Gina Says

At the height of the string wars a couple years ago, one of the participants was a mysterious anonymous commenter going under the name “Gina”. Earlier this year Gil Kalai wrote to me to reveal that he was the person behind “Gina”, and that he had put together a book based on these blog discussions, to be entitled “‘Gina Says,’ Adventures in the Blogosphere String War”. He has now put the first part of manuscript up on his blog, the posting is here.

Back in January he sent me a copy of what he had written, I haven’t checked to see what changes might be in the version available now. Instead of writing something about this here now, I think I’ll just include part of my e-mail to him back in January, which gave my reaction to the project then:

Hi Gil/Gina…

Thanks for sending me the draft of the book. I read through it quickly, amused to relive again some battles of the string wars. When people ask me if I’ll write another book, often I’ve answered that I was considering just cutting and pasting together a lot of things from my blog, other blogs, and my e-mail, all of which told a rather amazing and often amusing tale. Funny to see that you’ve done something a bit like this yourself. During this period I also remember often telling people that I felt like I was living in a comic novel.

Actually, I’ve no intention of publishing anything about the “String Wars”, although happy if other people want to. I’m rather glad that they have died down, and I’m trying to devote my time instead to a research project I’m quite excited about (the BRST stuff I’ve started writing about on the blog).

Some comments about issues you raise, and some added context for some of these stories:

In my book, I tried to avoid saying much at all personally critical about string theorists and their behavior, the sort of thing that Lee Smolin did more of. I generally agree with what Lee wrote, but, in the past my personal contacts with string theorists were mostly with quite reasonable people that I didn’t think it appropriate to criticize in this way. After my experiences in the “string wars” though, I ended up feeling that Lee actually didn’t go far enough; that, individually and as a community, there are very real behavioral and ethical problems in how all too many string theorists do business. My impression is that the “string wars” brought a lot of this out into the open, and have damaged the perception of string theory among physicists and the wider community, more so than anything Lee wrote. Like Lee, what I was hoping our books would lead to would be a serious discussion of the issues involved. There was some of this, but all too much name-calling and bad behavior.

Some context about Clifford Johnson: independently of each other, both Lee and I wrote to him when our books were in draft form, asking if he would be willing to take a look at them, and let us know if there was anything we had wrong. He just ignored my e-mail, and I gather Lee got a similar response. He appears to be a rather nice guy, and I found this response kind of odd, it was one reason for my mistaken guess that he was the Cambridge referee. I still find his behavior exceedingly strange: how can you write long blog entries denouncing books you refuse to read? He seems to have an ability to refuse to acknowledge the existence of inconvenient realities that goes beyond anything I’ve seen before.

In your fantasy of the future, you mention my book being translated into Czech. Funny, a publishing company there did buy the rights a year or so ago, and I think they will be bringing it out. Sometimes reality and fantasy are indistinguishable in this story…

Update: There’s a posting about this over at Physics World.

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30 Responses to Gina Says

  1. Tim vB says:

    Hello Peter,
    now that was hilarious, but I wonder why the “string wars” have cooled down? Is everybody exhausted from going in circles?
    Regards,
    Tim

  2. karl says:

    Hi Peter,

    Why don’t you declare victory? Time seems ripe. Note that the annual string conference is going on this week in Rome, but this year it has basically zero impact on the blogosphere or elsewhere in the internet.
    Lubos says almost nothing and even you ignore the event totally. Nobody seems to be live-blogging, no videos or audios of the talks, not even pdf’s. Looks as if strings do not rise emotions anymore. Hmm, bad prospects for a new book on the “string wars” ?

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Tim vB and karl,

    I think exhaustion has a lot to do with it. At this point the arguments on both sides have been made repeatedly and extensively, and no one seems to now have any new arguments to make. I’m not about to write another book on the subject.

    The problems of string theory have gotten a fair amount of attention, and there is a much more skeptical attitude about the subject now, among all parties except for string theory’s hard-core fans. Some string theorists seem to be hoping that since attention has died down, maybe they can go back to issuing some hype for the subject. So, the blog still has a role to play…

    Unfortunately I don’t think my point of view on this has been victorious, since the problems of string theory have caused a backlash among physics departments against mathematical and formal studies, not only of string theory, but of QFT also, which is a shame.

