A Tale of Two Oxford Talks

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: To the extent you can call what’s on Twitter “information”, there’s information about today’s Oxford talk there, see for instance here and 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.

explaining that

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:

http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0612142

http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0611223

The full theory in 2005 for which these predictions are made is developed here

http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0511102

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.

Best

Laura Mersini-Houghton

Rich Holman

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72 Responses to A Tale of Two Oxford Talks

  1. book says:

    Actually, what I would like to see is a post from someone (physicist?) who attended Weinstein’s talk, to explain/describe/summarize the main point(s) of the new TOE.

  2. oxfordanon says:

    book: it’s more or less what you would expect. He is someone who is not stupid, who is intelligent and has a PhD from Harvard. *But* this is a properly hard subject, and those credentials don’t get you anywhere near a theory of everything. He spoke a lot about geometry, and not so much about physics, and the part that was about physics was enough for me to be clear that he does not have a decent enough grip/intuition on what the Standard Model is and what it allows.

    I didn’t really follow what his geometric construction was, but at the end he predicts a whole bunch of new states (lots and lots and lots) that are both chiral and charged under all three forces of the Standard Model. As chiral matter can’t acquire mass above the scale of gauge symmetry breaking (around a 100 GeV), such a prediction is essentially dead in the water – this energy area is all explored and you can’t hide this stuff.

    This is one of the things that to me rings massive alarm bells at any claims towards a TOE. If someone is not immediately aware – and he wasn’t – that there are big problems with predicting new chiral fermions charged under electromagnetism or the strong force, then how much can you trust any other physics claim made?

    He’s not a crank, he has thought about what he is doing and can put things in the language that professionals use. Cranks don’t talk about bundles and know what a representation is. But he’s still wrong, and he doesn’t really know physics – the way he talked about the Standard Model, the cosmological constant made that clear.

    There is a reason professionals in the subject think what they do, and work on the problems they work on. The talk confirmed to me that there are good reasons to this.

  3. Mitchell Porter says:

    “As chiral matter can’t acquire mass above the scale of gauge symmetry breaking”

    What is the argument for this, exactly? I bet there’s a loophole.

  4. Cormac says:

    I’m somewhat surprised by Ian Sample’s comments. As a physicist who writes a regular column for a newspaper myself, I pay close attention to feedback from my physics colleagues, rather than dismiss it out of hand.
    Also it’s worth pointing out that the ‘blog post’ appeared online as an op-ed article. Many eminent scientists would give their eye-teeth for that sort of publicity.

    P.S. I very much enjoyed ‘Massive’, well done – I sent you a commentary including some suggested minor corrections but you never replied (what would I know, I only teach a course in the history of particle physics for a living)

  5. Mitchell Porter says:

    Another thought on Weinstein’s theory… I am waiting for some news that will truly identify what sort of construction it is. Such theories of physics don’t exist in a mathematical vacuum. An individual theory belongs to a mathematical class of similar possible theories: gauge field theories, string theories, etc. If it’s a familiar class of theories, then a lot will be known about what it can and can’t do, how unique it is, and so on. If it’s an unfamiliar class of theories, then we ought to be interested in other possible theories from that class too, and not just the initial example.

    On Quora.com, there is an account of the latest talk, which makes his theory sound like a topological QFT, since it starts from a topological manifold with a bundle and a connection, and then the metric is part of(?) the connection; and all that is a well-explored topic… Hopefully we will soon have enough definitive information to place Weinstein’s theory in conceptual and historical context, and see what is new or interesting here.

  6. ab says:

    Mitchell Porter — you have to give mass to charged chiral matter through a Yukawa coupling, so the natural scale will be the symmetry breaking scale.

  7. Mitchell Porter says:

    ab, if that’s the argument… It’s not even clear whether the mechanism whereby Weinstein’s particles obtain mass, conforms to that description; in which case this sort of counterargument is beside the point. He’s probably getting mass terms from a geometric effect, and not from anything resembling the Higgs mechanism.

    Incidentally, what about radiatively generated masses, or masses from susy-breaking?

  8. Here is the link to the discussion at quora that describes the lecture.
    Weinstein considers Higgs mechanism as too contrived and has an alternative (more natural mechanism) that is manifest as Higgs mechanism.
    http://www.quora.com/University-of-Oxford/What-was-the-reaction-to-Eric-Weinsteins-May-23rd-lecture-at-Oxford-on-the-geometric-prospects-for-unification

    Science cannot even begin until we have most of at least the general types of all viable theories.

  9. Shantanu says:

    something OT.
    Peter and other : any comments on the SNOMASS conference at KITP?
    http://online.kitp.ucsb.edu/online/snowmass-c13

  10. ot says:

    This needs to be a separate post. “Snowmass on the Pacific” … good grief.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    OK, OK, see the next posting

  12. fifth says:

    This all reminds me of the ‘fifth force’ business from the mid-1980s. The person in that case (Ephraim Fishbach) was a very reasonable physicist, mild-mannered and soft-spoken, not a publicity seeker at all. He pointed out a perfectly reasonable thing, viz. that physics at some length scales was in fact not very precisely tested, and there was room for a fifth force of nature, which coupled to hypercharge with a range of tens of m. There was apparently some experimental evidence for it in those days. It was a reasonable claim, worthy of further investigation, not at all a crank thing. But in the end, it did not work out.

