Buck Field is a philosopher, a scientist, and an MBA: an unusual intersection of fields of expertise. Synthesizing concepts from philosophy, physics, and project management, he has envisioned a way to revolutionize our basic understanding of the universe, and perhaps carve a path to one of the “holy grails” of modern physics along the way: faster than light travel.
Buck initially caught my attention with a simple comment he made on Twitter: “Extra dimensions in physics are yet another reincarnation of Ptolemaic epicycles.” I was so intrigued by this analogy that I read more of his articles, and eventually asked to interview him about his ideas. Here are some of the highlights from that interview.
Greg: You write about the current state of cosmology and physics as being in a kind of “crisis” that makes it ripe for a revolution. Can you quickly summarize for our readers here what some of the symptoms are that you see in physics today that tell you that there is a problem?
Buck: Hello Greg, thanks for hosting me. Actually I’m just repeating what prominent physicists and other experts have been saying for years. Different groups describe the situation differently. When I say “crisis”, I’m normally using the terminology of philosophers of science.
Scientific “crisis” has a special meaning to them, and to understand “crisis” this way, we have to understand the different kinds of scientific anomalies. Anomalies are scientific observations that don’t fit our theories. The least-disruptive anomalies are simply new examples of a well-defined phenomenon. These are things that researchers are trying to find: like a new variety of beetle in the jungle or a new super cluster of galaxies. They are interesting but not surprising, and cataloging these is called “normal science.”
On the other hand, there are also disruptive anomalies: the rule breakers. How do you categorize an animal that has fur and gives milk like a mammal, but lays eggs and produces venom like a reptile? At one time, science could not provide an answer–and specimens of the platypus were considered a hoax. In astronomy, rocks falling from the sky were once regarded as the ranting of poorly educated peasants.
Crisis in physics is harder to understand because much of it involves specialist maths and seems abstract, compared to beetles and meteorites. For me, the most important first indicator of the problem was when physicists decided to declare light to be both a particle and a wave. This violated a fundamental rule of logic: the rule of non-contradiction. Relativity is still considered an incomplete revolution, after more than a century: not only haven’t physicists resolved the problems, but more conflicts have arisen. The observations of very small particles and very large gravitational effects have been so frustrating that scientists have been willing to break the rules of science to obtain a sense of progress. From a project management perspective, these symptoms are what we call “risk indicators,” suggesting this research is bound to fail and we will have to redo it.
Greg: You’ve suggested that we should start by re-thinking our understanding of space and time. Why space and time, in particular?
Buck: That focus could ultimately prove an error, but there are reasons. My goal is to help contribute to the development of faster than light technology. Since space-time is the key limiter to travel velocity, it seemed a good point of attack for introducing the process of revolutionary conceptual change.
For scientific creativity to work productively, it is important to have a specific, concrete problem to solve. Faster than light technology development allows you to communicate overall intent quickly and clearly to large numbers of people with different perspectives and areas of expertise. Pop up a video of the Enterprise going to warp, and everybody understands the goal immediately. In business communications, that’s called communicating strategic alignment; in war planning it’s called “commander’s intent”; in science and engineering, it’s called “grand challenges.” If you can get enough different people working together, you’ll probably have the critical ideas in there somewhere to create the new ideas. Having a concrete problem to solve—faster than light travel—helps reduce irrelevant noise.
Greg: If your whole project is based on the idea of coming up with something totally new—something totally different from the way that we currently see the universe—how do you set out to work on that? Do you have a specific plan?
Buck: I do. My approach is to look at this as a troubled project. I made a career out of project rescue where something was failing and our team had to get it delivered, usually by the end of the year for some executive to win a bonus. What you do first in these situations is conduct an audit, finding out the current state. In physics, we know things are a mess, and figuring out what to do about it requires us to look at how the work was done. If there’s some we can save, great. There’s always something that can be salvaged, even if just to learn what doesn’t work. In physics development, one thing that seemed suspicious, I mean in theory development, is that James Clerk Maxwell was using esoteric quaternion algebras to investigate electro-magnetism which were really powerful, but obscure. His equations were so useful they took over research, which was based on weaker vector algebras. These are less reliable but standard, well-known tools, and scattered warnings at the time were ignored. For project rescue, reworking from that point to identify any divergences is potentially optimal. If our team would get a million dollar bonus for fixing this project, I’m pretty sure that’s where we’d start.
Greg: So where does this project sit now, and what do you envisage as the “next steps” in this work?
Buck: I’ve just finished a piece on the 100 Year Starship Study and the need for philosophers of science to inform those efforts. I think that article is coming out later this month or January. The natural allies and funders for this kind of thing such as NASA and the Department of Energy are facing budget pressure, and I think some of the offices I’ve been trying to reach have closed. Or maybe they’re just avoiding talking to that crazy Star Trek warp-drive guy. The next thing I’d like to do is recruit some quaternion geeks with interest in science, for a theory development workshop I’d like to put together I think could be done for under $150k. Getting that funded would be awesome!
Greg: Well, I have done a lot of interdisciplinary research myself, so I completely understand the challenges and frustrations with this kind of work. Your ideas are fantastic, and definitely reaffirm my belief that the best work is always done by “generalists”—people whose knowledge crosses disciplines—rather than “specialists.” Good luck with your project!
Buck: Thanks Greg, it’s been a real pleasure!