Farewell to Reality

Jim Baggott has written a very good new book called Farewell to Reality that will soon come out here in the US. It is already out in the UK, where it is stirring up some debate, and perhaps the US will soon see something similar.

In the preface, Baggott explains that he was motivated to write the book by the experience of watching this BBC program, which featured a combination of serious science with revelations about how we’re all part of a cosmic hologram, there’s an infinity of parallel worlds, and various other examples of what he refers to as “fairy-tale” physics. In the last decade or so there have been a large number of such mass media efforts promoting highly dubious ideas about fundamental physics, and Baggott decided that in his next book he’d try and do something to counter this. I think he’s succeeded admirably: the BBC and other such organizations should atone for their sins by sending copies of the book to their viewers.

The book is divided into roughly two halves, with the first half a well-executed overview of the current state of our theories about fundamental physics, from quantum theory through the standard model and cosmology. It ends with a description of the outstanding problems left unsolved by our best theories, and a good summary of the current situation:

Several centuries of enormously successful physical science have given us a version of reality unsurpassed in the entire history of intellectual endeavour. With a very few exceptions, it explains every observation we have ever made and every experiment we have ever devised.

But the few exceptions happen to be very big ones. And there’s enough puzzle and mystery and more than enough of a sense of work in progress for us to be confident that this is not yet the final answer.

I think that’s extremely exciting…

… but there is no flashing illuminated sign saying “this way to the answer to all the puzzles”. And there is no single observation, no one experimental result, that help to point the way. We are virtually clueless.

With this background he turns to a detailed examination of the speculative ideas that have not worked out, but have dominated the field for the past 30-40 years (SUSY, GUTS, Superstring/M-theory, the multiverse). This is difficult material to do justice to, but Baggott does a good job of giving an explanation of these ideas that includes some understanding of the problems with them. He ends the book with this advice to the reader:

Next time you pick up the latest best-selling popular science book, or tune into the latest science documentary on the radio or television, keep an open mind and try to maintain a healthy scepticism… What is the nature of the evidence in support of this theory? Does the theory make predictions of quantity or number, of matter of fact and existence? Do the theory’s predictions have the capability – even in principle – of being subject to observational or experimental test?

Come to your own conclusions.

The thorniest problems that come up in this sort of discussion are essentially ones about the philosophy of science. What counts as evidence for a scientific theory? At what point does pursuit of speculative ideas that are going nowhere stop being legitimate science? One quickly realizes that naive ideas about the scientific method don’t capture how good science really works. Baggott devotes the first chapter of the book to an overview of his take on what the scientific method really is. In the end, this may be the most important issue here: will books and TV programs promoting the views of a narrow part of the scientific community that doesn’t want to admit failure end up discrediting the scientific endeavour? Some are all too willing to exploit the subtleties of good science to find a way to defend the indefensible, with the multiverse mania pointing to the all too real dangerous endpoint this can lead to.

For some reviews from the UK of the book see here, here and here.

For a BBC Radio program featuring discussion between Baggott, Jon Butterworth and others, see here. Butterworth has written more today here.

Also today in the Guardian, there’s a debate between Baggott and Mike Duff. Duff characterizes the experimental situation of string theory as follows:

Definitive experimental tests will require that the theory also incorporate and improve upon the standard models of particle physics and cosmology. An impressive body of evidence in favour of this has accumulated, but it is still work in progress.

without giving an example of any sort of conceivable such experimental test. I think Duff is being highly misleading here, since the story of the last thirty years is not one of evidence for string theory unification accumulating, but the opposite: the more we learn about string theory, the less likely it seems that it can predict anything. One can argue that string theorists just need more time (Duff points to the idea of atoms arising back in 400BC, taking more than two millennia to come to fruition), but the problem with string theory is not that progress is slow but that it is negative.

On the question of TV programs like the one that motivated Baggott to write the book, even Duff won’t defend them, but blames the situation on journalists:

As for misrepresentation in the media, there will always be sensationalists and attention-seekers in any field, but in my (admittedly biased) opinion, the worst culprits are the journalists.

