Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Einstein Versus The Physical Review

I did a search on this article because I remember reading it quite a while back. Luckily, it is available for free for everyone who does not have a Physics Today subscription.

I was searching for it because someone was criticizing the peer-reviewed process, and arguing that Einstein would not have been accepted for publication had he tried to publish his papers.

Neglecting the fact that Einstein did published his papers, and that all this person can offer is only mere speculation of whether or not Einstein's work could have been published (if he had lived today, he would have been quite familiar with the system and would have accepted how physics is practiced today), the paper above showed that the great Einstein himself could have learned a thing or two had he paid attention to the referee of the manuscript he submitted to the Physical Review.

The irony, of course, is that Einstein could have found that escape route months earlier, simply by reading the referee's report that he had dismissed so hastily. The referee had also observed that casting the Einstein–Rosen metric (as we now call this solution of the Einstein equations) in cylindrical coordinates removes the apparent difficulty.

The peer-review system isn't perfect, because it is done by humans. But it is the best we have now until a better system comes along. And there ARE valuable feedback done by referees who take their responsibility very seriously. I know that *I* try to be very fair when I referee any papers, and often when there's doubt, will err on the side of the authors. This particular incident with Einstein is one such example where Einstein would have done well to pay attention to the referee report, and where the system really worked the way it should.



Peter Jackson said...

Enjoyed reading it, didn't realise AE had thrown such a wobbler, out of character, but proves human weakness! A good example of how it can work, but a few things it proves and doesn't prove;
1. It proves the system set back progress over 10 years as Guido Beck couldn't get published!

2. It doesn't prove there aren't hundreds more good answers out there, that didn't have Becks eventual luck! (we also know that's true from many other long delayed breakthroughs).

3. It proves AE would never have been published in the first place if he's tried in the US rather than Germany, or tried now!

I.E, with our present system we would almost certainly never have had STR or GTR.

At present someone outside the 'establishment' could find an important answer, with real solid evidence, but it would never even be looked at!
Agreed, 99% of such theories are worthless as they're not falsifiable. So how are we ensuring we don't miss the few important ones that are?

The answer is we're not. All such babies are thrown out, into the 'crackpottery' sea, with the bathwater and lost. It would be an easy problem to solve if we were't too smug to see it.

ZapperZ said...

But aren't you making nothing more than just speculation without any solid evidence?

In this day and age, someone would have pointed to some location in which he/she had already "published" online something ahead of anything published in peer-reviewed journals. I've been on the 'net since 1987, and seen all the crackpottery and other so-called theories on the Usenet. One would think that with ALL these documentations, we would have seen someone claiming that he/she has done something already that later on was proven to be valid. We have no such evidence or example.

What we have are some vague, handwaving arguments that the proponent later on claimed to be the "same" thing. Well, psychics could claim the same thing too if they make their predictions vague enough!

What it boils down to is that speculation like this is cheap and requires no solid evidence. It would not have made it through peer-reviewed.