There’s a new magazine aimed at Harvard alums, named 02138 (after the local zip-code), and its second issue has just appeared. Personally I’ve never quite understood the phenomenon of people who retain a lifelong fascination with the fact that they attended Harvard, but it seems that there are a lot of them, and the magazine is partly aimed at them or at anyone with an interest in the place or its alumni. The university already has an alumni magazine that it sponsors, but 02138 appears to intend to provide something edgier and not so much along the lines of promotional material.

This latest issue contains an article about the string controversy, written by John Sedgwick and with a focus on the Harvard angle, including me, fellow Harvard grad Brian Greene, and current Harvard faculty member Lubos Motl. The piece is called Unstrung Heroes, and for the full thing I guess you’ll have to subscribe to the magazine. I fear that Sedgwick has done an excellent job of accurately putting together the most outrageous statements that he could find on this topic, including some things I told him when he came down to New York a couple months ago. He also got some interesting quotes from quite a few physicists about the current state of string theory. These included Glashow, who “said he considers a big book like Woit’s long overdue, because *string theory has gone exactly as we imagined*. If anything, he adds, *it’s even worse than it was*.” Weinberg is quoted as saying:

*The critics are right. We have no single prediction of string theory that is verified by observation. Even worse, we don’t know how to use string theory to make predictions. Even worse than that, we don’t really know what string theory is.*

Cumrun Vafa “calls string theory *the major leagues* in the field of quantum gravity. As for other theoretical pursuits, he derides them as *little efforts here and there*.” Barton Zwiebach promotes string theory as possibly being able to “see the origin of the universe, and the very meaning of how space and time are born and what they are.” Michael Peskin claims that we might discover a universe that existed before time as we know it began, while noting “But there is a big debate as to whether this idea makes any sense.”

Sedgwick tells the story of Lubos Motl’s reference to me as the “black crackpot”, and Lee Smolin as the “blue crackpot” (because of the colors of the covers of our books), and his discussion of the desirability of my death. Lubos has evidently been told he’s not supposed to say things like that anymore, and responded to a request for an interview with “I don’t enjoy elementary human rights right now.” There’s a quote which I think originated as a comment on my blog to the effect that Lubos has done for the image of string theory “what the movie *Deliverance* did for canoeing holidays.”

Perhaps the most outrageous quote is an accurate one from me characterizing some of my experiences criticizing string theory from a position outside the field’s standard rigid hierarchy as being analogous to what happens when one messes with the dominance hierarchy of a chimpanzee troupe. This leads to a lot of strange behavior, flinging of shit, showing of behinds, and all sorts of bizarre behavior. In order to avoid offending people I wasn’t referring to, I should explain that I had in mind specifically some of my experiences when first starting this blog, see in particular the comment section of this posting.

It’s a bit embarassing that I’m made out to in some degree be the hero of this piece, the oppressed underdog that the author tries to set up in contrast to overlord Brian Greene. Sedgwick sees the story of how string theory dominates an academic field despite very limited achievements as quite analogous to the phenomenon he had personal experience with of how “theory” came to dominate the humanities in academia. I think there is something to the analogy, with both kinds of “theorists” starting out as an insurgent minority needing a certain amount of fanaticism to survive and expand their influence. Both groups revel in the complexity and obscurity of their work, convinced that those who disagree with them are stuck in the past or just too dumb to appreciate the great achievements of the difficult ideas involved in the two kinds of “theory”.

Chris W. has pointed me to a site that brings together the two sorts of “theory”. It’s called Scriblerus Press, is run by Sean Miller, who has a blog and is working on a PhD thesis in English on the topic of “the cultural currency of string theory.” Scriblerus is sponsoring and now looking for contributions to an anthology of short creative works that deal with string theory in one way or another.

one messes with the dominance hierarchy of a chimpanzee troupe.Er, you have a curious instinct to put the finger on bogus science, if you are referring to “Chimpanzee Politics“, of Frans de Waal. In the revised edition, he explains (in the small letter) that the chimpanzee causing all the history was received in the Zoo as a donation of “Disney on Ice” or a similar circus show.

Peter can you get permission to post the article on this website?

