I recently read the hugely enjoyable novel “Final Theory”, a physics thriller in which the hero chases after Einstein’s long-lost Theory of Everything. It seemed like harmless summer reading, but a new article on the rise of a “Scientific Apartheid” made me rethink what the content of the book could imply for future research into foundational physics.
The novel, by Mark Alpert, is...
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I recently read the hugely enjoyable novel “Final Theory”
, a physics thriller in which the hero chases after Einstein’s long-lost Theory of Everything
. It seemed like harmless summer reading, but a new article on the rise of a “Scientific Apartheid” made me rethink what the content of the book could imply for future research into foundational physics.
The novel, by Mark Alpert, is based on the intriguing idea that Einstein fulfilled his ambition and discovered a Theory of Everything. (FQXi members may be disappointed to learn that it neither involves string theory nor is it exceptionally simple
.) However, mindful of the horrors that physics unleashed in the form of the atomic bomb, Einstein chose to keep his final theory a secret. The story follows science historian David Swift’s adventures as he tries to piece the theory together, while evading various sinister organisations who want the theory for their own nefarious purposes, which could threaten the world.
I’d highly recommend the book (and I’d also be interested in what people think of the physics in the novel). After putting it down, however, I didn’t spend too much time seriously questioning whether governments should be controlling who is involved in foundational physics research, for the safety of the world. But then I came across an article, to appear in Physics Today
, by Ahmad Shariati of Alzahra University
in Tehran, Iran, suggesting that governments may soon be doing just that.
Shariati’s article is written in response to “Learning to build the bomb
,” by Alisa Carrigan, an expert on international security at FirstWatch International
. Carrigan calls on the international community to be more vigilant over the problems of “knowledge proliferation,” as scientists come to the US and Europe from hostile nations to study nuclear physics.
I’m not sure if Carrigan is calling for anything that new. In today’s political climate it is already harder for scientists and students specialising in “high risk” disciplines to come from certain nations to work or study in Western countries. Last month, for instance, a “terrorism suspect” was banned from enrolling in a high school chemistry class
in the UK, while an Egyptian nuclear physicist is suing the US Department of Energy over the revocation of his security clearance
The question that Shariati raises in his article is, if we accept the need for Carrigan’s “knowledge nonproliferation treaty,” where is this going to end? He notes that you can’t just stop at nuclear physics, or even just chemistry, chemical engineering, pharmaceutical and biological sciences, physics, or mechanics. To the list, Shariati adds number theory, software engineering, and quantum computing, which have applications in cryptography and so could, say, open airline computer systems up to attack. Throw in Alpert’s novel linking a theory of everything to world destruction, and research into any aspect of foundational physics could be classed as a threat to international security.
Shariati argues that if we close all these research areas off to nations we don’t trust, we are creating a “scientific apartheid” where “good” people are allowed to have knowledge and must stop others from gaining it.
How far can and will this be enforced? Even if you control the movement of scientists, how can you stop the movement of knowledge through books and published papers to other countries? It brings to mind the old joke about school teacher who is thrown off an airplane for carrying a protractor, slide-rule, and other weapons of math instruction
. Except the way that Shariati tells it, the joke doesn’t sound so funny:
“An inevitable conclusion in line with Carrigan’s arguments would be that good people should control other people in the sense that if other people were approaching dangerous knowledge (even by themselves), good people should prevent them even if necessary by force, even if necessary by getting rid of the scientists of other people and destroying their scientific facilities, including their libraries and equivalent digital resources.”
It does seem that we are headed down a slippery slope. Turning back to Alpert’s book linking foundational physics research with a threat to international security, will FQXi be asked to refuse funds to promising applicants from undesirable locations, in the future? I sincerely hope not. (Incidentally, you can check out the latest FQXi grant awardees here
And in such a nightmare scenario, could Alpert be arrested for inciting students in hostile nations to research foundational physics, threatening the safety of the world? Again, I hope not. Not least because I hear that he is working on a second novel, and I am very much looking forward to reading it.
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