back to article Chip daddy Mead: 'A bunch of big egos' are strangling science

Microelectronics pioneer, Caltech professor emeritus, and all-around smart guy Carver Mead believes that the scientific revolution that began with the discovery of special relativity and quantum mechanics has stalled, and that it's up to us to kickstart it. "A bunch of big egos got in the way," he told his audience of 3,000- …


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  1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Mach's principle

    Although as a general rule, when anybody mentions Mach's principle then everything else they say can be ignored as lunatic ramblings.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Mach's principle

      Hmmmmm, so what about your own comment?

  2. Denarius Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    hear, hear

    Science proceeds one funeral at a time as some-one said. It has been so long since really new shiny concepts were floated.

    1. Intractable Potsherd

      Re: hear, hear

      After having been around "experts" for several years, my impression is that there are two groups: the most common "expert" is a person who can immediately tell you exactly why what you have proposed cannot possibly be right/done; the rarer type is a person who will say "Let's have a look at that in more detail". The former are mere chair-warmers, the others are useful.

    2. AlainCo
      Thumb Up

      Re: hear, hear

      note that the one-funeral at a time mean that once the creator of an heretic idea died, the community start to consider his theory with less fear of ego battle.

      Som says like you that we wait for opposition to die. not so sure it is enough.

      In france Norbert Alter, consultant in management of innovation explain the characteristics of Innovators :

      - they are alien (out of the culture/industry/nation of the majority)

      - they have a network of alien (diaspora, network of similar ideas...)

      - they are resilient, this mean that when punished for dissenting they get back up quickly.

      I advise you also to read Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

      it explains how real invention are done by garage engineers, and not scientists, then the mainstream ignore, the fight, then science find a mainstream hero that is clean rewrite the history and forget the real stinky inventor from the garage. Thank for the story of MASER. It is one of those rewritten story. I've heard the fairy tale version by mainstream.

      note that Boltzmann hang himself because of rejection of his ideas by mainstream.

      Watson explained how DNA was fighted by mainstream... same for tectonic. Hygiena. Pasteur.

      Galileo is not an exception, but a rule.

      AlainCo the tech watcher of LENR-forum ... guess why I love this article...

      because I'm tracking what happens in a garage... And LASER was used to critic me as the example that mainstream theory is the key to design machine... AH AH... it is a pitty. So true.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "A bunch of big egos"

    That would never happen in the UK.

    1. npupp 1

      Re: "A bunch of big egos"


  4. Yobgod Ababua
    Thumb Up

    All Hail the Electron!

    I was priviledged to learn about the Boltzman distribution (among other things) from Professor Mead.

    He also always has had a very specific style... highly patterened silk shirts and a proper "Devil's Beard".

    When I was his student his big thing was using transistors in their sub-threshold realm as analog devices instead of just treating them as the binary logic they were designed for. It's been that ability to look beyond how something is historically utilized to what it actually does underneath and is capable of that is why he is how spectacularly awesome as he is.

    Give them Hell Dr. Mead.

    1. Paul Shirley

      Re: All Hail the Electron!

      When I was young transistors were analogue devices that could also be used as binary switches. Even evolved to function better as logic devices, they're still fundamentally analogue and remembering that doesn't match my understanding of 'awesome'.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        While I Am An Old Fuck

        ..Transistors are still used for all sorts of analog applications and I can do some of the simpler ones myself. There is no such thing as a 10W Digital-Audio-Converter. Instead a 1mW DAC is coupled with two or three stages of a transistor amplifier.

        Then there are analog circuits in everything from the cellphone to chemical analysis. There are even multi-billion dollar enterprises which do (almost) nothing else. One is called Analog Devices, the other Linear Technologies.

        High-quality analog circuits are the holy grail of EE and basically every modern scientific device including your car.

        1. Eddie Edwards

          Re: While I Am An Old Fuck

          You really should Google "high-power DAC" before making such a claim :o

          In particular, a 1-bit DAC can kick out immense quantities of power.

  5. jake Silver badge

    "that truly Californian term"

    Uh ... no. Not invented here. Bunches of idiots buy into the "holism" thingy here, true. But don't blame us for its invention.

  6. Anomalous Cowshed


    There is a kind of cult of self and lack of imagination, with scientists wanting to be famous and have their picture in the papers (to paraphrase a famous aria composed in the 1980s). They will do anything to pander to one another and get bonus points. They desperately hang on to the flawed theories of their peers, using all their power, training and influence to try to justify them, while avoiding at all cost any departures from the established canon which can lead to banishment and excommunication.

    1. Mike 125

      Re: Ego

      ...unlike the rest of human kind, which acts with selfless, imaginative, quiet humility, content to spread happiness and peace throughout the land.

