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Sunday, March 10, 2013
Current Affairs ... Science ...

The Paul Frampton “drug mule / honey trap” story is a real head-scratcher. The NY Times just ran a good article about the case. In a nutshell, Frampton is a 68-year old theoretical physicist who works on cutting-edge research in the fields of particle physics and cosmology. He is a professor at the University of North Carolina, although for the past two years he has been in South America, either under arrest, awaiting trial, in prison, or most recently, under “house arrest” on the premises of a fellow physicist who lives in Argentina. Frampton hasn’t done too well with women most of his life; he was married at 50 but soon divorced, and recently tried to get “back in the game” using an internet dating site. He had earlier gotten something going with a woman in China, and traveled all the way there to see her (given that they were discussing marriage). But the whole thing blew up quite quickly once they were face-to-face.

Undaunted, the big professor took up with someone claiming to be a 35-year old swimsuit model from Europe. As with many things in “virtual reality”, it all seemed too good to be true. And of course it was. Unfortunately, it did NOT seem too good to be true to this great thinker. He and “she” made plans to meet in Bolivia, but once he got to LaPaz, his sweetheart claimed to be in Europe, called to an important last-minute photo shoot. So he was to fly to Brussels to catch up with her, but she asked him for a small favor. I.e., pick up a piece of luggage that she had allegedly left behind in LaPaz and bring it to Brussels for her.

Professor Frampton was warned about this “in real time”. He was in touch with a friend during the trip, and was told point-blank that this was a set-up, that the suitcase would have drugs hidden in it and he would be in big trouble. But the Professor dismissed this theory; after all, HE was the brilliant theoretician, not his lawyer friend. Unfortunately, the theory that there actually existed a voluptuous young Czech woman who was madly in love with Dr. Frampton and who had innocently forgotten a piece of luggage in Boliva was a bit too abstract and disengaged from empirical evidence, i.e. by what science is supposedly driven by. (Not to mention common sense.)

So of course Dr. Frampton was arrested and put to trial. But hey, it looked as though he had a solid alibi: he was a naive and lonely super-geek from the ivory tower, out looking for love. Sure, most normal guys would have smelled the rat long ago, but perhaps we need to cut a guy who spends all his time working on equations and papers regarding chiral color as an alternative to the Standard Particle Model, cosmological signs of neutrino CP violations, and the relationship of fermion masses to non-Abelian finite flavor groups some slack. People who live in their head to that degree might not always deal well with the world that most of us live in. And anyway, the bubble seemed to finally break for him just before he was about to get on the plane to Brussels, when he changed his plans and tried to head back to the USA, all alone.

Unfortunately, he decided to hold on to that strange piece of luggage. As a memento to his folly? Or something a little more sinister . . . during his trial, the Argentinian prosecutors came up with records of his e-mails and texts from his cellphone just before his arrest. He was still in touch with whomever was behind the “swimsuit model” identity, but seemed to be discussing quite knowingly the 4 pounds of cocaine in the suitcase, along with plans on how to profitably dispose of it once they met up in Europe. What? Was Dr. Frampton an innocent nerd, or actually someone living out the “Breaking Bad” story? (Frampton is not dying, but has various medical problems).

The good Professor and his lawyers claimed vehemently that these messages (approximately 30) were just a joke, just a little fun fantasy so as to relieve the boredom at the airport. They cited airport security camera recordings showing Dr. Frampton leaving the luggage unguarded for up to a half hour while he wandered about the shops and food vendors. Why would anyone who really anticipated cashing in on $400,000 of coke do something like that? And why would a real drug smuggler send so many texts “in the clear”, advertising what he had on him, given that security authorities can and sometimes do monitor airborne phone signals for keywords hinting at drug trade?

The way that questions like this (“who would rightfully do that”) are usually answered is via the “normal, reasonable person” standard. But Paul Frampton was NOT that person. This is a situation that goes well beyond any “normal behavior” explanation. For every “why would he do that if”, there is a counter-question such as “but if he was innocent then why didn’t he do XYZ”. E.g., if he felt jilted and disappointed once he decided to turn for home, why didn’t he ditch the bag? Why did he try to bring it home with him? As something to remember this mis-adventure by, or remind himself of his stupidity (which he still didn’t seem to fully accept when he was arrested at the flight gate — supposedly he was in prison for over a month until he finally admitted to his cellmates that he had been duped)? He claimed in court that he hoped that his model muse would yet come to North Carolina for her bag — oh, come on now . . . unless he imagined that she in fact was involved with drugs and would come to recover the stash, whereupon he could try to talk some sense into her, rescue her from the dark world of cocaine.

