## The Quantum Spy

I don’t often read spy thrillers, but just finished one, The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius. Ignatius is a well-known journalist at the Washington Post, specializing in international affairs and the intelligence community (and known to some as The Mainstream Media’s Chief Apologist for CIA Crimes). While the book is fiction, it’s also clearly closely based on reality. Sometimes writing this sort of “fiction” allows an author to provide their take on aspects of current events that confidentiality prevents them from writing about as “non-fiction”. Another example of this kind of writing is that of the now deceased French writer Gérard de Villiers,  who wrote a large number of spy novels informed by his connections in the intelligence community. Unlike the often pornographic de Villiers, Ignatius treats the love-making of CIA spies with beautiful Mata-Haris discreetly.

The topic of The Quantum Spy is Chinese spying on American research in quantum computing. This is very much in the news these days: after finishing the book I picked up today’s paper to read about the arrest of a Chinese-American ex-CIA agent on charges of being a mole spying for the Chinese (a central theme of the Ignatius novel is the divided loyalties of a Chinese-American CIA agent). In the same issue of the paper is a Tom Friedman opinion piece about quantum computing breakthroughs and how “China, the N.S.A., IBM, Intel and Google are now all racing — full of sweat — to build usable quantum systems” that will revolutionize our lives.

I am no expert on quantum computing, but I do have quite a bit of experience with recognizing hype, and the Friedman piece appears to be well-loaded with it. In contrast, at least in describing the the state of technology, the novel does a pretty good job of sticking to reality. Ignatius clearly spent quite a bit of time talking to those very knowledgeable about this. One part of his story is about a company closely based on D-Wave, and he explains that the technology they have is different than the true quantum computer concept that is being pursued by others. Majorana fermions and topologically protected states make an appearance in another part of the story. One character’s reading material to orient himself is Scott Aaronson’s Quantum Computing Since Democritus.

The novel portrays the US and Chinese governments as highly concerned and competitive about quantum computing technology and its security implications. I’d always naively assumed that classified research on quantum computing was carried on just by groups within the NSA or other security agencies, but Ignatius tells a different story. According to him, what happens is that groups performing unclassified government-funded quantum computing research in the open can find themselves forced to “go dark”, with their work going forward classified and no longer publicly accessible. His plot revolves around Chinese efforts to get information about such research. I have no idea whether this is complete fantasy or based in the reality of the situation.

In the novel and in real life, there are some analogies between the quantum computing story and the role nuclear physics played in the cold war between the US and Russia. Nuclear and particle physics arguably benefited a great deal for many years from governments worried about trying to get an edge in weapons technology, and to some extent the physics of quantum computing is starting to take on that same role, with (at least in the novel) the Chinese now playing the Russian role.

Just as particle physics likely got a lot of funding and public attention because of nuclear weapons, some parts of physics are now well-funded and high profile because of their connection to quantum computers. In fundamental theoretical physics, the hot topic is the idea that the old dream of replacing space and time with something more “quantum” is going to be realized as “it from qubit”, somehow using ideas from quantum computation to get an emergent quantum theory of gravitation. All my attempts to try and understand how this is supposed to work have left me rather mystified. Last week there was a Simons Foundation-funded school in Bariloche about this, with both ‘t Hooft and Maldacena lecturing on “Black holes and Quantum Information”. Perhaps these lectures will be informative and made available. This summer the IAS will host a school on From Qubits to Spacetime, maybe I’ll try again then to figure out what is going on by looking at its materials.

Posted in Book Reviews | 10 Comments

Every so often I get a copy of Princeton’s alumni publication in the mail, which I mostly ignore. The latest one however had an entertaining article about the Princeton mathematics department during the 1930s, entitled Adventures in Fine Hall. Various physicists (often misidentified as mathematicians) also make an appearance.

The article is based on an oral history project from the 1980s (Princeton Library website here, archive.org site here). It includes many stories I’d never heard before, including one about Hermann Weyl:

When attendance at his lectures shrank to three, Weyl threatened to end the course if it shrank further. One day when the third student got sick, the other two students “went out and got one of the janitorial staff to come and sit in the room, so there would be three people in the room and Weyl would give his lecture.”