This is quite amusing coming from someone who (see here) had his university put out a press release claiming that he had made the first discovery of a way to test string theory. He advertises string theory as having found application in quantum information theory, a claim that I doubt is believed by any other string theorist or quantum information theorist. No, the worst culprits here are not journalists, whose mistake is often just that of taking seriously press releases from people like Mike Duff.

Duff invokes the same criticism made back in 2006 that “Sadly, many critics of string theory, having lost their case in the court of science, try to win it in the court of popular opinion.” He’s well aware though that string theorists are losing badly in the court of science (with US physics departments now hiring virtually no string theorists). String theory unification is an idea now discredited in the scientific community, but getting propped up by TV programs and prizes from Russian billionaires. I hope when Baggott’s book comes out in the US, we’ll see a more serious discussion of the issues that it raises.

Update: Duff is unhappy about Butterworth’s mild criticism of string theory, so has responded with a comment at the Guardian site that begins

Dear John

”The concern arises if everyone makes the same wild guess, and the experiments to confirm or deny it are out of reach”.

is more-or-less what people said when theorists predicted the Higgs boson in 1964.

According to Duff, I guess, back in 1964 the situation was just like that of string theory, with the field experiencing what people were calling an unhealthy domination by the likes of Peter Higgs and others working on the Higgs mechanism. That’s a very odd take on the history, given that the work of Higgs and others was virtually ignored at the time.

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84 Responses to Farewell to Reality

  1. Peter Woit says:

    RF,

    That quote is on page 150-1 of the British edition.

  2. nemo says:

    imho, I do think that prestige has many times played a role, e.g. in funding colliders, space exploration, supercomputers. And I think that it still plays a role, at least here in continental Europe, and elsewhere, e.g. in China and Japan. It seems so. But I am afraid that expanding on this sub – topic would quickly become off – topic. As for the main topic here, I agree fully that the way string theory has been sold to the general public for too many years has been detrimental to theoretical physics and therefore science at large. Also, I agree that the problem with string theory is hype, the insistence to sold it as the theory of everything and the only game in town. String theory itself seems to me a worthy sub – field of mathematics.

  3. cormac says:

    Jim: Many thanks for considered reply, and Peter too. Yes, I’m looking forward to reading your new book, I’m quite sure it will be just as good as your Higgs book, which I very much enjoyed. I also think your insistence on a clear distinction between what is well-established science and what is highly speculative is exactly right, I wish more science journalists would observe this.

    Re the Guardian piece,, I think it’s reasonable to comment on a newspaper article as a separate entity, since that is what was presented to the public. However, I did wonder about editing – it struck me that several of your points might have been truncated (or omitted) at editing stage. I hope not, I know how that can feel!

    In your book, I imagine you address the issue Peter raises in his response to my earlier comment , as it is an interesting problem: that the ‘it’s simply a matter of time’ defense to a lack of predicitve power is weak, because *any* speculative theory can always claim that connection to experiment will be forthcoming one day in the future. This is of course true, but there is a mirror problem, that this statement does not in itself mean that all speculative theories are doomed to failure! Therein lies the rub, I think.

    Add to this problem the historical point that in particle physics, the time gap between theory and experiment has tended to widen dramatically from the 1930s onwards, and one has a genuine conundrum….what if we have simply reached the stage where a successful theory really has got that complicated?

  4. lun says:

    This might be a great point to note the passing of, perhaps, the last theoretical physicist who can claim to have Revolutionized our view of reality, Ken Wilson.
    I am sure Peter can explain much better than I could why Wilson’s contributions to our understanding of the world, in depth and significance, rival any of his more media-savvy fellow Nobel prize winners.

