Various Stuff

As anthropic pseudo-science spreads through the particle theory community, I’m finding it harder and harder to tell what’s a joke and what isn’t. Maybe I’m wrong, but I fear that recent examples from hep-th contributors and prominent physics bloggers aren’t actually jokes, largely because if they are, they’re not funny.

The book Universe or Multiverse?, based on a series of Templeton Foundation supported conferences, and published by Cambridge University Press, is finally out. It’s edited by Bernard Carr, whose ventures into pseudo-science include not just this, but a stint as director of the Society for Psychical Research. He’s also on the board of directors of the Scientific and Medical Network, where his blurb tells us that:

My interests span science, religion and psychical research (which I see as forming a bridge between them)… My approach to the subject is mainly theoretical: I’m particularly keen to extend physics to incorporate consciousness and associated mental and spiritual phenomena.

The memoir by Jane Hawking that I recently wrote about contains her recollections of both Don Page and Bernard Carr (since they worked with Hawking).

I just ran into my editor at Cambridge University Press, who found that opposition from string theorists made it impossible for Cambridge to publish my book a few years ago, with one of their arguments being that doing so would damage the reputation of the Press. Publishing pseudo-science like this however seems to be fine. Yes, I’m aware that this book also contains criticism of anthropic arguments, and probably has some of the most intelligent and informed writing on the subject, but still… I suppose I should get a copy of the book and write a review (I’ve already read many of the articles, they’re available as preprints on-line), but the thing costs $85, the Columbia library doesn’t have a copy, and I’m not sure I should encourage them to buy one.

This week’s string theory hype: Universe’s Stringy Birth Revealed by Young Czech Physicist, which is not about Lubos Motl, but about an award to Martin Schnabl. Schnabl’s work on string field theory is one of the more interesting recent results in string theory, but the title of the article is, well, complete bullshit.

There will be an opening celebration in October for the Berkeley CTP, which was founded a few years ago and recently moved into renovated quarters. The BCTP is just one of a bunch of other CTPs that have been founded in recent years, including the MCTP and the PCTP (and one dead one, the CIT-USC CTP). The center’s web-site and opening conference appear to be heavily dominated by string theory, quite a change from a few years ago, when Berkeley was one of the leading US physics departments where string theory was not so dominant.

The PCTP has begun construction of its new home in Jadwin, the physics building at Princeton. Artist’s renderings are here. An art historian friend once told me that the proper technical name for the architectural style of Jadwin was “brutalist”. The new construction will add lots of glass, perhaps mitigating the “brutalism”. The large Calder featured in front of the building is called “Five Disks: One Empty”, and it has its own rather brutal history. It collapsed during construction, killing two of the men working on it. According to a local Princeton web-site:

The steel structure has four disks, one of which was originally painted orange, in a fervor of enthusiasm for the school’s colors. The structure was named “Many Disks: One Orange,” but then all of them were painted orange in anticipation of the artist’s visit in 1971. Upon seeing the structure, he asked that all the disks be painted black, and renamed it to its current title.

Over at SciTalks August is String Theory Month, and they’ll have Jonathan Shock as guest blogger later in the month.

At the Stony Brook YITP, the fifth of a series of workshops funded by Jim Simons on mathematics and physics, but mainly devoted to string theory, is now going on. Talks are online here.

Some online conference summary talks that one might want to take a look at are those of Michael Dine at the IAS PITP summer school, and John Ellis at SUSY 07. Both Dine and Ellis discuss prospects for observing supersymmetry at the LHC. Dine lists some of the reasons one might be skeptical that this will happen, including string theory anthropic landcape arguments (he avoids using the term “anthropic principle”, insteard referring to it as “NBN, that principle which cannot be named”). Ellis recalls his own role in the “discovery” of supersymmetry by UA1 back in 1984, indicating it’s likely that there will be such premature claims again at the LHC if anything at all anomalous is seen by the experiments. He also discusses the possibility of searching for long-lived particles produced at the LHC by using the muon system to locate where they left the detector, and then taking core samples of the surrounding rock to look for them.

For some excellent detailed postings about recent experimental HEP results from Tommaso Dorigo, see here and here. For blogging from CHARM 07 by Alexey Petrov, see here.

David Vogan has a wonderful expository piece about the recent heavily publicized results on the representation theory of E8; it’s intended for a future issue of the Notices of the AMS.

