Hitler doesn’t get a postdoc in High Energy Theory

I recognize that this is a genre that is a bit tired, and arguably in poor taste, but the commentary on the HEP theory postdoc job market in the video Hitler doesn’t get a postdoc in High Energy Theory is insightful. As far as I can tell the HEP Theory postdoc/junior faculty market has been the same for the last 45 years or so: far more people than jobs, and if you want one you better be working on one of a small number of “hot” topics. One might speculate that this correlates with the lack of progress in the field during this time. I’m a bit better informed about the mathematics job market for fresh PhDs, which is much healthier, as is the intellectual state of the field.

A recent trend does seem to be fewer jobs in the US, more in Europe. Anyone with better information about what is going on is encouraged to comment here (and, condolences if this is because you’re on the market).

Posted in Uncategorized | 38 Comments

Back at Work

It’s been a while since the last posting here, mostly because I’ve been away on vacation, but also because I haven’t seen anything that newsworthy. But, since I’m back in the office and there have been complaints, here are a few items:

  • For the first time in a very large number of years, a new volume has appeared in the series of Bourbaki treatises, dealing with algebraic topology (table of contents here). From the table of contents, it appears to be a rather modern treatment mostly of the fundamental group, but still in the Bourbaki style of exhaustive coverage and abstract point of view (I don’t see any mention there of actually computing the fundamental group of anything…).
  • While in Paris I attended some of the Seminaire Bourbaki talks. You too can watch via Youtube, or read the written versions.
  • Far from mathematics and physics, one thing I did in Paris was stop by a store selling Breton products, and had a discussion with the owner about Kouign Amanns. He had a short hand-written list of a few places they could be had in the US. When I got back here, the next morning I went out to my local bakery (Silver Moon, at Broadway and 105th), and found that while I was away they had started selling them.
  • On the Mochizuki front, there’s a new paper by Vesselin Dimitrov, claiming that if Mochizuki’s argument is correct, it implies something even stronger than Mochizuki claims, an effective version of the abc conjecture. The next workshop about this will be in Kyoto in July. One mathematician who has gotten interested in this and is listed as planning to attend is Edward Frenkel.
  • If you can’t get enough of the “Is HEP physics dead or what?” debate, see John Horgan on How Physics Lost its Fizz.
  • Among the things going on here at Columbia this semester, there are Eilenberg Lectures on geometric representation theory (starting in a few minutes…) by Roman Bezrukavnikov, a course by Michael Harris on Lafforgue’s recent work on the Langlands correspondence for function fields (also the topic of one of the Seminaire Bourbaki talks), and a conference celebrating Dusa McDuff’s 70th birthday.

Better leave now to get a seat at the talk…

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Various and Sundry

Some short items on a wide variety of topics:

  • The Hawking/Perry/Strominger paper on a new idea about the black hole information paradox (see here for an early discussion) based on BMS supertranslation symmetries has now appeared on the arXiv. I’m no expert on the intricate arguments about this paradox, so have no idea what the implications of this paper for that really are. However, it does seem to be a very interesting approach to quantum gravity questions (although the paper mostly deals with simpler gauge theory calculations). The ideas are squarely in the mainstream of what has been the most successful way of making progress in fundamental theory: identifying new implications of symmetries that are at the center of our core theories (the standard model and GR). Such a new understanding looks like a far more promising way forward than much of what is currently popular in the subject.
  • For an example of what is currently popular, the KITP is hosting a workshop this week of the the It from Qubit Simons Collaboration, on Quantum Error Correction and Tensor Networks. I gather this is supposed to somehow explain AdS/CFT, but I’ve never understood how this is supposed to come about. Evidently I’m not the only one wondering about this. John Presskill reports that, in his talk leading off a series of lectures on this, Patrick Hayden commented that

    I’m unsure what we are trying to learn from these tensor network models of holography.

