This Week’s Hype

The latest New Scientist has a much larger dose of M-theory/multiverse hype than I’ve seen in one place in quite a while. There’s a four-part series on M-theory (here, here, here and here) by Mike Duff. It tells the story of the progress of modern physics over the past century according to the dominant ideology: general relativity, Kaluza-Klein extra dimensions, super-symmetry, superstrings, branes, ending in the apotheosis of M-theory more than fifteen years ago. For the current state of affairs, Duff describes his “M-theory” predictions about the real world (that 4 qubits can be entangled 31 different ways, something discussed here). He ends with the M-theory multiverse and the following comments on whether this can ever be tested:

So is M-theory the final theory of everything? In common with rival attempts, falsifiable predictions are hard to come by. Some generic features such as supersymmetry or extra dimensions might show up at collider experiments or in astrophysical observations, but the variety of possibilities offered by the multiverse makes precise predictions difficult.

Are all the laws of nature we observe derivable from fundamental theory? Or are some mere accidents? The jury is still out.

In my opinion, many of the key issues will remain unresolved for quite some time. Finding a theory of everything is perhaps the most ambitious scientific undertaking in history. No one said it would be easy.

Here he makes it clear that, at least while he’s still around and enjoying academic prominence because of M-theory, there’s no danger it will face any sort of test it might fail. He answers critics of M-theory by claiming that its failures don’t matter. It’s the dominant paradigm, and will reign as such until someone comes up with a different theory of everything that isn’t a failure.

Elsewhere in the magazine, there’s a fawning article about the recent Bousso-Susskind paper (see here):

TWO of the strangest ideas in modern physics – that the cosmos constantly splits into parallel universes in which every conceivable outcome of every event happens, and the notion that our universe is part of a larger multiverse – have been unified into a single theory. This solves a bizarre but fundamental problem in cosmology and has set physics circles buzzing with excitement, as well as some bewilderment.

No critics of the idea were located by the writer, with the discussion on blogs described as:

The paper has caused flurry of excitement on physics blogs and in the broader physics community. “It’s a very interesting paper that puts forward a lot of new ideas,” says Don Page, a theoretical physicist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and author of the Cosmic Variance blog, thinks the idea has some merit. “I’ve gone from a confused skeptic to a tentative believer,” he wrote on his blog. “I realized that these ideas fit very well with other ideas I’ve been thinking about myself!”

Somehow Lubos’s “they’re on crack” take on the subject was missed.

Finally, the significance of all of this is summarized in an editorial which argues that Bousso-Susskind finally pulls the plug on religion and replaces it with science:

Cosmologists can now begin to take God seriously, precisely because they can explain him (or her) away.

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47 Responses to This Week’s Hype

1. Anon says:

I think you mean Bousso-Susskind, not Bousso-Polchinski.

2. Peter Woit says:

Anon,

Oops, many thanks for the correction, now fixed. My apologies to Polchinski…

3. Bernhard says:

There was also some little hype here: http://bigthink.com/ideas/38684 (not surprising though, since this is a hype specialized blog).

I wonder if this new wave of hype is just related to Buosso-Susskind´s paper.

And I´m surprised nobody yet suggested their paper “predictions” will also be tested at the LHC…

4. Peter Woit says:

Bernhard,

It’s not completely hype-specialized since they have an interview with me on their site…

That seems to just be a link to a not-very-good article by an author who got the nonsense from popular science writer Amir Aczel, who got it from physicists who should know better (those promoting the usual “string theory can be tested since there are string theory models with extra dimensions visible at the LHC” hype which has been around since the dawn of time).

5. Bernhard says:

Really? OK, didn’t know that. I got this impression because I often see things like this: http://bigthink.com/ideas/38513

But good to know it was just my bad luck.

6. Cosmonut says:

I wonder why they always keep claiming that the multiverse explains God away.
After all if there’s an unobservable multiverse out there, there can also be an unobservable God who creates the entire multiverse and keeps creating more !