Not quite the same, but this reminds me a bit of a story a Columbia colleague likes to tell about one of Claude Chevalley’s calculus classes here at Columbia during the 1950s. Supposedly (accuracy of story not guaranteed) students got together to complain to the chair that they couldn’t follow Chevalley’s lectures. After someone was dispatched to attend a lecture, and reported back that it was not surprising the students weren’t following, a deal was made with the students. Someone else would be found to give them lectures in parallel with Chevalley’s, at a different time, as long as they agreed to keep going to Chevalley’s lectures. Things are different now, hard to get students to go to one set of calculus lectures, much less two…

For more Princeton math and physics history, the Institute for Advanced Study has its own oral history project (started by Frank Wilczek’s wife, Betsy Devine), website here. I don’t know if any of those materials are available without going down to Princeton. The IAS has an extensive archive, with a lot of material available online (see for instance here). Poking around I noticed for instance Hermann Weyl’s Faculty file (here, here, here and here) and a memo Weyl prepared in 1945 evaluating various physicists and mathematicians as possible hires.

For those interested in IAS history, the archive describes a history of the years 1930-50 there which was commissioned, but not published since Oppenheimer felt it “portrayed the Institute in a less than flattering light.” A copy of this document is however now available from the IAS here and here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

## Various News

Now back from vacation in a much warmer location than New York. Some things I noticed while away:

• I see that Paris has a bid to host the 2022 ICM. Everyone should strongly support this, one can’t have too many excuses for a trip to that city.
• I’m pleased to see that Sabine Hossenfelder will now be a columnist for Quanta magazine. She’s starting off with a piece on asymptotic safety. Also recommended is her new arXiv preprint on fine-tuning and naturalness.
• There’s an Indian interview with Nati Seiberg, much of which consists of defending string theory research against the accusation of being a science with no scientific evidence. It’s more or less the usual defense that, despite failure as a theory of unification, string theory research has led to other progress in fields such as condensed matter, astrophysics, cosmology and pure mathematics. One problem with this is that it’s very unclear now what “string theory research” really is these days, other than a sociological term. About the failure to find SUSY as predicted, he says:

One idea is that we will find SUSY particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) but this hasn’t happened yet. So given that it hasn’t, I think the odds that it would happen in the near future are very small. It’s not a likely scenario. If you had asked me 10 or 20 years ago, I would have thought it was quite reasonable that they would find it. But they haven’t and that idea did not prove to be right. But people who worked on it should not be penalised for it because they just laid out possibilities and things that experimentalists would like to have.

I don’t think the issue is whether to “penalize” people for working on SUSY, but rather just to acknowledge that the failure to find SUSY at the LHC has important scientific implications, providing significant evidence against heavily promoted speculative ideas about supersymmetric extensions of the SM and superstring unification.

• To keep up on the latest hot trends in particle theory, and sometimes find an excuse for a trip down to Princeton, I periodically take a look at the IAS High Energy Theory Seminar listings (available here). I was surprised to see that this week they’ve invited Steve Hsu to give a talk about something having nothing to do with HEP theory. His topic is “Genomic Prediction of Complex Traits”, a topic motivated by his long-standing interest in finding genetic determinants of intelligence.

I heard from Hsu back in 2011, when he wrote to ask me if I would publicize this study, which he wrote about here. Hsu was looking for volunteers of “high cognitive ability” (he thought most theoretical physicists would qualify), who would get “free genotyping and tools to explore their genomes”. You can read some more debate about this here. A few years back he wrote an essay for Nautilus about how genetic engineering will one day create the smartest humans who have ever lived.

Until a year or so ago I used to follow Hsu’s blog, finally stopped after getting sick of reading his defences of Trump and Steve Bannon. Besides the interest in race determining intelligence (see for instance here), Hsu has what seems to me a disturbing interest in the politics of racial resentment, from the white/East Asian side, which shows up in his fondness for Trump/Bannon. This also shows up in his involvement in a campaign to get Harvard to stop its current affirmative action policies and admit more students of East Asian descent.

No, I’m not going to allow any arguments over this topic in the comments section. Such arguments immediately descend to an extreme level of stupidity, whatever the IQ of those involved.

Update: I just noticed that Steve Hsu has a blog post about this here, which surely is a better place to discuss what he’s up to.

Update: The Economist has an excellent piece about the problems of HEP physics and status of some non-collider experiments looking for BSM physics.

Update: See here for part two of Jerry Alper’s report from the event discussed here.

Update: Perhaps the audience at Friday’s IAS HEP theory seminar can ask the speaker whether his methods for analyzing people’s genetics can be used to tell whether they come from a “shithole country” or not.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

## This Week’s Hype: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe

Today The Atlantic has, via Quanta Magazine, some unadulterated, pure, grade A hype for the holidays: String Theory: The Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe. In a time when the credibility of science is under attack, does anyone else see a problem with telling the public that the “Best Explanation for Everything in the Universe” that science has is a “theory” for which we have no definition or equations, no experimental evidence, and no likelihood of ever getting any?

