# FQXI and Templeton News

The FQXI organization has just announced the details of $2.7 million dollars in grants that it will be handing out. The winners and their projects are described here. As usual, one of the main topics funded by FQXI is multiverse studies. There’s also another news story on the topic from them here, which examines the question: “Are we in danger of a fatal crash with another universe?” At the same time, FQXI announced an essay contest on the topic of “The Nature of Time”, first prize is$10,000.

FQXI is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organization whose goal is to bring science and religion together. The founder of the Foundation, Sir John Templeton, died last month at the age of 95, leaving his son in charge of the place. While the father seems to have been a rather Unitarian sort, the son Jack is the money behind the right-wing PAC Let Freedom Ring. Sir John’s death will provide Jack Templeton with a lot more money to spend. The Chronicle of Philanthropy has a story about this, which explains that the plan is to hire new vice-presidents, with the goal of coming up with new ideas of how to spend more money to support free enterprise and virtue. Not clear yet what this means for FQXI, or for some of the other physicist beneficiaries of Templeton largess over the years.

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### 45 Responses to FQXI and Templeton News

1. I sincerely wish the interest among cosmologists in multiverse story-telling were due to evil influence and money from quasi-religious lobby groups as you keep insinuating. But it isn’t. The Templeton foundation has no influence on the scientific decisions of FQXi.

2. H-I-G-G-S says:

Based on title alone, my favorite award is:

Peter Byrne, Oxford University Press, \$35,000, The Devil’s Pitchfork: Multiple Universes, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family.

In an ideal world Mr Bryne would soon announce that this was a Sokal-like hoax, but I fear we do not live in an ideal world.

3. Peter Woit says:

H-I-G-G-S,

Actually, it seems to me that’s one of the better grants. It’s not a grant supporting science, but rather the writing of what sounds like an interesting book about Hugh Everett.

Urs,

I don’t claim Templeton is giving money to scientists and telling them to work on the multiverse. When it decided to fund FQXI, it was backing two scientists (Aguirre and Tegmark) who are among those most interested in multiverse studies. I think this reflects the Templeton point of view on science.

FQXI says that its grants “target research unlikely to be otherwise funded by conventional sources.” Some of these grants, e.g. the one to Linde, are for what appears to be mainstream research conducted by a prominent scientist at a leading institution, research that one would normally expect to be funded by NSF/DOE. Does this mean that NSF/DOE peer review panels are refusing to fund multiverse research? If so, what does it mean for the field to have a very wealthy private group devoted to promoting religion come in and heavily fund this research, when the physics community as a whole doesn’t think it deserves support?

4. Professor R says:

Essay contest on the topic of “The Nature of Time”?

I like the sound of that, and the max length is 5000 words, good scope there. Less impressed with the judging method – on the form, you are invited to suggest 3 reviewers. Hmm.

P.S. The London THES used to have a competition like this, pity they stopped it

5. JC says:

If string theory ever lost a significant proportion (or all) of its NSF/DOE funding, what are the odds that they will resort to Templeton funding?

6. Elisha Feger says:

It’s fine to be suspicious of the source of funding for people’s work, but ultimately I think it’s better to have more money available to go around. Yes, it means more crap will get published. It also means more good work will get funded. If nothing else it takes some of the pressure (political, social, and otherwise) off of the NSF and other governmental actors to fund the latest fad when there are private foundations giving out money as well.

7. Coin says:

Actually, it seems to me [The Devil’s Pitchfork: Multiple Universes, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family.]’s one of the better grants. It’s not a grant supporting science, but rather the writing of what sounds like an interesting book about Hugh Everett.

…huh. Speaking as a long-time fan of a band called the Eels, whose frontman and only static member (“E”) I later found out was Hugh Everett’s son, I’m actually rather curious about that.

(A lot of the Eels songs make oblique reference to E’s troubled family life, which was something that left me suddenly curious for details once I found out who E’s father was. Actually looking on the website for the Devil’s Pitchfork guy I find he’s got kind of a short prototype version of his book up, wherein he notes Everett’s son, the Eels guy, actually wrote a memoir called “Things the Grandchildren should Know”… very interesting!)

8. Tony Smith says:

From glancing at the 2008 FQXi award list, I noticed a few institutions with more than one award winner:

UC Berkeley – 3
Oxford University – 2
Theiss Research – 2
Tufts University – 2

What might account for their success?

