Beauty, Fashion and Emperors

Roger Penrose has a new book out in England, called “The Road to Reality”. It is 1000 pages long and is now ranked number 17 on Amazon’s UK site. There’s a review of the book here.

It sounds like the book contains all sorts of things, including some of the material about string theory that Penrose has presented in public talks various places about “Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in Modern Physical Theories”. One version of these talks is available online from Princeton. By “Fashion” Penrose is referring to string theory, and he considers the question of why it is so fashionable. String theory has been heavily sold as “beautiful” and to some extent Penrose seems to go along with this, but his invoking of the term “fashion” indicates an awareness of how problematic notions of “beauty” can be. The latest fashionable clothes are heavily promoted for their beauty, although after a few years, when they become unfashionable, this beauty is no longer so obvious.”Beauty” is very often a social construct, with many people willing to agree that something is “beautiful” if everyone around them is saying so. Recall the story of the emperor and his fashionable outfit.

I’ve never understood these claims that string theory is “beautiful”, and was again struck by this when I got ahold of a copy of Barton Zwiebach’s new book on string theory aimed at undergraduates called A First Course in String Theory. Most of the first 270 pages of the book are devoted to working out in detail the quantization of the bosonic string in light-cone gauge, and I find it hard to believe that anyone finds this a beautiful subject. It is mathematically rather complicated and not that interesting, and has no real connection to any observable physics.

Later on in the book Zwiebach does devote a fair amount of space to trying to connect string theory to the standard model, mainly using the construction of intersecting D6 branes. At the end of this section, he acknowledges that this construction is truly hideous and looks all too much like a Ptolemaic use of epicycles on epicycles to explain planetary motion, saying “the models seem contrived, at least in the sense that they are engineered to give the physics that we observe, rather than obtained naturally as the simplest solutions of string theory”. He quotes Alfonso the Wise (1221-1284) as having said the following about Ptolemaic epicycles:

“Had I been present at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.”

He tries to end on a more optimistic note, hoping that some deeper meaning of string theory will emerge with more work, quoting Maimonides as follows:

“In the realm of Nature, there is nothing purposeless, trivial or unnecessary”

which begs the question of whether string theory is part of the “realm of Nature”.

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24 Responses to Beauty, Fashion and Emperors

  1. Mal says:

    There are several reviews in top UK newspapers of Penrose’s “The Road to Reality”, many are referenced from here (including one by John Gribbin):

  2. Chris Oakley says:

    I do not believe that Newton or Einstein, or most others who have made significant contributions to science have been significantly cleverer than their contemporaries. What they have tended to bring to the party was independence of mind. They come up with things that the others could have come up with but did not because they were not asking the right questions. This quality enables them to ignore what people around them are saying and just figure things out for themselves. Following this principle – the Sinatra doctrine – they end up being either much more right or much more wrong than average (Einstein managed both). Although I cannot claim to have all the answers in this regard, it seems to me that the research machine as presently structured, is not an efficient factory for research ideas. If the tenured professors, who make almost all the decisions about the direction of research, were infinitely wise there would not be a problem. The reality though is that their students may be able to do better, and if they can, and end up losing the support of their supervisors as a result then they have no choice other than to leave. This kind of hierarchical structure may work for the military, but it does not work in areas where creativity and lateral thinking are an important element.

  3. erinj says:

    But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and surely the fact that Newton’s words live on after over 300 years is testimony to the impact his life and work made upon Western civilization and, more broadly, humanity. I don’t believe that these comments are poking fun at Newton the person, but rather at his legacy, which I think is as vast as any one human being has ever left to us.

    As you rightly imply, Chris, none of us are likely to leave such an enormous and influential legacy behind, and I believe that anyone who has studied any physics very likely has the utmost respect for Newton. I know I do, and for me this made such remarks more interesting: in fact, I found your analogy involving Newton’s famous quotation fascinating. I recall (perhaps incorrectly) that the `beach’ quotation originally appeared in a letter Newton wrote to somebody. How likely, though, are we to quote passages from Newton’s Optiks or Principia Mathematica today I wonder?

    As far as I know, Newton was not known for his humour during his lifetime, and even had a dour expression (I would think this fitting given how seriously and deeply he must have contemplated things). I recall reading that his theory of universal gravitation was subject to ridicule after it became famous, yet Newton was far more concerned with his ongoing arguments involving fellow natural philosophers such as Hooke and Leibniz.

    “Have legs, use legs.”

    – Sir Isaac Newton

  4. Chris Oakley says:

    I just got a message from Isaac Newton through a medium:

    You guys are really beginning to piss me off. Yes, I wrote that thing about the pebbles and seashells. And the stuff about giants. But that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to twist my words in ridiculous ways just to amuse yourselves. Have you got a unit of force named after you? Did you figure out the universal law of gravitation? Thought not. So maybe if you come up with some great new physics, preferably something where you get the number of dimensions right (three space, one time, in case you’ve forgotten) then you might, and I say might be in a position to fun of me.