    But one thing to say, in view of the current employment situation in physics, is this line from his obituary:
    ——————————–
    http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2013/06/physics-nobel-laureate-kenneth-wilson-dies

    In 1963 Wilson joined the Cornell physics department and was soon given tenure even though he had hardly published. As he later said in his Nobel autobiography, “my very strong desire to work in quantum field theory did not seem likely to lead to quick publications; but I had already found out that I seemed to be able to get jobs even if I didn’t publish anything so I did not worry about publish or perish.”
    —————————————–
    I wonder if he could repeat this feat today. Actually I don’t wonder, he would not be able to.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks lun,
    I never met Wilson, but of course know some of his work. I’ll try and find time soon to write something, but hopefully others who knew him are writing things that will appear soon. I had just this morning been thinking about the question of whether Higgs/1964 was work that would get one a job in the current sort of job market.

  6. Tmark48 says:

    @ nemo : The way String Theory has been sold to the public has damaged Theoretical Physics not science at large unless you want to identify theoretical physics with science ? People make fun of theoretical physicists not real scientists. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but people are interested in real science. As for those poor theoretical physicists, who cares ? They can’t seem to come up with one decent theory thats is confirmed by experiments. Some theoretical physicists even go as far as to put themselves on the same plane as the good old Einstein. Didn’t Einstein chase unified theories for a good part of his life ? Of course he did, but what those theoretical physicists conveniently forget is that Einstein before he started chasing speculative ideas had already revolutionized science by establishing special relativity, general relativity and some other things also. So we can certainly excuse the poor fellow in his later years.

  7. David Bailey says:

    I broadly agree with Imho’s original comment, and I feel that the problem is far wider than theoretical physics.

    For example, it would seem that the UK government is feeling the need to presurise universities to ensure their researchers are behaving responsibly.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/the-bad-science-scandal-how-factfabrication-is-damaging-uks-global-name-for-research-8660929.html

    Data fabrication, irreproducible results, and sheer hype are ruining science.

  8. Jim says:

    cormac The debate wasn’t edited in any way – what you saw was what we wrote. BUT we were constrained to a very tight word limit for each exchange. So, when Mike rather disingenuously tried to pin the blame for over-selling the promise of string theory on journalists, I found that I couldn’t respond to this and still provide a considered reply to his main points. The fact that you were unconvinced by my arguments is entirely attributable to my inability to put them in as succinct and yet powerful way that I felt was really needed. My loss.

    I think if you read the book you will – hopefully – see that I am very much in favour of imaginative and speculative ideas. Science is a very forgiving discipline in that it really doesn’t matter how a new theoretical approach is contrived – it will succeed so long as it represents a better theory. There are many examples from history.

    But I’ve been struck by the simple fact that many of the constructions of contemporary theoretical physics represent major steps in a backwards direction. For every attempt to fix a problem in the standard model, it seems we multiply the free parameter space five-fold. Theorists like Mike Duff declare supersymmetry, hidden dimensions and the multiverse to be ‘discoveries’ of the string theory enterprise, rather than assumptions. I may be rather old-fashioned, but when I was a scientist I had a fairly unequivocal understanding of the meaning of ‘evidence’. And this isn’t it.

    Let’s play a game. Let’s imagine that I contrive a theory based on the idea that elementary particles can be described theoretically in terms of strands or loops of ‘string’. I find that the resulting theory allows me to ‘predict’ all the things that the standard model of particle physics can predict. It has the added bonus of allowing me to construct a theory of quantum gravity. I know this isn’t enough necessarily to replace the standard model, because I haven’t yet shown how string theory transcends this. But, in our game, I find that this string theory predicts that the mass of the electro-weak Higgs boson should be something of the order of 120-130 GeV. I make this prediction in 2010. The ATLAS and CMS collaborations subsequently find that the Higgs boson does indeed possess this mass, and we celebrate with champagne.

    Of course, string theory doesn’t do this, which is why I regard this business of supersymmetry, hidden dimensions and multiverses as assumptions, rather than ‘discoveries’. When string theory can make legitimate predictions that can be tested, and when those tests are confirmed, only then can the assumptions be regarded to represent aspects of empirical reality, and so become genuine discoveries.