  • Tonight PBS will be showing the film Particle Fever, which I wrote about here. It’s a great film, highly recommended, despite the larding with comical nonsense about the multiverse (if you believe the theorists in the film, the multiverse is supposed to be tested by its prediction of a mass of 140 GeV for the Higgs). The capsule summary in the New York Times TV listing this morning for the film is “Scientists recreate conditions from the big-bang theory”. While the LHC has nothing to do with the big-bang theory, maybe this summary refers to the comedy of the theorists and another well-known TV show, in which case viewers may be a bit disappointed.
  • In other LHC related news, the AMVA4NewPhysics project now has a blog, latest posting explains the basics of b-tagging.
  • I’ve never been able to really make sense of many of the arguments about “Bayes’s Theorem”, and the recent attempts to justify string theory using this just seemed bizarre. John Horgan has a great explanation of what is going on here, including this take on the Bayes/string theory/multiverse business:

    In many cases, estimating the prior is just guesswork, allowing subjective factors to creep into your calculations. You might be guessing the probability of something that–unlike cancer—does not even exist, such as strings, multiverses, inflation or God. You might then cite dubious evidence to support your dubious belief. In this way, Bayes’ theorem can promote pseudoscience and superstition as well as reason.

    Embedded in Bayes’ theorem is a moral message: If you aren’t scrupulous in seeking alternative explanations for your evidence, the evidence will just confirm what you already believe. Scientists often fail to heed this dictum, which helps explains why so many scientific claims turn out to be erroneous. Bayesians claim that their methods can help scientists overcome confirmation bias and produce more reliable results, but I have my doubts.

    And as I mentioned above, some string and multiverse enthusiasts are embracing Bayesian analysis. Why? Because the enthusiasts are tired of hearing that string and multiverse theories are unfalsifiable and hence unscientific, and Bayes’ theorem allows them to present the theories in a more favorable light. In this case, Bayes’ theorem, far from counteracting confirmation bias, enables it.

  • The recent Munich conference trying to justify string theory by Bayesian methods wasn’t the only example of European funding for philosophers to weigh in on the latest in fundamental physics. Another just announced European LHC-related project is a 2.5 million Euro research unit aiming to investigate the LHC “from an integrated philosophical, historical and sociological perspective.”
  • I just ran across a recent paper by Kristian Camilleri and Sophie Ritson on The role of heuristic appraisal in conflicting assessments of string theory. It is very good, unlike almost every other discussion of this topic, I think it gets right the central serious argument of the “string wars”: how does one evaluate the prospects for the string unification idea? There is no simple answer to this, you need to understand what the state of efforts to connect a hoped for unified string theory to reality really are, how they have evolved, and try to make a sensible judgment about whether this is a failed idea or whether there is hope left. I highly recommend reading this for those who are not completely tired of this subject.
  • In the same journal I noticed another quite good article, by Porter Williams on naturalness. He carefully explains the different incarnations of “naturalness” and I think comes to the right conclusion that it is best thought of as the idea that physical behavior at widely different distance scales should not be correlated. By the way, the name “naturalness” for this is a bit of marketing genius (how could “nature” not be “natural”?).
  • In geometric representation theory news, the Simons Center is running a program on the topic this month, videos here. Here at Columbia Roman Bezrukavnikov will be the Spring 2016 Eilenberg lecturer, with his topic “Geometric categorification in representation theory”. I believe talks will be Thursdays at 2:40, watch the Columbia math department website for more news.
  • Personally, I’m about to head out tomorrow night on vacation, so expect minimal blogging and possibly even shutting off of comments. When I get back, I’ll be teaching our spring semester graduate course on groups and representations, see here. Also trying to finish my book on quantum theory and representation theory. Current state (see here, comments always welcome) is that I’ve gone over and rewritten the first 34 chapters (except the introduction), planning on rewriting and adding material to the rest of the manuscript this semester. This better be done by this summer, partly because that’s when it is supposed to be delivered to Springer, partly because I’m already quite tired of this project and want to work on other things…

Update: Any mention of Bayesianism seems to attract a large number of people who want to discuss it, especially aspects that have nothing to do with the string theory/multiverse business. Please discuss this topic with John Horgan at his blog.

Update: Sabine Hossenfelder has more on the Hawking/Perry/Strominger paper here.

