The Imitation Game

This season’s Hollywood math/physics extravaganza is starting to come to an end. For coverage of the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, I enthusiastically recommend Michael Harris’s new piece at Slate which just appeared.

The final high profile production, one promoted at the Silicon Valley ceremony, should be The Imitation Game, a film based on the life of Alan Turing, to be released on November 28th. I had the chance to attend a preview screening last night, featuring a Q and A with the film’s screenwriter. The short version of a review is: go to see this is you like watching Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley perform, but if you want to know anything about Turing, avoid the film and spend your money instead on a copy of the new edition of Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

Turing’s story was little known until 1983, when Hodges published his biography, which is just fantastically good. Hodges (see his web-site here) is a mathematical physicist who began working with Penrose back in the 1970s on twistor diagrams, work that has recently played a prominent role in the hot topic of new methods for computing scattering amplitudes. The Hodges book made Turing a famous figure, partly for his code-breaking role, partly as a martyr for gay rights given the horrific story of the way he was treated because of his sexual orientation. By 1986 the biography had inspired a play, Breaking the Code, that ran in London and New York, and then became a 1996 movie. There have been other film treatments of the story since, including the 2011 Codebreaker.

Other than a few general facts, the part of the film set at Bletchley Park has little relationship to reality, with almost none of what is portrayed actually having happened. As just one example of the sort of thing that was made up out of whole cloth, the film has Turing discovering a Soviet spy, who uses his homosexuality to blackmail him into silence. Cumberbatch plays a compelling character, but one much like his Sherlock Holmes on TV, not like the Turing of the Hodges book, or like any other mathematically talented person I’ve ever known.

It often mystifies me why people who make movies based on fascinating real stories sometimes just ignore what really happened and instead make up a much less interesting plot. In this case, hearing from the screenwriter after the film made the problem clear. He seems convinced that Turing is a little known figure, and that it is his job to reveal this unknown story to the public, unaware that this was done much better back when he was in pre-school. From his comments, he never bothered to understand anything about what Turing actually did during the war, in particular he is convinced that Turing’s big breakthrough was to realize that to break codes it was helpful to know some phrases that were likely to be in the message (e.g. “Heil Hitler”). He explained that he was sure that Turing saw himself as a figure in a thriller, and that informed how he wrote the film. All in all, he had a very simplistic agenda (to reveal the unknown fact that a gay man had won World War II) which completely overwhelmed any interest in the details of what actually happened.

The contrast with the recent Stephen Hawking biopic is striking. That film took some dramatic license, and simplified some complex people and situations, but it didn’t just completely make things up, and the star’s portrayal of Hawking was convincingly true to life. The memory of Alan Turing would have been much better served by a similar degree of respect for reality.

Update: The Guardian has a review, which explains some of what the film gets wrong. For something with more detail, see this.

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Planck News?

The timing for release of long-awaited Planck polarization data keeps getting pushed back. At one point it was supposed to be earlier this year, most recently it was supposed to be this month, with that timing forced by a conference devoted to discussion of the results planned for December 1-5. The website for that conference now says:

The 2014 Planck public release of data products and papers will actually take place a few weeks after this conference. This conference is therefore the first occasion to preview the Planck 2014 data products and discuss their scientific impact. The presentations will be videocast online. After the conference, the presentation slides will be made available.

Another conference scheduled assuming the data will have been released is this one in Paris December 15-19.

The Planck website now reports:

- The data products and scientific results will be presented at a public conference in Ferrara. The presentations will be videocast during the conference and slides will be made available after the end of the conference.

– It is planned to release all major data products and scientific papers to the public before the end of 2014. A few of the derived products (e.g. the Likelihood code) will need a little more time to be readied for release, but will be made public within the month of January 2015.

David Spergel on Twitter reports December 22 as the date for release of papers and data.

It will be interesting to see how the cosmology community deals with the situation of no papers or data, just videocast and slides, from December 1 on. From similar situations in the past, some people have highly developed technology for scraping data off slides, presumably that will be in high demand.

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Advertisements for the Multiverse

After watching the Breakthrough Prize awards tonight, tomorrow night on the Science Channel you can watch a program that actually features physicists rather than Hollywood/Silicon Valley celebrities. There’s an hour long infomercial for the Multiverse, entitled “Which Universe Are We In?”. You get to hear from

  • Max Tegmark starting and ending the show with a generic promotional spiel about how wonderful the multiverse is.
  • Seth Lloyd about how weird QM is, and that it and cosmology provide strong experimental support for the multiverse.
  • Anthony Aguirre explaining about seeing collisions of other universes in the sky, and about how evidence for the multiverse has now been seen (BICEP2), providing a huge leap forward for the multiverse.
  • Laura Mersini-Houghton about the string landscape and how she has used it to make predictions, which are now becoming accepted.

