Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Voyages of Discovery

One of the craziest things a person can do is to set off across uncharted seas with no clear idea of where he is going. Christopher Columbus was nuts. He ignored the advice of geographers who told him quite accurately that his ships would be worm-eaten flotsam long before he could sail all the way to China. Even crazier were the Polynesian mariners who discovered New Zealand, Madagascar, and Hawaii. Columbus at least knew that there was a China out there in the ultimate West - the Polynesian sailors could only guess what might await them.

By comparison, our modern voyages to orbit and the Moon have been ridiculously cautious and conservative. Much exploration has followed the latter model - cautious trips along a coastline, and short voyages never far from land. Most scientists work that way as well - pushing the paradigm a little this way or a little that. Peter Woit and Lubos Motl don't agree on much, they do agree that that's the kind science they approve of.

Einstein had a different opinion. He was unimpressed by those he saw as seeking to "drill through the thinnest part of the wood." Feynman too advised young physicists not to pay much attention to the fashionable trends in physics, but to follow their own ideas.

Dr. Woit expressed some disdain for physicists interested in vague entropic forces where "everything could be done with high school mathematics." I would recommend that he look at the key papers of Einstein on SR and the photoelectric effect, Bohr on the Hydrogen atom, and Bekenstein on black hole entropy. The mathematics is elementary but the implications are profound.

Woit and Motl each have recent post decrying the kind of crack-pottery they see overtaking physics. Now physics has always attracted crackpots by the bushel and the peck, but Peter and Lubos aren't referring to the kind of garden variety crackpot who shows up on John Baez's index or 't hooft's "bad theoretical physicist" standard. In particular, they have in mind guys like Erik Verlinde, though Motl has been known to add 't hooft and Penrose to his list.

Your garden variety crackpot is a guy who flunked calculus but knows that his penetrating intuition grasps the universe as it really is. The Woit-Motl crackpots, by contrast, are guys who are, well, somewhat more accomplished in physics than Woit or Motl.

We can agree, of course, that guys like Verlinde (and Penrose and 't hooft and of course Columbus) are crazy. The question is, to borrow a construction of Bohr's, are they crazy enough to be right? If I can push my analogy a bit further, here is a potential clue. Columbus and the Polynesian argonauts of the Pacific were superb sailors who had mastered all the technology available to them. Most of those crazy guys who set out into the unknown will never be heard from again, but maybe we should salute those who just might be crazy enough to be right.