Imposter String Theorist at Stanford

In recent years many people in the particle theory community have been wondering what’s going on with the Stanford theory group, as it has become dominated by work on things like the anthropic landscape. It turns out that, for a while now, there was someone there who even they were wondering about. Her name is Elizabeth Okazaki, and evidently for the last four years she has

attended graduate physics seminars, used the offices reserved for doctoral and post-doctoral physics students and — for all intents and purposes made the Varian Physics Lab her home

this despite the fact that she has no formal affiliation with the university. Some press stories about this are available from The Stanford Daily (more here) and the San Francisco Chronicle.

According to the Stanford paper, students interviewed said that Okazaki:

claimed to be a visiting scholar in the humanities, looking to provide an interdisciplinary perspective on string theory. On several instances, she has said that she was working with Physics Prof. Leonard Susskind, one of the world’s most respected string theorists.

but

Susskind told The Daily that Okazaki was not officially associated with him or his lab in any way.

“As far as I know, she has no official connection with anyone in the physics department,” Susskind said. “In fact, as far as I can tell, she has a very limited knowledge of physics itself.”

The story in The Stanford Daily on-line has a long associated comment thread, containing (besides a lot of nonsense) some comments from people in the Stanford physics department that provide more insight into the situation.

The San Francisco Chronicle article quotes Stanford graduate student Surjeet Rajendran about the situation as follows:

A university has a lot of weird people… Some of the faculty are weird, some of the grad students are weird. So you don’t really know who’s who. And you feel rather, I guess, rude asking them, ‘What the hell are you doing?’

For another perspective on this, see Scott Aaronson’s posting on The Groupies of Science, where he makes the point that “Science Needs More Groupies, Not Less”, and argues that:

When we discover a stowaway on the great Ship of Science, why throw her overboard when we could make her swab the decks?

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41 Responses to Imposter String Theorist at Stanford

  1. island says:

    Swab the decks???… Imposter???… Hell, she’s bound to be the closest thing to a real physicist in the whole department… and they should put her in charge of it… 😉

  2. Professor Doctor Fatrear says:

    I find the title of your post completely disingenuous. This woman was the typical friendly crackpot/nutjob that can be found in the halls of every math/physics department in which I have ever spent even a few days. To call he an `impostor string theorist’ suggests that string theory has something to do with her situation, which it clearly doesn’t in any serious sense.

    These people survive because people’s hearts are mostly kind and no one feels like going to the (sometimes considerable) effort of driving away a mostly harmless occassional nuisance.

    The nutjobs with tenure are different matter.

  3. Michele says:

    Dear Peter,
    I would you like to thank You for Your advices. I’ve determined to read Your new book.
    I’m now writing you because I want ask You with regard the “Loop Quantum Gravity”, You think that it can be a good alternative theory as regards the string theory?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    PDF,

    The title of my post is not “completely disingenuous”, it is only partly disingenuous. Sure, I’m making a bit of fun of the Stanford string theorists, perhaps somewhat unfairly. On the other hand, given Susskind’s behavior over the past few years, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this woman without a firm grasp on reality decided to claim affiliation with him, or that she gravitated to string theory rather than some other subject.

    Not knowing the details of the Stanford situation, I’m not expressing any opinion about what they should have done or not done, or criticizing them about this. Academia’s tolerance of eccentricity and various hangers-on is a good thing and I see nothing wrong with this, quite the opposite. People like Okazaki do put one in a difficult position about what to do about them.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Michele,

    LQG is really off-topic here and I don’t want to start up a discussion of it. Personally I choose to concentrate on particle physics, not quantum gravity, since only in that case does one have good hopes of testing one’s ideas if they’re successful. Among approaches to quantum gravity, LQG seems to me a very interesting one, with some appealing features. But again, this is another topic, and the last thing I want to do is have another bout of LQG vs. string theory warfare going on here.

  6. Professor Doctor Fatrear says:

    I’ve seen a woman without a firm grasp on reality gravitate to singular integral operators and a scrawny man who understood them very well. I remember a departmental stalker who was very into Penrose tilings, convinced half the department had it in for him, and spent a lot of time promoting basic physics on the web. These people are complicated, show up everywhere and in all disciplines, and have their good points as well as their bad ones. What happens in math and physics is that we can tell the difference between crackpots and people with wild ideas because we have some more or less objective criteria to work with (fortunately there are no objective criteria in music). On the other hand, you seem to be implying that Susskind also does not have a firm grasp on reality, and that seems a bit extreme; even were he a pathologically lying sycophant of the dean citing himself in every one of his two hundred repetetive articles, his behavior would be well within academic norms, and I guess he is not that bad.