      1. Tom 13

        Re: unlike the rest of human kind

        But we don't accept that assertion when the rest of mankind, particularly politicians, make the same claim. His point is we shouldn't accept it from scientists either.

        And that Mead's observation is neither new nor revolutionary. It traces its roots back at least as far as Pythagoras (and to the extent that it stops there it's more that the historical records become more difficult to find farther back than that).

  7. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    I am not happy

    > "obscure mathematics"

    Crank alert. Seriously, didn't we have that discussion back in the 1920's? When Weyl first went for the jugular and applied appropriate mathematics to QM (i.e. the book Group Theory and Quantum Mechanics) came out, physicists complained about mathematization and "Gruppenpest". The approach of throwing math structures at fundamental problems has been successful ever since. There are still massive open questions and one hopes that investigation of the math structures of math space one can derive useful, applicable mappings to physics. Just take a look at, for example this SUSY and QM blogpost.

    > "I have found personally that I had to go all the way back and reformulate the laws of electromagnetism, starting with the quantum nature of the electron as the foundation"

    No, no, no, no. No. Anything that goes like "I found personally" is a bad sign. Anything that single-handedly tries to reformulate 100+ years of complex research -- which does not just include research into maths, genius brainwaves, possibly dodgy approaches that turned out well 20 years after and theorem-proving but also many many many experiments tying that research to the actual world (aka. unit testing your description) -- is a bad sign. These approaches have been tried. They have all failed miserably.

    > "We have a list of fundamental constants that we're not allowed to ask where they come from."

    BULLSHIT IN A CAN. If anyone knows where alpha or whatever else comes from, the Noble prize is GUARANTEED. People try numerology on the mass spectrum or whatever all the time, a fruitless approach as it doesn't yield insights just patterns. QCD makes physicist very happy btw because it doesn't seem to need any fundamental constants in its description. How cool is that?

    1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

      Re: I am not happy

      In fairness, there's nothing wrong with being a crank, as long as you appreciate that you are almost certainly *not* an undiscovered genius. (Equally, if you aren't a crank, you still almost certainly aren't an undiscovered genius. In fact, it's probably even less likely.)

      If it isn't "obscure", it isn't on the leading edge. As you say, the "obscure mathematics" of the 1920s is now (after substantial cleaning up and selective editing) entirely mainstream and dished out to several million students per year. (Meanwhile, a lot of analytical mechanics that was totally mainstream in the early part of the century is now only taught in specialist courses. I doubt very many physics graduates have actually used the Hamilton-Jacobi equation in anger. I certainly haven't.) Most of today's obscure mathematics will remain obscure, but eventually some crank will churn out the right runes and six months later it will appear on a T-shirt.

      In short, you get a Nobel prize for being a crank and then everyone else copies you.

    2. Chris Thomas Alpha
      Thumb Up

      Re: I am not happy

      "BULLSHIT IN A CAN. If anyone knows where alpha or whatever else comes from, the Noble prize is GUARANTEED. People try numerology on the mass spectrum or whatever all the time, a fruitless approach as it doesn't yield insights just patterns."

      So analysing alpha yields patterns, not insights?

      ok, so alpha is determined by patterns? what kind of patterns? what determines the pattern, is the pattern affected by anything, where does the pattern come from, instead of analysing alpha, perhaps we can analyse the pattern instead.

      I would say the pattern might be insightful, but I'm not applying knowledge to your question, just logic, I might be talking out of my asshole, but if analysing something yields just patterns, maybe we can analyse those instead and see whether we can manipulate the pattern and observe changes in alpha.

      just a thought.

      1. Richard 26

        Re: I am not happy

        People spent years trying to prove from first principles why alpha was exactly 1/137. The trouble is, it isn't. It's roughly 1/137.03599907 Staring at the number and hoping to understand the cosmic significance of it all is pure kabbalism, not physics.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Thumb Up


          Many people confuse model and reality. All of math is models. Or more basically, humans have evolved to think in certain models. Every human needs to understand the concept of "thing". A thing is discrete from other things. In our model, of course. In reality, ALL electrons talk to each other almost all the time. All matter talks to each other, it seems. We call it gravity.

          So, is there a "thing" ? For many practical purposes, there is. But for some purposes we need to realize that discrete things do not really exist. Natural numbers are about discrete things. They are a highly useful MODEL. Not more.

    3. Norm DePlume

      Re: I am not happy

      I think all the guy is really saying, re mathematics, is that we need a Faraday for modern physics. If so, then I agree with him.

  8. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Lack of proof reading is obvious.