[Actually, that final notion might hold some water. No, not that the Czech swimsuit model on whom the fantasy was based really used or sold coke; but that theoretical physicists don’t give up right away on their pet theories when the evidence starts going against them. Frampton’s strange experiences in LaPaz probably made him think that his friend’s warning about drugs could be true; but he refused to give up on his theory that there was a beautiful young woman behind it all, and not some criminal internet scammers. He tweeked his theory just enough to contain the new information, i.e. that his wife-to-be had some bad habits but he could yet deal with them. That’s just what theoretical physicists do.]

So did he really know — or at least suspect — that there was a stash of drugs in that bag that perhaps he could use to his financial benefit, or to lure his drug-dealing dream woman with? But if any of this were true, then how could he think that he could get it by customs inspection? Once again . . . this guy’s mind could have been anywhere. He was not your average person who read the local newspapers and thus had an every-day sense of what law enforcement does to stop drug traffic.

I’ve been interested in science for most of my life, and in the past year or two I’ve been putting some time and effort into boning up on cosmology and particle physics. I’ve felt admiration, sometimes even envy, for the people who have the minds and the opportunities to be involved in the search for the Higgs boson (Higgs field, really), the quest for super-symmetric particles and extra dimensions, the understanding of what dark energy and dark matter really are, the unification of gravity and quantum mechanics, and the many other mysteries of where it all came from, why it’s this way, and where it’s all going. But I do know that modern physics is going way out on the gangplank these days regarding theories and models that seem to fit existing data but have not yet been proven by new data to be correct.

Many physicists are asserting the reality of the “multiverse” and even claiming that it decisively eliminates any notion of a “creator” or a “higher force” (such as God). But the multiverse view stands on several other attractive but not decisively proven paradigms, including cosmic inflation and superstring “M” theory. Although you can’t judge all of modern high-energy physics by what Professor Frampton did, it still makes one wonder . . . have they really come loose from common sense and what was once the “prime directive” of science, that you don’t assert anything until you and anyone else interested can prove it using real-world observations?

Obviously Dr. Frampton’s imagining of a lovely life together with a beautiful young woman who would give up her international acclaim to settle down in a college town and raise a family for a humble and aging academian was way out there. With 20-20 hindsight, he certainly did not go far enough to check his theories against real-world data. (Note, Dr. Frampton does NOT appear to be a big fan of the “multiverse” theory; he has a 2009 book which seems to favor a “cyclical universe”, an eternally expanding and contracting universe . . . this is despite the current trend in physics favoring an expanding universe that eventually goes cold and dark, while other new universes branch off unendingly, with one in every so many trillion that foster something akin to the sentient life that we presently know in this realm).

Paul Frampton could petition for freedom and return to the USA next year. In the mean time, he has not given up on physics nor on life; he says he currently has ideas for eight research projects distributed between particle phenomenology and theoretical cosmology; and plans to learn Spanish. As to internet dating, Dr. Frampton wishes to ‘warn people of the evils of internet dating’, specifically the possibility of being scammed. One does have to wonder, though . . . will he play the dating web sites again, older but wiser? And might he also remind his theoretician colleagues of the need for humility and grounding in data, before sweeping pronouncements can be made about the nature of reality? Professor Frampton certainly learned the hard way that real-world data can be merciless, no matter how beautiful one’s theories and mental paradigms might be.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:15 pm      

  1. Jim, What can one say about the situation with Prof. Franpton? All I can think of is: Does Sheldon Cooper of “Big Bang Theory” come to mind? Why do I have the feeling I was reading a script for “Big Bang Theory” as I read this post? Maybe because it could very well BE a script for BBT? Prof. Frampton and Sheldon Cooper: Both think that his mind is so supremely superior compared to others that all the rest of the world could not conceivably be right, when their idea is so clear in their own mind.

    And I have to say that “Big Bang Theory” is one TV program that can actually set me to laughing. As did this story of Prof. Frampton.

    If one must get serious about the Prof. Frampton situation, one can only be sad that such a wonderful mind is so limited in its ability to figure things out.

    And then too, I find myself wondering: If this is the kind of person who is figuring out how our world came to be–or works or has its being–I fear what their conclusions about the world may turn out to be. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 11, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

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