This and That

First, a few physics items:

  • Mark Alpert has a new novel out, Saint Joan of New York, a thriller subtitled “A Novel About God and String Theory”, which is an accurate description. It’s published by Springer, so you may be able to get access to it like I did through an institutional license here.

    The plot revolves around Joan, a talented high school student here in New York, who has been learning more advanced material through a mentor at City College, and in particular has learned about string theory and Calabi-Yaus. This Joan plays the role of a modern-day analog of Joan of Arc, using divine help to do battle not with the English, but with more modern dark forces. This divine help includes a revelation about Calabi-Yaus and the theory of everything. It’s a thriller, so I’ll avoid telling more about the plot so as not to spoil it.

    I quite enjoyed reading the book even though I’m not much of a fan of thrillers, although a lot of enjoyment was due to the fact that much of the action takes place here in New York on the Upper West Side, and that the main plot revolves around the question of string theory and existence of a TOE. Edward Witten plays a role in the story.

    If you like this one, you might also want to read some of Alpert’s other novels, a couple of which also involve themes of a TOE.

  • Most theorists have abandoned the search for a TOE, or the idea of explaining anything about the Standard Model, in favor of concentrating on hopes to find some sort of emergent theory of quantum gravity. For the latest on this, talks from the recent misleadingly titled Quantum Gravity in the Lab conference at Google might at some point be available. John Preskill’s slides are here. He indicates that the general idea is that quantum gravity will emerge from “Massive Entanglement, Quantum Chaos and Complexity.” This week the IAS will host a similar event, a workshop on Qubits and Spacetime. Wednesday evening many of the participants will be put on a bus to Manhattan, where they’ll continue with the 2019 meeting of the Simons Foundation-funded “It From Qubit” collaboration.
  • Also here in New York this week, Roger Penrose will be at Pioneer Works Friday night for a public program involving a conversation with Janna Levin. I have no idea whether his presence in New York at the same time as “It From Qubit” is a coincidence or not. If not, maybe the “It from Qubit” people will get back on the bus and head out to Red Hook Friday night.
  • Instead of being at the IAS, Nima Arkani-Hamed has been spending the past semester at Harvard, with activities that include teaching a course, Physics 283B: Spacetime and Quantum Mechanics, Total Positivity and Motives. Videos of his lectures are online here (first one here). It would be great if someone could put together a written set of lecture notes from these videos.
  • Finally, for some multiverse-related book reviews that have the unusual feature of showing some skepticism, see John Horgan here, Matt Leifer here, also Chris Fuchs here. Fuchs explains the problem with multiple worlds as a solution to the measurement problem:

    Its main shortcoming is simply this: The interpretation is completely contentless. I am not exaggerating or trying to be rhetorical. It is not that the interpretation is too hard to believe or too nonintuitive or too outlandish for physicists to handle the truth (remember the movie A Few Good Men?). It is just that the interpretation actually does not say anything whatsoever about reality. I say this despite all the fluff of the science-writing press and a few otherwise reputable physicists, like Sean Carroll, who seem to believe this vision of the world religiously.

Some mathematics items:

Update: In case you haven’t been getting enough hype about the multiverse recently, Scientific American has Long Live the Multiverse! for you, from Tom Siegfried. Siegfried assures us that “multiverse advocates have been right historically”. He also assures SciAm readers that multiverse theories are testable, in a way similar to the way Einstein demonstrated the existence of atoms in 1905 using Brownian motion:

For that matter, it’s not necessarily true that other universes are in principle not observable. If another bubble collided with ours, telltale marks might appear in the cosmic background radiation left over from the big bang. Even without such direct evidence, their presence might be inferred by indirect means, just as Einstein demonstrated the existence of atoms in 1905 by analyzing the random motion of particles suspended in liquid.

He doesn’t mention that his analog of the Brownian motion experiment has been done: people have looked for the predicted indirect effects of other bubble universes on ours, and found nothing. To the extent that the multiverse is testable, it has been tested and found to not be there.

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23 Responses to This and That

  1. Matt Leifer, not Liefer!

  2. Will Sawin says:

    > I once asked Daniel Simon, one of the founders of quantum computation, whether Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics aided him in finding his now-famous quantum algorithm. His response makes me laugh to this day: “Everett? Who’s Everett? And what is his interpretation?”

    This seems like a strange argument because Simon’s work built on earlier work of Deutsch-Jozsa, which built on earlier work of Deutsch, who was heavily inspired by Everett. So Everett’s ideas contributed, at least somewhat, to Simon’s work regardless of whether he was aware of them.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Arnold Neumaier,
    Thanks! Fixed.

  4. Blake Stacey says:

    Jozsa, to the best of my knowledge, distrusted quantum mechanics: His motivation for working on quantum computation was to see how far the theory could be pushed, and what would break if we actually tried to build a device that relied upon quantum physics to compute. (This is conference chatter; I don’t have a specific written reference in mind, though I can try to dig one up some day when I have more library time.)

    And yes, it’s Leifer, though he pronounces it the way that German 101 would make you think is written Liefer.