    Illistrate indeed.

  10. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Separated at birth?

    Carver Mead and...

    John McAfee

    Although Mead has it hands down for his work on sub-threshold transistors and the application of OTS CMOS tech to devices that work like biology.

    I've always thought that should have gone much further

  11. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Reference for the "Brahmins put laser down" story, whereby experiments beat principles

    Chapter 5: Maser Excitement—And a Time for Reflection

    Shortly after we built a second maser and showed that the frequency was indeed remarkably pure, I visited Denmark and saw Niels Bohr, the great physicist and pioneer in the development of quantum mechanics. As we were walking along the street together, he quite naturally asked what I was doing. I described the maser and its performance. “But that is not possible,” he exclaimed. I assured him it was. Similarly, at a cock­tail party in Princeton, New Jersey, the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann asked what I was working on. After I told him about the maser and the purity of its frequency, he declared, “That can’t be right!” But it was, I replied, and told him it was already demonstrated.

    Such protests were not offhand opinions concerning obscure aspects of physics; they came from the marrow of these men’s bones. These were objections founded on principle—the uncertainty principle. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle is a central tenet of quantum mechanics, among the core achievements during the phenomenal burst of creativity in phys­ics during the first half of the twentieth century. It is as vital a pillar in quantum theory as are Newton’s laws in classical physics. (...)

    To many physicists steeped in the uncertainty principle, the maser’s performance, at first blush, made no sense at all. Molecules spend so little time in the cavity of a maser, about one ten-thousandth of a second, that it seemed to those physicists impossible for the frequency of the radiation to also be narrowly confined. Yet that is exactly what we told them hap­pened in the maser.

    There is good reason, of course, that the uncertainty principle does not apply so simply here. The maser does not inform one about the energy or frequency of any specific, clearly identified molecule. When a molecule is stimulated to radiate (in contrast with being left to radiate spontaneously) it must produce exactly the same frequency as the stimulating radiation. In addition, the radiation in a maser oscillator represents the average of a large number of molecules working together. Each individual molecule remains anonymous, not accurately measured or tracked. The maser’s precision arises from principles that mollify the apparent demands of the uncertainty principle.

    Engineers, whose practical tasks up to that time almost never brought them face to face with such esoterica as the uncertainty principle, never had a hard time with the precise frequency the maser produced. They dealt all the time with oscillators and cavities, based on a wide variety of physi­cal phenomena, which produced rather precise frequencies. They accepted as a matter of course that a maser oscillator might do what it did. What they were not so familiar with was the idea of stimulated emission, which gave the maser its amplifying power. Birth of the maser required a combi­nation of instincts and knowledge from both engineering and physics. Physicists working in microwave and radio spectroscopy, which demanded engineering as well as physics skills, seem to have had the necessary knowl­edge and experience to both appreciate and understand the maser imme­diately. Rabi and Kusch, themselves in a similar field, for this reason ac­cepted the basic physics readily. But for some others, it was startling.

  12. John Savard


    Despite Dr. Mead's qualifications, he ought to be aware that on this subject, he is allowing himself to sound a lot like a crank. Why?

    One thing is that it's very commonplace for cranks to dismiss the advanced mathematics involved in a lot of physics as unnecessary or irrelevant. Holism, of course, has very New Age-y associations.

    But the real problem with his - theories? - isn't that I feel uncomfortable with the kind of theory they are. Instead, although that could be the fault of the brevity of the article, it is that he seems to have chosen them on the basis of what he does feel comfortable with, rather than on the basis that led to quantum mechanics and relativity: observations that conflicted with pre-existing theory.

    1. Marshalltown

      Re: Unfortunately

      Most important scientific progress comes from "crank-like" obsession. The problem is not to let the "successful" cranks dictate what can or cannot be researched. The present status of scientific exploration is bounded by funding and funding is doled out by cliques, who, not entirely unreasonably, make a quasi-informed attempt to evaluate the product potential of a given research proposal. Money goes to apparent potentially productive proposals.

      Effectively, Dr. Mead's observation is that we are living with some useful facts that may be bound together with little but "just-so" stories. There are numerous areas where there are known empirical observations that seem to conflict with one aspect or another of some element of pre-existing theory. Unless the observations are so widely known and unequivocal - e.g. galactic rotational energy discrepancies, the observations are simply ignored - like continential drift was until observations accumulated that were so strongly supported and so wide spread that it was clear geological theory had to change.