Tony Smith

9. Kea says:

I have at least heard of all but three of the awardees before. Many are well known and many of them know each other (I know this first hand). And Aguirre had the audacity to tell me that the judging was in no way biased!

10. Peter Woit says:

Tony,

The 3 from Berkeley probably just reflects the fact that Berkeley is a very large university..

11. Nigel Cook says:

‘I sincerely wish the interest among cosmologists in multiverse story-telling were due to evil influence and money from quasi-religious lobby groups as you keep insinuating. But it isn’t. The Templeton foundation has no influence on the scientific decisions of FQXi.’ – Urs.

Yes, I believe that – because it’s not the Templeton Foundation that’s to blame for scientific decisions in handing out the rewards, but the scientists they choose to make the decisions! Any ideas about who makes the decisions, Urs? Not the multiverse and string theory fanatics, I presume.

http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/category/2008/05/fqxi.html

‘I agreed to participate in the review panel of FQXi’s new round of grant competition.’ – Urs Schreiber

12. bob says:

Concering the two Oxford affiliates, Julian Barbour is completely self-funded and has always been. Since he lives close to Oxford the philosopy of physics group here provides him with an affiliation so he can get library access etc, but he never got a penny as far as I know. He more than anyone is someone who decided very early in his career that institutions aren’t going to make him do good science. It’s great to see him get funding. Myself I found `refuge’ in a computer science department, and this grant enables me to do foundations of physics stuff, and hire someone who otherwise would have a hard time getting a postdoc job given his field. While there is much activity here on many worlds/universes etc, neither Julian Barbour nor I have any interest in that stuff.

13. A.J. says:

Nigel,

Urs is about as far as one can get from being “a string theory & multiverse fanatic”. But don’t let that stop you from talking trash.

14. Esornep says:

PW said: “If so, what does it mean for the field to have a very wealthy private group devoted to promoting religion come in and heavily fund this research, when the physics community as a whole doesn’t think it deserves support?”

Since when does “NSF = physics community as a whole”?

If indeed Linde has trouble getting money from the NSF, something I find hard to believe, then this is an appalling piece of incompetence on the part of the NSF. And it if is true, then all the more we should thank Aguirre and Tegmark et al for getting hold of money for people who want to do interesting research.

15. Peter,

it seems to me that valid criticism of certain points — which might potentially lead to controversial but constructive discussion — is at risk of being diluted if accompanied with what comes across, if I may say that, as more or less random mud-slinging that linearizes a complex reality to what almost sounds like a Brownian conspiracy plot. In reality the issues — which are there — are much more mundane.

16. Peter Woit says:

Hi Urs,

I agree with you. I was initially about to delete the hostile comment from Nigel Cook (as I delete a lot of comments here…), but thought the link to your posting was valuable. So, then I thought about somehow extracting the link and posting it separately, or editing the comment, finally decided it was better to just let this one through. Anyway, all, I’ll be even more vigilant in deleting empty hostility from now on….

I’d certainly be curious to hear your thoughts on some of the more interesting questions the FQXI grant decisions raise. It’s obviously a difficult task to choose among unconventional research that the usual funding sources and many people would dismiss, trying to identify what deserves support. Much of the FQXI list is a reasonable take on this, and those like you who spent time working on this deserve thanks. If people want to discuss this aspect of FQXI, one place to do it would be Kea’s blog

where you can see what this looks like from the point of view of an unsuccessful applicant.

While I can see how these decisions probably went, the thing that I’m more curious about is the decision to fund research that I would have thought couldn’t possibly qualify as “unlikely to be supported by conventional funding sources”. Linde, Vilenkin and Bousso are among the most prominent people in their fields, working at major institutions, giving high-profile talks at conferences, appearing regularly in the press, etc. On the one hand anthropic multiverse proponents regularly claim that their view is increasingly the dominant, conventional one in the field, here we have FQXI saying this is unconventional research that can’t get funding elsewhere. Which is it???

One other decision about “unconventionality” that I found odd was that about Subir Sachdev’s proposal. He’s a Harvard professor, and as far as I can tell the topic of using AdS/CFT to do condensed matter physics is one of the hottest topics in string theory. A Harvard professor proposing to work on one of the most fashionable topics around is something it is hard to see as unconventional. Maybe this has something to do with the politics of condensed matter research funding, where I guess this might look unconventional, even if it is highly conventional from the string theory side.

