Quick Links

There seems to be a political scandal going on in Italy revolving around the GIM mechanism, with Antonino Zichichi somehow involved. Definitely a higher level of scandal than we have here in the US.

An Oral History Project at Princeton involving interviews with people associated with the Math department during the 1930s is here, and includes the following exchange with Wigner, who evidently wasn’t so happy with Weyl:

Interviewer: We haven’t mentioned Hermann Weyl yet. Can you tell me something about your relations with him? When did you first get to know him?

Wigner: When he came to Princeton I knew about his work, and I quoted it also. You know he was interested in group theory. But in Princeton we were really strangers to each other. He never mentioned my work in his book on the application of group theory to quantum mechanics, even though practically all that is in the book was contained in publications by me and in joint publications by Johnny von Neumann and me. I resented that because I needed a job then.

The TLS has a review of The Trouble With Physics.

For the latest from the frontiers of physics, see this at the KITP, and this at the arXiv.

There’s a P5 meeting going on at SLAC, talks here.

Bert Kostant of MIT gave a talk at UC Riverside entitled On Some Mathematics in Garrett Lisi’s ‘E8 Theory of Everything’, and as part of the festivities John Baez gave an elementary introduction to E8. There’s some discussion of this at his blog. It seems that the initial reaction from some string theorists that this material is so easy that undergraduates shouldn’t have too much trouble with it may have changed a bit. For a comment on the attitudes involved, see here.

: To try and make up for the high-level of snarkiness of this posting, here’s something else. This month’s National Geographic has an excellent big article about the LHC, with the usual National Geo impressive photography. No hype about extra dimensions, etc., just a serious explanation of what the LHC is all about and what physicists are trying to do, ending with the following wonderful quote:

…I asked George Smoot, a Nobel laureate physicist, if he thinks our most basic questions will ever be answered.

“It depends on how I’m feeling on any particular day,” he said. “But every day I go to work I’m making a bet that the universe is simple, symmetric, and aesthetically pleasing—a universe that we humans, with our limited perspective, will someday understand.”

Update: Two more

  • FQXI has Phantasms of Infinity, an article on the Boltzmann Brains/counting universes hot topic among theorists. It includes an actual picture of a Boltzmann Brain, as well as a quote from Vitaly Vanchurin, who works in this area:

    Without a way of calculating probabilities, cosmology is a dead science, it doesn’t exist.

    I think this will be news to most cosmologists, who are happily ignoring the problem of how to count universes in the multiverse. More accurate would be “Without a way of calculating probabilities, multiverse studies is a dead science, it doesn’t exist”, which is pretty much the situation now and for the forseeable future.

  • New Scientist has a reasonably good cover story on cosmic strings. It ends with

    Discovering them would be really big news. String theory has often been criticised as a theorists’ plaything, a pretty piece of mathematics unable to make any testable predictions. That perception would change pretty fast if we were to find a host of giant superstrings crisscrossing the skies.

    This is an accurate summary of the situation, although it might be worth pointing out that not only is there no evidence for cosmic strings, but there’s not even anything ever observed that cosmic strings provide a compelling explanation of. At the moment they’re just a pretty pure example of wishful thinking. Sure tomorrow someone may find a “host of giant superstrings crisscrossing the skies”. It’s also true that tomorrow aliens may land and explain to us how to compute the Standard Model parameters from superstring theory.

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    17 Responses to Quick Links

    1. Coin says:

      Hm. A small tossoff near the beginning of the TLS Trouble with Physics review states: “He accuses string theorists of racism, sexism, arrogance, ignorance, messianism and, worst of all, of wasting their time on a theory that hasn’t delivered.” It was awhile back I read Trouble with Physics, but I don’t remember– did in fact Smolin accuse string theorists of racism and sexism?! I do remember a section wherein Smolin argued for greater inclusion of women etc in physics, but this was not as I recall specifically directed at string theorists, but rather one of several generalized criticisms of the sociology of modern science in the closing sections.

    2. DB says:

      Check pages 280 and 320 of Weyl’s: The Theory of Groups and Quantum Mechanics, 2nd Edition, November 1930 which was the edition first translated into English in 1931.
      P.280: “P.Jordan and E. Wigner have given a very elegant group-theoretic proof that there exists but one irreducible matrix solution of equations (14.10)” [derivation of the irreducible Abelian group of unitary ray rotations in system space]
      P.320: “The significance of our results for quantum mechanics [symmetric group and equivalence degeneracy in quantum mechanics] as first recognized by Wigner, is the following”

      Weyl cites the source papers in his bibliography, and includes a comprehensive selection from Wigner’s and Von Neumann’s giving meticulous credit to their contributions.

      As for “practically all that is in the book was contained in publications by me and in joint publications by Johnny von Neumann and me” well, even a cursory examination of Weyl’s bibliography gives the lie to that egotistical hype. For more details see
      where it is clear that Wigner resented Weyl’s priority in this area. Wigner published his own book on the subject in 1931.
      As Abraham Pais has shown, Wigner has some history of inaccurate claims.

