Science, and a Bit of Religion

Some things I’ve run across in the last few days:

This month’s Scientific American is devoted to The Future of Physics, a special report made up of three excellent articles on the LHC machine, the standard model and its discontents, and plans for the ILC. The articles all avoid hyping string theory or other science fiction and instead stick to real, serious material about HEP. Congratulations to the people at SciAm, everyone should go out now and buy a copy of this month’s magazine to encourage them. Chad Orzel and other non-HEP physicists are peeved that the “Future of Physics” business is a misnomer, since it should have been titled the “Future of HEP Physics”. They’re right. Still, the articles are good, so they shouldn’t hold the headline business too much against the magazine.

The LHC still has no up-to-date schedule available, but looking at the latest news about the commissioning and comparing to old schedules, it seems to me that if all goes well from now on, the machine should be cooled down and ready to be checked out in late summer, with beam commissioning during the fall, and, maybe, a short physics run late in the year.

Witten and Kontsevich were awarded the Crafoord prize, for “for their important contributions to mathematics inspired by modern theoretical physics”. This is certainly well-deserved for both of them. One doesn’t know where to start in listing Witten’s contributions of this kind, and Kontsevich’s ideas about “homological mirror symmetry” have had dramatic impact on mathematics, leading to a whole new field of study. There’s an article about this at Science where Witten claims to be “totally startled” to be recognized for his achievements in mathematics. Not sure why a Fields medalist would get startled about this… Witten and Kontsevich get $125,000 each.

The first Eisenbud prize for a paper written during the last 6 years that brings together mathematics and physics was awarded to Ooguri, Strominger and Vafa for their 2004 paper Black Hole Attractors and the Topological String. They share $5000.

Last week there was a conference at the Fields Institute in Toronto on Mathematical Physics and Geometric Analysis, featuring series of talks by Victor Guillemin and Shlomo Sternberg, with lecture notes available online. Sternberg’s lectures give a careful discussion of some of the differences in conventions between physicists and mathematicians, the Higgs mechanism and Weinberg angle, various facts about spinors, and the models he worked out with Ne’eman that use superconnections to unify Higgs and fermions. In these models he gets a prediction of the Higgs mass, as twice the W-mass, about 160 Gev. Coincidentally, Tommaso Dorigo reports on the Higgs search at the Tevatron, which is getting close to being able to exclude the existence of a Higgs in a small energy range: around 160 GeV.

From Dave Bacon, an odd story about a recent arXiv withdrawal. I have no idea what this is really about.

The Templeton Foundation continues to spend a lot of money on a wide variety of projects, many having something to do with physics. At FQXI, the request for proposals to be funded in 2008 is now closed. Their community web-site includes several interesting articles on topics in theoretical physics. In “breaking news”, they report proudly that several of their members were in the recent NYT article on Boltzmann Brains.

Also funded by Templeton is the CTNS STARS (Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series) grant program, which recently announced $100,000 grants to five groups, one of which includes my Columbia colleagues Brian Greene and philosopher David Albert.

Yet another Templeton-funded endeavor is a new science and religion library at Cambridge University, where, at a cost of $2 million or so, the International Society for Science and Religion will choose 250 books for the library, coming out to about $8000 each. I haven’t yet heard from them, but will be happy to provide a copy of my book at a modest fraction of that price.

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16 Responses to Science, and a Bit of Religion

  1. Hi Peter,

    about science and religion, I would like to mention the recent querelle with the failed visit of Pope Ratzinger at the Rome University “La Sapienza”.

    In a nutshell, the pope had been invited to give a speech at the starting ceremony for the new academic year. A public letter of dissent by Marcello Cini, a senior professor of physics in Rome, had been followed by a private, shorter one where 67 other physicists – among which several big names – expressed to the rector their support of Cini’s dissent, arguing that Pope Ratzinger’s lectio magistralis would be a incongruous way to open the works of the University, a place of autonomous research, the more so given the opinions of Ratzinger on the process to Galilei, which he had expressed 17 years earlier, when still a cardinal. Ratzinger’s reactionary views however are known to most.

    The letter was made public two months afterwards. This created a wave of protest, with students manifesting against the visit, many other academics joining the petition of the 67 physicists, and the pope finally declining the invitation.

    The aftermath shows a real defeat for scientists, citizens, politics: on one side we have cardinals and clerics lamenting that the pope was prevented from speaking (as if he does not speak to a billion people every saturday), and accusing scientists of oscurantism. On the other side, we are assisting at the lynching of a few of the signers of the private letter. In particular one very bright scientist, Luciano Maiani, former director of CERN and INFN, recently nominated to head the CNR – a very important research institution in Italy – has to defend against accusations from catholic politicians who want to bar him from the nomination.

