Various Stuff

As anthropic pseudo-science spreads through the particle theory community, I’m finding it harder and harder to tell what’s a joke and what isn’t. Maybe I’m wrong, but I fear that recent examples from hep-th contributors and prominent physics bloggers aren’t actually jokes, largely because if they are, they’re not funny.

The book Universe or Multiverse?, based on a series of Templeton Foundation supported conferences, and published by Cambridge University Press, is finally out. It’s edited by Bernard Carr, whose ventures into pseudo-science include not just this, but a stint as director of the Society for Psychical Research. He’s also on the board of directors of the Scientific and Medical Network, where his blurb tells us that:

My interests span science, religion and psychical research (which I see as forming a bridge between them)… My approach to the subject is mainly theoretical: I’m particularly keen to extend physics to incorporate consciousness and associated mental and spiritual phenomena.

The memoir by Jane Hawking that I recently wrote about contains her recollections of both Don Page and Bernard Carr (since they worked with Hawking).

I just ran into my editor at Cambridge University Press, who found that opposition from string theorists made it impossible for Cambridge to publish my book a few years ago, with one of their arguments being that doing so would damage the reputation of the Press. Publishing pseudo-science like this however seems to be fine. Yes, I’m aware that this book also contains criticism of anthropic arguments, and probably has some of the most intelligent and informed writing on the subject, but still… I suppose I should get a copy of the book and write a review (I’ve already read many of the articles, they’re available as preprints on-line), but the thing costs $85, the Columbia library doesn’t have a copy, and I’m not sure I should encourage them to buy one.

This week’s string theory hype: Universe’s Stringy Birth Revealed by Young Czech Physicist, which is not about Lubos Motl, but about an award to Martin Schnabl. Schnabl’s work on string field theory is one of the more interesting recent results in string theory, but the title of the article is, well, complete bullshit.

There will be an opening celebration in October for the Berkeley CTP, which was founded a few years ago and recently moved into renovated quarters. The BCTP is just one of a bunch of other CTPs that have been founded in recent years, including the MCTP and the PCTP (and one dead one, the CIT-USC CTP). The center’s web-site and opening conference appear to be heavily dominated by string theory, quite a change from a few years ago, when Berkeley was one of the leading US physics departments where string theory was not so dominant.

The PCTP has begun construction of its new home in Jadwin, the physics building at Princeton. Artist’s renderings are here. An art historian friend once told me that the proper technical name for the architectural style of Jadwin was “brutalist”. The new construction will add lots of glass, perhaps mitigating the “brutalism”. The large Calder featured in front of the building is called “Five Disks: One Empty”, and it has its own rather brutal history. It collapsed during construction, killing two of the men working on it. According to a local Princeton web-site:

The steel structure has four disks, one of which was originally painted orange, in a fervor of enthusiasm for the school’s colors. The structure was named “Many Disks: One Orange,” but then all of them were painted orange in anticipation of the artist’s visit in 1971. Upon seeing the structure, he asked that all the disks be painted black, and renamed it to its current title.

Over at SciTalks August is String Theory Month, and they’ll have Jonathan Shock as guest blogger later in the month.

At the Stony Brook YITP, the fifth of a series of workshops funded by Jim Simons on mathematics and physics, but mainly devoted to string theory, is now going on. Talks are online here.

Some online conference summary talks that one might want to take a look at are those of Michael Dine at the IAS PITP summer school, and John Ellis at SUSY 07. Both Dine and Ellis discuss prospects for observing supersymmetry at the LHC. Dine lists some of the reasons one might be skeptical that this will happen, including string theory anthropic landcape arguments (he avoids using the term “anthropic principle”, insteard referring to it as “NBN, that principle which cannot be named”). Ellis recalls his own role in the “discovery” of supersymmetry by UA1 back in 1984, indicating it’s likely that there will be such premature claims again at the LHC if anything at all anomalous is seen by the experiments. He also discusses the possibility of searching for long-lived particles produced at the LHC by using the muon system to locate where they left the detector, and then taking core samples of the surrounding rock to look for them.

For some excellent detailed postings about recent experimental HEP results from Tommaso Dorigo, see here and here. For blogging from CHARM 07 by Alexey Petrov, see here.

