian demonstrations …”.

The Parisian attack on Llull by misconstruing the title of his paper reminds me of present-day criticism of Garrett Lisi based, not on the merits of his work as physics, but rather on misconstruing the title “… Exceptionally Simple Theory …” of his work.

Maybe human nature has not changed much in the past 700 years or so, but I am happy that the independent spirit of Venice is still alive.

Tony Smith

7. Guess Who - December 15, 2007

Hey Kea, no problem, just look this way for a moment (this had better work…).

Thank you for your collaboration. 🙂

Tony, let’s not forget another great Venetian tradition.

8. island - December 15, 2007

Too funny, GW… lol

This anonymous clown obviously doesn’t know Tony’s history with physicists, because this is the huge main difference between the people who post their stuff here, and most of the airheads that you find on usenet, for example.

Over the years, I’ve read many of Tony’s conversations with physicists in the moderated research group, and he isn’t a crackpot. The anonymous “dink” just doesn’t get that Tony isn’t bound by the same rules that constrain fools to a cutting edge orthodoxy that doesn’t even resemble the empirical evidence these days without constant modification of their theoretical rationale. We’ll see who laughs last about this though, because there is a big fake happy face being worn by many orthodox theorists to cover the mounting pressure that is being felt by all of them. The nit-wit should try being honest about the failure of the modern theoretical structure that is actually at the heart of the wars between physicists about this very fact, because there is no current way to discern just who the crackpots really are, by “anonymous” standards, anyway.

Any theoretically obligated scientist who insults or censors without a fact based rebuttal or correction most definitely is a crackpot of the worst kind though, because most of the posters on this site are physics-educated students who are typically very open to learning and correction.

9. Tripitaka - December 15, 2007

Island “there is a big fake happy face being worn by many orthodox theorists to cover the mounting pressure that is being felt by all of them”

When long-standing power structures crumble this often brings great opportunities for creative minds, the process of renewal provides space for fresh prespectives.

10. Tripitaka - December 15, 2007

perspectives (sorry for the typo!)

11. Tony Smith - December 15, 2007

Guess Who – I also LOL about Venetian Masks – Maybe that is in keeping with Venetian independence, and even allows one individual to have many personalities.
In the world of “interesting coincidences”, I remarked to Garrett that his paper 0711.0770 went up on the day after 5 November 2007, and he replied:
“… I had some trouble with the TeX that hung me up a day. …
Remember, remember the sixth of November…”.

Maybe GF masks are Venetian-inspired ?

Tony Smith

12. Andrea Giammanco - December 15, 2007

> We all know who you are.

Ehi, not me!

13. George Barouxis - December 15, 2007

Tommaso, this is a rare attitude towards “crackpots”, also evident in that wonderful story you had posted almost one year ago, “Cracked Pots”.

Usually, professional physicists are dismissive towards these theories, taking for granted that they must be wrong, trivial or already done, so they don’t bother to try and understand them. Obviously, there are many cases in which they are right. On the other hand, any systematic education creates “blind spots” in areas where established theories skip over problems or gloss things over because no satisfactory solutions have been found up yet (renormalization comes to mind — everyone’s first reaction is that there has to be something wrong with it), and these blind spots are passed on to the students, especially by the advocates of the “Shut up and calculate” school. The studends subsequently become more inflexible in defending these inadequate “gloss over theories” than their inventors themselves, because they internalize the shut up and calculate attitude. Shedding light on these blind spots is part of the process of overthrowing the existing paradigm that will advance science.

Now, in the specific case of the anonymous commenter, it seems that he has taken issue with the fact that Tony Smith, besides his theories on the Standard Model, also studies matters that are outside the scope of today’s science. In this regard, he could ponder the fact that Newton studied alchemy, and Galileo and Kepler believed in astrology. This does non invalidate their scientific theories and may even give some food for thought.

Original minds (Khun’s revolutionary scientists, or Lee Smolin’s seers, or Weinstein’s valley crossers) go where their ideas and inspiration leads them, ignoring the consensus views that their contemporaries hold as self-evidently true, and so they may make significant discoveries. Those who try to shout them down usually are better at working out the details after a discovery has been made (Khun’s normal scientists, Lee Smolin’s craftspeople, Weinstein’s hill climbers).

As things stand today, more people of the first kind are needed, so Tommaso’s attitude is indeed very useful in offering this blog as a forum to potential valley crossers who are left out of the process of science due to technicalities (no formal credentials or exlporation of possibilites way out of the mainstream) and not because their theories are wrong. As he wrote in the introduction to a guest post,

doing science does not necessarily require a PhD and a desk in a University office, and … ideas and theories are not crackproof or crackpotty, but just right or wrong


14. goffredo - December 15, 2007

But it is MORE true that those that left their mark in the history of science were hard workers. I think the “myth” of the hardworking scientist is more truthful and does less damage than the one of the crack-pot. The crack-pot myth flourishes because people that understand nothing of science like it, not because it is useful in anyway to understand how scientists think. The crackpot myth should stay where it belongs: in comic books. But is just doesn’t! Why? Because too many people just don’t CARE about understanding how science works as they are too much in love with their infantile views.

The idea that great creative scientists insist on their odd creations, against the opinions of all others in complete solitude without interacting with peers, is complete hog-wash. All original creators were opportunists rather than some Don Quixote fanatically insistant in isolation on some lame idea against all odds. Crackpots are those that are incapable of communicating in a constructive way. Whether they do so because they refuse to, blinded by their views, or whether there is some objective mental problem with them can only be addressed case by case. In any case these people are not part of science as communication and construction are at the very rock-bottom of science. Breakthrough creativity requires opportunism and not fanatical or ideological rigidity, and in all cases a lot of hard work, and that means discipline and the ability to recongnize errors. A dysfunctional crackpot mind does not recognize errors. A creative mind learns from them.

15. George Barouxis - December 15, 2007


It seems your definition of a crackpot is someone who “refuses to communicate in a constructive way” due to stubborness or mental problems (and when you say “communicate”, I think you mean “accept the mainstream view” — correct me if I am wrong).

My definition of a crackpot is someone who advocates some theory that is alternative or complementary or way out of the mainstream.

Your crackpot’s theory is wrong by definition and the only thing left is to wonder why he does not hear the voice of reason.

My crackpot’s theory has to be judged on its own merits and proven right or wrong.

The way you describe your crackpot, I don’t approve of him/her any more than you do.

And if you mean to suggest that anyone who advocates any theory that is alternative or complementary or way out of the mainstream is your kind of crackpot (stubbornly insisting on something wrong and/or behaving so because of mental problems), allow me to disagree.

16. Tony Smith - December 15, 2007

goffredo says “… A dysfunctional crackpot mind does not recognize errors. A creative mind learns from them. …”.

That is true,
so maybe it might be useful (especially in physics) to distinguish between two kinds of crackpots:
1 – those who compare their ideas with experimental results and reject or modify ideas that produce results inconsistent with experiment;
2 – those who stick with their ideas whether or not they produce results consistent with experiment.

Kepler (who George Barouxis says believed in astrology) rejected circles and used ellipses so that his model would be consistent with detailed observations, clearly belongs to category 1.

In Garrett Lisi’s case, it is clear that he compares his model with experimental observations – for example, he says that he is “… going to have to do something significantly different to get the second and third generations to work in this theory …”,
it seems to me that Garrett Lisi belongs in category 1.

For examples of category 2, it seems to me that those who claim their model to be “the only game in town” when it does not reproduce the basic particles, force strengths, and masses of the Standard Model belong in category 2.

As for myself, I calculate particle masses, force strengths, K-M parameters etc and get results that seem to me to be substantially consistent with experimental results,
and I have in the past thrown out ideas that I have seen to be inconsistent with experimental results.

Tony Smith

17. Jon Lester - December 15, 2007

Present situation in physics is more dramatic than that depicted here. Let me explain with an example. There is a lot of activity both for job finding and publications about quantum gravity, strings and all that. But particle physics today has an important open problem with a lot of people struggling to solve it. This is the classification of light mesons and identification of glueballs. This is what Gross called “modern nuclear physics”.