17. Belizean says:

Confusion about Templeton funding conventional research by established researchers in venerable institutions might be eliminated by the considering the foundation’s apparent objective: to purchase legitimacy.

18. Hi All,

I think this discussion is valuable, because FQXi is continually working to improve how well it serves the scientific community, and because it struggles with these very same issues. There are a few comments it might be worth making from the ‘inside’ perspective.

1) This is hard. The questions you have been raising are tricky, and the grant panels don’t get the luxury of just complaining or applauding — they have to actually weigh all of these factors and make decisions. I would also say that the panelists are talented, careful, fair, and very open-minded people making decisions on the very criteria that are contained in the FQXi request for proposals. I think they have done a great job and am grateful for their somewhat painful decision making.

2) To those that complain loudly that their application was unsucessful, I would say: I’m sympathetic, but welcome to the club! Even top scientists *often* have proposals rejected. FQXi funded 33 grants (and many with reduced budgets) out of 190ish initial proposals. The NSF often funds 10-20% of theirs.

3) “Well-known” and “at a top institution” often means “well paid” but it does not always mean well-funded. In some cases, you’d be surprised. Also, in some cases grants going to “famous” people support postdoctoral positions and are in that way really supporting less-known researchers.

4) Specifically, in terms of the multiverse, I would say that these proposers simply out-competed many others. A great majority of the top people in this field applied, and they wrote good proposals. Number of well-written proposals arguing *against* the multiverse, or suggesting compelling alternative early-universe scenarios: small or negligible. I think the panel would have more than welcomed them.

5) Along these lines, while I’m very happy for FQXi to be funding what it did, to those that have more negative views, I would say: write better proposals! There are some great people from whom I would personally have liked to see proposals but didn’t. And there are others from whom I would have liked to see different (more unconventional or bold, perhaps) proposals. And there were lots of proposals that just did not make as compelling case as they could have.

6) More money would also help. Tell your rich friends. While the Templeton Foundation has generously funded FQXi’s first years of operation and *appear* to like what we are doing (they are in fact very hands-off), they have given no guarantee of future funding.

19. Peter Woit says:

Anthony,

Thanks for the comments on this. Good luck finding suitable funding for the future….

20. Esornep says:

My comments are directed to Anthony Aguirre.
[a] You’re doing a great job! Really. This thing really boosts morale, even for people like me who did not apply. Keep it up!
[b] Are the recipients of last year’s grants encouraged or required to report on the progress they have made? I am *not* thinking in terms of “accountability”, I’m just thinking that most of the projects looked really interesting and I just want to know what the recipients did, even if no spectacular progress was made. I realise that this would have to be handled diplomatically, but could you ask them to tell us what they now think is the state of the art in their respective fields? That would be useful and interesting.
[c] You say “There are some great people from whom I would personally have liked to see proposals but didn’t. ” Did you write to these people to encourage them to apply? Whatever their reasons for not applying, I’m sure that they would be deeply grateful for such a letter.

In that connection: PW points out that some leaders in the field have the habit of claiming that the multiverse view is the dominant one in some sense. The reality is somewhat more complex. Last year I submitted a multiverse paper to [famous journal] and the editor returned it saying that they felt it was too speculative. I subsequently published it in [equally famous journal]. I suspect that the truth is that the acceptabilty of papers on this subject is strongly dependent on the name of the author and/or his affiliation. Hence my references to morale-building.

21. Peter Woit says:

Esnorep,

It does seem that the legitimacy of multiverse research remains a contentious issue. Unfortunately, to me the morale of its proponents seems all too high…..

22. Daniel de França MTd2 says:

@Anthony Aguirre

“Number of well-written proposals arguing *against* the multiverse, or suggesting compelling alternative early-universe scenarios: small or negligible.”

So, next year, I foresee a great number of people applying against The Flooding and astrology.

23. V.T. says:

“Number of well-written proposals arguing *against* the multiverse, or suggesting compelling alternative early-universe scenarios: small or negligible.”

Maybe this deserves further qualification:

a) the “multiverse idea” may be quite correct and still problematic as a research topic at the moment: there is so very little known on which to base concrete scientific discussion on.