David Vogan has a wonderful expository piece about the recent heavily publicized results on the representation theory of E8; it’s intended for a future issue of the Notices of the AMS.

The September issue of the AMS Notices is now available. It includes an article about “Higgs Bundles”, a version of the Higgs that physicists won’t really recognize, and a book review of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics. The review is quite positive about the book and mostly a straight-forward summary of what it is in it. The reviewer, like many mathematicians, had been misled by a lot of the hype about string theory, and so found Smolin’s book quite enlightening. In particular, about M-theory, he writes:

This explanation [that M-theory is not a complete theory] was, to me personally, a great shock since I had always believed M-theory was a complete theory.

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62 Responses to Various Stuff

  1. reader says:

    The book review you mention has an amusingly unconventional view of the job market in particle theory. Writing about Smolin’s seers, it says

    “still others have jobs but are taking risks with their careers for the future of their science (’t Hooft and Penrose).”

    That ‘t Hooft and Penrose needed to fear for their careers was not something that had previously crossed my mind….

  2. Bee says:

    what bothers me is not if people have interests that go beyond science, and include psychology, religion, mountain climbing or blogging, but if they mingle up fact with fiction and blur the border between knowledge and believe.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    reader,

    The reviewer does get a few things wrong, and if it were a review of my book and not Smolin’s (which would be more appropriate, since mine was partly aimed at mathematicians, he whines…) I’d take the time to write about them.

  4. ??? says:

    I read the link about “Universe’s Stringy Birth Revealed by Young Czech Physicist”.

    Do I understand correctly that hep-th/0511286 won an EURYI award and that “Most awards are between €1,000,000 and €1,250,000, comparable in size to the Nobel Prize”?

  5. prague_phys says:

    Martin Schnabl: Actually here in Prague we are very happy that somebody from Czechia got this prestigious prize. We are even more happy that it is not Lubos Motl.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Bee,

    It seems to me that Carr doesn’t see his interest in religion and psychic research as hobbies distinct from his professional interest in science, but rather they are to him all related things, and he’s interested in bringing them together and blurring the distinctions. This blurring of science with non-science is something that physics traditionally didn’t tolerate, it’s a shame that this is changing.

  7. DB says:

    Peter Woit wrote:

    This blurring of science with non-science is something that physics traditionally didn’t tolerate, it’s a shame that this is changing.

    Why so many mainstream physicists remain silent about the public thrashing that physics is receiving at the hands of the snake-oil salesmen of string theory is the great mystery to me. Most physicists I know love their subject deeply, and yet seem content to bury their heads in their textbooks or fiddle about in their labs while Rome burns. Cowardice? A desire not to wash dirty linen in public?
    Earlier you called the title of an article “complete bullshit”. That’s the kind of forthright comment Richard Feynman might have made.
    I don’t know whether Sean Carroll had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote that drivel. But he was probably sitting at Richard Feynman’s desk in Caltech when he wrote it. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

  8. Someone says:

    To ???:

    Yes, the press release implies that the amount is comparable to that of a Nobel Prize but it’s really an unfair comparison.

    The Nobel Prize gets wire transferred to your bank account.

    A research grant gets sent, usually a little bit at a time for several years, to your University or Institute which, after taking a 50%-ish cut, lets you use the money to hire graduate students and postdocs, but definitely not to put into your bank account.

    Still it enough money to start a very healthy research group (especially with European postdoc salaries as small as they are!).

  9. ??? says:

    thank you. Still it looks surprising: hep-th/0511286 has only 40 citations.
    Our friend Lubos wrote hep-th/0601001: another czech string theory paper with 40 citations: does he deserve €1,000,000?

  10. Cecil Kirksey says:

    Peter:
    Your comment about pseudo-science fits in very nicely with a subject that I have been thinking about lately: What constitutes a valid scientific question? Forty years ago asking what happened prior to the big bang was NOT a valid physics question, but now it seems that it is. Does God exists? Not valid. A 100 hundred years ago: what mechanism gave the sun all its energy? Get the idea? Does the validity of the question vary with time? If so at what point does the question transition from being a non-valid question to a valid question? I have read basically that the question should be open to prove or disprove. Does ignorance about how to proceed to prove or disprove a statement mean the question is valid or not valid? Thanks for your and other commentors thoughts.