    It is odd that there’s nothing on the internet yet about Strings 2009. No video, no slides, no blogging. Some years ago Jacques would live-blog the conference, this year his only blog entry so far has been about finding someone to go to dinner with. Presumably at some point he’ll write something about the talks.

  4. Aaron Bergman says:

    This seems to be a copyright violation waiting to happen.

  5. AcademicLurker says:

    “During this period I also remember often telling people that I felt like I was living in a comic novel.”

    Peter,

    On another blog we were discussing comic novels set in academia and noticed that the famous academic satires like David Lodge’s Small World (and many others) focus almost exclusively on the humanities, with science largely ignored.

    Perhaps you could write a novel to complement Not Even Wrong. There’s definitely an unfilled niche:)

  6. Peter Woit says:

    AcademicLurker,

    There’s definitely an excellent comic novel in this story, and the idea of writing such a thing in 21st century epistolary form (i.e. as blog comments and e-mail) did appeal to me. One reason I didn’t pursue that idea was that I’m pretty sure that I don’t have the skill to put together a really good piece of fiction in any form, the other was that reality as usual seems to me more strange and fascinating than fiction. What novelist could possibly come up with Lubos Motl?

    Still, maybe I should have done my own version of Gil’s cut and paste job, there’s some wonderful material. In any case, it’s all still out there for anyone who wants to try….

  7. Thomas R Love says:

    Thanks for another interesting link, Peter. I read the book and had quite a few laughs, but then I went to Gil’s web site and read his list of publications. Nothing on string theory, so I have to wonder what his motivation is. Gil posted as Gina here. Did he ever write anything here under his own name?

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Thomas,

    Gil did post some comments under his own name “Gil Kalai”. He’s not a string theorist, and I think makes pretty clear his motivation, which was basically an interest in trying to understand the lively controversy.

    The “Gina” comments were always frustrating to deal with. For one thing, the anonymity is always frustrating, partly because not knowing what someone’s background is, it’s hard to know at what level to try and interact with them. How much do you need to explain? Not knowing who you are dealing with makes this a more difficult and time-consuming process.

    As recounted in the book, I ultimately decided to put an end to Gina’s comments. They sometimes raised interesting points and were worthwhile, but towards the end more often were attempts to enter into technical debates, without any expertise in the issues. This led to lots of confusing misconceptions being thrown around, encouraging other not very expert commenters to add theirs, and generally led to me being put in the position of allowing a lot of uncorrected misinformation here, or having to put in a lot of time to straighten it out. I was trying to encourage what at that time was sometimes a serious discussion of the issues between people fairly expert in them, and felt that Gina’s comments were interfering with that.

  9. Pingback: Praise For ‘Gina says’ « Combinatorics and more

  10. tomate says:

    It is quite odd to hear from overseas the string war is cooling down, and that time is ripe to declare some form of victory. Here in Italy, at the periphery of the empire (not only from a scientific point of view) such a discussion is yet to come, and problably will never come. It is amazing to see how much scientific discussion goes on the internet in the US and in other more civilized european countries; we are almost illiterate in comparison, so no wonder that Strings 2009 is held in Italy, and that it has no resonance on the web.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    tomate,

    I think there’s nearly unanimous agreement that the string war has cooled down, unfortunately not so unanimous about which side won…

    It does seem pretty 20th century that nearly halfway through Strings 2009 not a single blog posting has yet come from any of the 450 people attending (or are they all on Twitter now…?). But I don’t think you can blame that on the Italians. There are physicists there from the very center of the Empire (Austin, Texas) who for some reason don’t seem to be blogging.

  12. David says:

    Ever occur to anyone that measuring blog interest is not actually a measure of scientific impact or in fact anything at all.
    Hhhm, perhaps we should use other criteria.

  13. themanwithaplan says:

    Having read some of it, I have to say that it leaves one with a distaste for what Kallai has done. By selecting which blog entries to show and which to omit, he could have tried to give a narrative to his writeup. But the way he has written it now, it is very sleazy: after showing snippets of blog responses, “Gina” then tells us what she thinks about it…. sometimes sneering at the blog posts, sometimes indicating how idiotic the writer of the post must be.