For my money, Weinberg is among the most honest traders in the “marketplace of ideas.” His advocacy of string theory has troubled me more than anyone else’s. So this turn is a relief — maybe there’s a place for normal scientific standards in theoretical physics.

I should point out that I have been making this analogy of humanities to physics since the 80s, and that they both lurk in the dark shadow cast by postmodernism.

-drl

Both groups revel in the complexity and obscurity of their work, convinced that those who disagree with them are stuck in the past or just too dumb to appreciate the great achievements of the difficult ideas involved in the two kinds of “theory”.Isn’t the situation broadly similar in cosmology, with Big Bang’s dark matter, dark energy etc.?

“Personally I’ve never quite understood the phenomenon of people who retain a lifelong fascination with the fact that they attended Harvard, but it seems that there are a lot of them, and the magazine is partly aimed at them or at anyone with an interest in the place or its alumni.”

The university teaches this habit as part of its famous core curriculum, now under revision. The mental habit of self-adulation provides an important basis for the mental habit of donating money to wealthy institutions.

Isn’t the situation broadly similar in cosmology, with Big Bang’s dark matter, dark energy etc.?Experimental cosmology is a field that…well, exists. Experimental string theory doesn’t.

Dear Peter:

I just read one of your earlier posts (post=3 actually) giving some idea of your academic background; it’s nice to know that while you have the requisite background to provide thoughtful and meaningful commentary on current theoretical physics (trends) and related areas, you don’t engage in the usual ramblings and shouting that sometimes characterize other commentators. (I always felt the mark of genuine scholarship was objectiveness, sound reasoning and clarity of thought… something not particularly paid much attention to in the current sub-culture of particle physics a la string theory.)

Well, anyhow, the reason for writing was to ask you the following:

1) You seem to view Representation theory an integral part of mathematical investigations of current particle physics. Exactly how, I wonder? [I am new to hep-th.]

2) You further view Atiyah’s works as fundamental to QFT-related studies. Can you explain how? [Only an outline would do.]

3) I am reading “The Road to Reality”; there, Roger Penrose advocates twistor theory; why, for example, do you not share the same level / degree of excitement as Roger Penrose regarding his program? I would have thought that you, among a handful of individuals who take objectiveness in research rather seriously, would want to assist Sir Roger in his investigations as much as possible.

4) [Optional] Can you send me an e-copy of Coleman’s QFT notes (if you have one)?

Thanks.

Michael

Peter,

Thanks. You just saved me $65. (I read the linked comments from Mark Srednicki.)

I suspect that 02138 is “edgier” (not in the Feynman diagram sense, which would have some magazines “loopier”) to appeal to younger alumni. My father got his degree at Harvard, cum laude, and maintained a lifelong love for his alma mater, including dining almost daily at the Harvard Club in New York, buying me Harvard neckties, rooting in “The Game” (Harvard-Yale football), and snailmailing me articles cut from the harvard alumni magazine. However, my father was 82 when he died, and the mainstream of magazine publishing appears to have shifted considerably. I’d hypothesize that 02138 has “edgier” graphics (further along the spectrum towards “Wired”) and a slant towards controverial human interest stories.

Now, should Caltech change its almni magazine’s name from “Engineering and Science” to “91125”?

CIP – Peter won that argument flat-out, and with dignity rather than arrogance.

-drl

D R – absolutely.

Bending over backwards to be fair to Mark, he’s probably not the first person to go off half-cocked. The deliberate obtuseness on the SU(2) question was a bit much though.

Michael asked Peter “… [Optional] Can you send me an e-copy of Coleman’s QFT notes (if you have one)? …”.

Coleman’s QFT notes were published in a 1999 Cambridge University Press book entitled

“Quantum Field Theory for Mathematicians”

by Robin Ticciati, who, as the preface states, “… had audited Sidney Coleman’s outstanding Harvard lectures and had taken very good notes. Equally fortunate, I [Robin Ticciati] had Robert Brandenberger’s official solutions to all the homework sets. … “.

