The Hype Goes On

Yet another example of the seemingly infinite supply of bogus “evidence for string theory” is a recent Slashdot posting about a claim to have measured a change in time of the proton/electron mass ratio. It is based on a New Scientist article that states:

If confirmed, the result could force some physicists to radically rethink their theories. It would also provide support for string theory, which predicts extra spatial dimensions.

The original PRL paper about this is here and it is free of anything about string theory. The string theory nonsense appears to come from the following press release, which says:

Standard physics does not have an explanation as to why Mp/me has this value, nor can it provide an explanation as to why it would vary. However, superstring and M-theories do provide qualitative explanations for the Mp/me value and also predict possible variations of the fundamental constants.

It’s unclear where the author got this particular piece of incorrect string theory hype. Not from Lubos evidently, who says that according to string theory the proton/electron mass ratio is constant, unless it isn’t.

Update: This particular piece of nonsensical string theory hype even makes it to USA Today:

Such changes to fundamental constants would lend support to modern-day versions of string theory, which has varying constants built into its basic equations. String theory holds that on the very smallest distance scales possible, strings or loops of energy vibrating at different frequencies are the components of sub-atomic particles. String theory has also been a hot topic in physics for decades among theorists looking for a better explanation than “that’s just the way it is” of why fundamental constants have their fundamental values. So far, string theory has more critics than results, it should be noted.

Update: The hype even makes it into Nature which is normally better at avoiding this kind of nonsense:

But various versions of string theory suggest that extra dimensions occupied by a particle might affect properties such as its mass. Subtle changes in these dimensions could make physical constants vary slightly, explains Barrow. However, “there’s absolutely no observational evidence to support this vast array of ideas,” cautions Fabian. The paucity of hard evidence for string theory may be partly responsible for the upsurge in interest in variable constants, Barrow adds; results like Ubachs’ could eventually provide a good way to assess the ideas. “I’m sure we’ll see some theory papers about this,” he says. “I might write one myself.”

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72 Responses to The Hype Goes On

  1. Thomas Larsson says:

    JC, your question is answered in Todorov’s Heisenberg biography, physics/0503235

  2. Who says:

    thanks Thomas, history and the life experience of major figures in a field are surely part of understanding it. I was happy to find the short biography of H. you pointed to readily available on the arxiv, and read it with interest.

    Apropos nothing in particular, another biographical document available on arxiv, one I like very much, is a memoir by the late Asher Peres “I am the cat who walks by himself”

    memoirs and history such as this give the arxiv an extra dimension, and make it all the more remarkable as a web institution

  3. Chris Oakley says:


    I am sorry, but I think that physics and politics should be kept separate. Although I personally would not object to a cross-listing of your article in hep-th I can at the same time understand why it was not included. I should add that Peter (who obviously, like yourself, has strongly-held political beliefs) does an excellent job of keeping this kind of thing out of this forum. To see what happens when one is unable to exercise this manner of self-control one need only take a look at Lubos’s blog. However brilliant (?) his scientific insights, to many he is going to just be that nutty, right-wing Harvard physics professor.

