Breakthrough Prize Ceremony

There’s a story in Variety this afternoon announcing that Seth MacFarlane will be the host this year for the ceremony in Silicon Valley announcing the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes. MacFarlane was the host of the 2013 Oscars. Other celebrities there to award prizes will include Kate Beckinsale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Diaz, Jon Hamm and Eddie Redmayne. The ceremony will be televised, not live, but November 15 at 6pm on the Discovery Channel.

The announcements that evening will include awards of up to 6 $3 million prizes in the life sciences. The physics prizes this year, funded by Yuri Milner, will include a $3 million prize and one or more $100,000 prizes for young researchers. The past practice of awarding $300,000 to semi-finalists for the $3 million seems to have been stopped, after Joe Polchinski collected a couple of these. Polchinski seems to be the odds-on favorite for the $3 million this year. Another possibility would be Strominger and Vafa, also semi-finalists last year. I suppose there’s an outside chance that the committee making the choice, which is dominated by string theorists, will decide that a non-string theorist is worth recognizing.

The Mathematics prize is funded by Milner and Mark Zuckerberg. The winners there are already known, see here.

The next day there is an announced symposium scheduled to be held at Stanford to honor the prize winners in the life sciences (see here). Last year there was a similar symposium in physics right after the ceremony, so one could guess that such things might be planned for physics and math as well.

Update: There will be separate math and physics symposia on Monday, and an evening lecture from the Physics winner. A little more detail here. The math symposium will be at Stanford, live-streamed to Berkeley, Stanford details and RSVP here.

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Yet More News

  • Charlie Munger, the billionaire business associate of Warren Buffett, has donated $65 million to the KITP at UCSB for the construction of a residence for visitors. For more on this, see a UCSB story, a New York Times article, and for some background, 90-year old Munger’s explanation that “I won’t need it where I’m going”.
  • On the other coast, today and tomorrow at Princeton there will be a workshop on string cosmology and inflation. They have a list of questions to be addressed, including

    Are there any plausible alternatives to string/M-theory as a fundamental theory of physics?

    Does string theory make any cosmological predictions? Does it exclude anything?

    As far as I can tell, there’s an odd consensus set of answers to these two questions among string theorists. No, string theory makes no predictions about cosmology, but also no, there are no alternatives.

  • For an interesting discussion of the problems raised by this sort of “no possible predictions, but no alternatives” situation, see this debate involving John Horgan, David Tong and Tara Shears. Horgan does a good job of pointing out the problem. Tong’s defense of string theory relies heavily on claiming that it is highly mathematically rigid, so mathematical consistency is what can give us faith in it. One problem with this is that the whole string theory landscape picture is an extremely ill-defined conjectural framework, the opposite of mathematically rigid. Yes, there are parts of string theory that seem to be mathematically consistent and lead to interesting results. The problem is that those have nothing to do with what is observed about fundamental physics.
  • Jim Gates has an article about Sticking with SUSY, despite no evidence from the LHC. He explains that the thing he finds most convincing about SUSY is the cancellation in divergent vacuum energies between fermions and bosons (or at least that’s how I interpret his comments). I’m actually somewhat in sympathy with this. One thing I’ve been writing about in my quantum mechanics notes is the beautiful parallelism between “bosonic” and “fermionic” quantization. A fundamental theory needs both, and likely has some super-algebra of symmetries acting on it. I just don’t though see a good argument for the realization of this general idea in terms of the standard kinds of extensions of the Poincaré algebra to a superalgebra. These don’t appear to tell us anything about physics we know about, and predict physics we don’t see.
  • I was hoping to have time last Sunday to see a discussion at the French Embassy between John Nash and Cedric Villani, part of their Festival Albertine. Unfortunately I ran out of time to do this, but luckily for you and me, video is available here.
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Various News

Various news about the usual topics:

  • Natalie Wolchover at Quanta magazine keeps coming up with great, in-depth stories about interesting new topics in physics that are getting no attention elsewhere. Her latest is about the universality of the Tracy-Widom distribution.
  • The LHC is cooling down, in preparation for a restart early next year. Nature has a good story about what is going on here. Latest status and plans are described here. The current plan is to start beam recommissioning next March, have 1 fb-1 by mid-June, in time to perhaps have some results to report at EPS-HEP2015 at the end of July. Another 10 fb-1 would be accumulated later on, before a heavy-ion run late in the year.