Tony Smith

http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

Michael,

Your questions are good ones, but to answer them in detail would take more time than I have now, and get into topics far afield from the posting. I’ll try and say a bit though, in reverse order…

Lots of physicists, like me, probably have a yellowing set of notes from Coleman’s course around, and many people have taught courses from these. The Harvard web-site for the course (this semester taught by Lubos Motl, who seems to be following Coleman’s notes) has a copy of such notes, see:

http://my.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do?course=fas-phys253a&pageid=tk.page.phys253a.dir.96baa9f5f565ad359215beb46d7685a9

About twistors: I’ve always been very interested in the geometry of twistors, and long ago even wrote a paper about what they might have to do with the standard model, one that I now think of as very naive. I think the fundamental problem with twistors is that, while they provide a different and more interesting set of variables to use in thinking about space-time geometry, no one really knows how to relate these to particle physics, or how to use them in a quantum field theory of space-time. This is a very deep problem, I’ll bet that someday it will be an important part of future progress, but no one has been able to solve it yet.

About Atiyah. Atiyah’s work on index theory and K-theory is one of the great advances of mathematics in the last half of the last century. It brings together geometry, algebra and analysis in a fascinating way, with the Dirac operator playing a crucial role. If you believe like me that the deepest ideas about mathematics are related to physics, this looks like a promising place to be searching for new ideas about physics. Atiyah himself did some things related to QFT (work on anomalies), and a lot on the geometry of gauge theories. He retired a while back and has not been as active as he was during the 70s and 80s. His student Graeme Segal has been someone thinking deeply about QFT and CFTs more recently.

I highly recommend reading Segal’s notes on the subject that you can find on the web. Trying to understand the full implications of this kind of mathematics for QFT is still very much a work in progress, with many interesting things known, but we’re far from a clear picture about this.

In general, Atiyah is also a master expositor, so his papers are well worth reading. But as for his actual work on QFT, it’s fragmentary. One of the most impressive things he did was to come up with the idea of a topological QFT, convince himself that there had to be a TQFT for Donaldson theory, and for what are now known as Gromov-Witten invariants, and then badger Witten about this until Witten actually figured out that such theories really exist and how to define them.

Representation theory is a huge subject, and it’s a great unifying idea in mathematics. Some beautiful 1+1 d QFTs can be understood in terms of the representation theory of loop groups and the group of diffeomorphisms of the circle. These groups are infinite dimensional and their representation theory was not well-understood until people started thinking about the relation to QFT. My belief is that higher dimensional QFTs may have a close relation to the representation theory of higher dimensional gauge and diffeomorphism groups, but very little is known about this subject. We seem to still be missing some crucial ideas. One idea that I’ve thought a lot about is that of using equivariant K-theory, a subject that was developed by Atiyah and Segal, and brings together representation theory and K-theory.

Thanks for the post. I can’t say I’m going to run out and subscribe 02138, but my interest is definitely peaked and I will check out the article next time I’m at the Coop. I got a good laugh from your blog, and have been clicking on links going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole into the battle of string theory land. How I love the chimp throwing shit analogy. And even better is the quote, “I don’t enjoy elementary human rights right now.” HA! This is such great fodder . . . very bloggeriffic.

CIP,

Srednicki was the one at the George Johnson KITP talk to raise his hand when Johnson said something like “no one thinks Smolin is a crackpot”, generating much merriment from various chimps in attendance. From a quick look, his QFT book appears to be detailed, competent, but not in any way original or particularly insightful. Distler’s behavior in that comment section, and many other later similar exchanges, is just bizarre.

One thing that has struck me is how it seems to be people like Srednicki, Motl and Distler, who are nowhere near the top of the string theory hierarchy (Srednicki is not even a string theorist), who get most frantic at the very idea that someone who they see as an outsider or lower than them on the hierarchy challenging in any way those at the top. They seem to be the ones with the most emotionally invested in the maintenance of hierarchy. I’m not sure what this means.

The fact that all three have given up research might also be relevant.

Pter – these people were always around. The Internets and the Googles give them a voice.

-drl

Peter – yes twistors are fascinating, but hopeless for the current model of matter with its insistence on point particles. The idea is very simple – make a line geometry for spacetime rather than space – but with that, the point particle becomes a derived object, and so there is no hope of twistors having an intrinsic meaning for the usual model of matter. A new model of matter might have a better expression in terms of line geometry. What twistors really point to is a new model of matter.

