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!

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.