This Week’s Hype

This past week has seen a veritable bumper crop of media hype, involving claims coming from both string theorists and critics of string theory. Besides the overhyped claims and Lisi-mania that has made it into all sorts of media outlets, New Scientist has added a couple more examples:

  • The cover story of this week’s issue is The void: imprint of another universe?, which features claims by Laura Mersini-Houghton about a feature observed in the WMAP data that vindicates string theory. According to her:

    It is the unmistakable imprint of another universe beyond the edge of our own.

    and

    I think our evidence points to string theory being on the right track.

    She also claims that string theory does make a prediction about what the LHC will see: no supersymmetry. Since many other string theorists are claiming that string theory could be vindicated by seeing supersymmetry at the LHC, I guess this logically shows that string theory has already been shown to be correct by the LHC results, since it predicts both that supersymmetry and no supersymmetry will be seen, and this is a prediction guaranteed to come out right.

  • The same issue also contains an article entitled Has observing the universe hastened its end?, about this recent arXiv preprint of Lawrence Krauss and James Dent, where they, according to New Scientist

    …suggest that by making this observation in 1998 we may have caused the universe to revert to a state similar to early in its history, when it was more likely to end.

    The Drudge Report today links to an article Mankind ‘shortening the universe’s life’ in the British newspaper The Telegraph.

  • A lot of this nonsense seems to be originating in Britain. Tomorrow at Cambridge University there will be a series of talks on God or Multiverse? that one can attend for the bargain price of 65 pounds. The talks are advertised with a quote from philosopher Neil Manson

    The multiverse is the last resort for the desperate atheist.
    Note added 10/29/2014: Actually, that’s a misquotation and misrepresentation of what Manson wrote. For the true story, see here.

    Perhaps the members of the clergy assembled for this event can lead those attending in a fervent prayer that we soon be liberated from this plague of hype and nonsense, whether it be inspired by string theory or not…

    Update: The story mangling Krauss/Dent has made it to Slashdot. Seems to me that recent Slashdot stories on physics conclusively falsify one theory, that of the wisdom of crowds.

    Update: Krauss has changed the last two sentences of the paper to avoid misunderstandings about what he is claiming such as the ones that appeared in the media, see his comment here.

    Update: It appears that Krauss somehow got the notion that it would be a good idea to respond to Lubos’s posting about him in the comment section of the blog. He has now been banned there on the grounds that he is “unable to satisfy basic criteria of what I [Lubos] consider a rational debate.” Remarks from anyone supporting him have also been deleted, following the usual Lubosian practice of how to deal with dissent.

    Update: The Telegraph article has been extensively edited, with the current version more accurately reflecting what was actually in the Krauss/Dent paper. The misleading headline remains. I also hear that Krauss has written a letter to New Scientist about the problems with their article. This also got picked up by Wired Science, where I seem to have acquired an affiliation with MIT I wasn’t aware of.

    Update: Here’s an account of the “God or Multiverse” event, where prayers for deliverance from nonsense were not answered by the almighty:

    …given that multiverses are in favour in many physics departments these days, perhaps theology has something to contribute. Augustine and Nicolas of Cusa are just two theologians to have pondered the possibility way back, thinking it quite likely that the generous creativity of God would overflow into the formation of other universes…

    For theists, consciousness is ontologically prior to everything else. So in a sense the possibility of the multiverse makes perfect sense already. It would be every possible state of things that could exist, formed in the mind of God – who must be able to conceive of everything possible since that is implicit in the concept of divinity…

    …not all explanations of things are simpler than the things they are explaining (the multiverse as an explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of our universe being an obvious case in point…

    …In fact, maths looks rather like God – the former being necessary thinking, the latter necessary being…

    …However, if modern cosmology comes up with the multiverse as the fundamental, necessary proposition (at least in one version, it says that all possible worlds necessarily exist somewhere, we just happen to be in the one that we happen to be in), then Ward put it that the proposition of God as the fundamental necessity is actually a far simpler conjecture. In the theological case, all possible worlds would be said to exist in the mind of God, though quite possibly only a limited number of universes, and perhaps only one, actually exist. Occam would presumably have been much happier with that thought than heaped infinities of actually existing universes…

    God’s role in creation, then, is to allow only the universes that do exist, to exist….

