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Gravity: Misdirection at
the New York Times

by Miles Mathis

me, 1993

Today (July 12, 2010) the New York Times ran an article called “A Scientist Takes on Gravity.” In it, the string theorist Erik Verlinde contends that gravity doesn't really exist as a force; rather, it is simply an outcome of thermodynamics, specifically the equations of entropy. Verlinde first offered this idea just six months ago, in a paper at arXiv. We are told the paper has generated a lot of interest and discussion, so much that it now merits an article in the NYT.

When I first read the article and then the paper, I moved on quickly, believing both acted as their own rebuttals. In the Times article, gravity is explained as an analog of curly hair:

It goes something like this: your hair frizzles in the heat and humidity because there are more ways for your hair to be curled than to be straight, and nature likes options. So it takes a force to pull hair straight and eliminate nature’s options.

Can you believe any scientist would allow his theory to be argued in those terms, in the premier paper in the country? And that is the most meaty paragraph in the whole article. The rest is just background and exposition.

I wanted to move on without comment, but realized I shouldn't. Many top physicists are talking about this paper, and the NYT is highly influential. I shouldn't miss this opportunity to put them all through the thresher.

If you don't see it, the problem there is that this “scientist”, the newspaper, the editors, and a majority of the readers seem to think that your hair “frizzles” for statistical reasons. They accept that proposal and then move on to gravity. If they are so gloriously wrong about curly hair, how can they be right about gravity? I happen to have very curly hair, and I can tell you that hair does not curl because nature likes options. Hair curls for physical and mechanical reasons. It curls because it has a different structure than straight hair. Humidity allows this structure to express itself most effectively. And, in fact, people with very straight hair do not get frizz in humidity. They get even more lank. Every graduate of beauty school knows that. Any gum-smacking, bleach-blonde with scissors knows more about physics in this case than a top physicist. If you tell her hair curls because nature likes options, she will immediately know you are trying to snow her.

But we have even more problems. Notice we have two sentences, and that the second sentence doesn't follow from the first. Even if we accept the analogy in the first sentence, that gravity is like curly hair, and that curly hair curls because nature likes options, the second sentence comes out of nowhere. “So it takes a force to pull hair straight....” The word “so” implies a connection, but I can't see it. If gravity is like curly hair, why would it need to be pulled straight? Verlinde has just proposed curliness from nothing, and now proposes a straightening from nothing. I don't see the point of any of this. If Verlinde wants straightness, why not just propose it as the statistical outcome to start with?

Is it even true that “there are more ways for your hair to be curly than straight”? If so, then why do more people have straight hair than have curly hair? Actually, there is one way to have curly hair and one way to have straight hair: you need to have the genes that cause that structure. In hair, curliness is not a matter of statistics, it is a matter of gene expression. Verlinde is assuming that hair is like lines on a graph, but that is absurd. Yes, in math, there are many curves and only one straight line, but that has nothing to do with hair. Likewise for gravity. Gravity is the expression of mechanics, not the expression of pure math. Hair curls for a mechanical reason; moons orbit for a mechanical reason.

Finally, how does a force pulling hair straight “eliminate nature's options”? Every clause in the quote above is another non sequitur. Assuming that nature has options, she will have the same options both before and after any possible action. What Verlinde probably intends is that pulling hair straight forces the hair into some sort of ground state, so that we have a species of squishy decoherence here. That is the only way I can make any sense of it. But even that is false on the face of it, since the hair was not in any probability cloud to start with. We did not have any sort of wave function, we had curly hair. To eliminate nature's options in this one instance, we would have needed for the hair to start out as curly/straight, superimposed. But we don't have that, do we?

So the sentence can be read as a sign of astonishing and strident ignorance about everything, cosmological and cosmetological. Or it can be read as very clear proof that most people have gone mad. Or it can be read as an indication of a snow job. But it cannot be read as an example of sense, logic, or least of all science.

Another idea in the article and in Verlinde's theory has to do with holograms. Because holograms seems mysterious to many people, they have been used as analogues in new theories, and Verlinde's ridiculous theory is no exception. We are told that black holes are holograms. One physicist

constructed a mathematical model of a “soup can” universe, where what happened inside the can, including gravity, is encoded in the label on the outside of the can, where there was no gravity, as well as one less spatial dimension. If dimensions don’t matter and gravity doesn’t matter, how real can they be?

Good lord. Even if the universe or a black hole is encoded in such a way, that doesn't mean that the universe or the black hole is a hologram. It might mean that our data is a sort of hologram, but our data and reality are not the same thing. To see what I mean, consider a common hologram. To have a hologram, you must have a real object, a code, and then an image. But the image is not the object itself. They are completely separate and discrete. You cannot create a hologram without an object. The code has to have some source, and cannot generate itself. For this reason, a black hole is not a hologram, and reality is not holographic. We are not "shadows on a distant wall," since even shadows must be caused by objects. Data may be shadows, in some instances, but data is not the reality itself. These physicists need to study logic, language, and a thousand other things besides math. They quite simply do not know the difference between the signifier and the signified.