  5. Will Sawin says:

    Blake Stacy,

    Perhaps this demonstrates the incompleteness of “has led to useful research” as a measure of the quality of a theory (though it is surely a very useful one). Skepticism of the accuracy of quantum mechanics has led to a lot of interesting research over the past century. But all of that research has just given us more reasons to trust quantum mechanics.

  6. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I listened to a sobering piece on NPR this weekend (Living Lab, you can look it up). The subject was “Planck’s Principle”, i.e., roughly, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

    Someone actually attempted to test this notion with some rigor. The field was bio-medicine, but there likely are implications for other fields.

    The conclusions were actually worse than Planck thought: Even if a Superstar scientist dies, their proteges keep up the rear-guard, stifling progress about as effectively. It’s not enough for the ossified to die off. You’ve got to worry about all the people still around who agree with them.

    Seems relevant to Multiverse Madness and its otherwise inexplicable staying power.

  7. Peter Woit says:


    The problem is that Multiverse Mania is not something just afflicting older leading theorists, with younger theorists skeptical. Unfortunately I think to some extent the situation is reversed. Perhaps the leading theorist most willing to take on the mania has been David Gross, who is now 78. Any list you make of prominent proponents will be almost all significantly younger.

    There’s a historically unusual situation here: the field of HEP theory made huge advances for a very long time, until the mid-seventies. Since then progress has come to a halt, arguably turned negative post-1984 with string theory and now the multiverse. The people who were trained during the period of progress are now hitting retirement age and the field is dominated by those trained in failed ideas who have never experienced what progress looks like. All our usual historically based modes of thinking about how science evolves in time, continually progressing, may no longer be relevant.

    On some days I also notice that ideas I grew up with about US history as a progression towards a better and better society are not looking so good either right now, and the cheeriest thought available is that one does get old, die and not have to see where this goes…

  8. no idea says:

    On a more cheerful (?) note, the Memories of Sir Michael Atiyah are indeed a wonderful read. Lusztig’s mention that Atiyah pointed out Sandy Green’s seminal work on representations of GL(n) reminds me that (a) Atiyah was in the habit of denigrating algebra and extolling the virtues of geometry, and (b) Green was strongly opposed to this point of view. I well remember a wonderful lecture Green gave in Bielefeld, I think some time in the 1990s, in which he systematically demolished all of Atiyah’s arguments, and convinced the audience beyond a shadow of a doubt of the superiority of algebra over geometry.

  9. Maik says:


    the idea that science progresses continuously is not as prominent in the philosophy of science any more as it used to be. The situation has changed with Thomas Kuhn’s works, who advocated for the idea that science progresses in cycles with phases of `normal science’ ultimately leading to a `phase of crisis’ until `revolutionary science’ causes a `paradigm shift’ and starts the cycle over again. If one believes in this, then one may very well view `multiverse mania’ as a symptom of crisis.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    I understand that the idea of continual scientific progress has always been understood to be problematic. But what I’m referring to is something different than the Kuhnian “normal science” leads to “crisis” leads to “revolutionary science” and then “paradigm shift”, which is a model of progress with forward jumps.

    What if the “crisis” of no progress goes on so long that the field loses its best people and instead attracts those happy with a bogus “revolution”, one that is not in any sense progress? As far as I know Kuhn or Kuhnians haven’t looked at this possibility, which may describe where we are now.

    In the political realm the analog is a crisis of representative democracy leading to the rise of authoritarian demagogues, a phenomenon which is historically much more well-known.

  11. Maik says:


    In Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” this is actually how he describes a crisis: Many capable people leave the field (some are forced out because they openly question `the paradigm’), old approaches and old (implicit) methodologies fail, scientific `puzzles’ are solved via ad hoc postulates often in (indirect) conflict with the paradigmatic approach taken (personal note: which you may call `revolution’ to make your approach more popular), theorizing becomes more and more elaborate without solving the actual problems.
    So Kuhn would probably say that this is just how crises look like.

    Of course, you are right to say that it is not fully clear where to draw the lines, i.e. reality is often more complex than that. Yet in my mind this is just a consequence of the fact that Kuhn’s work is not a mathematical theory, but a qualitative description of a sociological process (like politics).

  12. Peter Woit says:


    I guess then the new situation is that HEP theory has been in a crisis for about 40 years or so, a situation with no analog in modern scientific history. To find another such 40 year period, I think you’d need to go back to a point where the field was organized very differently (e.g. a factor of 100 fewer researchers). What happens to a field that is in “crisis” for too long?

  13. Maik says:


    Frank Pajares (Emory University) has a good synopsis of Kuhn’s book on his website. Kuhn answers your question in Chapter VIII “The Response to Crisis”: Basically, the fundamental scientific problems (e.g. what was the multiverse supposed to solve?) start to become recognized as such, resolving them becomes the focus of an increasing amount of scholars, and the otherwise very rigid “rules for normal research” start to loosen up, opening the gate for new ideas and thus new potential resolutions. Then, either `normal science’ solves the problem after all (i.e. it was a hard problem, the problems were not with the paradigm itself), scholars set it aside (i.e. it is openly labelled a hard problem without renouncing the paradigm and the solution is left to future generations), or a new paradigm emerges (Kuhn describes in detail how that works).

