Some new items mostly updating older ones:
- Natalie Wolchover has a very good article at Quanta, entitled A Fight for the Soul of Science, reporting on the recent Munich conference discussed here. David Gross sounds a little bit like John Horgan, emphasizing the problem of HEP physics getting too difficult, with an “End of Science” danger. I think he has the problem right:
“The issue in confronting the next step,” said Gross, “is not one of ideology but strategy: What is the most useful way of doing science?”
I hadn’t realized quite how radical Dawid is. He seems to have moved on from discussing theory “assessment” to theory “confirmation”. Even the most devoted string theorists like Gross may be unwilling to sign on to this, comfortable with the idea that string theory deserves a positive assessment, as a promising idea still worth working on, much less so with claims from Dawid that one can sensibly discuss string theory as a “confirmed” theory, one that belongs in our school textbooks.
There was much discussion evidently of Bayesian confirmation theory, and Gross was enthusiastic about this
Gross concurred, saying that, upon learning about Bayesian confirmation theory from Dawid’s book, he felt “somewhat like the Molière character who said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been talking prose all my life!’”
He may have become a bit less enthusiastic later when faced with Joe Polchinski’s Bayesian calculation showing a 94% probability confirming the multiverse.
Sabine Hossenfelder and Carlo Rovelli both explained well the danger of such claims of non-empirical Bayesian confirmation of one’s ideas:
The German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, in her talk, argued that progress in fundamental physics very often comes from abandoning cherished prejudices (such as, perhaps, the assumption that the forces of nature must be unified). Echoing this point, Rovelli said “Dawid’s idea of non-empirical confirmation [forms] an obstacle to this possibility of progress, because it bases our credence on our own previous credences.” It “takes away one of the tools — maybe the soul itself — of scientific thinking,” he continued, “which is ‘do not trust your own thinking.’”
- For more on the “non-empirical science” front, see Alan Lightman’s long piece in Harper’s on “Quantum Cosmologists” Sean Carroll, Alexander Vilenkin, James Hartle and Don Page. Lightman waxes poetic on the importance of “The need to ask the really big questions”, but unless I missed it, there’s nothing there about the need to provide any evidence for the answers that one comes up with. At least one of the four quantum cosmologists, Don Page, seems to see no particular distinction between theology and science.
- On the Mochizuki front, there’s this report in Nature about the Oxford conference. On the question of what went wrong with the later talks
But Conrad and many other participants say they found the later lectures indigestible. Kim counters that part of the difficulty lay in cultural differences: Japanese mathematicians have a more formal style of lecturing than do those in the West and they are not as used to being questioned by a testy audience, he says.
I don’t think the “Japanese culture” explanation of the problem holds water. Of the three problematic speakers, one (Mok) is not Japanese at all (from Hong Kong), and the other two certainly understand that explaining mathematics to someone is about more than reading a lecture to an audience. It’s not plausible that the reason they didn’t have satisfactory answers to questions from the audience is their Japanese cultural background. For the case of Mochizuki himself, he grew up here in New York, went to prep school, undergraduate and graduate school in the US. The question of why following him is so difficult is a fascinating one, but I don’t think the answer to it has anything to do with his choice to move to Japan.
A must-read detailed report on the situation is Brian Conrad’s, available here.
Update: For some other commentary on the Munich workshop and relevant issues, see Sabine Hossenfelder and my Columbia colleague Andrew Gelman (who I think, unlike anyone in the theoretical physics community, actually knows something about Bayesian methods).
Update: Fesenko has a comment at the Nature article, where he makes the claim: “There are no questions about the theory which are left unanswered.” I agree with my Columbia colleague David Hansen’s response to this, that this seems to be an absurd statement.
Update: There’s a very good report on the abc conjecture workshop from Kevin Hartnett at Quanta. His take on what happened agrees with others:
Kedlaya’s exposition of Frobenioids had provided the assembled mathematicians with their first real sense of how Mochizuki’s techniques might circle back to the original formulation of Szpiro’s conjecture. The next step was the essential one — to show how the reformulation in terms of Frobenioids made it possible to bring genuinely new and powerful techniques to bear on a potential proof. These techniques appear in Mochizuki’s four IUT theory papers, which were the subject of the last two days of the conference. The job of explaining those papers fell to Chung Pang Mok of Purdue University and Yuichiro Hoshi and Go Yamashita, both colleagues of Mochizuki’s at the Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences at Kyoto University. The three are among a small handful of people who have devoted intense effort to understanding Mochizuki’s IUT theory. By all accounts, their talks were impossible to follow.
There’s also a report now from Fesenko, available here. His take on this is that the problem wasn’t the talks, it was the audience:
Labor omnia vincit. Progress in understanding the talks correlated with preparation efforts for the workshop. There were participants who came unprepared but were active in asking questions, many of which were already answered in recommended surveys and some of which were rather puerile.
Unclear what the point of such remarks is, unless the goal is to make sure that many of the experts who attended the workshop won’t come to any more of them.
Update: The paragraph from Fesenko’s report on the workshop quoted about has been removed, replaced by
Без труда не выловишь и рыбку из пруда. Progress in understanding the talks correlated with preparation efforts for the workshop. Lack of reading of non-classical papers of the theory often correlated with the depth of asked questions.
Update: Nature covers the Munich conference as Feuding physicists turn to philosophy for help.
Update: The Fesenko report has been further edited, with the paragraph mentioned above now reading
Без труда не выловишь и рыбку из пруда. According to the feedback, progress in understanding the talks and quality of questions often correlated with preparation efforts for the workshop and reading of non-classical papers of the theory.
Update: Michael Harris’s take on the press coverage of the Oxford conference is here.
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