    …This would be a purposive explanation of the universe. Purposive explanations require knowledge of things, discrimination between things, an appreciation of goodness, and the power to chose good over evil. So to put it all another way, the big question in the cosmology debate is that of evaluation: how do you evaluate one theory over another?…

    Update: John Baez explains what the Krauss/Dent paper is really about.

    Update: The Krauss/Dent paper has now been refereed and accepted for publication in PRL.

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    32 Responses to This Week’s Hype

    1. Bee says:

      this plague of hype and nonsense

      It’s just a matter of perspective. Think of it as science fiction. It’s interesting, in a certain way. I read a lot scifi as a kid, and I’ve always found other universes and big mysterious voids interesting. I can understand that people like to read that stuff. I just think that in many cases the speculative character of ideas is not sufficiently well explained. And then there’s of course the concern that under such circumstances it might eventually have an impact on science what people like to read about.

    2. Pingback: Mankind ’shortening the universe’s life’ Dent Krauss Fallacy « Old Atlantic Lighthouse

    3. Yatima says:

      I feared that Peter would not be able to resist the bait of the latest edition of New Scientist.

      The editors should move these speculative ideas to a different section than “Fundamentals”, something like “Really Wacky Stuff” pronto.

      Something must be going wrong when arbitrary civilian (i.e. me) is presented with the daunting prospect of having to make sense of a text like:

      “Our measurement of the light from supernovae in 1998, which provided evidence of dark energy, may have reset the false vacuum’s decay clock to zero” (thus hastening the day of vacuum decay)

      Only locally, one would hope. Additionally, reflect upon the fact that the blogosphere now observes the emergence of the idea that observing the universe may hasten its end. This might push the universe into a state in which this same idea is more likely to be true. We are doomed by a feedback loop created by a wrong interpretation of the verb “to observe”.

      I will spare you %&+*#! bad puns about the truth emerging from large holes in the universe.

    4. wb says:

      The Krauss/Dent claim is rather amazing. The 1998 observations were no different qualitatively than those made earlier. What is different is the human concepts that emerged. So what did reset the universe in their concept? seeing a supernova? did seeing reset the universe a thousand years ago? or physicists thinking about it? If the later, those not accepting the dark energy theory would have had thoughts that did not reset the universe. Why did one set of thoughts win out? Suppose dark energy is false, does the universe revert to its former state. The observations themselves interrupted the flow of a less than 1 Joule of energy… an that resets the universe?

      Tis takes more suspension of disbelief than listening to presidential candidates.

    5. alex says:

      “She also claims that string theory does make a prediction about what the LHC will see: no supersymmetry.”

      There is no such generic prediction. Her statement is obviously wrong. She is not a string theorist, nor a particle theorist so I would be suspicious of such claims.

    6. SnarkFest says:

      It’s a good thing this slop has a lot less potential impact on our lives than the demented shenanigans that have occurred in the world of quantitative finance (and the investment strategies it enables) over the past few years. NSF and DOE will be lucky to have a budget by the end of the decade (not to mention the rest of us).

    7. PMembrane says:

      Does this mean we’ll get to watch Krauss spear his hand with a pen-knife?

      Chaos is king! Magic is loose in the world!

    8. John Baez says:

      Bee wrote:

      Think of it as science fiction. It’s interesting, in a certain way. I read a lot scifi as a kid…

      I read a lot of sci fi as a kid too! Now that I’m grown up, I read a lot of SF. :-)

      Whatever you call it — science fiction, sci fi, speculative fiction or SF — I think it’s great stuff. By labelling it as fiction, we can let it inspire us without taking it too seriously. The problem comes when people try to pretend such stuff is real science, even when it’s not precise and doesn’t make any testable predictions. That’s what Peter Woit is quite rightly complaining about.

      Let science be science; let SF be SF.

    9. PMembrane says:

      The silly phrasing of the coda to the Krauss/Dent preprint aside, I am curious as I have never seen a concise explanation of what the decay of a metastable ST vacuum means in concrete terms.

