Embarrassing Crackpottery

A while back I noticed that the arXiv had allowed the posting of the preprint Card game restriction in LHC can only be successful!, yet another in a sequence of crackpot articles about the LHC from Holger-Bech Nielsen and Masao Ninomiya. That these authors have managed to get the previous articles in the series published in the International Journal of Modern Physics A presumably has something to do with the fact that Ninomiya is an editor of the journal. I didn’t post anything about this, on the grounds that embarrassing crackpottery from well-known physicists that no one except them takes seriously is best ignored.

Unfortunately, this particular piece of nonsense has been picked up by the New York Times, which tomorrow is running a story about it under the title The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate. The writer, Dennis Overbye, presumably contacted some physicists to find out what they thought of this. If any of them told him this was just nuts and an embarrassment, that didn’t make it into the story, instead there’s:

…craziness has a fine history in a physics that talks routinely about cats being dead and alive at the same time and about anti-gravity puffing out the universe.

As Niels Bohr, Dr. Nielsen’s late countryman and one of the founders of quantum theory, once told a colleague: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

Dr. Nielsen is well-qualified in this tradition. He is known in physics as one of the founders of string theory and a deep and original thinker, “one of those extremely smart people that is willing to chase crazy ideas pretty far,” in the words of Sean Carroll, a Caltech physicist and author of a coming book about time, “From Eternity to Here.”

Perhaps it would be a good idea if physicists would remind journalists that often things that seem to be crazy really are crazy.

Update: See more here from Tommaso Dorigo. I should have mentioned that his posting from a couple years back Respectable physicists gone crackpotty was linked to in the article by Overbye, who had an accurate take on the subject from at least one source.

Update: Somehow I knew that Slashdot could not possibly resist this nonsense.

Update: Sean Carroll has a long defense of the Nielsen-Ninomiya papers as not crackpot at all, but crazy in a positive way:

There’s no real reason to believe in an imaginary component to the action with dramatic apparently-nonlocal effects, and even if there were, the specific choice of action contemplated by NN seems rather contrived. But I’m happy to argue that it’s the good kind of crazy. The authors start with a speculative but well-defined idea, and carry it through to its logical conclusions.

As for the argument that prominently-placed New York Times stories promoting crazy ideas about physics might be problematic, Sean is having none of it. He argues that the public is able to differentiate between speculative ideas and solidly tested science, so it’s not a problem that:

My own anecdotal observations are pretty unambiguous — the public loves far-out speculations like this, and happily eats them up.

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51 Responses to Embarrassing Crackpottery

  1. ConcernedCitizen says:

    It’s rather shocking that such garbage actually gets published in journals.

  2. James D. Miller says:

    I’m an economist not a physicist so please forgive me if this seems stupid.

    But if the many world’s hypothesis of quantum physics is right and if the LHC would destroy the world if it ever became operational then wouldn’t we get the result in the paper? In fact, doesn’t every time the LHC breaks down increase the probability that the LHC is destroying alternative quantum branches?

  3. Peter Woit says:


    The nonsense coming from Nielsen-Ninomiya is not the popular multiverse nonsense, but their very own private nonsense about “backward causation”. It doesn’t have anything to do with destroying the world, it’s about the production of Higgs particles causing an effect that goes backward in time to stop this production.

    If over the next few years, we see more and more unlikely things happening to keep the LHC from operating, that would be an argument for a many-worlds scenario in which an operational LHC destroyed the universe. Hey, if things got unlikely enough, I might even start believing this….

  4. theoreticalminimum says:

    Boy, another let-down 🙁
    Peter, go easy on my childhood memories!
    Overbye was another author I like; what’s going on with these people these days? Are they struggling to find truly interesting things to talk about?! :-\

  5. This looks like fodder for a dramatic TV series in the mold of Flash Forward. Maybe the authors are pitching such a project.

  6. abby yorker says:

    Seems like there must be plenty of Higgs produced by cosmic rays over the years. Are these avoided by the theory too?

  7. Tim vB says:

    Just read the paper and laughed my head off: Come on now, this is a pretty good joke and parody of some off-shell stringy style, could not be more obvious.
    Well, they could have ended each sentence with a smily, if TeX supports that – don’t know.
    Do you really think you have to point out that this is not “real science”?
    Well, obviously you cannot be too obvious if you do not want to be taken seriously 🙂 which would be the meta joke of the whole affair.

