This and That

  • The Perimeter Institute’s public lecture series tonight will feature Neil Turok on The Astonishing Simplicity of Everything. I think Turok is one of the few theorists speaking to the general public who has got the story of the current situation right: the LHC and CMB results point to the Standard Model + simple model of cosmology, ruling out many of the complicated models that have enthralled theorists for decades. By all rights, this should change the behavior and attitudes of theorists, I hope talks like his will have an effect. In any case, it should be vastly better than the last one of these, devoted to a misleading sales job for a failed theory.
  • Nature magazine has a very good piece by Davide Castelvecchi on Shinichi Mochizuki and his impenetrable proof. It gives an accurate picture of the current situation: still virtually no experts have been able to understand Mochizuki’s claims well enough to evaluate whether he has a valid proof. One counter-example is Ivan Fesenko, who is organizing a December workshop that may clarify the situation.
  • The big news this week is the physics Nobel for the discovery of neutrino masses. I haven’t written about this partly because I’m pretty ignorant about the history of the experiments awarded the prize (or, more accurately should have gotten the prize, not just a single person from the experiment), and the web is full of well-written coverage of this. The issue of the theory of neutrino masses is a fascinating, but quite intricate one, and some day I hope to write a bit about it, but lack the time right now.
  • Tommaso Dorigo has a posting here about the great Italian theorist Guido Altarelli, who passed away last week.
  • At some point I came across a list of the top donors to US political campaigns and was a little bit surprised to see that Jim Simons was on it, at number 7. I also noticed that someone else at his hedge fund spends even more on politicians than Simons does: Robert Mercer, a computer science Ph.D., is at number 4 (better informed people have pointed out to me that these numbers only include some publicly reported categories of donations). The Washington Post has a profile on Mercer today, which explains that he’s one of the people we have to thank for Ted Cruz (Mercer is the top donor in the US to 2016 presidential campaigns, according to this).

    In terms of funding politicians and science, increasingly it’s the hedge fund guy’s world, we just live in it. I’m a big fan of much of what the Simons Foundation does, less so of Mercer’s science funding, which goes to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The people there seem to be interested in climate denialism, surviving nuclear attack, and getting ahold of your urine.

    Physicists and mathematicians don’t always have huge success in the hedge fund business. Robert Stock, a physics Ph.D from Carnegie-Mellon, seems to have gone from trying to blow up missiles with lasers to instead having more success blowing up a hedge fund, Spruce Alpha.

Update: According to today’s New York Times, for the 2016 presidential election cycle, Mercer is the number two donor in the US, at 11.3 million. Simons is way, way down the list at 550,000. Their list of donors is heavily dominated by the financial industry (64 individuals or families), with the next largest number from the oil and gas industry (17 individuals or families).

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28 Responses to This and That

  1. martibal says:

    Well, sentence like “We stand on the threshold of breakthroughs, both theoretical and experimental, which could change our picture of the world and the development of our society” doesn’it sound like pure propaganda ? It does not seem to me as the most honest attitude from a theorist. What in the present situation of physics allows to claim that we are close to a major breakthrough that will change the development of our society ? This permanent claim to the next-to-come major breakthrough is very much in the spirit of PI, but what is the benefit for physics at the end ? Why do physicist have to behave like teenagers so sure that what they are doing is the coolest thing ever ? I know this is how people like Arkani-Ahmed needs to behave, but it seems that mathematician are more modest. Remember years ago Connes about Riemann hypothesis saying that what he just explained was an epsilon in the good direction, but infinity minus epsilon is still infinity.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I’m sympathetic to your point, but I do think that Turok has somewhat more of an excuse for this sort of thing than most people. As director of Perimeter, he has to find funding for the place. Being a salesman making the best pitch he can is part of his job description…

  3. NeapTide says:

    On the Nobel this year… just from memory, without a refresh… the neutrino oscillation evident in atmospheric neutrinos was `glimpsed’ in a variety of experiments… old ones long forgotten under the Alps, in the IMB, and the original Kamiokande. Seems to me Kajita led the definitive analysis of this effect with the (then) new Super-Kamiokande, and proved it was a new neutrino oscillation beyond all reasonable doubt.

    Most of these experiments started as proton-decay detectors, and found nothing. I still remember them showing their low-energy events (in the early 1980’s) and saying they were `boring low energy neutrino physics’. Turns out there was a Nobel discovery in the `boring low energy neutrino physics’. A nice turn of serendipity.

    However, the atmospheric neutrino effect was also noted in Koshiba’s 2002 prize citation. If there is an oddity here, it is that Kajita’s work overlaps quite a bit with Koshiba’s.

