A Few Items

Some short items and links:

  • Among possible futures that I never would have dreamed of during my student days was that someday my Nobel-prize-winning undergraduate advisor would
    “try to rile” my Nobel-prize-winning graduate school professor at a Bohr Centennial celebration by quoting me. I hope the quote at least was one I would agree with.
  • Also on the topic of hoping I agree with what I say publicly, there’s an NHK documentary about Mochizuki and the abc conjecture that has recently been finished, was supposed to air in Japan this weekend, now delayed til next month due to more timely news from Ukraine. I did an interview with the filmmakers here in NYC last year and they talked to many other people. No idea how they’ll manage to deal with this controversial story, coming from a Japanese perspective.
  • At Quanta magazine, another article about the “naturalness problem”, headlined A Deepening Crisis Forces Physicists to Rethink Structure of Nature’s Laws. This has the usual problem with such stories of assigning to the Standard Model something which is not a problem for it, but only for certain kinds of speculative attempts to go beyond it. John Baez makes this point in this tweet:

    Indeed, calling it a “crisis” is odd. Nothing that we really know about physics has become false. The only thing that can come crashing down is a tower of speculations that have become conventional wisdom.

    James Wells has a series of tweets here, starting off with

    The incredibly successful Standard Model does not have a Naturalness problem. And if by your criteria it does, then I can be sure your definition of Naturalness is useless.

    He points to a more detailed explanation of the issue in section 4 of this paper.

  • My criticisms of some Quanta articles are motivated partly by the fact that the quality of the science coverage there is matched by very few other places. If you want to work there, they have a job open.
  • But if you really want to cash in on gazillionaire money going into mathematics, you might want to try for some of the $20 million that crypto entrepreneur Charles Hoskinson is giving Carnegie Mellon to establish the Hoskinson Center for Formal Mathematics. Early in his career Hoskinson was in a Ph.D. program in analytic number theory, but bailed and later joined Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, and ended up in crypto since “When Bitcoin came out, it was like the spiritual successor to what Ron Paul was talking about” (see here).
  • Someone who is not going to be getting Hoskinson funding is Michael Harris, whose The Silicon Reckoner you should follow for an alternate take on “formal mathematics”. For the reaction to such criticism from the formalizers, you can check out this Zulip Chat archive, and then responses from Harris here.
  • For Grothendieck news, see here, here and here.

Update: There’s a statement out today from Breakthrough Prize Laureates strongly criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There’s also a truly appalling statement from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation itself, not in the least critical of Russia or Putin and abusing the memory of Stephen Hawking. Witten characterizes the Foundation statement as “disappointingly vapid”.

Update: Milner seems to have realized that refusing to criticize Putin was not a tenable position. A new statement from the Breakthrough Prize Foundation starts off with:

As the terrible war in Ukraine continues, with casualties and atrocities mounting, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation strongly condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its unprovoked and brutal assaults against the civilian population.

and announces a further \$ 3 million donation:

the Foundation today pledges a further \$3 million in funding to support physicists, life scientists and mathematicians who have been forced to flee from Ukraine. We hope that this donation will help talented researchers contribute to human knowledge in such dark times.

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation stands together with the Ukrainian people, its scientists and their families.

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32 Responses to A Few Items

  1. 4gravitons says:

    For the record, the relevant quote/paraphrase was “string theory is not even wrong”, so I’m pretty sure you’re safe there.

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks! Although these days I’m leaning more to the “string theory (as an idea about unification) is just wrong” point of view…

  3. Sabine says:

    Just here to mention that my 2018 “Lost in Math” is about the naturalness myth that led particle physicists to erroneously expect new physics (besides the Higgs) to show up at the LHC. I agree with Baez and Wells, but I think the larger question looming here is: how could this have happened?

  4. Bob says:

    Is that twitter account confirmed to really be Edward? It doesn’t have the blue checkmark next to his name, and there are a lot of fake accounts out there.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    As far as I know it is him. If someone knows for a fact that it is a fake, let me know.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    For an exchange between Sabine and the author of the Quanta piece, see here

    I’m sympathetic to Sabine’s frustration that her argument about this has been ignored, since I also wrote a book giving an argument about this which has been ignored. Back in 2002 I wrote about this in the section on SUSY in my book (see page 164 of the US edition). There I explained that the hierarchy problem (since cleverly rebranded as the “naturalness” problem) was something you got from postulating GUT or string unification at a GUT or Planck scale. Low energy SUSY was supposed to fix this particular problem, but my argument was that GUTs/strings had strong evidence against them (they were complicated and didn’t really explain anything), and adding SUSY just made things worse.