      I’ve seen it stated that the ground state of the ST vacuum is flat 10-d Minkowski spacetime―does this mean that the compactified dimensions suddenly “unroll”, resulting in a supersymmetric 9-d universe?

    10. Bee says:

      Hi John: Yes, I totally agree with you. See the last two sentences of my first comment. Best, B.

    11. Arun says:

      IMO, particle physics is accelerating on its downwards trend: starting with the popularization of speculative, even if powerful, ideas in the public in the name of bringing science to the masses with now not-even-a-theory being heralded in blogs and publications like The Economist as the great new hope.

    12. Peter Shor says:

      I’m going to be agree with Bee, more or less.

      Is this any worse than news reports of the quantum eraser experiment which make it sound like quantum mechanics means that we can change the past (and which are also totally baffling, especially to people who actually understand quantum mechanics)? There is real science behind the quantum eraser experiment, and there seems to be very little actual science behind the ones you report on this week, but I suspect that this distinction is completely invisible to the public. How can you tell the difference between botched reporting of good science and botched reporting of bogus science? They both get the public excited about science, which is a good thing.

      Ideally, of course, the science writers would be clever enough to only report good science, and not botch their explanations of it. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

      I would like to believe that scientists who get themselves in the news with sci-fi stuff don’t advance their careers. This would give incentives to scientists to come up with this sci-fi stuff, which isn’t at all good for the field (as opposed to journalists coming up with the sci-fi stuff, which I can’t see as being very harmful). Any thoughts on this? And how can we give scientists incentives to explain their work to the public honestly without giving them incentives to come up with this sci-fi nonsense?

    13. How Can We Turn The Tide? says:

      I had great hope last year with the publication of Peter’s Not Even Wrong and Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics.

      Finally someone put the Bogdonavs in perspective.

      But their most recent actions, which helped fuel the media storm regarding Garret Lisi’s non-theory, left me disappointed.

      Garret mistitled a paper, spent hours preparing a pretty, but ultimately meaningless youtube video with a hot English female voice, which in fact does not unify gravity with the other forces, and succeeded in getting the non-physics video everywhere, along with Lee’s “fabulous” appraisal.

      The deeper I study the Lisi crisis, the darker it gets–there was a lot of pre-mediation on Lisi’s behalf, aided by willing consultants and hype-master accomplices. Read Lisi’s “gee whiz I’m a surfer and gee whiz I just figured out the universe and gee whiz it’s a young theory and gee whiz I don’t want to hype it and gee whiz it’s the media’s fault” posts at all the proper, pre-mediated points in the blogosphere–read his sycophantic posts throughout the forums, where he never quite answers anything, but only states that he is a poor hermit and surfer and snowboarder in Hawaii and Lake Tahoe. Does Woit think that this is any different from the Bogdonav Affair, other than that Lisi surfs and snowboards, which gives him a media advantage?

      To the degree this media event succeeds, it devalues all the humble, hardworking, and generally underemployed physics Ph.D.’s; and it further encourages the public to distrust science.

      I wish Garrett would have placed his physics first, which would mean first doing physics, I guess.

      It would be so easy for Peter & Lee to speak out and to have spoken out, instead of calling Garrett’s non-theory “fabulous.”

      It is time for Garrett to retract his paper from arxiv.org, retitle it with a more appropriate title, and resubmit it.

      It would also be great if he were to contact all the media outlets and convey to them the simple facts and truth–his theory makes no predictions and cannot be tested, and it is replete with fundamental errors and handwaving that are now well-documented throughout the blogosphere, whose time he wasted.

      If Lee and Peter ever meant anything by their books–if they are men of their words–the most important element in the advancement of science and all culture–they should call upon Lisi to set the record straight.

    14. Peter Shor says:

      To answer Pmembrane, I thought that Calabi-Yau manifolds were flat 10-d space-time (at least to the first-order approximation), so all these Calabi-Yau manifolds are ground states to a good approximation. This is probably what you heard stated. Higher order effects are what is believed to make one the true vacuum and the others false vacuums.

