Ever since complex scientific theories have been popularized for the layperson, self-proclaimed geniuses have been proposing their own answers to science’s officially unanswered questions. Meanwhile, the scientific community is disconcerted by these DIY theories.
In the 1978 cult science-fiction parody The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, our hapless hero is baffled upon discovering that the meaning of life, the universe and everything is “42”. This number has become so popular that it inspired the eponymous coding school founded by Xavier Niel, who also founded Free. The 42 of contemporary science is the theory of everything, which unifies traditional physics and particle physics, the theory of gravity and the theory of the three fundamental forces (electromagnetism, weak interaction and strong interaction). The only problem is that it is currently impossible to match the theory of gravitation and the standard model for describing particle physics. In other words, the unification of the four fundamental forces that rule physics is only theoretical. Several hypotheses have been presented, but not one has been verified by scientific observation.
The worst thing about the theory of everything, is that there are so many of them. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, a whole community of amateur scientists, sometimes with no scientific background, is now tackling the unanswered questions of science. In 1988, the physicist fanned the flames with his A Brief History of Time, in which he popularized the theory of everything, while predicting its imminent completion. In 2010, Hawking affirmed that there might not actually be any (despite the fact that his 2014 Hollywood biopic is titled The Theory of Everything).
The scientific community is sometimes at a loss when it comes to these amateur “theories”. In 2013, Popular Science deleted the comments on its website, saying that a small minority was powerful enough to mislead readers. Earlier this month, during a media conference, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of the TV series Cosmos, had to set straight a man who tried to convince him that the CERN particle accelerator, the LHC, was a threat to humanity.
Science without consciousness
Not everyone has Tyson’s talent for repartee. In September 2016, a physics teacher called for help on Reddit, the social network known for its Ask Me Anything sessions: “Help: Being Approached by Cranks with super secret theories of everything.” One of his students claimed to have discovered a universal theory of quantum dynamics and its relationship to consciousness. If scientists have always avoided putting consciousness into the equation, it’s possible that the student in question was inspired by Athene, a famous Belgian gamer whose Athene’s Theory of Everything video has been viewed more than 4 million times. Among the replies on Reddit was a suggestion to send the student to Talk To a Physicist, a service for self-taught physicists launched by researcher Sabine Hossenfelder from the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. At $50 for 20 minutes via Skype, the caller can ask any question (about physics, but also philosophy, geophysics, biology and neurosciences) to her team (all researchers with Ph.D.s in physics).
— Sabine Hossenfelder (@skdh) May 27, 2016
Sabine Hossenfelder draws a portrait of her callers: “Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. […] but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.” She humorously concludes: “Maybe we’ll be the first to learn of the new Theory of Everything.”
On the importance of mathematics
Amateur scientists weren’t born with the Internet. The mathematician Underwood Dudley wrote about pseudo-mathematicians in the 1970s. According to Sabine Hossenfelder, what candidates lack most of all is mathematical knowledge. The most common theory of everything in the scientific community, known as string theory, which exists in five versions, ia all about mathematics. It describes minuscule vibrating strings as raw particle matter. Embracing abstraction, they involve 10, 11 or even 26 dimensions, depending on the version.
“Making sense of string theory”, TED conference by Brian Greene, global expert, 2005:
M-theory unites the different versions and replaces the strings with membranes. According to this theory, our universe is a giant membrane that sometimes rubs against other membranes… of parallel universes. Knighted by Stephen Hawking, this universe among others made him give up searching for a universal theory. For MIT professor Max Tegmark, another candidate for a theory of everything that poses the hypothesis that the universe is an equation, this is good news, because it brings the universe within our understanding… as long as you’re an ace in math.
Scientific controversy feeds amateur geniuses
Tegmark has been the object of harsh comments from his colleagues. These controversies among scientists are a godsend for the impetuous. Amateur geniuses ponder countless theories, which have been linked by the media to pop culture, such as The Matrix. For example, there is one theory that explains that the universe is a hologram, another that postulates that the universe is a simulation, according to The Simulation Argument (2003) by the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, a theory that was cited by Elon Musk. In 2007, another theory almost passed through the gauntlet of science, one by Antony Garrett Lisi. The American physicist, whom the media likes to remind us is also a surfer, made an elegant graphic that deduced all the particles that remain to be discovered. This theory has since been invalidated by numerous publications.
“Octodimensional model of the universe”, TED conference by Antony Garrett Lisi, 2008:
Antony Garrett Lisi has been criticized for not submitting his research to peer review, which serves to validate a scientific paper. However, the sacred scientific principle of “publish or perish” has a few bugs. Cell, Nature and Science only accept between 5% and 10% of submitted articles. Other titles have also since appeared, such as Matters, launched in 2016, which intends to “democratize scientific knowledge by taking away the pretentiousness that comes with most scientific journals”.
“Matters”, presenting the “journal of participative science”:
Is crowdsourced participative science the universal panacea? Tyson recalled his well-publicized anger about a scientific article that postulated that the Earth was flat and received no criticism could be interpreted as proof that the article was accurate or that its “author has his head up his ass”. Broadening the community to “citizen science” is a way to reconcile true researchers and amateur scientists. In November 2016, the very first human-driven Big Bell Test was held to invite participants, on a global scale, to “bombard intricate quantum particles (electrons, photons, atoms and superconductors) with “questions” whose answers cannot be predicted—a way of “realizing together a unique experiment in quantum physics”. Q.E.D.