This problem practically means to find the spectrum of QCD in the infrared, or at least for a pure Yang-Mills theory. Nothing is known about but string community has proposed a solution through Maldacena’s conjecture. Practically this is a nightmare. One has to give the value of the ground state to get all the others. So, the main problem is unsolvable by this way: To find the ground state of the theory (the well-known mass gap problem championed by Witten, a mentor for string theorists). Witten himself goes around the World claiming that the only way to solve this problem is through the Maldacena’s conjecture.

Then, let me formulate a simple question: Given the present power of the string community for research in particle physics, let us suppose that a researcher will be able to get a solution to the spectrum of the Yang-Mills theory, how will he be treated, him and his papers?


18. Guess Who - December 15, 2007

goffredo, I am a little confused here. Your initial statements suggest

1) the existence of a “crack-pot myth”


2) is in contradiction with, or at least complementary to, the “myth” “of the hardworking scientist”.

My tentative interpretation is that under point #1 you are really thinking of “lone genius”, a positive role figure exalted in popular culture, whereas “crackpot” is normally used in a disparaging way. Being a crackpot is certainly not something which anyone would aspire to.

Point #2 seems to reinforce this interpretation: it suggests that the myth includes an ability to make groundbreaking new discoveries without hard work.

But then, right at the beginning of the next section, you dismiss the “idea that great creative scientists insist on their odd creations, against the opinions of all others in complete solitude without interacting with peers”. This does sound like a bit of work after all…? Contrary to your claim, it is also what has happened repeatedly in the history of science. I could list a number of classic examples, but since I am such an opportunist, I’ll just quote a little something posted yesterday by Lubos:

What do great theoretical physicists do with experiments that contradict their crisp theories? Well, they laugh at them, of course. 😉

Gell-Mann, who is in a great mood, explains that a colleague of his, Albert Einstein, was often asked by journalists: What about the experiment of D.C. Miller that contradicts relativity (whoever is D.C. Miller)? Einstein said: it will go away.

Well, Feynman and Gell-Mann were better: they had a theory that contradicted seven experiments. It was a pretty theory and it had to be right. Of course, Feynman and Gell-Mann were right and the experiments were wrong.

Now, don’t take this to mean that experimental data should be ignored. Of course not. But it should be viewed in the broader context of established knowledge, and without forgetting the uncertainty inherent to such data, especially at the research front. Because the real world is a terribly messy place, there are many ways for experiments to go wrong and for experimenters to misinterpret them.

Would you say that Einstein, Feynman and Gell-Mann were crackpots? In hindsight, obviously not. But the question which you should ask yourself is whether you would have said so at the time, before their ideas gained widespread acceptance.

In textbooks, the theories which we now take for granted are presented in their final form, typically right along an epochal experiment or two which established them as true. It all looks very neat and organized, a logical progression alternating between ingenuos new insights and clever experimental confirmations. Thank the textbook author for that.

When you go digging through the original papers and behind-the-scenes accounts, a very different picture emerges. Almost without exception you find errors, confusion, stubborness, politics, dishonesty and long-winded controversy, with self-assured proclamations that X is true appearing next to equally self-assured proclamations that X is false, both written in the knowledge that if eventually confirmed, posterity would view the author as a genius, while if eventually disproved, they would simply be forgotten, courtesy of the textbook selection effect.

It’s a messy process, and the only way to avoid looking like a crackpot at least to somebody, at some point, is to never have or utter an original thought and only do routine work. Since most people are herd animals, that’s what they will do and feel comfortable with. But for breakthroughs, better look elsewhere.

19. carlbrannen - December 15, 2007

Since I’m a certified crackpot, I may as well add my two cents.

When physicists insist on developing theoretical ideas in the face of experimental evidence that they are wrong they are not being crackpots and they are not necessarily looking at the whole of science. It is easy to say, in retrospect, that this idea was obviously right and that idea was obviously wrong, but this is only with the clarity of hindsight.

Physics is a lot of work. To get yourself to continue to work on it you have to have faith. That faith may or may not be supported by the community as a whole, but to do anything at all requires a bit of faith. So when Feynman and Gell Mann ignored 6 experiments they were not objectively doing science, they were faith based. And because they eventually were proved right, the inclination is to redefine that faith as science. But human activity itself requires faith.

20. dorigo - December 15, 2007

Hi all,

sorry for pitching in a bit late in this thread, which has developed a quite rich and lively discussion. I am happy about that. I think my position is stated already in the post, but let me say the following:

I think there are various degrees of crackpottism. One can refer to the funny scale posted at cosmic variance for an evaluation. Depending on the degree of crackpottism that you take as a standard you will come to different conclusions. I think GW and Goffredo are talking from opposite ends of the scale, and that is why they disagree.

In any case, let me say to Guess Who: I admire what you wrote. It is exactly what I could have written, only better stated.

I may have other comments to make on this thread later, but now I need to sleep 😉


21. Fred - December 15, 2007

Thanks Tony, etal. Your guest post has grown a new life over here and based on a number of the above entries, I have gained a new insight into the world of physicists and the multitude of methods and logic incorporated into how you think and operate. Since “hard work” was mentioned, could you please give a brief history or background of the specific work which helped you to arrive at the conclusions for your paper? GW, in retrospect, I also must agree that there could be very understandable circumstances for not revealing one’s identity but did you have to use the Venetian masks as a weapon. lol. I always assumed the purpose of the masks was to flirt and to lure new lovers.

22. island - December 16, 2007

Tripitaka said:
When long-standing power structures crumble this often brings great opportunities for creative minds, the process of renewal provides space for fresh prespectives.

Quite a while back now, JoAnne Hewett made the following reasonable prediction:
If the worst case scenario plays out, and the LHC discovers nothing, then that is the end of particle physics as we know it. And that includes string theory. They may think they are immune, but they are not – they will fall due to lack of funding with the rest of us.

I say that this is a reasonable expectation, because a scientist should expect to be held accountable to completely justify something as important as the Standard Model before throwing a whole bunch of new money into bigger and better machines.

Given recent developments in the field of experiemental physics, it should not be unexpected that we would find the UK holding back on future expendatures in this area until such a time as they might be justified:


But the theoretically rightous have already moved well beyond JoAnne’s astute observation to rationalize their existence beyond anything that the LHC can do:

… it takes a really long time to plan and build one of these machines. If they had put off thinking about the ILC (it’s not like huge amounts of money were being spent) until interesting physics came from the LHC, there wouldn’t be anyone around still doing particle physics by the time it came online.

I don’t think that more money would be flowing to particle physics if they hadn’t started planning for the ILC.

Peter Shor responded to this correctly:
If the LHC finds new and interesting stuff, there would presumably be lots of things for particle physicists to do while waiting for the ILC to come online. If the LHC doesn’t find any new and interesting stuff (meaning it finds the Higgs and not much more), then looking at it realistically, I don’t see how the ILC is ever going to get built.

Note that the OP doesn’t make an admission to the sanity that others provide afterward, because they are in a silent form willful denial, and I constantly observe this to be the case with this guy.

THAT is a crackpot.
One can refer to the funny scale posted at cosmic variance for an evaluation.

But be careful to also consider that a category may be necessary for the source… 😉

23. Tony Smith - December 16, 2007

Fred asks that I “… give a brief history or background of the specific work which helped you to arrive at the conclusions for your paper…”.

I will try to be brief, but it has been a long process (it has taken a lot more work than inspiration) so this comment may be too long, but here goes:

In the 1960s-early 1970s Armand Wyler wrote a calculation of the fine structure constant using geometry of bounded complex domains. It was publicized briefly (almost as much as Garrett Lisi’s E8 model is publicized now) but Wyler never showed convincing physical motivation for his interpretation of the math structures, and it was severely ridiculed and ignored (with sad personal consequences for Wyler).

