Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff 1949-2021/22

A few days ago I heard news from Paris of the death of Grichka Bogdanoff on Dec. 28, and this morning heard of the death yesterday of his twin brother Igor. There are many news stories online (e.g. here), and Lubos Motl has written about them here.

There’s a chapter in my book Not Even Wrong about “The Bogdanov Affair”, and quite a few blog postings here referred to the twins and their activities related to theoretical physics. The motivations for writing about them were always two-fold. That they had managed to get more or less nonsensical papers published in reputable physics journals in 2001-2 (Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity) raised important questions about how one evaluates speculative theoretical physics research. But also, the whole story had many comic aspects (see for instance here). I always supposed that to some extent the brothers were in on the joke and I hope that was true. At one point they invited me to come see them when I was in Paris, but I decided not to take them up on the offer, since it seemed best to keep one’s distance from whatever they were doing. In recent years I hadn’t been following at all their activities.

There’s a darkly comedic aspect to this and other examples of prominent people opposed to COVID vaccinations succumbing themselves to the disease. I’m sorry that this happened to the brothers, putting a final all too avoidable tragedy at the end of their remarkable life stories.

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21 Responses to Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff 1949-2021/22

  1. FG says:

    To be fair, although unvaccinated, there were not proselyte about it. Instead, they seemed to have some kind of sentiment of superiority over the populace, as in “not only we are much smarter than you, but our body natural strength is also far superior and can go through anything unharmed”. Perhaps, since they were well known, and highly regarded in the pseudo-science circles that the antivax seem to frequent, there deaths will open the eyes of some.

    Being in France, it is a bit depressing to read their obituaries in the general press, where science illiterate journalists present them as “doctors in theoretical physics and mathematics” most often without any mention of the vivid negative reactions in the french physics community when they were granted PhDs. And for those newpapers that mention it in passing, they tend to present it as a “controversy” (like something which is a matter of opinion, rather than a scientific issue), as if the physics circles had been split about the value of their works.

  2. cgh says:

    My memory will not be accurate on all this but spanning the years between the Sokal and Bogdanoff affairs there were a number of examples of randomly worded papers being discussed and I recall websites (one at MIT if I remember correctly) that would randomly generate scientific papers. At the time I was publishing in peer reviewed journals in areas of mathematical physics less hifalutin than string theory and it wasn’t always easy. Referees challenged things, asked for wordmithing, simplification. Sometimes it was legitimate and other times I disagreed. Sometimes it seemed petty (as academics is wont to…) Sometimes it was annoying – I recall one time when I submitted two papers that I felt stood on their own but was asked to combine them by the same journal and, when I did, spent months arguing over issues related to combining disparate ideas in one paper. My point being that, for much of physics, it’s an effort to get things final and published in peer-reviewed, major journals (with the old page fees), as it should be, despite the pettiness and politics of publishing original academic work. At the time it struck me as very strange that qg, hep-th, could have these types of issues. Looking back it doesn’t strike me as strange.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    cgh,
    I don’t want to here get into the endless topic of the problems of the refereeing system. The Bogdanoff papers were an interesting test case though for this system. I’m pretty sure the brothers thought they were doing real scientific work. They were not writing a hoax paper a la Sokal designed specifically to fool a referee, but what they were writing was nonsensical and a working referee system should have immediately picked this up.

    The criticism I often got for writing about this story was along the lines of “sure, there are lots of bad papers getting published in bad journals, so what?”. Here though at least a couple of the journals (Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity) were quite reputable ones. This test case showed that their refereeing system could not distinguish sense from nonsense.

    I think the source of the problem is deeper than that referees are sometimes lazy and incompetent. The problem of quantum gravity research that is so incoherent that it’s hard to evaluate is one that has not gotten any better in the past twenty years.

    I’m resisting the temptation to start pointing to recent examples of such research that I personally can’t make sense of. The problem with incoherent research is that it often requires a lot of time and effort to be sure there’s not something interesting there that you are missing, and doing almost anything else with your time would be more worthwhile. I’m sure that’s a large part of the explanation of why referees allowed the Bogdanoff papers to be published.

  4. Pascal says:

    According to the above mentioned post by Lubos Motl, the scientific work by the Bogdanov brothers does make sense. Or at least, it’s not more nonsensical than average. In his own words:
    “While I wouldn’t see their dissertation as a fully meaningful foundation for further exciting research, I think that the papers were at least comparable with the average work that can earn PhDs.”

