Lots of Unrelated Topics

I’m trying to finish writing up something about equivariant cohomology for the BRST project, slowed down by realizing there was something interesting about this that I didn’t understand. Soon that should be sorted out….

In the meantime, here are various other things that might be of interest:

The El Naschie/Elsevier saga continues, latest here.

There’s a new book out from Cambridge University Press entitled On Space and Time, which has chapters from different authors stretching from solid physics to theology, with lots of quantum gravity in between. The editor, Shahn Majid, is blogging here, on a site run by Cambridge.

Evidence for time travel has appeared in the British newspaper The Independent, which recently published an editorial by Mike Duff about string theory that appears to have come through a worm-hole connected to about 13 years ago.

There really are good reasons that theorists who insist on devoting their lives to absurdly speculative models of extra dimensions which have nothing to recommend them other than not being obviously inconsistent should stop promoting these things in the press. One of these reasons is that doing this tends to lead to articles like this one on Fox News.

British theorists at Durham are getting some new funding.

American scientists are lobbying for their piece of the stimulus pie that should be cooked and ready to serve within the next couple weeks. An editorial by David Gross and Eric Kandel is here, a letter from 49 Nobelists here. The latest news indicates that the NSF and DOE are still in line for massive short-term budget increases.

In France, President Sarkozy argued in a speech that French scientific research needs to be reformed, with the economic crisis that originated in the U.S. a good opportunity for the French to modernize and do things more the way they are done over here. Many French scientists are reacting with “shame and anger”, and planning on joining a general one-day strike this Thursday. I know little about the problems and virtues of the French research system, but perhaps scientists there should tell Sarkozy it’s a deal if he is willing to put up the sorts of cash the current U.S. administration is discussing.

There have been a few physics arXiv preprints that seemed worth a mention recently, although all of them have been discussed extensively by Lubos, who seems to be saner these days:

  • Smolin and Ellis argue here that if you take the landscape seriously you end up predicting a negative cosmological constant, falsifying the idea. This is along the same lines as other such wrong predictions (e.g. proton decay), and since their existence hasn’t slowed down the spread of landscape ideology, I doubt one more will do the trick.
  • Several authors here find 10668 as a lower bound when calculating the number of possible vacua in a certain class that might give the standard model at low energies. This is high enough to make getting any predictions (other than the wrong ones…) impossible, but along the same lines as previous estimates which didn’t slow down the landscapeologists. No reason to think this one will either.
  • Petr Horava has an interesting proposal for a new candidate sort of quantum gravity here, one with Lorentz breaking at short distances. I don’t know if this is any more testable than other such proposals. Even though his proposal has absolutely nothing to do with string theory, it’s rather amusing that the author finds it necessary to somehow invoke string theory:

    Given this richness of string theory, it might even be logical to adopt the perspective in which string theory is not a candidate for a unique theory of the universe, but represents instead a natural extension and logical completion of quantum field theory. In this picture, string theory would be viewed – just as quantum field theory – as a powerful technological framework, and not as a single theory.
    If string theory is such an apparently vast structure, it seems natural to ask whether quantum gravitational phenomena in 3 + 1 spacetime dimensions can be studied in a self-contained manner in a “smaller” framework. A useful example of such a phenomenon is given by Yang-Mills gauge theories in 3 + 1 dimensions. While string theory is clearly a powerful technique for studying properties of Yang-Mills theories, their embedding into string theory is not required for their completeness: In 3 + 1 dimensions, they are UV complete in the framework of quantum field theory.
    In analogy with Yang-Mills, we are motivated to look for a “small” theory of quantum gravity in 3+1 dimensions, decoupled from strings.

    So, the idea seems to be that now string theory is a “logical completion” of qft, although not needed to describe any of the forces we know about.

  • For two new survey talks at UCSB by Edward Frenkel about geometric Langlands, see here. He also gave an interesting talk there as part of the KITP string theory program, on recent work (summarized here) that has relations to both geometric Langlands and to the pure spinor formalism.

    Update: One more. The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on SCOAP3, the plan to make the entire high physics literature open access by coming up with $14 million/year to pay off the publishers. I don’t really see this. The idea seems to be that the money is needed to get peer review, and the size of the literature is about 10,000 papers/year. So, cutting out the publishers, referees could be paid $1,400/paper to do peer review. This might dramatically increase the quality of refereeing, or at least the take-home pay of many physicists. Some quotes:

    But Mr. Mele says journals still play a crucial role in the professional life of scientists, even though readership has declined. “We do not buy journals to read them, we buy journals to support them,” he said. “They do something crucial, which is peer review.”

    Without journals, he asks, how would colleges evaluate the work of scientists to know whom to hire or whom to promote? And how would other scientists know which of the thousands of preprints contain the most important findings?

    “What we are really paying for here is for a service of peer review,” he said.

    but here’s the problem, at least in the U.S….

    The librarians praised the goals of the project, but some asked whether it was sustainable. After all, if the journals make their contents free online, why should college libraries use their shrinking resources to pay for them?

    Some librarians at public institutions say they cannot participate even if they want to. “Most states require that public funds allocated for purchasing have to be used to actually purchase something,” said Dennis Dillon, associate director for research services at the University of Texas at Austin. That is certainly the case in Texas, he said. “They can’t be used to pay for something that everyone already has for free.”

    Update: For more LHC-related hysteria generated by publicity-hungry academics, see this. It originates with a group at the Institute for the Future of Humanity, last seen promoting the idea that we live in a simulation.