      As for how you go from one Calabi-Yau manifold to another, I don’t believe anybody understands this process in any degree of detail whatsoever. Please correct me if I don’t know what I’m talking about (which is quite likely).

    15. AP says:

      Maybe I am missing something here … New Scientist is a magazine that they sell for money right? Would I want them to make less money to satisfy some irrelevant scientists? Not if they are the source of my pay check, right? (Here I am defining irrelevant as being less news worthy than which starlet got arrested for drunk driving last night). I can hear the ‘but’ coming already … ‘but shouldn’t they make money without hurting science?’ One has to ask why? I don’t let other people bully me about how to legally make money and I don’t think New Scientist should let me, you or anybody bully them either.

      That being said, what about the scientists involved in this debacle? Well what can one say? It seems to be working out for them right? No offense Pete, but you’re one to talk. You use popularization for your own purposes too. But I’m sure you’ll say you do it the right way and they do it the wrong way. Funny how life seems to work out like that …

    16. Tim May says:

      I’m not sure I should be commenting here, lest the future of the universe be further shortened. (We now have confirmation that blogging is killing the universe, something many of us had already felt was happening.)

      Hey, I like science fiction as much as Bee, John Baez, etc., but what seems to be happening is the “tabloiding” of science, akin to “Entertainment Tonight!,” “The National Inquirer/Enquirer,” Paris Hilton, Brittny Spears, etc.

      I think a certain amount of speculation is healthy. I vividly recall reading everything I could back around 1968-70 on Wheeler’s ideas about black holes, wormholes, etc. (even before these became motifs in science fiction). I don’t think the speculation was too way out, and it didn’t cause much confusion….just a few bad SF movies.

      This tabloidization isn’t completely new. I remember “Science Digest” from the 1960s, a small magazine printed on pulpy-type paper, with lots of gee-whiz articles about time travel, flying cars, and our impending colonization of Mars. And “Science News” had its moments of silliness.

      Then the 1980s hit, with the publisher of “Penthouse” producing “Omni.” A glossy, glitzy magazine devoted to pop science, with lots of articles about living forever, uploading into computers, etc. Other mags, too. It eventually folded. (Along with a really excellent magazine called “High Technology,” which had great articles about things like disk drives work, how chips work, etc.).

      Even “Scientific American” moved away from its formerly staid, even formulaic, approach to articles in favor of shorter, more “with it” pieces. And cover stories designed to sell newstand copies. (I don’t have any issues handy, as I no longer buy paper magazines, but I recall several breathless covers not too far removed from what “New Scientist” uses frequently.)

      There’s still “Nature.” And “Science.”

      Oh well. Maybe someone will produce a paper saying that if _observing_ dark energy shortens the life of the universe, then _confusion_ and _errors_ about dark energy will REVERSE THESE EFFECTS!

      (BTW, I looked at the PDF of the K & D preprint. The citations didn’t seem to mention Nick Bostrom, who has written about Bayesian issues along the same lines. I don’t think he would phrase things in terms of “the observation of blah _causes_ the universe to end sooner,” but would express things in terms of what an observation means in terms of where in a thing’s lifetime (civilization, environment, universe) we likely are. I’m not sure I agree with Bostrom, but at least he phrases the “Neo”-Bayesian points in a non-causal way.)

      –Tim May

    17. Lawrence Krauss says:

      Hi.. I wanted to chime in with an apology of sorts regarding the confusion in the press regarding our work. Our paper was in fact about late-decaying false vacuum decay and its possible cosmological implications. Needless to say, the explosion of press interest, prompted by the final two sentences of the paper, misrepresented the work, which was not intended to imply causality, but rather to ask the question of whether by cosmological measurements we constrain the nature of the quantum state in which we find ourselves, inferring perhaps that we are not in the late-decaying tail. However, I do take responsibility in part for the flood, as I was undoubtedly glib in talking to the new scientist reporter who read the paper on the arxiv. I have learned that one must be extra careful in order not to cause such misrepresentations in the press, and I should know better. In any case, the last two sentences of the paper have been revised so that it should be clear to the press that causality will not be implied. mea culpa

    18. Peter Woit says:

      Pmembrane/Peter Shor,

      10d flat space appears to be a stable solution to string theory, consistent if any solution is. A Calabi-Yau is a 6d space with certain properties, can be highly curved. String theory is believed to have solutions in which 4 dimensions are flat (space-time), 6 are a Calabi-Yau.