The program ends kind of like a car commercial, with beautiful scenery and swelling music. A voice over mentions un-named fuddy-duddy critics, mainly to say that BICEP2’s “great support for the theory of the multiverse” has “given then something to think about”. It suggests that the answer to the question raised by all these different kinds of multiverse (“which one is true?”) can be answered by believing all multiverse models at once, no need to choose.

No mention of tedious things like dust. This multiverse is all new and shiny, slices, dices, provides every reality you could possibly want.

On a somewhat higher level, Quanta magazine followed up last week’s multiverse piece with a new one this past week, Multiverse Collisions May Dot the Sky from Jennifer Ouellette. Aguirre appears here too, working with collaborators on analyzing possibly observable consequences of bubble collisions. One of them is Hiranya Peiris, who explains that multiverse theory is like the theory of evolution:

Peiris acknowledges that this argument has its critics. “It can predict anything, and therefore it’s not valid,” Peiris said of the reasoning typically used to dismiss the notion of a multiverse as a tautology, rather than a true scientific theory. “But I think that’s the wrong way to think about it.” The theory of evolution, Peiris argues, also resembles a tautology in certain respects — “an organism exists because it survived” — yet it holds tremendous explanatory power. It is a simple model that requires little initial input to produce the vast diversity of species we see today.

A multiverse model tied to eternal inflation could have the same kind of explanatory power. In this case, the bubble universes function much like speciation. Those universes that happen to have the right laws of physics will eventually “succeed” — that is, they will become home to conscious observers like ourselves. If our universe is one of many in a much larger multiverse, our existence seems less unlikely.

The problem of course with bubble collision “predictions” are that they’re not falsifiable. As far as they’re concerned, you can only win: seeing nothing doesn’t disprove the multiverse. The most recent attempt to look for evidence in the CMB that I’m aware of is this, which found nothing in the WMAP-7 data. I haven’t seen anything using Planck data released so far. Presumably when new data is released later this month some kind of search for bubble collision evidence will be done, and Quanta magazine isn’t likely to report the likely outcome.

The Quanta piece isn’t an infomercial like the TV program, it does explain some of the problems with this whole endeavor, including this from Erick Weinberg:

“My own feeling is you need to adjust the numbers rather finely to get it to work,” Weinberg said. The rate of formation of the bubble universes is key. If they had formed slowly, collisions would not have been possible because space would have expanded and driven the bubbles apart long before any collision could take place. Alternatively, if the bubbles had formed too quickly, they would have merged before space could expand sufficiently to form disconnected pockets. Somewhere in between is the Goldilocks rate, the “just right” rate at which the bubbles would have had to form for a collision to be possible.

Researchers also worry about finding a false positive. Even if such a collision did happen and evidence was imprinted on the CMB, spotting the telltale pattern would not necessarily constitute evidence of a multiverse. “You can get an effect and say it will be consistent with the calculated predictions for these [bubble] collisions,” Weinberg said. “But it might well be consistent with lots of other things.” For instance, a distorted CMB might be evidence of theoretical entities called cosmic strings. These are like the cracks that form in the ice when a lake freezes over, except here the ice is the fabric of space-time. Magnetic monopoles are another hypothetical defect that could affect the CMB, as could knots or twists in space-time called textures.

Weinberg isn’t sure it would even be possible to tell the difference between these different possibilities, especially because many models of eternal inflation exist. Without knowing the precise details of the theory, trying to make a positive identification of the multiverse would be like trying to distinguish between the composition of two meteorites that hit the roof of a house solely by the sound of the impacts, without knowing how the house is constructed and with what materials.

There’s also the problem that even if you did see something, it really would tell you pretty much nothing about the supposed other universe:

Should a signature for a bubble collision be confirmed, Peiris doesn’t see a way to study another bubble universe any further because by now it would be entirely out of causal contact with ours. But it would be a stunning validation that the notion of a multiverse deserves a seat at the testable physics table.

Update: One problem with arguing that the multiverse is like the theory of evolution that physicists should keep in mind: creationists love it.