    It could still be argued that string theory will get to this, if only we are sufficiently patient. But I think you might be prepared to admit that the majority of the string theory community gave up on this quite some time ago. Some realized that careers could be built – and, now, highly valuable prizes can be won – by establishing coherence truths, like the ADS/CFT duality, and forgetting that scientific truth is all about establishing a correspondence between theoretical ideas and empirical facts.

    I find that I still need to tell you that I really don’t mind about this. So long as you stop calling is science.

  9. Mitchell Porter says:

    jim:

    “I regard this business of supersymmetry, hidden dimensions and multiverses as assumptions, rather than ‘discoveries’.”

    Michael Duff is not arguing that we have discovered these things to be true, he is arguing that we have discovered them to be implications of the string hypothesis.

  10. amused says:

    Professor Anon,

    ““when assessing job candidates, single-author PRL publications on a non-string topic by some young person count for flat zero when weighed against string theory publications by another young person in a lesser journal where he/she is joint author with a bunch of senior and illustrious people.”

    Do you have any evidence for this? Hiring meetings typically contain both non-string-theorists and string theorists. I can’t imagine any string theorists being that openly disrespectful of their colleagues.”

    I base it on postdoc job application outcomes. Will provide details if you insist, although I don’t think it would be of great interest for the readership here… The real explanation for this situation was simply that the string-dominated particle theory groups had/have a policy of “string theorists only” when hiring postdocs (and presumably also when supporting candidates for faculty positions). Probably there is nothing unusual about that and the situation is often the same in other areas of academic science… If they just admitted it openly, instead of pretending to be noble and altruistic, then I wouldn’t get so worked up…

  11. Jim says:

    Mitchell Porter Nice try, but I don’t buy it. This is a sloppy use of the word ‘discovery’, of which we are all guilty (including me). Given what’s at stake here, I think we need to be a little more careful in our choice of words.

    I respectfully suggest that you can’t ‘discover’ consequences or implications from the math. These implications may emerge from the equations and allow you to make some logical deductions. These implications can be used to construct another layer of theoretical structure. So, string theory implies hidden dimensions, and if we compactify these in a Calabi-Yau manifold we can build another layer. We haven’t ‘discovered’ anything – yet.

    If and when the implication or assumption of hidden dimensions leads to a firm prediction, and the prediction is upheld by reference to empirical facts (such as the unambiguous observation of KK particles at the LHC), then – and only then – can a consensus form that we have discovered hidden dimensions. Until then, hidden dimensions represent an assumption within a layer of the theoretical structure.

    Mike was also constrained to a tight word count, but the words he did choose left no room for doubting his interpretation: ‘Yours is a common fallacy… string theorists did not assume supersymmetry, extra dimensions, the dualities of M-theory or the myriad possible universes; they discovered them to be consequences of a theory that subsumes empirically well-established features such as general relativity, gauge field theory and chiral quarks and leptons.’ (Italics mine). In this kind of language, ‘discovery’ readily trips over into ‘evidence’ and, before you know it, we have created the popular misconception that this is all accepted science fact.

  12. piscator says:

    “Some realized that careers could be built……by establishing coherence truths, like the ADS/CFT duality, and forgetting that scientific truth is all about establishing a correspondence between theoretical ideas and empirical facts.”

    This is a total misunderstanding of what theoretical physics is. While I am not personally attracted to formal work, the discovery of the AdS/CFT correspondence is a deeply important result. Peter, who is no great fan of string theory, will not dispute this. The implication that people like Maldacena should not have careers – you can argue about prizes, but careers!!! – is just dumb and ignorant, to be frank.

    amused: I have some sympathy for the points you make, but have never understood why when it comes to hiring the editors of PRL (typically non-practising physicists who are not subject specialists) and its referees (who are just a couple of members of the community) should play some special privileged role.

  13. Jim says:

    piscator I wouldn’t wish to deny anyone a career, and I think if you look back you’ll find that this is not what I said. I’m very much in favour of academic freedom and speculative ideas. All I ask is that we don’t declare this to be accepted scientific fact.