      Saying that transitions between solutions are not understood in any detail is a huge understatement.

      However, this discussion of the basics of string theory really is off-topic, if you want to pursue it, perhaps the blog of a string theorist would be a place to try.

    19. Peter Woit says:

      How can we…

      I’ve not referred to Garrett’s work as “fabulous”, instead have tried on this blog to give an accurate description of it. Garrett, like any author, is entitled to a much more optimistic view of his own work than other people may hold. Taking this into account, I don’t think his behavior has been unreasonable at all.

    20. J.F. Moore says:

      I would like to be sympathetic to science stories being “mangled” as our host Peter puts it, or “misrepresented” as L Krauss does. I certainly see many examples of this in pop science literature. But I’m having a hard time understanding how a science reporter, when given this quote (presumably via phone or email interview):

      “The intriguing question is this,” Prof Krauss told the Telegraph. “If we attempt to apply quantum mechanics to the universe as a whole, and if our present state is unstable, then what sets the clock that governs decay? Once we determine our current state by observations, have we reset the clock? If so, as incredible as it may seem, our detection of dark energy may have reduced the life expectancy of our universe.”

      is misrepresenting the science or the scientist if the reporter then prints that in the article he writes. Were there strong qualifiers that were omitted? I also don’t think the pub crowd at Slashdot (which linked to the Telegraph article, not New Scientist) can be much blamed for taking such clear hints at causality and running with them.

      I do respect the mea culpa here, but I would think it would do more good (maybe with some exposition) as a letter to the editor in New Scientist and the Telegraph, precisely the places where people who are easily mislead might then read it.

    21. Lawrence Krauss says:

      I have written to the New Scientist…btw…

      and the quote was within the context of a wavefunction.. if our measurements constrain the wave function, and if the probability of decay depends upon the state we are in, then if we are averaging over probabilities the statement is true I believe.. what was glib was not being clearer on this than I was.

    22. Chris Oakley says:

      Lawrence,

      It may be too late. Even by suggesting, or causing others to think that you suggested, that making astronomical observations could cause the universe to end prematurely you may have forced the universe into a quantum state where this could possibly happen.

      Tim,

      Why is it that none of you guys seem to be able to spell Britney Spears’ name correctly? Peter and Lubos both have “Brittany” (see the Jan 22, 2006 NEW posting), which lends credence to my theory – admittedly on diminishing evidence – that Lubos is a fictitious adversary created by Peter to boost sales of his book.

    23. Nugae says:

      Every week New Scientist publishes a cover article that is either fallacious or nonsense. Don’t be narrow-minded: try reading them when they’re on some subject other than cosmology and you’ll see it’s true.

      [Occasionally there is an exception, when in Du Sautoy style, the article is so vacuous that one can’t even see whether it’s nonsense or not].

      A really forward-thinking university would organize a weekly New Scientist undergraduate seminar: a great interdisciplinary exercise for the enquiring mind. PhDs would be allowed in only if they had some residual ability to think outside their own field. A Britney test would be unfairly stringent, though: a Tolkien test might be easier.

    24. How Can We Turn The Tide? says:

      Peter,

      What it all comes down to is that the public is entitled to the Truth.

      I simply cannot comprehend how you can state in good conscience that Garrett’s behavior has not been unreasonable. Your slipperieness is beocming more and more apparent, undermining the value of this blog and your book.

      Garrett titled his paper “An exceptionally simple theory of everything,” which the paper is not. Indeed, authors are entitled to optimism in their work, but that does not grant them the right to publish and perpertuate lies, with the aid of well-funded accomplices.

      Smolin called the paper “fabulous,” and look at the hundreds of pages which have resulted:
      http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&safe=off&q=fabulous+smolin+lisi

      Lisi claims that his theory can be tested, but this is also a lie. His theory offers no concrete predictions.

      Lisi also went through an exorbitant amount of effort to make a youtube video with a hot women’s voice and market his surfer image.