7. Peter Woit says:

Cosmonut,

What I can’t figure out is why people who want to fight the science/religion war on the side of science think that giving up on the scientific method and promoting an untestable pseudo-scientific unified theory of the “multiverse” is the way to do it. The behavior of many of these physicists looks every bit as irrational as that of the most fervent religious believer. I don’t see how you make a convincing argument to someone that they should trade in their Bible for Bousso-Susskind.

8. Eric habegger says:

This newest hype is just another good reason to vote with your wallet and discontinue one’s subscription to NS when it comes up for renewal. I did and I’ve never looked back, plus my blood pressure has been lower ever since. I feel sorry for you Peter that you have to read it just to keep up with the zeitgeist of physics in popular culture.

9. Allan Rosenberg says:

Very cute, Bernhard. No doubt their predictions will be tested in some eigenLHC in some eigenuniverse. We just don’t know which one it will be.

10. Peter Woit says:

Eric,

Stopping having anything to do with popular science media that features multiverse nonsense would mean dropping pretty much all of it. Might be a good idea, but I do need things to write about on the blog.

The bulk of the hype in the latest New Scientist isn’t written by them or by any journalist, but by one of the leading British academics in the field. Can’t blame journalism for this…

11. Sean Strange says:

Thank you Peter Woit. It’s nice to hear a physicist point out the crazy hubris of these mathematical theologians. They seem to be trying a little too hard to discredit religion, and the way they pull new theories out of their heads and treat them as scientific facts strikes me as pure mysticism. A true skeptic should reject any group which attempts to be the self-appointed arbiters of truth without evidence, and that includes these multiverse mystics of the scientific priesthood. I don’t have a problem with wild speculations about multiverses, as long as they don’t call it science or insist that any of it is true!

12. Anon says:

What really bothers me is that friends and family members who are laypeople but interested in science keep wanting to talk to me about these “great new multiverse findings”, and then I have to be the bad guy and burst the bubble on their sense of wonder.

Oh for the good old days when I was a kid and we had Carl Sagan. We had it good then. We didn’t know just how good we had it.

13. Bee says:

Ah, but you can now have LQG with SUSY and extra dimensions too: http://arxiv.org/abs/1105.3709

14. M. Wang says:

I, too, have noticed the declining quality of popular science media, but I cannot discount the possibility that they have always been filled with Hypes; we may simply have grown old and acquired enough knowledge and wisdom to tell the difference.

Take the latest issue of Scientific American for example. The article, “Planning for the Black Swan” by Adam Piore, claims that the Westinghouse’s AP1000 is a Gen III+ design like the pebble bed reactors and will be immune to a Fukushima-type disaster. This is pure baloney. AP1000 is a Gen III reactor, which is basically a Gen II (like the Fukushima) with additional cooling back-up that gives additional 3 days of grace period under blackout before a meltdown. Pebble beds, on the other hand, is a true Gen IV reactor, which is totally immune to melt-down even in principle. Mr. Piore is probably a paid consultant to Westinghouse, but ten years ago I did not know enough to tell. In fact, ten years ago, I probably would have read all the multiverse propaganda with just the faintest unease. Woit’s and Smolin’s books make all the difference.

15. Guillaume says:

So the Busso-Susskind paper has just hit the arxiv, hasn’t been published in a journal yet, hasn’t even been properly reviewed, but the media are nonetheless showcasing it like it’s going to be the next Nobel Prize… Somehow the Rapture craziness doesn’t seem so crazy now…

16. Guillaume says:

NS “report that cosmologists claim to have found a way to rid themselves of the need for a God-like observer.”

Well that’s a false problem anyway, as long as you replace the metaphysics of Copenhagen by a materialist interpretation of QM like Bohm/de Broglie/Bell’s pilot wave theory.

