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Citizen Scientists

May 28, 2012 Leave a comment

This week, I had a very interesting discussion with someone who I had never met, who had a digital physics idea that they wanted to share. I found myself in the position of giving feedback on work I was not familiar with, and it occurred to me that I should say something about it on this blog. I want to make it clear how I feel about citizen scientists, the concept of ‘crackpots’, and digital physics in general.

First, let us be completely honest. Digital physics is considered a crank topic by many mainstream physics. You need look no further than the blog of Lubos Motl to see just how fervently this is felt, or the level of anger that that can be directed towards the notion of a discrete universe.

For the most part, the reasons for this contempt are down to laziness. Those who don’t care to engage assume that a digital universe must involve a cartesian spatial grid on which some number of cells are turning on and off–the classic CA approach. This picture looks utterly incompatible with either quantum mechanics or general relativity, so they consider the entire notion to be stupid.

Those who do engage attempt to transfer the familiar tools they are used to using, the Minkowski metric, quantum fields, etc, into the discrete domain without modification. When they discover that this approach fails, they consider that they have given the idea a try and that it’s clearly inadequate. Usually, they do not look any deeper.

However, there is another reason why people have contempt for discrete approaches. That’s because they are both intuitively easy to grasp and easy for amateurs to explore with computers. This means that a great many people who are fascinated by science can perform basic simulations and become excited with the suggestive patterns that they find. Feeling that they have something to contribute, these people suddenly become the most vocal, amateur, would-be contributors to physics.

For professionals who have worked hard to carve out a place in an extremely competitive field, suddenly being vigorously courted by people claiming to have new physical theories can be galling. This is particularly true when those doing the courting have no notion of what has been tried already, incomplete grounding in physical mathematics, and an apparently unshakeable conviction that they have discovered something immense.

The simple fear of an encounter with someone who might be like that is enough to send some physicists running. I know because I have seen them run.

What is utterly stupid about this state of affairs is that those members of the public who are most interested in physics and most willing to engage often end up feeling the most shut out. Physics, particularly particle physics, is a field struggling for funding at a time when the cost of running groundbreaking experiments has skyrocketed. To throw away contact with those members of the public most likely to act as cheerleaders for the field doesn’t help anyone. Furthermore, disengagement from a public who want to exercise skepticism means that confidence in abstruse domains of physical theory, such as string theory, becomes ever harder to attain. How are the public to differentiate between M-brane theory and their own concoctions when dialog is expected to be one-way, as if from priests to the masses? The answer is, usually they do not, and frankly, should not.

How do we fix this? Work is needed on both sides. The physics community needs a better attitude towards so-called ‘crackpots’. Often such people are usually not crazy or stupid, just untrained and enthusiastic. Physics needs to find more things for interested members of the public to do, and more explicit ways for amateurs to help out. It needs to swallow its fear of strange people (an irony in itself). Guidelines for public engagement need to be written, to ensure that there is more of it, not less. If there are common misconceptions about physical theory that amateur theorists fall foul of, they need to need to be pooled, and collated as a series of challenges.

Having said this, the bulk of the work lies on the shoulders of aspiring citizen scientists. Professional physicists hold themselves and each other to incredibly high standards. They have little patience for would-be contributors who seemingly do not. This means that anyone from outside the field who wants to join in needs to do their level best to hold themselves to levels of rigor at least as high. Their work needs to be transparent, fully logical, and expressed in terms that makes it as easy as possible for physicists to read. Anything less than that is simply not good enough.

I have been incredibly lucky. My wife is a prize-winning astronomer. My housemate is a cosmologist. I have many dear friends who are physicists and mathematicians. Without exception, they have called me out when I have made statements I cannot substantiate. They have forced me to examine my own work with a critical eye. They have been unrelenting in making me describe what I have actually achieved, not what I would like to imagine I have done.

I believe that all citizen scientists can do this. Furthermore, we can do it for each other. We can, and must, exercise the highest degree of skepticism in our own work that we possibly can. Otherwise, we will never be heard, and the science we love will pay the price.

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