-drl

Just a quick comment to Gunpowder and Noodles:

Better not to write people off as having given up research, unless

you are sure. I’m not sure it hurts anyone, but it poisons the

dialogue (yes, I know that other people have already pumped

it full of toxin). I wouldn’t seriously write “hey, that Gunpowder

and Noodles sure doesn’t explode pasta like in the olden days”.

Anyway, I expect you get my point.

I think Mark wrote a few papers recently.

I agree with Peter Orland. Enough with the less than accurate hostile comments.

Peter:

As regarding the [Optional] question, thanks! I’ll look through them; just wish they had been type-written though.

Ahem… might you have his “Erice Lectures” in e-format as well? :-(=)

Sorry, wanted to make [grin] symbol.

“They seem to be the ones with the most emotionally invested in the maintenance of hierarchy. I’m not sure what this means.”

I think it’s their way of being “more royal than the king”.

Coleman’s Erice lectures are copyrighted.

MathPhys:

I just asked if he [Peter] had them in e-format?

And by the way, sometimes authors make their works available free of cost, e.g. Connes’ NG or Warren Siegel’s ‘String Field Theory’.

it’s a pity that the Coleman lectures are too old to be freely available on arXiv; maybe you can find the following file:

Coleman S. Aspects of symmetry (CUP, 1985)(L)(T)(207s).djvu

I don’t have a copy of Coleman’s Erice lectures in electronic format, and if I did, I wouldn’t be making it publicly available, since this can’t legally be done without the publisher’s permission, and I see no reason they would give it. This web-site is hosted on university equipment, and I’m sure the university does not want me opening them up to possible legal problems by violating a publisher’s copyright.

In any case, I think having articles all available on-line is great, but for books and monographs I hate trying to read such things online and would much rather have a real book in hand. It’s also a shame that students are getting the idea that anything that is not available on-line is not worth looking at. They should get used to using whatever libraries they have access to (I realize there are some people for whom this is a problem). Especially if you can get yourself to a research physics or math library, they have an immense number of very valuable books there which you’re not going to find on-line, and looking into these is time well-spent.

bringing dozens of physics textbooks in a laptop is so useful that many physicists would buy good pdf copies of books that they already have. For the moment it cannot be done legally, but it is reasonable to expect that authors and/or publishers will realize that this pre-internet system is unconvenient for everybody.

In regards to the Harvard Magazine “02138”. Residences of Cambridge recognize that Harvard snobbery extends even to its Zip Code. Proles who live at an 023139 Zip Code address are definitely looked down on.

” —- for books and monographs I hate trying to read such things online and would much rather have a real book in hand.”

Peter, you’re so —- behind the times 🙂

Here is something I recently found (which is not entirely, entirely off topic)

” —— Grothendieck is now convinced that the Devil is working to falsify the speed of light. Schneps ascribes his concerns with the speed of light to his anxiety about the methodological compromises physicists make. He talks constantly, however, about the Devil, semi-metaphorically, sitting behind good people and nudging them in the direction of compromise, of the fudge, of the move towards corruption.”

when they make a book-like (tablet type laptop) PDF reader to replace books, then electronic books will take off more. Something as cheap as a book, no heavier or bulkier than a book, and whose batteries will last long enough to actually read a whole book…

But can you take it to bed?

Roy Lisker said about “Harvard snobbery” and the Harvard Zip Code 02138:

“… Proles who live at an 023139 Zip Code address are definitely looked down on. …”.

Poor MIT.

Its address at web.mit.edu is given as

“… 77 massachusetts avenue cambridge, ma 02139-4307 …”.

I guess engineers are too close to the real world

to fit in with the “Warped Passages” among the “Hidden Dimensions” of Harvard Intelligentsia.

Oh, wait !!

Harvard is planning to move its SuperStringers to Allston, which is 02134 !!!

( see http://www.allston.harvard.edu/ )

The indignity must be intolerable.

Maybe they can get their own magazine as a consolation prize.

Tony Smith

http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

PS – However, at least MIT can hold its head up about its area code, 617.

Regarding electronic books…Sometimes when one purchases the print version from Amazon, there is an option to upgrade to an e version…which allows you to highlight, underline, and add notes…as you would a print version.