  11. Coin says:

    This blurring of science with non-science is something that physics traditionally didn’t tolerate, it’s a shame that this is changing.

    Just out of curiosity, do you feel the same way about Roger Penrose and his recent adventures in “quantum consciousness” with Stuart Hameroff?

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Cecil,

    A question is a scientific question if possible answers to it can be (at least in principle) put to a convincing experimental test. There are lots of subtleties one can get into, but the anthropic landscape pseudo-science doesn’t involve them, it just inherently produces either no predictions or wrong ones.

    I’m thoroughly sick of having to endlessly go over the kinds of scientific methodology 101 questions we normally teach elementary school children, just because some people are trying to argue about methodology in order to evade the overwhelming evidence that their scientific research program has failed.

    Unless someone has something particularly new and intelligent to say about this issue, please discuss it elsewhere.

  13. Bee says:

    Hi DB:

    Most physicists I know love their subject deeply, and yet seem content to bury their heads in their textbooks or fiddle about in their labs while Rome burns. Cowardice? A desire not to wash dirty linen in public?

    I’ve made the same experience. It’s a shoulder shrugging that upsets me very much, but one that is not restricted to physics or science but seems to be a more general phenomenon. People look at me and say ‘that’s just the way things are’ without even considering that they might be able to influence the direction in which we are drifting. Look at politics. Different questions, same problem. People focus on their own work, and miss the big picture. They are aware of the problems, but ironically are too busy to change anything about it. Maybe even too busy to think about it.

    But there’s no higher power that will ensures quality of research. It’s due to us. If we don’t care, if we don’t criticise, if we passively take what we get and adapt to it, we will go down with that ship. That’s one of the reasons why I think Peter’s blog is useful. One can share or not share his disliking of string theory, but he’s reliably taking track of things, has an opinion and doesn’t keep his mouth shut. That’s also why I think Lee’s book is important: to remind us that we should think about what science is, and what it should be.

    I spend a lot of time trying to understand other people’s works, and I’m not exactly polite if I come to the conclusion that it doesn’t make sense. Various people have pointed out that I am wasting my time with that. Maybe they are right. In a career-wise sense. But I have the impression we’re running into a situation where more and more people are writing more and more things that nobody really can or wants to follow, yet nobody cares. It only takes a critical amount of people who cite each other and a vague untopic can inflate exponentially.

    Best,

    B.

    PS: Some more thoughts on the above here.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Coin,

    I don’t know anything about Penrose/Hameroff, and the relation between quantum theory and consciousness is not something I personally have any interest in thinking about. Surely there is lots of flaky, unscientific work in this area, but I’m not about to spend my time learning about it, figuring out what is flaky and what isn’t, and writing about it until it starts dominating particle theory research. There’s a large number of such topics that I intend to keep ignoring, and to keep encouraging people to discuss not here but elsewhere.

  15. Kea says:

    This blurring of science with non-science is something that physics traditionally didn’t tolerate…

    Hmmm. Perhaps excluding Newton, Leibniz, Einstein, Penrose, Wigner (who has commented on the need for a consciousness theory underlying QM) ……. Your attitude is very indicitive of the narrow mindedness of scientists in the Age of Business, and clearly not based on having actually studied the research in question.

  16. Cecil Kirksey says:

    Peter:
    Please do not get hyper! I clearly understand that what is sufficient for a valid scientific question is: can it be proved or disproved by some experiment or observation that by the consensus of the community is possible. However, I was more interested in the time issue. Does a question today that is deemed invalid become valid as scientific progress is made? If so what determines this transition? This I beg to differ is not taught in science 101 or I would not be asking the question. Just think about pre-big bang physics. Is this valid now and not valid 40 years ago?

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Cecil,

    Our understanding of physics changes with time, so do our experimental techniques. As these change, some questions become scientific ones. For pre-big bang physics to be a scientific issue, you have to come up with potential experimental tests, even indirect ones. I haven’t seen any convincing arguments for such tests. People are welcome to try to turn this into a scientific question, others are welcome to ignore them if they think they’re getting nowhere.

