Philosophical progress, the art and desire of guessing new utmost significance, guided our progress in understanding physics for the last three million years, and always will, indeed. 

We can’t experiment before we guess what experiments to conduct, according to the obscure light of a half-baked theory (in other words, philosophy)

So why has the philosophical training of physicists become so abysmal in the last century? The symmetrical question is why most of those called philosophers have had no training in physics and math? Plato would have scoffed that those were not philosophers. 

Neglecting the importance of the philosophical method in physics, for the last two generations may have been caused by the militarization of physics: obeying and pleasing those who order military spending requires yes men, shutting up and calculating, not deep thinkers [1]. History is full of examples of period of stasis, or even massive backsliding, of the understanding of nature, due to the hostility of the establishment to further understanding. This is why the Greeks’ progress in “Physis” stagnated after the establishment of Greek (so-called “Hellenistic regimes”) and Roman dictatorships. Soon after the Macedonian dictatorship grabbed Greece, Euclid wrote his elements… completely forgetting the non Euclidean geometry established a century before! (And it stayed forgotten for 21 centuries!) one wonders which other parts of Greek science got also immediately forgotten: these were times when thinkers would be killed on sight (Demostenes actually argued with the guy dispatched by the Macedonians to kill him: they knew each other; the assassin at the head of his squad pointed out to the philosopher he had to earn a living, and him not Demosthenes would have no effect, as somebody else would do the deed. Best to go with a friend!) 

Greatest physicist ever? Du Chatelet discovered… ENERGY, no less! Not just infrared (which she also discovered)! She was also a first class philosopher, and of course, a feminist. She left extensive writings.

Once the will, desire, and methodology of deep thinking has been forgotten, it takes a long time to get it restarted: Europe tried half a dozen attempts at a sustainable Renaissance, over a millennium [2]. What had happened? Books and scholars got deliberately eliminated for 250 years: starting  in 363 CE, religious fanatics systematically burned libraries and tortured to death intellectuals (see Hypatia’s tragic assassination directed by Christian “saint” Cyril).

Spending in physics is good… if nothing else, new technologies can be developed, especially involving high energies. But it shouldn’t focus on only a few avenues of inquiry. However, “High Energy” physics is a revealing term: do we live in a “High Energy” world? No. So why don’t we also focus on “Low Energy” fundamentals? 

Sociological considerations of career advancement show it is safer within the herd, and the herd thinks alike. This is why university physicists form a herd.

Cathedral schools” were mandated 13 centuries ago, and then turned into universities. However, when one looks at quantum jumps in understanding, one realizes that most such jumps happened outside of the career mainstream. The greatest thinkers tend to not follow the most prestigious path at the time! Obviously on the path less traveled are the diamonds found. Master thinkers such as Abelard, Buridan, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Descartes, Fermat, Leibniz, Papin, Du Chatelet, Lavoisier, Lamarck, Cuvier, Faraday, Darwin, even Poincare, De Broglie… are examples of master thinkers who didn’t have conventional careers [3].

There are too many of the most towering intellects standing straight out of all society and academia, for it to be an accident, or a coincidence [4]. And the reason is very simple: it’s easier to be an intellectual hero, and jump out of the box, if you are mostly out of the box of obsolete logic already.  

Patrice Ayme



[1] Military science has been hard core high energy physics, ever since the French army ordered research on tanks, under the Ancien Regime (now viewed as the first “cars”, but, truly, tanks…18 C). New high explosives saved the French at Valmy. Within a few weeks the first production combat lasers will start protecting some US air bases…


[2] Clovis immediately made a reinterpretation of Christianism into something milder, tolerant, compatible with other faiths (~ 500 CE). Within a century, Frankish bishops were teaching secularly, ignoring lethal threats from Rome. In the Eight Century, a law was passed making schooling and its teaching by religious establishments mandatory. In the Eleventh Century, full Renaissance in north-west France brought a violent territorial expansion (England, Sicily, Italy, etc…), a booming economy, the Duke questioning the geocentric system and his protege Berengar assimilating god to reason… 