We can see that again with the non sequitur that is the last sentence. We are told the label or code has one less dimension than the object, therefore dimensions don't matter. What? How does that follow? If dimensions don't matter, then why tell us there is one less or more? If they are counting dimensions, then dimensions must have some significance. Even worse is that gravity is lumped in with dimensions as not mattering, despite the fact that we were just told it is encoded on the label. If it doesn't matter, why would nature bother to encode it on the label?

As one last comment on this quote, I have to wonder if the choice of a soupcan was an intentional nod to Warhol. I have proposed in other papers that modern physics is all-too-like modern art, in its love of paradox, its hatred of rigor, and its lack of sense. Like the avant garde artist, the new physicist is more interested in being sexy and au courant than in being meaningful or logical or correct. Today's physicist has more in common with Duchamp than with Newton, and quotes like this one make me believe it is a purposeful and conscious choice, rather than an accident of history.

Let us move past these ridiculous analogies to curly hair and holograms, and ask if gravity can be explained with thermodynamics or entropy. Verlinde tells us that we have known for a long time that gravity doesn't exist, so we may ask if that is true. The answer in both cases is a deafening “NO!” We may or may not have forces, but we certainly have motions that require some explanation beyond, “nature likes options.” The Moon does not orbit the Earth due to options, or to entropy. If orbits were some sort of statistical matter, like drawing tiles from a Scrabble box, then we might see square orbits, triangular orbits, or dodecahedrons. According to Verlinde's theory, there is no reason planets and moons can't take any possible path, including instantaneous reversals, straight lines, or sharp angles. He has absolutely no mechanics, and his math is just an extrapolation of the most squishy postulates of chaos theory and so on. Physics has gotten squishier every decade, until now we see even curly hair explained as a matter of options. Mechanics has been completely and utterly jettisoned from physics, and every remaining question is now “solved” by some magic incantation and an airy reference to symmetry breaking, virtual particles, or statistics and chaos. It makes me embarrassed to be a physicist. It makes me embarrassed to be a human being, frankly. I may have to come up with different tags to separate myself from these people. It is getting to the point where almost every word in the language has become so sullied that no honest person would use it.

At any rate, gravity remains either a force or a motion, and neither the force nor the motion can be explained with any math, least of all a bald statistical math. We don't need math, we need mechanics, specifically kinematics and dynamics. We need a clear explanation of the motions. I agree that gravity doesn't exist as Newton's force at a distance, or as an uncaused curvature, either. But the motions we have assigned to gravity certainly do exist, and until Verlinde or someone else can show how heat of any kind causes orbits, I will assume his theory is a non-starter. Thermodynamics happens to have a definition, which is dynamics caused by heat. If the Earth-Moon orbit is a function of heat, then Verlinde needs to show the source of the heat. Not only that, but he needs to show how the heat would cause the orbit, mechanically. Heat should be a bombarding or exclusionary force, at both the quantum and macrolevel, so how does an exclusionary force by itself cause an orbit? Logically, it cannot do so; therefore, Verlinde's theory is squishier than humidified cottage cheese from day one. Verlinde can only prosper by misdirecting us from the first page into math and statistics and false analogies.

Also depressing and discouraging is the fact that other top physicists are taking any of this seriously. It turns out that only other string theorists are taking this seriously, but still. String theory is such a mass of slippery slop that there is nothing these people are afraid to say in print. Last month it was the Higgs boson coming back from the future to sabotage the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider, this month it is gravity as a pulling force “to eliminate nature's options.” Next month it will be the ghost of Elvis influencing tides.

As far as I could see, Verlinde's theory has only a tiny kernel of truth in it, and that concerns his mention of the equivalence principle. Verlinde is like a blind man, feeling his way about in the dark, trying to fit distant pieces together. But he only has a couple of pieces of the puzzle in giant rooms of jello. If we combine the equivalence principle with thermodynamics, we begin to move in the right direction. This is because the equivalence principle gives us what I call the solo gravity field. Thermodynamics gives us the charge field. Together, they give us my unified field. With the unified field, we can explain orbits and so on.

To start with, my charge field can be called thermodynamic in that it is a bombarding field. It is also thermodynamic in the sense that all heat is ultimately a function of the charge field. Verlinde's problem is that he doesn't see how this ties into electromagnetism. I have basically unified thermodynamics and electromagnetics at the foundational level, and Verlinde and his colleagues don't yet have any clue how to do that. They never talk photons, although photons are the answer to everything. They are still trying to write math around point particles, so they aren't even in the right ballpark mechanically.

Verlinde is also very wrong in his claim that gravity doesn't exist. Even with the charge field, we cannot ditch gravity. We need both fields to explain the stability we see in the universe. We have to balance two fields to create a universe, much less an orbit. Everyone on both sides keeps making the same mistake: from Newton and Laplace to Einstein, it was thought gravity was solely responsible for orbits. New theorists, either mainstream or fringe, try to give everything to E/M or to thermodynamics or to chaos or to expansion. They are all mistaken. There is no fundamental force, there are TWO fundamental forces, in opposition. Gravity clumps, E/M/thermodynamics/entropy disperses. Only the two together have any explanatory power. Einstein was right to seek unification, but not in order to join two maths, or resolve two theories. He needed unification just to explain the orbit of the Moon. Nothing on either the quantum level or the macrolevel can be explained with a single fundamental field.

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