It's Time to Leave This Planet | Eric Weinstein

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Eric Weinstein

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Eric Weinstein is a mathematician, economist, and managing director at Thiel Capital. www.ericweinstein.org

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You want to get really nuts? Yes. It's time to leave. Time to leave what? This planet. Oh boy. Listen, we can leave this planet. I got something right here. No, no, no. Take you to another planet right now. He's joking, federal agents. Let me give you my argument. Where we going? Well, we don't know that we can leave this planet. I love this planet. I love this planet. I have a good time here. This is my favorite planet. Mine too. I know. But here's the real reason. We started a clock around 1953, which is when we had the explosion at Bikini, the first hydrogen bomb, and when we figured out the double helix. And I call this the twin nuclei problem. It began in 1953. In 1953, we started a clock. It was also the height of the McCarthy era. We do not have the wisdom to be able to fuse nuclei. We don't have the wisdom to be able to investigate the cell. It's too much power. So our wisdom may have increased slightly. Maybe it didn't. I don't know. But our power is now godlike. So our biological intelligence, what our minds are capable of, has not, it's been surpassed by our intellectual achievements in terms of our technological innovation. These things, which, while complicated, succumb to our intellects. They're much simpler than we ever imagined. To be able to create something that normally happens in the sun, on an island in the Pacific, or to be able to rewrite a cell the way Craig Venter did, you know, a synthetic biology. We are now gods but for the wisdom. That's a great quote. We are now gods but for the wisdom. Should be the meme. Picture you. Picture you. We are now gods but for the wisdom. That's going to be up there. Someone's doing that right now. I know. Not focus. Focus. Sorry. That started this clock. And the world's most serious human beings should be working on the twin nuclei problem. What do we do with new godlike powers given our history of conflict, our history of envy, our history of madness? Right? Because we succumb regularly. We are, you know, I was born 20 years after the end of World War II and we all know what really happened there. I mean, we're nuts. We're absolutely not capable of this level of responsibility. And so the question that we have is do we believe that we have a long-term solution in terms of increasing our wisdom? We should definitely try it. Everybody believes that should work on that problem. But if we don't think that we have the wisdom to live like this, we don't know how much time we have left but it's probably not 100, I mean it's probably maybe a few hundred years tops because sooner or later you're going to have Putin-like or Trump-like people. I mean, I'm sorry, I would have a very deep antipathy towards Donald Trump. He's not temperamentally fit to have the secrets of theoretical physics at his fingertips. He just isn't. And it's imperative to me that he not be elected in 2020 and that the Democratic Party wake up and get rid of its crazy fringe so that we can buy some time. And it's nice if Elon thinks we can go to Mars. Maybe that will allow a small number of us to diversify in case we do something really dumb to the planet. But if human beings are to continue and we are to continue evolving, we need to spread out. And there are three rocks that are inhabitable. There's the Earth, there's the Moon, and there's Mars. And the Moon has nothing there. Mars is pretty uninteresting to be blunt. I know that it's beautiful that we send back these pictures. And we've got this one gorgeous planet that we are clearly not smart enough to steward. We're still having idiotic climate change debates. I mean, even if climate science is somewhat junkified, we should still be taking climate super seriously because we don't know what we're doing. It's such a complicated, nonlinear system, and we're not even capable of focusing. You know, like two seconds later, I'll be watching the Kardashians for sure. So what is the answer? Well, in my opinion, we've got to increase the number of possible places we can go beyond three to say nothing of space stations because that's not realistic. None of these things make sense. So the first place that you have to get to is we're really deeply screwed and not because of apocalyptic cult-like reasons, just because of science, just because of 1953. So the only opportunity is if we can break the Einsteinian speed limit so far as I know, or we can upload into silicon or we can reboot from tardigrades. Like, none of these answers are good. So what I've been toying with since I was 19 was, what is the theory beyond Einstein? And that's the thing that I've been most uncomfortable talking about, although I've been talking about it more. I gave these lectures in 2013, in May of 2013, in Oxford, and I was appalled by the way in which the world's physics community responded. I mean, I was very scared. I'm not a physicist. I don't claim to be. But I felt like I tried to present what I hoped was a path forward, given that the field was completely stalled out. And this is it. Physics and biology led us into the valley of death. And it's now time to try to get out. And people... Go ahead. No, please. So what is my responsibility in terms of the portal? What I'm going to try to do with this podcast is gain the courage to share whatever ideas I've had about breaking the speed limit in the form of... I don't think I have the wisdom to figure out what it means, but at least I have a hope of trying to write the fundamental rules to figure out