    I really feel for this crazy situation… And not accepting Maiani as head of CNR is a disaster. He is by far the best candidate for the job.

    (read more in my blog if you wish, including the interview to Maiani).


  2. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Tommaso,

    You’re right, I should have mentioned this story, since it’s about a rather more influential religious organization than Templeton. I encourage people to read about this over at Tommaso’s blog, and to discuss it there….

  3. Chris W. says:

    I assume you meant David Z. Albert, Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy at Columbia.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Chris W.,

    Oops, yes. Spelling fixed.

  5. Kris Krogh says:

    Dave Bacon’s story concerns a suspicious paper attacking Gravity Probe B, a NASA experiment measuring two effects predicted by general relativity. After many delays, their results for the Lense- Thirring effect (also called frame-dragging or gravitomagnetism) are scheduled to be announced around June. Various parties have claimed previous measurements, using other satellites, although each has been touched by dispute in some way.

    The author of the paper in question was given as:

    Gerhard Forst
    Behrenstr. 1
    10117 Berlin

    Finding no trace of this person or an organization called “FGP,” I wrote ArXiv questioning the paper’s authorship. (Copy of the message in the comments here.) My guess was that actual author was one of the Gravity Probe B competitors, whose work I’ve discussed here. The motive would be to undermine the GP-B result in case his previous measurements are not borne out.

    As Dave mentions, the comments added by ArXiv after withdrawing the paper seem to point the finger at someone else. They may know something I don’t. Certainly its a bizarre situation!

  6. Coin says:

    As far as the anti-Gravity Probe B paper by “Gerhard Forst” goes: Was the paper actually any good? I mean, did it make a solid point?

  7. Kris Krogh says:

    Hi Coin,

    I didn’t find anything of substance in the paper, but plenty of fabrication. There were references to some old papers, claiming those predicted the specific problems Gravity Probe B has been having. I looked those up, but there was nothing related to the actual problems experienced. The author also claimed no one except those those connected GP-B will be able to analyze the data for themselves. All data connected with the experiment are going into a public archive, so that’s nonsense.

  8. YBM says:

    The Bogdanov’s brothers just begin to promote Lubos Motl’s book “L’Équation Bogdanov” (“The Bogdanov Equation”) on low grade TV shows these days (very very low). Nothing much about the book itself besides that “It’s not written by us” and “It is written by a professord at ‘Harvard’ “…

    The book is supposed to be available in bookshop this week.

  9. Tom Whicker says:

    I just got a promo in the mail from Sci American. If I re-subscribe, I get a special bonus report called “Parallel Universes”. The ad copy says ” Is there a copy of you in another universe reading this sentence? The most popular cosmological model today suggests the answer is yes………Welcome to Parallel Universes which examines each of four possible configurations for such a multiverse”

  10. Alex Mikunov says:

    Peter, shouldn’t it be: Witten and Kontsevich get $125,000 each

  11. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks, quite a mixed bag there now at SciAm…


    Thanks, mistake corrected.

  12. Professor R says:

    hi Peter, excellent blog as always…
    One query – are you saying the FQXI foundation is funded by Templeton? I managed to miss this, despite throwing in an application…Cormac

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Professor R,

    Yes, FQXI is funded by Templeton. I believe that their hope is that this is just an initial grant, that they will find other sources of funding in the long term.

  14. Clark says:

    Regarding the title of the recent Scientific American articles, I find it refreshing that the “Future of Physics” is not String Theory. As a lay reader of popular physics, I’ve encountered many such announcements over the last 15-20 years, only to discover that the fabulous future was String Theory and all its strange, untestable components. Weary of all the string cheerleading, I expected more of the same. What a pleasant surprise to read the recent Scientific American articles.
    I can understand where non-HEP physicists would be upset, but there is a perception in the interested public that String Theory is the light that will lead us out of Plato’s Cave, largely due to mainstream publications using similar titling to promote it.
    What a shock for Joe Public Broadcasting to find out that the future may have a different angle.

  15. DB says:

    Refreshing also, that Chris Quigg has written the article on the Standard Model and its Discontents. Fermilab’s Quigg is a fine popularizer of the subject and someone who has been committed to outreach for a long as I can remember. He will also be familiar to physics professionals from his 1980s classic: Gauge Theories of the Strong, Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions, still in print, and I understand it is due to benefit from a completely new edition in 2008.

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