      Again, all that we’re asking for is the simple truth:

      1) Woit and Smolin should acknowledge that the title of Lisi’s paper is hype, and that his theory makes no predictions.
      2) Lisi should withdraw his paper from arxiv.org, retitle and rework it to reflect it’s true nature, and resubmit.
      3) Woit/Smolin/Lisi should contact the dozens of major news outlets, and share the truth.

      http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,311952,00.html

      And please, let’s stop with the cutesy-irony, as Fox News reports, “For his part, Lisi self-mockingly calls his finding “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” in Laid-Back Surfer Dude May Be Next Einstein

      http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,311952,00.html

      What it all comes down to is that the public is entitled to the Truth.

      Anyone who disagrees with this can never contribute to science.

    25. piscator says:

      Dear Peter,

      This statement

      >Saying that transitions between solutions are not understood in >any detail is a huge understatement.

      is plain wrong. Certain transitions – e.g conifold transitions – are understood very cleanly, and there is a beautiful story involving the presence of new light degrees of freedom (wrapped branes) at the singularity. This is really nice physics, the solutions are protected by lots of supersymmetry, and everything is under control.

      This case represents a *great reason* to study string theory – the theory knows about topology change, and can describe it precisely and in a controlled fashion.

      piscator

    26. Peter Woit says:

      piscator,

      One can argue about how well this is understood in certain idealized models, but I think it is accurate to say that there is nothing remotely like a detailed understanding of such transitions in general, or most importantly, in the case relevant to physics, of transition between two string backgrounds complicated enough that one of them might have something to do with the real world.

    27. conifold says:

      Peter:”…the case relevant to physics, of transition between two string backgrounds complicated enough that one of them might have something to do with the real world.”

      Is the KKLT construction “complicated enough”? Recall that they compactify Type IIB on a CY which has a local structure of the Klebanov-Strassler deformed conifold.

    28. Peter Woit says:

      conifold,

      Sorry, I just don’t see how what is known about the conifold transition can be said to provide anything that can be called a “detailed understanding” of the transition from one realistic string background to another, including in the KKLT case.

    29. piscator says:

      Peter,

      obviously I agree that the less supersymmetry you have the less control you have.

      I very much hope that for backgrounds describing the real world, the theory of vacuum decay is not a question that is actually relevant to experimental physics :)

      piscator

    30. Bad says:

      “Lawrence, It may be too late. Even by suggesting, or causing others to think that you suggested, that making astronomical observations could cause the universe to end prematurely you may have forced the universe into a quantum state where this could possibly happen.”

      Now kids, that there is some real wit. Bravo. :)

    31. nicky nichols says:

      hang on! surely new scientist is not that bad, the article does state that there is at least another explanation.

      please do not criticise science journalists who have to assimilate a great deal of new information and understanding in a very short period of time. and besides, science articles are often written in a particular way, science magazines often exist for a particular reason beyond profit.

      i could mention several examples of new scientist articles which when were immediately considered to be false, however wrongly so…

    32. Professor R says:

      hi Peter,

      Re media hype discussed above:

      I’ve only started reading New Scientist again in the last few months and am astonished how their articles undermine recent work in physics by both over-hyping and misrepresenting it. Here in Ireland and the UK, NS articles are then rewritten in the press, with further misunderstandings added.

      I have huge concerns over this method of making science ‘interesting’. Is it any wonder the public lack confidence in science, when the latest speculative ideas are portrayed as the new science? It also makes balanced discussion of the papers quite difficult afterwards, which is a pity for the authors.

      For example, your own discusson of Lisi paper read as reasonably balanced and fair, but the NS article lacked any critical comment from speciailsts. In fact, it pretty much made out that E8 was a new discovery in group representation. When I checked the only book on group theory I have on my shelf (, ‘The Group Structure of Gauge Theories’ O’Raifeartaigh, CUP) I was surprised to find a comprehensive discussion of the use (and limitations) of E8 in gauge theory as far back as 1986 ).

      As for the NS article on Krauss’s paper, its clear from his comments that the article misrepresented the central thesis …I think I’ll stick with Physics World …. Cormac

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