    As for SNO, it really showed that the total solar neutrino flux, independent of neutrino flavor, agreed with the solar models of Bahcall. SNO is just a phenomenal experiment, a tour de force. On the other hand, it provided a verification that all the neutrino flux was really present, while the Ray Davis experiment, which measured just electron-flavored neutrinos, found a deficit. So you could say SNO really proved that the Davis deficit truly was oscillation of the nu_e’s into other nu_x’s.

    Qualitatively, though, the KAMLAND experiment did it a bit more convincingly. KAMLAND was a bit quicker and dirtier than the spectacular experimental care of SNO. But KAMLAND saw the neutrino oscillation independent of all sorts of solar uncertainties. Hardcore experimentalists like the control present in KAMLAND.

    You see where this is heading, I suppose…. MacDonald + (KAMLAND) might have made a bit more sense than MacDonald + Kajita. But Kajita really led the team that nailed atmospheric neutrino oscillations, which were not probe by KAMLAND, but have been verified subsequently by K2K, T2K, and MINOS, so Kajita is definitely deserving. It’s just that Koshiba kind of got rewarded for that already.

    Possibly KAMLAND will get worked into yet another prize. Possibly with Daya Bay and/or RENO, for theta_13.

    Also, there are several major experiments underway or planned in the neutrino world: KATRIN (neutrino mass), DUNE (CP violation in neutrino mixing), Majorana, CUORE, NEXO (double beta decay), Project 8 (clever neutrino mass advance in sensitivity), LSST (astrophysical neutrino mass measurement).

    And there is kind of a fault line between the LHC experimentalists and the neutrino experimentalists. The natural fault that results from questioning why continue the LHC if nothing seems to be there, and from the LHC the questioning of the more modest discovery potential of the neutrino program…. if you measure all the neutrino stuff, it implicitly points to BSM physics, but doesn’t help identify what that physics really is. Passing a threshold at the LHC does do that.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Surely no one who regularly reads this blog could possibly believe that I’m going to tolerate the usual tedious arguments about climate change. Please just stop.

  5. srp says:

    According to the linked article, Stock had long (several months) departed Spruce when the fund collapse occurred. It’s hard to see how the blowup of a strategy using short-term movements in ETFs could be retroactively pinned on him.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, the article says Stock left 4 months before the blow-up. It also says that he had been there ten years and designed the strategy they were using of taking money from ETFs by “by identifying daily-resetting, highly-levered ETFs experiencing volatility decay, and shorting them in bull and bear pairs,” and that this strategy blew up in August due to the usual sort of “fat tail”, a “seven-sigma” event that was not supposed to happen. They attribute the collapse to the strategy they were using, which seems to be the one designed by Stock, with the fault not theirs, but “unprecedented market events that led to similar strategies losing money”.

    In his defense he says that he doesn’t know how the strategy was implemented after he left. Maybe his successor changed things, maybe if he had stayed there he would have seen the seven-sigma tsunami coming and gotten out in time. And, maybe he’s just another one of many quants who designed a strategy that makes you money reliably for a while, until the day it wipes you out, after which you whine about “unprecedented market events”.

  7. Chris Oakley says:

    To the above I might add that although the financial markets generally had huge respect for people with mathematics or related Ph.D.s, I doubt that majority of the ones I knew made money overall (and personally, not wanting to involve myself in things over which I had no control, I kept clear of trading). One blew up a hedge fund c. 1998. Another one, a loner who combined the roles of quantitative analyst, programmer and trader, had, like Stock, a strategy that made small amounts of money slowly and then lost all of it and more quickly when market conditions no longer suited.

    And then of course there was the LTCM debacle. The so-called “smartest guys in the room” simply turned out to be the most reckless. The melt-down they caused was a nice little practise run for the one that occurred ten years later. Shame that no-one seemed to learn anything from it.

  8. Shantanu says:

    NeapTide, nice summary. Just to add that Kajita was the co-analysis coordinator
    of the atmospheric neutrinos and proton decay group at Super-K (the other co-chair
    was yours truly’s thesis supervisor ). But Kajita also did the similar analysis in Kamiokande and had given the talk at Neutrino 98. Also Koshiba’s nobel prize was for neutrino astrophysics.

    However, its still not clear to me as to what exactly we have learnt about BSM physics
    from neutrino data (and not just hints).

  9. martibal says:

    yes you are right, I do not know Turok but being Director of a prestigious private institute can justify a bit of propaganda for fundraising purposes 🙂

  10. Art Brown says:

    From the wallpaper behind Turok it looks like Perimeter favors the West Coast metric.