  14. nemo says:

    Tmark48, a very short answer. Of course, I do not identify theoretical physics with science, but there is no physics without theoretical physics, or without mathematics, and think of other hard sciences and engineering without physics. So that is why I think that hype has damaged theoretical physics and therefore science at large.

  15. amused says:

    Piscator,

    “I have some sympathy for the points you make, but have never understood why when it comes to hiring the editors of PRL (typically non-practising physicists who are not subject specialists) and its referees (who are just a couple of members of the community) should play some special privileged role.”

    Well, the editors of Nature are also non-practicing scientists and they have enormous influence on hiring in the bio-sciences…

    How useful PRL is as a quality measure depends on how seriously the physics community is willing to take it. At the moment it does seem to be taken seriously by pretty much all of the community. String theorists profess not to, but I’ve seen firsthand how excited some of them get about sending a paper there when they think they have a shot. :-) The quality of judgments on individual papers can fluctuate of course, but I think on a larger scale the level is pretty good.

    As for its use in hiring decisions etc, I think it can play a useful role as a kind of minimum criterion. I’m sure that even some string theorists are sick of the phenomenon of the “brilliant young string theorist”, whose has been anointed as such by his illustrious advisor/mentor after being joint author on some papers with a bunch of more senior people. IMHO it would be a change for the better if such people first had to publish a few papers on their own in PRL before being anointed as `brilliant’ and sent to the front of the job queue. Just to show that they can. Shouldn’t take them more than a couple of months ;-)

    PRL publications are also useful as an indicator of the overall health of a field. If interesting and important developments are happening in the field, it will manifest as a regular flow of PRLs. Absence of such a flow will be seen by the rest of the community as a sign of ill health. And if there is no PRL flow, and at the same time practitioners are seen to be actively hyping their field to the public, it looks really, really bad! And even worse when, on the rare occasion the practitioners do manage to get a PRL, they issue an excited and over-hyped press release…

    FWIW I agree completely with what your wrote about the importance of ads/cft. On the other hand, I’m not sure about that 6-dimensional superconformal field theory that Nima is so excited about… If it’s really that interesting and important, he should go publish a paper on it in PRL! :-)

  16. cormac says:

    Jim: those are very interesting comments. I especially take your point on word count, my old enemy. Actually I didn’t find your comments in the Guardian unconvincing, it’s more that I found Mike *more* convincing, a relative as well as subjective judgement.

    Your conversation with Piscador and others is also very interesting because I think the relation between theoretical physics and physics is at the heart of the debate around sting theory, yet this rarely comes to the fore. Peter touched on this quite a bit in his book, I imagine there’s quite a lot on it in yours.

    As a very ordinary experimentalist who is the son of a well-known theoretician, I’ve long had a special interest in this debate. Sometimes I think theoretical physics occupies quite a unique position in science; because of its dual role in mathematics and physics (the former is often overlooked) it’s not quite clear whether it should be forced to conform with the strict positivism we tend to apply to other areas of science, i.e. should it always be shackled to experiment, or should some theoretical physics be allowed to roam free like mathematics. Perhaps the problem is when the latter is marketed as the former.

    For example, SUSY is often portrayed on this blog as an offshoot of string theory. In fact, it was originally a purely mathematical construct that showed one way of cirmcumventing the no-go theorems of gauge theory – to this day, I gather than one cannot construct a unified gauge theory that includes the strong force without SUSY. It may have been adopted by string theorists, but that has nothing to do with the theory itself. You might of course argue that all this has nothing to do with experiment, but the original SUSY theorists never claimed it did – that’s my point!

    As I understand it, the main motivation for SUSY nowadays comes not from string theory, but from cosmology, simply because it is very hard to see how the interactions were once unified without some sort of bose-fermion symmetry….
    Regards, Cormac

  17. MathematicianNotPhysicist says:

    Cormac, I don’t understand. Why is there a need for interactions to be (or ever to have been) unified?