  5. Jonathan Chiche says:

    As regards the statement “I always supposed that to some extent the brothers were in on the joke and I hope that was true”: I still recall what I was told, back in the period 2005-2010, about the way the brothers had written their theses, how the head of École Polytechnique had been ordered to let one of them defend his thesis in the school’s premises, and the curt and dismissive reply made by the PhD candidate to a mathematician in the audience pointing out that what he had just heard did not make any sense. Unfortunately, I do not think anyone gave any public complete account regarding these matters at the time, and what remains is but hearsay. Thus, in a sense, this affair should have been taken more seriously. The truth would have been much clearer now. It could have been a valuable experience to meet them in Paris and try to get a precise and meaningful scientific statement from them. It may sometimes be hard to tell fraud and good faith apart, but the twins were delusional at best.

    Among the obituaries in French, I find this one quite telling: https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/medias/grichka-bogdanoff-un-etre-exquis-d-une-prodigieuse-intelligence-et-d-une-vaste-culture-20211228. You may think that the author too, writing, among other things, about Grichka Bogdanoff, “avait-il réellement un âge, lui qui, fervent amant des deux infinis pascaliens, transcendait toute limite spatio-temporelle”, is in on the joke. Alas, it is clearly not a joke.

    You may also want to listen to the interview given (in French) by the Bogdanoff brothers on 6 December 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCQW6zabA1A. They make laudatory statements about a French self-proclaimed elite scientist who, in the last two years, has been one of the major sources of disinformation regarding the current pandemic, and whose fraudulent papers and misleading Youtube videos are clearly no joke either.

    All in all, giving the Bogdanoff brothers the benefit of the doubt seems overly cautious, and especially surprising on this blog.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Pascal,
    Lubos’s involvement in this is one of the “comic aspects” I had in mind, in particular his book “The Bogdanov Equation”, see
    https://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3594

    Jonathan Chiche,
    Charitably giving people the benefit of the doubt is my general policy. In this case though I should point out by that by “in on the joke” I meant that quite possibly the brothers were not completely delusional about the value of their research. A less charitable way of saying they were “in on the joke” would be to say that they were more than a bit con artists.

  7. Roger says:

    I’m not sure I can draw any other conclusion than that they were a pair of dishonest chancers. Setting aside the comical aspects of the affair, there was far too much deceit in what they did (eg the fake Professor Yang, fake research institutes etc.).

    It suited their reputational goals and vanity to be regarded as having contributed to physics research so they sought to convince the public and academic committees that they had done this. In a way the checks and balances built into the system worked even if this was imperfect. They may have succeeded in getting something into the literature and gaining PhD’s (albeit with the lowest passing grades) but their work is generally regarded as being either nonsense or simply to be ignored.

    It is rightly customary to focus on the positives when discussing the deceased. However, I only know of the twins through the negatives and I see nothing in their behaviour that leads to any sympathy for them. I wish it were otherwise.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Roger,
    As far as theoretical physics goes, the brothers were con artists, but I’d argue that the way they went about this had a fair amount of entertainment value and did no actual damage to the field. Theoretical physics has other con artists, who generally provide no entertainment value and have done a great deal of damage…

  9. Jackiw–Teitelboim says:

    Interesting… retired string theorists are people with the curious divertissement of writing books with unpresuming titles such as: L’Équation Bogdanov, The God Equation, The Cosmic Landscape etc.

  10. I keep coming back to the quote from Roman Jackiw: “…It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That’s all I ask.” Here is someone who did real work, yet when to comes to students, “all he asks” is a purely literary operation, which, as any of us who have ever written an academic paper knows, is trivial. Nothing could better encapsulate the bottomless cynicism of [what] the educational enterprise [has been reduced to]; and parallels exist in every area of study, not just physics, not just science.

  11. John Baez says:

    This video on the Bogdanoffs talks about some curious aspects of their later life I hadn’t known about, but concludes with something I’d never imagined: the theory that Moshe Flato encouraged them to get PhDs, and supported their research, as a kind of revenge against the physics establishment. I’m not convinced, but it’s an interesting idea: a Sokal-like hoax perpetrated not by the Bogdanoffs but using them.

  12. jack morava says:

    Back in the day it was clear that the Bogdanoffs were an anomaly but perhaps not what kind, but now I think they are easily recognized as trolls.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    John Baez,
    I knew Moshe, who was a truly wonderful character, and it’s plausible his decision to supervise the Bogdanoff PhDs had an element of trouble-making in it. He died unexpectedly in 1998, before the brothers finished their PhDs, so if he had a plan about how this would work out, we’ll never know what it was.