Also in the 1960s, Joseph Wolf classified 4-dim spaces with quatenionic structure:
(I) Euclidean 4-space [ the 4-torus T4];
(II) SU(2) / S(U(1)xU(1)) x SU(2) / S(U(1)xU(1)), … [ S2 x S2 ] …;
(III) SU(3) / S(U(2)xU(1)), … [ CP2 ] …; and
(IV) Sp(2) / Sp(1)xSp(1) … [ = Spin(5) / Spin(4) = S4 ] …,
and the noncompact duals of II, III, and IV
I noticed that they corresponded to U(1) electromagnetism,
SU(2) weak force, SU(3) color force, and
Sp(2) MacDowell-Mansouri gravity
I thought that it might possibly be useful to apply Wyler’s approach to the geometries of those 4-dim quaternionic structures.

It was only in the 1980s that I was able to cut back on the time devoted to my law practice to try to learn enough math/physics to try to work out the application of Wyler’s stuff to Wolf’s classification, and I did so by spending a lot of time at Georgia Tech auditing seminars etc of David Finkelstein (who was tolerant enough to allow me to do so). I had learned some Lie group / Lie algebra math while an undergrad at Princeton (1959-63), but I did not know Clifford algebras very well until studying under David Finkelstein.

Then (early 1980s) N=8 supergravity was popular, so I looked at SO(8) and its cover Spin(8), and noticed that:
Adjoint Spin(8) had 28 gauge bosons enough to do MacDowell-Mansouri gravity plus the Standard Model, but not if they were included as conventional subgroups;
Vector Spin(8) looked like 8-dim spacetime;
+half-spinor Spin(8) looked like 8 left-handed first-generation fermions;
-half-spinor Spin(8) looked like 8 right-handed first-generation fermions.

To break the 8-dim spacetime into a 4-dim physical spacetime plus a 4-dim internal symmetry space I used the geometric methods that had been developed by Meinhard Mayer (working with Andrzej Trautman) around 1981.

A consequence of that dimensional reduction was second and third generations of fermions as composites (pairs and triples) of states corresponding to the first-generation fermions.

When I played with the Wyler-type geometry stuff, I got particle masses that looked roughly realistic, and a (then) prediction-calculation of the Tquark mass as around 130 GeV (tree-level, so give or take 10% or so).
When in 1984 CERN announced at APS DPF Santa Fe that they had seen the Tquark at 45 GeV, I gave a talk there (not nearly as well-attended as Carlo Rubbia’s) saying that CERN was wrong and the Tquark was more massive (I will not here go into subsequent history of Dalitz, Goldstein, Sliwa, CDF, etc except to say that I still feel that experimental data supports the Tquark having a low-mass state around 130-145 GeV, and that the politics related to my position may have something to do with my current outcast status with the USA physics establishment.)

Since Spin(8) is bivector Clifford algebra of the real Clifford algebra Cl(8), and since real Clifford algebra 8-periodicity means that any very large real Clifford algebra can be factored into tensor products of Cl(8), it can be a building block of a nice big algebraic QFT (a real version of the complex hyperfinite II1 von Neumann factor).

Since the Adjoint, Vector, and two half-Spinor reps of Spin(8) combine to form the exceptional Lie algebra F4, I tried to use it as a unifying Lie algebra,
but I eventually saw that the real structure of F4 was incompatible with the complex bounded domain structures of the Wyler approach, so I went to E6, which is roughly a complexification of F4, and used E6 to construct a substantially realistic version of 26-dim bosonic string theory (fermions coming from orbifolding). Since by then I was blacklisted by the Cornell arXiv, I put that up on the CERN website as CERN-CDS-EXT-2004-031

As of then, the major conventional objection to my model was how I got 16 generators for a MacDowell-Mansouri gravity U(2,2) and 12 generators for the Standard Model from the 28 generators of Spin(8) (I used root vector patterns, because they do not consistently fit as subgroups and subalgebras).

Now, Garrett Lisi’s E8 model has two copies of the D4 Spin(8) Lie algebra, so I can use it to be more conventional and get MacDowell-Mansouri gravity from one D4 and the Standard Model from the other one, so I wrote that up in my 82-page pdf at

Click to access GLE8Cl8TSxtnd.pdf

Note that now I am not only blacklisted by arXiv, but pressure forced CERN to terminate its external preprint service, so I cannot even put it there as I was able to do in 2004 with my E6 string model.

All the gory details of calculations are set out in my 82-page paper, so I won’t go into any more detail here, and I apologize if I have already given too much detail (even so leaving out a lot of people who helped me learn stuff, to whom I apologize for such omissions).

Tony Smith

PS – I should add that while at Georgia Tech in the late 1980s -early 1990s I enrolled in the physics PhD program, but that ended when I encountered the comprehensive exam (a 3-day closed book test) which I could not pass (my then 50-year-old memory had trouble recalling formulas), so I am in that sense a failure without official PhD qualification.

24. goffredo - December 16, 2007

I am suprised to say the following.
Experiments are affected by error (uncertainty). This mention about giants being momentarily in disagreement with experiment is quite out of proportion. Gell-Mann Feynman and Einstein were NEVER thought of as crack-pots by “mainstream” scientists. They were immediately spotted as very bright people very much worth listening to. If they were attacked it was for personal or political reasons.

Scientists are people and they bind or fight for human reasons (envy, charisma, politics, ambitions, power, limited resources,…). To think that there is a main-stream science that opposes genius loners is a romantic myth that continues to survive for the reasons I mention earlier. ANY human group will have conservatives that are more interested in conserving their power than in making their community progress if the word “progress” means changing priorities and goals and hence leaders. ANY human group will have progressives that want their moment of glory and some are just looking for their share of power. Any activity that is ideological is particularly good at fostering human defects.

If we then say that Science is NOT IMMUNE to the problems that human groups suffer then I agree. BUT I wouldn’t ever claim that we are saying something original. It is plain OBVIOUS that science is not immune. But it is a matter of degree. Indeed I do think that Science is the only human endeavor where people are more interested in learning new things than in repeating as parrots what they were taught. The reasons why this is so is MORE INTERESTING than saying the obvious, namely that scientists are people, some smart, others not so smart, some independent thinkers, others with limited personalities, and that science can be sick as when dispicable people with real power systematically do real damage. Science IS DIFFERENT as it is less ideological, but no one in his right mind, if he is willing to look over the top of his comic book at the REAL world, should ever forget that there is still OVERLAP with any human activity simply because scientists ARE HUMAN. Humans fall in love with ideas and when they herd into large groups they always risk becoming ideological. Its that simple. Its that complicated. Science is complicated because humans are complicated. Humans most frequently do destesatble things, but sometimes they do wonders. I wonder at the wonders, but try to remain vigilant.

25. Quasar9 - December 16, 2007

Crackpot Index by John Baez

That aside no one should ever be ‘shy’ or ‘burned at the stake’ for thinking outside the box, else we would all be living on a flat earth, and there’d be no internet, video games or mobile phones.

However ironically, the Mind and Imagination, fact and fiction are both part of the ‘real’ world. We all spend some Time in dreamland, whether in our sleep or even in our ‘waking’ hours.

26. Thomas Larsson - December 16, 2007

Gell-Mann Feynman and Einstein were NEVER thought of as crack-pots by “mainstream” scientists.

Feynman and Gell-Mann were never outsiders. F was already (at least assistant) professor at Cornell when he invented path integrals, described as a social Schwinger by Bethe, whereas G-M became famous with the G-M-Low theorem when he was around 26. In contrast, Einstein was much more of a crackpot, who didn’t even make it into grad school. Wikipedia says about E’s discoveries in 1905:

“At the time, however, they were not noticed by most physicists as being important, and many of those who did notice them rejected them outright. Some of this work—such as the theory of light quanta—remained controversial for years”

E only became assistant professor in 1911, six years after his annus mirabilis. Does six more years in the patent office really count as immediate recognition?