  8. Amitabha says:

    This must be the Eternity machine that Asimov was talking about. Perhaps somebody had gone back to him from the days after the LHC.

  9. Hello Peter,

    thank you for linking my piece, which does not make me too proud but did make me chuckle upon reading it back.

    if the LHC ends up not running at all for a string of accidents big and small, I’d still not caress the idea that we should start playing card games. It will just be a demonstration that we have built a toy too big to play with.

    Every student who has seen the relation between curvature radius and bending dipole field, and the dependence of synchrotron power loss with curvature, has the tools to wonder how large an accelerator humans can build. Unfortunately, though, those are not the only parameters. The space-time failure probability d2F/dVdt depends on the volume of the device, and this becomes a hindrance to scalability. It is obvious if you go to four dimensions and examine time instead of space dependence, trying to ask if you can keep the total failure probability small while increasing the duration of the experiment indefinitely.

    The LHC might just be beyond the limit of spatial dimensions allowed by present-century technology. It would be very sad, but I’d argue that we shouldn’t draw more conclusions from it, other than some of the project leaders should have known better 😉


  10. Bee says:

    The only thing that’s crazy about “anti-gravity puffing up the universe” is journalists who call it anti-gravity.

  11. Umair Rahat says:

    This is the top story on the front page of NewYorkTimes.com as of 4 AM EST, I could not have been more shocked. Even worse is such a paper in a real scientific journal, and then an article written by a physics and cosmology writer Dennis Overbye in a newspaper as NY Times. This type of nonsense needs to be seriously condemned. Even an article of the new-age-movement claims on LHC would have done far more satisfactory result, since even it wouldn’t have aligned such utter crackpottery to physics.

    And whats going on with this incredibly illogically warped piece of logic this paper is; With the title “Card game restriction in LHC can only be successful!”, and even the exclamation mark hints on what is to come. Is this a joke or is this “a new game” of writing scientific papers?

  12. Tim vB says:

    During a recent discussion with (non-scientists) friends I found out that the statement “we hope to observe new physics at the LHC” was interpreted to mean that some events could happen at the LHC that never ever have happend before in the whole universe. That is probably the reason so many people are willing to believe any story anyone with a Ph.D. is telling. Please help and tell your friends that the universe has and probably will be operating at much higher energies than the LHC without distroying itself 🙂
    I am getting scared that so many people seem to believe the paper of Nielsen and Ninomiya could NOT be a joke/parody. How could that be? They talk about:
    – backreaction of future events leading to the dismissal of the SSH by the congress of the USA,
    – a vacuum bomb (meaning a bomb that works through the creation of a new QFT vacuum state),
    – tossing cards to find out about the future of the LHC (I admit that there live people who believe in that 🙂
    – “Now it is sometimes explained that SSC had bad luck because of
    various stupidities or accidents, but had it been a card game nobody could come up with such foolish cards.”
    – “Therefore, if LHC fails for a reason other than a random
    number game, we would have not even truly learned that our theory was right even
    though we would say ‘it is remarkable that the present authors wrote about the
    failure while LHC still looked to be able to work.’ ”
    Ok, if anyone remains that does not believe in a joke (or call it parody or political comedy) I give up, I’ll first throw away all my papers and textbooks, get a banking job in London and I won’t look back.

    I’m not so shocked about the New York Times, obviously the authors were not able to comprehend basic 20th century physics (but all of those kind of articles contain misconceptions).

    @James D. Miller
    The multi universe interpretation of quantum mechanics does not seem to have anyting to do with all of this, but: Your conciousness appears to live in one universe only, right? (If not, it is called schizophrenia I think). So if you believe in the mulit universe interpretation, you need some explanation why your conciousness seems to constantly choose only one of them to live in. Depending on this explanation, if the LHC destroyes some of the universes, your conciousness could equally well choose the path to one of those, so you would just wake up one morning and realise you don’t exist anymore. You would need to assume some mechanism that ensures that your conciousness stays on the right path.

  13. Paul Jackson says:

    Wonderful stuff from Nielson and Ninimiya. They should write a book about it — perhaps a romantic novel called BBC rules.