Update: Scientific American has an interesting interview with Strominger, who explains some of the ideas behind Hawking/Perry/Strominger. Jacques Distler has come out of retirement at Musings to object that this work violates two central ideological tenets: one should not pay attention to gauge invariance, and the answer to all questions should be string theory or AdS/CFT.

Posted in Uncategorized | 27 Comments

End of Year Links

A collection of links to round out the year:

  • The Seminaire Bourbaki talks this January look unusually interesting. Luckily I’ll be in Paris at that time.
  • For an end of year present, Jacob Lurie has posted a version of his unfinished next book, Spectral Algebraic Geometry. It’s advertised as much more user-friendly than previous versions of the same material and that’s quite true after reading the first chapter.
  • If 850 pages or so of this sort of thing isn’t enough to keep you busy during the break between terms, try Lurie’s Harvard colleague Dennis Gaitsgory’s A study in derived algebraic geometry, a book project with Rozenblyum, also in a preliminary version (around 1100 pages), with more to come. I’m hoping for the more user-friendly version of this one…
  • Also from Harvard, videos of last month’s Current Developments in Mathematics talks are now available here. At least the first of Peter Scholze’s talks is rather user-friendly.
  • Very, very user-friendly (especially if you read Japanese) are the Japanese television versions of Edward Frenkel’s talks earlier this year at MSRI, available here.
  • If you just can’t get enough of the new 750 GeV particle, you probably should read Tommaso Dorigo’s take on it.
  • Back when I was writing about the AMS’s role as a mouthpiece for the NSA in its attempts to mislead people about their role in backdooring an NIST crypto standard (see here and here), one thought I kept in mind was that since this standard supposedly was never used in anything important, maybe one shouldn’t get so upset. Recent news (see Matthew Green for an explanation) is that this bad crypto actually was used in something quite important: widely used firewall/VPN hardware from Juniper Networks. Quite likely this was used by the NSA to get access to much of the traffic on a wide variety of networks.

    The story is actually much more complicated than one can believe, with a still unclear sequence of changes in the software indicating that others, possibly a foreign government, took advantage of the NSA backdoor to compromise these systems. Green points out that this makes very clear the problem with government-mandated backdoors: even if you trust the government, they make it much easier for others to take advantage of the security problems they have introduced:

    One of the most serious concerns we raise during these meetings is the possibility that encryption backdoors could be subverted. Specifically, that a backdoor intended for law enforcement could somehow become a backdoor for people who we don’t trust to read our messages. Normally when we talk about this, we’re concerned about failures in storage of things like escrow keys. What this Juniper vulnerability illustrates is that the danger is much broader and more serious than that.

    The problem with cryptographic backdoors isn’t that they’re the only way that an attacker can break into our cryptographic systems. It’s merely that they’re one of the best. They take care of the hard work, the laying of plumbing and electrical wiring, so attackers can simply walk in and change the drapes.

  • If you just can’t get enough of my and other people’s views on string theory, Ben Winterhalter has a piece on the Jstor blog, telling the story of his attempts to figure out what’s going on with extra dimensions.
  • Among the many great articles at Quanta, I can recommend this one, which features my Columbia colleague Wei Zhang.

Happy New Year!

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

Why String Theory?

I recently got a copy of Joseph Conlon’s new book Why String Theory? and was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s quite good. Conlon is a lively, entertaining writer, generally sensible about the scientific issues involved, and I think does a great job of explaining the point of view of typical physicists now working on string theory. He also very ably explains the “sociology” of the field, the different kinds of people who work in this area and their varying sorts of goals and motivations.

The book is explicitly motivated by the desire to answer a lot of the criticism of string theory that has become rather widespread in recent years (wasn’t always so…). For a typical example from the last few days, see Why String Theory is Not a Scientific Theory at Starts With a Bang. I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. It gets the main point quite right, that string theory unification is untestable, having failed to make any predictions, and by the conventional understanding of the scientific method, it’s past the time at which most theorists should have abandoned it and moved on. On the other hand, I don’t see at all the point to arguing about the term “scientific theory”. Sure, it’s a scientific theory, a failed one. I’ve personally never noticed any consistent usage by physicists of terms like “theory”, “model” and “hypothesis” in ways that accurately indicate degree of experimental support, don’t see why some writers insist that there is one. I also very strongly object to the article’s standard move of trying to make a failed theory a “mathematical theory”. Mathematics is about well-defined ideas, and there is currently no such mathematical construct as “string theory”. The problems with string theory have nothing do with mathematics, rather have to do with a physical idea that didn’t work out.