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Breakthrough Prize on TV

You can watch the recent Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony on TV tonight, 6 pm on the Science and Discovery channels. The Science Channel has a site with videos of highlights of the evening, the complete list of which is:

  • Christina Aguilera singing “Beautiful”.
  • Larry Page of Google talking about himself and Google.
  • Mark Zuckerberg talking about the universe and the “masters of string theory”, which is “our best hope for one explanation of reality”.
  • Michael C. Hall talking about his own cancer, then bringing on Jimmy Wales to talk about a cancer researcher.
  • Sergey Brin of Google talking about himself.
  • Sergey Brin’s wife Anne Wojicki talking about herself, and about her husband’s DNA (which supposedly indicates an increased risk for Parkinson’s, so research on curing that is important).
  • Lana Del Rey singing “Video Games”.

I’ve heard a rumor that one mathematician was actually allowed to say something, for 30 seconds. Will have to wait for the show tonight to see if that was true…

Update: Just saw the show. There was a nice video shown of the mathematicians saying some things about math in general. Unlike the rest of the scientists, they weren’t given their award by a star or starlet, but were brought on stage together already holding their awards, and Richard Taylor said something for 20-25 seconds on everyone’s behalf. I also hadn’t realized that a sizable part of the show was two promotional segments for Hollywood movies (the ones about Hawking and Turing).

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Alexander Grothendieck 1928-2014

I just heard that Alexander Grothendieck passed away today, at the age of 86, in Saint-Girons. For a French news story, see here.

Grothendieck’s story was one of the great romantic stories of modern mathematics, and many would consider him the greatest mathematician of the twentieth century. For some blog entries about him here, see for example this and this. I’ll add other links as I see them or think of them.

Update: For some blog entries about Grothendieck’s recent life, you could start here.

One of the best places to learn about Grothendieck is from his friend Pierre Cartier, in an article that can be found here, among other places.

Le Monde now has an obituary.

Steve Landsburg has a blog post.

Update: The news about Grothendieck came out in the French press a day ago, but at this point the only things I’ve seen in the English-language press are an AP wire story, and this at the Independent. Come on science journalists, if any story about mathematics and mathematicians is worth writing about, this one is.

Update: There are now obituaries at the New York Times and the Telegraph. The IHES has a page at their website.

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2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

The prize was awarded (by the actor who played Stephen Hawking), in a Hollywood-style awards ceremony (see here) to the 51 members of the two teams responsible for the supernova data showing that the universe is accelerating, with the 2011 Nobel Prize Winners (Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess) specifically cited as the leaders. I gather the 51 people split the $3 million, so each get around $60K. This is interestingly different than the previous prizes, which mostly went to a small number of string theorists for research that hasn’t worked out very well (my prediction of an award to Polchinski, the runner-up for the past two years, was quite wrong). I’m quite curious what caused the change of policy here. The only previous prize for experimental work in physics was a special award for the Higgs discovery, and that went to the experiment spokespersons, not to all the physicists involved (which was controversial at the time).

Anyway, quite interesting and surprising, kind of an about face from theory to experiment, and from rewarding just leaders to recognizing full collaborations.

Update: More here. It seems that the $3 million is not split equally among everyone involved, but that half goes to each of the two teams, and for each team, one third of their winnings goes to their leaders (all to Perlmutter in one case, split equally by Riess and Schmidt in the other).

Video from the ceremony here.

Update: For more details about the ceremony, there’s Vanity Fair. I had heard that relatively few actual scientists were getting invited (and no one really wanted to hear from the mathematicians…). It does seem that a big motivation here is to bring Silicon Valley guys and Hollywood/music biz women together for a party:

Christina Aguilera, who performed during the event, also noticed a difference between tech types and her entertainment-industry colleagues: “Through Yuri, I’ve been hanging out with the Google guys, Facebook guys. I find them all to be so down to earth. It’s really refreshing.”

Unlikely duos chatted over a dinner of lasagna and chicken by the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Aguilera conversed with Twitter C.E.O. Dick Costolo. Elon Musk and Kate Beckinsale were instantly alight in each other’s company.

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The Theory of Everything

Hollywood theoretical physics week, focusing on quantum gravity and black holes, continues with the opening this weekend of The Theory of Everything, a Stephen Hawking biopic. It’s quite good, although a bit too heart-warming for my taste. The focus is on the relationship between Hawking and his wife Jane, and there’s quite a bit more emphasis on religion than can really be justified. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Eddie Redmayne gets an Oscar for his portrayal of Hawking. It’s very impressively well-done, and the sort of inspirational material the Academy Awards people love.