He did become a Privatdozent in 1908, but that title presumably came without a salary. Besides, being a Privatdozent, or the Swedish equivalent docent, hardly prevents anybody from being a certified crackpot. Just look at myself…

27. Thomas Larsson - December 16, 2007

Gell-Mann Feynman and Einstein were NEVER thought of as crack-pots by “mainstream” scientists. They were immediately spotted as very bright people very much worth listening to.

Feynman and Gell-Mann were never outsiders. F was already (at least assistant) professor at Cornell in 1948, described as a social Schwinger by Bethe, whereas became famous with the G-M-Low theorem when he was around 26. In contrast, Einstein was much more of a crackpot, who didn’t even make it into grad school. The following quote from Wikipedia is quite illuminating

“At the time, however, they were not noticed by most physicists as being important, and many of those who did notice them rejected them outright. Some of this work—such as the theory of light quanta—remained controversial for years”

E only became assistant professor in 1911, six years after his annus mirabilis. Does six more years in the patent office really count as immediate recognition?

He did become a Privatdozent in 1908, but that title presumably came without a salary. Besides, being a Privatdozent, or the Swedish equivalent docent, hardly prevents anybody from being a certified crackpot. Just look at myself…

28. Guess Who - December 16, 2007

Dear goffredo, you write that

Gell-Mann Feynman and Einstein were NEVER thought of as crack-pots by “mainstream” scientists. They were immediately spotted as very bright people very much worth listening to.

Really? Let’s see:

Gell-Mann fits your description neatly. Child prodigy, went to Yale at 15. Let’s make a mental note of the fact that he worked as a phenomenologist. His Nobel prize was for the “periodic table” of hadrons (the eightfold way, which would later lead to quarks).

Feynman was a mediocre high-school student who famously scored unimpressively in IQ tests. He gained admittance to university as a “diamond in the rough”, i.e. somebody with narrowly peaked abilities, and later recounted his self-doubt about being able to contribute anything of value as a young researcher. After being advised not to worry about that and just have some fun, he started playing around with some neat mathematical ideas without obvious application to anything. That fooling around eventually led to quantum electrodynamics. Let’s make a mental note of the fact that Feynman remains the towering figure of 20th century US theoretical physics and move on.

Einstein was a disaster: a problem student, famously told by one teacher that he would never amount to anything, who initially failed to gain admission to university and went on to become what would now be called long-term unemployed after graduating. He wrote his now most famous paper while working as a patent clerk. In textbooks, that was a momentous breakthrough; in reality, it was first largely ignored and then viciously resisted for years. When he got his Nobel prize 16 years later, it was for the photoelectric effect (published the same year), not for relativity; the latter was still much too controversial for the award. Let’s make a note of the fact that Einstein is the towering figure of all 20th century theoretical physics.

See the pattern here?

29. goffredo - December 16, 2007

Mr “Guess Who” is forcing his interpretation of things. The tale of Einstein being a problem student is over-told by ex C-students, now parents, that bullshit about how it is not important to worry about their mediocre children that are dull at school, if not worse, while the truth is that Einstein applied hismelf as he liked studying science and math. He didn’t care about the other subjects and got into trouble about that, but he did STUDY his favorites and mastered them. The truth is that Einstein worked very much in trying to bring forth his creations. Science is inspiration and then a LOT OF HARD WORK.

The quote of Einstein teacher should be taken with a grain of salt. The school teachers of the day weren’t very good judges of human nature as they were the ones that shaped a whole generation of youngsters into marching in step to be butchered in the battle fields of WW1.

Einstein’s nobel prize might have come from the photo-electric effect (only!) and not relativity, but he was of invited to give talks everywhere and became very quickly known in “mainstream” community. He quickly BECAME mainstream! That Einstein didn’t get a post immediately is not unique of the day and probably just reflects the nature of academic posts at the time. He was isntead acknowleged, invited, listened to and studied. He was not banned, ridiculed, silenced or anything else, except by the nazis but they arrived on the scene too late to stop the unstoppable. Even the soviets tried to interpret relativity in terms of lenist-marxist crap but the impact of Einstein couldn’t be harnessed even by that idiotic ideology. His work in special realtivity, photelectric effect, brownian motion was recongnized, for all practical purposes, INSTANTLY. Yon can argue that it wasn’t truely INSTANT and that he was opposed by this or that person, but this would sound very much like the aristotelian that argued that the cannon ball and a stone of Galileo did not REALLY arrive to the ground simultaneously but that there WAS a small difference. The view that young Einstein was outside a rigid mainstream community should come up with more spectacular forms of open hostility, just as the aristotelian in truth expects drammatic difference of times of fall between a cannon ball and a stone and cann’t hide behind small differences due to secondary effects.

30. goffredo - December 16, 2007

The views of Guess-Who on Feynman are just useless. Feynman was not a crackpot outsider, else how do you explain he was in New Mexico working on the A-bomb with so many other “insiders”, AND, even more so, how in God’s name do you explain he was at Shelter Island??!?!?! He was known and respected. His graphs weren’t liked by the likes of Bohr and his ideological parrots, but the technique caught on like wild-fire because he WAS at Shelter Island and did talk and lecture to mainstream giants.

Think about it. This outsider-vs-mainstream story is myth and when you look at History you only see that that scientists are quite human and can feel envy, be malicious, be deaf, blind, and down right stupid just as any human can be. Overall the record of science is a good one. Human errors and defects get cancelled fairly quickly and ideology can keep a grip on it for only for a short time, at least as long as there is experimental progress. Without data theoretical ideologies take hold and schools of younsters are brain washed by carismatic leaders into believing all kinds of bla bla bla.

31. Guess Who - December 16, 2007

Dear mr goffredo, let’s not play Guess Who’s gender. 🙂

Regarding your latest remarks, I venture to point out that:

1) A tale being over-told or over-used does not make it less true.

2) The importance of hard work has not been denied by anyone here (except possibly by you, who might call it to “insist on their odd creations, against the opinions of all others”), so your reiteration of this point is just odd (kicking in open doors there?).

3) Dismissing inconvenient facts as due to a bad past social clime does nothing but confirm the importance of the social clime. Your own posts could be given the following succinct social summary: “who the hell do these people think they are?”. In other words, how dare they think that they can have anything of value to say without having first satisfied all the social criteria which the scientific community in its infinite wisdom has decided to impose as a condition for being allowed to speak? That is of course an authoritarian, and thoroughly unscientific, stance. In science, what should count is the ideas, not who came up with them.

4) Your long section on Einstein can only be reconciled with reality if we accept that “quickly” and “INSTANTLY” are synonymous with “a few decades”, and/or if we accept that those who opposed relativity were all nazis or the like. 🙄

32. Guess Who - December 16, 2007

Dear goffredo, I see our posts crossed. Regarding Feynman, he went to New Mexico as a junior physicist barely out of grad school. That was before the work which eventually made him famous. His main contribution there was administrative (or maybe technical, depending on how you see it): he organized the “human calculators” (rooms full of young girls crunching numbers) employed by the theoretical division before the advent of electronic computers. More importantly from a scientific point of view was that he got to meet and befriend some of the day’s really big names in theoretical physics. Hence Shelter.

33. dorigo - December 16, 2007

Jon (#17), your question is interesting. I do not agree with the premises, though. As intriguing as the theory of low-energy QCD is, it needs not be hiding things so fundamental that we should be ripping our hairs for not knowing which of the resonances is the glueball, and why.

I admit my ignorance in the field, however, so I insist that I am interested in hearing more about it. If you have a good reference I’ll have a look.


34. dorigo - December 16, 2007

George (#13), thanks for appreciating the story. I received it from an old friend of mine and found it quite appropriate for this blog 🙂 I see that things one writes come handy one day.


35. Tony Smith - December 16, 2007

Guess Who and goffredo have been discussing Feynman et al as outsiders or insiders.

A clear example of an outsider was E. C. G. Stueckelberg.
He had a good education: PhD in the 1920s under Sommerfeld, and taught at Princeton until Depression funding cuts forced Princeton to let him go after which he worked in isolation in Switzerland.
He was the first to do QED for which Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga got the Nobel prize.