    The role of kallai should have been the one of a silent commentator, above all the comical aspects of this whole story, whose simply organizing and showing us what happened. But gil is not satisified with that, he lacks any sense of decent restraint. He simply cannot resist jumping into the story, and rolling in the mud himself.

    Peter, you should have not given space to such idiocracy by gracing it with a blog post. From what you wrote above on your idea of such a project, I got a different impression, one closer to what I just said. Gil is just using this whole story to get *his* last word on everything in there.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    themanwithaplan,

    I don’t know if my version of this would have been more objective than Kalai’s, but I do think it would have been a lot funnier….

  15. Pingback: ¿Por qué nadie habla de lo que está pasando en Strings 2009 (Roma)? « Francis (th)E mule Science’s News

  16. Tim vB says:

    As entertainig as all of this is: please keep in mind that there are people out there, and will be, for years to come, who are primarily interested in the arguments that were exchanged.
    If anyone thinks right now “well, just go to your local string guru and then to your local QFT of whatever non-string-guru”: Extrapolating and abstracting my experience boils down to this: Go to professor X at the physics faculty of university y in city z and ask about string theory. You will get a sermon living up to the late Ajatolla Chomeini, be it pro or contra string theory, but a sermon it will be.
    How is one supposed to make any sense of this?
    To give a complete account of the string wars, you would probably have to team up a string theorist, a non-string-physicist, a philosopher fond of epistemology, a sociologist and some talented writers from Hollywood.

  17. Hendrik says:

    I ran into “Gina” in a hot debate on Cosmic Variance some years ago. I found that “she” dissipated the debate by asking for instruction at an elementary level. She was often a distraction from the main scientific issues under discussion. Later on “she” actually emailed me when the debate ran out of puff, asking me to post more basic explanations. Overall, I think she added substantially to the noise level of the debate.

  18. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter – you say the arguments have exhausted you, and I totally understand – but the social behavior of string theorists is the real problem and not the details of the (non) theory, which any reasonable person can see to be bad science in general and awful physics – it’s the terrible effect on careers and science itself generated by this entrenched majority that needs to be exposed, attacked, and put to an end. The real problem to explore, is how this all came about and how it persists.

    -drl

  19. Chris Oakley says:

    Hendrik,

    Ah … who could forget that one? 530 comments over 2 months and practically the entire Fundamental Physics blogosphere, and then some, chiming in.

    I did not object to “Gina”‘s contributions, though. But as a general principle I do not think that people should be allowed to post anonymously, especially when they are being contentious.

    I like the final comment (#530) – more than 6 months after the original posting, which was my old pal William Shaw realising that I had taken his name in vain in mentioning his work on 4D Superstrings.

  20. Gil Kalai says:

    This is a nice reference to my book, Peter. Thanks. The issue of anonymous posting (and allowing various cyber or collective or even computerized entities) is interesting. I remember that a year ago or so we briefly discussed it here.

    The marathon 530 comments long thread over the cosmic variance that Hendrik and Chris referred to was indeed unusual and interesting. Close to the end (from 446 or 445 to around 490) There was an interesting long discussion on renormalization which featured different attitudes and different personalities that perhaps could only come together on blogs. There were also several interesting subthreads on other matters.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Gil,

    I did take a look recently at that marathon comment thread. Probably it is the best single location for people to get an idea of the discussion going on during that period. Unfortunately the rest of it is spread around quite a few other different blogs and postings. You gather together some of it, a useful project I might get to someday would be to put together a page of links.

  22. Tim vB says:

    Hello Gil, Peter,
    some random thoughts about this monster thread:
    - This is the first time I think I got a good idea of the kind of discussions at that time, I did not find anything comparable on my own.
    - This thread should probably have been split into one for the experts, and one for posting elementary questions at textbook level (Gil, the questions about renormalization seem to be quite off topic to me).
    - It would seem that everybody has to learn how to communicate using a blog. Personal insults, sublte irony etc. will easily be misunderstood by at least some of the participants, spawning responses that could kill the whole thread.
    The posts that basically repeat former postings strike me as particularly odd, this may make sense in a personal conversation, if you get the impression that you have not been heard, but in a blog everyone can just scroll to the top of the page…
    - Personally I would be most interested in an excerpt of the arguments of both sides, since I fear I have neither the time nor the energy to read all the postings (let alone understand everything).