  18. LDM says:

    I agree with Bee…

    I am only a little unclear as to why the book “Universe or Multiverse?” should be singled out.
    String theory is not testable and likely never will be, hence ANY book, article, or preprint on it must at worst be considered pseudo-science…or in the most charitable case, mathematics.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    LDM,

    “String theory” is a varied and complicated subject. Most of it is not pseudo-science, although a lot of it is probably just wrong science.

    Anthropic pseudo-science has gotten a big push from string theory, but string theorists are far from the only ones engaging in it. Personally I feel it is a much more dangerous phenomenon than string theory: having a scientific field dominated by work on a wrong idea is bad, having it dominated by work that has simply given up on science is worse.

  20. Yatima says:

    Does a question today that is deemed invalid become valid as scientific progress is made? If so what determines this transition?

    INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER

    (From an Asimov story called ‘the last question’ I think)

    The relation between quantum theory and consciousness is not something I personally have any interest in thinking about.

    I would say this is a healthy attitude as QM/C arguments never make it seriously past the first strawman. Marvin Minsky’s handwaving explanations are still good enough at the current level of knowledge. But now back to fundamentals…

  21. gunpowder&noodles says:

    Regarding Sean Carroll’s post: are you saying that you don’t believe in the “Sensible Anthropic Principle”? Surely not?
    SC thinks about these things because he is interested in the arrow of time. This is a major, major feature of our world about which we understand essentially squat. Understanding this thing is real physics, and I find it very hard to understand why you would be opposed to this. On the other hand, you got all excited about Ed Witten’s excursion into science fiction — that nonsense about three-dimensional spacetimes. Now *that* is bullshit! The probability that we will learn anything useful about our universe by studying 3-dimensional spacetimes is laughably small — and I’ m leaving aside the obvious disconnect from anything even remotely falsifiable. SC’s investigations are hard science by comparison.

    That there is a lot of crazy stuff out there is obvious. But it really doesn’t help to have the attitude that anything that looks strange must be pseudo-science. I think you are being unfair to SC.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    gunpowder,

    Very specifically, what struck me was the end of Sean’s posting:

    “The post-Big-Bang lifespan of the universe is very plausibly infinite. And yet, we find ourselves living within the first few tens of billions of years (a finite interval) after the Bang.

    That last one deserves more attention, I think.”

    which I still find hard to believe is not a joke.

    Sure, I think the probability of Witten’s work on 3d gravity providing real insight into the 4d world is infinitely greater than the probability that thinking about this question will lead to any sort of scientific insight.

  23. Gunpowder wrote:

    Now *that* is bullshit! The probability that we will learn anything useful about our universe by studying 3-dimensional spacetimes is laughably small — and I’ m leaving aside the obvious disconnect from anything even remotely falsifiable.

    Perhaps, but quantum gravity simplifies drastically in 2+1 dimensions.

    For example, the Riemann tensor linearly depends on the Ricci tensor (if I recall correctly; I’m writing this from the middle of nowhere on my laptop!). See Steve Carlip’s book Quantum Gravity in 2+1 dimensions for details.

    Also, additionally, the free bosonic string is Lorentz covariant in 2+1 dimensions.

    The constraint equations in canonical gravity, from my understanding (again, if I recollect correctly!), is far simpler than they are in 3+1 dimensions.

    This allows us to think more qualitatively about the problems posed to us by quantum gravity, e.g. the problem of time, etc. I do not know about you, but I would much rather deal with simplified equations that allow us to think about the more interesting parts of quantum gravity.

    Compare this to merely doing the mechanics and monkeying around with nonlinear equations.

    I’d rattle on more, but as I have said, I’m writing this in the middle of nowhere.

  24. Dr. E says:

    Since the publication of TTWP and NEW, it seems pseudoscience has augmented and advanced with a new boldness. Is this right? I did not expect this. What might be possible explanations? Has all just been in the pipeline? Or have they gained newfound courage, as they have found that NEW and the TTWP didn’t affect the funding nor press?

    Just wondering what everyone thought. And where is it all headed?

  25. csrster says:

    “The post-Big-Bang lifespan of the universe is very plausibly infinite. And yet, we find ourselves living within the first few tens of billions of years (a finite interval) after the Bang.

    That last one deserves more attention, I think.”