To a large extent the problems Conlon is struggling with are ones that the community of string theorists has inflicted on itself. The great majority of writing for the public by string theorists is characterized by large amounts of outrageous hype. For a very recent example, see Daniel Harlow here, who seems to think string theory is a huge success at explaining the standard model

although it hasn’t quite managed to reproduce the complete standard model of particle physics, it comes very close and the obstructions seem more or less technical. I want to emphasize that postdictions are just as good formally as predictions for testing a theory; the distinction is purely sociological.

and that it is also much more (did you know that string theory is what explains the existence of black holes?)

the main reason to work on (or be inspired by) string theory from a scientific point of view is that it may provide explanations of phenomenon that have ALREADY been observed: the existence of black holes, the small positive cosmological constant, and the evidence for an inflationary phase of the early universe.

As for the problem with the multiverse making no predictions, that’s just wrong. We just don’t know what the theory is, when we figure it out, surely it will make predictions:

the issue is not that it doesn’t make predictions. The issue is instead that we do not yet understand it well enough theoretically to know what the predictions are!

I’ve always found reading this kind of thing quite puzzling. My impression of most string theorists is that they’re smart and rather sensible, well aware of the difference between ridiculous hype and an actual scientific argument. Unfortunately such sensible string theorists also have seen no point in trying to write for the public until now, and I’m glad that Conlon’s book finally changes that.

If you followed the reports from the recent Munich conference, you likely heard that the assembled philosophers and physicists nearly unanimously found the anthropic multiverse point of view Harlow advertises to not be legitimate science. Conlon expresses his opinion in this way, and I think it’s the majority one among string theorists, whatever you might have heard:

The most serious problem with the anthropic landscape is that it provides a cheap and lazy explanation that does not come from hard calculation and also has no clear experimental test. It sounds exciting, but does not offer lasting sustenance, and may even act as a deterrent against necessary hard work developing new calculational tools.
Of course, this does no mean that the anthropic approach is necessarily wrong. However the triumph of science has been not because it contains ideas that are not necessarily wrong, but because it contains ideas that are, in some important sense, known to be true: ideas which have either passed experimental test or are glued together by calculation. The anthropic landscape is neither of these. It represents incontinence of speculation joined to constipation of experiment.

Instead of Harlow’s claims that string theory makes lots of postdictions, coming very close to reproducing the complete standard model, modulo some technical issues, Conlon deals with the situation in a much more honest and straightforward fashion. Of the fourteen chapters of the book, chapter 7 is entitled “Direct Experimental Evidence for String Theory.” Here’s the entire content of chapter 7:

There is no direct experimental evidence for string theory.

Conlon’s point of view is different than that of the majority of string theorists in one way, which he explains in detail.

My interest in string theory is in what it can offer to physics that can be probed by experiment.
This view is far from universal. It may seem odd, but most of those who work on string theory are essentially uninterested in any connections with experiment, any public claims that they may make to the contrary notwithstanding.

He backs this up by the observation that less than 10% of talks at recents Strings 20XX conferences have any connection to observable physics.

Here, I’m again in the majority, with his colleagues, who I think have made an accurate evaluation that connecting current string theory to experiment is a failed and hopeless project (I differ with them on prospects for this changing). Conlon has a research program to investigate potentially observable effects of moduli fields, something his colleagues are skeptical about. While I’m also skeptical about this, it does seem like a reasonable thing to investigate, especially since such things may be generic to all theories with extra dimensions, not just string theory. The chapter of the book describing this research is one with material you won’t find in other popular books.