    In the long term, by 2023 there should be 300 fb-1 and many components of the machine and the experiments will start to become unusable due to radiation damage. Planning is going ahead for “Phase-II”, or the HL-LHC, with Bertolucci’s comment that “It is inconceivable under any reasonable scenario to stop the LHC program at that point”.

  • Nature has an editorial this week about What lessons can be learned from the presentation of the gravitational-waves story?, pointing to a planned discussion next week about Lessons in the communication of science from the BICEP2 story. I’ve already written extensively about this, but since the editorial refers to bloggers (and I know some people at Nature were unhappy with my blog entry about this, which was poorly worded), I’ll take another opportunity to do so.

    From the purely scientific point of view, this is a pretty straightforward situation. The BICEP2 people fooled themselves into thinking that they had something much more exciting (primordial gravitational waves + evidence for inflation) than what they really had (a good measurement of B-mode polarization at one frequency). They then wrote a paper with over-optimistic claims, which later blew up in their face. This is perfectly normal science.

    What’s not normal science is the behavior of a lot of theorists in response to the BICEP2 claims. The Stanford University Linde video and its 3 million downloads will live forever as an example of misguided PR for science. The comments from theorists about the significance of this for string theory that Nature quoted were an embarrassment for the field (why not just say that you could get any value of r out of string theory?), and even worse were the publicity campaigns from Linde, Guth and Carroll aiming to convince the public that this was evidence for the multiverse.

    What’s the lesson for science journalists? Take a hard look at the behavior of some prominent theorists in this story, and draw the obvious conclusions for your future coverage of developments in this field of science.

  • Just noticed that Sean Carroll is now trying to raise research funding online with a website devoted to attracting private funding. Will be interesting to see if that works, maybe it will become a model for how to fund this kind of research.
  • One of the few things I’d change about my book written ten years ago would be the discussion of the philosophy of science “demarcation problem”, that of deciding what is science and what isn’t. Only after writing the book did I learn about the distinction between a “progressive” and “degenerating” research program due to Lakatos, which is a very good way of addressing the question of how to evaluate string theory. I also missed a paper that came out a few years ago by Johannson and Matsubara on String theory and general methodology. At one point they write that the string theory landscape business shows that:

    String theory is a degenerative programme, according to Lakatos’ criterion.

    There’s a lot more in the paper, it’s a good example of what I’ve seen too little of, philosophers of science engaging with the real issues here.

  • For the latest on the string landscape, there was a conference last week on Fine-tuning, Anthropics and the String Landscape. See if you can find anything there like a plausible idea for how to get any testable physics, I couldn’t. Alan Guth’s introductory talk mainly explains why the measure problem means you can’t predict anything, but then ends with a claim that physicists take the multiverse seriously anyway, quoting Weinberg from 2005 about Martin Rees’s dog.
    Back in 2004-5, the expectation was that the string theory landscape could be used to predict whether SUSY breaking would take place at a high or low scale (see for instance here). That idea is long dead, and no other proposal for a prediction has replaced it. So, the string landscape is itself a degenerating research program. What do philosophers of science call it when a research program degenerates into something else, and that research program in turn degenerates. A (degenerating)2 research program?
  • The standard defence of string theory these days acknowledges that it can’t explain particle physics, but claims it has had great success in quantum gravity. Next spring the KITP will have a program on quantum gravity foundations. The description of the program has a lot to say about “deep connections between quantum information theory and gravity”, no mention of string theory. There seems to be a move away from string theory and a convergence between the KITP and the sort of alternative research favored by the Perimeter Institute.
  • Speaking next month on Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century at Perimeter will be Nima Arkani-Hamed, one of the organizers of the KITP program. Not clear what he’ll be arguing for then, but he did just give a talk at an Oxford workshop on New geometric structures in scattering amplitudes, with the title “The Amplituhedron, Scattering Amplitudes, and the Wavefunction of the Universe”. I’m curious to see how he gets the Wavefunction of the Universe, although I suppose one should keep in mind his comments here.
  • Not announced yet what the price of tickets to Arkani-Hamed will be. For a real rock star of physics though, I think you want Brian Cox, who is on tour in Australia. Premium tickets there are about $175 US.

