Researchers Discover How to Conduct First Test of “Untestable” String Theory

A couple people this morning pointed me to today’s press release from Imperial College, headlined Researchers Discover How to Conduct First Test of “Untestable” String Theory and subtitled “New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything'”. In case you miss the headline and subtitle, and thus the point that string theory is now testable due to the efforts of Imperial College researchers, the rather short press release repeatedly drives the point home:

The new research, led by a team from Imperial College London, describes the unexpected discovery that string theory also seems to predict the behaviour of entangled quantum particles. As this prediction can be tested in the laboratory, researchers can now test string theory…

Using the theory to predict how entangled quantum particles behave provides the first opportunity to test string theory by experiment…

The discovery that string theory seems to make predictions about quantum entanglement is completely unexpected, but because quantum entanglement can be measured in the lab, it does mean that at last researchers can test predictions based on string theory…

There’s a blog posting written about the preprint of this paper when it first appeared here, in which I pointed out that the result worked out in the paper is just an example of a well-known piece of mathematics that comes down to classifying nilpotent orbits. This is based on a famous 1971 theorem of Kostant-Rallis, and Nolan Wallach worked out in detail here the specific example considered by Duff et al. in lecture notes for a 2004 summer school. The initial preprint didn’t refer to this mathematical literature, but a revised version was soon issued in which a reference to the Wallach notes was added to the bibliography. There’s no trackback to the discussion on Not Even Wrong at the arXiv listing for the paper due to the arXiv’s censorship policy, but perhaps one or more of the authors of the preprint are regular readers here…

I have no idea how this paper is supposed to contain a “test” of string theory. The simple quantum mechanics problem at issue comes down to classifying orbits of a group action on a four-fold tensor product, exactly what Wallach worked out in detail in his notes, as an example of Kostant-Rallis. If you do an experiment based on this and it doesn’t work, you’re not going to falsify string theory (or Kostant-Rallis for that matter). By now there’s a long history of rather outrageous press releases being issued about the discovery of supposed “tests” of string theory. This one really takes the cake…

Update: The press release is having its intended effect, generating stories headlining false claims about string theory . So far today, there’s String Theory:Testing the Untestable?, New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything’, Scientists Say They Can Now Test String Theory and Researchers Devise the First Experimental Test of Controversial, Confusing String Theory. There’s even UK Scientists discover way to test untestable string theory, which has the test already performed:

Scientists at the Imperial College London have managed to conduct the first string theory test, destroying previous beliefs that it was untestable….

The discovery will please physicists, most of whom consider string theory the best available for explaining the universe.

Unfortunately, no details on how the test turned out…

Update: The subtitle on the press release has been changed. It used to be “New study suggests researchers can now test the ‘theory of everything'”, now it’s “New study presents unexpected discovery that string theory may predict the behaviour of entangled quantum particles.”

Update: No press campaign for a “finally string theory is testable” claim is complete without a Slashdot story (actually, stories, here and here):

Big news for theoretical physicists who are fed up with the inability to test String Theory…

Update: Lisa Grossman has a story about this at Wired Science. She went to the trouble of contacting well-known string theorists for their opinion, which is unanimous that this is not a “test of string theory”:

“Already I can imagine enemies sharpening their knives,” Duff said.

And they are. A chorus of supporters and critics, including Nobel laureate and string theory skeptic Sheldon Glashow and string theorists John Schwarz of Caltech, James Gates of the University of Maryland, and Juan Maldacena and Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton agree that Duff’s argument is “not a way to test string theory” and has nothing to do with a theory of everything.

I’m still trying to figure out what the supposed test of string theory is, since I can’t find such a thing in the published paper. The Wired article has a bit more explanation from Duff:

Whether the result is some fundamental principle or some quirk of mathematics, we don’t know, but it is useful for making statements about quantum entanglement.

As far as I can tell, we do know where their results come from, a “quirk of mathematics” known as the Kostant-Rallis theorem, applied to the invariant theory question that comes up in quantum entanglement.

The article also contains quotes from me, saying about what you’d expect.

Update: Science News has completely uncritical coverage of the “First Test of String Theory” claims.

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16 Responses to Researchers Discover How to Conduct First Test of “Untestable” String Theory

  1. Kea says:

    Gee, that is totally outrageous! And especially disappointing, given the real scientific interest of this work. I know that at least one of the young authors on these papers is not a great fan of string theory, which is to say that he understands the quantum information theory is just that – quantum information theory.

    This is not surprising for Imperial though. They are known to care a lot more about their reputation (preventing certain people from speaking there) than about the actual science.