    Besides writing about this in the book, I’ve probably made similar arguments dozens if not hundreds of times on this blog since 2004, for many years in the context of arguing that the LHC was not going to see SUSY. After the negative LHC results, at first I thought that the new-found “crisis” in HEP theory would cause people to acknowledge the underlying problem, but it now looks like that’s never going to happen (and those who long ago pointed out the underlying problem will always go unmentioned…)

  7. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Peter,

    I can only agree that this talk of a crisis in elementary particle physics, due to what the standard model doesn’t explain, is very old news.

    I first heard the concept of a crisis in the standard model in a talk Abraham Pais gave at a conference at Boston University (Or was it U Mass, Boston?) when I was an undergrad (~ 1974). This is not very long after the SM had been formulated. His theme was that the standard model, while it did very well as a description of the forces, did not explain a single parameter of particle physics or reduce the number of parameters by even one. He discussed the hierarchy problems and clearly called this a crisis.

    I’ve been in crisis mode ever since, as have not a few others. Much of my work since has been intended as a response to the crisis. All of these responses have had in common the idea that laws are not eternal, but evolve dynamically on a landscape of theories. These have included Cosmological Natural Selection (1992), the subject of my first book (Life of the Cosmos, 1997). The issues related to reductionism, and how to modify it without loosing falsifiability is dealt with at length, there and in later books,. The need for background independent, and relational theories also must be understood an implication of the same crisis.

    There turn out to be several hypotheses about how the crisis might be resolved if the laws evolve – include the Principle of Precedence, and the autodidactic universe. All of these responses to the crisis turn out to be related to the concept of laws and of time, indeed this is itself very old news as it was discussed clearly by CS Pearse in the late 1890’s.

    If we want to resolve this now 50 year old crisis I would suggest we focus on the ways in which our current schema for physical theories (which Roberto Mangabeira Unger and I call The Newtonian Paradigm) is unfit for extending physics to a cosmological scale, and how our notions of law and time must be reshaped to apply to a theory of the whole universe.



  8. zzz says:

    Hoskinson was not exactly a phd student.


  9. Neo says:

    An update about Charles Hoskinson:

    He was never in a math graduate program and he has not even completed a math undergraduate degree.



  10. When Ed. Witten describes the statement by S. Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, as vapid – because (?) he doesn’t name Putin & the Russian army as aggressors of Ukraine (contrary to the statement signed by a lot of Breakthrough Prize Laureates) – it reminds me of this famous dialog with Titus and his father Vespasian (Roman emperor) as reported by the historian Suetonius:

    When Titus found fault with [Roman empire Vespasian] for contriving a tax upon public conveniences, he held a piece of money from the first payment to his son’s nose, asking whether its odour was offensive to him. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”

    Source : Life of Vespasian 23.3 (tr. J.C. Rolfe)
    Far from me the desire to play the devil’s advocate but nowadays the further one is from a Russian laundromat(?) or a [dirty (?), source of] cash* the easier or safer one can nurture humanity’s highest qualities like Honesty…!

    A question for Peter: why do you think the memory of Stephen Hawking is abused in Worden’ statement?

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Cedric Bardot,
    I thought invoking Hawking in attributing the Ukraine war to “our aggressive instincts”, while refusing to criticize Putin and the Russian state, was thoroughly repulsive. Saying what is happening in Ukraine is due to “our” aggressive instincts is like saying the same thing about Hitler’s invasions.

    The funny thing is I had some sympathy for Milner, that he was being unfairly attached to Putin and his dictatorship. Seeing that statement made me quickly lose any such sympathy. I doubt it was issued without his approval.

  12. Risk Averse says:

    I am not an expert about oligarchs, but I would guess most of them did quite immoral things in order to get rich. Nevertheless, I find this rush to ask people to condemn Putin, quite ridicules. Clearly, Putin is a horrible man, becoming his enemy is very dangerous. I assume that any Russian expressing views against Putin is taking a risk for their property, freedom, and life. There are quite a few Russians in the west that were probably killed by Putin’s people. So who in their right mind will issue a statement against him? Moreover, condemning Putin might feel morally nice, but it will not make any difference to the reality.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Risk Averse,

    Milner’s claim is that he’s not an oligarch, has been out of Russia for ever, and that his venture capital business has no funding from Russia. If, unlike lots of other Russians now in the West or in Israel, he is fearful of publicly criticizing Putin, that’s fine. What’s appalling is issuing public statements like the one linked to here which attach blame for what has happened to anyone else other than Putin and his regime.