  11. Yatima says:

    NeapTide says: Also, there are several major experiments underway or planned in the neutrino world

    I didn’t know so many neutrino experiments where in the pipe. Excellent. Still, I suppose the first results will be in a decade or two? I still remember reading in a popular science magazine about Kamiokande II obtaining data from Supernova 1987A, back when Z80-based home computers were a thing.

  12. srp says:

    It is true that there are a number of sucker strategies that involve the risk equivalent of writing out-of-the-money options, allowing you to make “free money” for a while before being ruined by the occasional “fat tail” event. Whether physicists are more arrogant than finance/econ types or more prone to fool themselves that their strategies are foolproof would be an interesting empirical question.

  13. Bane says:

    Srp: I believe there’s a saying in finance: Losing money when everyone is losing money is seen as not good but understandable. Not making money when everyone else is making money will get you fired.

    In other words, it really doesn’t pay (literally) to concentrate too much on strategies which take measures to avoid extreme downsides, since doing so will pretty much have to reduce your “normal” profitability and that’s what the employer cares about.

  14. sm says:

    “I have never denied that the most profitable investment for a wealthy person in Russia is an investment in politics” – Boris Berezovsky.

    He learnt this from the Americans who ‘helped’ (themselves to) Russia in the early 1990s.

    I would add that that if you have been accused on Capitol Hill of tax avoidance to the tune of six billion dollars, Berezovsky’s observation is spot on.

  15. Jeff M says:

    The coverage of Mochizuki’s supposed proof of abc is really strange. First, everyone seems to compare him to Perelman, which is silly. Perelman (who proved the Thurston geometrization conjecture, a much bigger deal than just the Poincare conjecture) was working in a well known field, with a well known idea, which went back to Thurston. His student Hamilton had worked on it for a while, but got stuck, and couldn’t get unstuck. People in the area, which is pretty close to mine, always thought Hamilton’s approach was maybe the way to go, it was just that no one could get past some problems. Perelman did. I was at a conference not long after it was announced, and various big shots were reading his stuff and trying to work out if it was OK. Even then, the feeling was it probably was fine. Mochizuki, no one as far as I can tell, has a clue. Grothendieck wasn’t like that either, he made enormous strides, but people in the field knew quickly they were enormous strides. Maybe he’s right, or close, but he’s going about it very very weirdly. In math, people are usually very very good about sharing their work, and explaining it. Perelman’s papers were understandable, they just took some normal refereeing, more or less. Mochizuki no one knows anything, as far as I can tell. And it’s not like it’s not people who know what they’re talking about. Faltings? Really? On top of everything else that’s his thesis advisor. When de Branges claimed to have the Riemann hypothesis, I remember talking to Peter Sarnak, who told me in no uncertain terms it couldn’t be, other people had tried the same technique, and realized it couldn’t work. I have the same feeling about this – could be wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Jeff M,
    I think you’re right that this situation is not similar to the Perelman one, but I don’t think many people see it as similar, especially now that it has been three years, and experts still don’t understand the purported proof. What Perelman did was post basically an outline of a proof, far from something refereeable as a proof. But it was quite comprehensible to experts, who could then do the work to check details and write up a refereeable proof.

    Mochizuki’s papers purport to contain a refereeable proof, but it seems that almost no experts have been able to understand these papers and their argument well enough to judge whether they contain a valid proof. It’s a very unusual situation…

    By the way, Hamilton wasn’t Thurston’s student, he’s older, got his degree in the 60s.

  17. captain obvious says:

    Perelman’s paper had a key advance at the very beginning of the work that could be checked as a routine (for experts) calculus exercise, i.e., that differentiating his entropy functional along the Ricci flow gave a positive quantity, so it was increasing. And then he gave a quantity whose gradient was Ricci flow!! Incredible stuff that could be checked by direct calculations assignable to a graduate student. No big new terminology getting in the way, and immediate visible easily checked insights that clearly had the potential to do what he claimed.

    Wiles also had quick, if not immediate, spinoffs from the main argument such as neat lemmas in commutative algebras.

  18. Jeff M says:


    About Hamilton, thanks, I can’t remember why I thought he was a student of Thurston, maybe just confusing him with Anderson. And you’re right about what Perelman posted, but as captain obvious points out, Perelman’s outline was pretty easy to check, and from what I remember it was in fact pretty clear that what he said was right, and very very clever, and fit right in with a bunch of previous work. Filling in the details took some time, but everyone I was talking to was very confident from the get go it would work. Wiles was a bit more interesting, it was clear he was on to something, again he was working with well known ideas, plenty of people had a feeling about Fermat once Taniyama-Shimura hit. The hole in Wile’s proof took serious work to plug, but again the experts I talked to always thought it was doable.