Many of his colleagues have adopted the attitude that, while connecting string theory to experiment is hopeless, it deserves investigation purely as an idea about quantum gravity. While Conlon devotes a fair amount of space to the arguments about quantum gravity and string theory claims about them (including some criticism of loop quantum gravity) he avoids much of the usual hype, and also makes it clear that he himself isn’t interested in pursuing this because of the lack of any hope of ever testing one’s ideas. In some sense I think he and I agree here: it is only if one’s idea for quantizing space-time degree of freedom connects up somehow to our successful theories of other quantized degrees of freedom that one will have any hope of ever knowing whether one has the right theory of quantum gravity. Absent a connection of this kind, one is doomed to become just another cog in an endless fruitless ideological argument about whose quantum theory of gravity is better (or at least, whose sucks less).

Conlon claims that at this point, most string theorists are interested in string theory not as a theory of quantum gravity, but because of applications of ideas that have emerged from string theory to other fields (e.g. AdS/CFT). Here he gives a reasonable account of attempts to use AdS/CFT to say something about condensed matter physics. One place in the book where he, unusually, descends to conventional incantations of hype is his account of applications of AdS/CFT to heavy-ion physics, where he says nothing about the fact that this doesn’t work very well, just repeating some rather stale hype.

There’s a lot else to like in the book, for instance a chapter of highly perceptive descriptions of the different kinds of theorists and the different ways they work, including some rather amusing and mostly friendly caricatures of common behavior. For an example of the kind of thing you’ll read here but not in any other popular string theory book, he notes that certain persons have recently received multi-million dollar prizes based upon model-building ideas that didn’t work out.

There’s a lot more in the book than I have time to discuss, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. Obviously I have a different point of view than Conlon’s, but his at least I find to be one with serious arguments behind it, unlike all too much of the popular string theory literature. One thing I found rather discouraging after my book came out ten years or so ago was what seemed to me a lack any serious response from sensible string theorists. Quite a few years later, it’s great to see that Conlon has written such a thing, and I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about these issues.

And, Happy Holidays!

: Sabine Hossenfelder has a posting with a similar take on the Siegel piece. I also like her description of the Munich workshop:

There was, however, not much feud at the workshop, because it was mainly populated by string theory proponents and multiverse opponents, who nodded to each other’s talks. The main feud, as always, will be carried out in the blogosphere…

I haven’t seen the full piece, but New Scientist now seems to be covering the multiverse as theology, which is about right.

Update: Over on Facebook Dan Harlow explains the “technological problems not relevant for questions of principle” needed to get string theory predictions

the idea is that in order to view string theory as a theory of nature, we need to view it as providing a unique probability measure on the space of low energy theories. This would be computed by understanding both the structure of the landscape and the dynamics of eternal inflation. We can then compare our observations to the predictions of this measure, and if they are atypical the theory is ruled out. We are far from doing this though, except for the imprecise cartoon that seems to more or less work for the cosmological constant. This seems just as scientific to me as quantum mechanics, except that we don’t yet know how to compute the probabilities.

I see a bunch of problems of principle here, starting with not knowing the underlying non-perturbative theory and going on from there. Some commenters over there think “It’s hard to even begin to imagine how one can even take Woit seriously.”, but it looks like they take seriously Harlow’s claims that this “seems just as scientific to me as quantum mechanics”, with the minor difference that you can’t calculate anything.

Posted in Book Reviews | 43 Comments


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.

: Nature covers the Munich conference as Feuding physicists turn to philosophy for help.

: 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.

Posted in Multiverse Mania | 70 Comments

Run 2 and SUSY

What surprised me most about today’s Run 2 results (see here) was that CMS and ATLAS were able to already significantly push up limits on superpartner masses, especially the gluino mass. Limits on the gluino mass went from 1.3-1.4 TeV in Run 1 to something like 1.6-1.8 TeV in the new Run 2 data (this depends on exactly what channels one is looking at). This not only kills off Gordon Kane’s string theory prediction of a 1.5 TeV gluino, but it also removes a large chunk of the remaining possible mass region that the LHC will be able to access. And it wasn’t just the gluino: ATLAS quoted limits on sbottom masses moving up from 650 GeV in Run 1 to 850 GeV today. Whatever you thought the remaining probability was for SUSY after the negative Run 1 results, it’s significantly smaller today.

Almost all the news has been about the possible diphoton excess, ignoring the quite significant story about SUSY. Davide Castelvecchi at Nature though today talked to Michael Peskin, who has been one of the more consistent proponents of SUSY over the years, and this was part of his story:

Meanwhile, searches for particles predicted by supersymmetry, physicists’ favourite extension of the standard model, continue to come up empty-handed. To theoretical physicist Michael Peskin of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, the most relevant part of the talks concerned the failure to find a supersymmetric particle called the gluino in the range of possible masses up to 1,600 GeV (much farther than the 1,300-GeV limit of Run 1). This pushes supersymmetry closer to the point where many physicists might give up on it, Peskin says.

I had thought that the “physicists give up on SUSY” story wouldn’t get going until next year, but maybe it’s already started.

: In just a few hours after the announcement already 10 papers on hep-ph devoted to explaining the diphoton resonance. SUSY explanations not among the popular ones.

: Another eight or so papers explaining the diphotons. And the press has the obvious explanation: string theory:

The idea seems to be that since people were looking for Randall-Sundrum gravitons (which somehow counts as string theory) then if they find something in the diphoton spectrum it could be a graviton. I’m no expert, but none of the dozens of hep-th papers seem to discuss this possibility, and the papers about searches for Randall-Sundrum gravitons (like this one) set limits way above a TeV. On the other hand, I don’t doubt that some “string vacuum” can be found that will explain the diphotons, and that we’ll hear more about it in the press.

Posted in This Week's Hype, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

LHC Run 2 First Results

First results using the full data from Run 2 at 13 TeV will be presented tomorrow at CERN at 15:00 Geneva time, with a live webcast available here. For some relevant commentary, see Tommaso Dorigo and Matt Strassler.

Among relatively reliable rumor sources, Jester is tweeting about a supposed excess at 750 GeV in the diphoton spectrum. We’ll see tomorrow, but the problem with this is that it would be hard to understand why such a thing didn’t show up in Run 1 at 8 TeV. Tommaso explains why it is only at higher masses that one expects the Run 2 data to be competitive with that from Run 1, and suggests that what to look for is a 2 TeV excess in the dijet spectrum, since there were already hints of such a thing in the Run 1 data.

Matt describes 13 TeV results recently published by the ATLAS and CMS groups looking for exotic behavior at very high mass (predicted for instance by various theories of extra dimensions). Nothing there.

One other thing to look for is whether Gordon Kane will get his Nobel Prize. He’s predicting a 1.5 TeV gluino, with current limits around 1.4 TeV, and this year’s Run 2 data perhaps enough to push those up a bit. It may though be that such analyses will be among those that take longer, not appearing until the Moriond conference in March.

Update: CMS went first, results now publicly available here. Tommaso was pulling our leg, the 2 GeV Run 1 excesses have gone away. There is a diphoton excess at 766 GeV, but an unimpressive one (2.6 sigma locally, 1.2 sigma with look elsewhere effect).

Gluino mass limits have moved up, some as high as 1.7 TeV. Presumably Kane is now at work on new string theory predictions.

Bottom line: nothing beyond the SM so far.

Update: ATLAS next. No gluinos up to 1.8 TeV. 2.2 sigma for the 2 TeV excess that CMS doesn’t see.

They also see an excess in diphotons around 750 GeV, 3.6 sigma local significance, 1.9 sigma with look-elsewhere. So, starts to look interesting if combined with CMS, the rumor was right. They also reanalyzed the Run 1 data, nothing there at 750 GeV, no combination of Run 1 and Run 2.

Results available here.

Bottom line: only thing interesting is the possible 750 GeV diphoton excess. One can predict a flood of theory papers with models predicting such a thing. Will have to wait until at least next summer though to see if this gets confirmed or goes away.

Commentary from Matt Strassler here.

Update: As expected, best explanation and discussion of the implications of the diphoton excess is from Jester, see here.