    Is that so ridiculous? We are apparently living in a dark-energy dominated universe at a time when the ratio dark-energy/non-dark-energy is of order one. Doesn’t that require an explanation? And isn’t there even a fairly obvious one that a much older universe would be too tenuous to support life?

  26. gunpowder&noodles says:

    ““The post-Big-Bang lifespan of the universe is very plausibly infinite. And yet, we find ourselves living within the first few tens of billions of years (a finite interval) after the Bang.

    That last one deserves more attention, I think.”

    which I still find hard to believe is not a joke. ”

    I guess the point is that: we find ourselves on a rock because life is not possible elsewhere. Carroll is perhaps speculating that the fact that we find ourselves so early in the history of the universe is evidence that the late universe is hostile to life.

    I would agree with you that this is not really an interesting question. What happens to the arrow of time in the remote future, by contrast, is a very interesting question because thinking about it may throw some light on the whole gigantic mystery of where the arrow comes from anyway.

    “Sure, I think the probability of Witten’s work on 3d gravity providing real insight into the 4d world is infinitely greater than the probability that thinking about this question will lead to any sort of scientific insight.”

    Well, we’ll see. I’m *very* confident that this work will sink without a trace. Well, it might eventually get cited by other lost souls working on 3D “physics”, but that will just prove my point. 3D is just so utterly different from 4D that parallel universes seem tame by comparison. Try telling a differential geometer that you are studying 3D manifolds because you are confident that this will tell you something about Seiberg-Witten theory….

    Still, you may be right, in which case it will be shown that thinking about questions that seem to be wildly irrelevant to real physics is a good thing to do. SC is doing that very thing, is he not? Why is it ok for Witten to think about other universes — and 3D universes are about as “other” as they come — and not for other people?

  27. Mark Hillery says:

    In regard to the “Centers for Theoretical Physics,” it would be nice to see a little truth in advertising. The ones at Berkeley and Michigan (at least from a quick perusal of its web site), and the defunct Caltech/USC one concern (or concerned) themselves only with theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology. These subjects are only a small subset of theoretical physics. The Princeton center seems to have members who are interested in condensed-matter theory and biophysics, and is, therefore, more broadly based. If you are going to have a center that studies only high-energy theory and cosmology, call it a center for high-energy theory and cosmology, not a center for theoretical physics.

    As a Berkeley graduate, I was particularly disappointed when they set up their center to see that it would be so narrowly focussed. Why no condensed-matter theory? It also could have been a good opportunity to branch out into new fields. For example, there is excellent work going on in the computer science and chemistry departments there in theoretical quantum information, but not much in physics. It might be useful for the physicists to find out what is going on in this field at their own university.

    All of us tend to be somewhat parochial in our views, but let’s not enshrine our parochialism in the names of institutions.

  28. Ted says:

    Peter:

    Your description of David Vogan’s expository piece on E8 as “wonderful” is an understatement. For us amateurs who are trying to understand this magnificent edifice of mathematical physics at the beginnnig of the 21st century, these toss-off links that you provide are pure golden nuggets.

    I thank you.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    csrster,

    I don’t see how you read the “coincidence” problem of the dark matter/dark energy ratio being of order one into what Sean wrote. But in any case, if for some reason that was what he actually meant to say, characterizing this as “deserves more attention” would be rather bizarre since it’s one of the most well-known problems in cosmology.

  30. Bee says:

    Hi Dr. E,

    What does the E stand for? Enlightenment?

    Since the publication of TTWP and NEW, it seems pseudoscience has augmented and advanced with a new boldness. Is this right? I did not expect this. What might be possible explanations? Has all just been in the pipeline? Or have they gained newfound courage, as they have found that NEW and the TTWP didn’t affect the funding nor press?

    Just wondering what everyone thought. And where is it all headed?

    I think your perception is incorrect. What I notice – and what I welcome – is that there is more discussion about the question what is science, pseudoscience, and where we are headed. I find that a healthy development. I hope there will be a practical outcome of that which allows researchers to refocus their efforts on real science, and not to waste time on politics, networking, or advertisement. One has to ask why pseudo-scientific ideas gain popularity. Because they are cheap to produce and they sell well. It’s the Walmart of science. You get everything, it looks okay, but if you try to use it will fall into pieces.

