The Number of the Heavens

Multiverse mania seems to have been dying down recently, with this only the third entry in that category here so far this year, after 10 in 2018, 13 in 2017, 10 in 2016, 17 in 2015, 18 in 2014, 12 in 2013, 9 in 2012, 15 in 2011. Bringing up the rear (hopefully…) is The Number of the Heavens, Tom Siegfried’s new book out today from Harvard University Press.

Siegfried is about the worst of the many journalists covering fundamental physics that I’ve run into over the years (only real competition is K.C. Cole). For some of his efforts as a journalist over the years, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. It’s not surprising that his multiverse book is an atrocious piece of propaganda.

It’s basically a compendium of arguments for string theory and the multiverse, with a bit of extra history tacked on. You get to read long sections of all the usual pro-string landscape and multiverse arguments from the usual suspects: Carroll, Deutsch, Guth, Greene, Linde, Polchinski, Rees, Susskind, Tegmark, and Weinberg. There’s the usual chapter on the MWI, ending with the acknowledgement that this has nothing at all to do with what the rest of the book is about. There’s a chapter about the glories of supersymmetry, brane-world scenarios, nothing about negative results from the LHC.

The way Siegfried handles criticism of string theory, etc. is very simple: pretend it doesn’t exist. As far as I can tell, there’s nothing anywhere in the book that even acknowledges that there’s another side to this story: for instance, no Baggott, Hossenfelder, Smolin, Penrose, or any reference to any book at all critical of string theory or multiverse hype. While there’s zero criticism of string theory, there are, as far as I can tell, just two appearances of multiverse critics:

  • On pages 223-8, remarks by Burt Richter at a panel discussion in 2006 get two paragraphs, followed by four pages of arguments from Linde, Susskind, Polchinski and Carroll explaining why he’s wrong. The prominent multiverse critic David Gross makes a brief appearance in these pages, with no mention of the fact that he is a multiverse critic.
  • Pages 262-9 are labeled a section on “Multiverse Deniers”, but there’s only one multiverse denialist quoted, George Ellis, with the only source given for his arguments this paper. In these pages short excerpts of his arguments are interleaved with long explanations from the author (as well as Weinberg, Wilczek, Carroll, Donoghue and Rees) about why Ellis is wrong.

Th one thing I can’t figure out about this book is how it got to be published by a reputable university press. My understanding has always been that university presses have some commitment to ensuring scholarly excellence in what they publish, for instance by having a manuscript about a controversy reviewed by experts from both sides. That obviously can’t have happened in this case, so I must be mistaken about how places like Harvard University Press now operate.

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10 Responses to The Number of the Heavens

  1. tulpoeid says:

    “Multiverse deniers” must be the most disgusting term ever used seriously in a scientific discussion.

    Spelling out the obvious – but are they now pretending so blatantly that multiverse is the mainstream in the community as to imply that the rest are lunatics whom it’s okay to ridicule in their face?

    I hope that the guy is just a special case that nobody takes seriously but, yes, if it is so then HUP is certainly helping change that.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    tulpoeid,
    From everything I’ve seen, many influential string theorists have realized that the string landscape multiverse is a big problem for their subject, convincing many people string theory is a failure. Vafa is quite explicit about how trying to avoid this is the motivation for his swampland program. See for instance here
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=10486

    I suspect very few people take Siegfried seriously, and the fact that he’s publishing with HUP is probably due to not being able to sell this to a commercial publisher. I see that the book is currently #182,033 on Amazon, which means that just after release this is selling less than one book/day. The few copies in existence are probably ones like the one I found in the stacks of the Columbia library, where they likely buy one copy of everything HUP publishes. Once I return it, presumably it will sit there undisturbed for the next few decades.

    It probably would have been best to just ignore the thing, but I was outraged that my alma mater’s university press would publish something like this (and I’m still curious how that could have happened).

  3. Miguel says:

    Given your own stated experience with university presses’s handling of string theory projects, I’m not entirely surprised!

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Miguel,
    My experience with Cambridge University Press was I suspect different: they had the manuscript reviewed by people with a range of opinions. The non-string theorists were very positive, the string theorists very negative. The negative opinions created a problem for them with publishing the book.

    On the other hand, I did see that university presses do some weird things: Princeton University Press hired Lubos Motl to review the book for them…

  5. John says:

    Glad you didn’t actually buy the book. Buying the book only helps to continue the hype and puts money in their pockets.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    John,
    I’m glad to not have faced the moral issue of whether to spend money on a book like this in order to write about. In this case, my university did, and that’s a more interesting issue. I’m assuming they likely buy everything HUP publishes, and perhaps HUP is kept afloat not by selling books to the public, but by this effective subsidy, due to its reputation.

    I don’t have a problem with this in prinicple, nothing wrong with subsidizing in this or other ways the publication of high-quality books. But if you are going to have such a system, something has gone wrong if you use it to subsidize the publication of things of this low quality.

  7. Narad says:

    perhaps HUP is kept afloat not by selling books to the public, but by this effective subsidy, due to its reputation

    They’re endowed.

    It probably would have been best to just ignore the thing, but I was outraged that my alma mater’s university press would publish something like this (and I’m still curious how that could have happened).

    I recommend looking at the volume of titles turned out weekly. The CFO of the university press I toiled for, who bore a certain temperamental resemblance to Yosemite Sam, once vented to me (we both smoked cigarettes then) about his inability to get Books to understand that a parade of gender studies titles wasn’t going to keep the lights on.
     
    I have no idea whether HUP has a top-down quota, but this strikes me as business as usual.

  8. Jim Baggott says:

    Not wishing to sound disrespectful of HUP, but my experience with an academic publisher confronted with a profoundly anti-string theory/multiverse book proposal was rather different. Oxford University Press has published most of my popular science output, with two new books on quantum mechanics due next year. Yet after receiving reviews on my proposal for ‘Farewell to Reality’ from a couple of academic physicists, one strongly positive but another worried about what kind of message such a book would send, OUP declined. ‘Farewell to Reality’ was published by a commercial publisher in 2013. (And the reviewer who welcomed the proposal later agreed to comment on the manuscript.)

    I fear that the real truth is that even academic publishers with a trade books division are – like all publishers right now – feeling the pinch of declining sales and disruption from alternative online sources. And although books about string theory and the multiverse are less prevalent these days, as Sean Carroll has demonstrated, books on controversial scientific subjects can still sell well.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Jim Baggott,
    That’s interesting, very similar to my experience with CUP. Basically if something is actually controversial, in the sense that there are prominent academics on both sides, they are very leery of publishing. I was explicitly told by one editor of a university press (Princeton?) that Not Even Wrong was too controversial to be published by a university press. So, like your book, it ended up being a commercial publisher that published it.

    In the case of the Siegfried book, the way Siegfried deals with the controversy he’s writing about is by essentially pretending one side of the controversy is illegitimate, represented by two misguided “deniers”. If HUP editors tried to find reviewers on both sides of the multiverse controversy, from looking at the manuscript the only people referred to on the “denier” side would have been Burt Richter (now dead) and George Ellis. If they didn’t get Ellis to review the book, they would have had to go out and dig deeper to figure out who other “deniers” were. I’m guessing they didn’t do this, likely refereeing a book about a controversy with reviewers all on one side of it.

  10. Shantanu Desai says:

    Can someone point out these concerns to HUP?

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