Sunday, March 16, 2014

Time and the freedom to think

The other day, I was complaining to a colleague that the academic system, with its constant pressure to publish or perish, did not encourage real breakthroughs to be made in science, because it encourages scientists to tackle the easiest problems that will allow them to publish fast. I have just stumbled upon this quotation, which perfectly supports my point (see also this quotation by Einstein).

"Julian Barbour is known to many who follow science as the author of The End of Time, in which he argues that time is an illusion. He is an unusual physicist, who, since receiving his doctorate in 1968 from the University of Cologne, has never held an academic job. But he has been highly influencial among the small group of people who think seriously about quantum gravity, for it was he who taught us what it means to make a background-independent theory.
As Barbour tells it, on a climbing trip during graduate school, he was seized by a vision that time might be an illusion. This led him to investigate the roots of our understanding of time, contained in the general theory of relativity. He realized that he could not make a conventional academic career worrying about the nature of time. He also realized that if he was going to work on that problem, he would have to concentrate on it fully, without being distracted by the pressures of a normal career in physics. So he bought an old farmhouse in a little village half an hour from Oxford, brought his new wife there, and settled down to think about time. It was ten years or so before he had something to report back to his colleagues. During that period, he and his wife had four children, and he worked part-time as a translator to support them. The translating took him no more than twenty hours a week, leaving him as much time for thinking as most academic scientists have after the responsabilities of teaching and administration are taken into account.
To get a bearing on the meaning ot time in general relativity, Barbour read deeply into the subject, working his way back through the history of physics and philosophy. He finally was able to invent a new kind of theory, in which space and time are nothing but a system of relationships. His papers on this subject slowly began to be noticed, and eventually he became an honored member of the quantum-gravity community. His reinterpretation of Einstein's general theory of relativity as a relational theory is now the way we in the field understand it.
This is not nearly all that Barbour has done, but it's enough to show how the career of a successful seer differs from that of a conventional academic scientist. Such a person does not follow fashion — in fact, probably does not even follow a field well enough to know what the fashion is. People like this are driven by nothing except a conviction, gained early, that everyone else is missing something crucial. Their approach is more scholarly, in that to think clearly they have to read through the whole history of the question that obsesses them. Their work is intensely focused, yet it takes them a long time to get somewhere. In furtherance of an academic career there is no output whatsoever. Julian Barbour, when he was ready, changed science more than most academic scientists have, but at an age when most academic physicists are up for tenure, he had absolutely nothing to show for his work.
Barbour's career resembles that of other seers, like Charles Darwin, who also retreated to the English countryside to find the room to think through an idea that obsessed him. Einstein spent ten years thinking about the ideas that became special relativity, and then spent the next ten inventing general relativity. Time and the freedom to think, then, are all that a seer needs to find that unexamined assumption. The rest they do themselves."

Lee Smolin, "The trouble with physics" (p. 321-322).

Friday, March 14, 2014

The scientists quest

"[...] how difficult it is to try to wrest precious, fundamental secrets from nature. That quest can be compared to climbing a mountain, and when reaching the peak, seeing another higher mountain that tempts us to ascend to even greater heights. And when we do reach the higher peak, we discover as we look across the valley yet another peak that calls. In the end, it is the wonderful experience of scaling the mountain — of attempting to understand the secrets of nature — that motivates us as scientists. There is of course the additional thrill, upon reaching the top of a mountain, to ram in the flagpole announcing one's victory. But that is only a momentary emotion soon superseded by the new challenges presented by the higher peak on the horizon.
[...] I believe that with the ascent of each mountain — each theory, each paradigm — we reach a new truth, but that no mountain peak can ever represent the ultimate theory of nature."

John W. Moffat, "Reinventing gravity" (p. 222).