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Proud Amateurs

I went to one of those schools where we had chapel in the morning, and studied Latin and Greek in the afternoon.  I didn’t absorb much, but I distinctly remember conjugating the Latin word for love: Amo, Amas, Amat.  Applying a bit of amateur etymology, it would appear that an amateur, going to the root of the word, is one who does it for love.  The word does not, as is sometimes assumed, mean one of lesser talent or ability; though in practice it often implies less time and resources to devote to the object of one’s passion.

Not too long ago, most scientists were amateurs in this sense of the word.  They set up their own laboratories, financed their own research, and published papers in obscure journals, with little or no expectation of financial renumeration.  Certainly, this was not a hobby for those of lesser means; one needed to be a man of leisure (by and large they were men, though there were exceptions).  This was the age of small science.

Today, we live in the age of Big Science.  Big Science has enabled us to do things like go to the Moon; study subatomic particles smashing together at energies not seen since the Big Bang; and map the entirety of the human genome.  Gone (for the most part) are the small scientists, the amateurs in the true sense of the word.  Today’s amateur scientists are by and large passive observers: consumers of popular science writing by the likes of Dawkins, Sachs, Kurzweil, Wolfram, and Penrose; readers of magazines such as Scientific American (in its heyday at least); purveyors of blogs (such as this one, I suppose).  Certainly, some amateurs have the ability to follow the primary literature — the real stuff, in peer-reviewed journals.  Lately, most of that material has also found its way online, in repositories such as arxiv.org.  However, amateurs today do not typically contribute to their field of interest in any significant way.  They’re just not big enough.

For some time, physics has represented the epitome of Big Science.  The equipment is big: big telescopes, big microscopes, big atom smashers.  The teams of professional specialists necessary to carry out this work are likewise *big*.  Even on the theoretical side, the game has gotten bigger: departments feel the need to publish more papers, which means more students, more journals, bigger departments, and longer, denser papers staking out a slice of intellectual turf in ever more narrow sub-specialties.

In spite of all this bigness — or possibly partly due to it — physics of late has shown some troubling signs.  As outlined in Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble With Physics”, the most popular and well-represented theoretical work (at least in terms of quantity of publication) has diverged noticeably from the experimental work, to the point where it’s not clear exactly how or when it will be possible to experimentally verify or rule out any of the myriad theoretical hypotheses that are in the offing.

This state of affairs presupposes that the role of physics is to study the exact laws of the one Universe we all inhabit.  Ultimately, that is a laudable and worthy goal.  However, it’s not clear whether the path to that goal is destined to elevate us monotonically to the peak of complete understanding.  Is it necessarily true that the familiar Universe we find ourselves in — the one with three local axes in space and one in time, and all the familiar properties such as electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics with its particle zoo and so on — is the only one that is worth studying?  If we think of this Universe as simply one sub-universe of a larger set of possible Universes, we can take the position that physics as it applies to the ‘real’ universe is really just a subspecialty of something more general.  Perhaps an approach such as this would lead to a broader understanding of the general principles involved in what we call physics.  It allows us to pursue more constrained, comprehensible Universes, possibly enabling us to climb up to the peak of complete understanding by following a less direct but ultimately more effective path.

Here’s the fun part.

The really, really tough thing about physics (as it is typically practised) is making sure we have it right, in relation to our own physics.  By removing the restriction that we must always mirror in every respect our observations of the ‘real’ world, we open ourselves up to studying a multitude of alternate Universes.  One advantage of this is that we can now study a set of physical laws which we know and understand completely — because we invented it.  This sort of experimentation was (for the most part) impossible before the advent of computers.  Now, however, we can use the amazing ability of computers to handle billions of bits of information in complex ways with virtually no errors, to create complete, accurate models of any alternate physics we propose — with one caveat: the laws we study this way must be discrete, finite, and computable, in the commonplace sense that we can compute them on available hardware and software.

As Moore’s law marches ahead, fanning out to support multiple CPU’s with gigaherz clocks and gigabit cores, physics — at least this sort of generalized study of possible physical laws, which we might call Hyperphysics — is again becoming amenable to the small science of devoted amateurs.  While it takes several governments and an army of well-paid technicians to build the Large Hadron Collider, all it takes to study how a few virtual particles interact is a computer and a knack for programming.  As computers grow exponentially in power, and if we continually hone that knack, we just might find ourselves in the middle of a new renaissance of small science, pursued by an army of proud amateurs.

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