  18. Peter Woit says:

    MathematiciannotPhysicist and cormac,

    I suppose Cormac is referring to No Go theorems that show that you can’t combine space-time and internal symmetries non-trivially, something that SUSY gives new options for. But this is getting way, way off topic, so please anyone who wants to discuss this with Cormac should contact him directly.

  19. piscator says:

    amused,

    I take the point that Nature (or more generally CNS of Cell-Nature-Science) plays an important role in bioscience careers – but I don’t see that as a good example to be copied. I think PRL plays a similar role in condensed matter, but I agree with you this is not the case in high energy.

    I have published in PRL (and on my own), but my best work is not there.

    The thing I really don’t get though about emphasising PRL publications is that the PRL format is well suited to short papers making a single point. Maybe this works naturally for experimental subjects where there is a single clear result, and what matters is the measurement. But in theory there is an argument to be developed and calculations to be done, and in most cases 4 pages is not adequate to describe this. Such papers – and I think this represents most good work in theoretical physics – should not go to PRL.

    My personal experience with papers within my conceptual radius of convergence is that what appears in PRL is disproportionately flashy, and more likely to be making big claims with a small chance of being right than making small claims with a large chance of being right (This is true of my own papers there as well). I don’t think there is any intrinsic sin in writing such papers, or that they are intrinsically better or worse than long calculation-heavy papers (which I also do), but to my mind this is the ‘PRL type’. So I see PRL more as a style of paper than an indicator of quality.

    PRL emphasises general interest, which again affects the type of paper likely to be accepted, without to my mind necessarily implying higher quality.

    I do think it is a good journal, and there is an approximate guarantee of quality, but I strongly feel it is suited to a particular type of paper that is not and should not be representative of most work in theoretical physics.

    I agree with the comments about the ‘hotshot young theorist’ issue although I don’t think is especially to do with string theory (in recent years I would say this is much more prominent in BSM pheno). Particle theory as a whole, and particularly I think in the United States, has a problem with genetic diversity and inbreeding – look at faculty hires over a substantial period and see how many of these can be traced back to a very small number of advisors at Harvard/IAS. Yes these people are smart, but the history of physics shows how often truly brilliant people completely miss or misunderstand important new ideas, and it is not good if everyone is brought up with the same toolkit and prejudices.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    All,

    I think the PRL issue, which had nothing much to do with the book being discussed here, has now been convincingly beaten to death. Enough about that.

  21. Paulibus says:

    Peter: your take, “Not Even Wrong”, on the activities of many of today’s theoretical physicists looks as if it’s been amplified by Jim Baggot’s book, which I plan to own soon.

    As I see it, there are many human activities which can’t be justified on the anthro’centric grounds that they actually sustain our species’ survival. But lots, like movie making, sport, art and literature can be justified on the grounds that they are harmless entertainments, mostly free of chicanery, which give spectators much pleasure. They strike a balance between benefit and cost which entertained paying folk happily tolerate . But now and then the balance tips too far towards the cost side for said folk to tolerate happily, and sports players, artists, writers etc. find that they are jobless. Tough: fashions change.

    I think that the theoretical physics enterprise is losing this balance, which in its case has long been sustained by human curiosity and the enormous proven utility of new physics in sustaining our species’ rise and rise. It looks to me as if theoretical physics, lacking new discoveries, is busy passing its sell-by date. Not that many tears need to be shed over this; its cause includes too great a proportion of hubris. Tough.

  22. Jim says:

    cormac I sense you’re coming round, and suspect you will enjoy the book when you’ve had a chance to study it a bit – please let me know.

    It was inevitable that some commentators (who haven’t read the book yet or have no intention of doing so) would interpret my position as denying all value in speculative theorizing. At risk of sounding rather pompous, I’d like to quote from my own book (p. 20):

    I want to be clear that the demand for testability in the sense that I’m using this term should not be interpreted as a demand for an immediate yes-no, right-wrong evaluation. Theories take time to develop properly, and may even be perceived to fail if subjected to tests before their concepts, limitations and rules of application are fully understood. Think of testability instead as more of a professional judgement than a simple one-time evaluation.