  7. Aaron Bergman says:

    I’ve seen a woman without a firm grasp on reality gravitate to singular integral operators and a scrawny man who understood them very well.

    I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

    (sorry)

  8. Peter Woit says:

    PDF,

    I don’t disagree with your characterization of the various types that inhabit academia. But yes, I happen to think that Susskind and other promoters of the anthropic landscape (quite a few of whom are based at Stanford) don’t have a firm grasp on reality, not in their everyday lives, but in the specific research program they have chosen to pursue. Sure, this is not really out of academic norms, which involve tolerating some degree of research of dubious sanity. But (see previous posting), the fact that this stuff is becoming increasingly influential and popular at the very center of the field is pretty disturbing.

  9. Stanford grad student says:

    There’s been a bit of a mischaracterization in the media, I think, of Elizabeth Okazaki’s situation. It’s been made to sound as if she was a crackpot looking to rub elbows with the string theorists, hoping to push her theories. In reality, I think that her interest in science, if she even has one, was entirely peripheral to her actual goal, which was to live in the building. This was a point that the news reports tended to underemphasize, that she lived in, as in literally slept in and ate in and occupied space in, the physics building for four years, and that this was what was freaking out the grad students. She is a homeless person, and she saw a great opportunity to take up residence in a building full of people who, as we saw, wouldn’t bother her, so she did. (And frankly, who can blame her? If I had to choose between the streets and the student lounge of the physics building, I’d do the same thing she did.)

    Anything to do with string theory or attending seminars or claiming to work for Lenny Susskind was just part of her cover story. “Wait, who are you? What are you doing here?” “Oh, I, uh, work for Lenny Susskind, yeah, that’s it.” “Hmm, all right, carry on.”

    This is why I found it amusing that Lenny would focus on the fact that “she has a very limited knowledge of physics itself.” He, like many others, missed the point entirely; she wasn’t there for the physics, she was there for the roof.

  10. jhk says:

    Quite entertaining, but really nothing out of the ordinary. When I was at Stanford there were much weirder people hanging around the department.

    If you’re ever at Stanford, be sure to go to the physics library and look up a Ph.D. thesis by a Mr. Kenneth Uzo. And be sure to look at which faculty members signed off on it.

  11. anon. says:

    ‘Some of the faculty are weird, some of the grad students are weird. So you don’t really know who’s who.’ – Surjeet Rajendran

    All faculty and graduate students should wear suits (as was the case until the 60s hippy culture came in). Better still, they should be forced to wear a beard and smoke a pipe (as occurred a century ago).

  12. lostsoul Ph. D. says:

    I have always depended on the kindness of stringers

  13. stevenm says:

    From the article:
    “If she were a large, intimidating man, there’s no doubt that something would be done,” he said. “There’s a huge bias against appearances and it’s prevented people from taking action. I can’t see any reason why our department is special. This could really happen all over the place.”

    I can testify to this. My hobbies have always been weightlifting and weight training and when I studied in the US I slept in the offices overnight for a while at one point (with permission) while trying to find an apartment. Then one night I had an encounter with two security guys who were doing their rounds about 2am, and who quickly called for backup. I did have the appropriate ID and explained the situation. After that on subsequent nights they did’nt bother. I think they assumed I had something to do with the football team. This was a private university within the top 10 in the US and they had resources, and so security was quite tight. This was also back in the 90s before 9/11 and the paranoia that followed. There were also signs on the outside doors (and which you needed an electronic key to open) saying that anyone on the premises who had no right to be there would be prosecuted and probably jailed. The tolerance in the Stanford situation only persisted because it involved a small asian woman who no-one perceived to be a threat. A man of middle-eastern origin, a black man or scary white men (like myself :)) doing the same thing would be very quicky dealt with.

  14. Coin says:

    …so, um, is it bad that when initially confronted with a story about someone just persistently showing up at grad student seminars and pretending as if they belonged there, my initial response is “Whoa! That sounds like a pretty good idea! I wonder if I could get away with that?”