Similar problems exist for potentially scientific topics such as, for instance, extraterrestrial life: while it may well exist, at the present stage a scientific article on this topic is bound to be lacking a basis.

So one may not want to argue against the “multiverse idea” and still feel troubled by the amount of attention it is getting. Whereof one cannot speak (yet) thereof one must be silent, as the saying goes.

b) It seems one should clearly distinguish between, on the one hand, relatively concrete and valuable aspects of the “multiverse scenario” where concrete cosmological models are treated, which can be handled quantitatively in terms of equations to some extent and — on the other hand — general far-out non-quantitive speculations inspired by the “multiverse idea”. The main concern about research inspired by the “multiverse idea” that I have seen is that the latter aspect is tending to dominate the former.

24. Chris Austin says:

Hi Anthony Aguirre,

Perhaps I could make a comment about the 500 word limit on the initial proposal. Of course I appreciate that there has to be some reasonable limit on the length of such initial proposals. I sat down to try to write the most concise summary possible of what I wanted to do, and then counted the words, which unfortunately came to about 1500. I then tried to reduce this down to 500 while still presenting something coherent, and by the time I had finished, there was nothing left but parts of the first and the last paragraph, with most of the summary of the proposed work gone. So I was not really surprised when my initial proposal was rejected. Of the 500 words, approximately the last 250 were taken up by demonstrating that my proposal was topical, foundational, and unconventional.

Best regards,
Chris

25. Esornep:

a) Thanks for your kind words!

b) Yes, FQXi requires that the grantees send annual renewal applications (for multi-year grants) and final reports for all grants. We keep track of the publications associated with each grant as well. We don’t display all of this in public, but do take care that grantees are doing something like what they said they would, and that for funding to be continued after the first year, that they are actually making progress.

c) No, FQXi did not really reach out to individual researchers. I feel that the desires I mentioned are more my personal wishes as a researcher than something to be pushed with my FQXi hat on, where my main goal is to be evenhanded and not push any particular agenda.

VT and Daniel de Franca:

I agree that the people most likely to point out actual problems with the multiverse idea are those that take it seriously and actually work on it. Indeed, some of the strongest and most detailed criticisms of mulitverse ideas are in papers of mine, though I might reasonably be termed a ‘multiverse aficionado’

I also strongly agree that it is important to distinguish between various versions of the ‘multiverse’, since some (like different Hubble volumes) are completely innocuous and hard to avoid, whereas others (such as the ensemble of all possible conceivable universes) seem nearly impossible to test or even discuss with any rigor.

Chris:

Thanks for this — it is something we have been considering for future rounds: 500 is a real challenge for both proposers and reviewers.

26. Physics Professor says:

Does anyone know what the “giant void” is that is mentioned here?

“One of our predictions here, the existence of a giant void was confirmed by observations only 7 months later. ”

27. Peter Woit says:

Physics Professor,

That claim was covered in an edition here of “This Week’s Hype”

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=621

28. Physics Professor says:

Thanks Peter,

Now it all makes sense.

The giant void and multiverses were created to contain the FQXI funding and protect physicists from it.

29. Esornep says:

Anthony: sure, I have no doubt that you keep an eye on how the money is spent, but what I meant was that *I* [and others] would just like to know how the awardees are going. I’m not suggesting that they be forced to make this public, but perhaps they could be encouraged to do so? A lot of very interesting stuff there!

AA also says: “I also strongly agree that it is important to distinguish between various versions of the ‘multiverse’, since some (like different Hubble volumes) are completely innocuous and hard to avoid…..”

Exactly. I think that critics of the multiverse should begin by familiarizing themselves with the paper that started it all: Coleman and De Luccia 1980. I assume that PW and other critics would not regard Coleman as a pseudo-scientist, yet he and De Luccia explicitly consider the possibility that *our* Universe is the interior of a CDL bubble. Granted that we live in what is probably an eternally expanding universe, the onus is on the critics to show that CDL bubbles can’t form, or that if they do form they can never resemble our Universe, etc etc etc. Likewise *if* our universe is infinitely large: if you don’t like the consequences of that, write a paper showing that the idea is inconsistent with something. Too much of the anti-multiverse polemic takes the form, “Gee, that’s really weird, therefore it’s ridiculous to think about it!”; the critics don’t seem to realise that a multiverse *seems* to be an inevitable consequence of our current [observationally favored] theories. [It may not be, but showing that would be a diffcult technical exercise.]