According to Crease and Mann (in The Second Creation (Rutgers 1996)), Stueckelberg “… wrote up a lengthy paper – in English …- that outlined a complete and correct description of the renormalization procedure for quantum electrodynamics. Sometime in 1942 or 1943, he apparently mailed it to the Physical Review. It was rejected. …”.

According to Jagdish Mehra (in The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Sciece of Richard Feynman (Oxford 1994)),
” … After the Nobel award ceremonies … Feynman went to … CERN … to give a lecture. … Feynman’s lecture at CERN was attended by Ernst C. G. Stueckelberg … After the lecture, Stueckelberg was making his way out alone … from the CERN ampitheatre, when Feynman – surrounded by admirers – made the remark:

“He [ Stueckelberg ] did the work and walks alone toward the sunset; and, here I [ Feynman ] am, covered in all the glory, which rightfully should be his!” … “.

There are several lessons from Stueckelberg’s story. Some of them are:

1 – Depression funding cuts can hurt physics in ways that are not obvious. If Princeton had been able to keep Stueckelberg, maybe he could have worked with people there and QED might have been widely accepted prior to WWII.
If we go into a recession (end of cheap oil, housing boom collapse, and instability of the dollar financial system), who knows which grad student or postdoc who is let go due to funding cuts would have done the next great thing ?

2 – Even if the one who did the work does not get the credit, it is possible that good ideas like QED will be rediscovered and accepted sooner or later.

3 – There may be many roads to a result like QED. Feynman worked QED and his diagrams by thinking from scratch (or maybe he had heard of some of the things Stueckelberg thought of first, such as antiparticles being particles going backwards in time),
while Schwinger approached QED from a deep understanding of EE stuff like waveguides.

4 – Working in isolation can sometimes produce good results, even though it may be hard for the establishment (Phys. Rev. editors in the case of Stueckelberg) to appreciate them.
If Phys. Rev. had published Stueckelberg’s work, instead of effectively blacklisting it, maybe others would have looked at it and maybe some of them might even have understood it, and QED would have been accepted earlier.

Tony Smith

36. dorigo - December 16, 2007

Hi Tony,

thank you for this enlightening story, of which I was oblivious. I think the example clearly shows that Goffredo is a bit too hard in judging the possible scientific output from outsiders.


37. goffredo - December 16, 2007

I claim that “outsider” is a notion that is vague and IMO suits only those that have some very personal view out what takes place in the real world. We all agree that Einstein was a giant of a genius, unique, but to only say he was strange and an outsider, while completely glossing over how well he did fit in and indeed did well to foster main-stream science and its community, is just a bunch of baloney. We probably all agree that Feynman was a genius and strange too but to say that he was an outsider, without saying how much he contributed and even represented to the layman main-stream science, is a bunch of baloney. What is an “insider”? A person that has a permanent post? A person that has a standard education? A person that publishes only with well known editors? A person that agrees with everything the dean of his well-known university or head of a famous department say? A person that gets his work acknowledged by the standard community?

That people get forgotten, brushed aside, mistreated by big competition that is normal, it is History, it is LIFE. There are many examples of people that had the right idea at the wrong time (too early, too late), or didn’t have the ability to carry it thru and were robbed of the idea by aggressive competitors, BUT there are many MANY more that had wrong ideas, period. So what? Is that something so peculiar about science as to make it necessary to INVENT the notions of “mainstream” science, “outsiders”, etc etc.? I think not because I think these happen all the time in any human activity.

38. dorigo - December 16, 2007


That people get forgotten, brushed aside, mistreated by big competition that is normal, it is History, it is LIFE

So since it is LIFE, does that mean it is wrong to give them a chance to speak ? Let’s say this blog serves the purpose of broadcasting a little Stueckelberg’s little new idea, which gets then elaborated and used as a little breakthrough by somebody else. Where is the damage ? What bothers you ? I do not get it.


39. carlbrannen - December 17, 2007

Dorigo, I agree with #17 that the classification of the meson resonances is one of the most important unsolved problems in particle physics. I think it’s importance to QCD is equivalent to the problem of classifying the elements is to nuclear physics.

Low energy problems are most important because to solve them we have to understand the theory from a non perturbative point of view. This relates to the Koide mass formula problem, which I’ve recently been working on connecting up with one of the few successes we have in low energy QCD, Regge theory which gives Regge trajectories, a type of mass formula that works well with the mesons.

Also, I should mention that I’ve been playing a lot more chess lately, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights at the local chess club. My play is steadily improving.

There is a guy at the club whose games are particularly beautiful to watch. I found out that he was the high school champion at Spokane, a city of maybe 350,000 here in Washington State. Then I realized that he did this by deliberately steering play towards complications, and that this is fairly common behavior among the better players. So I’ve started doing this and it helps make my games far more interesting.

40. chimpanzee - December 17, 2007

“You can never PROVE a theory, you can only DISPROVE it”
— Science maxim
[ it’s a self-correcting, self-organizing iterative process which inherently negates any fanatic idealogy/religion. It converges to the “truth” ]

Here is how my geologist friend (U of Arizona alumni, Masters Degree) puts it:

“Science is like trying to solve a crime, Scientists are like detectives. Nature is giving us clues. The crime-scene is littered with data, it takes time to uncover it all. Fancy instruments required Technology (e.g. particle colliders) are required. Some data is incriminating (so-called “smoking gun”), other data is subtle (a collection of data-points can convict according to “Preponderance of Evidence”, aka circumstantial evidence). Group “A” develops Existing Theory, & gets entrenched as the Establishment by Groupthink (“Rule by Committee”, politics, etc). Periodically, a new EXTRANEOUS data-point D1 is uncovered. [ say, with the LHC or ILC ] Whoala..”B” (the alleged crackpot..”how dare this outsider challenge the Establishment!”) creates a modification of existing Theory (or a whole new theory altogether, disproving existing Theory). Group “A” attacks “B” for being a “heretic”. Big ugly fight. In the end, order is restored (“Theory MUST Follow the Data”) & the “correct” Theory emerges triumphant. “We just knocked the Establishment on its status-quo”, they gloat. However, this theory is TO BE DISPROVED once again! Because, a new data-point D2 is uncovered by “C”, & Group “B” (who have clustered to “B”) is now embarassed. And, so it goes”

Classic examples:

Continental Drift (A. Wegener) was termed crackpot, then accepted.
Solar Wind (Austrian physicist) was termed crackpot, then accepted
Moon created by impact of xx w/Earth was termed crackpot, then accepted

This whole “crackpot” thing is a manifestation of human groups, fighting over their pet theories (based on insufficient data). Egos, Politics, & other human foibles.

“Every absurdity [ theory ] has a champion [ group ] to defend it.”
— anonymous

“We [ “crackpot” ] just knocked the Establishment [ existing Theory ] on its status-quo”
— Hawaii Five-O episode, hippies robbed a bank

Each group is calling the other a “crackpot”.

“Insufficient facts [ “Curse of Insufficient Data”: Scientific Theories are always based on an incomplete data-set ] always invite danger [ current Theories will be disproved ], Captain”
— Spock, “Space Seed”/Stardate 3141.9

Capt. Kirk: Spock, give me an update on the dark area ahead.
Spock: No analysis [ Theory ] due to insufficient information [ Data ].

[ spoken like a true Scientist. Science is always dealing with an incomplete data-set. LHC & ILC are advancements in Technology to gain more data ]

Capt. Kirk: No speculation, no information, nothing? I’ve asked you three times for information on that thing and you’ve been unable to supply it. Insufficient information is not sufficient, Mr Spock! You’re the science officer. You’re supposed to have sufficient data all the time.

[ This is the classical ignorance displayed by non-scientists (Science is always CURSED by an incomplete data-set), in this case a military leader (Kirk) ]

I ran across a quote by a mathematician “I do not know”. That pretty much sums up the state of Science. At any given time, we simply DON’T KNOW the complete theory, because the facts are not all in. Meanwhile, the “fur is flying” as the humanoid groups are battling over “territory”. “My theory is better than yours, so there! Oh, btw, you’re a crackpot!”