    Best,

    B.

  31. Peter Woit says:

    B. and E.,

    I think B. is right that the publication of the two books has definitely intensified the discussion of and raised awareness about the issue of the problematic state of string theory. As far as string theory propaganda to the general public goes, there’s definitely less of it, and science journalists in particular are much less likely to report unskeptically string theory hype. String theorists are well aware that they don’t have much of a counter-argument against the arguments of the two books, so they have chosen to mostly keep quiet and hope the controversy dies down. Within physics departments in general I think there also is more skepticism about string theory (often unfortunately taking the form of generalized skepticism about any kind of formal or mathematical theory) and a preference for work that is “phenomenological” and uses little mathematics.

    Among the powers that be in the particle theory community, my impression is that the overwhelming sentiment is that doing anything about the problems laid bare by what has happened over the last twenty years is just too painful a prospect, that it would damage too many people’s interests and entrenched ways of thinking and doing business. Instead, people are putting all their hopes in the idea that the LHC will soon solve the problem, so they don’t need to address it now. The standard tactic in theory survey talks is to put up lots of pictures of the LHC, talk about the “coming revolution” in particle physics, and ignore the ongoing disaster of the current state of the subject.

  32. Changcho says:

    “One has to ask why pseudo-scientific ideas gain popularity. Because they are cheap to produce and they sell well. It’s the Walmart of science. You get everything, it looks okay, but if you try to use it will fall into pieces.”

    Bee, that is priceless!!

  33. Jeff Moreland says:

    Peter,
    Your last note seems very bleak, but perhaps the situation is not really that bad. For reasons that both you and Lee Smolin mention in your books, change is not going to be too rapid, but perhaps things really are beginning to improve.

  34. Tony Smith says:

    Peter mentioned “… The BCTP is just one of a bunch of other CTPs that have been founded in recent years, including the MCTP and the PCTP (and one dead one, the CIT-USC CTP). …” and referred also to “… the Stony Brook YITP …” and “… IAS PITP …”.

    With all those ITPs around, and with the dominant paradigms of superstring theory and loop quantum gravity failing to produce any model that predicts by calculation the things that might be observed at LHC (and have already been observed by experiments elsewhere),

    one might think that some (even one) of them might set up some sort of forum in which non-standard ideas could be presented, reasonably condsidered, and evaluated in some detail (all in public for all the world to see).

    As a blacklisted outsider with a predictive model, my wish that such a forum had existed years ago would be selfish, but now age and health concerns probably would prevent me from using it,
    so now my comment is directed mostly on behalf of the many other outsiders whose models may be at least in part correct, and may therefore be useful in understanding those things as to which
    superstring theory and loop quantum gravity have failed to provide understanding.

    Peter has stated WHY such a forum does not (and probably will not) exist, saying:
    “… Among the powers that be in the particle theory community, my impression is that the overwhelming sentiment is that doing anything about the problems laid bare by what has happened over the last twenty years …
    would damage too many people’s interests and entrenched ways of thinking and doing business.
    Instead,
    people are putting all their hopes in the idea that the LHC will soon solve the problem,
    so they don’t need to address it now. …”.

    Hoping “that the LHC will soon solve the problem” seems preposterous,
    since neither superstring theory nor loop quantum gravity have come to grips with the sort of detailed observational data that already exists, much less what the LHC might produce.
    Such false hopes lead to absurdities such as “Nima’s Marmoset” being the sort of thing favored by ITPs (Nima now being at IAS).

    Tony Smith

  35. Peter Woit says:

    Jeff,

    I’m more optimistic in the longer term. By 3-4 years from now, either the LHC will have given us some new insight into electroweak symmetry breaking, or it will begin to be clear that there is no “coming revolution”, and problems have to be faced up to. In the meantime though, the hep-th part of the arXiv will remain a rather grim and depressing scene…

  36. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you say that, if LHC finds no “new insight into electoweak symmetry breaking, then “… 3-4 years from now … the LHC … will begin to …[make it]… clear that there is no “coming revolution”,
    and problems have to be faced up to …”.

    Is that true ?

