Short Items

  • The Tevatron last week passed the milestone of 10 inverse femtobarns of luminosity delivered to the experiments. That’s about 1.5 quadrillion collisions.
  • Presentations from the Simons Center Inaugural Conference, discussed here, are now on-line.
  • Luis Alvarez-Gaume and John Ellis discuss here the Higgs mechanism, its history and the question of who should get a Nobel prize if the Higgs particle is found There’s the usual attempt to cut Anderson out of the picture (for more see here), I gather this is payback for his opposition to the SSC.
    [Note added: the "payback for his opposition to the SSC" remark was a very lame attempt at snarky humor. There's no reason to believe these authors had such a motivation. For one thing, while US particle physicists are often quite bitter about Anderson and the SSC, those who work at CERN like Alvarez-Gaume and Ellis are much less likely to feel this way.]
  • The Cambridge City Council has passed a resolution congratulating Yau and Nadis on the publication of their book about Calabi-Yaus, The Shape of Inner Space.
  • Barry Mazur and William Stein are working on a book entitled What is Riemann’s Hypothesis?, with a rough draft available here.
  • If you want to seriously learn algebraic geometry, maybe the best way would be to take Ravi Vakil’s Math 216 course on-line here. OK, I should have told you about this at the beginning of the semester, because if you start now you’ll be way behind. But, since it’s on-line, maybe that doesn’t matter. You could try and catch up…
  • There have been various recent claims to see evidence of pre-big bang physics in the CMB (see here and here), although the significance level of these results seems to be about that of the discovery of Stephen Hawking’s initials in the same data. Several preprints have already appeared criticizing the first of these claims, Sabine Hossenfelder deals with the second here. John Horgan blogs about this as “science faction” here, and discusses it with George Johnson here.
  • Mike Duff seems to now be deep in Lubosian territory, publishing a letter to New Scientist that accuses those who don’t accept the supposed “academic consensus of superstrings and M-theory” as being just like the crackpots and anti-Semites who refused to accept Einstein’s relativity back in the 20s. According to Duff, the explanation for criticism of string/M-theory is that:

    when people don’t like what science tells them, they resort to conspiracy theories, mud-slinging and plausible pseudoscience.

  • Update: The America COMPETES Reauthorization has just passed the House and will go to the president to be signed, something no one expected to happen a week or so ago, more details about the legislation here. I gather that it authorizes 5 to 7% increases for science agencies. Problem is that these are not the actual appropriations, which are still up in the air, awaiting action next year by the next Congress. But this does indicate that there is bipartisan willingness to at least pay lip service to protecting the research and development part of the budget.

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    18 Responses to Short Items

    1. Garrett says:

      In the Simons talks, Atiyah’s slide 17 caught my eye. I wonder what he was saying to accompany that.

    2. Peter Woit says:


      I don’t remember Atiyah giving any more details about that in the talk than in the slides. He was explicitly operating in an extremely speculative mode…

    3. Roger says:

      Do you have any idea what Duff is referring to where he said:

      These people are quick to cry “this is not science”, while themselves resorting to pseudoscientific alternatives.

      The closest I found was this 2002 letter, where he seems to complain that an article mentioned quantum gravity and human consciousness, without mentioning M-theory.

    4. Peter Woit says:


      The 2002 letter seems to claim that M-theory explains everything, except consciousness, and that Duff likes that situation.

      In the new letter, the culprits are “unqualified scientists, the blogosphere and many science journalists”, and I’m pretty sure I qualify. He doesn’t specify what pseudoscientific alternative I’m resorting to, maybe he is strongly opposed to the use of representation theory, or any tinkering with the BRST formalism. One other possible guess is that in his mind loop quantum gravity is a “pseudoscientific alternative” and Lee Smolin is an “unqualified scientist”, but who knows. To me Duff sounds a lot like Lubos does these days, so maybe you can consult Lubos’s extensive writings for more specifics.

    5. Roger says:

      If Duff is referring to you, then he is worse than Lubos. Lubos posts crazy rants every day. He has probably said worse things about you, but it is clear that he just doesn’t like your negative comments about string theory. Duff’s letter is published in a respectable journal. Some editor had to approve it as making a reasonable point. If Duff is going to say, in print, that you are unqualified and pseudoscientific, then he ought to back it up. Duff seems more irresponsible to me.

    6. Tim van Beek says:

      Since the letter of Michael Duff is not the daily abreaction of a lonely and troubled soul, there must be a concrete reason that prompted it, several years after most people lost interest in the “string wars”. Does anyone know what it is?

      (And does anyone know what is supposed to be the unpopular truth that string theory tells?).

    7. Peter Woit says:


      It’s hard to guess what might cause someone in Duff’s position to start writing public letters comparing their situation to that of Einstein and accusing those who don’t believe in their speculative theory of incompetence. I’ve never seen anything quite this odd.

    8. neo says:

      Duff appears to be attempting to continue an unfortunate but effective tactic of lumping all skeptics of a theory with some crackpots and classifying them as “deniers”. He has a tough go in this case though because there isn’t a shred of string evidence to deny.

    9. Marty says:

      The Nature paper by Luis Alvarez-Gaume and John Ellis is certainly payback…but not for Anderson and SSC. It is payback for this below spat from the summer – both in France and Nature Magazine (on-line).

      The authors do a good job of looking fair but not really discussioning the merits of each of the papers. One of the last posts from 11/30 seems to get it.

    10. Coin says:

      “Duff’s letter is published in a respectable journal”

      Do you actually think of the New Scientist as respectable, or for that matter a “journal”?

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    12. Roger says:

      Yes, New Scientist is a respectable journal, and I would be annoyed if it called me an unqualified pseudoscientist. Duff obviously thought that it was respectable enough to publish his letter. If the letter had been more specific, then I would suggest that Peter write a reply. As it is, I think that it just reinforces the reputation of string theorists as being arrogant, elitist, and detached from reality.

    13. Nickle Berry says:

      New Scientist is not respectable in the sense that it is not viewed by experts as a trustworthy source of information about technical subjects.

    14. Mean and Anomalous says:

      I agree with N. Berry about New Scientist. In general, it can be said that it isn’t a trustworthy source of information about technical matters.

    15. > there must be a concrete reason that prompted it, several years after most people lost interest in the “string wars”. Does anyone know what it is?

      Yes, I think it is namely the loss of interest in strings that makes him mad.

    16. John Rennie says:

      Speaking as a physicist not a mathematician, I found The Shape of Inner Space a fascinating book and I strongly recommend it.

      For anyone interested in the Riemann Hypothesis I recommend Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics by John Derbyshire. The maths shouldn’t tax anyone with a physics degree, and it does an excellent job of describing why the roots of the Zeta function matter.

    17. John Baez says:

      New Scientist is not what I’d call a “journal”, because scientists don’t publish research papers there. It’s a news magazine that focuses on science, like Scientific American.

      I don’t consider New Scientist particularly “respectable” on the topic of physics. For example, they published an uncritical article on Shawyer’s “EM drive”, a proposed propulsion system that violates conservation of momentum. But their articles aren’t all bad: they vary wildly in quality, and they’re often quite interesting.

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