A reader emails to ask about a new-to-me theory of physics, called “Quantum Space Theory” being promoted by a fellow named Thad Roberts. I wouldn’t usually bother with this, but Roberts was one of the speakers at TEDx Boulder. this is disappointing, to put it mildly– TED is a respected organization, and I don’t like seeing them lend their support to something that is just dripping with kook signifiers. The key paragraph of the overview of the theory is:
To start grasping this higher-dimensional intuitive picture check out the book excerpts in the book excerpts section. If you are more analytically inclined you may desire to skip ahead to the constants of Nature section where you will discover how 27 constants are precisely determined by the eleven-dimensional geometry of qst. Or you could visit the predictions section where over 20 predictions of this new geometry are laid out. Or you can examine the formalism section where the foundational mathematics from which qst extends is explained. The full geometric explanation is currently available only by special request as it is the thrust of the forthcoming book titled ‘Einstein’s Intuition’ by Thad Roberts.
First and foremost, “I can’t show you my theory until my book comes out” is a red flag big enough to cover Delaware. It’s like writing “Fraud” on your forehead in magic marker, wearing a “Fraud” shirt, and doing the fraud dance on Fraud Mountain. Real work in theoretical physics is done via the arxiv, and I don’t find anything about this stuff there (lots of papers by Roberts, T and containing the words quantum, space, and theory there, which is why you should always give your kook theories generic names).
More importantly, none of the linked pages provide anything useful in support of the claims. The “formalism” section is a Wikipedia-level description of Bohmian mechanics, with nothing at all about eleven dimensions. The “predictions” page is a bulleted list of assertions that the theory predicts something or another, and the “physical constants” page is a large table asserting that various physical constants can be written in terms of a new arbitrary number. Neither includes any description of how the theory leads to these predictions.
I did not attempt to wade through all the book excerpts provided, but skipped right to Chapter 4, guessing that it would be the most likely to contain some mathematical explanation of the theory. Alas, it’s more of the same– long on bulleted lists and personal narrative, and almost entirely devoid of real physics. Also, it opens with a quote from The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav, a classic work of New Age pseudo-physics. This does not build confidence.
I will give Roberts credit for two things: he has a really slick web page, and a great bio, including this gem:
Thad was handed 100 months in federal prison for his out-of-the-box thinking (something not all that rare at NASA). Prison gave him time to focus his energies on the hidden structure of Nature and to wrestle with the mysteries that plague modern physics. qst was the result. Though there were things that Thad wouldn’t repeat, he says that he doesn’t regret how things turned out. Despite the isolation and the loneliness that defined those years, Thad notes that without that time of intense dedication and constant focus he may have never been lead to the discoveries he has made. It all culminated with an insight that enabled him to completely rewrite the geometry of physical reality.
(Thad also enjoys writing about himself in the third person.)
Another view of the events leading to his incarceration is provided by a nice article from the LA Times magazine. This is, as you might imagine, somewhat less flattering than the way he presents it on his own site.
I fully expect that Roberts or some adherent of his theories will turn up in the comments or my email inbox to complain that I’m being unfair to his theory by not working through all the details, but, you know, life is just too short. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, especially when they come from somebody with a criminal conviction in his past, and there’s not even ordinary evidence to be found on that web site.
TED should be embarrassed to have sponsored a talk by this guy (or to have had some independent organizer invite this guy to give a talk under their name). I hope in the future they’ll be a little more discriminating about inviting people who plan to talk about physics.