The graceful-exit problem

By Sean Carroll | November 29, 2005 3:51 pm

There’s an old physics joke about the stages of the reception of a new idea: first it’s considered to be wrong, then it’s considered to be trivial, before finally people are claiming that it was their idea first. Some of our more colorful colleagues have even mastered the art of claiming all three at once!

The question of whether or not we should expeditiously withdraw from Iraq seems to be working through the stages of this joke. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings points to an especially amusing example. Joe Biden (who, I think people on all sides can agree, is a craven opportunist if ever there was one) writes an editorial calling for a timetable for withdrawal. Right-wing hacks in the blogosphere and elsewhere jump all over the poor Senator, questioning his manhood and patriotism. Meanwhile, the White House congratulates Biden for coming up with a plan that was remarkably similar to their own. A slight communication problem for the ordinarily tightly-run noise machine.

The obvious next step: a joint Nobel Peace Prize for George W. Bush, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Saddam Hussein.

  • Count Iblis

    It seems that politics is much to hard for politicians :)

  • Joe Bolte

    In all the noise about a “time-table” for withdrawal from Iraq, I have always wondered, why no one was suggesting the Bush administration publish a “goal-table” for withdrawal. I mean that the administration should simply say, “We will begin the process of withdrawal in a region when the civilian police force has more than X number of members, the military has X members, there are fewer than X people killed by attacks monthly, the local government is democratically elected, etc.”

    With clear conditions for withdrawal, every terrorist act or disruption is quite clearly delaying, not accelerating with withdrawal of troops that everyone wants. This seems like the perfect way to drastically reduce support for insurgents and others who are opposing Iraq’s progress toward stability.

  • Elliot

    I think the challenge with a graceful exit here, is too many people have “inflated” concepts of the value of their respective positions :)

  • Kevin, MarkS’ meanie brother

    …not to mention the war profiteering that seems to be flowing back into Republican coffers.

  • Rubyp_op

    Heck, Yasser Araffat received one. Why shouldn’t this nice Hussein guy be next?

  • Science

    Dear Sean,

    The quotation you refer to may be:

    ‘(1). The idea is nonsense.
    (2). Somebody thought of it before you did.
    (3). We believed it all the time.’

    -Professor R.A. Lyttleton (quoted by Sir Fred Hoyle in ‘Home is Where the Wind Blows’ Oxford University Press, 1997, p154).

  • Science

    Another example:

    “If you have got anything new, in substance or in method, and want to propagate it rapidly, you need not expect anything but hindrance from the old practitioner – even though he sat at the feet of Faraday… beetles could do that… he is very disinclined to disturb his ancient prejudices. But only give him plenty of rope, and when the new views have become fashionably current, he may find it worth his while to adopt them, though, perhaps, in a somewhat sneaking manner, not unmixed with bluster, and make believe he knew all about it when he was a little boy!” – Oliver Heaviside, “Electromagnetic Theory Vol. 1″, p337, 1893.

    Heaviside of course screwed up by leaving school at 13 and learning maths himself, then writing Maxwell’s 20 long winded differential equations in 4 vector operator equations. Notice that they are still called “Maxwell’s equations” despite never being written by Maxwell! Heaviside never got proper credit for anything, because he did not have a PhD (in fact he never went to university). People prefer to delude themselves that Maxwell did everything. Maxwell fiddled sound theory in Part 3 of his paper, “On Physical Lines of Force” (January 1862), getting the right answer (light speed) from wrong working. His elasticity theory is wrong and the predicted speed is really c/2^(1/2). Maxwell quietly corrected the error in a new paper in 1865, getting the same answer, but without the flawed theory. A.F. Chalmers’ article, ‘Maxwell and the Displacement Current’ (Physics Education, vol. 10, 1975, pp. 45-9): “the change was not explicitly acknowledged by Maxwell”. All Maxwell did was to play with equations because Weber had already shown empirically in 1856 that the root of the ratio of electric to magnetic force constants was the speed of light. Maxwell just had to fit a wave equation to this and Faraday’s law, using Faraday’s own theory of 1846, “Thoughts on Ray Vibrations”, and Maxwell had complete flexibility to choose any equation for “displacement current” he liked to get the right answer, but still he screwed it up and took THREE YEARS to correct it. But still he is worshipped, despite the problems his aether caused physics and despite the conflicts with his wave theory of light and the observations that led to quantum theory and the Bohr atom, which ignore Maxwell’s wave theory.

    However, we all have to worship Maxwell, not Heaviside who came up with the Heaviside layer (ionosphere for radio communication), the 4 Maxwell equations, the theory of the transmission line, and mathematical insights. Maxwell’s horseshit is more valuable, because it has the aether which is so adored by Modern Physics!


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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