    ^_^;

    I do want to agree with “Stanford grad student” that it is really important here to distinguish between what Scott Aaronson is calling “Groupies of Physics”, and someone who is simply a homeless person pretending to be a student in order to gain access to the facilities. The distinction is important because the latter aren’t fundamentally interested in science, just not freezing. I also think the latter are more common than most people realize (though I don’t think most aim as high as Ms. Okazaki did)– I knew of at least one at my college who I eventually figured out was literally living in the 24-hour computer lab…

  15. anon says:

    I think Scott Aaronson’s opinion is quite shallow. If academia wants to forge honest ties with society, they can do no better than to collaborate with private industry and entrepeneurs, so that real jobs, in the periphery of physics, are created. Scott wants groupies, and he wants to hire them to “swab the decks”. Only someone who thinks he is so special he should have serfs to serve him would think that way. College Professors already have a bunch of poorly paid workers(graduate students) who write papers for them. Do these aristocrats need an additional class of poorly paid servants

  16. lostsoul Ph. D. says:

    Stevenm

    She could have been a ninja in drag. Way back, when I was a post grad in Cambridge UK, a dude used to crash out at a course I attended. He was middle aged, smelly and, as the young might have it, gross. And he snored. And yet he took the whole course; he was given the benefit of the doubt. And, no, it wasn’t Perelman. If it were not for the fear instilled by those who hope to govern us, we could all kick back and make , within reason, a little bit of space for others.

  17. Puny Geek says:

    Stevenm says: “The tolerance in the Stanford situation only persisted because it involved a small asian woman who no-one perceived to be a threat.”

    I generally agree with the comment above, except that #1 Asian women are not always small (but generally are). and #2 If she was a young attractive white woman, she wouldn’t have been annoyed by others, much less getting kicked out.

    I have seen so many cases when an attractive white/caucasoid woman was treated much better than an attractive asian woman, unless the asian woman is an object of fetishism. From my observation, the attitude towards women in male-dominated society seems pretty harsh, unless the women is super smart, “HOT” by their standard, or submissive to the males.

    Of course, I cannot make a judgement about the case without knowing all the details, and I think a stranger *living* in a department is rediculous.

  18. Changcho says:

    Yes, I’ve met Susskind and I think the post was a just a little bit unfair to him. I believe I’ve seen situations similar to this in LeConte as well. The situation seems pretty much to be like what “stanford grad student” wrote.

    To A. Bergman, that was great! Those lines from Blade Runner have always stayed with me ever since I saw the movie for the first time.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    jhk,

    Googling out of curiosity turns up the following from the Palo Alto newspaper in 1997

    “OUT OF THE CLOSET . . . When a Stanford math professor smelled smoke as he prepared students for a midterm exam last week, he followed its source to a nearby closet. Inside was a man sitting, smoking a pipe. “Can I help you?” the man asked as the math professor opened the closet door, according to Stanford police captain Raoul Niemeyer. The man–37-year-old Kenneth Uzo of Fremont–asked the professor if he would please close the door. The professor did so and then called the police. Niemeyer said that Uzo, who graduated from Stanford in 1992 with a Ph.D. in physics, is known to Stanford police as a habitual trespasser. He has been issued with a stay-away letter, Niemeyer said.”

    I wouldn’t criticize anyone for signing off on the Ph.D. thesis of a problematic student. Put yourself in their position: you look at the thesis, you have some sort of thesis defense. Even if it’s pretty bad, you then have two choices.

    1. Pass the student, at which point the department has no more official connection to them and you can reasonably expect them to leave and not be heard from again.

    2. Fail the student, in which case they’ll presumably continue as a student, working on an “improved” thesis, and you’ll have to keep dealing with whatever their undesirable behavior was.

  20. LDM says:

    Educators in academia who typically are supported by our tax dollars should be reminded that they are role models and one of their jobs outside of research is to develop the minds of their students. They are not being paid to exploit groupies… and encouraging and/or recruiting groupies would be ethically questionable.
    NOW, to put this in perspective, some years ago, a young man named Steven Spielberg did a similar thing at Universal Studios. He would show up everyday and pretend to be an employee so that he could study his craft by watching films being made and by associating with people who were already doing what he wanted to do. The guards assumed he was an employee as did everyone else. And eventually, his knowledge of film making impressed Universal Studios sufficiently that he was given a seven year contract, before the age of 21. I don’t think he was ever called a groupie.

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  22. Ron says:

    I hope these two incidents back to back (Elizabeth Okazaki and Azia Kim) don’t create a backlash to make Stanford a less trusting and open community. I attended as an undergraduate between ’84 and ’90, stopping out every other six months to work my way through school. Their policies were very student-friendly: one could leave at any time and return at any time, no questions asked. While working, I still spent a fair bit of time on campus between being enrolled. It is easy to see how Okazaki and Kim were able to take advantage of the situation. I’ve done so myself in other circumstances. http://www.PacificT.com/Story Stanford’s trust in and respect for its students are a good thing.