: The latest on the Journal of K-theory situation, from algtop-l

Dear Colleagues,

The time has come to advise your librarians to cancel the subscription to the Journal of K-Theory. The precious money could be better spent elsewhere.

As you know the journal is going through a crisis. The most recent development is that the Bak family has written to Cambridge University Press informing them that they are under a contractual obligation to keep publishing the journal through the end of 2017, whether they like it or not. I haven’t seen the contract in question, not have I seen the letter from the Bak family to Cambridge University Press, hence I cannot comment on the legal merits of the case. The Baks evidently feel confident, Tony Bak has accepted at least one paper for the 2015 edition of the journal without clearing it with any of the other editors.

The Baks might be right, Cambridge University Press might have no choice but to continue publishing the journal. But the vast majority of the editors will be walking out and the scientific standards of the journal are bound to plummet. It would be a waste of money to continue subscribing.

Yours, Amnon

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Quick Links

  • This month’s Physics Today has a long article by Wojciech Zurek, Quantum Darwinism, classical reality, and the randomness of quantum jumps. I’m not sure if there’s anything new there, but it’s a very clear exposition of what seems to me the most penetrating point of view on the measurement problem in quantum mechanics, one that gets far too little attention in the press.

    I’d like to know what this makes me in terms of various ideologies of the interpretation of QM. Am I a quantum Darwinist, or maybe a Zurekian?

  • At another extreme, getting lots of media attention while not saying anything substantive, there’s the multiverse of the Many Worlds interpretation. The media campaign to promote this is still in high gear. Recent examples include Brian Cox: ‘Multiverse’ makes sense at BBC News, this week’s New Scientist, which has a bunch of things including Multiverse me: Should I care about my other selves?, and an upcoming program here in New York that tells us that:

    We may live in a multiverse in which every possibility happens and with each new possibility the universe branches off into another of many worlds.

    The New Scientist article has Don Page pointing out that this explains the problem of evil. God likes the idea of everything possible happening all the time so much he’d rather not be bothered to stop bad things from happening:

    “God has values,” he says. “He wants us to enjoy life, but he also wants to create an elegant universe.” To God the importance of elegance comes before that of suffering, which, Page infers, is why bad things happen. “God won’t collapse the wave function to cure people of cancer, or prevent earthquakes or whatever, because that would make the universe much more inelegant.”

    For Page, that is an intellectually satisfying solution to the problem of evil. And what’s more, many worlds may even take care of free will. Page doesn’t actually believe we have free will, because he feels we live in a reality in which God determines everything, so it is impossible for humans to act independently. But in the many-worlds interpretation every possible action is actually taken. “It doesn’t mean that it’s fixed that I do one particular course of action. In the multiverse, I’m doing all of them,” says Page.

  • On the math front, I just noticed that Pieter Belmans has a blog. One of the many nice things there is his “atlas” for Spec Z[x].
  • Over at Persiflage, anyone interested in how NSF grant applications in mathematics are evaluated can find an extensive and well-informed discussion.
  • Videos from last week’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum (which features Fields Medalists and others) are available here.
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Thirtieth Anniversary of the First Superstring Revolution

Today’s about the date that I’d pick for the 30th anniversary of the First Superstring Revolution. Witten’s paper Some Properties of O(32) Superstrings arrived at the journal Physics Letters on September 28,1984, so presumably was finished and sent out around September 25.