our source code. And that was the plan, which is, what is this place? What is the source code for reality? Now, what was the response to the physics, from the physicists that you found Paul in? Well, there were two articles that appeared in the Guardian newspaper or website that talked breathlessly about what I had done or what I might have done to call attention to the lectures that I was giving. So these were the special Simone lectures by Richard Dawkins' successor, Marcus DeSotoi, who is a colleague of mine from way back, who found me in New York City, I think in 2011, 2012 or something like that, working on this theory I called geometric unity. And I was very uncomfortable. I hadn't really told anybody that I was working on this theory for all these years because it's a crazy... There's certain stories that you find in theoretical physics, which are kind of the precursor to madness, where somebody thinks that they've solved some big problem and they're working in secret. This is sort of what happened with Andrew Wiles and Fermat's last theorem, which was a really interesting story because his first proof of Fermat's last theorem, I think was unfixable. So he announced a proof that he had solved this most famous problem in mathematics and he didn't have a proof. And then bizarrely, he was under such pressure that he found another proof and actually pulled it off. So it's like, you know, hats off to him. It's one of the craziest stories, but he was working in secret for seven years and nobody knew what he was doing. So sometimes these stories work out, but he was a professor at Princeton and very highly regarded. And he had sort of husbanded seven years worth of work to pretend that he was releasing papers when he was actually secretly doing this thing that would have made him a madman in some sense. And so this is what I was trying to do, is I was not able to work on these issues in the string theory community because the string theory community was possessed of this belief that they had found the answer back in the 80s. In 1984, they had what they thought was a revolution. And the math community doesn't think in these terms, like both of these are very conservative communities historically and very focused on following the leadership of the top people unless there's a revolution. And so I started working on a different idea to unify the two branches of physics that appear to be incompatible that was different than the string theory idea and different than the loop quantum gravity idea or any of the others. And your main motivation was to do this to try to figure out a more advanced version of space travel? Well, it wasn't space travel. It was we need the source code. Like it might be safer to go further. Once you've unlocked nuclear fusion, you're pretty much as screwed as you need to be. So then the issue is, okay, we know that we're pretty, I'm pretty sure that Einstein's theory is not final because you get these singularities, which I don't associate with ultimate equations. So the black hole singularity called the Schwarzschild singularity or the initial singularity that we associate with the Big Bang in like the Friedman Robertson Walker space times are signs to me that these equations are incomplete. But the big problem with Einstein is that Einstein's work was so fundamental that it's like you can't get in under the ground floor of Einstein. You begin a physics seminar and you're already immediately in his world. You say, let X be a space time manifold. Boom. You're already in relativity. So it's almost impossible to figure out a way to get in at a deeper level of physics than Einstein's theory. And we know that we have to recover Einstein's theory because that's been proven to work in all sorts of situations. And the same thing with quantum field theory, which is why I talked about the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron. So my idea was that only since the 1970s have we known that particle theory was based on geometry. We knew that Einstein's theory, Einstein used geometry to develop his theory. It was the language of relativity called Ramanian geometry. But many years later, we found out that Bohr's sort of quantum and Planck's quantum and Einstein's quantum as well was based on a different geometry of this guy Charles Erichsmann. He was an Alsatian geometer who worked with Cartin. And that geometry was figured out at Stony Brook in New York by Jim Simons, who became the world's greatest hedge fund manager. And C.N. Yang, who was arguably number one and number two greatest living theoretical physicist, he's now in his 90s. And they figured out that the secret language of particle theory was also geometry, but a different geometry. And so geometric unity is simply the idea that it's not a fight between Einstein and Bohr. It's the two parents, Riemann, on whose Einstein-based relativity, and Charles Erichsmann with this gauge theoretic stuff that we did in the time before this, which in fact empowers particle theory. And so when do those two geometries unify? Two different geometric theories. And I found that in general, they don't unify in a way that you want. You don't have the ability to do Einsteinian tensor analysis where you compress something called the Riemann curvature tensor and the gauge stuff where you do this gauge symmetry that we were talking about. Because gauge symmetry ruins the ability to compress the Einstein tensor. Never mind what that means. But in one or two rare circumstances, you can actually combine the two geometries. And that's where I think we are. And so partially what the purpose of the Portal podcast is, is to use, you know, I'll just sort of tear the mask off a little bit. We've been talking about lots of interesting things about social justice, about