“I stay away from GROUPS!! [ each group thinks the other is “crackpot”, it’s all relative ]”
— Dr. J. Weichsel/Entomology
[ my HS classmate, son of P. Weichsel (Caltech PhD Math, Group Theory in early 60’s), UIUC math dept co-chair. I have yet to confirm if he was in on the “action” with M. Gell-Mann ]

“Cosmology=Religion [ there is a real lack of data from cosmic scales (violating the “Theory must follow the Data”), thus the Theories are just “made up” ]”
— P. Rothemund, DNA Computing/Caltech
[ personal communication to me, we fly R/C planes at the Rose Bowl (R. Feynman’s son-in-law flies there also). He recently was a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. ]

In grad-school, our laboratory (Computer Vision/Robotics/Artificial Intelligence) had a lounge. We were watching “The Prisoner” on TV

Each episode typically features the imprisoned former agent, labelled “Number Six” by his captors who refuse to use names, failing to escape “the Village” [ University ], but resisting the interrogation and brainwashing attempts by his captors [ bureacrats & politicians ].

& the senior researcher commented “Aren’t we ALL prisoners [ of the University, of our own minds ]?” University=prison, bureaucracy/politics (“The Establishment”) limits real scientific/creative freedom. Einstein is the perfect example, discovery while a patent-clerk in an un-encumbered environment. “Minds”=prison, brain can be very interpretive (“The brain can have a MIND of it’s own”). Religious zealots & ID’ers are perfect examples.

“They [ bureaucrats/administrators: non-technical people ] will drive you WILD, or you [ Scientist ] will drive them WILD”
— R. Feynman, letter to S. Wolfram
[ SW wanted to lead the UIUC Complex Systems Research Inst. BTW, my dad was on the search committee who brought SW to UIUC ]

“Forget it! [ about changing University infrastructure to accomadate Interdisciplinary Research ]”
— Dr. Bertram Herzog, head of Fraunhofer Inst
[ personal communication to me at SIGGRAPH ’01 ]

Universities have “walls” (implying a prison), & many discoveries are made from “outside the walls”.

“If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains [ skill ]”
— Manfred von Richtofen, top-scoring WW1 ace

Whether it be war, or Science..it’s all Game Theory. You have competition (based on Luck & Skill), & it can get ugly. Name calling (“you’re a crackpot!”), etc.

LUCK: “If you want to be a successful scientist, BETTER HAVE A LOT OF LUCK! [ being at the right place, at the right time ]”
SKILL:”These guys are really smart, right? They are trying to unlock the treasure chest from the FRONT [ existing theory by Establishment ]. But, someone has the audacity to open it from the BACK [ “crackpot” theory ]”
— Leon Lederman/Fermilab

Luck & Skill play a big factor in scientific discovery. The discoveries come from “outside/extraneous datapoints” (so-called “that’s funny!”). Either by Luck or Skill. Many of these people are “outsiders”, unencumbered by Groupthink of the Establishment.

I think the whole argument of “outsider” (physical sense) is a matter of definition. Definitely, somebody is “thinking OUTSIDE the box”. THERE is certainly an _outside mentality_ that is associated with Discovery.

41. Tony Smith - December 17, 2007

Jon Lester and carlbrannen say that “… the classification of the meson resonances is one of the most important unsolved problems in particle physics …”.

Howard Georgi in his book “Weak Interactions and Modern Particle Theory” (Benjamin 1984) has a chapter entitled “Successes of the Nonrelativistic Quark Model” in which he says “… we get a nice simple picture of the mesons as well as the baryons …”.
On the same subject, M. G. Bowler in his book “Femtophysics” (Pergamon 1990) says:
“… The representation of bound states of highly relativistic quarks in terms of a non-relativistic reduction required the introduction of the effective, constituent, masses. … Constituent masses work, and this is the best justification. …”.

So, maybe the important puzzle that needs to be solved is how to interpret constituent masses in terms of QCD Lagrangians with current masses.
I do not agree with Witten that Maldacena is “… the only way to solve this problem …”.
I think that the answer more likely lies in the geometric structures used by Armand Wyler with respect to calculation of force strengths, particle masses, etc.

Tony Smith

PS – With respect to glueballs,
John F. Donoghue, Eugene Golowich, and Barry R. Holstein in their book “Dynamics of the Standard Model” (Cambridge 1992) say:
“… Quark models have been popular because they seem to work phenomenologically, not because they are a controlled approximation to QCD. … Much of the theoretical work on nonconventional states has involved the concept of a constituent gluon G, analagous to a constituent quark Q … Calculations have tended to use an effective gluon “mass” in the range of …[ 0.5 to 0.6 GeV ]…”.

42. goffredo - December 17, 2007

Re-reading what I wrote I feel I was clear and I never held back admiration and wonder when refering to the giants of physics, creative, independent thinkers, strange, some with a academic post, others isolated, some honored, some victims of aggresive colleagues, some recongnized only after death, some socially square, a few almost social unfits, but all HUMAN.

What bothered me about this thread is the reverse ‘prejudice’ in the cartoonish way of describing mainstream science vs its dual: if you are mainstream then you are mediocre and rigid, if not evil, while if you are an OUTSIDER and possibily ‘very strange’, then you must be on to something.

Of course everyone can write on your forum, and anywhere else for that matter, as I do believe that if an idea sounds good then it should be listened to and worked on to see if it delivers its promise. The problem is how one is to present the idea. The problem is communication. How can anyone tell if an idea is possibly good if there is a thick smoke screen of oddities? The often referred to Einstein didn’t go off the tangent with strange behaviour and stranger claims and leave all common mortals behind. Instead people, his peers, listened to him lecturing, read his clear papers and understood what he was saying. COMMUNICATION.

Our job is to be open and curious and listen to new ideas. The job of the proponent is to communicate his idea in a way that can be understood. Anyway I tried making my point from several angles. I probably will not add much else.


43. George Barouxis - December 17, 2007

Jeff, it seems you were annoyed by what I wrote about “hill-climbers” and “valley crossers”. This referred to scientists in general. I did not mean to imply that all mainstream scientists are petty number crunchers while all crackpots are genius valley crossers, the reverse prejudice you are talking about. This would be a gross stereotype. However, the inverse, that all crackpots are deluded and wrong, is also a gross stereotype.

44. goffredo - December 17, 2007

I guess it all boils down to assigning probabilities. What are the chances that a crackpot be deluded and wrong? Never forget that there is a strong correlation between being deluded and being unable/unwilling to communicate.

But you have to be fair. There is a very strong bias when people only mention the times that crackpots were right and not deluded, but make no mention of the huge number of times crackpots were quite deluded and wrong.


45. Tony Smith - December 17, 2007

goffredo said “.. The problem is how one is to present the idea. … How can anyone tell if an idea is possibly good if there is a thick smoke screen of oddities? The often referred to Einstein didn’t go off the tangent with strange behaviour and stranger claims …”.

If goffredo’s point is that an outside/crackpot should be ignored if the outsider/crackpot has ideas, in addition to physics, that are “… oddities …” and has non-physics “… strange behaviour and stranger claims …”, then what about:

Kepler’s astrological ideas;
Newton’s religious/astrological ideas;
Pauli’s Jungian ideas;
Kekule’s urobos vision leading to benzene ring;
Mueller’s mandala leading to high-T superconductivity;
Bohm’s involvement with Krishnamurti, ideas about alien ETS, etc;
John Nash’s mental visions which he felt that he could not suppress if he were to remain creative;

It seems to me that it should be easy (unless you just want to destroy the outsider/crackpot by ad hominem attack) to separate the “stranger claims” from the physics ideas, and to evaluate the physics ideas on their own merit.