Posted in This Week's Hype | 40 Comments

## Latest on abc

I’ve seen reports today (see here and here) that indicate that Mochizui’s IUT papers, which are supposed to contain a proof of the abc conjecture, have been accepted by the journal Publications of the RIMS. Some of the sources for this are in Japanese (e.g. this and this) and Google Translate has its limitations, so perhaps Japanese speaking readers can let us know if this is a misunderstanding.

If this is true, I think we’ll be seeing something historically unparalleled in mathematics: a claim by a well-respected journal that they have vetted the proof of an extremely well-known conjecture, while most experts in the field who have looked into this have been unable to understand the proof. For background on this story, see my last long blog posting about this (and an earlier one here).

What follows is my very much non-expert understanding of what the current situation of this proof is. It seems likely that there will soon be more stories in the press, and I hope we’ll be hearing from those who best understand the mathematics.

The papers at issue are Inter-universal Teichmuller Theory I, II, III, IV, available in preprint form since September 2012 (I blogged about them first here). Evidently they were submitted to the journal around that time, and it has taken over 5 years to referee them. During this 5 year period Mochizuki has logged the changes he has made to the papers here. Mochizuki has written survey articles here and here, and Go Yamashita has written up his own version of the proof, a 400 page document that is available here.

My understanding is that the crucial result needed for abc is the inequality in Corollary 3.12 of IUT III, which is a corollary of Theorem 3.11, the statement of which covers five and a half pages. The proof of Theorem 3.11 essentially just says “The various assertions of Theorem 3.11 follow immediately from the definitions and the references quoted in the statements of these assertions”. In Yamashita’s version, this is Theorem 13.12, listed as the “main theorem” of IUT. There its statement takes 6 pages and the proof, in toto, is “Theorem follows from the definitions.” Anyone trying to understand Mochizuki’s proof thus needs to make their way through either 350 pages of Yamashita’s version, or IUT I, IUT II and the first 125 pages of IUT III (a total of nearly 500 pages). In addition, Yamashita explains that the IUT papers are mostly “trivial”, what they do is interpret and combine results from two preparatory papers (this one from 2008, and this one from 2015, last of a three part series.):

in summary, it seems to the author that, if one ignores the delicate considerations that occur in the course of interpreting and combining the main results of the preparatory papers, together with the ideas and insights that underlie the theory of these preparatory papers, then, in some sense, the only nontrivial mathematical ingredient in inter-universal Teichmueller theory is the classical result [pGC], which was already known in the last century!

Looking at these documents, the daunting task facing experts trying to understand and check this proof is quite clear. I don’t know of any other sources where details are written down (there are two survey articles in Japanese by Yuichiro Hoshi available here).

As far as I know, the current situation of understanding of the proof has not changed significantly since last year, with this seminar in Nottingham the only event bringing people together for talks on the subject. A small number of those close to Mochizuki claim to understand the proof, but they have had little success in explaining their understanding to others. The usual mechanisms by which understanding of new ideas in mathematics gets transmitted to others seem to have failed completely in this case.

The news that the papers have gone through a confidential refereeing process I think does nothing at all to change this situation (and the fact that it is being published in a journal whose editor-in-chief is Mochizuki himself doesn’t help). Until there are either mathematicians who both understand the proof and are able to explain it to others, or a more accessible written version of the proof, I don’t think this proof will be accepted by the larger math community. Those designing rules for the Millennium prizes (abc could easily have been chosen as on the prize list) faced this question of what it takes to be sure a proof is correct. You can read their rules here. A journal publication just starts the process. The next step is a waiting period, such that the proof must “have general acceptance in the mathematics community two years after” publication. Only then does a prize committee take up the question. Unfortunately I think we’re still a long ways from meeting the “general acceptance” criterion in this case.

One problem with following this story for most of us is the extent to which relevant information is sometimes only available in Japanese. For instance, it appears that Mochizuki has been maintaining a diary/blog in Japanese, available here. Perhaps those who read the language can help inform the rest of us about this Japanese-only material. As usual, comments from those well-informed about the topic are welcome, comments from those who want to discuss/argue about issues they’re not well-informed about are discouraged.