mathematics, about wonder, about psychedelics, and trying to be decent human beings to each other and to set an example. And I think it's been partially a success and partially a failure. But what I'm trying to do is to gain the courage to talk about what these ideas are. And the worst comes to worst. This is that I wasted a lot of my life on a crazy theory that turned out not to be true. What was the response though? How did the physicists react? And what was disappointing about it? So the articles engendered an immune reaction. Immune. Yeah, it's an immune response. Okay. Okay, so somebody's giving a lecture and now, how many times have we heard before the next Einstein, yada, yada, yada, yada? And I totally understand this. It's a reasonable reaction. Like Sean Carroll had this reaction. He referred to me as a backyard Einstein. And his wife- We referenced him twice today. Yeah, he's on my mind. And his wife wrote this amazing article in Scientific American called, Dear Guardian, You've Been Played. Now she's not a physicist, but she has access to Sean's brain and she writes on physics. And then there was this whole thing where the new scientist said, okay, this guy claimed to give this lecture in the physics department, but he hasn't written a paper and he didn't tell the physicists, so it was a sneak attack. Well, of course that wasn't true. There was an announcement of the talk. I stayed in England and I gave the talk once more. And then a final time a week later, and by that point, all sorts of people from Cambridge and Oxford came to the talk because it was a worldwide topic of discussion. What the hell is going on? And I gave a two-hour talk. Consider that nobody outside of theoretical physics gives talks on physics. It's like North Korea. They don't get many visitors. To the extent that they get visitors, they do get visitors from mathematics, but in general, mathematicians don't take an interest in the real physical world. And to be blunt about it, I don't think that the string theorists are very focused on the real physical world either. They've been playing with toy models for nearly 40 years. So a lot of it was playing out in the press, and the new scientists had to retract. They said, no, what we wrote wasn't true. They did publicize the talk. And then there was an article. They sent a reporter to the final talk that I gave, and the reporter did not know any physics. So I spent the morning with this person teaching him what the Dirac equation was, like a very fundamental thing. And the question came up in the talk about, is your model anomaly-free? And my model has a property called non-chirality. Chirality, which is the difference between left-right asymmetric models are called chiral, and left-right symmetric models are called non-chiral. So my model is non-chiral, but the chiral nature of the universe is supposed to emerge from it. And I was asked questions that didn't seem to make sense, which is, you can't have a chiral anomaly in a non-chiral model. And the person, the reporter, picked up on this and didn't really get it. So there was like a flurry of activity with a big WTF. And if you asked me, by the time I gave the second lecture, people weren't laughing. It was a serious lecture. People heard that it wasn't like somebody came up with their own language and their own, you know, written in crayon and some indecipherable thing. It was written in the normal language, but I hadn't written a paper. And papers are very much the stock and trade of that community. So I would say that the community settled on a rubric, which is, paper or it didn't happen. In other words, put up or shut up, give us a paper. Now, I had written something, but because my trajectory through this, through math and physics was very unusual, I have a very low trust of the academic community. I support them, as you can tell. You know, I'm extolling the virtues of science. But I was subjected to a situation in graduate school where I had, I'm probably the only person you've ever met with a PhD who was not allowed to attend his own thesis defense. Why is that? I don't know. What was your thesis? It was on self-dual equations not being as peculiar to dimension four as was claimed. But I had a situation in which the thesis, when I had entered grad school, was something that you would present to the world. And by the time I was trying to leave, it was a closed door affair where the department would appoint the person for you. And I was in the unusual position of not having a thesis advisor. So there's some very fraught story. One thing you'll find is that graduate school, for some subclass of people, becomes an extremely fraught experience where the power of a department not to grant you a degree or not to help you get a job or to expel you becomes very contentious. And that was the situation. So I got into a very contentious situation. But there was no explanation of why it was so contentious? We can talk about it on another podcast. But I was in a very low trust situation with Harvard and with the standard community. And so when work that I had done that was rejected for my thesis was discovered by others in 1994 and revolutionized topological gauge theory, I became very sort of sullen and angry and withdrawn because my department knew that I had put forward the same equations that became revolutionary in mathematical gauge theory. Did you revisit it with them? There was a seminar where a guy named David Kajdan, who I very much admire, the person who had been my advisor, I don't want to name names, had given a seminar saying all of gauge theory has been revolutionized, old gauge theory is dead, there's a new gauge theory. And David Kajdan, who I will name, said I was in the back center row. I think I was picking my nose, actually. And