Some Lesser Achievements of Science

Most people probably think that science is a rather dull quest for the truth, best left to the experts, who are all out to find the truth. Well, not exactly. Here is a video link where Sean Carroll points out that most physicists are really uninterested in understanding what quantum mechanics is about:

This is rather awkward because quantum mechanics is one of the two greatest scientific advances of the twentieth century, and here we find all but a few of its exponents really neither understand what is going on nor do they care. What happens is they have a procedure by which they can get answers, so that is all that matters, is it not? Not in my opinion. What happens thereafter is that many of these are University teachers, and when they don’t care, that gets passed on to the students, so they don’t care. The system is degenerating.

But, you protest, we still get the right answers. That leaves open the question, do we really? From my experience in chemistry, we know that the only theories required to explain chemical observations (apart from maybe what atoms are made of) are electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics. Those in the know will know there are floods of computational papers published so we must understand? Not at all. Almost all the papers calculate something that is known, and because integrating the differential equations means a number of constants are required, and because it is impossible to solve the equations analytically, the constants can be assigned so the correct answers are obtained. Fortunately, for very similar problems the same constants will suffice. If you find that hard to believe, the process is called validation, and you can read about it in John Pople’s Nobel Prize lecture. Actually, I believe all the computations are wrong except for the hydrogen molecule because everybody uses the wrong wave functions, but that is another matter.

That scientists do not care about their most important theory is bad, but there is worse, as published in Nature ( Apparently, in 2005 three PhD students wrote a computer program called SCIgen for amusement. What this program does is write “scientific papers”. The research for them? Who needs that? It cobbles together words with random titles, text and charts and is essentially nonsense. Anyone can write them. (Declaration: I did not use this software for this or any other post!) While the original purpose was for “maximum amusement” and papers were generated for conferences, because the software is freely available various people have sent them to scientific journals , the peer review process failed to spot the gibberish, and the journals published them. There are apparently hundreds of these nonsensical papers floating around. Further, they can be for relatively “big names” because apparently articles can get through under someone’s name without the someone knowing anything about it. Why give someone else an additional paper? A big name is more likely to get through peer review and the writer needs to get it out there because they can be published with genuine references, although of course with no relevance to the submission. The reason for doing this is simple: it pads the number of citations for the cited authors, which is necessary to make their CV look better and to improve the chances when applying for funds. With money at stake, it is hardly surprising that sort of fraud has crept in.

Another unsettling aspect to scientific funding has been uncovered (Nature 593: 490 -491). Funding panels are more likely to give EU early-career grants to applicants connected to the granting panelists’ institutions, in other words the panelists have this tendency to give the money to “themselves”. Oops. A study of the grants showed that “applicants who shared both a home and a host organization with one panellist or more received a grant 40% more often than average” and “the success rate for connected applicants was approximately 80% higher than average in the life sciences and 40% higher in the social sciences and humanities, but there seemed to be no discernible effect in physics and engineering.” Here, physics is clean!  One explanation might be that the best applicants want to go to the most prestigious institutions. Maybe, but would that not apply to physics? An evaluation to test such bias in the life sciences showed “successful and connected applicants scored worse on these performance indicators than did funded applicants without such links, and even some unsuccessful applicants.” You can draw your own conclusions, but they are not good looking.

3 thoughts on “Some Lesser Achievements of Science

  1. Cheating in physics starts apparently small, and ends very big. I focus on “physics” because actually it comes from “nature” in Greek, and it’s the master science: biology is *just* Quantum Computing writ large. That’s why it’s important to find out what “quantum” is and what “computing” is. For the latter there is, among other things, an activity called “proof theory”. More generally there is logic. From my point of view logic is whatever goes (which is basically the fundamental idea of Category Theory).

    So it’s important to under-stand the Quantum. We need to stand under, we need something from which the Quantum emerges.

    The Quantum is about the infinitesimally small. To expect that “smaller” would ever be “smaller” was philosophically solved by the Greeks, when they invented a-toms, what could not be divided. But what was what could not be divided made of? All forces we know augment inversely to distance, they become infinite… so the smaller, the more crushed, ultimately, so crushed light would not come out (Laplace, 18th C). So we shouldn’t be able to see what is incredibly small, while the gravitational field goes to infinity. That was not really a problem… although a variant of this, when applying the idea of Quantum Field to gravitation and its gravitons (excitations of the gravitational field) is a problem, because gravitation should black holed itself, although it obviously does not.

    To come back to the cheating it started with misattributions. Misattributions are important, because they falsify the logic of discovery, thus the ontogenesis of epistemology. For example, Anglo-Saxons tend to elevate Newton to a quasi-divine status which he himself rejected, using the medieval aphorism:”I stood on the shoulders of giants”. Roughly 90% of what is traditionally attributed to Newton was not discovered by Newton or when Newton was alive.

    The 1/dd law was derived by Boulliau, with an analogy to light which keeps its simple force to this day. Boulliau, aka Bullaldius, became a member of the Royal Society before Newton learned calculus (an invention of Descartes, Fermat, etc…). The first and second laws are pretty much in Buridan, three centuries before Newton (when geometric calculus got relaunched). Buridan, an iconoclast addressed the question of the Cretan paradox… which is at the heart of the incompleteness theorem of Godel and Tarski…

    There are so many misattributions, it’s frightening. Emilie du Châtelet, correcting Newton (again!) demonstrated energy (with contribution from Leibnitz).

    The attribution of Relativity to Einstein has to do, ironically enough, with Anglo-Saxon-German nationalism, aka Nazism, ironically enough. But it had the other grave consequence of burying Poincare’s careful ontogenesis of whatever happens to be relative (local time)… which was much more careful than Einstein prestidigitator style…

    Another form of cheating, in which Feynman himself indulged, was to claim that philosophy has nothing to do with physics, shut up and calculate. That is roughly as intelligent as claiming that the heart has nothing to do with breathing. All the more silly as some of his excellent lectures in physics are sometimes more into prestidigitation than logic.

    One way physics jump is by making a broad claim, and then checking its consequences. For example, Buridan inventing “impetus” (= momentum).


    With the Quantum, the two initial claims: E = hf (Planck 1900-Einstein 1905) coalesced with De Broglie sweeping generalization that any object that has energy and momentum *is* a de Broglie wave of frequency F and wavelength L:
    L = h/P.
    Here, E and P are, respectively, the relativistic energy and the momentum of a particle.

    When an interaction has occurred, what happened? Doing physics consists in pushing the consequences of the De Broglie Hypothesis (DBH).
    Turns out, if we are honest, we don’t know much. There has got to be some object O, and we should apply DBH to O. That leads to predictions. The first obvious one is that O, being a WAVE, is NONLOCAL.

    • Hmm, a lot here. One day I shall have to post some thoughts from it all. But one quick thought – why is a wave non-local? It depends on how you define “local” I suppose, but the crest of a wave is quite local, as surfers show.

      • Interesting Ian that you zero in on the main point: waves are non local. Yes, there is a peak, but there is also a through…. and lots of agitation in between… I am thoroughly familiar with waves, by the way, having even invented dive-surfing, perhaps the most exciting sport… Akin to wing suit flying along mountains, zooming inches from deadly coral heads, surprising basking sharks…
        Post your thoughts, please…

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