The effect of this paper on the field was a bombshell. Witten was at the time far and away the most influential person in the field, regularly producing staggeringly original work that was having a huge impact. The arrival that fall of a preprint from him announcing that he had stopped work on everything else, and now had what looked like a viable, consistent unified theory of everything, one that he claimed was determined by a single parameter and made predictions (“It predicts axions and stable Nielsen-Olesen vortex lines”) was the true First Superstring Revolution.

I wrote about this in some detail ten years ago, for the 20th anniversary, so won’t repeat what is here and here, supplemented by comments from Larry Yaffe. For something more recent along the same lines, see here.

Ten years ago the 20th anniversary of the First Superstring Revolution was celebrated with a symposium at Aspen, but as far as I know, no one has organized a 30th anniversary celebration. There are now many, many known ways of trying to get unification out of strings, with the original 1984 hope that anomaly cancellation gave a more or less unique possibility long gone. As for unification itself, thirty years later Witten remains a true believer in the vision that came to him in September 1984 (see here and here), although he now seems to see little hope for vindication during his lifetime.

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Horgan Interview With Witten

Back in 1996 John Horgan’s The End of Science appeared, which included material from a fascinating 1991 interview of Edward Witten. I had mixed feelings when reading this. On the one hand, Horgan was doing something truly remarkable, challenging Witten in a way that no one else dared. This was 7 years after the “First Superstring Revolution”, and it was starting to become clear that string theory was not working out as hoped. No journalist other than Horgan though was talking about this, or willing to confront someone of Witten’s stature with difficult questions. Pretty much every other story in the press stuck to the simple narrative that Witten was a genius, and superstring theory a great success. On the other hand, Horgan did use his author’s freedom to edit and frame the interview to make Witten look bad (today he admits the Witten profile was “pretty snarky”), so he was landing some low blows, against a rather gracious opponent.

This year Witten won the Kyoto Prize, and I was shocked to hear that Horgan was the person chosen to interview him. Witten rarely gives interviews and I would have thought that Horgan would be the last person in the world he’d agree to an interview with, given his past experience. The interview is now available here.

This time around Horgan avoids the snark, and asks some straightforward questions about whether Witten’s views have changed since 1991, and what he now thinks about string theory, the multiverse, anthropics, etc. I have to admit that I find Witten’s answers depressing, in contrast to Witten’s advisor David Gross’s current take on these issues (discussed here). About anthropics, Witten’s “I don’t like it, but may be the way to go” contrasts with Gross’s “cop-out”, and his insistence on string theory as the way forward contrasts to Gross’s emphasis on the fertility of quantum field theory.

Back in 1996, after the appearance of Horgan’s book, Gross and Witten wrote in to the Wall Street Journal (reproduced here) to argue that Horgan was wrong, since string theory would be tested by finding SUSY at the Tevatron, or, failing that, definitely at the LHC. We all know how well that has worked out, and Gross seems to have learned a lesson from this. Witten on the other hand has moved on to even more dubious testability claims (e.g. that the string theory landscape can be tested by “seeing a signature of a prior phase transition in the CMB”). From the 1996 claim that vindication would come “in the next decade”, he now is talking about “200 years from now”. His one point of close agreement with Gross is that both agree that not knowing what string theory is when time-dependent effects are large is a big problem, one that has seen no progress.

By a couple years from now, the idea of making progress in our lifetime by seeing SUSY at the LHC, then going on to use this to learn about string theory should be finally finished off. Already Gross seems to have evolved from the 1991 point of view to a more promising one, perhaps Witten at some point will start to do the same.

: The AMS has something similar, a Mathematical Moment with Witten. Pretty much everything said about string theory is exactly the same as thirty years ago, only change is that the story used to be that string theory would get some vindication at the LHC, now it’s:

The verification of superstring theory is probably a long way off, but could be found here on Earth, using particle accelerators (possibly much more powerful than those of today)

consistent with the “200 years” estimate from the Horgan interview.

