Crackpot time 2: cargo culting hard

I’m back from another weird foundations-of-physics workshop in the middle of nowhere, this one even smaller and more casual than the last. Also much more relaxed, schedule-wise, so there was plenty of time to think idly about various rubbish in my head.

Last time I was inspired to write my crackpot plan, so it feels like a good time to revisit it a bit, but mostly this is just a large braindump to get various things out of temporary memory before I lose them.

  1. The plan is going well. I updated the three categories slightly:

    bricolage

    ‘Bricolage’ feels a lot more fun than ‘research’, and is also more accurate. I’m not necessarily going for genuine novelty, but I do want to indicate something more self-directed than reading a textbook or following a lecture series online (which I’m putting under ‘learning’). Things where I have a specific question and dig up sources as I need them to make sense of it.

    The ‘learning’ bit is going OK. I finished the textbook bits of QFT part 1 that I wanted, and will return to the quantum foundations grab bag next, once I can get it to the top of the massive queue of things I want to do.

    The real surprise has been how much ends up under the ‘practical’ heading. This includes applying to the workshop and writing a talk for it (on a subject I wanted to learn more about, to force me to do it), and next up is setting up (and pointlessly overengineering) a new personal website to put actual physics content on. I’ll still keep this one for this sort of rambling.

    Someone at the workshop suggested hanging round the local university and making some contacts there. This is a good idea and I did it a bit with the philosophy of physics people when I arrived here, but my current job doesn’t have too much of a flexible schedule so it’s difficult. Something to think about when looking for a new job.

    I feel like I’m cargo culting a lot right now, going through the motions of playing at being a physicist in the hope that some actual work comes out in the end. This isn’t a bad strategy but it feels weird. I have some kind of vaguely legit sounding affiliation now, which will possibly help me make contacts. Ratcheting back up to respectability.

  2. Not too respectable, though. I want to keep at least one foot out, and engage with physics in my natural semi-crackpot mode. I dropped physics as a school subject at age 16 (it was boring) and got back into it by reading a mixture of excellent and awful pop science books, along with whatever weird stuff you find on the internet when you don’t know the proper search terms. So I feel like I was educated by sort-of-crackpots first, and only got drawn into the normal culture later.

    This approach has many extremely obvious pitfalls but also some genuine advantages. Engaging with physics this way is a creative act from the start, even if ‘creative’ often means ‘flat out wrong’. You’re following your own questions. By now I have a reasonably decent proper physicist’s education up to PhD level (with some odd gaps as I did a maths undergrad degree), but I want to reconnect with the good parts of the crackpot mode.

    I do always try to be an honest crackpot, though. Not the sort that, say, looks for some tiny loophole in experimental tests of the Bell inequalities so they can avoid having to deal with its implications. Odd speculations and unusual reinterpretations are OK, but not the sort of work that sticks its fingers in its ears and ignores all experimental evidence.

  3. ‘Research distillation’. I still love the ‘research debt’ idea and brought it up with a few people at lunch one day. I really do think ‘research distillation’ would be an excellent parallel track within academia, that would be better suited to many people with interests in foundational questions.

    There was some reasonable skepticism about whether people who are somewhat removed from the forefront of new research would get stale and lose track of results in their field. Someone else countered that science ‘looks like a Gruyere cheese’ with all the holes in it from getting to new results quickly, and that filling them in would be a great service. I’m not sure that filling holes is an ambitious enough metaphor for the kind of generative work that research distillation could produce, but it would certainly be useful on its own.

  4. Pessimism in physics, and ‘non-formal reasoning’. A couple of computer science students came to the workshop, and a couple of other people had drifted away from physics for a while to think about neural networks and machine learning. CS is ascendant right now, theoretical physics is looking a little lost, that’s just the culture now. And also some people are finishing up PhDs and are psychologically in that sick-of-it-all state now. I’m one of the remaining wild optimists and just have to deal with this tonal difference.

    We had an interesting discussion on ‘non-formal reasoning’, which abstractly sounds like 100% my thing, but the specifics were off for me. Mostly it seemed like a side-effect of the pessimism: physics is making slow progress, and maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree trying to fit everything into one formal system? Or maybe there are truths that humans can ‘see’ but lack the tools to reason about successfully? There was a toy idea about adding statements to a formal system that don’t obey the usual rules of inference, and some talk about metalogic. I don’t really buy this as a useful direction myself, but it was certainly an unexpected and fun thing to find at the workshop.

    Obviously I shoehorned in a bit of talk about mathematical intuition! I learnt that in German ‘intuition’ is divided into a couple of different concepts. One (which I stupidly didn’t write down) is something like what I normally mean by mathematical intuition – some reasonably concrete link to, say, spatial perception or pattern recognition, something that’s reasonably well based on an obvious cognitive faculty. Whereas ‘Intuition’ in German, if I’ve got this right, is something closer to ‘stuff that just comes into your head and you don’t have any idea why, but you believe that it is true’.

    I’m not sure I really see these as completely distinct categories, but it’s interesting to hear other physicists take the second kind seriously. I certainly follow that type of intuition often in physics and it often works, but I don’t talk about it much because the potential for looking like a total nutcase is too high.

  5. [repetitive uninteresting ‘my brain is weird’ whining]. Even in a friendly group like this I feel weak technically. My ability to follow a verbal argument is limited, so I’m always drifting in and out of the discussion sessions, not knowing quite what’s going on. Other people’s thinking seems so fast and precise in comparison.

    I think I can make things work anyway, but I don’t know I can. Just have to keep on cargo culting, I suppose.

  6. ‘Political’ ‘thoughts’. Scare quotes for both words as this really is vague. When I do think outside physics it’s currently always with the ‘everything looks like a nail’ question I’ve got from moaning about academia: how do we get away from all these boring competitive climbs to local maxima? Too many people trying to optimize known metrics, not enough people trying to read their environment in new ways.

    Probably the best source of ideas for escaping this is Silicon Valley, where the VC money fountain is big enough to allow a diverse ecosystem to grow up around the periphery. I don’t know though, everyone seems to be obsessed with hard work and culturally I’m a lazy European who can’t be bothered with that. The atmosphere of the workshop is closer to what I want, though we’re missing the convenient money fountain.

    Still, one thing that popped into my head very suddenly last week was ‘I want to visit the Bay Area next year’. Once I had the thought it was obvious, and it’s strange it wasn’t obvious before given everything I read. I share Scott Alexander’s feeling that ‘it’s some kind of fulcrum for the forces that will produce the future, the sort of place that Athens must have felt like in 400 BC, or Florence in 1400’. (I’d been thinking of Vienna in the twenties, but his examples are maybe less ominous). So I really want to at least poke around for a week or two, even if that will probably not turn out to be particularly illuminating.

  7. Blackboard circles. The most vitally important thing I learnt was that if you hold a piece of chalk in the correct way you can make it bounce rapidly along the blackboard, leaving a trail of dots and producing an incredibly satisfying low-frequency whirring sound. If you get good at it, you can alter the angle seamlessly to produce endless dotted circles.

    Why did I not know this before?? I really want a blackboard now! Another good reason to go hang around a university, I suppose.

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