What are we to make of a man who left academia more than two decades ago but claims to
have solved some of the most intractable problems in physics?
There are a lot of open questions in modern physics.
Most of the universe is missing, for example. The atoms we know about account for less
than 5% of the mass of the observable universe – the rest is dark matter (around 25% of
the mass of the universe) and dark energy (a whopping 70%). No one knows what either of
these things actually is.
At the subatomic scale, we know there are three families of fundamental particles – called
“generations” – and each one contains two quarks, a neutrino and a negatively charged
particle (the lightest being the electron). But why are there three generations in the
And the big one: why do the two pillars of 20th century physics, quantum mechanics and
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, not agree with each other?
Solving these problems, the last one in particular, has been the goal of many generations
of scientists. A final theory of nature would have to explain all of the outstanding
questions and, though many (including Albert Einstein himself) have tried, no one has come
close to an answer.
At 4pm on Thursday at the University of Oxford, the latest attempt to fill the biggest
holes in physics will be presented in a lecture at the prestigious Clarendon Laboratory.
The man behind the ideas, Eric Weinstein, is not someone you might normally expect to be
probing the very edge of theoretical physics. After a PhD in mathematical physics at
Harvard University, he left academia more than two decades ago (via stints at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and is now
an economist and consultant at the Natron Group, a New York hedge fund.
He may have an impressive CV, but Weinstein is in no way part of the academic physics
community. He will speak in Oxford at the invitation of Marcus du Sautoy, one of the
university’s most famous and accomplished mathematicians who also holds Richard Dawkins’s
former academic position as the Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science.
Weinstein and du Sautoy met as postdoctoral mathematics students at the Hebrew University
in the 1990s.
Weinstein has been working on his ideas to unify physics for more than two decades, but he
only shared them two years ago with du Sautoy, who since then has been keenly studying the
mathematics. “I get so many letters and emails to me explaining big theories of the
universe and I don’t take them all so seriously,” says du Sautoy. “Eric’s been telling me
the story of his ideas and what I immediately found appealing about them was the
naturalness of them. You don’t have to put in extraneous things. There’s a beauty about it
that gives you a feeling that there’s a truth about it.”
In Weinstein’s theory, called Geometric Unity, he proposes a 14-dimensional “observerse”
that has our familiar four-dimensional space-time continuum embedded within it. The
interaction between the two is something like the relationship between the people in the
stands and those on the pitch at a football stadium – the spectators (limited to their
four-dimensional space) can see and are affected by the action on the pitch (representing
all 14 dimensions) but are somewhat removed from it and cannot detect every detail.
In the mathematics of the observerse there is no missing dark matter. Weinstein explains
that the mass only seems to be missing because of the “handedness” of our current
understanding of the universe, the Standard Model of particle physics. This is the most
complete mathematical description physicists have of the universe at the quantum level and
describes 12 particles of matter (called fermions) and 12 force-carrying particles (called
bosons), in addition to their antimatter partners.
“The Standard Model relies on a fundamental asymmetry between left-handedness and
right-handedness in order to keep the observed particles very light in the mass scale of
the universe,” says Weinstein.
He says his theory does not have the asymmetry associated with the Standard Model. The
reason we cannot easily detect the dark matter is that, in the observerse, when space is
relatively flat, the left-handed and right-handed spaces would become disconnected and the
two sides would not be aware of each other.
“Imagine a neurological patient whose left and right hand sides were not aware of each
other,” he says. “You’d have a situation where each side felt itself to be asymmetric,
even though anyone looking at both halves together would see a symmetric individual whose
left hand counterbalanced the right.”
He proposes that dark energy is a type of fundamental force that could sit alongside
gravity, electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces. This force pushes space
apart and its strength is variable throughout the universe. Furthermore, Weinstein’s
theory predicts the existence of more than 150 new subatomic particles, most of them with
exotic properties (such as electric charges that are greater than one, which is the
maximum seen in nature at present).
Radical ideas that claim to solve all the problems of physics – so-called final theories
of everything – have come and gone countless times in the history of physics and many are
notable for emerging from outside the traditional world of university physics departments.