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Planck: It’s Just Dust

The Planck paper with results on dust in the BICEP2 patch of sky is now out, see here. I’m sure experts will weigh in soon and I’ll link to such discussions, but my non-expert take is that Planck is saying that what BICEP2 saw is likely just dust. See section 6 of the paper, especially figure 9 which appears to show that BICEP2’s claimed value of r=.2 is just what you’d expect from dust.

: More details from Natalie Wolchover and Sean Carroll.

Looks like Scientific American will have to pulp this month’s magazine, with its Lawrence Krauss cover story about how BICEP2 is experimental evidence for quantum gravity and the multiverse.

Update: For more press coverage, see Nature, New Scientist, BBC News, The Guardian, the Washington Post, the Daily Mail and the New York Times.

The best explanation for all this that I’ve seen of course is from a blogger, Sesh Nadathur at Blank on the Map.

Update: Jester has a sensible take on this fiasco here. It now seems that release of the full Planck polarization results has been pushed back from October to “late November”, just before the early December conference planned long ago to discuss the results. The joint analysis of BICEP2/Planck data that will show if there’s any evidence of something besides dust is supposed to be released at the same time.

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Quantum Field Theory: Past, Present and Future

Video is now available of David Gross’s colloquium this past week at NYU, which had the title Quantum Field Theory: Past, Present and Future. It’s quite interesting to compare his current point of view to that of ten years ago. The earliest substantive post on this blog was this one, which reported on a similar sort of talk by Gross, of similar length, also here in New York.

If you look at that blog post, you’ll see that I found myself in strong disagreement with many of the main arguments Gross was making back in 2004. Remarkably, ten years later, there’s relatively little I would disagree with in his NYU talk on much the same topic. Back in 2004 he was predicting the imminent discovery of supersymmetry at the LHC, in the current talk supersymmetry was not mentioned at all. I think the negative LHC results have had a very real effect on his thinking.

His 2004 point of view on string theory was that it was a better, more fundamental replacement for QFT. His arguments for this weren’t very good then (see the old blog posting), and he seems to now have wisely abandoned them. Instead, the first hour of his talk was all about the story of our increasing understanding of the power of QFT. From there, he argued that there’s some larger framework that we don’t understand, which includes our current understanding of QFT, as well as things like quantum states that look like strings. He likes to refer to this conjectural new framework as QFT/string theory. Interestingly, there was no reference at all to “M-theory”.

Gross’s current vision of the future comes down to something close to mine: some yet undiscovered new ideas will tell us something new about the QFT framework, and this will show us how to make progress on quantum gravity and unification. I’d add something more specific, that previous progress came from understanding new ways of exploiting symmetries in QFT, so future progress may very well be of that same general nature. He pointed out that the story of past QFT progress was often that people had decided that something dramatically different was needed, but ended up realizing that they just needed to solve some very technical issues, not move to something very different (e.g. proper handling of renormalization and of gauge symmetry was needed, not new degrees of freedom).

In the question and answer period Gross made clear his distaste for the string theory landscape. About all he would say about anthropics was “Oy-vey”, and that it’s nothing but a cop-out. He characterized the supposedly finite number of “string vacua” with stabilized moduli and positive CC as likely irrelevant, since you don’t know what theory they are a solution to, and there’s an infinity of other solutions to the kinds of equations you’re considering.

All in all, I found watching this quite encouraging. Seeing one of the great elder statesmen of the field stop promoting failed ideas, challenge dubious received wisdom, and move on to a more promising take on where the field should be heading is cause for optimism. I hope younger theorists will pay attention.

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Job Action at the Journal of K-theory

Back in 2007 I wrote here several times (see for example here and here) about the story of the resignation of the editorial board of the Springer journal K-theory in favor of a journal published by Cambridge, called the Journal of K-theory. For a detailed history of this, see Eureka Journal Watch.