For example, in my case, you can read the 82-page pdf file at

Click to access GLE8Cl8TSxtnd.pdf

and evaluate a lot of physics.
(OK, it does have a picture of Comet Holmes and a note that its outburst coincided with Garrett Lisi’s E8 work, but any reasonable person should be able to either take that as a fun remark or ignore it as a minor distraction.)

You do not have to read the rest of my web site to evaluate the 82-page physics model paper.

Tony Smith

46. goffredo - December 17, 2007

Hi Tony
In no way was I ever attacking you. I was attacking the mystification of crackpots.

Don’t you find it interesting that to learn from Kepler, Newton, Puali, Kekule, Meuller, Bohm, Nash one does NOT have to study everything they said or believed in? It would be a real pain in the arse, wouldn’t it?

I believe one of the reasons science works so well is that it is reality driven and as a consequence the views of people, from all extractions, quickly lose importance and fall into oblivion. They might be interesting for historians or biographers, and even to people interested, like I am, in how people think and create but putting together the wierdest of thoughts.

But the personal, provincial, ideological views of individuals and groups of individuals just don’t count much in modern science, based so much as it is on communicating and in falsifying. The fellow down the hall doesn’t necessarily share my personal views and to be able to communicate with him I need to make an effort to be ‘down to earth’ and allow him to check what I say. If people don’t come from the same office, department, city, country, school of thought, epoch, it is very likely they will not give a damn about the personal views of the proponent of an idea, if he believed in astrology, aliens or was schizoid…

47. George Barouxis - December 17, 2007

the huge number of times crackpots were quite deluded and wrong.

I would not dispute this. Scientists have been and will be proven deluded and wrong, and obviously crackpots have been and will be proven deluded and wrong. And the instances where crackpots are proven wrong most probably are more numerous than the instances that scientists are proven wrong.

What I believe happens here:

Crackpots are more likely to be proven wrong because they often lack the knowledge that is necessary in order to work on the fields they meddle with (which they wouldn’t lack if they had a formal education).

On the other hand, and this is much more important, because science is advanced by scientists and not by crackpots or outsiders (and because, after all, we have greater demands from scientists than from crackpots):

In certain regards scientists are blindsided by their formal education and the demands of their career, (factors that do not affect “crackpots”). Their formal education may be guilty of glossing over problematic areas and making them internalize this blindness to problems in order to get the necessary grades. And the demands of their career may make them choose their research path on the basis of career effectiveness instead of doing what interests them or following an inspired idea that leads to areas considered questionable by the culture of their field.

This increases the likelihood of scientists being wrong (in the sense of looking at the wrong place for the answer to the important questions of physics, or simply going in the wrong way about it); and also increases the likelihood of crackpots being right if the correct answer to those questions proves to be in areas that physicists avoid due to practical considerations, while crackpots explore because nothing prevents them from doing so.

In short, today’s scientists are taking to long to solve the riddle (in relation to the rate of progress of earlier generations). This may be due to a lot of factors, but I get really impatient with them with the thought that this may be due to the formal education and career consideration factors mentionded above. After all, we crackpots are doing science in our free time and without getting paid for it. They should get over with it already. 🙂

Finally, you really need to clarify what you have repeatedly said about crackpots being unable or unwilling to communicate. Unwilling to communicate? Does that mean that scientists fall over themselves asking us crackpots to explain our bright ideas and we stubbornly refuse to do so? 🙂 Or that we try but we make a mess of it?

48. goffredo - December 17, 2007

I don’t know you and I don’t know why you insist on being considered a crackpot.

As a matter of fact I’ve personally met a few ‘crackpots’ and they do avoid confrontations and direct questions. They avoid confrontations by saying that they cann’t reveal details as they fear being robbed of their ideas. The truth is that there are no details. Indeed they speak so vaguely that any experienced person will only think there simply is not meat behind the smoke screen. More in general, one of the characteristics of psuedo-science is to avoid direct confrontation, with people (intellectual dishonesty), with nature itself (no-experiments), with logic (circular reasoning).

Regards physicists looking only in areas where there are practical considerations, that is simply not true. If you claim that only crackpots (whatever that means for you that claim to be one) are the only true free thinkers, free of ambition, free from the chains of formal education, free from career considerations, free to actually dream up problems and solutions out of the blue, well to me it only means you are severely in love with your views and need a cold shower. Wake up. Its simply not true. Constraints do not preclude creativity and there are plenty of examples in all forms of human creativity, in science and the arts. Instead no constraints brings rapid sterility and banality.

If instead, by any chance, you are more subtle in saying that scientists are practical and look only where there is at least a dim light (like the drunk that looks for his lost car keys near the lit lamp post), well that is sort of ‘obvious’. No one in his right mind would take a step in complete darkness, unless he is of course a crackpot. But as it turns out the crackpots of history that really did contribute to progress in science did not dream up their ideas out of the blue. Indeed that good ‘crackpots’ weren’t entirely crackpot. They might have been regards some aspect of theri lives and beliefs, but the good work they left to posterity was quality stuff. The ‘crackpotiness’ was not there.

49. George Barouxis - December 17, 2007

I said exactly what I think, and it shouldn’t be necessary to reassure you that no, I did NOT mean that physicists look ONLY in areas where there are practical considerations, or that crackpots are the ONLY true, etc., etc. This is not constructive. It’s not worth the trouble. Let’s end it here.

50. dorigo - December 17, 2007

Tony, George,

I think your disagreement with Goffredo has to do with the definition of “crackpot”; on which nobody has agreed on this thread so far. Therefore, it is difficult for you to converge… I know Goffredo and I know he is not unreasonable nor stubborn beyond reason. The discussion here was interesting for me because I got to learn a few things I did not know (thanks Tony as always). Maybe George is right and we should all move on, but you are welcome to continue discussing here 🙂


51. Alejandro Rivero - December 17, 2007

A comment about the topic of allowing crackpottery in a serious blog or forum: with an adequate filter, it raises the bar. I have this feeling on PF, where our long threads on particle masses and so on do not attract the huge number of sci.physics maddness one could expect. Somehow, such crackpots see no point on posting there. And I am not getting the quantity of random new theories emails I was used to get.

52. Tony Smith - December 18, 2007

Goffredo, Tommaso may be correct that I might be misunderstanding what you are saying.

I particularly DO agree with you when you say:
“… Constraints do not preclude creativity and there are plenty of examples in all forms of human creativity, in science and the arts. …”.

To be clear, the type of constraints that I see as constructive are not constraints of socio-political conformity type,
are constraints such as consistency with experimental observations, and constraints
of being willing to engage in fully open discussion of whatever model/theory is under consideration,
of being willing to throw out ideas shown by such observations and discussions to be wrong and to modify the model/theory (if possible) to make it consistent with such observations and discussions.

The above is sort of a preamble to quoting Margaret Boden, who writes about creativity – see for example
Here is my favorite quote from her:

“Mozart is free to create things others cannot imagine,
because he is bound by principles others cannot see.”

Tony Smith

53. goffredo - December 18, 2007

Well put and very pertinent quote on Mozart.

54. The Say of the Week « A Quantum Diaries Survivor - December 18, 2007

[…] (and thanks to Tony for mentioning it.) […]

55. dorigo - December 18, 2007

Hi Alejandro,

yes, in a sense publishing some things here does raise the bar, because I won’t publishing just anything, and besides, when somebody submits a post, he or she is expected to know he will get some heat if things are totally flawed.


56. nigel cook - December 24, 2007

‘… when somebody submits a post, he or she is expected to know he will get some heat if things are totally flawed.’

But surely that’s still better than the mainstream M-theory, which is non-falsifiable due to the landscape of 10^500 vacuum variants. I don’t see why there is such hypocrisy, where the mainstream theory is a totally ad hoc model for speculative fantasy about Planck scale unification and spin-2 particles that haven’t been seen, and “predictions” about supersymmetric partners that aren’t falsifiable (i.e. that don’t even include predicted masses for those s-particles). Worst of all, the massive landscape size prevents mainstream string theory from making any definite connection to the existing physics of the Standard Model. Any theory that is falsifiable (potentially wrong) is closer to science that the mainstream M-theory.