There are things you could complain about in the film’s portrayal of the science (and Dennis Overbye does so here), but this was handled better than I expected, with some reasonable relationship to reality, given the constraints of this kind of movie. In every way, a better film than Interstellar, the other Hollywood theoretical physics movie of the week.

Watching the film did remind me of days long past. When I was a graduate student in Princeton I remember Hawking coming there to give a talk (or talks?), this would have been around 1980. He was talking about Euclidean quantum gravity, and at the time was still able to speak, but his speech was so indistinct that someone who worked with him translated, repeating what he said so everyone could understand. At the time, the general feeling was something like “great physicist, too bad the guy only has a year or two to live” (he did come close to passing away in 1985). I’m absolutely sure that no one then would have believed it possible that he’d go on to become a huge celebrity, make it through two failed marriages, sell 10 million books about physics, and still be with us and active deep into retirement age. Personally I thought a lot of his last book was misguided (see here) but his is an amazing story and he’s got a lot better excuse than his able-bodied colleagues for giving up and going for the multiverse.

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Short Items

  • On Monday there will be symposia at Stanford featuring the Breakthrough Prize winners, with streaming video available. For the morning program, with dignitaries and such, see here. The Mathematics symposium will run 11-5, the program is here, streaming video here. The Physics symposium is also 11-5, no program yet, but streaming video will be here. If you’re in Berkeley they have an event to watch the videos at International House, see here.
  • Tomorrow in Paris will be the Seminaire Bourbaki, supposedly you can watch the talks online here.
  • Latest news on the Journal of K-theory front (for background, see here) is that the Editorial Board has resigned and is starting up a new journal, to be called Annals of K-theory and published by MSP. The story seems to be that the Journal of K-theory was very profitable, but the profits were going personally to the managing editor, Anthony Bak. Evidently he refused to agree to demands to change this arrangement, so was removed from the K-theory Foundation set up to use funds from the journal, and the other editors (except one) resigned. They are encouraging university libraries to consider canceling subscriptions to the Journal of K-theory, but it’s not clear this is possible, since such subscriptions are now often part of bundles.
  • If you’d like to see what the theory group at CERN is up to, take a look at presentations at their retreat, which ends today.

Update: The program for Monday’s Breakthrough Prize physics symposium is available. It reveals that there will be 3 joint winners of this year’s $3 million. I’m betting Polchinski and two others, most likely Strominger and Vafa. The physics speakers get 15 minutes to give a talk, 5 minutes for questions. Mathematicians get twice as long, a total of 40 minutes/talk.

Update: It looks like mathematicians too are getting in on the Hollywood thing. Next week, sandwiched in between Diane von Furstenberg and Jennifer Lawrence, Terry Tao will appear on the Colbert show.

Update: The Terry Tao Colbert show segment is here.

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Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century

This evening’s Hollywood-style entertainment came from the Perimeter Institute, where they had a big public event, live-streamed to the world, featuring Nima Arkani-Hamed speaking on Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century. You should be able to watch the thing soon from the Perimeter site, should be posted at some point here.

The talk was pretty much the same as many other such Arkani-Hamed talks, quite close to the one at the IAS nearly four years ago, discussed here. In this format he can’t go on forever, was cut off by around an hour and a half, so said he couldn’t get to the third part of the talk, which might have been the 21st century part (amplituhedron?). As in the IAS talk, what he did cover was first mostly the 1960s sort of arguments that Weinberg describes in the first volume of his textbook about the constraints on consistent relativistic QFTs. Then an advertisement for the Veneziano model and string theory. The last part of the talk was a long advertisement for SUSY, ending with an acknowledgement that it wasn’t showing up at the LHC. He’s now giving 2018 as the date for when we’ll know about LHC-scale SUSY, which is moved up from the 2020 of the IAS talk of 2011, but still very different than the “year or so after LHC startup” he was saying in 2005. The current plan is for maybe 10 inverse-fb next year, 50 in 2016. If nothing shows up then, I don’t see that the next 50-100 supposedly coming by 2018 have any real chance of finding SUSY.