In short: if you don’t like it, master Coleman and De Luccia and write a paper proving that they made some fatal mistake.

30. Peter Woit says:

Esnorep,

I don’t know of any way to use Coleman – De Luccia to make any testable predictions about anything. Do you? The problem is not a fatal technical mistake in their work

I’m a skeptic about the possibility of multiverse studies leading to anything testable in observational cosmology, but willing to admit that such a thing is not in principle inconceivable. I just don’t see any evidence of this going anywhere.

My main interest though is not in cosmology but in particle physics. It is there that the “string theory anthropic multiverse” is out-and-out pseudo-science, nothing but an attempt to find some way of refusing to admit the failure of the string theory unification program. Promoting this to young scientists and to the public is having disastrous effects on the subject and how it is perceived.

31. Richard says:

Several years ago there was a single panel cartoon in the newspaper called I Need Help that pointed to where we may look for evidence of a multiverse.The caption on top of the panel says “In a parallel universe, not far from out own …”. Within the panel, a woman has just removed clothes from a dryer, and she’s holding a pair of socks in front of her. She exclaims,

“For cryin’ out loud … extra socks again!”

As a bonus, this may also suggest a new law of physics: conservation of socks.

Hmmm, maybe I should quit working on topological dynamics tonight and head to the basement and start disassembling that dryer. I wonder if I could get a grant …

32. somebody says:

“I don’t know of any way to use Coleman – De Luccia to make any testable predictions about anything. Do you? The problem is not a fatal technical mistake in their work.”

If there is no mistake, why do you reject the consequences of it? If you agree that Coleman – De Luccia is a consequence of standard QFT and gravity, I don’t see how you can justify NOT pushing forward so we either understand the consequences of tunneling between universes or see a contradiction. Like (penrose)^T says, most of the criticism about this issue is knee-jerk, many examples of which you can see on this thread.

Besides, I don’t see why it is it manifestly impossible that there cannot be any signatures of tunneling. A tunneling bubble is a like an expanding cavity, and cavity-radiation can leave signatures on the CMB (for instance), depending on the ambience into which it expands. To see whether it is actually measurable or too small, is an actual computation and no amount of talk will settle it. This is just one example.

“I don’t know of any way to use Coleman – De Luccia to make any testable predictions about anything. Do you? The problem is not a fatal technical mistake in their work.”

Here is an example for non-testability which is actually even worse (not even direct CMB is not of much use here):

Hawking radiation (and for that matter most of black hole physics) does not make any testable predictions either. By your standard, a tremendous amount of intelligent extrapolation that we currently call theoretical physics will have to go out the window. I am not saying that this is not a reasonable view to hold, but I am saying that it is not very meaningful then to complain against this or that specific issue.

Testability is certainly important, but the way you are proposing it here sounds like a very short-sighted way to go about it. You give absolutely no value to what many people would call “understanding” or “insight”. I think most practicing theoretical physicists will be of the opinion that thinking about black holes, tunneling etc. has taught us the few things that we actually think we know about quantum gravity.

33. woit says:

Somebody,

You are completely ignoring what I wrote and arguing against a straw man. What you quoted was just a response to the suggestion that if one doesn’t like the multiverse hype, the only thing to do is to find an error in Coleman De Luccia. The problem that concerns me has nothing to do with the technical validity of that calculation.

I’m all in favor of speculative research devoted to trying to better understand physics at the deepest level, even when this research is still far from being able to make experimental predictions. That’s actually what I spend much of my time doing. What I’m not in favor of is pseudo-scientific research aimed not at getting a deeper understanding, but at avoiding admitting the failure of an enterprise that many people have a lot invested in.

34. Esornep says:

The point is that there are many *kinds* of multiverse research, ranging from concrete calculations and — yes — predictions [such as the kind of work Anthony Aguirre, and several others, have been doing] to much more way-out stuff. Likewise, some of it is closely related to string theory, while a large amount [such as anything connected with CDL bubble universes] has nothing whatever to do with string theory, except that string theorists hope that it might instantiate their Landscape. On the other side, critics range from whackos who think that *all* talk of multiverses is evil or laughable, right up to people who have concrete technical reasons for thinking [for example] that the string landscape does not exist. *It is important to be precise about where in these spectra one stands. *

PW says: “I just don’t see any evidence of this going anywhere.”
Well, I don’t see any evidence of geometric Langlands going anywhere of interest to physicists. In fact, nobody has explained what that stuff would be good for even if geometric Langlands turns out to be a “success”. So what? I hate most kinds of white wine. Do you care? Shall I set up a blog called “Not Even Vinegar”? Well, blogs are often nothing but a way to vent, but I think you hope to achieve more than that…..