17. Aleksandar Mikovic says:

The reason why many reputable scientist use “unscientific” methods in order to explain everything is due to the fact that scientific method is not sufficient for obtaining/explaining all the features of reality. Simply, there are truths which we obtain without science, and mathematics is the most familiar example. The domain of science are the phenomena which can be tested by experimental tools, and it is clear that this domain is limited, unless you are diehard scientific fundamentalist. The history of the scientific approach to the Universe was to postulate a theory and then to try to test it, but as the domain of the theory grew larger, it was more difficult to test it. Eventually one is forced to use the theories where most of the features cannot be experimentally tested, but this is OK for me, since one is entering in the metaphysics domain, which philosophers have been exploring since Plato.

18. Anon says:

You should stop bashing these magazines. They publish hype because hype sells. They are in business and their goal is to make mucho dinero. In any event, real pragmatic scientists like WOit here have not produced any science worth writing about in a long time. The last discovery was the top quark in 1994, I believe. So produce new stuff or shut up. By your reasoning all these mags should have been out of business for the last 16 years or so.

19. Christine says:

The history of the scientific approach to the Universe was to postulate a theory and then to try to test it

History shows the contrary.

From *observed* phenomena, elaborate a theory that correctly describes the phenomena. Eventually, the theory may lead to the prediction of new phenomena.

The only theory that I know of which predicted something unobserved until then, from pure thought, was Dirac’s.

Quantum gravity goes in that same direction, though, since it originates from the pure theoretical need to concilliate quantum field theory with gravity.

Nevertheless, any proposed theory in this area should provide means to be tested, at least in principle. Otherwise, it is a speculation and any honest scientist would label it accordingly.

20. SteveB says:

Concerning the popular scientific publications. I was once a simultaneous subscriber to Science News, New Scientist, and Scientific American.

I dropped SA because many of the articles were nothing more than thinly veiled advertisements for some product or company. I do miss Mirsky and “100 years ago”, though.

I dropped SN because its content became weaker and NS had the same current news with more details.

I am keeping NS because the writing is excellent, and the coverage is very good. I don’t always agree with each article, but you may get an opposite point of view in the next issue. It doesn’t seem like their staff has too many agendas they are promoting. The worst thing about NS is that their editors leave subtle British slang in many articles which is difficult for an American to translate.

21. Bernhard says:

Anon,

Bashing these magazines and newspapers and comment the latest hypes is what I believe is part of the mission of this blog and the reason many of us like to read it. This is not just to simply mock string theorists for no reason. What society gets convinced is important can ultimately even affect our funding. All the crap that is published everyday needs some balance and I have to say I feel kind of a relief when after seeing some ridiculous article about Susskind latest crackpot paper I can read Peter shooting it down merciless.

22. cormac says:

I don’t agree with Anon at all. I think NS in particular has become quire sloppy in its physics coverage (can’t judge the rest), mainly because it does not delineate clearly between relatively well-established science and speculation.
I have thought this for some time, so I was interested to observe during the year that NS is not admired amongst the rather prominent physicists I have met at Harvard and MIT – to put it mildly.

23. milkshake says:

I don’t know if its is relevant, but I remember reading pop sci articles about multiverse in 80s that were not all that different from what one finds in New Scientist these days. It really helped me during a dreaded oral exam in marxism-leninism philosophy, in 1988, which of course was a mandatory part of the university curriculum in Eastern Europe. So I sailed from historic materialism to anthropic principle and multiverse, and finally I disposed with God. The stern marxism professor was visibly delighted, she even asked me for article reference so that she could use it in her class, and she did not molest me during the following year. (We had several semesters of this stuff). So you can see that multiverse has a practical explanatory power and can become useful if you are cornered by a merciless marxist.