    But isn’t it about time evidence-based physics was due for a revival? Then we could do away with backward causation, black holes that form only at the end of eternity, slathers of stringy stuff, so-far unobserved dark energy, and even poor dead-and-alive cats.

    And get on with optic fibres and charge-coupled devices —our real business, don’t you think?

  14. ManyMe says:

    The paper states that the model
    “begins with a series of not completely convincing … assumptions”.

    I think they are right about that.

  15. chris says:

    you have to give them credit where credit is due though. “Miraculosity” is certainly the most hilarious observable ever seriously suggested by a physicist 🙂

    oh, and another thing: the “theory” doesn’t really fall under ‘not even wrong’. it has a very characteristic experimental signature and could quite easily be disproved by an experiment which would cost a few pennies. so what’s the real problem? the embarassment of Heuer having to draw from a few stacks of cards? 🙂

  16. chris says:

    another thought

    maybe they are begging to be awarded an ignobel price?

  17. Thomas Larsson says:

    the “theory” doesn’t really fall under ‘not even wrong’. it has a very characteristic experimental signature and could quite easily be disproved by an experiment which would cost a few pennies.

    Really? If such an experiment only costs a few pennies, why hasn’t it been done already? I might be willing to fund it myself.

  18. Perhaps it would be a good idea if physicists would remind journalists that often things that seem to be crazy really are crazy.

    Would that it were so simple. Unfortunately, a lot of modern physics fare like curved space-time, particle-wave duality and other firmly established ideas seem equally crazy to laymen whose only perspective is their everyday intuition.

  19. Jacques Lacon says:

    Here’s a hypothesis: this sure reads to me like an elaborate Bayesian joke at the expense of the LHC and the Higgs and a certain sector of the theoretical physics community. I think they are with you Peter, not against you, and this is a Sokolesque parody. At any rate I found it quite funny.

  20. SteveB says:

    I have always liked well written science fiction. It gives me ideas, gets me thinking outside the box, provides very interesting connections to possible happenings in reality, and it satisfies that need to have that feeling of “wow, that’s freaky!” on occasion. I do not have to accept it as “real”, and I like that. Science fiction probably was the biggest influence on me having a career in science.

    However, I really do like my science and my science fiction to be separate. I applaud Peter for calling it out. It is embarrassing that apparently some people can no longer make that separation.

  21. Rakavolver says:

    Agreed SteveB, and Greg Egan of Perth, Australia and friend/collaborator of the incredible John Baez is the best one currently writing.

    Well, this was quite amusing and thank you for this Peter, but to get serious for a bit regarding crazy crackpottery.

    Everyone should encourage all their “intelligent laymen” friends (especially those in power) to read the following list:


    Then, have them read John Baez’ crackpot index, so:


    Finally, let’s get serious. Of all the important things said by anyone in the last 50 years, the single most important thing anyone has said was said by noted General Relativist Stephen Hawking, who essentially said we have to get off this 8000-mile rock or we’re doomed.

    It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, but it IS important. And take a wild guess WHOM our species will depend on to make that happen? Richard Branson? Yes, a bit, but mostly ….. YOU guys.

    If you’re intelligent enough to have read this website in the first place and far enough down this thread in the second place, then you’re capable of making a difference. What have to done today or this month or year to make that happen, for example say, a lunar colony, come about?

    What this has to do with crackpottery is simply this:

    Peter, PLEASE write a rebuttal to that article, or one of you, please, and politely insist it be front page next week on the NY Times. Because if it doesn’t, Hawking’s worst nightmare may come to pass. Cheers.

  22. Charlie C says:

    The paper is not even funny.

  23. Yuri Danoyan says:

    “Influence from the Future” idea proposed by C.D.Froggatt and H.B.Nielson in 1996. http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/9607375.
    I don’t think it is full crazy idea.My be older generations of particles not signals from the Past, but signals from the Future?Some hints about future transformations in the world of particles next epochs?
    Тhey are not ancestors, but the descendants ?

  24. Rakavolver says:

    From Yuri’s link:

    “Our cleanest prediction is the Higgs boson mass being 149 +/- 26 GeV, which in addition assumes that the pure Standard Model is valid until the Planck scale. Adding the assumption that the two vacuum states needed in our model come about naturally requires a strong first order transition between them; together with the assumption of the Planck units being fundamental, this leads us to also predict the top quark mass as 173 +/- 5 GeV, and a more precise value of the Higgs boson mass as 135 +/- 9 GeV.”