[3] Abelard, Buridan, Leonardo da Vinci, Tycho, Kepler, Descartes, Fermat, Boulliaut/Bulaldius, Leibniz, Papin, Du Chatelet, Lavoisier, Lamarck, Cuvier, Galois, Faraday, Darwin, even Poincare, De Broglie…

    1. At twenty-two, Abelard set up a school of his own, although opponents barred him from teaching in Paris. Eventually without previous training or special study, triumphed in theological debates, and stepped into a chair at Notre—Dame. The rest of his life was a “calamity” (his word) reminiscent of the adventures of all too many an intellectual of Antiquity, and others in my little list: he got emasculated and nearly killed in an attack… Abelard fought Saint Bernard, Christianism most important person,  nearly to death, and, though an abbot was excommunicated… twice. 
    2. Buridan chose not the faculty of theology but the much lower one of arts. 
    3. Leonardo da Vinci was a serious physicist… Yet took to painting and direct regalian support…
    4. Kepler was Tycho’s assistant. Tycho lived off a grant from the Germanic Roman emperor. Kepler spent a lot of energy preventing the execution of his mother as a witch.
    5. Descartes, discoverer of Algebraic Geometry (“equations”), and calculus, an army captain, was on the run, and was not dumb enough to return to France where the Catholic fanatics ruled.
    6. Fermat, co-discoverer of calculus, was a lawyer and MP.
    7. Boulliaut/Bulaldius was a French priest. He got the idea of the 1/dd law of gravitation… As Newton pointed out.
    8. Leibniz was all over the place, even an ambassador. Nobody knows where he is buried.
    9. Papin made the first working steam engine, and the first steam boat (which worked very well). He had to flee France (being a Protestant), then he ran in trouble in England as locals stole his invention, and after legal action, fled to Germany (where he interacted with Leibniz… Same Leibniz of infinitesimals, who made preliminary work on energy which Du Chatelet extended. 


  • Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet was top nobility, and hot to trot. She had no academic career, but converted her castle into a lab on her own dinero… Lavoisier did something similar, but the Revolutionary Tribunal found he had used taxpayer money to do this (so what? He should have had an exemption and got an award instead of being shortened…)
  • Buffon, Lamarck, Cuvier were research professors at the Museum of Natural History, where they established evolutionary science, but they were not university professors… Darwin, who pointed out natural selection by itself was enough to cause evolution, without the arsenal of contingence deployed by Lamarck and Cuvier two generations earlier, was not a professor at all, but an independent scholar.
  • Galois, an absolute revolutionary. He invented groups, and  demonstrated some equations couldn’t be solved. He got in big trouble for his republican politics, under a dictator, and was killed age 20 (!) spending his last night writing down Galois theory.
  • Faraday, not a university professor, and little schooled in mathematics, was directly funded by the king.
  • Poincare followed an unusual, secondary career path, until he shattered mathematics and physics (he established Relativity, including E = mcc), De Broglie, a prince, studied Medieval history, before pivoting and decreeing Quantum Waves, inventing Quantum uncertainty and the “Schrodinger” equation on the way… (Germanophiles did the rest by attributing his discoveries to… Germanophones; however he got the Nobel within 4 years of the ebauch of his thesis). He was never a professor, but I met him in person… Fellow minds…  


[4] Just restricting oneself to Paris, the largest city in Western Europe for most of the last 15 centuries, one could get evaluations of the number of professional intellectuals. Those who really brought progress, were very few, and they have in common that, even though sometimes they were part of the establishment, they were also continually at war, because their advanced ideas alternatively seduced and infuriated the powers that be. But 99.9% of intellectuals, most of the time, didn’t cause a ripple…