    The Testability Principle demands that scientific theories be actually or potentially capable of providing tests against empirical facts. Isn’t this rather loose? How can we tell if a novel theoretical structure has the potential for yielding predictions that can be tested? For sure, it would be a lot easier if this were all black and white. But I honestly don’t think it’s all that complicated. A theory which, despite considerable effort, shows absolutely no promise of progressing towards testability should not be regarded as a scientific theory. A theory that continually fails repeated tests is a failed theory.

    So, I hope this makes it clear that I have no wish to shackle theory to experiment. My point is that many (the majority?) in the string theory community gave up quite some time ago on the task of progressing the theory towards testability in preference to building ever-more elaborate and abstract structures and seeking coherence truths among these. It is at this point that these theorists cease doing science.

    As you know, SUSY is not so much a theory as a theoretical device – there are many different kinds of ways that supersymmetry can be employed. But it looks like the simpler of these (such as the MSSM) is failing the test – there’s no evidence of low-mass sparticles from the LHC. I suspect that efforts to salvage it (or ‘save the appearances’) are driven by the simple fact that SUSY is an important component in superstring theory.

  23. cormac says:

    Jim: Yes, it’s hard to disagree with that quote and it’s pretty much in tune with Peter’s view too. About my only caveat is the business of ‘progress towards testability’, or, more specifically lack of! This is very much Peter’s view too, but I’m not enough of a mathematician to know whether it makes sense. Do good theories always show such progress before they come good? Mightn’t they sometimes go dormant, or even backwards for years, before an series of unanticipated breakthroughs happen? For an example, I remember reading that the anti-atomists gained in strength when chemists suddenly started talking about molecules, instead of just atoms! No doubt it seemed a case of a speculative theory becoming ever more contrived, before all became clear years later…
    Re SUSY, my point is at least some of the effort in salvaging SUSY is *not* from ST, but from a general need of it for unification (by any means), as Peter points out above

  24. nemo says:

    Paulibus, let’s assume that we rename theoretical physics, or part of it, and call it mathematics. Would you stand by your claim ? Now travel back in time two, three or four centuries, and think about the mathematical tools being developed at that time, and contextualize them in relation to the communities at large, at that time, and the technical tools, i.e. engineering, being developed at that time. Would you still stand by your claim ?
    The damage that hype has done to theoretical physics and science is exemplified by your extraordinary statement that theoretical physics [ ... ] is busy passing its sell-by date. Does that apply to mathematics as well ?
    And another example is this one from The Guardian: Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider have found no evidence that the new particle discovered earlier this year is anything but the simplest – and most boring – variety of Higgs boson.
    As for survival: brutally, I ask you whether you suggest we should just pray or else enjoy our time while waiting to be hit by a large enough asteroid. Oh, yes, may be in that case we should just move underground and “survive” down there.

  25. Mitchell Porter says:

    Jim said

    “I suspect that efforts to salvage it (or ‘save the appearances’) are driven by the simple fact that SUSY is an important component in superstring theory.”

    From what I can see, the principal function of supersymmetry in model-building today is still “naturalness”. It is there to produce cancellations that eliminate the need for finetuning of parameters to enormous orders of magnitude. Even an approach like “split supersymmetry”, which may explicitly tolerate a tuning of the Higgs mass to one part in a thousand or a million, still relies on supersymmetry to explain the rest of the tuning.

  26. Mitchell Porter says:

    more precisely: relies on supersymmetry to explain why the tuning is just one part in a million rather than one part in 10^15.

  27. Paulibus says:

    Captain? N: You have an interesting reaction to my ‘extraordinary statement’, or claim, that theoretical physics is ‘busy passing its sell-by date’. Let me explain: things meant for human consumption (edible or intellectual) get rejected — pass this date — if in time they deviate too
    far from a cost-benefit balance acceptable to those that rule the purse. It is obvious to me from academic hiring practice, Peter’s and Lee Smolin’s books, this blog, and what has been said here about Jim Baggot’s book (which I look forward to reading) that the infusion of fairy-tale stuff into theoretical physics is busy tilting its balance towards cost, and away from evident benefits that both you and I acknowledge. Funding won’t go on for ever enlarging rafts of clever people who seem to ignore the essential flavour of physics – a Baconian balance between theory, prediction and verification by experiment and
    observation.

