Last week (for more, see here) Eric Weinstein gave a talk at Oxford about his ideas about “Geometric Unity”, with positive coverage from the Guardian, leading to various critical commentary. I agree completely with the main point of most of the commentary: if he wants to be taken seriously, Eric needs to disseminate the details of his ideas about this, as a paper, slides of a talk, multimedia web-site, or whatever. As AJ put it here succinctly: “Paper, or it didn’t happen.”
I’ve only the vaguest notion of what Eric’s ideas are, so no way to evaluate them. From this standpoint of ignorance I should comment that I’m quite skeptical he has a viable unified theory, with reports of “very large multiplets of as yet undiscovered particles, and he has no idea of their masses” not confidence inspiring. But on the other hand, the current situation in fundamental theory is one of a serious lack of any new ideas at all. If he has been working on some very different ideas that haven’t gotten attention before, he could have something interesting or even important. But, again, until details are available, there’s no way to know one way or another. By the way, I should disclose that at one point I remember having a conversation with Eric about his plans to give a talk and make public his ideas. I tried to encourage him to do this, emphasizing though that I thought his main problem would be that he wouldn’t be able to get anyone to pay attention. Shows how little I know…
Surprisingly to me, before it was clear what was going on, there was a quick and hostile reaction from some to the Guardian piece about Eric and his work. Yes, it’s a bad idea for the press to publish overly optimistic material about grandiose and poorly supported claims from physicists, but this does happen all the time, and usually people (other than me…) don’t bother getting worked up about it. Very quickly New Scientist (not known for its general policy of only reporting on carefully vetted research) had a piece from an Oxford cosmologist denouncing Marcus du Sautoy for organizing Weinstein’s talk and not inviting any physicists:
Hosting a lecture in a university physics department without inviting any physicists is, at best, an unforgivable oversight. As my colleague Subir Sarkar put it, “It’s surprising that the organisers did not invite the particle physicists to attend – if indeed the intention was to have a discussion.”
Soon New Scientist was joined by Jennifer Ouellette at Scientific American and PZ Myers, all outraged at the unprofessional behavior of du Sautoy. Reading the New Scientist piece, for about 5 seconds I thought “wow, that du Sautoy sure is a piece of work”, before realizing “wait a minute, how likely is that?” Any experience with academic departments and dissemination of information like this should be enough to make one suspicious that the most likely course of events was that du Sautoy tried to get word out, but this didn’t happen very effectively. Yes, departments and groups have mailing lists, but the ones people pay attention to are shielded from use by outsiders. After a couple days, it came out that the true story was that du Sautoy did contact people in the physics department trying to get their help advertising the talk, sent them posters, etc., exactly as one would have expected.
What I find most remarkable about this story though is the contrast to the one that I wrote about the day before here. This involved a Sunday Times report about Laura Mersini-Houghton’s “hard evidence” for the multiverse, which she had found by analyzing the latest Planck CMB data. She plans to give a public talk about this at the Hay Festival on Friday, and a talk at Oxford is scheduled for June 11 (this talk is part of a workshop funded by the Templeton Foundation as part of their “establishing the philosophy of cosmology” effort). I assume physicists will get an invitation to the Oxford talk, but, at least at the moment, there’s no paper that I’m aware of backing up Mersini-Houghton’s claims. There is a 2008 paper about what Planck should have seen, but the Planck team reported nothing of the sort predicted in that paper.
This all leaves me rather curious about the question of why people got outraged about Eric Weinstein getting too much press attention for his undocumented claims and Oxford talk, when the same people as far as I can tell seem to have no problem with Mersini-Houghton and her undocumented claims + Oxford talk. To me it seems a lot more problematic that people have been reading in the press that hard evidence has been found for the multiverse than that they have read that Eric Weinstein has a theory of everything. Others seem to see things the other way around.
Update: Eric will be giving another talk at Oxford, this Friday, see here.
Update: Denunciations of du Sautoy continue, see for instance here. For a response from him, see here. From the various very fragmentary accounts available online of the Friday talk, it sounds to me like Eric is far from having a viable TOE. Still no paper or details available, which is what is needed to see if he has a promising idea.