    Those are three rather strong assumptions, eh?

  25. timmo says:

    I’m sure this is a silly question, but I just don’t understand what, exactly, is the experiment they propose?

    I find it further confusing that they keep talking about either drawing a card, or drawing a number from a quantum number generator. If the experiment (whatever it is) can be performed by drawing a card, then it could also be performed by a normal, classical random number generator. Why should it be either a deck of cards or a quantum computer?

  26. Pingback: SJ’s Longest Now » Not even wrong: LHC edition

  27. neo says:

    I think that this paper is a joke (funny or not) by Nielsen and Ninomiya, but apparently Overbye didn’t get it.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    If it’s a joke, it’s part of an act the authors have been putting on now for several years without breaking character…

  29. Tom O'Bulls says:

    Chris said: “oh, and another thing: the “theory” doesn’t really fall under ‘not even wrong’. it has a very characteristic experimental signature and could quite easily be disproved by an experiment which would cost a few pennies. so what’s the real problem? the embarassment of Heuer having to draw from a few stacks of cards?”

    As somebody pointed out on Bee Hossenfelder’s blog, the problem is that you have to *trust* the person doing the experiment, and that the Higgs has not reached back in time to compel him to conceal the evidence that the “experiment” will reveal. What if the Higgs turns him into a liar? What if the Higgs turns him into an alcoholic?

    I still think it’s a joke. Somebody evidently pointed out to the authors that the SSC was cancelled because of the fall of communism [!]. To this the riposte is that the Higgs caused the fall of communism. Come on, it has to be a joke.

  30. Yatima says:

    So it’s in the NYT? So what. The NYT is the Nigerian Yellowcake and Iranian Imminent Nuclear Threat Newspaper. It will get the hoi polloi confused and into a funk, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

    Now, my banker buddy seems to have decided that he doesn’t believe in QM and has locked on to the “Theory of Elementary Waves”, another member of the Not Even Wrong category. What do I do? Torture him with Lagrangians? Oh my…

  31. Kea says:

    This simply MUST be a joke. Human stupidity may be infinite, but I find it hard to believe that these guys could be THAT idiotic. And why would they admit it was a joke just yet? The paper is published, they are getting serious press, and the farce just keeps getting more and more ridiculous.

  32. Christine says:

    I would not doubt that even average crackpots find that paper highly embarrassing. That makes some crackpot claims appear respectable scientific works in comparison. I can only conclude that the effective result of that paper is the fact that it undoubtedly expands the limits of crackpotism. John Baez will have to re-scale his index.

  33. D R Lunsford says:

    A comment to Overbye’s article sums up the damage done to physics from within and from without:

    “I absolutely love physics for just this reason. It’s totally crazy. Just like this life. Who knows anything, and it’s all magic. Fantastic!”

    That is what the intelligent layperson understands about the very thing that underpins most of the modern world.


  34. Rimus says:

    Oh! And there’s not only “miraculocity”. There’s also the “degree of remarkableness” The more I read it, the better I like it!

  35. Aristarchus says:

    Apparently somebody read Einstein’s Bridge and took it seriously:


  36. Rakavolver says:

    As bad as the paper is, the article is far, FAR worse.

    It’s bad enough The New York Times, a once great newspaper, has degenerated as much as it has. It’s bad enough all newspapers will be dead and ONLY on-line in the next ten years, but this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. The journalist takes the impish “respected” Physicists, who are obviously making a joke, at their word.

    Do we really have to read about Kurt Vonnegut’s FICTIONAL work as “real” Physics? What an insult to the late wonderful Vonnegut. Do we REALLY have to know the author is a life-long Boston Red Sox fan and believes in “jinxes”? I think not.

    Worst of all is his taking completely out of context wonderful quotes by Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. They were great men and deserve better.

    I admire the way Europe, in its cute way, is trying to compete with America economically. We’ll see how that works out. But in Physics, Europe has already won and will continue to do so. The LHC WILL start up, and the results will be wonderful.

    Keep the faith my European cousins.

  37. Aristarchus says:

    THIS is why the Higgs Boson is messing with the LHC – we threatened it!


