More Short Items

  • There’s an excellent article by Michel Berube about the Sokal hoax, fifteen years later, entitled The Science Wars Redux.
  • The latest Notices of the AMS has a review of the recent Yau-Nadis book by Nigel Hitchin (for my take, see here).
  • My colleague Brian Greene has a new book coming out soon, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. I haven’t seen a copy, but from what I can gather, it looks like it is probably the best of the many books about “multiverse” ideas, but still not exactly my cup of tea. If you’re interested in the “multiverse” and want to read a popular level exposition, you should try this one. But you should also pay attention and see if there’s any experimental evidence (or reasonable hope of getting some) for the ideas being discussed. The book has very extensive more technical notes, and the Amazon site gives access to these. Brian also has an Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times drawn from the book, about the fact that in an accelerating universe, in the distant future less and less will be visible.
  • It seems that there recently was a Physics of the Universe Summit, along the lines of last year’s (see here). There’s a web-site here, but about all you tell without a password is that the participants were staying at a very trendy hotel in West Hollywood.
  • A film has been made about the geometer Shiing-shen Chern. The title is “Taking the Long View” and there’s a web-site here.
  • Update: Two more.

  • XKCD on extra dimensions.
  • Matthew Chalmers has an interesting new article at Physics World entitled Reality check at the LHC.
  • Update: There’s a review of the new Brian Greene book by George Ellis at Nature this week. It emphasizes the problem of lack of testability.

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    14 Responses to More Short Items

    1. Myke says:

      What do you think about Massive by Ian Sample?


    2. Kris Krogh says:

      Michel Berube’s article does a good, honest job of putting Sokal’s hoax into perspective for the broader academic community. When it comes to physics, I don’t think it can hold a candle to Mara Beller’s wonderful essay, The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing? A free version, without the George Gamow illustrations, is here.

    3. Peter G says:

      Back in ’95 I interviewed Jean Bricmont about his book with Sokal for a leading newspaper in Belgium. I can assure you that he was very surprised by the fact that Sokal’s hoax and Impostures Intellectuelles were described as some kind of ‘war’. He had no intention to wage war against the humanities. For him, the book was more a Voltairian laugh.

      Michael Bérubé writes that “it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely.”

      That’s a bit of revisionism. Already in the beginning of the 90s the “critique of scientific objectivity” was used by young-Earthers, evolution-doubters etc. to defend their views. I remember making a piece about it for a radio programme in ’92 or ’93. But I don’t remember many people from the humanities taking a stance against it at that time. Bruno Latour’s doubts (“Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant?” etc.) came much later.

      There’s a lot to be said about Impostures Intellectuelles and the hoax, but I think it was a necessary kick in the b!t.

    4. Peter G says:

      Mara Beller writes: “Yet physicists relate to Derrida’s and Bohr’s obscurities in fundamentally different ways: to Derrida’s with contempt, to Bohr’s with awe. Bohr’s obscurity is attributed, time and again, to a “depth and subtlety” that mere mortals are not equipped to comprehend.”

      That sound very far of the mark to me. I studied physics and I never ever heard a professional physicist attribute Bohr’s obscurity to depth and subtlety etc. Quite to the contrary: all the physicists I know admitted that they didn’t understand a word of Bohr’s more esoterical writings and agreed that a good physicist can be a terrible philosopher. The man who thaught me QM once told me: “There’s nothing more pitiful than a good scientist who turns into a bad philosopher.”

    5. Paul says:

      This is kind of off topic, but why is Witten interested in Khovanov homology these days?

    6. Peter Woit says:


      The invariants in Chern-Simons-Witten theory are given by taking the Euler characteristic of Khovanov homology, so it’s a generalization of the Chern-Simons story (which Witten won a Fields medal for). There’s lots of reasons to be interested in the 3d Chern-Simons theory, and good reason to expect Khovanov homology to appear as part of an interesting 4d TQFT. Lots of people have tried to figure out what is going on here, and Witten has some new ideas, using path integrals over the complexification of the usual space. He ends up using yet another version of N=4 supersymmetric YM, the QFT that appears in geometric Langlands, as well as AdS/CFT. His paper with the details of how he gets Khovanov is not out yet. When it does come out, I’ll probably try and spend some time with it, and write about the whole story here.

    7. Peter Woit says:

      Just after writing the above, I see that Witten’s paper has appeared on the arXiv this evening. It’s 147 pages long, so “spending time with it” may take a while….


    8. Peter Woit says:

      Peter G and others,

      Please stick to the Sokal/Berube topic….

    9. Peter Woit says:

      It seems that some unemployed guy in Pilsen who reads this blog thinks Brian Greene is my employer and is upset that Brian is not having me fired. For the record, my position as “Senior Lecturer” in the math department is not tenured, but I have a long-term contract and whether it gets renewed at some point in the distant future will have nothing to do with what Brian thinks about this blog, or with what I think about his books.

      Actually, my impression is that if most string theorists could choose one well-known blog dealing with string theory to shut down, it wouldn’t be this one…

    10. maros says:

      solve recent witten`s paper problem discussed here ?

    11. Peter Woit says:


      Witten’ work does give an answer to that problem. Unfortunately it’s a rather complicated one, and I’m still far from completely understanding it.

    12. Shantanu says:

      Peter, this maybe a bit off-topic, but have you discussed your concerns about string theory with Brian Greene and does he agree with you?
      Also what about other particle theorists at Columbia? (I don’t actually
      who all work on string theory and who does not). What about Eric Weinberg? Does he agree with your pov?

    13. Peter Woit says:


      Brian and I tend mostly to discuss other things than string theory. If you look closely at what he says publicly and what I say, I think you’ll find we don’t disagree about any facts, just how we evaluate the likelihood that certain very speculative ideas will turn out to be successful.

      I don’t remember ever discussing string theory with Erick Weinberg, and don’t want to speak for anyone over in the physics department here. But my impression is that it’s accurate to characterize the Columbia department on average as not one that has ever been very enthusiastic about string theory.