24. Peter Woit says:

cormac,

I’m also curious what those you met in Cambridge thought of the sources of the New Scientist stories. New Scientist isn’t just making up this multiverse stuff themselves…

milkshake,

The great thing is that you can use the multiverse to justify either atheism or theism. You made good use of it, but see here for someone who is making good use of it to get paid from religious hedge fund source:

http://www.oxfordtempletonfellows.com/winners201112.html

“Professor Kraay hopes to develop and defend the view that if theism is true, the world God selects for actualization is a multiverse comprising all and only those universes worthy of being created and sustained by God. He further hopes to show that, if theism is true, this multiverse is the only possible world. He will explore the consequences of these views for theism, and will consider the connections between these views and various multiverse theories in contemporary physics and cosmology.”

25. the next einstein says:

didn’t ed witten start the whole m-theory thing?

and isn’t brian greene hyping the multiverse?

is not new scientist just following the lead of prominent physicists?

26. chris says:

“In any event, real pragmatic scientists like WOit here have not produced any science worth writing about in a long time. The last discovery was the top quark in 1994, I believe. So produce new stuff or shut up. By your reasoning all these mags should have been out of business for the last 16 years or so.”

yea, right. you missed the CC? CMB anomalies? neutrino masses and mixings?

and if you want speculation, there is plenty of good one. just this week, heard of the Wjj CDF anomaly?
or, also recenly featured, PAMELA and all other DM searches? The ALICE bumps in high multiplicity events?

lots and lots of new, genuinely interesting stuff. all of which was totally unforseen by the prevalent ToE of today.

27. Jim says:

Bernhard,

Thank you for your comparison of the science magazines. I too have subscribed to all three in the past. However I remain faithful to SA. It’s like a family faith tradition for me because I began reading my dad’s subscription while I was a child-like object. Like every other source, they require critical analysis, only more so.

Thanks also for your mention of Big Think and for eliciting Dr. Woit’s reply. From its name I might well have suspected it to be as hype-driven as you were suggesting. Then I found this: Peter Woit interview at http://bigthink.com/peterwoit
It is a video interview with our good Dr. Woit telling it like it is And it is excellently done. Thank you Dr. Woit! I get to hear how to say his name correctly, too.

I believe I can now rank Big Think above New Scientist.
(Please forgive my clumsy attempt at html.)(no bold text was intended)

28. Jim says:

my apologies :

I was agreeing with SteveB’s assessments of the mags.
I do agree with Bernhard’s valuation of this web log.

29. David Bailey says:

I used to love reading NS as a kid in the 1960’s. The articles were written in an authoritative style without hype, and included such things as relevant chemical formulae, which pushed me into reading more chemistry. NS must have helped to push many kids into science.

Now, I only buy the occasional copy of NS if there is an exceptional article. Far too many articles seem to be hype of one kind or another , or to be written by journalists who have little understanding of the subject matter.

Does hype about infinitely bifurcating universes (a concept which surely goes back to Everett in the 1950’s) really sell magazines – maybe, but I’ll bet it doesn’t encourage many kids to actually enter science!

30. Cosmonut says:

@Peter:
I don’t see how you make a convincing argument to someone that they should trade in their Bible for Bousso-Susskind
————————-

Well, Hindu cosmology has a beautiful story about how an infinite number of universes are continually emanating from the mind of Brahman.
So, if people are getting tired of evidence-based science, we have a much better deal for them than the Bousso-Russkind multiverse.
No convoluted math jargon, just pleasant Sanskrit shlokas. 🙂

31. Cosmonut says:

But honestly, I think the whole landscape/multiverse fiasco shows that the dream of unifying physics purely through mathematical consistency – much hyped by Stephen Hawking – is dead.

Mathematical consistency is not strong enough to give us a unique theory unifying GR and the standard model. We need more data.

32. Nige Cook says:

It’s the dominant paradigm, and will reign as such until someone comes up with a different theory of everything that isn’t a failure.

The different theory will be a failure until it is developed far enough to not be a theory. String theory, like weeds, will starve off any new born alternative ideas long before they can be developed to the stage of providing a serious challenge to string theory. The intimidation (fear of abuse from string theorists) will in fact probably deter anybody from working on alternatives.

