Misunderstood Visionary?

Over the years of receiving numerous e-mails (and sometimes hard-copy) containing new ideas in physics, I have noticed some patterns. So before you send an idea my way, take the following quiz. Score one point for each affirmative answer. Don't answer to anyone but yourself—and as honestly as you can.

  1. Do you have an idea that could revolutionize the way we look at physics?
  2. If so, does this idea deal with the nature of space, time, or otherwise relate to relativity?
  3. Could this idea one day make yours a household name?
  4. Do you face a barrier to acceptance of your ideas due to your non-establishment status (e.g., no advanced degree, non-academic)?
  5. Have you had your ideas shunned, rejected, or ignored by establishment figures?
  6. Have you tried to submit your idea to a peer-reviewed journal and had it rejected?
  7. If you have suffered such rejections, do you tend to conclude that the purveyor of the rejection is not smart enough to grasp your idea, or is otherwise disingenuously motivated by protecting the establishment?
  8. Does the story of Einstein bolster your confidence (e.g., you identify with his story—having been a poor-performer or misunderstood as a student; being an outsider; having a game-changing idea; etc.)?

I can't claim to have a calibrated scale, but I would say if you score even four points, you fall into the pattern of countless individuals who delude themselves about the importance and validity of their ideas. It doesn't mean that you are wrong: just that the red flags are up.

The Pattern

Most of the ideas I receive are so obviously part of this universal pattern that I immediately discard them, having learned that trying to figure out if there is any "there" there is a fruitless use of time. Occasionally I get something from someone who sounds well-reasoned initially and maybe has a background that makes me think it's more likely there is some interesting nugget in the idea. So I dig into it a bit, with genuine interest. In all cases so far, I have seen some fundamental failing. I'm always disappointed to find it—no revolution this time. I compose a response gently pointing out where the idea goes off the rails.

What happens next is the interesting part. In the vast majority of cases, the proposer's tone changes to one that would have initially tipped me off and resulted in immediate dismissal. Rather than say something like: "Oh—interesting. I'll have to ponder this a bit more, understand fully your point, and absorb the references you provide," I usually get a very quick response in a combative tone. Very occasionally I get someone who understands my point, thanks me for the insight, and seems happy to resolve the sticking point.

Ideas are a Dime a Dozen

Scientists have ideas all the time. Usually, in discussion amongst themselves, one will indicate to the other why the idea fails. So scientists are accustomed to having their ideas go bust, and also to helping colleagues see what's wrong with their ideas. The point is that even for scientists immersed in the field—going to conferences, batting thoughts around, aware of the multitude of experimental constraints—most ideas do not pan out. Ideas are easy, cheap, and almost worthless. Good ideas are rare.

The "Establishment" View

I think I speak for many "establishment" scientists when I say that all of us are at some level open to paradigm-changing ideas. Science only works by tearing itself apart: it's not religious dogma. Who wouldn't want to see a revolutionary idea change the way we understand the universe (more correctly, completely)? So the scientific enterprise is not a protective, defensive one, for the most part. Our ears perk up at ideas that have the right feel: that have a chance of standing up to the mountain of evidence. But as soon as our analysis indicates a no-go, we tend to quickly re-calibrate, and make any necessary emotional adjustment.

The Einstein Poison

So when you have a big idea, consider the following two reactions:

I call the latter reaction "drinking the Einstein poison." No one is immune. I have seen physics graduates, physics PhDs, and even professors become intoxicated. They relentlessly rail against colleagues, referees, and even friends who try to help them out of the box they've made for themselves. I am not personally aware of a cure, but I truly hope I'm wrong about that.

I call it the Einstein poison because I never see anyone trying to overturn Planck's ideas, Euler's ideas, or ideas from Bernoulli, Maxwell, Faraday, Hooke, or any number of other prominent contributors to physics. Armchair physicists are attracted to Einstein like moths to a flame.

If you're interested in avoiding being labeled a crackpot, try this advice.

More on Einstein

A final note about Einstein. Einstein was roguish in many ways: impudent, anti-authority, off-puttingly and recognizably bright. Contrary to popular belief, his grades in elementary and high school were quite high. He performed well in physics in college, starting at age 17 and graduating by age 21. He was not well tolerated by his college professors, and had trouble landing an academic position—in part due to his lack of restraint when it came to criticizing professors and potential employers. In this way he was not so smart. But he was well trained in physics (not the same as inculcated: not Einstein), and was able to write a steady stream of papers—prior to his "miracle year" of 1905—that were accepted into the leading physics journal of the day. He held written correspondence with many European physicists (though not always free of insult), and was therefore not as much an outsider as is often portrayed. Physics was his life. Personally identifying with Einstein is part of the poison. Resist the temptation: let Einstein be his own phenomenal self, and recognize that drawing parallels is a sign of danger rather than greatness.