  4. Bert Schroer says:

    To Who says
    Most of my knowledge about Heisenberg’s role in Nazi-Germany came from the Farm Hall report (the result of wiretapping on the interned members of the German Uranium club) and from a biography by Klaas Landsman. I think these sources were also used by Todorov. Somewhere it is mentioned that Heisenberg was in trouble when an SS-journal accused him of being a “white Jew”. but on the other hand he became the boss of the German war related Uranium research group and was probably consideres by the allies a greater threat than Jordan. Besides a personal encounter of Jordan as a student my interest in his biography was greatly stimulated by an article of Engelbert Schuecking “Jordan, Pauli, Politics, Brecht, and a variable gravitational constant” which appeared in the October 1999 issue of Physics Today. Different from Heisenberg’s relation to the Nazi’s (he was never a party member) Jordan joined the party quite early (already in 1933) but despite his open Nazi sympathies (apart from anti-semitism) the Nazi’s did not trust him sufficiently to consign him with any important war-related scientific task; in fact these sympathies were never reciprocated. After the war he took a pro-US position in the issue about nuclear weapons against a campaign supported by Born, Heisenberg and another 16 members of the German scientific establishment.
    Coming back to the main issue, there seems to be a misunderstanding; I never intended to post my article in hep-th and I completely agree that it does not belong there, but I thought I could let the hep-th readers (most of my particle physics papers were posted there) know by crossing listing (there is unfortunately no other way) that there is such an article.
    I still do not understand why there is a censorship against cross-listing (the policy is against an abuse in form of mutiple cross listings, but making one crossing is certainly within the policy). Why isn’t there more transparency on this point?
    Stories like that of Asher Perez are fascinating to people like me who are approximately from the same generation and therefore are deeply stamped by the tragedies of the 20 century (without Who says remark I would have never come across these interesting biographical notes). Assuming for the benefit of the argument that Asher’s scientific articles would have been posted in hep-th, why would he be prevented to indicate the existence of a historical article concerning his own life by a cross listing to hep-th? Does the monitor worry about the hep-th consumer getting too much distracted?
    A short side remark may put this point into sharper focus. One of the most interesting episode of my life was the way in which the historical figure of Olga Benario one day entered the 10 year lasting collaboration on particle physics with Jorge Andre Swieca from Brazil (and linked our otherwise disparate life lines in a completely unexpected way). It would be obvious why I am deeply disappointed with a recent Brazilian film “Olga” where this pivotal figure whose biography reflects the tragedy of the 20 century is used as a vehicle for telling a love story. As a particle physicist you want to make such reminiscences available at a place where you scientifically contributed for a significant part of your professional life and not at a place which your colleagues rarely visit. I thought that among other things this is the purpose of cross listing. As a lack of transparency in the application of this policies by the hep-th monitor I still do not know whether I would be permitted to do this.
    Chris, did you really read my article to the end (Jordan&war)? Or were you to much offended by my introduction (“rant”) and had to stop?

  5. island says:

    I am sorry, but I think that physics and politics should be kept separate.

    I think that’s the most sane statement that’s come out of science in about 20 years.

    …we all know that in all matters of mere opinion that [every] man is insane–just as insane as we are…we know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours….All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.
    -sam clemens

