Friday, June 16, 2006

One egg, one basket



I've been working on physics on my own for almost a decade now. Mostly I just scribble away in my notepad, chasing one idea after another. In one sense, it's the most quixotic quest on the planet -- to figure out the geometric structure of the universe mathematically -- but it's the most worthwhile use of my time and brain I could think of. Ten years ago, as a graduate student, I saw the whole theoretical research community heading off to study string theory. Learning a bit about it, I thought strings to be kind of far-fetched. The theory is mathematically pretty and consistent, but it doesn't seem to naturally match up with the universe we inhabit. Mine is the minority view. String theory has become the dominant paradigm in high energy physics -- with almost all government funding and academic posts in fundamental physics going to string theorists. I left to work on my own physics, while the world went string crazy. But, over the last year, string critics have been gaining strength -- pointing out string theory's lack of predictions, lack of accountability, and the detachment and even disdain for anything as mundane as our standard model of particles.

This backlash against strings has recently led to an interesting development. A private foundation has been created to support and fund foundational physics research in areas other than string theory:

fqxi.org

They gathered a few million dollars in seed funding, and they put out a request for proposals from researchers around the world. I couldn't ask for a better opportunity than this. Along with 172 other applicants, I gathered up my best work and submitted an initial proposal. Happily, this was accepted and I, along with 50 others, was invited to submit a full proposal. I did the best job I could of describing my work -- essentially, a geometric alternative to string theory that unifies gravity and the standard model of particle physics -- and submitted it as a sixteen page proposal. In one month, I find out if my work gets selected and I get a modest research grant. Based on the money they have available, I estimate they'll fund 15 people. It's a bit intimidating -- I'm just one guy, working in isolation on his own stuff, funding my work by taking odd jobs here and there, and I'm going up against the 50 best physicists in the world. As a model for reality, my stuff is ultimately pitted against string theory, a mathematical construction supported by the work of thousands of theorists, many much smarter than me.

My poor ego doesn't know what to think. On the one hand, I've always thought my own stuff was better than anyone else's -- that's why I work on it. But I never thought I'd have to prove it! Realistically, can I really have hatched one of the 15 best new ideas in foundational physics on the planet? It seems so unlikely, even if I do match the profile of eccentric scientist working in isolation from a volcano in the middle of the Pacific. What's even worse, I can't easily dismiss the judgment of the grant review committee if I don't get the grant -- the foundation board consists of solid guys, and I think the review panel will be going over my stuff in detail. The foundation's goals and mine are philosophically aligned, so failure will probably really mean my work just isn't that good. If I don't make the final cut, if my stuff isn't considered sufficiently promising, I'll have to seriously reconsider spending all my time on it. I wish there was a middle possibility, where maybe they could say my stuff was pretty good and worth at least something -- but it's all or nothing! Now I just have to wait and see what happens in a month.

Even if I don't get the grant, I'll probably keep working on physics -- just with less enthusiasm. Or I might work on other projects a bit more, like prepping for this year's Burning Man. Even if the physics work comes to naught, my life isn't so bad. Heck, just before C and I left Maui two weeks ago, R's friend Mike took the three of us out on the Baywatch Hawaii cigarette boat, which he'd just purchased:

Maui boat

We cruised around the upper west side bays and beaches, spent the night on a sub tender with a shark cage on the stern, and in the morning drove the cigarette boat to Lanai in twenty minutes, for lunch. In the immortal words of Ferris Bueller: "I love driving it. It is so choice. If you have the means I highly recommend picking one up." C was beautiful as ever, and it was great of R to bring us along. I owe him a lot -- he's putting me up at The Ranch in California right now, and has been a good friend ( if a bit of a task master ;). C and I are going to be hopping around the state for the summer, seeing people we've missed by being on Maui for two years. If I get the grant, I'll travel around and talk with other physicists. If I don't... well, I'll be bummed, but I'll be OK, and my ego will be less insufferable.

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gar@lisi.com