Short version: the perception many people get [see Urs’ posts] is that you, PW, are dismissive of *all* multiverse research, think that it is the work of shadowy cult-like crypto-fascist organizations, etc. It now appears that we may have been mistaken about this, since you are “willing to admit that such a thing is not in principle inconceivable” but you really can’t blame us when you see a post like this one. Nor can you blame people for feeling offended.

35. Peter Woit says:

Esnorep,

I think it is highly misleading to claim that multiverse research has produced predictions. Finding some scenario (for which there is not the slightest evidence now) in which some small imprint of the universe before the big bang appears in the CMB is very different than coming up with a testable prediction based on invoking a multiverse. For one thing, the multiverse hypothesis can’t be falsified this way.

I’ve never made any comments about “shadowy cult-like crypto-fascist organizations”. I’ve made very specific claims that the Templeton foundation likes to fund multiverse pseudo-science because they’re explicitly in favor of blurring the boundaries of what is science and what isn’t. Scientists should be worried by this kind of thing.

If multiverse proponents find my comments offensive, too bad. I find what most of them are doing offensive pseudo-science. No, it’s not all the same. Some of it is science, although of an extremely speculative sort that has not led anywhere, and for which there are good arguments that it can’t. Much of it though is nothing but a bald-faced attempt to avoid admitting failure by trashing the scientific method.

Geometric Langlands may or may not lead to anything important in physics. But even if it doesn’t, it’s definitely important mathematics, and worth attention because of this.

36. gs says:

Dear somebody,
CDL obtained their results by boldly applying the semi-classical Euclidean path integral methods to the case of gravity. Do you know of any calculable settings (AdS/CFT, matrix theory?) in which the formation of CDL bubbles has been demonstrated?
Cheers

37. Terry Hughes says:

Practical application of the “multiverse” concept exist! Here’s one as summarized in Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinestro] which might be especially important since Warner Brothers has just greenlighted a new Green Lantern movie:

52 Multiverse

In the final issue of DC Comics’ 2006-07 year-long weekly series, 52 #52, it was revealed that a “Multiverse” system of 52 parallel universes, with each Earth being a different take on established DC Comics characters as featured in the mainstream continuity (designated as “New Earth”) had come into existence. The Multiverse acts as a storytelling device that allows writers to introduce alternate versions of fictional characters, hypothesize “what if?” scenarios, revisit popular Elseworlds stories and allow these characters to interact with the mainstream continuity.

The 2007-08 weekly series Countdown to Final Crisis (or simply Countdown) and its spin-offs would either directly show or insinuate the existence of alternate versions of Sinestro in the Multiverse. For example, Countdown #16 detailed that the Sinestro of Earth-51 has been murdered by the pro-active Batman of his world, in a crusade against its villains. Countdown spin-off series Countdown Presents: Lord Havok and the Extremists depicted a version of Sinestro in its 3rd issue (2008) from an alternate world referred to as “Green Sinestro”, depicted as a part of the villainous Monarch’s army. This version has his original green power ring, but is no less vicious than his mainstream continuity counterpart and the official designation of his world is unrevealed.

38. Coin says:

Hi Terry,

The problem with comic-book-based predictions is that predictions concerning superhero comics are as a rule not falsifiable, due to comic authors’ tendencies to retcon everything and anything the instant it would be convenient to some particular plot. As a result of this effect any statement you can formulate concerning comic characters or universes will, with probability approaching one as time goes to infinity, at some pair of points have been both true and false respectively, thus making it impossible to ever to satisfy the Popperian criteria