    How would “… the powers that be in the particle theory community …[be able to]… do … anything about the problems ..[without]…
    damag[ing] too many people’s interests and entrenched ways of thinking and doing business …” ?

    Wouldn’t it be easier for “the powers that be” to protect “many people’s interests and entrenched ways” by just keeping on forever doing what they have been doing for the past two decades ?

    If they can keep on now even though you and Lee have clearly shown “the problems”, why won’t they just keep on keeping on forever,
    since they control the grants, jobs, funding, ITPs, etc ?

    Even if you and/or Lee showed an example of a model that worked,
    why would “the powers that be” pay any attention to it.
    Wouldn’t they just attack you and/or Lee and your model as Oppenheimer did Bohm and his model,
    saying
    “… If we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him ..” ?

    Since they control the jobs, grants, funding, ITPs, etc, wouldn’t
    the maxims
    “he who has the gold rules” and “them who has gets”
    indicate that you and/or Lee and your model wouldn’t stand a chance ?

    Tony Smith

  37. anon. says:

    ‘If they can keep on now even though you and Lee have clearly shown “the problems”, why won’t they just keep on keeping on forever, since they control the grants, jobs, funding, ITPs, etc ?’ – Tony Smith.

    The real issue is not more of the same, but further degeneration. ArXiv’s general physics section in 2003 tolerated hosting Prof. Brian Josephson’s anthropic-string theory paper: http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0312012

    It’s more scary when such anthropic papers appear in the high energy physics – theory section of arXiv: http://www.arxiv.org/abs/0708.0573 The string landscape has given the anthropic principle credibility with leading physicists.

  38. Peter Shor says:

    Everybody seems to be making fun of the giraffe paper without reading it. Skimming the paper, it estimates the height of the tallest animal that can fall over and get up without serious injury, and comes up with something between the height of a man and a giraffe. However, googling, I see on several websites the interesting fact, or at least urban legend, that if an adult giraffe falls over on its side in the wild, it is unable to get up and it dies. So, if we believe these websites, this paper may actually be pretty accurate in its estimate (at least for mammals … I presume nobody knows whether T. Rexes that fell over were able to get back up).

    Putting that aside, you can ask the questions: Why should this paper be on hep-th? And does it tell us anything interesting about the anthropic principle or high energy physics. I don’t think there’s a good answer to the first question, and I think the answer to the second question is definitely “no”.

  39. Peter Woit says:

    Peter S.,

    I don’t doubt that the paper may contain a reasonable argument about the size of giraffes. But it seems to be either a joke or a sign of the times that both the author of the paper and the hep-th moderator think this is appropriate material for hep-th. The moderation of hep-th is supposed to be minimal for “endorsers”, but even so, there have been cases in the past where the hep-th moderator rejected papers by such physicists (including one by Susskind) on the grounds of obviously being inappropriate.

    In other news, the two plenary speakers in the cosmology session at this week’s philosophy of science conference in Beijing are: Sean Carroll and Don Page.

  40. a.k. says:

    @gunpowder: at least concerning Seiberg-Witten invariants, three dimensions can be of interest for differential geometers, this even could have a physical flavour, there are some not-so-old papers by Nicolaescu/Nemethi (accessible on Nemethi’s site) concerning relations between Seiberg-Witten invariants of (3-dimensional) links of isolated complex surface singularities whose link is a rational homology sphere, certain topological quantities of the link and the geometric genus of the singularity itself, for certain special types of singularities (Gorenstein) this reduces to an equality of the Seiberg-Witten invariant on the link and a certain fraction of the signature of the Milnor fibre, which is a surprising relation, at least for me.

    This might, by the way, fit into a picture described by Torsten Asselmeyer some time ago in a paper deriving the cosmological constant by interpreting spacetime as bounding a certain Brieskorn sphere, a natural choice for spacetime would then be the Milnor fibre of a certain Brieskorn polynomial and one could possibly ask how physical restrictions on its signature trabnslate into restrictions on the values of ‘allowed’ Seiberg Witten invariants on its link, using the above relations (of course one had to check the ‘Gorenstein’ condition)..

  41. Pingback: Woit is dismayed, but why surprised « Bob Dudesky

  42. D R Lunsford says:

    1.2×10^11 coefficients to calculate! We need an “E8@home” project :)

    -drl

  43. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter, this paper by Vogan is just great – thanks for pointing that out!