  6. Bert Schroer says:

    since our remarks were posted at the same time, let me come back to them. If you feel offended by my US policy criticism I can understand this and perhaps I overdid it. It is the kind of reaction of disappointed love which is especially strong with people you feel very close to (the most intense arguments are often within the same family). Of course I did not forget the pivotal US contribution to the liberation of Europe from the Nazis and facism.
    I was a research associate at the University of Illinois (60-62), went for one year to Priceton (where I collaborated with Korkut Bardakci) and for the rest of the decade got an assitant professorship (later associate) at the University of Pittsburgh. This was the happiest time in my life and my memories of life in the US are 100% positive (one reason I stayed away in more recent times is that I do not want to spoil them). As somebody who run away from East Germany I once got into a weird situation when, during my two years as a research associate working with Haag I went with him to a summer school in Boulder/ Col. When one day there I bought a Time Magazine I found an article about two mathematicians (Bill Martin and Bernon Mitchell) who did some secret work for the NSA and fled via Havanna to the Soviet Union. I remembered Martin’s name from having taken over his rented apartment and bought his used piano. But the photos at those times were very unclear and I thought there was a mix-up on my part. When I returned to Champaign-Urbana the CIA people were already waiting for me; they found the cheque with which I payed the piano in a Wahington safe. They suspected me to be involved and what really stunned me was that they knew incredible details of my life including the part in East Germany. It took me some days of thinking to resolve my surprize. When I went through West-Berlin by plane to West-Germany I had to go through a camp (Fallingbostel near Hamburg, a former internment or concentration camp). This lasted some weeks and during this time there were frequent interrogations by German authorities. These transcripts of those were passed to the CIA. After one month of meeting with the two agents in a bar in Champaign-Urbana (naturally them paying the beer) I finally succeeded to convince them that this was a weird coincidence. Decades later when I told this story to Ludwig Faddeev at a conference dinner he laughed at me and told me that both had applied for a job at the Steklov Institute in St. Petersburg; by that time they apparently had Russian wifes. It seems that communism succeded to converttwo gays (at least temporarily) into hetero-sexuals. While I was living in Champaign-Urbana I moved outside the campus and rented the souterrain of a house of a very conservative fundamentalist family. They observed every step of my life. They were worried about girl students visiting me but what got them really upset was my participation in the unitarian church where I sometimes went because they had interesting speakers (it was more like a social club and many of the speakers were from the civil rights movement). When they reprimanded me as a refugee from eat East Germany for being sympathetic to communists I left and moved again on campus.
    All these episodes added some spice to my life but they never dented my admiration of the US.
    During the last years in high school in stalinist East Germany my school mate was Hellmut Karasek who became later a well-known journalist and literary critic. Our admiration for the American way of life was without limits. He left East Germany a couple of month after me. Contrary to my experience he had problems to enter the US after his studies in Tuebingen. (I think because he was a paying member of the FDJ during the last year of school). When the ripples of the Ms Carthy era finally vanished he went to tne US anf lived for a couple of month together with Billy Wilder in LA. With the material he collected he wrote a fabulous book, a kind of Billy Wilder biography. One of the most interesting interviews of Woody Allan (which appeared in Germany) were done by him.
    It is true that my enthusiasm suffered some serious setbacks in more recent times, but this may yet turn out to be transitory.
    The criticism of string theorists does not penetrate much, but your remarks Chris, really entered my skin. To be compared to somebody like Motl who uses photos of bombers with nuclear weapons and who can hardly await the “nuking” of Iran (it makes me vomint looking at this) really hurts. He certainly represents all the disagreeable sides of Pascual Jordan without having yet shown the innovative talent. One of the points of my essay was of course that in principle those two apparent extremes may come together.

  7. Chris Oakley says:


    I finished your article just now. I still think that your article belongs in the NYT, but maybe with a title like “Physics and pre-emptive wars: the case of Pascual Jordan”.

    Off-topic, and we may be in comment-deletion territory but, what do you know about Kallen’s work circa 1950, specifically “Formal integration of the equations of quantum theory in the Heisenberg representation”, Arkiv för Fysik, bd. 2, #37, p.37 (1950)? I realise that you would have only been 17 at the time, but if you have any recollections I would be very interested to hear them. The work is referred to in his 1972 text book on QED.


    The situation can be summed up as follows:
    Opinions are like ***-holes. Everyone has one.

  8. Arun says:

    There is a letter in the NYTimes today, signed by Leonard Susskind, Freeman Dyson, David Gross and Walter Kohn, and 15 other members of the National Academy of Sciences – expressing concern about Guantanamo.

    “Although this is not a scientific issue in the usual sense, we feel that to ignore it would be to abdicate our responsibility to the truth”.

  9. Arun says:
    (I don’t know if it is reachable without subscription.)

    The signatures are:

    Leonard Susskind
    Professor of Physics, Stanford University
    Palo Alto, Calif., April 19, 2006

    Michael Aizenman
    Professor of Mathematical Physics, Princeton University

    James Bjorken
    Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stanford University

    Stanley Deser
    Professor of Physics, Brandeis University

    Freeman Dyson
    Professor of Physics, Institute for Advanced Study

    Mary K. Galliard
    Professor of Physics, University of California at Berkeley

    David Gross
    Professor of Physics, University of California
    Winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics

    Leo Kadanoff
    Professor of Physics and Mathematics, University of Chicago

    Walter Kohn
    Professor of Chemistry, University of California at Santa Barbara
    Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

