The Tale of Geometric Unity

The theory of Geometric Unity is an attempt to unite or to explain the origins of three fundamental equations of physics (Yang-Mills, Dirac and General Relativity's field equations). I first heard about it in New Scientist, Andrew Pontzen had written an article damning Prof. Marcus du Sautoy for publically promoting Dr. Eric Weinstein's new theory in the Guardian. The accusation being he was promoting unpublished untested work and not inviting Oxford physicists to a recent talk at Oxford unveiling the new notion. (The latter less serious accusation proved to be false and was later withdrawn). Other scientific commentators chimed in with more unflattering comments. It did not look good.

A few days later, presumably to help defuse the situation, Eric agreed to repeat the talk to let those interested come along. At this point it's worth pausing to give Eric credit. He isn't an academic and had to both take more time of work and move his flight to do this repeat. I for one thank him for this. Before I talk about the lecture I thought I would mention one point that Marcus made in his blog post relating to the unroar over the original talk1. The point being that it is apparently in Marcus' job description to promote speculative work if it encourages public scientific engagement.

While I accept this point in my humble opinion he is still in the wrong. The talk had almost nothing to do with public engagement (the level of language was far too high for one) so it is the Guardian article he is defending. Promoting promising ideas to engage and excite the public is certainly a good thing. String or M-theory is a unproven yet well known idea and not many damn scientists who write popular articles about it. However it is an entirely different matter announcing to the wider public that your old mate's previously unknown notion (in which your own research interests are "a key ingredient") might be the ultimate solution to another field in which your not an expert. In my humble opinion the right thing to do was clear; apologize for jumping the gun with the Guardian article and admit that he should have at least waited till more of the relevant community had had a look (a fortnight's delay at most).

How that I have said that lets pause to say Marcus is not the first academic to make a mistake who will not admit to doing so. Incidentally other public scientific commentators like Alok Jha also publicized this new discovery but escaped any criticism2. I myself tweeted that ultimately Marcus' judgement to go public will be judged on whether the Geometric Unity idea turns out to be valid or not. This is wrong and unfair but I am afraid it is the way of the world. If you push ideas to the front rather than letting them rise in the natural matter you get praised if they turn out to be right but mocked if they are later proven wrong. This is a risk that all scientists know hence our generally cautious sceptical nature. 

However j
umping the gun because your excited by an idea is not exactly a hanging offence. Whether the theory turns out to be right or wrong it was a mistake to go public so early but some of the damning of Marcus and Eric was uncalled for and unnecessary.

In the event the 2hr talk was happily a bit of an anticlimax. It was very mathematical partly as nothing is published and thus everything had to be explicitly laid out rather than referred too. Because of this it was effectively a long derivaton with little breaks even now and again for Eric to pontificate on the culture of theoretical physics3. Thus it's difficult to summarize the talk in any meaningful but succinct way thou someone on Quora has had a go here. In any case Eric promises to post the video of his first talk later. So you can judge it for yourself if your maths is up to it. 

The level of the talk ensured many in the audience could not follow it. As a result, alas, it suffered some the highest audience evaporation of any invited lecture I have ever been to4. This was really a talk for sharp  applied mathematicians or theoretical particle physicists. I only stayed the course because:

  • I think it's rude to walk out midway (thou reading papers is worse).
  • I felt it only fair given how many called for more details.
  • It just might have been a first glimpse at something very special.
  •  An awful lot of it was very clever and fascinating to follow.

One notable bit was when Eric mentioned a dirac quote "... it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment" as if this was a great thing to aspire too. This worried me more than almost anything else he said. It is a whisper away from the oft heard arrogant string theorist statement that of course string theory is right as its mathematics are so elegant that the universe must make use of them. (Assuming the universe must avail of the mathematics that you regard as elegant is brave5.) However it was actually a misplaced worry as at the end of the lecture he made predictions even going so far as to predict new particles. Now admittedly these were vague as he hadn't went through the details but regardless of that a testable prediction is a wonderful thing. They elevate mathematical models from esoteric ideas to things that may actually be useful. Ultimately it is the outcome of tests of these predictions that form the verdict on whether Geometric Unity is in fact the ultimate theory or just some mathematical curiosity.

The vast majority (~95%) of the lecture went without comment or hiccup. There were however some issues that arose right at the end. I don't have to personally go through these as Newscientist already published a fine article explaining these issues. The fact that some of these potential issues are easily tested, one only taking a few hours, but haven't been done reinforces my view that the popular pieces were released too hastily. However let's be honest if it were not for those articles I doubt any of you would be reading this.

To summarize the idea and whole fiasco up: It's an interesting idea but it hasn't (yet) been looked into in enough detail to warrant getting excited over. The angry reaction to the initial over promotion has happily been replaced with a more grown up settled academic investigation that will ultimately benefit all sides a lot more.

Anyway that's my two cents for anyone that cares.
 


Footnotes

  1. I ignore the bits about the ideas being discussed under oaths of secrecy (which was both strange and totally unnecessary) and the bit about Eric being scared of going public (Eric's personality, style of delivery and confident tone makes this seem very unlikely to me).
  2. Thou to be fair his article was much more balanced and did include valid criticisms. Nevertheless I would argue that balanced or not it was still too premature to do give such a platform for the idea.
  3. This isn't a criticism as he done this in a friendly way that, dare I say, one might expect from a American theorist. It was meant to be constructive even if it wasn't always entirely right.
  4. Thou I haven't been to many invited maths talks. Maybe mathematicians are just more naturally rude.
  5. "Brave" being my polite way of saying unjustified and silly.