he said, didn't we have a student who told us to look at these equations? And suddenly the whole room turned around and looked at me. I think this is in room 507 of the Harvard Science Center. And it's just like, you know, try to imagine you're an anonymous person in a lecture and suddenly everyone is staring at you. And your fingers and your nose. And that was the moment. And I think I mumbled something just to get out of it. But I was angry. I was angry that they'd taken away my agency. I would, you know, better not to give me a PhD. Better just to say, look, we're going to go short you. Screw off. You don't get a PhD. And then if I end up doing something, screw you. You know, that would have been a better outcome. So instead I got a PhD through a very tortuous situation. And I came to give up on academics. I don't think they're a fair system. I don't think that it's open-minded. I don't think that they welcome all sorts of different belief structures, which are capable of producing innovations. So, you know, for my money, I've been very vocal about this. I've written articles on edge.org. And I've said theoretical physics is stalled. And you've been claiming that you're going to ship string theory. And since 1984, well, where is it? And it's always, you know, n years away. Now, what was the premise of Sean Carroll's wife's article that they got played? Well, Jamie, can you bring it up? I had broken the rules. The rules? Yeah. You're supposed to submit a paper. The paper is supposed to be reviewed. It's supposed to appear in a journal. You're not supposed to be doing this from mathematics. You don't have training as a physicist. This is a hoax. But it's on a hoax. Well, I don't know. I mean, if it is a hoax, it's on me. It's clearly not a hoax. You're not hoaxing anyone. I'm not trying to. So why the attack? I don't understand the motivation for the attack. Well, because the act, okay. Imagine that you're the Princeton physics department. You probably have a cork board on the wall called the crank board. And every week somebody writes to you and says, I figured out perpetual emotion. I have a laser transport device. Right? And so everybody is concerned and frightened that their time is going to be wasted by lunatics. Now, I both fit the lunatic profile and don't fit the lunatic profile. On the lunatic side, I'm outside of the system. I haven't kept up. I'm not particularly mathematically minded. I mean, in fact, I'm sort of a B math student from high school. So it's kind of a, I'm the only person I know with my profile with a PhD in math. And on the non-lunatic side, I mean, look, you've been listening to my crazy ideas for a while and they're all over the world. I have lots of heterodox ideas. I don't think that they're taken as being insane. And I don't think this is insane. It's been looked at by enough people to say, until you actually write it down very cleanly and clearly, we can't fully evaluate it. But it's a gamble. And the worst thing that can happen is that I have something that looks like a theory that turns out not to be. Are you going to write it out? It's already mostly written up. I'm in a different phase. I felt that I got rolled in an alley. So here's the big reveal. It's going to be a lot harder to roll me. I can roll myself. I can screw this thing up just fine by myself. But the opportunity to take me into a quiet corner and make something disappear and credit to somebody else is going to be a lot harder to do. It's not going to happen. Did you find it? Dear Guardian, you've been played. I love when they use contemporary salami. It's so bitchy. It's so bitchy. Are you allowed to say bitchy when it's a girl? What? When a girl writes it? I don't care, I think. I mean, look, it's only like the future of... A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article and a company op-ed by Oxford mathematician Marcos de Sotoi. Gushing over supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or as I've taken to calling it, the Eric Weinstein's amazing new theory that solves everything puzzling conundrum in theoretical physics, only he hasn't written an actual... All these are capital letters. That's why I'm saying it this way. Capital letters. An actual paper yet so physicists can't check all those hard mathematical details, but trust us, it's going to be awesome. Well, that's super bitchy. Ahem. Are you allowed to say that? Wow. Yeah, I can say it. I can say whatever the fuck I want. Ahem with a period. First, a couple of caveats. I've met Weinstein. He's a nice guy. He's wicked smart. This is a stupid article. Because you know better. Well, it's just the way it's written. It's just, it's... It's catty. Yeah. It's for clear. Clearly. Yeah. Okay. Well, we could go deep into this after a week. But she's playing enforcer. Yes. You broke the rules. Yes. We know why you broke the rules. There's fame and fortune for you in this. You think that's what it is? Yeah. Well, or you're delusional or... Right, well, what's her motivation for writing this article though? That's what's weird. Well, she's a physics... Look, she comes from... I think she's a protege of K.C. Cole, the great physics writer from... Who's not a physicist. In her defense, do you feel that she felt this honestly and that this was problematic in her eyes, that you were entering into this field that you had not written a paper in, you had left academia 20 years ago, and that she was like, well, this is all nonsense, okay? I'm going to put a stop to this nonsense, and I'm going to do it with sort of contemporary and slang. I don't like the bitchiness, but it's... I understand the motivation. Look, I think the bitchiness is to make the article more entertaining and more... It's part of her... It was part of her style as a writer. Okay. Now, I