      These days attempting to openly get funding to improve, replicate, verify, or otherwise test an observation that appears to seriously conflict with existing theory can cause denial of access to instruments, funding, and to be classed as a "crank." It is no longer axiomatic that observation trumps theory, especially if theory has been implemented as mathematical models developed with expensive time on expensive equipment. It simply isn't socially acceptable to say, "well the model was wrong. We just blew $200,000,000," or something similar. It would arm religiously crackpots with annecdotes, p*%$ the funding community and generally embarass one and one's co-workers.

  13. Martin Gregorie

    Clarkes first law is right again

    "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right.

    When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

    - Arthur C Clarke

  14. Jim O'Reilly

    Mead is right. Look at climate 'science"

    The ability of science to display cult tendencies astounds me. A good example is the "Big Bang" theory in astronomy. It's dangerous to question if a 'bang' actually was the Act of Creation. But the best example is AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming, for those who can pronounce it)

    AGW is science as a cult. Public critique at best gets orchestrated derision, and at worst, the "loss of grants" sanction. Yet, reports trying to explain why the warming trend stopped 20 years ago and why we are having the coldest winter for years all end with "Notwithstanding the evidence in this report, Global Warming is the most serious problem facing man", or some other ritual gobbledegook to appease the gurus at IPCC.

    This type of rigid orthodoxy stifles creative debate, and fails to meet the standards of decent science.

    1. BlueGreen

      Re: Mead is right. Look at climate 'science"

      This most certainly meets the standards of decent trolling. Thank you for the irrelevant diversion.

    2. AlainCo

      Re: Mead is right. Look at climate 'science"

      both AGW and Big Bang are hard to test quickly in a lab.

      But even some phenomenon that you can test in a labe have been denied, despire facts, and also despite the critics are stupid... and imagine the bad excuse not to publish good papers... papers rejected after P-R, paper rejected for no room or for stupide excuse that a factory worker knows better.

    3. Eddie Edwards

      Re: Mead is right. Look at climate 'science"

      "why we are having the coldest winter for years"

      Global warming does not imply local warming.

  15. minky

    A 2.5GHz 2.2mW/25μW On/Off-State Power 2psrms-Long-Term-Jitter Digital.......

    I've just come.

  16. Inachu

    The last I heard

    The last I heard of any updates to our normal technology was the idea of 3D circuit board design that even our CPU's of the future would look like a borg cube in design. Good luck in fitting a heatsink with that!

    I do agree our technology is on hold but I do not think entirely by big ego's but also by those who keep reducing the R&B budgets.

    Todays idea of R&D is dealt with stock holders and mergers and aquisitions. This needs to stop and real R&D needs to be done. I sure do hope the labs do get sent back to the home in the basement where no wives are allowed to enter just like in the old SCI-FI movies.

    Innovation is indeed dead.


    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re-A-lly ??

      "Innovation is indeed dead."

      Maybe Bell Labs and HP Labs are dead. Maybe IBM research is stuffed. But there are certainly people doing highly interesting stuff such as performing computations on someone else's computer without that person being able to see what is actually going on. Carbon tubes. Nano materials. DNA analysis in a USB device. STM microscopes/atomic level manipulators. Superconductors. Genetics of all sorts. Software Defined Radios. Single-crystal engine blades.

    2. Katie Saucey

      Re: The last I heard

      "Innovation is indeed dead."

      What? Just because Apple has been focusing on lawyering, don't paint everyone...

      Couldn't resist. I disagree with "Innovation is indeed dead," though. A fair amount seems to be happening in material science lately, meta-materials come to mind, along with loads of other neat things that (may not outdo school shootings and political scandals for evening headlines), are to numerous to mention.

    3. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: The last I heard

      Reducing R&B budgets is a problem in science.

      I woke up this morning...... my oscilloscope was gone ... that Textronix gone and left me .....

    4. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: The last I heard

      "The last I heard of any updates to our normal technology was the idea of 3D circuit board design that even our CPU's of the future would look like a borg cube in design. Good luck in fitting a heatsink with that!"

      Biology does heat removal (and supply) to 3D blocks of matter all the time. By of course running fluid carrying channels right through it on a need based model (other than the major bits of plumbing) and pumping a fluid through those channels.

      A heatsink as usually bolted on top is always going to lose in efficiency compared to proper cooling. We sort of do it in petrol and diesel engines where coolant is pumped through the block and into a radiator (acting much like the skin does in humans or the ears of an elephant).

  17. MGmirkin

    Yep, science does seem to suffer from too many egos at times.


    Seems like certain sectors have stagnated or become averse to "new ideas." Astronomy in particular seems rather "dogmatic" about its assertions, despite oft shaky unsupported assumptions & deductions. Bog G-d forbid you should question any of them! Woe be unto you... Heresy!

    Anyway, I wonder if Mead has considered the notion of the unification of the electromagnetic & gravitational forces?




