John Horgan Discussion With George Johnson

Bloggingheads.tv now has some video up with an interesting discussion between John Horgan and George Johnson on a range of topics. One segment is entitled String theory deemed load of crap!, and discusses the controversy over string theory. Both Horgan and Johnson agree that things are not look good for a physical theory when there start being public debates on the subject. Johnson also discusses his time at the KITP and mentions this blog. He seemed to be particularly struck by the behavior of the participants at the session he ran there which involved a lot of bashing of Lee Smolin, with Mark Srednicki raising his hand when Johnson said he didn’t think anyone would call Smolin a crackpot.

Johnson also described the “echo chamber” effect of blogs like this one. I guess I better keep this going by blogging about his commentary about my blogging…

Update: Sean Carroll has a posting about this over at Cosmic Variance entitled String Theory is Losing the Public Debate. Probably best if people join the discussion over there, which so far includes John Horgan and others.

Update
: If you like this sort of thing, more blog discussions about string theory here, here, and here… and here and here.

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38 Responses to John Horgan Discussion With George Johnson

  1. Pingback: String Theory is Losing the Public Debate | Cosmic Variance

  2. Gina says:

    When both Horgan and Johnson seem to agree that “string theorists are the smartesr people not going to wall-street” [a quote from their discussion] it makes you think that it is not just string theory [right or wrong] that is losing the public debate but the scientific endeavor as a whole.

  3. anon. says:

    Gina, seeing that string theorists can’t calculate anything which turns out to concern the universe we happen to live in, I can understand why Wall Street wouldn’t require them. Checkable predictions are often required in the stock market…

  4. Coin says:

    Johnson also described the “echo chamber” effect of blogs like this one. I guess I better keep this going by blogging about his commentary about my blogging…
    Quick! Somebody write a blog post responding to Woit’s blogging about Johnson’s commentary about Woit’s blogging!

  5. Kea says:

    Unfortunately I can’t view this clip on my computer. But it sounds very interesting. Thanks, Peter.

  6. Arun says:

    There is an interesting claim there in the comments. If true, on Monday, everyone who doubted string theory will have egg on their face.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    I was forwarded this from a former HEP colleague, who allowed me to post it on condition that I remove the sender’s & receiver’s e-mail.

    I am not sure quite what to make of it. If it is what it appears to be, then I am surprised that nothing got out earlier. I guess that we can expect a public announcement soon, though. You heard it here first!

    [Snip]
    But for Lee, Peter Woit and the club of disgruntled losers that follow them, we would have made an announcement in January.
    [Snip more personal attacks]
    As you see, with Joe’s insight, there is anomaly cancellation in 3+1 dimensions and the theory exists perturbatively at all orders, with no infinities – not even cancellations, just finite! The tree-level amplitudes agree with the SM, and the (finite) loops, which Joe calculated in December not only get the Lamb shift and electron anomalous magnetic moment absolutely right, but get a new value for the muon a.m.m. that suddenly puts it back into 1 s.d. territory vis a vis experiments … this really is one in the eye for the superstring critics, and just as they were beginning to get far too much air time.
    [Snip more personal attacks]
    the so-called “wild goose chase” has turned out to be nothing of the sort! – as for supersymmetric partners, the SS breaking puts the photino at 1.35 TeV, the selectron at 1.1 TeV, and the squarks between 1.2-1.5 TeV – all within reach of the LHC! So we will find out very soon, but personally I have no doubt.
    [Snip lengthy comment about CERN politics]
    It seems our intuitions were right … superstring theory doesn’t just feel right – it probably IS right! And that’s not the half of it – Mike’s group have come up some amazing stuff on the QG side – wormholes, time travel – everything you ever fantasised about. He’s is a bit cagey about this, and isn’t likely to make an announcement until he’s checked and double-checked the sums, but it seems that they’ll soon have something to give to the experimenters, and if it turns out to be right, it extends GR in truly mind-blowing ways!

  8. Thomas Larsson says:

    Chris, don’t forget which day it is today.

  9. Chris Oakley says:

    Thomas! Don’t spoil this before anyone in the US has even got out of bed! Peter – I implore you to delete this and the previous comment!

  10. Mondrian says:

    Chris,

    that was too obvious anyway. Enjoy this one before Peter will get out of
    bed and delete it:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=706444693144627950&q=lubos+motl

  11. anon. says:

    Mondrian, can you provide an English translation from the Czech in that google video, please?

  12. Mondrian says:

    No, sorry.

  13. anon. says:

    I was wondering if it is Lubos’ 2-minute explanation of string theory.

  14. Mondrian says:

    Seems likely. In that case I would really appreciate if he could do an english
    version too, maybe including a quick enumeration of string vacua.

  15. Chris Oakley says:

    That clip with the prancing Lubos has only made me hungry for more string theorist music videos. What about, for example
    • Brian Green as Alice Cooper, singing “I wanna be elected”.
    • Peter West as Pete Townsend, including the climactic destruction of his “axe” on stage.
    • Susskind as a “Kiss” lead singer. He has the attitude – all he needs is the eye makeup.