One thing that struck me about the talk was its odd combination of over-the-top enthusiasm (“this is the greatest time ever!”) and intense defensiveness. He kept emphasizing the claim that theorists, even without experiment to keep them honest, were working with highly constrained rules, that it was very hard to do anything not obviously wrong. He denied sociology had to do with what unsuccessful ideas people decide to pursue. He didn’t address at all the “not even wrong” problem: what about the things like the landscape, baroque constructions that evade being wrong by being empty? I like a lot this picture and quote from Perimeter:

If you manage to find one idea that’s not obviously wrong, it’s a big accomplishment. Now, that’s not to say it’s right. But not obviously being wrong is already a huge accomplishment in this field.

I think the defensiveness here that’s coming through is very personal. He’s gotten a $3 million award and a reputation as a leader of the field for ideas that haven’t worked out, but which he can defend as “not obviously wrong” and thus a “huge accomplishment”.

All in all, the talk was very backward looking, recapitulating the SUSY/string theory ideology that has led us to where we are. It looks like he’s planning on hanging in until 2018 with the same story, only then maybe admitting failure (and possibly going for “the multiverse did it, we never had a chance” cop-out). He did end with an upbeat claim that the SUSY picture being all wrong would be very exciting, opening up the field by showing we need something completely new. The obvious question for him is “you pretty clearly wouldn’t now bet $10 on SUSY at the LHC, so why wait?” Why not stop giving promotional talks about SUSY? One thing he could have done that would have generated some excitement in the field would be to have pitched out the two-thirds of the talk he did give, publicly saying these ideas aren’t working, and talked about something from this century, amplitudes or whatever, the part of the talk he never got to.

Well, maybe in 2018…

You can watch the talk here, along with some online commentary in a chat box that was rolling during the talk.

Update: There was also a more technical talk at Perimeter by Arkani-Hamed, earlier in the day, on Cosmological Collider Physics. The video doesn’t seem to be available yet though.

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Hollywood Theoretical Physics Week

Just got back from an opening night showing of the new sci-fi film Interstellar at the Ziegfeld theater here in New York. If you want some idea of what the film is about, trailers are here and here. Warning: spoilers in next paragraph, skip that if you care.

To me the big plot surprise was that the human race is saved by the theoretical physicist. An elderly theoretical physicist has been trying to solve some equation for gravity his entire career. If he solves it this will somehow save the human race (which has just about ruined its planet). Turns out, he wasn’t being honest, he knew how to solve the equation, but to save the planet, you need to reconcile quantum theory and gravity. Only way to do this is to go into a black hole and get the “quantum data”. Dad (Matthew McConaughey) does this, then manages to transmit the “quantum data” via Morse code to his daughter, a theoretical physicist who has taken over from the old guy, who has died. She uses the “quantum data” to write something on the blackboard that flashes by (maybe a 10d gravitational action), this somehow saves the human race. Before we get to this point, lots of plot involving going through a wormhole (looks kind of like what going through a wormhole always looks like), and various time spent on exotic planets orbiting a black hole.

The black hole portrayal is one that great effort went into on the accuracy front, with Kip Thorne involved. He and the film’s director have a book coming out Friday, The Science of Interstellar, and there’s a TV documentary about the science behind the movie. Evidently this film has been in the works for a while: John Preskill tells the story here of a 2006 meeting with Steven Spielberg to discuss the film, also attended by Andrei Linde, Lisa Randall, Savas Dimopoulos, Mark Wise and Thorne.

Anyway, I enjoyed the film, even though I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi films.

Opening in a few days is another major Hollywood effort centered around theoretical physics, quantum gravity and black holes: the Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. A trailer is here. I’ll probably see that this weekend and will report back.

For yet a third Hollywood-type event opening this week and featuring a theoretical physicist, quantum gravity and black holes, see this trailer. You can watch this Thursday night, more info here.

Finally, it’s not really Hollywood unless you have an awards ceremony featuring Hollywood stars. This Sunday night, some lucky string theorist will get a $3 million check for his work on quantum gravity and black holes. Seth MacFarlane is hosting, more details here. From what I recall, the argument for setting up this huge prize for theoretical physicists was that they don’t get enough public attention…

Update: I hadn’t noticed that there’s another film opening this week featuring theoretical physicists, The Principle, with trailer here. I wrote a bit about this early this year here.

: Phil Plait really doesn’t like the film, finding much of the plot scientifically implausible. Of course he’s right about that, but it makes one wonder if he has seen many sci-fi films. From my limited experience, this one is about average on the implausibility meter.

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