    Seems a number of independent lines of inquiry came to similar conclusions about the source of the gravitational force / field... No "warping of the fabric of space & time [whatever that is]" required?

    That is, getting back to a more "classical" model explaining the workings of things...

    Would be interested in his impressions on the issue. Are the proffered maths & metaphysics in said papers valid?

  18. David Pollard

    The question of chirality

    With spintronics coming along as a promising technology, Carver Mead isn't so far wrong to be taking a serious look at Mach's conjecture.

    While the jury is still out on whether the universe has a preferred direction, chiral compounds present a similar and currently unsolved problem. The Gibbs free energies of enantiomers differ by a very very small amount. Although the energy difference is too small to be detected (yet?) it does seem as though the universe recognises handedness.

    Somewhere in this area is the possibility of scientific discovery which would find more or less immediate application in developing electronic technologies. Mead seems to be looking in the right place.

  19. Dick Pountain

    Read The Book

    If you have the physics, read Mead's book "Collective Electrodynamics". There's nothing loonie or cultish in it - he revives Einstein's side of an old argument, by proposing that the wave view of matter is sufficient and the particle view follows from it. In the the process he explains some of the paradoxes raised by the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

  20. ecofeco Silver badge

    Big egos stopping innovation?

    Shocked I tell. Shocked.

    1. AlainCo

      Norbet Alter remind often that good invention often fail because of human factor.

      for example water-mill did not develop, because th builder (kind of great engineers-architect of their time ) had problem to accept to surrender to the desires and demand of the lords... Two big ego were facing.

    2. ecofeco Silver badge

      Damn smart phones.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Typical engineer talking cobblers

    Reminds me of the old Uni joke...

    A math grad, a physics grad and an engineering grad took their final test for a job with an investment firm. The sole question on the paper was "how much is one plus one".

    The mathematician asked the receptionist for a ream of paper and, two hours later, said: "I have proven it's a natural number".

    The physicist, after four hours furiously scribbling on whiteboards, said: "It's between 1.9999999999, and 2.0000000001".

    The engineer quickly said: "Oh! That's easy! It's two,.... no, better make it three, just to be safe."


    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Typical engineer talking cobblers

      I'll bet they hired the engineer.

  22. neo137

    Mach's Principle (Einstein's key idea)

    Only a fool would ignore Mach's principle, but admittedly there are many of those out there! Einstein said in 1922 that in later years people who ignore Mach's principle in his GR will come to see they have made a great mistake.(words to that effect).

    If you read a serious text on GR, you will almost certainly come across Mach's principle. Some of the newer trendy texts do not have it in, that is because the younger authors are ignorant of the relevance. There are several forms of Mach's principle. Several of these descriptions are included in relativity. The one I prefer is the following, which you can see quoted in the text by Carlo Rovelli on quantum loop gravity: Cambridge monograph, p76

    Mach Principle 8:

    "The local inertial frame is completely determined by the dynamical fields in the Universe. True. In fact it is precisely Einstein's key idea."

  23. ecofeco Silver badge

    Ego Boat Anchors? Yes. Innovation Dead?

    You have GOT to be kidding.

    You just don't go from hydrogen atoms to sekrits of the universe in one easy step.

  24. science
    Thumb Up

    1927: physics hijacked by crackpots


    In 1927 the crackpots in physics took control of physics at the Solvay conference in Belgium. Voodoo-physics became the norm just because Heisenberg, Bohr and Born could not and would not accept that electrons are REAL EM waves; just as Schroedinger's equation proves that they are. It was probably just too horrible for them to contemplate the possibility that the spotlight might move from the Goettingen-Copenhagen axis to Zurich.

    It is easy to prove from Einstein's Theory of Relativity that a moving electron must be a coherent EM wave with a de Broglie wavelength. If Einstein did not blunder by deriving length contraction, he could have derived and thus discovered this wavelength more than 20 years before de Broglie came up with it. You are absolutely correct Dr. Mead: The time is long overdue to bring theoretical physics back from cloud-cuckoo land. You have my FULL support!

    Johan F. Prins

  25. hapticz

    ab ab ab ab, without knowing, we can last forever!!

    dammit, these folks are going to blow up the universe, they're dangerous! who knows what will happen, poking those Bosons, scattering those particles all to heck! it's all working just fine, leave it alone, we don't need to know this, or that, or why or why not.

    as long as we just keep sticking it to each other, breeding like mindless idiots, finding better ways to murder each other (non-contact) and even decimate all other possible combinations of DNA opportunities, humanity will eventually prevail as the last remnant of misguided entropy known, ever! ;-))

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