  16. mclaren says:

    Left a comment at Cosmic Variance, but did want to mention here that Sean Carroll’s analogy twixt the theory of evolution and string “theory” (so-called) seems unacceptably inaccurate.

    For an analogy to hold, there must be some points of similarity between the two items being compared. Darwinian macroevolution, with libraries full of supporting evidence, does not make a valid comparison with string “theory” (so-called) because at present stringy speculations have not a single piece of hard experimental evidence to back ‘em up. Indeed, unlike Darwinian macroevolution, string speculations at present make not even a single testable prediction.

    Too, as usual Peter Woit seems to be getting quoted so grossly out of context that it’s almost not worth correcting the record. It’s sort of like taking a historian’s offhand remark that his grandfather died in WW I but his granfather was only one man, and misquoting it to try to “prove” that the historian is denying the existence of WW I because “only one person died in the entire war.”

    Dr. Woit mentioned that he’s surprised that string theorists have done such a poor job defending string theory in public.

    I’m not.

    To effectively defend a point in debate, you must cite evidence and logic to back up your point. The string theorists have no evidence. That leaves them with hand-waving, which is bound to be an extremely weak debating tactic. As Aristotle remarks in his Rhetoric:

    if we have no evidence of fact supporting our own case or telling against that of our opponent, at least we can always find evidence to prove our own worth or our opponent’s worthlessness.

    And isn’t this exactly what we find happening with string theorists?

  17. rho says:

    anon, there is nothing about string theory in that video. It is just the Czech title song for the cartoon series of “Tom and Jerry”.

    Anyway, there is something seriously irritating to see this…

  18. anon. says:

    Sean Carroll has now denied in a comment on his blog that he was comparing string theory to evolution.

  19. anon. says:

    On the subject of 1 April, Google has put up one at http://www.google.com/tisp/ and if you follow to http://www.google.com/tisp/install.html and then click on professional installation service you get the error report mentioning grand unified theories:

    ‘The requested URL was not found … (far less plausible, but theoretically possible, depending on which ill-defined Grand Unifying Theory of physics one subscribes to), some random fluctuation in the space-time continuum might have produced a shatteringly brief but nonetheless real electromagnetic discombobulation which caused this error page to appear. …’

    - http://www.google.com/tisp/notfound.html

  20. anonymous says:

    I guess everyone has heard by now. There is a forthcoming paper (by Ludwig Poehlmann) concerning the fatal flaw in the implementation of extended objects such as strings and branes. This appears to be the nail in the coffin for some of the mainstream theories.

  21. wolfgang says:

    Ludwig Poehlmann = Archimedes Plutonium ?

  22. Michael says:

    “Sean Carroll has now denied in a comment on his blog that he was comparing string theory to evolution.”

    Well, he clearly did compare the situations: public debate over string theory and public debate over evolution. I don’t know how to take his comment on evolution. Is he more skeptical of evolution due to the outcome of the debates, or does he simply not care anymore?

  23. Haludza says:

    I believe Sean Carroll was simply saying that the existence of public debate of a physical theory doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s on shaky ground. These debates will tend to happen if there’s some perceived public interest in what’s being debated!

    So, clearly, evolution is debated because it touches some nerves and not due primarily to whether the evidence suggests it.
    Carroll only compares string theory and evolution in so far as they’re things involving scientific questions which are being debated.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    Arun,

    The amazing thing about that paper

    http://www.arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0703280

    is that Sean Carroll and others seemed to be pretty convinced that it is an April Fool’s joke, but its authors seem to be serious (and it was submitted on March 29, not April 1). Looks to me like people in string theory have completely lost the ability to distinguish between a joke and serious science.

  25. anon. says:

    “The electron mass is about 6.5 times larger that the expected value, while the muon mass is about 40% smaller.” – http://www.arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0703280 p4

    What’s the experimental error bar/standard deviation on the electron and muon masses, nowadays?

  26. Peter Orland says:

    It doesn’t look like a joke to me. Assuming it is technically right, the
    right question to ask is, “how many parameters are put into this
    theory/model to get something realistic”. If the number of
    parameters is more than the number of observables, the idea isn’t
    useful (I think this is the case). If the numbers are equal, it is a parametrization.

  27. wolfgang says:

    anon.,

    the reason (according to the paper) the electorn and muon come out wrong is their low mass and the fact that the calculation is tree-level only.
    They provide a reference to a paper in preparation which shall discuss and “fix” this issue ( I assume based on some approximation at 1-loop ).

  28. Chris Oakley says:

    They provide a reference to a paper in preparation which shall discuss and “fix” this issue ( I assume based on some approximation at 1-loop ).

    I will look forward to seeing this paper on April 1, 2008.

  29. april fool says:

    Peter,

    Doesn’t it seems more likely that the speculation about

    http://www.arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0703280

    being a joke has more to do with the fact that it hadn’t yet appeared on the arxiv and that nobody had read it when they were speculating that? I’m not defending (or, for that matter, deriding) the physical content of the paper but I just don’t see what part of this paper could be interpreted as funny. I don’t claim to have read the whole thing very carefully, but if the paper is a joke, then it doesn’t seem to be a very funny joke to me.