The fact that 02138 is reporting the controversy on string theory as it is leads me to believe that the mass media, thanks to NEW and TTWP, has pretty much figured out that they were originally oversold on strings…

Now…when a salesperson oversells a product, he eventually loses credibility,and eventually sales. I would expect that any granting agencies that have been funding string related research adopt a similar tightening of the purse strings.

LDM,

Don’t bet on it happening soon. Funding doesn’t work

that way. Panels and reviewers make the final decision

as to who gets funded – and these are mercurial. People

at the top have to get heavy-handed before there is change.

It is unfortunate (for who?, we might ask) that funding

agencies have been tough on non-string particle theory

(other that hard-core number crunching or phenomology).

I have to add that I think it would be just as unfortunate

for agencies to get tough on someone just because he or

she happens to do string theory. There is some really

interesting string stuff out there, in my humble opinion,

though almost all of it fits in the AdS/CFT (NOT AdS/QCD)

category.

But I reiterate, don’t hold your breath. Hell didn’t freeze over

in a day, as somebody famous said.

Regarding the theory/postmodern parallels with string theory, is there a physics analog to Finnegan’s Wake? Specifically, an indecipherable monograph which appeared to be (or perhaps was) written by a madman but was later adopted and heralded as a masterpiece, and around which this dominant movement coalesced? Just curious.

JF – I would say the bad times started with Bourbaki and their mouthpiece, Dieudonne. Weyl, like Klein before him, strove mightly – and unsuccessfully – to stem the tide of formalism. (See his book ‘The Continuum”.) I think now the works of Bourbaki are thought of highly among academic mathematizers (for reasons that are unfathomable to a poor physicist like me). Without the triumph of formalism, string theory, inflation etc. would be inconceivable.

-drl

-drl

D R Lunsford,

It’s amusing coming across some old K-6 math textbooks from the 1960’s which covered the “New Math” program of that era. “New Math” attempted to cover things like modular arithmetic (ie. clock math), set theory, groups, relations + functions, limits, base-n arithmetic (where n is a base other than 10), etc … to kids from kindergarten to grade 6 or 7. (Nowhere was there anything like multiplication times tables). The guys who came up with “New Math” must have caught the Bourbaki “virus”.

MathPhys, your objection (“But can you take it to bed?”) was an important one a few years ago. With current laptop technology, and up to copyright problems, you can even take it to the toilet.

anonymous:

Hypothetically speaking… [kinda’ like O. J.’s ‘hypothetical’ new book soon to be not out ;-)]

maybe I kinda’ did search for the file, but maybe I couldn’t find any freely available copy. Just maybe where can I find a FREE copy… in a hypothetical sense?

About Bourbaki,

They definitely did very much influence the “New Math” and you certainly can blame them for inflicting things like Venn diagrams and injective mappings on grade-school kids. But the problems with string theory are not at all their fault, or in general, not the fault of mathematicians at all. Just take a look at the great majority of string theory papers these days. Many of them don’t involve mathematics more sophisticated than what we teach our first and second year undergrads, and the calculations are often very informal, based on very unclear definitions, the complete antithesis of the Bourbaki philosophy, much more like what Bourbaki was reacting against.

It’s also not true at all that the works of Bourbaki are now thought highly of among research mathematicians. Their heyday was in the fifties and sixties; by the late seventies and eighties, this kind of formalism was not so popular. My impression is that now most mathematicians don’t ever look at most of the Bourbaki volumes except every so often as a reference for some specific definition or result, and no one thinks they’re a good place to try and learn something from. The volumes on Lie algebras and groups, which were mostly written by Borel, are probably the ones that people think most highly of and still use. Even the people most interested in formalism are not interested in Bourbaki, instead they care about Grothendieck’s work and use categories, a point of view that Bourbaki never adopted (and this is one reason that the Bourbaki project ground to a halt).

Hopefully I’m not the only one who actually liked Bourbaki’s “theory of sets” book. 😉

Peter,

Thanks for illuminating the topic. I was a bit confused by drl’s prior response. In addition to what you say, my impression of Bourbaki is that what they wrote wasn’t wrong, or nonsensical, or ‘not even wrong’, in the sense that the “two theories” you refer to in this post just might be, but it just turned out not ultimately to be possible to wrap it all up, which was the initial point. I am not well read at all on ‘pure’ mathematics, though, so I could be totally off on that. Maybe if I had been in grammar school in the 60s …

Anyway, I was probably asking about something that just doesn’t exist (a Rosetta Stone of postmodern physics), which is probably a good thing.