Update: Frank Calegari has a long blog post about this here, which I think reflects accurately the point of view of most experts (some of whom chime in at his comment section).

New Scientist has a story here. There’s still a lack of clarity about the status of the paper, whether it is “accepted” or “expected to be accepted”, see the exchange here.

Update: It occurred to me that I hadn’t linked here to the best source for anyone trying to appreciate why experts are having trouble understanding this material, Brian Conrad’s 2015 report on the Oxford IUT workshop.

Update: Curiouser and curiouser. Davide Castelvecchi of Nature writes here in a comment:

Got an email from the journal PRIMS : “The papers of Prof. Motizuki on inter-universal Teichmuller theory have not yet been accepted in a journal, and so we are sorry but RIMS have no comment on it.”

Update: Peter Scholze has posted a comment on Frank Calegari’s blog, agreeing that the Mochizuki papers do not yet provide a proof of abc. In addition, he identifies a particular point in the proof of Conjecture 3.12 of IUT III where he is “entirely unable to follow the logic”, despite having asked other experts about it. Others have told him either that they don’t understand this either, or if they do claim to understand it, have been unable to explain it/unwilling to acknowledge that more explanation is necessary. Interestingly, he notes that he has no problem with the many proofs listed as “follows trivially from the definitions” since the needed arguments are trivial. It is in the proof of Corollary 3.12, which is non-trivial and supposedly given in detail, that he identifies a potential problem.

Update: Ivan Fesenko has posted on Facebook an email to Peter Scholze complaining about his criticism of the Mochizuki proof. I suppose this makes clear why the refereeing process for dealing with evaluating a paper and its arguments is usually a confidential one.

Posted in Favorite Old Posts, Uncategorized | 61 Comments

## Various and Sundry

A few things that may be of interest:

• Survey articles prepared for the 2018 ICM proceedings are starting to appear on the arXiv, and Peter Scholze (who will be getting a Fields Medal in Rio) has put his on his web-site. His title is p-adic Geometry, and it gives an overview of the ground-breaking work he has been doing over the last few years. The last section tells us that

Currently, the author is trying to understand to what extent it might be true that the “universal” cohomology theory is given by a shtuka relative to Spec Z. It seems that this is a very fruitful philosophy.

For some background about that section, I’d recommend his talk at the 2015 Clay Math conference.

• The New Yorker has a very detailed and interesting profile of Jim Simons and what he is up to with the Flatiron Institute he is now funding here in New York. This new Institute is costing him \$80 million a year, characterized as “a lark” for someone with his assets. David Spergel is running the Center for Computational Astrophysics there, and doing a lot of hiring. When I wrote here about his characterization of multiverse research, his final comment about being able to speak freely because he had tenure left me wondering “wait, what about grants, jobs, etc.?”. From the New Yorker article, I realized that while having tenure may give you some ability to speak freely, having a guy with \$18.5 billion willing to write large checks for you gives you a lot more…
• I’ve just finished teaching a course this semester which concentrated on the formalism for describing geometry in terms of connections and curvature. From the point of view of physicists, this formalism should be of interest because it applies equally well to gauge theory and general relativity. I’d been starting to think again about what light this formalism might shed on how to think about these two subjects together, when last night I noticed a wonderful new article on the arXiv, Gravity and Unification: A review by Krasnov and Percacci.

This article is an extremely lucid and comprehensive survey of the sort of thing I was thinking about, which can be re-expressed as the question of trying to find, at the classical level, a formalism uniting the vector potentials/field strengths of the SM and the different possible fields used to describe geometry in GR. Some of this has a very long history, going back to the things Einstein was trying in his later years. There have been many different ideas that people have tried since then, and the survey article does a great job of both explaining these ideas, as well as indicating why they haven’t worked out.

A couple of the general ideas that have always fascinated me make an appearance in the article. One of these is that of what mathematicians call a “Cartan connection”, the idea that you should think of a geometry as locally looking like a quotient space G/H of two Lie groups. A version of this is known to physicists as the MacDowell-Mansouri formulation, which gets a detailed treatment in the article. Another is the idea of using the fact that the complexified orthogonal group in 4 dimensions breaks up into two pieces, sometimes thought of at the Lie algebra level as self-dual vs. anti-self-dual pieces under the Hodge star operation. A version of this idea is known as the Plebanski formulation, and this decomposition is behind the story of Ashtekar variables. These variable have played a crucial role in modern treatments of GR by Hamiltonian methods, as well as the quantization program of loop quantum gravity.

