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The Next Great Idea in Physics Will Come From an Amateur

In Lost in Math, popular physicist blogger Sabine Hossenfelder reviews how little progress physics has made in the last 20 years, and how intractable problems like quantum gravity appear to be. She offers ways for physics to get out of its rut. Scientists should avoid social and cognitive biases. Administrators should focus less on short-term metrics, like counting publications. She briefly muses about AI coming up with answers that physicists don’t understand.

Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

Absent from her book, until the last section of the last appendix, is any mention of the lay public. In this section, her advice is to “ask questions.” The book ends by saying if non-scientists uncover conflicts-of-interest, or cognitive biases, “…you can’t trust these scientists’ conclusions. Sad but true.”

What non-scientists should do with their new doubt is left to the imagination.

Hossenfelder is right that physics is in a rut, but she is wrong in assigning such a small role to the public. The next “great idea” in physics will come from an amateur.

Amateur physicists face many challenges. Physics uses seemingly impenetrable math. Amateurs have no funding and can’t do their research at work. They struggle to get consideration from trained physicists. They also have underappreciated advantages.

Amateurs’ first advantage is their numbers. Hossenfelder’s book estimates there are ~10,000 working physicists around the world. If that’s right, there’s about one physicists for every 800,000 people. An individual physicist is more likely than a random person to come up with a breakthrough, but are they 800,000 times more likely? It’s hard to count the exact number of amateur physicists, but the best-selling physics books can sell over a million copies, so they could outnumber working physicists by a large margin.

Amateurs’ second advantage, and the most important one, is that they aren’t a part of the academic system. The difficulties of academia are outlined in detail in Lost in Math. They include the many compromises made to meet short-term productivity goals, the need to conform to get funding and the need to narrow scope to increase the probability of success. Amateurs, on the other hand, have a “job” they can’t lose. They’re free to dream as big as they want, and to take as long as they want, without worrying about the consequences. This freedom, combined with the diverse perspectives of amateurs, is a recipe for success.

My own scientific theory, the entropy scale factor, was recently published in a peer-reviewed journal. It proposes that gravity depends on entropy, and uses this relationship to explain the dark matter phenomena and the expansion of the universe. It may not be right, but I believe a theory like it, written by an amateur, will be the next breakthrough in physics.

What theories do you have? Let me know with a response!

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Chris Watson

Chris Watson

Physician in Indianapolis thinking about information, space and time. www.chriswatsonmd.com

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