The September issue of the AMS Notices is now available. It includes an article about “Higgs Bundles”, a version of the Higgs that physicists won’t really recognize, and a book review of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics. The review is quite positive about the book and mostly a straight-forward summary of what it is in it. The reviewer, like many mathematicians, had been misled by a lot of the hype about string theory, and so found Smolin’s book quite enlightening. In particular, about M-theory, he writes:

This explanation [that M-theory is not a complete theory] was, to me personally, a great shock since I had always believed M-theory was a complete theory.

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62 Responses to Various Stuff

  1. The Vlad says:

    “In this case, it seems to me that a bunch of people invested a lot of time and effort in an idea that turned out to be wrong. They don’t want to admit they were wrong. This isn’t exactly unusual human behavior, especially among academics.”

    Dear Peter,

    Don’t you mean “an idea that turned out to be not even wrong”? 🙂


    The Vlad

  2. D R Lunsford says:

    I stumbled across a fine paper by GFW Ellis examining the philosophical issues that underlie cosmology – it has pertinent statements about anthropocentrism – when anthropic arguments are sensible and when they are not. In particular, this can be applied to Weinberg’s original paper, allowing it to be seen in proper context as exhibiting a selection principle.



  3. D R Lunsford says:

    And while we’re reading Ellis: which a new ultimately strong version of the AP is revealed to the reader, namely:

    “ not only must exist [in any Universe], but once it has come into existence must continue to exist until the end of the universe..” – the Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle or CRAP.


  4. anon. says:

    See also Prof. Smolin’s

    “It is explained in detail why the Anthropic Principle (AP) cannot yield any falsifiable predictions, and therefore cannot be a part of science. Cases which have been claimed as successful predictions from the AP are shown to be not that. Either they are uncontroversial applications of selection principles in one universe (as in Dicke’s argument), or the predictions made do not actually logically depend on any assumption about life or intelligence, but instead depend only on arguments from observed facts (as in the case of arguments by Hoyle and Weinberg). …”

  5. island says:

    Lee is just wrong about that. For example; the goldilocks enigma quite specifically predicts that life won’t be found on Mars or Venus due to the runaway effects that these planets are subject to that anthropically balanced planets do not succumb to, and this prediction about life is being tested as we speak.

    It ain’t all about the multiverse, regardless of what “popular opinion” has to say about it…

    The Goldilocks Enigma and Mediocrity

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Please, unless you’ve got something new and interesting to say about the anthropic principle, don’t post comments about it here. One of the surest signs of pseudo-science is that it leads to endless and tedious arguments that can never be resolved, and that drive away anyone sensible. Do this over at Cosmic Variance, not here.

  7. Mainland says:

    … never be resolved, and that drive away anyone sensible. Do this over at Cosmic Variance, not here.

    Peter, it is hard to do that over at Cosmic Variance because there is a scarcity of sensible people to be driven away.

    heh heh, sorry if offtopic, just a little joke.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Peter Woit\’s War On Science Will Fail!!!!!!

  9. Chris Oakley says:

    Alon Levy’s war on HTML will fail. Using backslash to quote characters only works in TEX.

  10. Matt Robare says:

    I think it’s obvious why publishing pseudo-science is okay: it sells. People are interested in psychic powers or whatever. Meanwhile you violate “scientific consensus,” which makes you an arch-heretic. Look at what happens to anyone who questions global warming.

  11. String Fan says:

    This explanation [that M-theory is not a complete theory] was, to me personally, a great shock since I had always believed M-theory was a complete theory.

    The only shock is that the reviewer is shocked: the very name of M-theory was chosen to emphasize its incomplete status. If one knew just a single fact about the subject, it would be this. Evidently the reviewer possesses no background knowledge whatsoever on the subject of the book he is reviewing. You can hardly blame his ignorance on `string hype’, but of course in Peter Woit’s universe string theorists are always wrong, and everything is their fault.

  12. Ralf says:

    Did anybody notice this footnote in arXiv:0708.1917v1 [hep-th]: THE EARLY YEARS OF STRING THEORY: A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE by John Schwarz?

    1 Since the history of science community has shown little interest in string theory, it is important to get this material on the record. There have been popular books about string theory and related topics, which serve a useful purpose, but there remains a need for a more scholarly study of the origins and history of string theory.

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