The focus of the article is on Lagrangian and classical field theory methods for studying these ideas. There’s relatively little about the Hamiltonian story, and also relatively little about the geometry of spinors, two topics that I suspect might provide additional needed insights. For anyone interested in thinking about non-string theory-based ideas about unification of the SM and gravity, there’s a wealth of ideas, references and history here to think about. Perhaps future progress on unification will come from some new breakthrough in this field that shows how to get around the problems identified clearly in this article.

• For surveys of recent work on quantization of gravity and discussion by experts, a good place to look is videos of talks at a recent conference held at the IHES. Videos available here include my fellow Princeton student Costas Bachas surveying the approach growing out of string theory in Holographic Dualities and Quantum Gravity, Carlo Rovelli the opposition in Current Quantum Gravity Theories, Experimental Evidence, Philosophical Implications, and an even-handed overview from Steven Carlip with Why We Need Quantum Gravity and Why We Don’t Have It. Also well-worth watching, both for the talk and the discussion, is Alain Connes on Why Four Dimensions and the Standard Model Coupled to Gravity.

Finally, for fans of Lenny Susskind’s introductory level books on theoretical physics, Andre Cabannes writes to tell me that the most recent volume (which I wrote about here) is being translated by him into French, to appear next year. He also has notes from the lectures on General Relativity, Cosmology, and Statistical Mechanics, for which no book form has yet appeared.

Update: For a detailed account of the event at NYU mentioned here, see this from Jerry Alper.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

## This Week’s Hype/Fake Physics

On the Fake Physics front, Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True has a post claiming New evidence for the multiverse-and its implications. You would think that recent history should have made clear the danger of using Youtube videos as a reliable source of information, but this posting is based mainly upon a Youtube video, one that claims Evidence for a Multiverse in NASA and ESA Satellite Data? (Coyne seems to have missed the question-mark).

As usual, a large part of the problem here is people looking for material helpful to their arguments, without worrying much about whether the material is accurate or not. In Coyne’s case, he wants to counter the theological fine-tuning argument with the multiverse counter-argument, which requires a multiverse with a wide variety of different physical laws. The Youtube video he found makes the standard tenuous argument that the CMB provides evidence for inflation, inflation should be eternal, thus there should be a multiverse. As I explained in detail here, the models of inflation one supposedly has “evidence” for are not models that lead to the kind of multiverse of different physical laws that Coyne needs for his argument with religion.

I should make it clear that I’m on Coyne’s side in the argument of evolution vs. religion, but scientists arguing on the basis of science should take care that they’re using good science if they don’t want to discredit themselves. And, as a general rule for anyone who cares about what’s true and what isn’t, looking for things on Facebook or Youtube that help your side of an argument is now an extremely bad idea.

The question of how to stand up for truth in a post-truth era was the main topic of this year’s Nobel Week Dialogue (video here). David Gross gave a rousing and inspirational talk on Truth and the Scientific Method (starting about 36:30), which ended with the assurance that “Science will survive Donald J. Trump and his ilk”, because of its rigorous honesty and grounding in experimental testability. Gross is someone well-aware of the multiverse Fake Physics danger, although he didn’t mention it. I’d feel a lot better about his Stockholm talk though if I hadn’t just recently attended this disturbing one.

Update
: Some more fake physics today, from the Russians, courtesy of Sputnik News. See here for propaganda about “a testable theory on how matter behaves inside a black hole” which is also supposed to describe quark-gluon plasmas at the LHC and RHIC . This is all based on this paper, which has no such thing.

Posted in Fake Physics, This Week's Hype | 15 Comments

## The Last Refuge of Cowards

The talks and panel discussions from the 2018 Breakthrough Prize symposium are available via Facebook video. They ended with the following, from prize winner David Spergel:

Well, alright, I’m going to say something that I probably shouldn’t say in Palo Alto. I don’t think the multiverse is a testable and interesting scientific hypothesis. I think it doesn’t explain anything.

The way the multiverse tends to be used is together with the anthropic principle. The idea is that the universe is the way it is because that’s the way we get to live in it. I find the multiverse solutions to these problems, it’s a lot like if you ask me “why am I wearing a black shirt today”. My answer would be: “you wouldn’t have asked the question if I wasn’t wearing a black shirt”. That’s not a satisfactory answer.

The way we have advanced in science is by falsifiability. By developing hypotheses, testing them (that’s why we do experiments) and ruling things out.