    -drl

  44. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter,

    Anthropocentrism is easily understood as the natural expression of the narcissistic era we inhabit. Many of the people who endorse such ideas leave one with a sickly feeling of being in the presence of an unctuous and self-absorbed exquisite, who is not man enough to confront real problems because they provide no source of narcissistic supply. The way to deal with narcissists is to confront them boldy, and then they tend to just shut up – as you and Smolin have demonstrated to some extent, with your books.

    -drl

  45. a.k. says:

    DRL, your description easily applies to to the main conception of any ‘abstract’ science, would it be philosophy, mathematics or physics, the driving theme in all these concepts has a narcissistic corollary, the point is possibly that one should be aware of this.

  46. Who says:

    drl,

    most science bloggers I can think of are doing a real service and putting in real intellectual effort now and then, besides entertainment value. I can only think of a couple who seem above all to want adulation of their personality or who cultivate a charmed flock of not-so-bright admirers—to a first approximation maybe these people are harmless. You may well agree, if not please say.

    Just thinking about what you wrote and trying to apply it (as a test case) to the very few narcie web-celebs that I can think of—the few media-personality types that sometimes seem a bit heavy on the narcissist side.

    you draw a connection between self-absorption and resorting to the Anthropic (lack of) P.

    you indicate that you think one can “deal with” or “confront” such folks and you say the recent books (NEW and TTWP) demonstrate this. It might be optimistic to think that when confronted they will “tend to shut up”
    ==================
    you may have some good insights here, but I find myself putting on the brakes. Even if there is a cultural connection between these things, just on a practical level I don’t see any need to confront media-narcissism per se. It’s just irritating.

    do you see a broader problem?

    I agree with you that resort to the anthropic excuse is a corruption of empirical tradition—I just split it off from people who crave the limelight and showcase their personality: they could be harmless—the real enemy being confusion of solid science with pseudo.

  47. D R Lunsford says:

    Who,

    Yes the science bloggers for the most part go a great job (with notable “variances”). Without them there would be little hope.

    The site mentioned has a detailed description of the cerebral narcissist. Read it through and go down the list of theoretical excrescences and their authors. You will be convinced. Of course, this is a broad cultural phenomenon in the West that touches all areas of life – so why should the academy be spared?

    One thing to remember is that the narcissist, while rather pathetic when exposed, is anything but harmless.

    -drl

  48. Peter Woit says:

    Please, enough personal attacks on people, either retail or wholesale.

    In this case, it seems to me that a bunch of people invested a lot of time and effort in an idea that turned out to be wrong. They don’t want to admit they were wrong. This isn’t exactly unusual human behavior, especially among academics.

  49. D R Lunsford says:

    Sorry Peter, I did not intend to attack anyone in particular, but I would point out this work:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_of_Narcissism

    It applies with great accuracy to academic life, at as I have experienced it.

    I do no think this is a matter of simply refusing to admit being wrong. In the past, when a breakthrough was made, scientists were only too happy to admit they were wrong, because there did in fact seem to exist a fundamental desire to know what was right, regardless of who cooked up the solution. The best example is Pauli, kicking himself for missing the Dirac equation, of which he was initially critical. “With his [Dirac's] fine sense of physical realities, he finished his argument before it was started” was his recantation. I think this desire to know what is right, has gone missing. Alistair Cooke predicted it exactly in the early 70s – enthusiasm would become a substitute for talent (he was talking about the arts in particular), with bad results.

    Reading Lasch is a very rewarding experience. I highly recommend it.

    -drl

  50. Intellectually Curious says:

    “…there did in fact seem to exist a fundamental desire to know what was right, regardless of who cooked up the solution…I think this desire to know what is right, has gone missing.”

    A wise professor once told me that there are the real scientists and then there are the politicians. (And he was talking about those with Ph.D.’s in the sciences.) I think his statement holds true for these people regardless of their career choice, whether they’re actually engaging in scientific research or not. A real scientist at heart will have great respect for truth over ego, period. Though he/she, with human weaknesses and all, may not be perfect all the time, his/her true desire nevertheless will be clear over time.

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