    Elliot Lieb
    Professor of Mathematics and Physics, Princeton University

    Joel Lebowitz
    Professor of Mathematics and Physics, Rutgers University

    Douglas Osheroff
    Professor of Physics and Applied Physics, Stanford University
    Winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physics

    Joseph Polchinski
    Professor of Physics, University of California at Santa Barbara

    Edwin Salpeter
    Emeritus Professor of the Physical Sciences, Cornell University

    John H. Schwarz
    Professor of Theoretical Physics, California Institute of Technology

    Frank Wilczek
    Professor of Physics, M.I.T.
    Winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics

    Edward Witten
    Professor of Mathematical Physics, Institute for Advanced Study

    Richard Zare
    Professor in Natural Sciences, Stanford University

    Bruno Zumino
    Emeritus Professor of Particle Theory, University of California at Berkeley

  10. JC says:


    (also slightly offtopic)

    How much was physics (and science in general) affected by Marxist type ideologies during the East German communist era?

    I remember stories from German colleagues during the mid 1990’s mentioning that a number of academics at the Unter den Linden campus in Berlin (and other universities in the former East Germany), were dismissed shortly after German reunification. Many of the dismissed academics were allegedly people who specialized in things like Marxist economics, communist “political science”, etc …

  11. Bert Schroer says:

    o.k. I am more than happy to get away from the present political glitch (unlike the past one it has not yet solidified) back to particle physics. I also want to make my peace with Distler, but a bit more transparency in applying those cross listing rules would be very helpful. If it is the admixture of ongoing politics (he probably does not mean the solidified past politics which has became part of immutable history) this should be stated and then one knows in advance and can adjust formulations appropriately.
    Of course I did not read Kallen’s article at the time when it appeared, but I do remember his handbook article where he based the perturbation theory directly on the Heisenberg fields. This method had been later called the Yang-Feldman approach and for interactions in terms of polynomial pointlike free fields the result is the same although to go from the time-ordered to the retarded functions is a bit cumbersome. The Kallen approach is less popular because you have to cope with two different c-number two-point contractions. In the late 80s and 90 this approach was sucessfully revived (for certain problems) by Othmar Steinmann. In the recent noncommutative settings the Yang-Feldman approach seems to be the conceptually safest (you want to check that the asymptotic part called “incoming” really has the algebraic commutation structure of a free field which is highly questionable since the validity of cluster factorization and macro-causality is in doubt, people only looked at the unitartity problem but forget the macrocausality properties without which the theory does not allow a particle physics interpretation) I have reviewed this situation in AOP 319 (2005) 92. I think you find further useful literature in there and as far as I know nothing really new has appeared afterwards.
    I noticed through a recent email exchange with Wally Greenberg that some authors really thought that noncommutative theories continued to be local. He tried to straighten them out on this. But if they did not read my article (where this was an important point), they probably will not look at his either. Maybe he succeeded because, he went to Finnland and had the chance to talk to them directly.
    I am wondering what Peter thinks; instead of banging away at string theory we are using his weblog for other purposes.

  12. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Bert,

    Thanks for the clarification. I cannot understand why it is called the “Yang-Feldman” approach when all they do in their 1950 Phys. Rev. paper is to say (end of sect. 1A) “general rules can be formulated for writing down the various terms to any order in e but, for practical compuatations, they are usually more complicated than Feynman’s rules”. But where are these rules? Kallen actually derives them! I don’t know if you’ve seen my work on the subject (linked to from my name above), but I was just using free fields as terms in an expansion rather than representing asymptotic states, much in the spirit of Kallen’s earlier 1950 paper (Ark Fys, band 2, no. 19, p.187). It is indeed more cumbersome but has the advantage that (i) one can read off matrix elements directly and (ii) it can also be used for non-local field equations, and specifically ones that do not lead to nonsensical infinities.

    So one could thereby develop a comprehensive QFT without infinities and without having to consider Superstringy abstractions.

    (NB: The last sentence was added just to try to forestall deletion of this comment on the grounds of being off-topic).