Ideas that are not testable, it’s interesting metaphysics, perhaps interesting for philosophers. What has driven four hundred years of scientific progress is the fact that ideas can be wrong. And, the multiverse, I think is kind of the last refuge of cowards… [nervous laughter from the audience] That’s why it’s great to have tenure.

Posted in Multiverse Mania | 37 Comments

## String Theory Fails Another Test

Back in 2004, the KITP put out a press release (which I wrote about in an early blog post here) announcing that “Newly Devised Test May Confirm Strings as Fundamental Constituent of Matter, Energy”. The press release announced that Polchinski and collaborators had found “the most viable test to date for determining whether string theory is on the right track”, that this test would be performed by LIGO, which “could provide support for string theory within two years.”

This got a lot of attention and was often quoted as evidence that string theory was testable science. In a 2007 article in Physics World, David Gross answers string theory critics with:

String theory is full of qualitative predictions, such as the production of black holes at the LHC or cosmic strings in the sky, and this level of prediction is perfectly acceptable in almost every other field of science,” he says. “It’s only in particle physics that a theory can be thrown out
if the 10th decimal place of a prediction doesn’t agree with experiment.”

LIGO never found any evidence of cosmic strings within two years after 2004, and now the vastly more sensitive Advanced LIGO experiment has just released results of a search. As expected, the results are negative.

Any guess on the probability of a KITP press release announcing that string theory has failed an experimental test? Or of an acknowledgement by Gross that all the “qualitative predictions” of string theory he was using to justify it ten years ago have now all failed, so, by the standard of “every other field of science”, it should be abandoned?

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

## Scientific Controversy No. 13

I made the mistake yesterday evening of spending it out in Red Hook, at an event billed as addressing the scientific controversy over string theory. The venue was an arts space called Pioneer Works, the brain-child of artist Dustin Yellin (whose formative early experience with physics is described here). The event was sold out (tickets were free, courtesy of the Simons Foundation), and drew a huge crowd of several hundred, mostly twenty-something Brooklyn hipsters.

The guests brought in to discuss the controversy were David Gross and Clifford Johnson, and the moderator was Janna Levin. Levin began the discussion by asking the two of them where they stood on string theory: pro, con or agnostic? This flustered Gross a bit (he’s one of the world’s most well-known and vigorous proponents of string theory) and Levin somehow took this as meaning that he was agnostic. Finally Gross clarified things by saying something like “I’ve been married to string theory for 50 years, not going to leave her now”.

Things then moved on to the usual well-worn hype about GUTs, string theory and unification. The LHC made a quick appearance, with no mention of falsified string theory “predictions” of supersymmetry. Instead Johnson characterized the discovery of the Higgs as somehow a vindication for this unification program. Gross went on to explain that unfortunately testing string theory requires going to the Planck scale where strings would be obvious, but that this was out of the question with any conceivable technology.

Besides being immune to experimental test, Gross also described string/M-theory as not a theory at all, since we don’t know its equations or principles (according to him, it’s a “framework”, see here). The conversation then degenerated into a long and meandering discussion of the black hole information paradox (to her credit, Levin countered Gross’s claim that string theory successfully explained it by reminding him of Polchinski and the firewall business).

The Q and A session consisted of a series of mostly crackpot questions from the audience. Johnson responded to a woman saying she thought that we were oscillating between two universes by telling her that she could see she was wrong by testing her theory. The sudden appearance of testability as a criterion to shoot down vague ideas surely confused her.

On a positive note, neither Johnson nor Gross were interested in promoting the multiverse, and the audience was spared that.

Johnson has a new book out called The Dialogues, written in graphic novel form. My previous experience with him was a rather unpleasant one more than ten years ago, after the publication of my book. He wrote a long sequence of blog posts about what he called the “Storm in a Teacup”, attacking Smolin and me and our books. Attempts to discuss the issues involved with him in the comment section there were confusing at first, until things finally became clear when he explained that he was refusing to read my book or Smolin’s. Dialogue about science was not something he seemed interested in if it involved uncomfortable criticism of string theory.

His book addresses this controversy with a panel in which the physicist figure explains:

Frankly, that’s mostly driven by the press, and a few attention-seeking individuals. Most people have a more nuanced view… It just does not sell newspapers or books.

On the question of “attention-seeking”, one might want to consult Johnson’s forty-plus long series of blog postings about his participation and appearance in TV and movie programs. As far as books go, in an end-note for this panel Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is recommended. After the Q and A, a long line formed for people to hand their credit cards over to an assistant, then get a copy of Johnson’s book and have it signed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments