After Einstein, We Stopped Believing in Lone Genius. Is It Time to Believe Again?

One prominent mathematician asks: was Einstein such a smartypants after all?

ERIC WEINSTEIN: In some ways we’ve been making amazing progress for 40 years—in my opinion—in the mathematics of field theory, which is the underlying geometric structure that undergirds both particle theory and general relativity. 

So this has been an incredibly exciting time because this dictionary has opened up which ports all of the best insights from physics into differential geometry and from differential geometry back into physics. 

So you’d be hard-pressed to say that nothing is happening. The problem is that we really wanted to quantize the geometry of general relativity but, in fact, what we ended up doing was geometrizing the quantum. 

And so it’s been a bit of a disappointment for theoretical physicists who hoped that they would be living through a golden age of theoretical physics rather than the mathematics of theoretical physics. 

So the field of particle theory has in some ways seemed to be advancing in terms of its mathematical underpinnings. But the elaborations on the standard model which is our specific understanding of the world in which we live has been all but stalled from the theory side since around 1973-1974.

So it’s a bit of a paradoxical situation and I think that, in part, we’ve never really been here before. 

There was a period between about 1928 until the late 40s when theoretical physics had found quantum electrodynamics, the theory of electrons and photons, where most of the calculations we wanted to do gave infinite answers. The underlying theory seems sound. We just didn’t know how to get real contact with experiment. 

And it took a long time for us to realize that we had a technical problem rather than a need for an absolutely fundamental revolution of the kind that brought us general relativity and quantum theory. 

So I think that we’re a bit stuck and we don’t really know how long this very strange period is going to go on for, and this period has been dominated by the sort of quixotic hopes that one of a number of theories—whether it be super-symmetry theory, grand unified theory, technicolor or even noncommunicative geometry—might be our way out. 

But the problem is that all of these highly speculative theories have remained in limbo and many of them have gotten rolled into this very strange complex of ideas that we call either string theory or M theory or some variant thereof. 

And it is a question as to whether this is more of a physics-inspired theory or whether it’s really an economic and sociological phenomenon, which is that you have a generation that physicists in the baby boom who seem to be absolutely astounding geometers but appear to be wanting in terms of their ability to make contact with the natural world by the standards of previous generations. 

And naturally that’s going to elicit some very strong feelings, because the idea that we would have had perhaps two generations let’s say in 40 years of physicists who can’t make contact with experimental reality with their theories is completely unprecedented in the modern era. 

This is very interesting and rather disturbing. So I was quite inspired by a talk or two that I’ve seen of the distinguished physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed where in essence he points out that the three main equations that give us all of theoretical physics—the Dirac equation for matter and then the force equations, the Yang-Mills equation, and the Einstein field equations—are all in some sense provably the best possible equations in their category of equations. 

And so what happened was that we had a question: is there any way to go about finding even better equations? And we can essentially prove that these equations cannot be beaten in any simple way. 

So the possible elaborations I would say are now obvious, and we’ve tried all of them and none of them have seemed to yield to anything that clearly advances our picture beyond where we are now. 

So the question is, do we need a radical rethinking? Is there something wrong with the fundamentals? Is Einstein, in fact, wrong to slip in space-time on the ground floor of the theoretical physics which is shared by both quantum field theory and general relativity? 

Or are we simply in that situation where you think you’ve searched your apartment everywhere for your missing spectacles or keys but, in fact, it was hiding in plain sight the whole time—You just didn’t think to look in the right place?

And I would say the jury is really out and the problem is that this is in some sense – and I say this not as an insider in physics but really as an outsider since I wasn’t trained in that subject per se—But this is the world’s most accomplished intellectual community, whether you find them easy to deal with or sometimes rather unpleasant as I occasionally do. 

There is no question in my mind that no other group has ever achieved anything like the theoretical physics community. But the question is, why are they stumped? And if they do need help where can it come from? It doesn’t seem that any of the chemists or the biologists would have enough to contribute even though physics has contributed to both of those fields. 

And so the real hope is that it’s either going to come from theoretical physicists themselves, from mathematicians who struggle to make any kind of contact because the pedagogy in physics is quite forbidding (and I would say it’s not quite as good as the pedagogy in mathematics generally speaking), or it is going to come from some completely strange source, maybe somebody who is a self-teacher, off the grid, that we’ve never heard of. 