The reason why a lot of progress occurred very fast in quantum mechanics in the mid and late 1920s was because people could make progress quickly, without being bogged down in something speculative for decades! String theory is the exact opposite: attracting the opposite kind of people, who want long term stability in their careers. Non-falsifiability is turned to a career advantage, offering stability to physics.

@Cosmonut
“But honestly, I think the whole landscape/multiverse fiasco shows that the dream of unifying physics purely through mathematical consistency – much hyped by Stephen Hawking – is dead.”

This is the same thing as saying string theory is the ‘only game in town’. How do you know that unification based on pure mathematical consistency is dead because of one failed attempt?

34. Peter Woit says:

Blaming the multiverse on putting too much faith in mathematical consistency is completely backwards. If you look at papers like Bousso-Susskind, or anything from Hawking in recent years, you find very little mathematics, just a lot of verbiage and a few trivial equations. This is what you get when you ignore the lessons of the deep connections between physics and sophisticated mathematics, and decide that you are going to pursue “physical ideas” uninformed by mathematics.

The reason string theory failed was not that it used too much mathematics, but that it was a wrong physical idea about fundamental physics.

35. Cosmonut says:

Blaming the multiverse on putting too much faith in mathematical consistency is completely backwards.
—————————————

Ok, here’s my understanding of the situation.

In the 1980’s, the big hope – much hyped by the likes of Stephen Hawking – was that unifying GR and QFT would prove to be so mathematically stringent, that we would get one unique Theory of Everything which would predict the values of the fundamental constants, predict the masses of the particles (and know the Mind of God as a bonus 🙂 ).

But now, string theory claims to already be a quantum theory of gravity (see my question here:
http://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/10754/is-string-theory-a-quantum-theory-of-gravity), which is consistent with both GR and QFT.

Yet, it allows 10^500 solutions at least, leading to the multiverse nonsense.

Hence, my claim that mathematical consistency with GR and QFT is not strong enough to give us an unique theory.
If string theorists are to be believed, there are 10^500 “theories” consistent with both !

Am I missing something here ?
For instance, is string theory not actually consistent with GR and QFT ?

36. Cosmonut says:

Just to clarify, I am not saying that mathematical consistency can never lead to an unified theory.

Its just that the string theory flop show suggests to me that our attempts at this point may be premature (just like Einstein’s attempts were).

Maybe we need to create a few more layers of sub-theories using the old fashioned experiment-observation-theory route before purely mathematical constraints can give us the TOE.

37. Bernhard says:

Cosmonut,

The proper marriage of QM and GR, when it happens, should lead to a profound understanding of fundamental theory and when it happens I bet with you is going to be old fashioned in terms of mathematical rigor. The problem with ST, as Peter said, is that it is based on the wrong physical idea. The mathematical nonsenses coming out of the theory should actually serve as an alert that this is the case, but on the contrary, it made the proponents to abandon math and start the pseudo-science multiverse campaign. With this kind of attitude you can build any theory you want, since when you get in trouble you can advocate that, the crap solutions you´re getting out of your math, are in other universes.

38. David Rod says:

Highly recommend the recent book by Helge Kragh – Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology (Oxford University Press, 2011). It has excellent chapters covering many of the ideas expressed above.

39. Zathras says:

I second David’s recommendation of Kragh’s book. It really puts the ST enterprise, the multiverse, and anthropic principles in their proper historical perspective.

40. John Baez says:

I hope Peter writes a review of Kragh’s book. I’m too cheap to fork over $63 for it right now, but I’ve long dreamt of writing a book about the history of “grand theories”, and I hope this book covers the ground well enough so I can drop that ambition. For example, I hope it talks about Schrodinger’s attempt at a grand unified theory, and also Einstein’s various attempts. It would be nice to have a detailed analysis of these. 41. Tim van Beek says: John wrote: I’m too cheap to fork over$63 for it right now, but I’ve long dreamt of writing a book about the history of “grand theories”, and I hope this book covers the ground well enough so I can drop that ambition.

