Don’t Watch the Star, Watch the Crowd

I didn’t comment last week on Hawking’s proposed solution of the black hole firewall problem. The media buzz around it was a bit less rabid than the last time he weighed in on this topic, but there was still a lot more heat than light.

The impression I get from the experts is that Hawking’s proposal (this time made in collaboration with Andrew Strominger and Malcom Perry, the former of whom is famous for, among other things, figuring out how string theory can explain the entropy of black holes) resembles some earlier suggestions, with enough new elements to make it potentially interesting but potentially just confusing. It’s a development worth paying attention to for specialists, but it’s probably not the sort of long-awaited answer the media seems to be presenting it as.

This raises a question: how, as a non-specialist, are you supposed to tell the difference? Sure, you can just read blogs like mine, but I can’t report on everything.

I may have a pretty solid grounding in physics, but I know almost nothing about music. I definitely can’t tell what makes a song good. About the best I can do is see if I can dance to it, but that doesn’t seem to be a reliable indicator of quality music. Instead, my best bet is usually to watch the crowd.

Lasers may make this difficult.

Ask the star of a show if they’re doing good work, and they’re unlikely to be modest. Ask the average music fan, though, and you get a better idea. Watch music fans as a group, and you get even more information.

When a song starts playing everywhere you go, when people start pulling it out at parties and making their own imitations of it, then maybe it’s important. That might not mean it’s good, but it does mean it’s worth knowing about.

When Hawking or Strominger or Witten or anyone whose name you’ve heard of says they’ve solved the puzzle of the century, be cautious. If it really is worth your attention, chances are it won’t be the last you’ll hear about it. Other physicists will build off of it, discuss it, even spin off a new sub-field around it. If it’s worth it, you won’t have to trust what the stars of the physics world say: you’ll be able to listen to the crowd.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Watch the Star, Watch the Crowd

    1. 4gravitonsandagradstudent Post author

      Not sure whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing here.

      On the one hand, yeah, popularity isn’t a good way to judge quality. But I think what I’m going for here is something more like “staying power”. Things tend to be more worthwhile if they can grow beyond their original context.

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      1. Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, I was agreeing with your line: “That might not mean it’s good, but it does mean it’s worth knowing about.”

        Popularity is one thing, and to my mind a fairly meaningless thing, all sorts of things become popular, but staying power is a whole other thing, and I quite agree it’s more meaningful.

        The “classics” are the classics because they outlasted their context. They endured because they had something that continued to grab people. Often popularity is most defined by how short and transient it is. Warhol’s infamous “15 minutes of fame.”

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