  14. Chris Oakley says:

    The video is interesting. Lubos nice and friendly, as usual, I note.
    However I don’t quite understand how the brothers getting PhDs after having falsely claimed that they had them in their books is going to make it right.
    I suppose that there are some things that there is no point in trying to understand.

  15. JE says:

    The Sokal and Bogdanoff affairs, and even the Mochizuki one, bear some resemblance, no matter how different they may turn out to be, in the amount of attention and energy they take from the refereeing system and mass media. Of course, that’s a large part of the explanation of why referees allowed the Bogdanoff papers to be published, but I am not quite sure they did no actual damage to the field, because media attention and referee energy are not unlimited. The Sokal affair was meant to raise doubts about the refereeing system, which is okay in principle. As a result, the refereeing system should now be more able to block moves in this direction. But did it really hit the target or quite the opposite?

  16. Peter Woit says:

    JE,
    The Sokal hoax wasn’t really aimed at the refereeing system, but aimed at showing that prominent figures in the “Science Studies” field were intellectually incompetent. The editorial collective at Social Text fell right into his trap, deciding to publish the hoax because it appealed to their prejudices, not bothering to have it refereed by an expert. Falling for the hoax publicly humiliated some prominent academics and made their field somewhat of a laughing-stock, with long-lasting and significant effects.

    The Bogdanoff story I don’t think had anything other than a temporary effect of making some editors more careful at certain journals.

    The failure of the refereeing at PRIMS in the Mochizuki case is again a very different story, with very different reasons for the failure. There I think the damage caused is very significant, but localized in Kyoto.

  17. JE says:

    Peter,
    No idea what Sokal’s actual intentions were. He clearly knew that the journal was not refereed. I wonder why he, as a mathematical physicist, bothered to show that prominent figures in the “Science Studies” field were intellectually incompetent, other than “to attract attention to what he saw as a decline of standards of rigor in the academic community,” as Weinberg put it. To this aim, perhaps the editors were viewed as easy targets, but maybe I am missing some important part of the story.
    He recognized that the article had been “liberally salted with nonsense,” and in his opinion was accepted only because “(a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”
    I agree that the Bogdanoff affair did not add much in this respect, or maybe just as a side-effect, and that Mochichuki’s is another story, but did the Sokal hoax end with nonsense and goobledygook in science, did it achieve the opposite or was it just a sterile effort in this regard?

  18. Peter Woit says:

    JE,
    I don’t want to get into a discussion of the Sokal hoax story, which was fascinating, but rather different. His motivation was not to end nonsense and gobledygook in science, but in the a different field, which you might call cultural studies.

    Actually, I just remembered that at some point long ago, when I was first starting to write about string theory I wrote to Sokal. Probably something like “besides the problem you exposed among the humanists, there’s a real problem here in science itself, concerning string theory, and maybe you should be doing something about that”. I don’t think I ever heard back from him.

  19. Damien says:

    I met them at the time of the Bogdanoff affair (christmas 2002, new year 2003). Unable to understand their kind of physics, I wanted to know what they were about.

    They were nice, warm, and I am positive 100% sincere about what they were doing. They were not “in the joke”.

    Contrary to what is said in an aforementioned video, they were not millionnaires. Acccording to a mutual friend, they lived their whole lives in debt. I am also convinced they never did plastic surgery. It would have been the worst plastic surgeon in the world.
    I am convinced that their faces were altered by their taking more or less legal drugs in the hope of remaining young.
    As I said, when I met them they looked sincere, but as it became clear that they had lied, engaged in sockpuppetry, modifide quotes about them, I set my opinion of them. They were fraud, whether they knew it ior not, maybe pathological liars.

  20. Pascal says:

    If I recall correctly, Sokal’s grudge against some social scientists was that they would study “hard sciences” like physics as a purely social phenomenon, forgetting that scientific theories are grounded in experimental evidence.
    Ironically, it seems that physicists have decided to show that the social scientists were right after all. Exhibit #1 is string theory: the main evidence for it seems to be that there are lots of string theorists, they hold powerful and prestigious positions, and they are able to silence their critics (with diminishing success, though).

  21. Anonyme says:

    The Bogdanovs were supposed to go on trial at the beginning of February for a very unglamorous story. This will not happen after all.

    https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2022/01/20/les-escrocs-presumes-d-un-millionnaire-bipolaire-juges-a-paris_6110172_3224.html

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