    3. Eric says:

      It should be Antonino Zichichi not Antonio.

    4. woit says:

      Thanks Eric, fixed.

    5. anon. says:

      “For the latest from the frontiers of physics, see this at the KITP”

      Or, you could look at any of the other recent talks at the KITP on heavy-ion physics or LHC physics. What is your point, anyway? One snicker-worthy talk out of many isn’t a sign of anything, no matter how much you want it to be.

    6. Peter Woit says:


      Well, the topic of the talk was that of the last major story in the New York Times about the latest developments in theoretical physics, and one that has been heavily promoted on certain blogs and discussed here. It seems to be considered by some to be one of the hot areas in the subject, and the audience asked lots of questions and was quite involved. So, that’s why I thought it was worthy of comment.

      It’s harder to justify paying any attention to the arXiv posting I mentioned…

    7. censored out says:

      Thanks for the link to the recent entertaining review of Smolin’s 2006 book by the Times Literary Supplement:

      “… Smolin has launched a controversial attack on those working on the dominant model in theoretical physics. He accuses string theorists of racism, sexism, arrogance, ignorance, messianism and, worst of all, of wasting their time on a theory that hasn’t delivered. …

      “Smolin has little new to say about how the institutions of science are undermined by personal ambition, internal politics and bureaucratic overload – as he himself admits.”


      Is it just me, or does the second sentence just quoted contradict the first one, about the excesses of some string theorists and their wasting of time on failed theories? Surely, at least by giving the example of messianism in science institutions, Smolin is saying something “new” about how scientific institutions are undermined by personal ambition, internal politics and bureaucratic overload?

      Regarding the denial of credit to Wigner for his work, Wigner’s 1992 autobiography also expresses annoyance toward Fermi for Fermi-Dirac statistics. Wigner was using Fermi-Dirac statistics long before Fermi started doing so, and he suggests that Fermi should instead be given credit for beta decay theory, not Fermi-Dirac statistics.

    8. Professor R says:

      hi Peter,
      interesting blog as always. I have two queries/comments:

      1. I can’t make head or tail of that Nielsen abstract on ArXiv. Were you being sarcastic? It’s not clear to me at all what their central thesis is – certainly an example of abstract that seems designed to confuse the reader (or is it just me…..)

      2. I enjoyed the TLS review of Smolin’s book, thanks for pointing it out. What surprises me is that none of these reviews ever refer to Smolin’s previous book (‘Three Roads to Quantum Gravity’); the latter is a very good book, and probably a more damning criticism of string theory because it is written in a much more objective and technical style….it’s interesting that the ‘The Trouble With Physics’ is selling far better, although less objective and a lot less concise (in my opinion)

    9. Peter Woit says:

      Professor R,

      Yes, I was being sarcastic. Actually that’s the third paper by these authors on this subject, and the sensible thing to do would be to just ignore them. The fact that serious physicists are engaging in this kind of thing might be of some sociological interest, and some people with a warped sense of humor might find this entertaining…

    10. Professor R says:

      Ah….I wonder about that abstract. Could it be something else?
      I wonder if Nielsen and co. are serious physicists who are attempting to highlight the downside of the ArXiv system in today’s world of lazy journalism…
      Perhaps they’re waiting for New Scientist to pick one of their papers as a cover article….at which point they’ll come clean and declare it to be complete gobbledygook!

    11. oeL says:

      higgs field seems to be getting some publicity… sorta of


      poor ellis

    12. Roger says:

      Totally off-topic (and to be deleted) – more a note to Peter for a future blog entry.

      There is quite a fierce campaign going on in the UK regarding the recent funding cuts, including the ILC decision.

      The story is summarised rather well in http://www.hep.ucl.ac.uk/~markl/pp/

    13. Peter Woit says:


      Thanks. Unfortunately I don’t think I’m well enough informed about what is going on in the UK to write a useful posting about it, but I’ll leave your comment there and advise people to follow the link to learn more about this.

    14. Amos says:

      I read (but hardly understood) the Distler criticisms of Lisi. Is Lisi’s E8 theory dead now?

    15. Peter Woit says:


      Probably best if you ask this question at the place I linked to, where there are experts on this. I haven’t followed it carefully.

    16. Hi Peter,

      thank you for linking my post on the Glashow-Carlucci querelle – it got visited by a large audience in the last few days. Yes, it is a scandal and no, it is not. Yes, because to us it is indeed a scandal that a politician with no understanding whatsoever of the physics takes the liberty to insult esteemed physicists by pretending to argue on the scientific merit of this or that paper. No, because for many in Italy scientists are perceived as a bunch of snobs who pretend they cannot be criticized, and so to their eyes Carlucci’s allegations are perfectly sensible.


    17. Amos says:

      Peter, I find your comments on these issues generally less partisan and more reasoned than those of others on the ‘net, so hoped to get your opinion. But thanks.

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