    Your last comment about big asteroids shows faith in a future way of evading the conservation of momentum. Perhaps there is indeed a need for fairytale physics, failing which: maybe just – Kismet!

  28. Jim says:

    cormac This had better be the last exchange, as we’ve gone on long enough and I don’t want to try Peter’s patience. I buy everything you say. The history of science is full of twists and turns and only a fool would pretend that ‘progress’ (however defined) is something that could be predicted.

    I do say repeatedly in the book that I’m not trying to stop the string theory community doing what they’re doing (I’m not that naïve). What irks me is that the assumptions on which the resulting structure is based (call them ‘predictions’ if you really must) have been sold to the wider public as accepted science. To take one example, in his own Instant Expert guide to the Theory of Everything (New Scientist 4 June 2011), Mike Duff is careful to talk about M-theory being a ‘leading candidate’ for a theory of everything, but I would argue that it’s real hard for anyone with a relatively general understanding of science to read this stuff – with sections on superstrings, supersymmetry, extra dimensions, M-theory, branes, the cosmic landscape and the multiverse, not to be tricked into thinking that this is all accepted, validated science. To be fair, there is a section ‘Answering the Critics’, in which Duff uses the same arguments that he used in his debate with me. Careful reading of this section should convey the impression that this is all speculative theorizing. But, of course, this section is a lot less interesting than the others.

    ‘Farewell to Reality’ is not necessarily about changing the status quo, it’s aims are to provide something of an antidote, sponsor some healthy skepticism and encourage debate.

  29. nemo says:

    Paulibus, then you are thinking about a really big one … in which case, yes, may be — Viva! And a glass of wine.

    No relation to Verne! We agree much more than what I had thought. I look forward too to reading Jim Baggott’s book.
    May be, people should just leave what is indeed more mathematics than theoretical physics compete for funding in mathematics? And call it mathematics? And leave what is indeed more metaphysics than physics compete for funding in philosophy? And call it philosophy? I think it is also a matter of science literacy, among the general public and … I wonder … among some scientists, it seems as if too many practitioners, reporters and readers are confusing or misrepresenting assumptions, predictions, (lack of) experimental evidence and how much human effort or ingenuity it often takes to seek reliable (lack of) evidence. As a great teacher of mine had once remarked, some experiments are truly epic! And he was a theorist! So I find it inspiring that Kenneth Wilson had found time to support science literacy and education in schools.

  30. Paulibus says:

    nemo: yes, I agree with you; it’s good to call a spade a spade, especially when it’s been a long time since nature sprung a fundamental physics amazement on us. I hope she’s trying, and physics folk are temporarily just looking the wrong way!

  31. Anonyrat says:

    I imagine the mathematician V.I. Arnold’s view would be a distinctly minority position:
    http://pauli.uni-muenster.de/~munsteg/arnold.html

    “Mathematics is a part of physics. Physics is an experimental science, a part of natural science. Mathematics is the part of physics where experiments are cheap. “

  32. nemo says:

    That’s a quirky view. Thank you. The whole essay is very interesting.

  33. steve newman says:

    Jim Baggott is not alone with his new book-Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth

    A day later, another book with exactly the same theme will be published-
    Bankrupting Physics: How Today’s Top Scientists are Gambling Away Their Credibility (Macsci) [Hardcover] by a german theoretical physicist- Alexander Unziker.

    It’s becoming common knowledge. The sceptics are getting a strong voice.
    Maybe a better day will be coming.

  34. Peter Woit says:

    Steve Newman,

    I haven’t seen the Unzicker book yet, will probably write about it here when I do. From what I have seen from him though, it looks like he’s likely to do a lot more to discredit criticism of string theory than discredit string theory.

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