actually met her, as she says, and I had a very high and positive impression of her. So why do you think she wrote this without discussing it? Look, Sean is also one of these people who's trying to enforce the rules. He didn't have the easiest time. I think he didn't get tenure at Caltech. He's kind of a stickler for reality. He's on the one hand talking total nonsense about Boltzmann brains and thought experiments, which is what I associate with desperation physics. On the other hand, he's kind of this rigorous rationalist thinker who's a prominent atheist. So he's a complicated guy. He's a great explainer. He's got his own sort of economic incentives that he's one of the very few people who sort of a voice of physics to the world. And they operate in some sense as a couple. And there's a richness to this. Like, you know, my point isn't to run them down or to boost them up. It's just people are playing at their roles. Whenever anyone has a sentence that consists of one word and that word is ahem... Yeah. Yeah, it's... I did not enjoy that article. Ahem. Well, but look, yeah, but she's trying to throw me a bone. He's wicked smart. Yeah. He's a nice guy. Sure, buddies. But he's delusional. Yes. He's delusional. And to the extent that I've been delusional before. I'm about the only person in the U.S. who's against high skilled immigration because people think, why should we keep out the best and the brightest? And it's a complicated story. Before the financial crisis, I was saying mortgage backed securities may blow up the world. People are like, are you kidding? It's the great moderation. It's the grandest volatility. People have a chance to know me now. They know that I can get way out there. Remember, I said this at the beginning. I get way out there. Yeah. Okay. I think Elon Musk is totally wrong about going to Mars. Mars is not going to save us. And maybe going to the stars isn't going to save us. Maybe the AI will follow us there, yada, yada, yada. But I'm not going to take this lying down. We're in a desperate situation. And if you're not trying, here's the clear thing. We know what nuclear weapons look like in the fusion era. If we aren't trying to get off this planet before people are unleashing gene drives and you know, weaponized anthrax and who knows what the hell people are going to get up to as the power of biology and the power of physics keeps going, the power of information, at least I'm trying. I think I'm doing a damn sight better than trying, but assume that I fail completely. How crazy is it that we're not trying to take arms against our new sea of troubles? It's time to rush the cockpit. We've got to get Trump out of office. We've got to restore sanity to our sense making. We need newspapers. We need fact checkers. What is particularly problematic about Trump being in office? That man has nuclear capabilities and I have zero confidence in his decision making. And people imagine that I'm a Trump supporter after I've called him an existential risk. You know, and my boss and good friend Peter Thiel was a supporter of Trump in the last election. I'm taking a huge risk in how much I love this guy Peter Thiel and how much he loves me because I'm putting the employer-employee relationship at risk. And people say, oh, okay, you're just a Peter Thiel tool. Well, nobody's going to take that kind of risk unless they have real faith in their friend and I work for a friend. I mean a real friend, a person who doesn't cut and run when trouble starts. And I totally disagree with Peter. I have come to understand that Trump, I thought people would understand the Trump danger and that the Democratic Party would reevaluate their situation, but they didn't. They tripled and quadrupled down and that is alarming. And so that's something I very much got wrong about Trump is that even Trump wasn't enough of a message to let people know. But Trump cannot have the nuclear codes because he's not a skilled or regular enough player. He's going to accomplish a lot. One of the things I said before the election is he might be the best and worst of presidents. He might get us a new North Korea deal because they're going to look at him and say, this guy is nuts. Who knows what he would do? But we, the technical community created this problem and we're abdicating our responsibility by worrying about our egos, by worrying about our reputations. I am abdicating. I should have turned this theory over to the theoretical physics community years ago even if they screwed me over. And I'm too petty and egotistical to want to give up on it. I watched them take credit for things that weren't, you know, an assigned credit. I don't like the way they work. The theoretical physics community is our most important community in the world and it is also a very unpleasant community. And we need to fund them and we need to let them play. They're dangerous boys for the most part. There are women, but in general, they're very unpleasant men. They have been somewhat cowed. They are not the same cowboys they used to be because they've been failing for 40 years. I should be sharing stuff. I should be writing things down. I have not had the courage to do it. And if I really have the courage of my convictions, I should share this and see what happens. But one thing is I don't know if it could be weaponized. Assume it's right. You know, I have this decision tree. Assume it's wrong. I've got an egg on my face. It's okay. I'll be okay. I worry much more about if it's right. The two things that can go wrong if it's right is one, that it could be weaponized before it becomes useful and two, is that there's no solution in it. Maybe we actually are stuck in this place. We never get to go to the stars. We can look at exoplanets and dream, but we're stuck here.