I think that these ‘crackpot’ name-calling attacks on people with alternative ideas are empty. One example of it is where you hear a famous physicist claiming:

‘Well, string theory may be wrong*, but at least it is a self-consistent theory of quantum gravity, and nobody has any better ideas.’

[*No, it can’t be proved wrong, any more than fairies can be disproved, because it comes in too many versions, 10^500, to discredit it.]

This kind of off-the-cuff claim that nobody in the world has any better ideas is really banal. There are 6,600,000,000 people, and no string theorist knows what ideas these people have. Arxiv used to allow uploads and then delete papers unread within a few seconds, as occurred to me in 2002. Now you can’t even upload a paper without finding someone already indoctrinated in status quo to the extent of being an endorser of arxiv, and convincing them to risk their endorser status to upload papers on your behalf. It’s so lying of people to dismiss 6,600,000,000 people who mostly have no hope of putting a paper on arxiv.

Maybe a million people or so have the contacts necessary that they have a hope of getting a paper on arxiv, in that case 5,999,000,000 people are unable to do so. It’s totally crazy to imagine that nobody in that massive group of people has a better idea about how physics should proceed. It’s statistically biased against the majority of the people on the planet, and it’s prejudiced and in fact stupid for ignoring the actual science, for not being based on facts but only on fashion, groupthink, having friends in the right places, and other political-type folly. Maybe, Tommaso, you should delete this comment?

57. Tony Smith - December 24, 2007

nigel cook said “… Arxiv used to allow uploads and then delete papers unread within a few seconds, as occurred to me in 2002.
Now you can’t even upload a paper without finding someone already indoctrinated in status quo to the extent of being an endorser of arxiv, and convincing them to risk their endorser status to upload papers on your behalf. …”.

Actually, the change is more dramatic than that.
For example in my case ( and I am not the only similar example ):
The arXiv started in Los Alamos in the early 1990s.
I happily posted papers there for some time:
4 papers in 1993;
2 papers in 1994;
3 papers in 1995;
none in 1996 – my mother had died in the latter half of 1995 and there was a lot of stuff to do in 1996 winding up her estate;
1 paper in 1997;
1 paper in 1998;
1 paper in 1999;
1 paper in 2000;
1 paper in 2001; and
1 paper in July 2002.

Although there had been some opposition from anonymous sources to my work ( perhaps at least in part related to some controversy in the 1990s relative to the Tquark and CDF, a story which has already been covered in earlier posts in Tommaso’s blog and so need not be repeated here )
resulting in an explicit agreement I had with the administrators at Los Alamos to post only in physics after 1999,
I was OK with that because it meant that my work might be preserved for posterity in a form easily and freely accessible by everyone.

However, when I submitted a paper in August of 2002, I found that I was blacklisted (no, arXiv never told me that – they told a friend who inquired on my behalf – and no, arXiv never gave any reason other than “reader complaints”).

Then arXiv instituted its endorser system. When it started up, the endorser system RECOGNIZED ME AS AN ENDORSER because of my track record of posting. However, the human moderators at the Cornell arXiv quickly overrode their own system and sealed my blacklisting.

When I complained legally that arXiv should be an open archive, the position taken by Cornell was that Academic Freedom gave them the right to do whatever they wanted, arbitrary or not, whether or not they are supported by USA funds.
That issue has not yet been conclusively resolved.

When I started to use the CERN EXT external preprint service to try to preserve and make available my work, it seems that pressure was put on CERN to terminate that program, as was done in 2004.

The actions of the Cornell arXiv remind me of the attitude of the Magisterium in the recent movie The Golden Compass (based on Philip Pullman’s trilogy “His Dark Materials”).

Tony Smith

PS – Sorry for the length of the detailed personal history vis-a-vis arXiv, but I think that it is necessary to tell a story that is relevant.

PPS – The Alethiometer (the Golden Compass itself in the movie) has been compared to the Combinatorial Art of Ramon Llull,
and there is an excellent new book “The Art and Logic of Ramon Llull – A User’s Guide” by Anthony Bonner (Brill 2007, available at Amazon.com).

58. John G - December 25, 2007

In more ancient times science and philosophy were more closely related and I wish they still were. It’s not necessarily good to find joy in being able to read Pauli without Jung or Newton without Alchemy, you are missing a good part of what made them great. In a Jung/Gurdjieff/LLull kind of way I see Tony’s model as follows:


Interestingly I find Tony’s new 82-page Lisi inspired view of his model to fit better philosophy-wise (the D4 part in particular) but understand Tony’s physics better at this point from the other stuff on Tony’s web.

Tony’s site has very good sources (lots of references), one in particular, Ark Jadczyk, is physicist who gets very into philosophical stuff:


You can find particle physics, quantum physics, unified field theory, EEQT, etc. in the glossary but also tons of philosophical stuff that makes Tony seem quite conservative philosophically (Tony actually has a style that likes to present both sides of an issue).

59. dorigo - December 25, 2007

Hi Nigel, Tony,

true, we are 6 billions on this planet, and many may have a good idea among those who do not heat a university chair with their asses. But those imaginative souls usually have no instruments to carry those ideas forward, and so the whole thing is bound to waste. I should remind you of a very beautiful verse,

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
and waste its sweetness in the desert air”.

It’s been like that throughout our history, and it will be so
when the earth explodes under nova heat waves…


60. Tony Smith - December 25, 2007

Tommaso quoted
“Full many a gem of purest ray serene
the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
and waste its sweetness in the desert air”.


just because a flower is unseen ( by the human establishment ) does not mean that its sweetness is wasted “in the desert air”, because its sweetness IS appreciated by the other desert flowers, who cross-pollinate so that there will be future desert flowers


just because “caves of ocean” are dark and unfathom’d ( by the human establishment ) does not mean that a “gem of purest ray serene” does not interact with the sea-water of the ocean so that both gems and ocean co-evolve.

The bell tolls for the human establishment,
not for the flowers, gems, and oceans.

Tony Smith

61. dorigo - December 25, 2007

Hah, I am happy to know I am not the only one who enjoys and knows Gray’s elegy. And I agree with you, but my stand is just that of observing that things are the way they are, and there’s little we can do to avoid it…


62. Tony Smith - January 5, 2008

The comment by Anonymous on which this blog thread is based supported the Cornell arXiv blacklisting me, saying:
“… his [Tony’s] website is RIDICULOUS.
Crying about how his treatise on “Sufi Islam, IFA, the Rig Veda, and Physics and the multicultural backgrounds of Jesus and Mary Magdalene” was “banned by Cornell” (actually the arXiv)…
Quantum consciousness with Clifford algebras and closed timelike loops which correspond directly to abstract thoughts… …”.

Please compare the following two papers that the Cornell arXiv recently approved and allowed to be posted there:

arXiv:0801.0246 by Don N. Page
with title “Does God So Love the Multiverse?”, saying:
“… I argue that multiverse ideas … deserve serious consideration and are not in conflict with Christian theology as I see it.
Although this paper as a whole is addressed primarily to Christian cosmologists and others interested in the relation between the multiverse and theism, it should be of interest to a wider audience. Proper subsets of this paper are addressed to other cosmologists, to other Christians, to other scientists, to other theists, and to others interested in the multiverse and theism. …”.

arXiv:0801.0382 by P. Brovetto, V. Maxia
titled “Some conjectures about the mechanism of poltergeist phenomenon”, saying:
“… Poltergeist accounts … might have a common origin, that is, a reduction in strength of molecular bonds due to an enhancement in polarization of vacuum which decreases the actual electron charge. Arguments based on Prigogine’ nonequilibrium thermodynamics are proposed, which show how transformations in brain of some pubescent childs or young womans might be the cause of these effects. …”.

Evidently, their work is acceptable to the Cornell arXiv physics establishment, but mine is not.
It would be interesting to know why.

Tony Smith

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