On Outré Ideas

David Stevenson has a nice Commentary in Physics Today:

He argues in defense of “crazy” ideas in science. He categorized three kind of “crazy”:

The First Kind is simple crackpottery: people who don’t know enough science to articulate a real scientific idea, and do not understand its interconnectedness well enough to distinguish outré ideas from nonsense ones. He says this is the most common and least interesting (and he’s right, except as a study in sociology)

The Second Kind is when good scientists take a fresh, naïve look at a new field. He writes:

Inevitably, such excursions can look like the actions of a dilettante…One is then accused of speculation. I occasionally sense from colleagues some disdain for scientific speculation, perhaps because it is cheap: It seems to require relatively little effort and commitment.

He argues that hard, serious speculation is rare and important. This is certainly something I’ve tried to engage in. My excursions into lunar geology theory, the Faint Young Sun problem, and even SETI (at first) were certainly in this category. Indeed, the reactions I got to our lunar highlands work from the lunar science community ranged from the pleasant to the snide (Dave himself was polite, but dismissive—though, after reading this I wonder if I misread him.  Caltech GPS was certainly the most receptive audience I found.).

Physicists are prone to this sort of work (consider Richard Muller’s forays into climate science (and borderline denialism)) to the point of cliché (one of my favorite SMBC comics), and SETI seems to be a favorite destination for dilettantes from all fields.

The Third Kind are when established leaders in their fields upset the table with entirely new perspectives.  One occasionally sees cals for such ideas: Lindy Elkins-Tanton acknowledged the need for new ideas in lunar formation theory in Nature, and Michael Inzlicht in psychology has done serious soul searching, wondering if his career, indeed much of his field, is based on bad statistics. But these ideas are not always invited or even welcome; Stevenson’s examples are Hoyle’s Black Cloud and steady-state cosmology, and the idea of emergent gravity.  He finishes with a quote from Neils Bohr to Wolfgang Pauli: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

Stevenson briefly mentions a “portfolio” of ideas, and this brings me to one of my favorite papers, Avi Loeb’s banquet lecture (here at Penn State!) about how young scientists should divide their research time. He argues for some fraction of time to be spent on “venture capital”, analogous to spending some of your financial portfolio on high-risk, high-reward investments. (Avi may have been inspired by Eric Weinstein’s lecture on the topic, h/t Michael Neilson for pointing me to it) Avi acknowledges that there is actually a lot of acceptance for work on outré topics, but argues that the natural conservatism of the Academy and science tends to favor no more than 5% of one’s efforts there.  He argues it should be more like 20%.

I think between 5-20% is right, in an average sense. So some scientists should spend 100% of their effort on safe “bonds”, others a lot more on venture capital (my last few years have involved much more SETI than I had planned for), but if as a whole we’re working between 5-20% of the time on Second and Third Kind speculation, I think we’ll do well.

I use “outré” above instead of “crazy” (and I put the latter in scare quotes) because the latter is a slur for people with mental health issues. I appreciate it’s often not meant that way, but I think society is slowly realizing how common mental illness is, how badly and unjustly it is stigmatized, and how casual uses of terms like “crazy” to mean “unexpected” or “weirdly different” reinforce that stigma.  Also, “crazy” isn’t even the right word here—by using it, Dave is facetiously implying that one would have to be mentally ill to have come up with the idea, but all he needs to make his point is to say that it’s nonobvious, very clever, and outside the normal thought process—outré.

6 thoughts on “On Outré Ideas

  1. jtw13 Post author


    No, time variability would not be obvious in these spectra. They resolve angularly (vertically in the plots) and spectrally (horizontally) but not temporally.

  2. Harry R Ray

    One final question. In their PDF, Tellis and Marcy stated that the exposure time needed to take spectra of relatively bright objects like KIC8462852 was 1 to 10 minutes. A strongly suspected ISM of unknown density lies between Earth and KIC8462852. This medium would interfere with laser transmission, making it seem less powerful than it actually would be. A VARIABLE ISM would make the laser transmission seem to be variable, too. Could this be an explanation why only one pixel was bright and did not “fan out” onto neighboring pixels, as the modeling of an ACTUAL laser transmission suggests?

  3. jtw13 Post author

    Ah, I see now.

    First, I’m not sure there are any stars in SDSS Borra & Trottier missed. I’m also not sure Boyajian’s Star is in any SDSS spectral catalog.

    I think more interesting would be to first try their analysis on a huge array of stellar spectra taken with a different instrument. If the same signal shows up, then it will be *very* interesting to try their trick on lots of other stars, Boyajian’s Star included.

  4. Harry R Ray

    I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. KIC8462852 was not in Borra and Trottier’s group of stars they used to look for the pulses they eventually found in 234 of them, because they were all halo stars, whereas KIC8462852 lies near the disk. I ALSO do NOT question the VALIDITY of their results. I would just like to know two things. One, does KIC8462852 pulse LIKE their 234 do(which has nothing to do with the probable cosmic ray hit from Tellis and Marcy’s separate observations of KIC8462852), and if it does, do ANY of Tellis and Marcy’s OTHER stars exhibit the same kind of pulses, too.

  5. jtw13 Post author


    I don’t have any reason to think that Borra & Trottier made a mistake when taking the FFTs. I presume that if I did what you suggest I’d get the same 234 stars back that they did.

    Note that the “signal” (actually a cosmic ray) that Tellis & Marcy find (which is narrow band) looks nothing like the Borra & Trottier signal (which is very broadband).

  6. Harry R Ray

    I have an outre idea for you. I just read your tweet about 5600 stars and the only one with a halfway decent CANDIDATE laser transmission was KIC8462852! My “outre idea” is this: Someone(NOT Borra or Trottier) should data mine SDSS and run the SAME Fourier Transform analysis THEY did for THESE 5600 stars. If KIC8462852 is the ONLY ONE with a “pulse” similar to their 234, well, you’re the pro. Tell me what the odds on THAT would be.

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