Reasons to be excited: naively combining CMS and ATLAS gives something of 4 sigma significance, people are making the analogy with the early Higgs signal. Reasons to be less excited: in the case of the early Higgs signal, the tentative signal was what was expected from the Higgs, and we had very good reasons to believe there was a Higgs roughly in that mass range. Here I know of no well-motivated models that predict this: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and this is not that.

Posted in Experimental HEP News | 13 Comments

White Smoke Over Oxford?

I’ve stolen the title of this posting from Michael Harris, see his posting for a discussion of the same topic.

A big topic of discussion among mathematicians this week is the ongoing workshop at Oxford devoted to Mochizuki’s claimed proof of the abc conjecture. For some background, see here. I first wrote about this when news arrived more than three years ago, with a comment that has turned out to be more accurate than I expected “it may take a very long time to see if this is really a proof.”

While waiting for news from Oxford, I thought it might be a good idea to explain a bit how this looks to mathematicians, since I think few people outside the field really understand what goes on when a new breakthrough happens in mathematics. It should be made clear from the beginning that I am extremely far from expert in any of this mathematics. These are very general comments, informed a bit by some conversations with those much more expert.

What I’m very sure is not going to happen this week is “white smoke” in the sense of the gathered experts there announcing that Mochizuki’s proof is correct. Before this can happen a laborious process of experts going through the proof looking for subtle problems in the details needs to take place, and that won’t be quick.

The problem so far has been that experts in this area haven’t been able to get off the ground, taking the first step needed. Given a paper claiming a proof of some well-known conjecture that no one has been able to prove, an expert is not going to carefully read from the beginning, checking each step, but instead will skim the paper looking for something new. If no new idea is visible, the tentative conclusion is likely to be that the proof is unlikely to work (in which case, depending on circumstances, spending more time on the paper may or may not be worthwhile). If there is a new idea, the next step is to try and understand its implications, how it fits in with everything else known about the subject, and how it may change our best understanding of the subject. After going through this process it generally becomes clear whether a proof will likely be possible or not, and how to approach the laborious process of checking a proof (i.e. which parts will be routine, which parts much harder).

Mochizuki’s papers have presented a very unusual challenge. They take up a large number of pages, and develop an argument using very different techniques than people are used to. Experts who try and skim them end up quickly unable to see their way through a huge forest of unrecognizable features. There definitely are new ideas there, but the problem is connecting them to known mathematics to see if they say something new about that. The worry is that what Mochizuki has done is create a new formalism with all sorts of new internal features, but no connection to the rest of mathematics deep enough and powerful enough to tell us something new about that.

Part of the problem has been Mochizuki’s own choices about how to explain his work to the outside world. He feels that he has created a new and different way of looking at the subject, and that those who want to understand it need to start from the beginning and work their way through the details. But experts who try this have generally given up, frustrated at not being able to identify a new idea powerful enough in its implications for what they know about to make the effort worthwhile. Mochizuki hasn’t made things easier, with his decision not to travel to talk to other experts, and with most of the activity of others talking to him and trying to understand his work taking place locally in Japan in Japanese, with little coming out of this in a form accessible to others.

It’s hard to emphasize how incredibly complex, abstract and difficult this subject is. The number of experts is very small and most mathematicians have no hope of doing anything useful here. What’s happening in Oxford now is that a significant number of experts are devoting the week to their best effort to jointly see if they can understand Mochizuki’s work well enough to identify a new idea, and together start to explore its implications. The thing to look for when this is over is not a consensus that there’s a proof, but a consensus that there’s a new idea that people have now understood, one potentially powerful enough to solve the problem.

About this, I’m hearing mixed reports, but I can say that some of what I’m hearing is unexpectedly positive. It now seems quite possible that what will emerge will be some significant understanding among experts of a new idea. And that will be the moment of a real breakthrough in the subject.

Update: Turns out the “unexpectedly positive” was a reaction to day 3, which covered pre-IUT material. Today, when things turned to the IUT stuff, it did not go well at all. See the link in the comments from lieven le bruyn to a report from Felipe Voloch. Unfortunately it now looks quite possible that the end result of this workshop will be a consensus that the IUT part of this story is just hopelessly impenetrable.