Until someone writes a review of the book, there is an article covering the period of 1914 – 1933 here:

Hubert Goenner: On the History of Unified Field Theories, living reviews.

42. Greg Egan says:

The Amazon page for Kragh’s book has a look-inside function that enables you to browse the index and table of contents. There are certainly entries in the index for both Einstein and Schrödinger.

43. Shantanu says:

So john, you don’t think proton decay will ever be detected?

44. Peter Woit says:

Bernhard,

I wrote a little bit about it here:

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3389

based on looking at the extensive “technical notes” available free on Amazon, and then took a bit more of a look at it when it came out. Capsule review: the usual pseudo-science and lack of any possible way to test it as every other one of the endless number of multiverse books, but better writing and presentation.

I haven’t read Brian’s book (or some of the other recent such book like Gribbin’s and Manly’s) carefully and written a detailed review partly because I’m too bored and discouraged by these things to put more time into thinking or writing something substantive about them. By now I’ve repeated time and again the same obvious arguments about why these things are problematic pseudo-science, for a recent example, mentioning the book, see here:

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3419

There’s another similar book coming out soon, Barrow’s “The Book of Universes”. When I see a copy of that one, maybe I’ll write something, maybe not.

These things are atrocious, but one consolation is that I think the whole “multiverse” thing is now getting over-exposed. Publishers want to sell something “new” and this stuff is getting old fast.

45. DGP says:

This is rather belated I know, but I wasn’t going to read the NS “Instant Expert” item about String Theory until I saw the comments about Duff’s rather polemical last page. I am surprised NS let that through since “Instant Expert” is supposed to be informative not controversial.

I asked a mathematician friend for his opinion. He said he had stopped reading papers and articles about String Theory. He did take a look, however, and here is his reply:
http://xkcd.com/171/
Outside the string coterie, there seems to be increased cynicism about their claims.

Duff seems to have reverted to full adherence to the String Party line recently. His opinions seem to have been more tolerant of criticism. In September 2010, in an article on his work on entanglement he said:
“We have nothing to say about whether string theory is the theory of everything.” (From http://www.sciencenews.org/
Home / News / September 25th, 2010; Vol.178 #7 / Article String theory entangled .)
Admittedly, that was in the particular context. Even so, the change of tone is remarkable.

DGP.

46. John Baez says:

Tim wrote:

Until someone writes a review of the book, there is an article covering the period of 1914 – 1933 here:

Hubert Goenner: On the History of Unified Field Theories, Living Reviews.

Yes, I really liked this article. I should reread it! For people who have followed the recent struggles to find a unified theory of physics, it’s very thought-provoking to look back at these earlier attempts. For example, the problems with media hype today remind me of Einstein’s criticism of the premature publicity Schrödinger engaged in. I’m not finding the exact quote now, but it was quite biting. I’m only finding this:

In January 1947 he believed he had made a major breakthrough in Unified Field Theory. He read a paper at the Royal Irish Academy on 27 January entitled The Final Affine Laws. Schrödinger presented it to the Academy and to the Irish press as an epoch-making advance. The Irish Times carried an interview with Schrödinger the next day in which he said:-

This is the generalization. Now the Einstein Theory becomes simply a special case… I believe I am right, I shall look an awful fool if I am wrong.

Einstein, however, realised immediately that there was nothing of merit in Schrödinger’s ‘new theory’

Before he received Einstein’s opinion, he was attempting to offer an explanation for the ‘exaggerated’ newspaper reports. Soon afterwards, Einstein stopped corresponding on the subject and no communication between the two was made at all for three years.

Shantanu wrote:

So john, you don’t think proton decay will ever be detected?

I have no idea. I wish something like the SO(10) GUT would turn out to be true, because it so neatly packages all the fermions in each generation into a single irrep. But I’ll be happy if people make any sort of significant progress on understanding elementary particles.