  38. Coin says:

    If over the next few years, we see more and more unlikely things happening to keep the LHC from operating, that would be an argument for a many-worlds scenario in which an operational LHC destroyed the universe. Hey, if things got unlikely enough, I might even start believing this….

    Like “intelligent design”, it’s a theory which is attractive for its nearly unbounded explanatory power. I would note that similar anthropic “otherwise, all life in the universe would have ended” reasoning could prove equally valuable in explaining the difficulties in Democratic efforts to pass a health care reform bill, or Terry Gilliam’s recent inability to complete a movie.

  39. Hal Porter says:


    I just lost my (very witty) post a moment ago when I hit the wrong key.


    I thought it was a joke, also.

    Now I learn otherwise.

  40. Sean's doppelgänger says:

    Stop the eye rolling, dammit!

  41. Pingback: Nielsen-Ninomiya and the arXiv « Not Even Wrong

  42. Thomas Larsson says:

    Maybe the infinite improbabability drive isn’t so unrealistic after all; I’ll make myself a nice hot cup of tea.

  43. Joe Eckard says:

    Laugh away. I laughed too. A lot of knee-jerk thinking in these comments. Nielsen is one of the fathers of string theory. He is no dummy, nor a crackpot. He is willing to think. He is willing to doubt what “everyone knows.” We could all learn from his fearlessness. He is not afraid of being mocked. He might be correct.

  44. Bob Levine says:

    “Sean is having none of it. He argues that the public is able to differentiate between speculative ideas and solidly tested science …”

    Carroll is dead wrong if he believes that. There’s an interesting, well-established branch of psychology which studies peoples’ pictures of the physical world, based on their intuitive perceptions of what their senses tell them; I’ve seen it referred to as ‘folk physics’, by analogy I suppose with ‘folk taxonomy’—how people conceive of the biological domain based on their perceptions, and so on—and one of the depressing conclusions from this research seems to be that a substantial fraction of people in the collective subject pool actually do believe that when you drop a bomb out of a plane flying at 30,000 feet, the bomb travels six miles straight down to land at the site the bomber was directly over when the bomb was released. With that kind of foundation, just where does SC get the idea that people are sophisticated enough to recognize the line between the already improbable-sounding tenets of rock-solid modern physics, on the one hand, and nutcase-level fantasizing on the other??

    Scientists tend to be rather insulated about the poplular perception of the content of their respective fields… but this is just flat-out bizarre.

  45. chris says:

    “Nielsen is one of the fathers of string theory.”
    “He is no dummy, nor a crackpot.”
    “He is willing to think.”
    “He is willing to doubt what “everyone knows.””
    “We could all learn from his fearlessness.”
    “He is not afraid of being mocked.”
    “He might be correct.”
    no way

  46. Aristarchus says:

    We live in a world where many people not only diss evolution but believe that stains on a wall are signs from their god, so whether this is a joke or not, it cannot be taken lightly because way too many people are already off the science wagon (or were never on to begin with).

    Or is this just in America? Are Europeans smarter?

  47. Haelfix says:

    I have to hand it to the authors. You would be very hard pressed to come up with a simpler idea that violates more laws of physics so completely and thoroughly.

    This one manages to more or less include every single fundamental principle that I can think off, including special relativity, unitarity, cause and effect, the measurement principle, Occams razor, heck quantum mechanics and logic/observation in general.

    Kudos. (And Seans defense, even muted as it is, makes me reconsider my Bayesian prior that we are living in ‘The Matrix’ by maybe a tenth of a percent)

  48. Tim vB says:

    I can only speak on behalf of the Germans: Recent polls show that about 30% think that the sun moves around the earth.
    There is no “intelligent design” debate because Germans do not care about religion at all (especially in the east, Communism left it’s mark) or do not take it seriously enough to engage in any debates about it.
    Oh, and I think the German department of defense did not order an anti-gravity weapon because they have not enough money, not because they are smarter than the Americans.
    Remember that highschool education takes you to Faraday and no further and imprints a deep unease and frustration and distrust in most students regarding everything that sounds like science. If the fate of the human race would depend on a layperson to understand more of the word quantum than remembering the last Bond movie we would be doomed.

  49. Aristarchus says:

    I thought this blog response to the recent Higgs Boson LHC issue was both
    interesting and informative even beyond the main story:


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