At first this story fit in with the narrative of a group of mathematicians banding together to do something about high journal prices, but the actual story was much murkier. There never seemed to be any evidence that anyone had tried to negotiate a lower price with Springer. The editorial board resigned in January 2007, but the managing editor Anthony Bak had stopped sending papers to Springer in April 2006, and the resignation wasn’t made public until August 2007, a sequence of events that left some submitted and refereed papers in limbo.

The actual financial arrangements between Bak and Springer were never made public, and Bak was supposedly suing Springer for a significant amount of money, on grounds that also were never disclosed.

Wolfgang Lueck and Andrew Ranicki took over the task of dealing with the manuscripts in process at the Springer journal, and you can read Lueck’s account of that here.

When the new “Journal of K-theory” was started, there was a statement from the editors that:

The title of JKT is currently owned by a private company. This situation is only meant as a temporary solution to restart publication of K-Theory articles as soon as possible. It is the Board’s intention to create a non-profit academic foundation and to transfer ownership of JKT to this foundation, as soon as possible, but no later than by the end of 2009, a delay justified by many practical considerations.

(a more detailed version is here).

The non-profit foundation did get created, it’s the K-theory Foundation and one thing it does is sponsor conferences, and award every four years prizes for work by young mathematicians on K-theory, with the first two $1000 prizes awarded this year.

The latest news though is that there has been some sort of breakdown between management (the managing editor Bak), and the workers (much of the editorial board), leading to a strike (see news from Scott Morrison). The workers are demanding that the ownership of the means of production be transferred, as promised back in 2007, from Bak’s company (ISOPP) to the K-theory Foundation.

Morrison has more details here, and in the comments quotes a claim that Bak’s company has been been receiving 73-74,000 pounds per year, for services that Cambridge would normally pay 20-25,000 pounds per year for. So, this appears to not just be about the technicalities of ownership, but about significant sums of money coming in from publishing math papers. At Morrison’s site, Andrew Ranicki advises “Follow the money.”

It seems that removing control of the income thrown off by math journals from the clutches of Springer may not solve all problems. The editors on strike say that if Bak doesn’t fold, they start yet another journal.

Update: The text of a recent talk by Tony Bak describing the history of the journal is here.

From Scott Morrison, news last week was that:

As of a few hours ago, Tony Bak is no longer the President of the K-Theory Foundation, having been removed from the board by a unanimous (excepting abstentions) vote.

Editors of the Journal of K-Theory have begun contacting the authors of submitted papers to give them the opportunity to withdraw their papers, or to wait and consider the option of transferring to a new journal.

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Various and Sundry

  • The MacArthur Foundation today announced “Genius” grants of $625,000 to 21 people, including two mathematicians, Jacob Lurie and Yitang Zhang. While there was a time these awards often went to mathematicians and theoretical physicists (the 1987 winners included string theorists Dan Friedan, David Gross, John Schwarz and Steve Shenker as well as mathematicians Robert Coleman and David Mumford), that has been much less common in recent years.
    Zhang, now a professor at the University of New Hampshire, is a perfect candidate for the award, unrecognized by academia (he worked at a Subway for a while) while he was doing brilliant and important work in number theory. Lurie is undeniably a genius, but kind of the opposite of Zhang, someone whose talents and work have been very well-recognized and rewarded already. He’s a Harvard professor and in November will be collecting a $3 million Milner-Zuckerberg Breakthrough Prize.
    The Wall Street Journal leads off their story about this with Lurie, characterizing him as “A mathematician offering his book free on the internet”, implying that’s what distinguished him for the award from the other possible genius candidates:

    This year’s winners span in age from 32 to 71 and include nine women and 12 men. A common thread: The winners reach their audiences in surprising places.

    “This year, we have several people who one might describe as being engaged to challenge the rest of us to be lifelong learners outside the traditional classroom,” said Cecilia Conrad, who directs the fellows program as a vice president of the foundation. “It’s new solutions to old problems.”

    Mathematician Jacob Lurie, who was honored for redefining models in algebraic geometry, negotiated with his publisher to make his book on math principles available for free download on his personal website. While academics sometimes place papers online free, putting a whole book online isn’t yet standard practice, according to the 36-year-old Harvard University professor. “From my point of view, the benefit of writing a book is for people to look at it. I would like as many people as possible to look at it,” he said.