  13. Mitchell Porter says:

    Without a paper, a bootleg video, or any more secondhand reports of the talks, it is impossible to say what Weinstein’s theory is, so I will shut up about it after this. But I will record one final guess regarding how it works: maybe it’s a 64-dimensional spinor coupled to an SO(14) gauge field that divides a la “graviweak” into SO(10) and SO(3,1).

    Circumstantial evidence for this: The 64 has room for 2 generations, and in Jacob Aron’s New Scientist article “How to test…”, he says “the third generation belongs in a different framework in Weinstein’s theory”. And, Weinstein just tweeted about SO(10).

    Did anyone see Mersini-Houghton talk? :-)

  14. Terry says:

    This is from the daily galaxy article here: http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/06/the-next-einstein-radical-new-theory-answers-unsolved-mysteries-of-physics.html

    “Weinstein’s theory is also the first major challenge to the validity of Einstein’s Field Equations, revealing that “just as Newton’s equations were an approximation to nature so too are Einstein’s. ”

    I am going to put a sticky note on my white board about this being “the first major challenge” to Einstein… revealing that Einstein is just an approximation to nature. I am sure the next time I read about an extension of general relativity it will start out “this is the second major challenge…” right?

  15. Pingback: Hard Evidence for the Multiverse Found, but String Theory Limits the Space Brain Threat | Not Even Wrong

  16. MarcF says:

    From a distance it looks like yet another group theoretic approach to ToE ala E(8). While one has to admire that the path integral formalism has gotten us so far by basically parachuting terms in Lagrangians and seeing if it agrees with the experiments, the resulting narrow set of symmetries still beg an explanation. Symmetries don’t exist in a vacuum. Personally I find the solid state studies of utmost interest in pointing to ‘fundamentals of physics’. As a ‘gentleman physicist’ I relate to the Weinstein story. There is something about getting these ideas in the public domain and getting all of us to argue so violently about ‘what makes science’… I have enjoyed reading the thread…

  17. Mike says:

    Here’s a Tim Gowers comment on Weinstein’s second lecture:

    The status of Eric Weinstein’s theory of everything has become a bit clearer, because Weinstein gave a repeat of his talk, this time attended by physicists. It is discussed in the article below, of which two key paragraphs are these:

    “The trouble is that we should already have seen some of Weinstein’s new particles, if they exist, says physicist Joseph Conlon of the University of Oxford. Properties of some of the predicted particles mean that they should be linked to the strong force, one of the four fundamental forces and the one that binds protons and neutrons.

    “Experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland, have been smashing particles together at high enough energies to overcome the strong force, creating a spray of other more elusive particles, such as the Higgs boson. Weinstein’s new particles should therefore have been detected in the resulting particle shower.”

    So it looks as though Weinstein’s theory isn’t dead yet, but he clearly has some serious explaining to do.

  18. cormac says:

    Hi Peter, that is a really interesting addendum from Professor Mersini and Professor Holman. For those of us who find the mathematics of theoretical papers quite daunting, a summary of the work by the practitioners themselves is very helpful (as opposed to simplified pieces by science journalists). So blogs can be very useful!

    I also agree with the Mersini’s and Holman’s central point on media hype: it seems unfair to link their case with that of Weinstein. Controversial in the field or not, the recent work of Mersini and Holman is simply one aspect of long careers in the highly competitive field of theoretical cosmology. By contrast, Weinstein is an amateur scientist (in the strict sense of the word, not in a negative sense). I find it reasonable that the predictions of Mersini and Holman would attract attention from the media, as well as the community, given the public’s fascination with the multiverse. I don’t think this equates with an amateur being granted access to a highly sought-after platform, with consequent publicity.
    You may recall that I have some interest in media hype and amateur scientists. In Ireland, a great deal of publicity was given to an amateur scientist who had strong anti-relativity views. 15 years later, we’re still trying to clear up the confusion he caused

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Cormac,

    Yes, the Weinstein and Mersini-Houghton cases are not quite the same, but I think the issue of the amateur/professional and published/unpublished nature of their work isn’t what’s really important. In both cases, you have press stories promoting things which have very little support from experts, and this is something to be legitimately concerned about. In these two cases, I think one of the two is far more damaging: it simply is not true that the Planck satellite data gives “hard evidence” for the existence of a multiverse, and the press is being used to mislead the public on a central issue of what we have scientific evidence for and what we don’t. That two Guardian blog posts (evidently these didn’t appear in the newspaper) describe some theorist as having promising speculative ideas when they may not be that promising just isn’t a problem on the same scale. It remains remarkable to me how little anyone in the physics community seems to care about the public being misled about what data says about the origin of the universe, while getting so excited about the fact that a theorist without proper credentials was getting some media attention.

  20. Anonyrat says:

    The way I see it is – is there information available for me to learn more about Weinstein or Mersini-Houghton, and the answer is for Weinstein – No, and for Mersini-Houghton – Yes; and that is the problem.