  13. Bert Schroer says:

    As to the anti Guantanamo campaign: better late than never.
    Let us be united on this matter. The present discrepancies on matters of particle physics are quite insignificant compared to taking care of our civilization which plays an essential role in modern science.
    When I criticise ideas then even in those cases where I mention names (because they are inexorably related to some ideas) I never put the character and sincerity of persons into question and I think Leonard Susskind and David Gross know this. What they may not sense as much as I, Peter Woit and many others is that their influence down to the carries of present day students (in particular on their impact ratings, stipends etc) is so strong that in case the gigantic jump into the conceptual blue yonder (using Feynman’s style of pointing to the speculative nature of frontiers) fails (only few jumps succeeded in the past, there is always a risk), we may end in a long period of a particle physics void (also the new exiting astrophysical problems require a profound understanding of particle physics). The reason may simply be that too much time was spent in the blue yonder so that the solid ground from which this journey started will be forgotten and after several generations can only be reconstituted by doing “particle physics archeology”. The survival of the fittest in the sense of a hegemony material control is not a mechanism which should be applied to particle physics especially if a hegemon can change the rules of attributing weight to the ongoing research.
    To JC:
    life in eastern Germany at the height of Stalinism (starting from 1951 to the time of Chruschov) in high school was very tense because most us (including Karasek and me) came from the lower middle class (my father was a fiddler who stabelized his life by taking on a fixed job in the administration of the Solvay caustic soda production) and the tension between home and school (with two type teachers, the old ones to whom you could be somewhat confidential and the new who we generally did not trust). We had a Russian teacher from Kazachstan named Olga Benkenstein and we played terrible pranks to her just out of frustration and sensing that she was weak, not because we disliked her. If Karasek and I ever would have found the chance for a later appology, we would have done this; youngsters can be very cruel (already in those days). Concerning the treatment of the “Ossies” by the “Wessies” at the universities (example the Humboldt university) it was like other situations of sudden changes with part of society becoming powerless: this is a time of settling scores, personal denunciations people loosing their jobs etc. (not so different from what happened during the military dictatorship in Brazil during the 60s).
    I think you are right, the main contribution of Yang-Feldman beyond Kallen is to bring the equation of motion into the Yang-Feldman integral form (where the zero order in fields appear explicitly), but I do not have a reliable recollection. If I remember more (or find the handbook article in the cbpf Rio de Janeiro library which is probably the best in Brazil, I will let you know. The proper formulation of causal perturbation theory does not lead to infinities because the distributional character of fields is taken into account. The problem is that in so called nonrenormalizable theories the known setting does not tell you to intrinsically separate out a finite parametric submanifold (finite number of coupling parameters). This refers only to the standard way of doing perturbations, and not to future other implementations. Brunetti and Fredenhagen recently gave convoncing arguments that by using their new local covariance formulation they can recover background independence (and perhaps develop an background independent concept of a graviton). Mund and I test presently our concept of massless higher helicity string localized fields which as a result of their simultaneous fluctuation both in Minkowski and de Sitter space (the space of spacelike string directions) have much milder fluctuations in Minkowski space. The new conceptual problem is to implement interactions for string-localized fields. Only if these results turn out to be negative you can say with more confidence that there unlike gauge theory there exists no finite parametric submanifold for helicity=2. Then it would make sense to say that QFT cannot incorporate perturbative gravity. String theorists tend to premature apodictive statements because they confuse their carricature of QFT with its autonomous content.

  14. island says:

    […] the National Academy of Sciences – expressing concern about Guantanamo

    I think that it’s the implied endorcement that’s insanely dangerous.