In 2007, physicist and surfer Garrett Lisi made headlines when he claimed to have found a
way to unify physics. Lisi’s ideas never took off, because his theories did not make
enough predictions that could be tested in experiments, the hallmark of a good scientific
Weinstein has not shared his ideas too widely yet. Scientists who have seen some of the
details similarly agree that there is some elegant mathematics in his 14-dimensional
observerse. But it takes more than elegant mathematics to make a good scientific theory.
The current leading candidate to unify the fundamental forces of nature is M theory (also
known as superstring theory), which proposes that all the particles we know of are
actually, at the tiniest scale, vibrating loops of energy. Despite decades of effort from
the cream of the theoretical physics community, however, M theory struggles to make any
experimentally testable predictions.
David Kaplan, a particle theorist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, has seen and
discussed some of Weinstein’s ideas with him. On the plus side, Kaplan says it is
“phenomenal” that someone coming from outside academia could put together something so
coherent. “There are many people who come from the outside with crazy theories, but they
are not serious. Eric is serious.”
But he says the theory is incomplete and should have spent more time being critiqued by
academics before receiving any wider public attention. “What I would encourage him to do
is modest things and take steps and commit to a physical manifestation of his theory to
say ‘here is a set of instructions and a set of equations, do this calculation and you can
make the following predictions.’ And then see if his theory matches with the real world or
not. He doesn’t have enough of a case. What I’d like him to do is to keep working.”
Edward Frenkel, a mathematician at the University of California, Berkeley, has been
discussing Weinstein’s ideas with him for the past year. “I think that both mathematicians
and physicists should take Eric’s ideas very seriously,” he says. “Even independently of
their physical implications, I believe that Eric’s insights will be useful to
mathematicians, because he points to some structures which have not been studied before,
as far as I know. As for the physical implications, it is quite possible that this new
framework will lead to new answers to the big questions, after necessary work is done to
make precise predictions which can be tested experimentally.”
Jim al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey who has seen a summary of
Weinstein’s ideas (but not the maths) is sceptical. He says Weinstein will need to do a
“heck of a lot of convincing” if he wants physicists to take his ideas seriously. “My main
concern with Weinstein’s claims is that they are simply too grand – too sweeping. It would
be one thing if he argued for some modest prediction that his theory was making, and
importantly one that could be tested experimentally, or that it explained a phenomenon or
mechanism that other theories have failed to do, but he makes the mistake of claiming too
much for it.”
Until Weinstein produces a paper, physicists will remain unconvinced and, crucially,
unable to properly assess the claims he is making. His lecture at Oxford today will give
more mathematical details and Weinstein plans to put a manuscript on the Arxiv preprint
server – a website where scientists often publish early drafts of their work, many of
which subsequently get published in peer-reviewed journals.
Du Sautoy defends the unorthodox way that Weinstein’s ideas have filtered into the world
and expects corrections and updates to become apparent. “We live in an age where
everything has to be sealed and delivered and complete when it’s delivered and complete
when it meets a journal and, in fact, that’s not how science is done,” he says.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity, he added, was not a finished product when first
presented, taking a decade of evolution and discussion to get into its final form.
“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big
ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” says du Sautoy. “Science is very much
an evolutionary process and [Weinstein’s] is such a wide-ranging theory and involves such
a wide area of mathematics and physics, this is an invitation to say, ‘This is speculative
and it’s claiming a lot so let’s see where it can go.'”
Whatever happens, says Frenkel, Weinstein is an example of how science might change in
future. “I find it remarkable that Eric was able to come up with such beautiful and
original ideas even though he has been out of academia for so long (doing wonderful things
in other areas, such as economics and finance). In the past week we have learned about an
outstanding result about prime numbers proved by a mathematician who had been virtually
unknown, and now comes Eric’s lecture at Oxford.
“I think this represents a new trend. It used to be that one had to be part of an academic
hub, such as Harvard or Oxford, to produce cutting-edge research. But not any more. Part
of the reason is the wide availability of scientific information on the internet. And I
think this is a wonderful development, which should be supported.
“I also see two lessons coming from this. The first is for the young generation: with
passion and perseverance there is no limit to what you can do, even in high-end
theoretical science. The other lesson is for me and my colleagues in academia and I say
this as someone who on most days takes an elevator to his office in an Ivory Tower, as it
were we should be more inclusive and more open to ideas which come from outside the
standard channels of academia, and we’ll be better off for it.”
Posted by Alok Jha, science correspondent, Thursday 23 May 2013 09.18 EDT