“The Trouble with Physics”

It is only recently that I had the opportunity to read the book The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin. I liked the book, and I was pleased to find that the author discussed some issues about fundamental theoretical physics that I have also been thinking about. Amongst others, Smolin analyzes in-depth why in the last two or three decades theoretical physics has not produced new results of fundamental significance. The current academic system  does not encourage young scientists with their own research projects. A young theoretical physicist must join an existing major project in order to have chances for a successful scientific career. That most young theoretical physicists join an existing research project is not bad in itself. A problem arises if nobody or very few ones with their own ideas can start working in an academic institution. Smolin observes that there are two types of scientists, and that science needs both: Seers and craftspeople. Seers are “good at asking genuinely novel but relevant questions, [ …], and have the ability to look at the state of a technical field and see a hidden assumption or a new avenue of research”. Unfortunately, the academic institutions do not embrace such creative rebels with this rare talent. Mostly they exclude them. Smolin observes that nowadays, there is place only for “craftspeople”, who usually master their discipline better than seers, but have no genuinely new ideas of their own. A consequence is that fundamental theoretical physics is no longer advancing as it has been during the last two centuries, when every twenty years or so there has been a major breakthrough discovery.

In the book Smolin lucidly discusses the sociology that has led to such a state of affairs. Let me add here my own opinion, or perhaps an observation, that  the progress was slowed down when people started to consider the number of citations, received shortly after publication, too seriously as a measure of the importance of an article . To have a chance in attracting soon many citations, a scientific paper has to be about a subject or a field that is being investigated by many researchers. It has to be about hot topics! The journals nowadays favor the publication of papers that are of “general scientific interest”, which in fact means that their subject must fit into one of the major fields that are being investigated at the time of submission of the paper. The policy is clear: such a paper is likely to attract citations soon, and thus contribute to the journal `impact factor’.  Nowadays, the journals by their policy exclude the papers written by “seers”, whose pioneering investigation is by definition not yet of “general scientific interest”, because  seers investigate topics that so far have not been investigated at all. The journals that compete for high impact factors are thus no longer serving to the development of fundamental theoretical physics in particular and to science in general as well as they could. A paper of “general scientific interest” can only be  an incremental advancement to what has already been investigated by many others. This is not bad in itself, bad is if nowadays  a “revolutionary” paper cannot be published at all. Therefore, as I perceive it, the invention of `impact factor’, and especially its usage as a measure of the importance of a journal, has led to such a “sociology” within the community of theoretical physicists that resulted in the stalled progress.

To point out that  “impact factor”  cannot be taken too seriously as a measure of a journal’s importance for the development of science, I am now asking: What was the impact factor of the not so well-known journal of Brno (German: Brünn)  in which Mendel had published his laws of genetics? His paper was appreciated only thirty five years later by renown scientists, who made Mendel’s work known to the scientific community. The “impact factor” (that takes into account citations within the two-year period only)  of that relatively obscure journal was–I guess– much lower than the impact factor  of the renown journals in Mendel’s time. However, given the fundamental importance and influence of Mendel’s paper for genetics, it would be absurd to say that the impact to science of that journal was as insignificant as suggested by its “impact factor”. Mendel published his paper in a relatively unknown journal, got very few citations in the first thirty five years, and  yet this turned out to be one of the greatest papers of all times.

The “impact factor” has yet another damaging consequence: Many people read only the journals with high impact factors and ignore those with low impact factors. However, nowadays an important “revolutionary” paper is very likely to be rejected by renown journals, and eventually appear in a journal with a low impact factor. But since those journals have not many readers, such a paper will remain unnoticed for long time. Fortunately, we have also preprint servers, such as arXiv. But scientists outside academic institutions cannot post their works there, unless they obtain an endorsement from an established scientist. So nowadays a “new Einstein” has a really hard time to be noticed at all. Of course, most would be “new Einsteins” are cranks, but some of them, especially those with the university education in the field, might be right. And a good system should have a mechanism to detect such persons, like a good detector must have the ability to detect rare particles, and not just classify them as noise.

About Matej Pavšič

I am theoretical physicist at Jožef Stefan Institiute
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1 Response to “The Trouble with Physics”

  1. amarashiki says:

    You are right, Matej.

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