  19. Bill Daniels says:

    Didn’t Terry Tao solve an Erdos posed problem recently? Didn’t see anything on this blog about it. But more interesting than Turok’s TED talk. A nice contrast to the ABC situation.

  20. RandomPaddy says:

    A proof means your agument has to convince another person. If you can’t do that then you haven’t proved anything. The theoreom is either right or wrong to begin with but your proof of it is an entirely seperate thing.

  21. Anon says:

    RandomPaddy, mathematical statements are not necessarily right or wrong to begin with. See, e.g., the Continuum Hypothesis, which is unprovable in our usual foundational systems for Set Theory. We can either assume its truth or its falsity as an axiom and get a consistent theory (assuming ZF set theory is consistent to begin with).

  22. Peter Woit says:

    All, please resist the temptation to use off-hand remarks in comments to start off-topic discussions. I promise to try and find time later today to come up with some new material. Anything to head off a discussion of the foundations of set theory….

  23. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I liked most of Turok’s lecture. He’s one of those rare critics whose style is so genteel and sweet he can make a body blow feel like a warm hug. I’ve worked with a couple people like that. They have the gift of making you feel unburdened when you give up on a stupid idea, rather than just stupid for having pursued it. He left me pretty cold when he started pitching his own highly speculative ideas without adequate disclaimers, though. I find it persuasive that the apparent simplicity of the universe on vastly different scales may be an important clue, and scale invariance of one form or another may be a fruitful avenue of investigation. I’m happy to be shown wrong, but if I understand his and Steinhardt’s work correctly, what largely distinguishes their cyclic universe models from inflation, as far as we can currently observe, is the lack of measurable B-modes in the CMB. Maybe inflation’s ability to give you any B-mode prediction you want disqualifies it as science, but the fact remains you can’t use the absence of a signal to distinguish between the two. I really hope gravity wave detectors advance as much as Turok predicts, but the jury still seems very much out on that one. It’s also not clear to me how “cyclic universe” models aren’t just multiverse models with a different topology. Lastly, the philosophical point he makes during the Q&A sounds perilously like positivism to me. “More of the same” beyond our cosmic horizon seems the most parsimonious hypothesis. Would some other possibility not simultaneously deviate from the Cosmological Principle and invoke a landscape of some sort? I know we can’t say either way with absolute certainty, but the actual evidence seems more supportive of mediocrity, and, with a few caveats, it’s a fair stance to have based on current knowledge, isn’t it?

    I’m not trying to debate these points, just offering my view that Turok’s gently devastating critique of stringy anthropism in its current guises, as valuable as it is, may not make up for enthusiastically popularizing ideas that perhaps themselves are open to serious philosophical question.

  24. not ed says:

    Another case of prizes going to those in least need of funding? “Exceptional Achievement in Research” etc

    Comment edited, I believe the included link was meant to send people here:

  25. Leonardo says:

    Go Yamashita was writing “a proof of abc conjecture after Mochizuki” which would supposedly clear up Shinichi’s work and put it on a more familiar ground to other mathematicians. Yamashita is known to this kind of stuff, as evidenced in some of his past papers, such as “a simple proof of convolution identities of Bernoulli numbers”, in which he took the work of T. Agoh and K. Dilcher, whose proof was complicated calculations in more than 10 pages, and simplified it to just one formula on a new kind of generating function. It was expected that Go’s work would severely lower the barrier for others to understand IUTeich (although I’m not sure he would actually cover all of it).

    However, there’s been no news on this front for a long time.

    Does anybody know if Yamashita is still working on this? Should we expect it to be ready on time for December’s workshop? I’m pretty confident this is the refreshing breath IUTeich needs.

  26. Thank you very much Peter, I am glad you liked the article!

    Jeff: I hope I made it abundantly clear in my profile of Mochizuki that his case is different than Perelman 🙂

    Leonardo: My understanding is that Yamashita has now finished writing up his notes in Japanese and that they are currently being translated into English.

  27. Leonardo says:

    Davide, those are great news. Are you aware of the scope of his notes? I hope they are a self-contained proof of the abc conjecture through IUTeich and not just a survey as was Fesenko’s. Of course, both are pretty helpful and welcome, but I’m of the opinion that a full double-check, independent, paper would be far more important.
    Well, let’s wait and see. The Oxford Workshop is just around the corner, many news should come from it.

  28. Curious Mayhem says:

    Here’s a nice summary of the Noble Prize for neutrino masses and mixing:

    The page has links to the key original papers.

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