  2. Anonymous says:

    How can they claim this is the *first* test of string theory? The first test was quark-gluon plasma at RHIC.

  3. rrtucci says:

    I too think that dishonesty in academic press releases is a serious problem. Such practices erode the public’s trust in science and their understanding of it. They confuse non-scientists, blurring in their minds the difference between someone advocating homeopathy and someone advocating Newton’s equation. Non-scientists start thinking that scientists are lying when scientists tell them that vaccines don’t cause autism, because after all, they’ve seen scientists lie or exaggerate in other contexts.

    I hope someone starts a website like http://www.PolitiFact.com or http://www.FactCheck.com. It could have a truth-o-meter, a la poltifact, for each press release or newspaper/magazine article that any concerned scientist entered. (A good source of press releases is http://www.eurekalert.org). How to arrive at the truth-o-meter rating would require some thought (maybe by poll?). The truth-o-meter ratings for each university department could be compiled together. My impression is that some university departments are worse offenders than others. It would be nice to give each university department a grade to embarrass bad offenders into behaving better.

  4. lun says:

    In this, unfortunately, string theory is hardly unique.
    Yale University characterized the (probably bogus in any case) discovery of topological parity-violating effects in heavy ion collisions as
    “Yale scientists break the laws of physics” (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
    ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100329214740.htm )

    In our day and age, there is the perception that public relations determine funding. The people who write these announcements are neither scientifically competent nor so interested in objectivity.

    THese are the results.

  5. piscator says:

    Anonymous’s comment is either deeply depressing or wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Unfortunately I can’t decide which….

  6. nul says:

    This is the BNL/RHIC press release about parity-violating effects in (polarized) p-p collisions at RHIC.
    http://www.bnl.gov/rhic/inside/news.asp?a=1588&t=today

    Overall much more toned-down compared to “Yale scientists break the laws of physics” but also much less accessible to a general (non-physics) audience. From what I see in the BNL press release, it does not sound bogus. There can be bubbles in a QGP where parity is locally violated (but averaged over many bubbles the parity violation is zero). Why not?

    As for string theory and QIT etc. — yes, publicity seems to be an essential ingredient for funding. And yes, string theory is not unique in this trend.

  7. Marcus says:

    It seems the new Hawking book hypes M-theory, the multiverse, etc. It goes on sale within week (7 September) and is currently #9 among all books Amazon sells. The Amazon page has a two-paragraph quote from Hawking summarizing the book’s message as he sees it.
    To me this suggests we are about to be engulfed in a wave of buzz, misleading half-truths, and public gullibility. But maybe it won’t be that bad.

  8. Mark Decker says:

    Looks like people from all sides are jumping all over this story. It’s too bad that string theory itself doesn’t get the same critical analysis that this test claim is receiving.
    rrtucci: Thank you for checking your facts on the factcheck address.

  9. lun says:

    nul… of course the “discovery” is reasonable. The problem is that the same _observed_ effect can be reproduced without parity-violating bubbles, via much more mundane effecs such as local momentum conservation and jet fragmentation.
    See http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.4919 or http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.3846
    These ideas appeared well before the public relations announcement.

    It of course does not mean that parity-violating bubbles are excluded, or that this research is worthless (it is in fact extremely interesting and stimulating, and I hope it continues, eg by designing more direct experimental signatures of this effect), but it annoys me that PR announcements trumpeting great discoveries are made almost at the same time as preprints explaining the “discoveries” with more mundane mechanisms appear online.

    This is the mirror image of the string theory announcements… or at least, a proof that misleading PR is far from unique to string theory.
    It pervades modern science. And it will come to bite all scientists in the back, because in the long-run, it fosters (un)healthy skepticism: Maybe all scientists are full of it. Which they are not.

  10. Chris W. says:

    In the so-called real world this is known as marketing and healthy self-promotion.

    See Feynman’s example from advertising in his essay “Cargo Cult Science“. Apparently many current university press releases on research at their respective institutions barely maintain that dubious standard.

  11. dexmachina says:

    I’m afraid the Slashdot story is my fault. I really should know better than to trust popular science stories. I’ve linked to this page from the Slashdot post to try to undo some of the damage.

  12. Another Mike says:

    dexmachina, I saw your correction link right away. Not RTFA pays off! I consider this a great way to promote this site and point out an abusive press release.

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  15. Boyd Giles says:

    oh really? I have to point out exactly how awesome this report truly is. It actually captivated me! Ive arranged a site devoted to this kind of stuff!. Great read! !

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