  30. anon. says:

    Wolfgang, why would one lepton mass be underestimated while another be overestimated? I could understand if both lepton masses calculated were both too low because of some vacuum corrections.

    Other questions: To what degree are the predictions subjected to the arbitrary assumptions of the model? How much variation is there in the predictions if you take other assumptions? Obviously if this is wrong, at most it will only falsify this particular model in a landscape of models.

    On the other hand, can even this model be falsified? Or – by making small adjustments – can it be fine-tuned to fit virtually any LHC data? On p4 they list a lot of parameters they “choose” to plug into the model in order to make it generate the masses they want. To what extent it this just numerology?

  31. Peter Woit says:

    april fool,

    Sure, if you look at the paper, you realize it’s not funny, and thus not likely to be an April Fool’s joke. But, based on the claims made in the comment section at CV about the paper by one of its authors, Sean Carroll and others assumed it had to be a joke. We have a situation right now where there’s a whole field of “string phenomenology” full of researchers making claims like this, with most theorists well aware that there is no hope that these claims can be sustained, so assume they are some kind of a joke if made around April 1.

    This is kind of like the situation with the Bogdanov papers. They clearly weren’t a joke because they weren’t funny. What was disturbing was that mainstream journals were publishing stuff that was pretty universally acknowledged to be nonsense by the physics community.

  32. Michael says:

    “What was disturbing was that mainstream journals were publishing stuff that was pretty universally acknowledged to be nonsense by the physics community.”

    there’s also the Schon scandal (2001/2002).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Hendrik_Sch%C3%B6n

    i don’t know if this publishing “total nonsense” started with Sokal or not. while it’s possible to dupe a bunch of lit crit postmodernists with a physics article, it should (in theory) be harder for a physicist to dupe another physicist.

  33. Phen Phen says:

    Mayes’s comment on CV: “Eric Mayes on Mar 31st, 2007 at 11:54 pm”

    Submission history: “Thu, 29 Mar 2007 20:03:58 GMT (11kb)”

    unless there is a delay in the arxiv, the paper was sitting there the entire time people were labelling it a joke. or did i look at the wrong paper? all those stringy papers look the same to me.

  34. Peter Woit says:

    Phen Phen,

    arXiv papers don’t appear until a set time later when they are made publicly available in a batch. From the submission date, this paper would normally not be available until 8pm Eastern time on Sunday April 1. Someone did claim that the arXiv schedule did seem to be different this weekend, with that paper available earlier (or, maybe, if you accessed the paper by number you could get it, listings were just not yet available). I think most of the people who assumed it was a joke did so based on the description of the paper’s claims made by one of its authors, don’t know if any of them actually accessed the paper and looked at it. Since the claims in the comment were similar to previous claims by this author, I assumed it probably wasn’t an April 1 joke.

  35. Eric says:

    Apparently, someone had access to the preprints before they actually came out. I made my post in reaction to previous posts such as one by PW that string theory couldn’t make contact with particle physics. Hopefully, you guys will realize that it can. Can you admit it?

  36. april fool says:

    Peter,

    “…based on the claims made in the comment section at CV about the paper by one of its authors, Sean Carroll and others assumed it had to be a joke. We have a situation right now where there’s a whole field of “string phenomenology” full of researchers making claims like this, with most theorists well aware that there is no hope that these claims can be sustained, so assume they are some kind of a joke if made around April 1.”

    But, at least according to the authors, those claims were sustained! Presumably people thought it was an april fool’s day joke because it’s a bold claim. One might interpret this as meaning that the paper is extremely important…

    “This is kind of like the situation with the Bogdanov papers. They clearly weren’t a joke because they weren’t funny. What was disturbing was that mainstream journals were publishing stuff that was pretty universally acknowledged to be nonsense by the physics community.”

    I don’t see how it’s anything like the Bogdanov affair. In that case a paper that was clearly nonsense got published in a peer reviewed journal. In this case people heard a bold claim about a potentially important result (nobody had actually seen the paper) on a blog and thought it might be a joke just because the problem the authors claim to have solved is a difficult one. In the case of the Bogdanov affair the problem, presumably, was a lazy referee who didn’t actually read the paper. In this case I don’t see why you think this reflects so poorly on Sean Carroll and friends. Nobody had actually read the paper.

  37. Peter Woit says:

    “One might interpret this as meaning that the paper is extremely important…”

    It seems to me you’re joking here, making my point that this field has a real problem with telling the difference between a serious scientific argument and a joke.

    I wasn’t criticizing Sean Carroll. He’s quite right to have thought that these kind of claims were a joke, because it’s not possible to take them seriously as science. Other commenters here have already pointed out why.

  38. Thomas Larsson says:

    It might be emphasized that it was a strong string advocate, Sean Carroll, which jumped to the conclusion that news of successful stringy phenomenology had to be an April’s fool. I don’t think that Peter ever claimed that the paper was a deliberate joke.

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