  23. I also have some anecdotes about strange people in academia… One that I have witnessed myself is about a guy at Jussieu campus. He was always in the library whatever the hour, whatever the day. Nobody I talked to could tell me who he was. He read all kind of books, generaly in few minutes only… He had been nicknamed the ghost of the library. Someone told me, but I can’t vouch for that, that he was seen someday on his knees in the middle of the street, holding a sing reading ‘je veux une femme !” (I want a woman !).

  24. J says:

    Interesting. What is more interesting is that we have a similar guy here in China, a guy named Jia-zhong Chen. He stated that he is a professor of Harvard and somehow managed to get a position in one of the top universities (Zhejiang University) in China as a visiting scholar. He also claimed that he had published several “important” papers in PRL, which is not true. There are some other fake stuff that he has used for his cheating behavior. Oh, by the way, he even has never been accepted by any graduate school.

  25. jhk says:

    From the comments to the Stanford Daily article: ” it sounded like she was regularly getting in and out of relationships with different guys around Varian as well as SLAC.” I know being a grad student or postdoc can get pretty lonely, I wonder how many guys took the bait.

  26. Though Scott might not repair washing machines to keep
    groupies around, I suspect that he would repair Turing
    machines.

    Are science fiction authors a kind of “science
    groupies”? Science fiction readers? People who
    subscribe to Scientific American? People who blog
    about science? People who watched “A Beautiful Mind”
    or “Goodwill Hunting” or “A Brief History of Time” or
    the hit CBS-TV show “NUMB3RS?” People who attend
    lectures for the free coffee and cookies beforehand?

    Some “science groupies” — a small fraction, but not
    zero — become productive scientists. The outstanding
    examples include Fritz Zwicky.

    There is an overlap between “science groupies” and
    crackpots. Howveer, it can be NP to distinguish
    these. One generation’s crackpots includes the next
    generation’s pioneers of the paradigm. Crackpots know
    this.

    Living 5 miles from the Caltech campus, where I earned
    my first degrees, I visit campus at least once a week,
    attending seminars, chatting with professors,
    students, staff. Since I am not currently a professor
    (have been, in 2 fields) — does that make me a
    groupie?

    Secretaries at Caltech, especially Math and Physics
    are trained to handle crackpots who walk in with
    manuscripts on proving Einstein wrong, squaring the
    circle, classifying solutions of Fermat’s Last
    Theorem, and the like. The secretaries tell me that
    the crackpots sometimes explain that they hope, by
    dropping off their manuscripts, to instantly become
    professors, when their genius is recognized, a la
    Ramanujan.

    Is any nonscientist who dates a scientist actually a
    science groupie? How do you know that?

    The last time that I saw people living in a dorm who
    were not students, they turned out to be a pair of
    rogue cops doing an unauthorized undercover
    recreational drug sting, and busted an essentially
    innocent senior the day before he graduated, having
    had to have his parents, just arrived in town for the
    ceremony, bail him out of jail.

    Which reminds me. Tomorrow is the simultaneous Caltech Presidential Inauguration and graduation, with Jared Diamond as commencement speaker. Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau, who has served as Caltech’s president since September 1, 2006, will be inaugurated in a simple ceremony at the start of Caltech’s 113th annual commencement on June 8. This bucks the tradition of university presidential inaugurations that involve a week of lectures and dinners, capped off with a large inauguration ceremony. Chameau felt his inaugural should reflect his priorities. Within the audience, how many of the people should one characterize as groupies?

    Groupies? Drugs, sex, rock & roll, and quanta.

  27. Brain Greeen says:

    Clearly Peter is a string groupie, someone who tries to put meaning in his own life from string theorists’ reflected glory.

  28. Michael says:

    The story would have been much more relevant (cooler) had Okazaki actually been interested in the physics at Stanford. Still, her situation is, though unknown to most, a minor but definitely important breach of a very expansive and secretive contingency within the halls of America’s most heralded institutions:

    Here we are then, countrymen. Artists who would be starving and homeless as well, we work by day in research-and we’ve come to love science: i do-but i am no scientist of your trimmings, Peter Woit. And yet the title hangs on my door as i type.

    But what business do ”they” have here?? Here? In this well-fenced depot of creativity? One might surmise they have merely been fortunate enough to mistake the gatekeeper for a teacher.

    And so it goes that science brains reduced are, simply, obsessively objective artist brains who choose to model their reality with quantities over colors, tones, and words. Perhaps you will see it other way around. Modelers of observation. All of us. Just happens to be that the spies are justifiably more eager to spray their notings rudely, if even astutely on the walls of the Colluseum. Good clean, class penetrance I suppose. Wait. Is that what we’re afraid of?