  23. Aristarchus says:

    Peter, would you like to comment on the following quote from
    the post here:

    http://motls.blogspot.com/2009/07/against-philosophy-2009.html

    “Unfortunately, the world’s crackpots – including some of their leaders such as Peter Woit and Lee Smolin – can never understand that their philosophical preconceptions trying to dictate a priori what science should look like may be wrong and are wrong.

    “Physics cannot respect Smolin’s opinions that it shouldn’t be based on deep and accurate mathematics; it ignores his desire for the laws to respect his own version of the background independence; Nature cannot respect Woit’s or anti-quantum zealots’ opinion that physics must avoid all concepts that are too hard for their small brains to visualize them or to improve their everyday life; science disagrees with Woit’s dumb illusions that correct physical theories are obliged to guarantee that physicists must always have sufficient resources to test these theories (or even cheaply or soon). Nature has no such obligations. Even if these people managed to write one correct sentence – which is as likely as in the case of the proverbial monkey writers – the method how they arrived to such a sentence is scientifically flawed.”

  24. Tim vB says:

    Hello Aristarchus,
    Hopefully Peter will have time to answer you himself soon, but: Is it really necessary
    to comment on this quote? I always liked the attitude “let everybody publish and
    let everybode else make up her/his mind about it”.
    During the last few years I got the impression that this attitude is a luxury
    that people working in hep cannot afford, at least not all the time.
    In the case of Lubos Motl I think we can.
    The only remarkable point in this quote seems to be “science disagrees with Woit’s dumb illusions that correct physical theories are obliged to guarantee that physicists must always have sufficient resources to test these theories”.
    This seems to be a relapse to pre-Aristotelian concepts about what science is and what it is not (no need to discuss that it is also quite impolite, right?).

  25. Aristarchus says:

    Tim, I was not trying to be rude. I want to hear the other side of the story and I wanted to quote what was said EXACTLY without editing so no one can accuse bias.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Still traveling, back at work on Thursday. Tonight I’ve got decent internet access and some free time for the first time on this trip.

    Aristarchus,

    Lubos is pretty much nuts on the topic of string theory and this is so obvious that it’s usually not worth the time to respond to his endless rants. As for this one:

    1. I firmly believe that at a fundamental level physics is based on deep mathematics, not on things that humans are readily able to visualize. The problem with string theory is not that it uses too sophisticated mathematics, it’s that it is a wrong idea about unification, and no amount of mathematical technology can fix this.

    2. The problem with string theory is not that it can’t be tested today, but that it is inherently untestable, no matter how high an energy accelerator we ever figure out how to build. There’s nothing wrong with working on ideas you don’t know how to experimentally test, but you have to have some plausible explanation about how, if your research program works out, someday your ideas can be tested. In the case of string theory, in 1984 there was such a proposal, but what has been learned about the theory since then has shown that it doesn’t work, leading instead to landscape pseudoscience. In short, the problem with the project of getting string theory to the point of being testable is that by any measure of progress, the derivative is the wrong sign. 25 years of research has just made the whole thing more and more implausible the more we learn.

  27. Anonymous says:

    “but that it is inherently untestable,”

    Can you explain? What if there is a way?

  28. chris says:

    “but that it is inherently untestable,”

    Can you explain? What if there is a way?

    well, nobody can show any way up to now. as Peter said, 25 years ago it looked more or less like there would be some predictive power but now this hope is dwindling by the year as the landscape is explored and no preferred point seems to be found.

  29. Aristarchus says:

    Is it true what I once read, that in order to ever have a chance to detect a string, we would need to build a particle accelerator the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy?

    When I see how much trouble they are having with the LHC….

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Aristarchus,

    A particle accelerator the diameter of the Milky Way could not test string theory. The problem is not one of technology…