39. Terry Hughes says:

Coin,

Yes, yes, what you say makes good sense. On the other hand, what you say also seems to apply as well to string theorists as it does to comic book authors, which is probably your pretty subtle and witty point. In fact, I would argue that there seems to be more in the way of reality checks and falsifiable predictions in the DC multiverse theory than in, say, the Suskind Theory(ies) and other multiverse theories that have been subject to more extensive academic analysis. As a preliminary matter, let’s not forget that the DC Theory POSTDICTS all prior developments not just of Green Lantern but in the entire Justice League of America ouevre, which is surely as impressive as string theory postdicting gravity in the wrong dimensions. And the DC Theory actually predicts that there are EXACTLY 52 alternate universes and that the Sinestro in Universe 51 has a GREEN power ring (not yellow, as in our universe). Those are predictions one can get one’s hands on, at least in principle. I would have thought that it was as important to any good multiverse theory to predict an exact number of multiverses as it is for a good piano to have exactly 88 keys. But what the hell do I know?

40. Doug says:

Peter,

You wrote:

I’m all in favor of speculative research devoted to trying to better understand physics at the deepest level, even when this research is still far from being able to make experimental predictions. That’s actually what I spend much of my time doing. What I’m not in favor of is pseudo-scientific research aimed not at getting a deeper understanding, but at avoiding admitting the failure of an enterprise that many people have a lot invested in.

If I understand correctly, your foundational studies likely focus on “not just unification of physics, but unification with mathematics…”

I’ve been trying to understand if this should be interpreted as “unification [of physics] with mathematics…,” or “unification [of] mathematics…”

I would really appreciate any clarification of this you might feel inclined to offer, but in either case, do you think you could ever see yourself writing a FQXI proposal (or essay), based on your thinking along these lines?

41. Peter Woit says:

Doug,

Personally I believe that deep mathematical ideas and deep ideas about physics tend to come together, so, sure, there is some deeper unification of physics and mathematics out there that awaits our understanding. We’ll see.

At the moment I don’t have any particular need for grant funding so I’m not about to apply for any from FQXI or anywhere else. I don’t have an absolutist position that one shouldn’t take money from organizations whose goals one disagrees with, but I do think one should avoid this if one can. So, because of its Templeton funding, FQXI would not be the first place I would think of applying to for a grant.

42. Terry Hughes says:

This just in
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2008/08/15/sciwarpdrive115.xml]:

“Two physicists have boldly gone where no reputable scientists should go and devised a new scheme to travel faster than the speed of light. …. All this extraordinary feat requires, says the new study, is for scientists to harness a mysterious and poorly understood cosmic antigravity force, called dark energy. …. The new warp drive work also draws on “string theory”, which suggests the universe is made up of multiple dimensions. We are used to four dimensions – height, width, length and time but string theorists believe that there are a total of 10 dimensions and it is by changing the size of this 10th spatial dimension in front of the space ship that the Baylor researchers believe could alter the strength of the dark energy in such a manner to propel the ship faster than the speed of light. They conclude by recommending that it would be “prudent to research this area further.””

Talk about practical applications for string theory! Of course, there are the predictable nit pickers and naysayers standing in the way of such visionary thinking.

43. woit says:

Terry,

I was tempted to write a posting about this, including links to the press release that the authors had their university put out, and to the many places which now feature stories about how “string theory is used to make a warp drive”.

But sometimes I guess I should try and exercise restraint, and just ignore the stupider things that string theorists do and promote to the press…

44. Terry Hughes says:

Peter –

You are correct, in my opinion. Expressly criticizing the stupider string theorists’ self promotion efforts (like this warp drive nonsense) could easily turn counterproductive because it could easily open the critic to the charge that he is distracted and wasting time shooting down ideas that are not central to the development of string theory or the product of string theory’s stronger advocates. That’s why it’s better for the criticism to come in a stray comment than a post!

By the way, I also believe that deep mathematical ideas and deep ideas about physics tend to come together. That’s why I’m very skeptical that the physics of string theory could turn out to be essentially empty (which has not been definitively proven, but seems increasingly likely) but the mathematics derived from, characteristic of, and spun off by, string theory could turn out (or has turned out) to be as wonderful and profound as is now maintained in many quarters of the higher mathematical world (in my opinion, among many people who should know better). If there is some deeper unification of physics and mathematics out there that awaits our understanding, then I do not see how it is likely to unify trivial and/or incorrect physics with brilliant, profound mathematics. Sadly, mathematics lacks even the one weak check physics has on errant enthusiasms: a demand for predictions and falsifiable experimental results.

But what the hell do I know?