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    14 Responses to Lots of Unrelated Topics

    1. anon. says:

      ‘… by coming up with $14 million/year to pay off the publishers. I don’t really see this. The idea seems to be that the money is needed to get peer review, and the size of the literature is about 10,000 papers/year. So, cutting out the publishers, referees could be paid $14,000/paper to do peer review. This might dramatically increase the quality of refereeing, or at least the take-home pay of many physicists.’

      $14 million divided into 10,000 is $1,400, not $14,000. It will help those who are peer-reviewers, but will it help those trying to publish unfashionable ideas? I’d imagine that putting such a price tag on peer-review will make for a lot of the ‘I’ll review your paper if you review mine’ culture, great for the mainstream but not so good for backwaters.

    2. “journals … do something crucial, which is peer review”

      Wrong. Scientists peer review each other. The contribution of journals is limited mostly to a technical work of sending e-mails back and forth. This job can be easily performed by a not-so-sophisticated web application. Paying $ millions to publishers is just beyond ridiculous.

    3. Peter Morgan says:

      Journals also provide an archive of their papers. If my library has a subscription, I go to the journal web-site for the paper, instead of writing to the author for an offprint. My library doesn’t have an on-line archive of their own, whereas they used to have their own carefully maintained paper copy archive.

      Journal editors also act as doorkeepers, a task in which they are scrupulously supervised. Editors are expected not to pass papers to peer review if they are obviously substandard. I’ve seen at least one nasty blast at an editor for sending one of my early papers to a referee. You have to pay for your doorkeeper.

      Journals also apply minimal copy editing and standardization of format. Over time, new technical developments sometimes require changes to such policies, a process that requires expertise, time, and resources. The move to the web was a major such transformation of the process, which was handled well or badly by different journals, but it certainly cost money.

      There are numerous administrative tasks associated with any large-scale organization, which do not go away by the application of fine sentiment. It’s not just peer review that is provided by journals, it’s organization of peer review, knowing who can be sent any given new paper, knowing how to deal with new ideas well in the journal environment, etc. There is still the printing process to take care of, even if many fewer copies are printed and offprints have become almost a memory.

      I presume that a journal editor could list a significant number of other tasks that scientists themselves would be loath to spend time on. I am not associated with journals in any way, and some publishers act corporately in a way that encourages criticism, but the idea that journals just provide peer review is unthinking.

    4. Peter Woit says:


      Oops… I suppose I should not write some of these things quite so fast. Fixed.

    5. Peter Woit says:

      Peter Morgan,

      Sure, the peer review process needs not just referees but editors to choose them (or decide a paper is not worth bothering them with).

      The arXiv already handles the archiving function well, and it’s becoming debatable whether printing up copies of papers is a useful function.

    6. Pawl says:

      A few comments on the Fox News/LHC business, where, bizarrely, they report on an arxiv preprint concerning the possible lifetimes of micro black holes.

      I think it’s a little unfair to say the large-extra-dimension proposals (which generated all the fuss by predicting micro black holes) have nothing positive to recommend them. They are attempts to solve a deep problem (the hierarchy problem), and that problem could have some really radical solution. (True, beyond that, they have a lot of negative baggage.)

      I do agree however that much of the problem comes from the fact that these proposals were discussed without anything like the appropriate caveats about how unlikely they are to be correct. It’s not merely that they involve speculation, it’s that they are so preliminary it’s hard to say much about them. (There is no real theory yet, only some ideas and models. The ideas are so radical that they almost certainly cannot be reconciled with known physics.)

    7. Peter Woit says:


      The original problem here came about because of the hype from theorists about the possibility of the LHC producing black holes, something absurdly unlikely, but you wouldn’t know this from the sales job done by some theorists. Given the recent hype, I don’t think it’s especially bizarre that Fox News would pick up on a paper by three theorists about “the Possibility of Catastrophic Black Hole Growth in the Warped Brane-World Scenario at the LHC”. I do think it’s a bit bizarre that any theorists would post a paper with this title on the arXiv if they didn’t want to get on Fox News.

    8. MathPhys says:

      Now I’m starting to really like El Naschie. The man has guts.

    9. Shantanu says:

      Peter, I see there are 2 back-to-back colloquia on string theory .
      Could you give us a summary if there was anything new in it?
      Also anything interesting in the KITP program on string theory.

    10. Peter Woit says:


      I’m embarrassed to admit that I was planning on attending the Gubser colloquium last week, but somehow got busy with something else that day and forgot about it. I’ll probably try and go to Vafa’s to see what he has to say.

      So far, of the KITP talks I found the Nekrasov and Frenkel ones interesting, but haven’t found time to write about them. I see Polchinski is giving a general talk about string theory today…

    11. Jason says:

      Anyone know what happened to John Baez’s


      ? Did he take it down due to legal threats from El Naschie? I really want to read it. If anyone has it cached, please send it to hasten dot jason at gmail dot com. Thanks!

    12. woit says:


      That’s weird, I don’t know what the story behind that is. The El Naschie story just gets odder and odder….

    13. Shantanu says:

      Peter, thanks for the info and I look forward to a description of
      Vafa’s talk. Also did you find anything hyped/intereresting or otherwise
      in the string theory talks in the PI conference on black holes and
      quantum physics?

    14. Peter Woit says:


      Sorry, but my interest in many quantum gravity issues is just not very great, and the black hole information loss business is something I’ll happily leave to other people to debate. There are too many interesting things out there to learn about and think about, so one has to make choices, and that’s one of mine…

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