  15. Bert Schroer says:

    retarded answer to a question of JC:
    high school physics was not at all influenced by Stalinism. Biology was a different story. Scharlatans like Lyssenkow and Mitschurin had to be given a central role in biology classes. This was often done by teachers against their own better knowledge. I remember a funny phrase of my biology teacher whose halfhearted attitude in teaching such things ended in bloopers like this: “what the wheat was going through within half a year after disseminations on the fields, Mitschurin did in two weeks in a shelter”. This referred to a process called “jarowisation” in which the wheat grains where sprincled with icy water to make them more resistent against the cold so that one can grow wheat also in colder northern zones.
    There was indeed a lot of injustice done against some of my colleagues who were physics professors at east german universities. For example Arnim Uhlmann who was a professor in Leipzig was retires against his will and only reveived a fraction of the retirement pension of a professor in the West. He was a deputy of the peoples chamber but nobody came up with any complaints of any personal sufferings from any action by Uhlmann. It is my conviction that everybody has the right to make his living and his carrier even in a dictatorial situation as long as he does not make life miserable for others. Compromises are allowed, see Brecht’s famous play about the life of Galilei.

  16. Bert Schroer says:

    I am only using this weblog since I was unable to find your electronic address; the content of this remark is not of general interest to the participants of this weblog.
    Kallen did go into some perturbation theoretical details (as you said) whereas Yang-Feldman did look at details. But even Kallen did not provide the computational “guns” (even though his first name was “Gunnar”) to do the n-th order. I think that doing perturbation theory directly in terms of Wightman functions (this is what Steinmann allegedly did) is equivalent to the Kallen-Yang-Feldman setting. Actually the proof of equivalence with the time-ordering approach is technically and conceptually quite involved. In a completely watertight form it is probably contained in the University of Hamburg project of a mathematical physics formulation of all aspects of perturbation theory (Fredenhagen, Brunetti, Duetsch….)
    I met Gunnar Kallen only once; he looked very young for his age. As a student I probably was more afraid of his temper (“Gunner”) than others. He was extremely bright&fast and had the temper of Pauli (and my adviser Harry Lehmann, who however was very soft and helpful if it came to students). On several occasions he got into heated discussions with Julian Schwinger.
    For some reasons he reminded me of the main character in Robert Musil’s “The Confusions of Young Torless”.
    He was an amateur pilot and died in a crash when he was flying together with his wife in a Cessna (she survived). The weather on that day was excellent and he was an experienced pilot. There was the rumor that got extremely depressed when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, i.e. he that he comitted suicide because he lost the will to survive his wife.

  17. Chris Oakley says:

    Hi Bert,

    My e-mail is Yes, I had read the story of Kallen’s untimely death. Obviously a great loss to theoretical physics.

    You probably saw that I got into fairly heated discussions with the referees over my papers between 1986 and 1987. All probably completely pointless; I suspect that a lot of the aggravation could have been avoided if either the referees or myself had been better aware of the work done by Kallen et al in the late 40’s/early 50s. Of course, I would be very interested to hear about any material that could possibly be relevant.

    The basic idea, though, seems to have been all but extinguished in the literature. The Stueckelberg connection I only found out through this web log, for which, thank-you Danny Lunsford (and Peter for providing the forum) … the Kallen work I discovered only through an internet search. He does mention it in his QED text book, but – I don’t ever recall ever studying this, at least not before last week.

  18. woit says:

    Been away for a long weekend, mostly away from the internet. Now back and will write about some new things soon. You’re all forgiven for the off-topic comments since many of them were quite interesting….

  19. Who says:

    damn! why didn’t I get in there during the break from supervision? I could have been talking all weekend about Smolin’s idea of cosmo natural selection determining the fundamental constants so as to maximize black hole abundance. what a wasted opportunity!

  20. woit says:


    Even from a very slow and hard to use dial-up connection, I might have done what I could to put a stop to those…

  21. SomeBody says:

    In Bert Schroer says

    “[…] somebody like Motl who uses photos of bombers with nuclear weapons and
    who can hardly await the “nuking” of Iran (it makes me vomint looking at this)”

    Pardon me, but where did Motl do any of this? His blog post on the possibility of a nuclear strike on Iran

    looks nothing like your description of it. Did I miss something?

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