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  1. Patrice Ayme Says:

    brodix Says:
    November 1, 2019 at 2:17 am | Reply edit
    Somewhat tangential, but the logic of morality has been bubbling around in my head lately.
    One of the observations I’ve been making over the years is that a spiritual absolute would necessarily be the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which we fell. While our morals are based on good versus bad, these are not some cosmic dual between the forces of righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary of beneficial and detrimental. Even bacteria sense this dichotomy.
    Thus they are the elemental 1/0 from which our experiences and moral arrangements arise, not an ideal towards which we should aspire. Trying to find an ideal good would be like looking for an ideal yes.
    Which in their most basic form, we emotionally respond with greed and fear.
    So all our other emotions, social and cultural aspirations, etc, such as respect, honor, responsibility, trust, humility, sympathy, empathy, etc arise from this elementary attraction versus repulsion. Much as a computer program arises from 1/0.
    The problem then is that as we do assume them to be the moral ideal and not the building blocks from which our humanity and culture arise, when serious conflicts come up, there is a strong tendency for it to become a race to the bottom, rather than each side being able to hold the other to their civic duty and humanity. So the cultural structure, rather than being tested and strengthened from the effort, is torn down.

    Just a thought I’m trying to clarify, since it seems difficult to elicit much feedback on anything “outside the box.”
    Here is an essay I posted recently, that I added this point into;
    View at Medium.com


  2. Paul Handover Says:

    This is most interesting. Very profound!


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Thanks Paul!
      Actually, each time I try to think deep about physics, I stumble on thought experiments (some of which could perhaps be performed someday) which have not been proposed and to which today’s physics gives no answer. So of course one would want to try to perform them to advance physics… But it’s too chancy for those of the utmost gravitas: if trying such experiments would fail, as is likely, careers will never really get started.

      An exception has been GRAVITATIONAL WAVES: the thought experiment was straightforward, as a gravitational wave distorts space directionally (that’s basic Bullaldius-Newton physics, no need for the refinement of GR). But people thought the interference change would be impossible to see, etc. So this happened because of a few strong, high in color, well connected personalities (Thorn, who got the Nobel for the gravitational waves, was a student of Wheeler, himself professor of Feynman, and one of the luminaries of US physics/nuclear bombs projects…). Had Wheeler not been so well connected to H bombs, we might not have found the billion dollars necessary (Franco-Italians came up with the same experiment… but possibly only because they saw the Americans doing it, so the experiment had acquired gravitas…)

      Our Sister Facilities | LIGO Lab | Caltech
      https://www.ligo.caltech.edu › page › ligo-sister-facilities
      Located outside of Pisa, Italy, Virgo is gravitational wave interferometer with arms 3 km long (LIGO’s are 4 km long). Virgo is funded by the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), a collaboration of the Italian and French governments.


  3. Spartan Says:

    I have nothing especially deep to say as I’m an undergraduate student studying history and philosophy of science, hopefully will become a math major as well and looking at a second degree in cogsci/physics..but I’m your biggest fan!! This blog is so pedagogical, so clearly written and entertaining I just love it!! It’s really helping me come to grips with the debate around nonlocality and spooky action at a distance, different intepretations of waves and so on!


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Wow Spartan! THANKS! The first comment is delayed by the moderation system, but from now on, your comments should appear immediately… Do not please underestimate the power of genuineness and authenticity… To put it amusingly, the power of ignorance. When they grow and build careers, professionals learn not just things, but stuff not to ask. For some decades in physics, it was a death warrant for career or studies to ask the deep questions. When Aspect visited with John Bell, of bell inequality, the CERN theory head, this came to the fore.

      In 1975, Alain Aspect presented John Bell with a proposal: he would perform new experiments to check whether or not the inequality that Bell had derived a decade earlier was violated. Bell told him it was a career ending move. Aspect retorted that, thanks to the French university system, he already had tenure (as a glorified teaching assistant! In US university at the time, TAs were treated as indentured servants… It took decades of fighting for the UC system to give TA the authorization to form an union; personally, I was treated as a slave, but one not fed and housed…)

      The wave story is very far from finished, it has barely started. One of the reasons for a lack of progress has been the focus on developing mathematical tools, the utility of which I refute (basically they depend upon infinities too much).

      Anyway, thanks again! I have a little work on complex numbers and numbers in general, to give a better feeling about why they appear in Quantum Physics, and why so natural… they basically depict the behavior of light… what we use to see with… So complex numbers are as natural as seeing… They should be intuitive… Instead some towering live physicists are still mystified by them and deplore their appearance in quantum physics.

      Science is also progressing by then finding obvious what preceding centuries could not even imagine.


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