Update: Brian Conrad has posted here a long and extremely valuable discussion of the Oxford workshop and the state of attempts to understand Mochizuki’s work. He makes clear where the fundamental problem has been with communication to other mathematicians, and why this problem still remains even after the workshop. The challenge going forward is to find a way to address it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 37 Comments

Today’s Hype

Joe Polchinski’s contribution to the ongoing Munich meeting has now appeared on the arXiv, with the title String Theory to the Rescue. Evidently he’s not actually to be at the meeting, I’m not sure how his paper will be presented.

It’s pretty much the usual hype about the string theory and the multiverse, with untestable ideas about quantum gravity the only topic. The one innovation is that it contains a calculation: the probability of a multiverse is 94%:

To conclude this section, I will make a quasi-Bayesian estimate of the likelihood that there is a multiverse. To establish a prior, I note that a multiverse is easy to make: it requires quantum mechanics and general relativity, and it requires that the building blocks of spacetime can exist in many metastable states. We do not know if this last is true. It is true for the building blocks of ordinary matter, and it seems to be a natural corollary to getting physics from geometry. So I will start with a prior of 50%. I will first update this with the fact that the observed cosmological constant is small. Now, if I consider only known theories, this pushes the odds of a multiverse close to 100%. But I have to allow for the possibility that the correct theory is still undiscovered, so I will be conservative and reduce the no-multiverse probability by a factor of two, to 25%. The second update is that the vacuum energy is nonzero. By the same (conservative) logic, I reduce the no-multiverse probability to 12%. The final update is the fact that our outstanding candidate for a theory of quantum gravity, string theory, most likely predicts a multiverse. But again I will be conservative and take only a factor of two. So this is my estimate for the likelihood that the multiverse exists: 94%.
This is not to say that the multiverse is on the same footing as the Higgs, or the Big Bang. Probability 94% is two sigma; two sigma effects do go away (though I factored in the look-elsewhere effect, else I would get a number much closer to 1). The standard for the Higgs discovery was five sigma, 99.9999%.

My problem with a lot of the West Coast theorists is that I don’t seem to have the same sense of humor, so often I have trouble telling when they’re joking (does anyone know when Andrei Linde is joking?). Here though it seems quite clear that Polchinski is pulling the leg of the philosophers gathered to hear him speak. My calculations show that the chance the above text could be a serious contribution to a philosophy of science conference cannot be above .1%.

The other evidence that something comical is going on here comes from some of the over-the-top claims about the virtues of string theory. In particular, we’re told

A remarkable feature of string theory is that the dynamics, the equation of motion, is completely fixed by general principle. This is consistent with the overall direction of fundamental theory, describing the vast range of phenomena that we see in terms of fewer and fewer underlying principles. Uniqueness would seem to be the natural endpoint to this process, but such theories are truly rare…
Indeed, when I assert that the equations of string theory are fully determined by general principle, I must admit that we do not yet know the full form of the equations, or the ultimate principle.

Polchinski is quite right that it is “remarkable” to know that you have a unique theory, with unique equations, fixed by a general, ultimate principle, but you don’t know what the theory is, what the equations are, or what the principle is. I’m curious to hear from people at the conference what gets the bigger laughs: this or Kane’s argument that the unknown theory predicts a 1.5 TeV gluino (unless it’s not found, in which case it doesn’t).

: See here for the latest coverage of the meeting from Massimo Pigliucci, who comments at one point:

[Yet another string theorist. I must say, there does seem to be a stacking of them at this conference, and no experimentalists have been invited either]

: For more on Polchinski’s paper there’s Sean Carroll on Twitter, here and here, who tells us

So strange how the public perception of string theory has been warped by a few contrarian voices. Good topic for some future PhD thesis.

and that Polchinski’s new paper

lays out the case for string theory, and how unexpectedly successful it’s been.

I’m assuming by “contrarian voices” he’s referring to Polchinski. That string theory has been “unexpectedly successful” and the multiverse is a 94% sure thing is a highly contrarian point of view among physicists.

Update: More coverage of the workshop is available from Sabine Hossenfelder and Massimo Pigliucci.

Posted in Multiverse Mania, This Week's Hype | 39 Comments