J.F. Moore,

I don’t know of any Rosetta Stone of postmodern physics, no analog of Finnegan’s Wake for string theory. Pretty much ALL string theory papers were being ignored by most theorists before 1984.

Bourbaki accomplished a lot of what it initially set out to do during the 30s, which was to provide the details of a logically rigorous framework for certain kinds of mathematics that people were working on. They did this for analysis and algebra, but not for geometry (they couldn’t even agree on exactly how to define a manifold, from what I remember). The problem is that mathematics evolves, and as it does, ideas about what’s the right foundational material change. Grothendieck’s new ideas about the foundations of algebraic geometry changed the way mathematicians look at the subject, and made some of Bourbaki not wrong, just incomplete and less interesting. I suspect a project like Bourbaki needs to be reinvented and redone from the ground up every few generations.

Peter – what I know of Bourbaki comes from a mathematician friend who was forced to endure it at Columbia and MIT. He had a satori about it and completely retaught himself math from a non-formalist point of view, so he had both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective. I myself could never tolerate excessive formalism so it never entered my consciousness directly. His awakening moment came when he realized that after proving some complex existence theorems for PDEs in his thesis, he discovered in his new career as an applied mathematician that he couldn’t easily do a simple surface integral 🙂 This fact struck me like a thunderbolt. Excessive formalism had led to a situation where a brilliant person could not tackle a simple problem. I do see parallels with this and the rise of unreasonable physics ideas. There is some input that must come from the intuition about what makes physical sense. This intuition can’t be taught, and without it, what is one going to say? The answer is to hide behind formalist axiomatizing – the string hypothesis is really a formalist conception that is not stimulated by physical necessity or experimental evidence. The postmodernist will say – it doesn’t matter what you say, only the social context in which it is said. This is very much at the bottom of what Smolin describes when he talks about the milieu of string theorists.

-drl

drl,

Abstract formalisms are just one kind of tool, and they can be used well or misused. It’s certainly true that some people learn formalism without understanding what it’s useful for, and just get wrapped up in it. Mathematics suffered through a lot of that in the 50s-70s, and some people still suffer from this. But most really good mathematicians know when to use abstract formalism and when not, when this is an appropriate tool and when it isn’t. These days, you’ll often hear mathematicians refer to certain formalisms as “abstract nonsense”, as in “at this point in the proof, such and such can be shown by abstract nonsense”. This terminology comes from an appropriate skepticism about overvaluing abstract formalism.

It’s also true that what research mathematicians are often trying to do is to come up with new tools. People spend a lot of time playing with new abstract formalisms trying to understand what you can do with them (a good example would be the n-categories you see people investigating these days). It’s not that someone like John Baez doesn’t know how to do much more concrete things, it’s that the more concrete ideas have been around a long time, and it’s pretty well understood what you can and can’t do with them. If you want to find something new, you have to try out different things, including new abstract ideas.

Can Witten do hard integrals? Could he ever do hard integrals and solve tough blood and guts PDEs by hand? How would he do on the putnam exam?

I’m not trying to put Witten down. I am just trying to get a handle on how he thinks about math and physics. Does Witten just divine the closed form solution to tough integrals and PDEs without doing all the hard algebra tricks.

I read some where that when Witten was a grad student, he solved Quantum Field Theory course problems with a few few lines of deep conceptual reasoning rather than grinding out a calculation over several pages. If this is true, maybe someone should teach all theoretical students to solve QFT course problems this way.

Same question about Graothendieck. CAn/did he do hard integrals and Putnam type problems with ease.

I don’t know much about Witten’s skills at doing integrals, but I’d guess that he can do them as well as most theorists, while there are some people out there much more skilled at this than him. His talents definitely lie in finding elegant conceptual solutions to problems, rather than in finding brute force computational solutions or being a master of computational tricks. Unfortunately I think this is something that is hard or impossible to teach.