  5. Arun says:

    And for those stupified by string theory : If I haven’t seen further than others, it is because I stood in the footprints of giants……

  6. Anonymous says:

    “…wandering in the car show room and diverting myself and now and then finding a shinier car or a faster SUV than ordinary…”

    Argh! I get the “half-asstrophysicists” thing now. Excuse me for not being up to speed on US slang :s

  7. Anonymous says:

    Yes, I too spent time watching The Flintstones as a youngster, but they were all repeats on British television, so by then they were probably `classics’, considered worthy of repeating. I’d really like to see the towering giant become a loud and aggressive promoter of string theory as he gets older, shouting his defence of it in television interviews, though I doubt it would come to that.

    By the way DR, was “asstrophysicists” a typo?

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    Ok can’t resist…

    Chris made me think of Newton in a modern context

    “To myself, I have seemed but an itinerant contractor, stubbing out a bummed cigarette on the threshold of the loading dock, while all before may lay mostly undiscovered the great parking lot of truth.”

  9. D R Lunsford says:

    Start of a Gell-Mann lecture on string theory at Maryland – “I see we have a mixed audience of astronomers, physicists, and half-asstrophysicists…”


  10. Peter says:

    I often tell people I learn a lot from these comments, never expected to be learning Flintstone trivia. What is with all you people, are you as old as I am so also spent your childhood watching Flintsone cartoons (or I guess maybe they are classics and go on and on)?

    I loved the Gell-Mann quote, which was new to me. Ah, for the glory days of particle physics, when the leaders of the field were obnoxious, competitive, entertaining megalomaniacs. Now, we just have one person towering over a bunch of dwarves, and he’s a very nice, polite, soft-spoken guy.

  11. erinj says:

    Thanks, will do. If anything, I suppose the current state of this thread of comments seems to indicate that it’s quite easy to go astray from `The Road to Reality’ – in both senses 🙂 Reminds me of the office banter that used to go on whilst a research student, taking a break from the equations 🙂

  12. Chris Oakley says:

    No – “The Flintstones at Viva Rock Vegas” was a live action prequel to the 1994 film, but IMHO much better. It got panned by the critics, but they know nothing. It came out about 4 years ago. Get the video out and tell me what you think … although I suggest by e-mail rather than as a comment on a physics web log (however subversive it may be).

  13. erinj says:

    I thought `Pebbles’ was Fred and Wilma’s daughter… or was that `Bam Bam’? Maybe `Bam Bam’ (the one who wielded a club) was Barney Rubbles’ son? What was `Viva Rock Vegas’, Chris? I don’t remember that, but it’s gotta better than the live action film (though I thought Halle Berry as `Sharon Stone’ was good). Wasn’t `Dino’ the name of Fred and Wilma’s pet purple dinosaur?

  14. Chris Oakley says:

    “Pebbles” was their boy, wasn’t he? We’re getting way off topic, but am I the only one who thinks that “Viva Rock Vegas” is the best Flintstones thing ever?

  15. erinj says:

    I dunno about you, but all these comments about pebbles made me think of the Flintstones.

  16. Chris Oakley says:

    Danny and Steve –

    Thank-you for sharing your (most profound) insights with me. I’m sure that Sir Isaac, tracking Peter’s web log from his office in that great university in the sky, is regretting ever saying a damn thing about Oceans of Truth.

  17. Steve says:

    “If I have seen farther than others it is because I am surrounded by dwarves”
    Murrey Gellmann

  18. D R Lunsford says:

    Renorm: Pretending you can play with pebbles that are infinitely massive.

    Strings: Pretending that pebbles can fly.

    Branes: Pretending that flying pebbles can sing.

  19. Chris Oakley says:

    Without wishing to take the analogy too far –

    Renormalization: Pretending your rough pebbles are smooth.

    Superstrings: You never walked on the beach at all. You only dreamed it.

  20. D R Lunsford says:

    Right! – and I think it goes on, “If I have seen farther than others, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

  21. Chris Oakley says:

    You mean this one?

    “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore and diverting myself and now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier seashell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

    Sir Isaac Newton

  22. D R Lunsford says:

    Nice quote – on the other hand we have Newton, who actually accomplished some physics – who said “Hypotheses non fingo” – a modest admission that he wasn’t God or even privvy to His Thought, just a working stiff attempting to understand how the planets move the way they do. He also said in effect “I couldn’t have done this without your help” to Galileo and Kepler. In these days when it’s popular to bash Einstein and Dirac, that quote – the “great ocean of truth” one – seems much more powerful to me.

    I sometimes wonder if obession with the ineffable realm of abstraction is a sort of drug addiction that is clouding the collective judgment.

  23. Peter says:

    Hi Eric,

    Wonderful quote. Your book gives an excellent and precise explanation of the way in which good physics really is “beautiful” or “elegant”, along the lines of Leibniz.

    For more about Eric’s book, see something I wrote a few months ago here

  24. Eric Baum says:

    God has chosen the world that is the most perfect, that is to say,
    the one that is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the
    richest in phenomena.
    — Gottfried Von Liebniz

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