But we’ve heard from all of the leading lights and I would have to say that almost no one from the traditional community really has any kind of a great idea as to how to make the next progress. 

Well I think that if you think about Einstein’s vision abstractly, properly, in all probability I think he’ll be proved right in the end in the abstract. But the key question is, did he get some of the particulars wrong? 

He has a beautiful quote where he says that his equation can be viewed as a mansion with two wings, one of which is made from fine marble and the other is made from cheap wood (being the two signs of the equality). 

Now most people have looked at the cheap wood and said well, our theory of matter and the stress energy tensor as it’s known technically is probably what needs to be upgraded so that the equation is pure marble on both sides. 

There’s a rather more disturbing possibility which is that the marble is, in fact, a premature codification of the geometry and that, in fact, it is not impossible that we have been so beguiled by the beauty and elegance of the marble side of Einstein’s equation that we haven’t put nearly the time or the energy into figuring out whether that’s where the problem is. 

But the problem for us if we do go down that route is that Einstein’s theory is so locked in at this point through path dependence. 

We’ve built everything upon his insights that it’s not really clear how you could make a modification to the foundations of physics without having the whole thing collapse around you.

And so even if you have an idea that you’re going to do something very heterodox, which is to question the bedrock or the marble of the geometry, the question is can you even get to it given the incredible skyscraper that has been built on his solid geometric foundations? 

So this is in some sense the route that I’ve gone down, which is to try to think about novel approaches.

If you are going to break with the community it’s very difficult to keep up with that level of neural horsepower if you have any other commitments on your time. So in some sense if you choose the path of the dissident or the heterodox or the crank, you will find that your only hope and chance is to have a really novel idea about how this game goes so that you have some time and some breathing room for everyone else. 

And, of course, nobody’s very optimistic about that prospect because it’s very difficult to do work on one’s own as Einstein did in the patent office. In fact we haven’t seen a second version of his story since his famous emergence from the patent office. 

However, the fact is that the traditional community is also stalled out. So you have two horses, neither of which seems to be capable of finishing the race, and the question at this moment is should we be looking more to the heterodox—running the risk of craziness and cranks—or should we be looking more to the traditional community which seems to have gotten itself in a cul-de-sac that we call string theory, M-theory and super symmetry? 

The jury is out but I think it’s become a much more interesting question because traditionally we would have bet on the experts. 

But the experts have taken more time researching this theory than any group I think has ever taken to research a theory. And the fact that they have been unable to find anything, in fact, means that perhaps the odds have changed in that race.

Einstein's theory of relativity revolutionized our view of the universe, positing a space-time continuum undergirding all reality. Equally impactful has been quantum mechanics, which describe the behavior of subatomic particles in ways that differ from observable matter. But both theories have been verified by empirical observation and scientific experiments. String theory, and a select number of other theories that purport to explain the universe in one, all-encompassing equation, remain completely divorced from the physical world. Surely theories about the universe must relate directly to the matter in it?! Did Einstein get it wrong, or has groupthink led us down the wrong path for the last 40 years? Eric Weinstein basically posits that perhaps Einstein's work shouldn't necessarily be as lauded as it is, in part because Einstein himself said that it is a work in progress (or, in his words, "a mansion with a wing made out of marble and a wing made out of cheap wood"). What does this mean for you? Well, to most of the Joe Schmoe's in this world, not much. But if you're deep into theoretical physics and super advanced mathematics as Eric Weinstein is, you'll probably be hooting and hollering at the screen going "OH SNAP!" and "NO HE DI'NT!" like you're watching an NFL game. String theory... kids love it!

Impossible Burger hits grocery stores on Friday

Can Impossible Foods beat other brands — like Beyond Meat and Tyson — in the war to dominate the alternative meat industry?

Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Impossible Burger will be available in 27 Gelson's Markets stores in Southern California starting Sept. 20.
  • Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods sell plant-based burgers in restaurants, but only Beyond Meat sells products in grocery stores.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Amazon pledges surprisingly bold climate change goals

The move comes one day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are set to walk off the job as part of the global climate strikes.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday plans to swiftly combat climate change.
  • Some parts of the plan include becoming carbon neutral by 2040, buying 100,000 electric delivery vans and reaching zero emissions by 2030.
  • Some Amazon employees say the pledge is good but doesn't go far enough.
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