Meanwhile, on the BBC, it’s multiverse-mania as usual, with Mersini-Houghton,
a cosmologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill whose theory of the origin of the visible universe has attracted a lot of attention for its strong observational predictions.
the recently released data from the Planck telescope lend particular support.
As far as I can tell, cosmologists and physicists think this kind of thing is just fine, or maybe they are way too busy being outraged about du Sautoy’s attack on the very fundamentals of science.
Update: Laura Mersini-Houghton and Richard Holman sent me the following which I’m adding here so that readers can have their point of view on this.
As avid readers of your blog, we were a bit dismayed to see your post lumping our work together with Weinstein’s. Unlike his case, we HAVE had not just one, but a series of papers where our calculations and predictions are laid out for all too see and argue about.
To recap, we made use of a particular model of the landscape of string theory, the one derived in the Douglas-Denef paper 2004, constructed the effective density matrix for observables in our patch and then used that to derive our predictions. Within the context of this model, we showed that the scale of SUSY breaking would be far above the reach of the LHC and thus no super-partners would be seen. We also calculated how the back reaction from the other parts of the landscape modifies the gravitational perturbations in such a way that the following would be true
a. the cold spot of 10 degrees in the sky at about z~1,
b. another highly underdense/void like region aka a suppression of power at k~1 which would give rise to:
c. a suppression by 30% of TT spectra of CMB at the lowest l<6 (k=1)
d. a modification of quadrupole, dipole and octopole (lowest l’s) which induces alignment of quadrupole and octopole, (axis of evil)
e. a preferred direction due to induced dipole power
f. the power asymmetry between the 2 hemispheres which are determined by the preferred direction (again the k~1 suppression shows as lack of structure at dipole/quadrupole level which suppresses structure in 1 hemisphere)
g. an overall suppression of sigma_8 due to the same correction to Newtonian potential by 30%.
Hints of all of these had been found by WMAP, but PLANCK confirms ALL of these (Paper 13 in the Planck series).
The two papers where predictions were derived are:
The full theory in 2005 for which these predictions are made is developed here
This theory was and remains the only one that uses quantum cosmology to derive the selection criterion from the landscape multiverse and that calculated every single prediction from an underlying fundamental physics formalism, without resorting to anthropics or any other conjectures. Silence does not imply ignorance.
While there is certainly room to argue with us (is our model of the landscape truly reflective of its actual behavior? How robust are our results to changes such as in the inflationary potential used?), we have striven to be above board in all we’ve written and said.
We also made predictions for a bulk flow that was argued for by Kashlinski et al. There has certainly been some dispute about the existence of this flow and a PLANCK paper argued that the flow is not statistically significant in their data but the jury is still out on that. However, the situation is not as clear cut as this. We are aware there was a paper by Pierpaoli et al stating they do not make a significant detection of the dark flow and another paper by Barandela et al., also a Planck team member, stating that the dark flow is definitely there and the filters used by Pierpaoli et al. were incorrect. Our current feeling is that it would be premature to say our theory is incorrect on the basis of a result awaiting conclusion while 8 of its major predictions have just been confirmed. Perhaps you are not aware that a bulk flow always arises when the CMB frame and the expansion frame in the universe do not coincide. On the other hand, should this discussion finally be resolved against us we are ready and willing to acknowledge this and move on. At least we have predictions that COULD be wrong!
It is true that there has been considerable media coverage for the last 7 years around this theory and its predictions but that is not surprising considering we made predictions for a theory of the origins of the universe based on fundamental physics. Don’t let the media coverage divert you from the science. The key issue is that we have a theory based on a well known fundamental physics formalism and we made predictions for the anomalies in 2006 that are currently in accord with ALL of the data (modulo the pending dark flow results). That is 8 predictions confirmed and one to go. As we said before, you might want to argue with the underpinnings of our ideas and we are more than willing to enter into such discussions. But we have calculated within our framework, derived physical predictions from these calculations and await further data to fully confirm or refute our model. We think that this how science should be done.
In light of this, we would appreciate it if you could revise your post to reflect these facts.