    I would not view things as pessimistically as your words suggest. Physics has lifted off only in the last few hundred years or so. By now we have been able to get rid of an extremely natural, but ultimately naive and wrong view of space and time, and have been able to take a very good glimpse at how matter is fundamentally structured. Yes, we have more researchers today, but I dare to claim that research and research environments have also become more complex. Maybe it is my age, but I am quite confident that good and honest science will resolve the issues we face today.

  14. Peter Shor says:

    @Maik: as Peter says, the scary part is that soon the people dominating the field of HEP will never have seen their subfield of physics work in a normal scientific mode, and will think that the paradigm of scientific `puzzles’ being solved via ad hoc postulates and wild extrapolations from toy models is the normal paradigm.

    If they then accept all the ad hoc postulates and toy models that the now-senior researchers have already come up with, and also come up with their own ad hoc postulates and toy models (that may or may not subtly contradict the ad hoc postulates that everybody already believes), they will end up with a body of `knowledge’ built on extremely flimsy foundations.

    This is the way the `It from Qubit’ subcommunity of physicists seems to be headed. If it weren’t for the example of the AMPS paper (which showed that the community can sometimes realize that some of their ad hoc postulates are self-contradictory), I would be in a state of complete despair over the direction of the field.

  15. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Dear Peter,

    I draw your attention to a new scientific publication that criticises string theory. I quote from
    «String theory provides an example of how white supremacist racial prestige asymmetry produces an antiempiricist epistemic practice among physicists, white empiricism». «String theory has failed to succeed in expected ways because the community—which is almost entirely male and disproportionately white relative to other areas of physics—is too homogeneous». «Disentangling physics from the norms of patriarchal white supremacy must begin with an honest accounting of the roots of the Western scientific project in the project of slavery». «Science is traditionally a sexist and racist practice». «White empiricism contravenes core tenets of modern physics (e.g., covariance and relativity)». «Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression». «There are contexts in which Black women are epistemically privileged observers».

    The author is presented on popular press as one of the greatest promises of US physics, and influential author of Particles For Justice. Does a field that produces this kind of results deserve to be funded as science?

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Alessandro Strumia,
    Thanks, I hadn’t seen that, and hadn’t thought of that particular explanation for string theory multiverse mania.

    The research behind that paper was funded by a 100K grant from FQXI, which also has funded a great deal of pro-multiverse research.

  17. Suzanne says:

    Alessandro, thanks for the link. I couldn’t believe it first, but the following is indeed an actual sentence from that paper:

    “Given that Black women must, according to Einstein’s principle of covariance, have an equal claim to objectivity regardless of their simultaneously experiencing intersecting axes of oppression, we can dispense with any suggestion that the low number of Black women in science indicates any lack of validity on their part as observers.”


    Not sure that person has understood “Einstein’s principle of covariance”, but the insight’s from that research seem well worth the 100K…

  18. FB36 says:

    An interesting article about String Theory etc:

    “He feels that their attacks are part of an “especially regrettable” trend, whereby “anyone can have a valid opinion on any subject, regardless of their technical knowledge and appreciation of it”.”

  19. John Baez says:

    More madness: an article in Quanta titled Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable, with the blurb “By considering simple symmetries, physicists working on the “bootstrap” have rederived the four known forces. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics,” said one.”

    Yay! Fundamental physics has been solved! It’s done!

    The funny thing is that the article says nothing at all about the details of this supposed earth-shaking discovery. And indeed the work being reported on has nothing to do with deriving the four known forces.

    It’s sad to see Quanta sinking into the mire of fake news that’s engulfed so many other pop physics reporting. Are we really entering a post-truth world?

  20. Jack Morava says:

    what John just said.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    I’m unable to understand why either string theory’s problems with predicting anything or general covariance in GR have anything to do with the problems Black women encounter in the physics community. The discussion I’ve seen of this on Twitter is not encouraging and I’d rather people not engage in it more here.

    For my take on Farmelo and his claims, I refer you to here
    where I address a similar comment from him in his book with
    “As for the last bit, I’ll just say that I think it can accurately be described as “sleazy””.

    John Baez/Jack Morava,
    That was odd, especially, the sub-headline
    “By considering simple symmetries, physicists working on the “bootstrap” have rederived the four known forces. “There’s just no freedom in the laws of physics,” said one.”
    which is complete nonsense.
    I was planning on writing a more substantive blog entry about this, trying to explain what this is about in a non-misleading way. No time today, probably tomorrow…

  22. Boyer Lindquist says:

    Reading the essay “A mathematical mindset” by Matin Durrani from Dec 2019 issue of Physics World, one senses a revisionist history of TQFT as a result of string theory instead of Yang-Mills instantons in late ’70s, e.g. the Atiyah–Drinfeld–Hitchin–Manin construction, while hadronic ST was already considered a failure replaced by QCD.

  23. Peter Woit says:

    Boyer Lindquist,

    After many attempts, I’ve given up on trying to get people to look at the actual history of TQFT, and to understand that Witten did not get his Fields Medal for string theory but for something different. For one of my early attempts, see here

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