  29. MathPhys says:

    I liked very much the statement that “A university has a lot of weird people… Some of the faculty are weird, some of the grad students are weird”.

    How true. In fact, universities that have policies that one way or another bans such people, are not universities. They are businesses or something, but not seriously academic universities.

  30. Chris W. says:

    More or less in this vein, read and listen to Ron Avitzur tell “The Graphing Calculator Story,” about developing software at Apple (for the first Power PC Macs) as an unpaid former contractor who had to sneak into the building in which he was working.

    (By the way, Avitzur is a Stanford graduate; he was a physics major who subsequently moved into software engineering.)

  31. Ron says:

    While working sixteen hour days, seven day weeks, months on end, unpaid, folks at Apple occasionally said to me: “I see you here when I get in in the morning. I see you here when I leave at night. And I’m working twelve hour days! What are you doing?!” I looked them in the eye and said in a deadpan voice: I’m in training for physics graduate school.My Stanford experience prepared me for working at Apple. My fellow undergraduates had a theorem regarding the difficult nature of our studies: either we had been through worse already and could handle it, or if we had not been through worse before this would set the standard by which all future troubles would be compared so that after this nothing would phase us.

  32. More Asian Female Squatters, please. says:

    The Okazaki girl was kicked out as a byproduct of the A. Kim dorm-squatting case, i.e., people contacted the Stanford student newspaper about her case once the Kim story broke.

  33. Stanford grad student says:

    The Okazaki girl was kicked out as a byproduct of the A. Kim dorm-squatting case, i.e., people contacted the Stanford student newspaper about her case once the Kim story broke.

    Well, it was the perfect opportunity. There had been complaints about Okazaki for years, and the department dragged its heels like hell.

  34. Chris W. says:

    …nothing would phase us.

    That should have been “faze,” but “phase” is an understandable substitution for a physicist or engineer. Perhaps it was a double entendre. 🙂

    (No knock intended; as you’ll see from his narrative, Ron is an excellent writer.)

  35. what? says:

    I’ve read every comment in this post and I still don’t understand what a homeless girl living in the Stanford physics building has to do with string theory.

  36. Peter Woit says:

    what?

    Instead of reading the comments, you might try readng the posting where I quoted part of the article that explained that this woman was passing herself off as a visiting scholar in the humanities, in the physics department because she was working on string theory with Susskind.

  37. MathGirl says:

    Better still, they should be forced to wear a beard and smoke a pipe (as occurred a century ago).
    Oh yes, like in the good old days, when women weren’t allowed at universities at all…

  38. surlygrad says:

    I totally understand the part about why no one bothered her. We had a student who, for reasons not to be discussed, lost his funding, and decided to just move into the grad student offices (eat, sleep, etc.). The rest of us really had no idea how to react or deal with the situation. It was unpleasant and there were hygiene issues

    Eventually things got straightened out (the student got funding again), but it was very very weird and awkward for about six months.

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  40. a.k. says:

    one could wonder if anyone was interested what happened to Okazaki after she had been ‘kicked out’ of the department, it is interesting to note the low degree of ‘solidarity’ (in a yet to be defined way) with her situation reflected in the above postings, whether she had been actually interested in physics from any valid viewpoint or not or did academic work in any valuable way in these four years or not- her fate (and those similar cases described described above) exemplifies what in europe would be cosidered as ‘the darker side of america’ and explains why hardly anyone, for instance in germany, tends to deny the value of certain achieved social standards, i.e. to formulate certain rights concerning appartment and minmum social funding.

  41. kathleen_conformal_strings says:

    Hmm…

    I think someone like that could be a nice addition to any physics or math department… Her funny presence could be a form of relief as well as mourn all bundled up with a bit of curiosity, compassion, and disgust.

    I’ve seen her in the department myself. I can’t speak of this lady as being very distinct from any weirdo to whom I would go to interact with… There are others which appear and disappear with changing mood.

    She’s a confused person herself and it’s remarkable how she tries to be as ecstatic as possible in that confusion. Alas, her confusion has seeped into the minds of all the geeks there and turned their being from inside out, rather unnecessarily.

    Why oh why, just leave her alone, guys. Is it surprising that such people with their wierd (but reasonable) sets of intrigues exist? Don’t let this dueling go on for decades, coz’ who knows it wears someone out. Otherwise, let’s just commit to confusion and see if it all can be reasoned necessary.

    It all just leaves me laughing…

    Back to quantum conformal gravity, Pontrjagin, and superpotentials…

    |Kat>

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