    The book in question is the 2009 944 page Higher Topos Theory, available on Lurie’s web-site here. He has just put up on his website an updated version of his second book, the 1178 page Higher Algebra. For those mathematicians worried that they might have trouble reading these because of a lack of physics background, Lurie himself reassures people here that

    Since no knowledge of modern physics was required to write any of these books and papers, I can’t imagine that you need any such knowledge to read them.

    In other Lurie news, he has also just put up on his web-site an important new paper, a first draft of joint work with Gaitsgory on the proof of Weil’s Tamagawa number conjecture for function fields.

  • Skepticism about string theory and the multiverse abounds these days. A wonderful New York Times profile of Peter Higgs ends with

    This has led some theorists to propose that our universe is only one in an ensemble of universes, the multiverse, in which the value of things like the Higgs is random.

    Asked about that, Dr. Higgs lit up with a big grin. “I’m not a believer,” he said.

    “It’s hard enough to have a theory for one universe.”

    In Scientific American, George Ellis has a piece entitled Why the Multiverse May Be the Most Dangerous Idea in Physics.

    Meanwhile, from a Templeton Foundation-financed conference on the Philosophy of Cosmology in the Canary Islands, Sean Carroll reports via Twitter that string theorist Tom Banks is arguing that “string theory has failed as a theory of our world.”

  • Commenter Shantanu pointed out something I hadn’t realized, that David Gross will be here in New York this week, giving talks at NYU. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend, in particular I have to teach at the time of his colloquium on Tuesday. Perhaps someone who can attend will report what he has to say.
  • In Grothendieck news, the English translation by Melissa Schneps of Winfried Scharlau’s book on the later period of Grothendieck’s life has started to appear, see some chapters here.

    A wonderful book of articles about Grothendieck’s mathematics, Alexandre Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait, edited by Leila Schneps, has recently been published (with a version of the articles also available here).

Update: Vigorous back-tweeting (see here, here, here, here and here) now going on from Sean Carroll and Tom Banks. Admitting that string theory unification has failed is just not done. Revised and extended remarks from Tom Banks add praise for the greatness of string theory and avoid the word “failure”:

Without string theory we would never have been in a position to understand anything serious about quantum gravity, but without going beyond the present understanding of string theory we can make no further progress.

This still though reads as “string theory is at a dead end”. Sean echoes the praise:

conventional string theory has given us enormous guidance toward quantum gravity.

and dismisses the failure issue as something obvious and not worth mentioning:

Need to go beyond is obvious.

I guess I should point out that it is not obvious that you need to go “beyond” string theory, in the sense of farther in the same direction. Might be that you need to abandon the direction that led you to a dead end, back-track, and try a different one.

Strange thing is that this discussion of a string theory dead end just seems to be about problems using string theory to do quantum gravity when there’s a positive cosmological constant (otherwise, according to Carroll, “String theory is great”). The idea of string unification seems to be so dead it’s not even worth mentioning.

Update: Shaun Hotchkiss has the latest news on Planck/BICEP2 and dust here. People are still scraping data off old Planck slides, with real Planck data on the BICEP2 patch rumored to be imminent for the past month or so:

Any day now we are to expect Planck’s paper revealing the non-conference-talk maps of the high frequency polarisation signal along BICEP2’s line of sight. These will just be images though, not raw data. The word on the street/corridor is that a fully written draft exists and has clearance to be submitted and nobody I’ve spoken to knows why it hasn’t been. The sort of phrases I’ve heard about what to expect from this is that “it will clarify a lot of things”, but “it won’t be conclusive”.

Update: Two more. I’ve been avoiding writing about the AMS-02 announcement about the positron excess, waiting to hear something sensible about its significance. Resonaances is on the job, giving an interesting take on the data, and claiming this has nothing to do with dark matter.

There’s a nice profile of Robbert Dijkgraaf here.

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