I have always been one of those out-of-the-box physicists, mostly in terms of what I am interested in and how I look at modeling. Back when I was in graduate shul, when I knew enough to try things but not enough to do them always on my own – or always know when to ask for help – this exasperated the more doctrinaire of my professors because it got in the way of their carefully laid course plans.
The amusing thing about this, of course, in those days, was that the ones who were most anal about following their course plan were the ones who were the most anti-establishment and counter culture. I actually worked on a model trying to associate the length of hair with tolerance of variation in methodology. Simply put, the shorter the haircut the more understanding the professor tended to be. Evidently those who want to be adored cannot abide not being obeyed?
I went through graduate shul wanting to work on molecular structure quantum mechanics when no one in academe thought that was worthwhile – everything that needed to be done had been done by Roald Hoffman and there was no point in wasting effort on something that wouldn’t get published. And when I got out of graduate shul I gradually developed into working on dissipative systems in association with working for the Yankee army so I missed all the opportunities to do the work since, much of which I dreamed about as a graduate student.
One of the things I found out was that this attitude is accurate in the sense that if you do something out of the ordinary in physics, you probably can’t get it published in a physics journal. Most of what I did over the years in physics was snooted away by the physics journals so I ended up publishing in other journals.
Now I find out that physicists don’t do literature searches in non-physics journals. So they end up going and doing things that have been done before and published in other fields, b ut when they do it, if physics is ready, they publish in physics journals and it is great. As one of my colleagues commented the other day, “when non-physicists collect stamps, it’s called stamp collecting; when physicists collect stamps it’s called philately.” This refers to Eddington’s quote about physics and stanp collecting.
I saw two examples of this the other day. First, an article [Link] in the New Yawk Times about a burned out particle physicist who is studying the mechanics of cities. Not an unworthy activity but it completely ignores that physicists and modelers have been working with city planners (and the like) since I was in graduate shul, probably before, and doing similar things. But the results had to be published in city planning journals and so physicists can’t find these earlier works because they don’t exist.
The second is a fellow at Clark U who has looked at how different Platonic solids pack. [Link] (This is to the journalist article but it contains a link to the actual paper.) Think styrofoam peanuts here, in a box, and the question is if you fill the box with peanuts, how much of the volume of the box is not peanuts?
The problem here is that this work has been done before. Years ago, back in the seventies when there was a technical explosion in packing materials, the Yankee government, especially the military services, did a lot of work on how to pack stuff. Their interest was in protecting content from shock, vibration, corrosion, soldiers, ….. but a big piece of answering that had to do with the fraction of volume occupied by packing materials, to say nothing of how that volume changed over time, which is a dimension not addressed in this paper.
The problem, of course, is that this work never got published in Physical Review, or any other physics journal. Not that it was classified and hidden from the godless communists, but that the editors of physics journals didn’t think this was physics so it got published in engineering journals, and as we all know (?), engineers can’t do science. In fact, non-academics can’t do science. But today, this is physics and it gets published in physics journals.
Apparently one of the problems of overpopulation is that while you have lots of people having good ideas, many of those ideas are old ieas reinvented and untraced. Because of our tribal prejudices.
“Not with a bang, but a whimper.”