    My interpretation of what happened is that Milner thought donating \$3 million to “victims of the conflict” (while not specifying whether they were Ukrainian or Russian) would solve his ethical problem with cash. Don’t know why with him it’s always exactly \$3 million…

  14. Risk Averse says:

    Peter, the last paragraph in your response is messed up.
    I don’t know how Milnor made his money and I don’t really care. He is very rich so I assume he made it on the expense of lots of other people. However, he is still Russian and it is very likely Putin can put the squeeze on him, one way or another. In any case, who cares what he says, that does not change anything.
    I think that people who grew in the west have no idea how risky things can become very quickly. I grew up in Israel, which in many ways is very democratic. However, if you are an Arab, unfortunately, you probably should be careful what you do and what you say. We should all be careful telling other people to do things that can put them in risk.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Risk Averse,
    If Milner wants to keep quiet because of the dangers, that’s fine. As far as I know, no one was demanding that the Breakthrough Prize Foundation put out a statement taking a stand on the war. He could have given money to refugees without making a public statement, or just announced he was donating money without saying anything else. I can’t see any reason it was necessary to make an offensive public statement invoking Hawking.

    I’m deleting comments on oligarchs, the war, etc. which have nothing to do with the Breakthrough Prize statement.

  16. Yovan says:

    The decision by Peter Scholze to decline the horizon prize looks prescient now. I feel bad for next year’s winners.

  17. dms says:

    If anyone wants to be entertained I’d recommend reading Lubos’ posts on Ukraine. Nutty as always, but it’s comforting to me that he’s at least as upset about the invasion as your standard center-left academic types. A silver lining of the invasion is that it demonstrates that political differences within the west are mostly a pose, and that there is a real consensus on what is fundamentally unacceptable.

  18. curiouser says:

    Glashow had already invoked the Pauli quote “not even wrong” in a Physics Today article on superstrings in 1986, so he may not have been referring to this blog or Woit at the Bohr Centennial. This is the relevant quote:

    `Superstring theory, unless it allows an approximation scheme for yielding useful and testable physical information, might be the sort of thing that Wolfgang Pauli would have said is “not even wrong.” It would continue to attract newcomers to the field simply because it is the only obvious alternative to explaining why certain detectors light up like video games near the end of every funding cycle.’


  19. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, that’s quite possible. Surely Glashow was aware of the “Not Even Wrong” quote long before I was around and he and many others from the early days of the “first superstring revolution” were of the opinion that it applied well to what was going on in string theory.

  20. 4gravitons says:

    To clarify, Glashow specifically mentioned Woit in his comment (he did also mention it was a paraphrase of Pauli).

  21. Anon says:

    Hi Peter

    There is no “standard” model for neutrino masses. The renormalizable Standard Model predicts the neutrino masses to be zero (with non-renorm terms of the order m_weak^2/M_Planck if there is no other mass scale). This prediction has been proven wrong. So one has to go beyond the SM for neutrino masses.

    We could do this, without introducing a new Mass scale (the seesaw scale), by adding 3 right-handed neutrinos and providing small Dirac masses to them.

    I think your view is that this model with Dirac masses to neutrinos, doesn’t have a hierarchy problem — but this is *not* the Standard Model. In fact, the standard or more popular thinking as far as neutrino masses go is that they are Majorana (not Dirac), and their smallness can be understood to be because of the seesaw mechanism. This then brings a new mass scale into play and generates the Hierarchy problem. To avoid the Hierarchy problem I think you’d predict the neutrinos have Dirac masses.

    I think though that this reasoning takes the Hierarchy Problem very seriously. As we need to extend the SM by adding 3 right handed neutrinos, and impose a B-L global symmetry so that neutrinos get dirac masses from really small Yukawa couplings. This is what you seem to be saying doesn’t have the Hierarchy problem. But there is really no evidence for this model or for an exact B-L global symmetry in nature.

    I personally think we have the seesaw mechanism at 10^14 GeV seesaw scale, and for reasons, we don’t fully understand yet the Hierarchy problem isn’t a show-stopper.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Since there’s zero evidence for either Majorana masses or a seesaw mass scale, I don’t see how this can be “standard” in any sort of way (about “popular” I’m not sure that’s right and in any case its irrelevant).

    When people say “the Standard Model” these days, obviously they’re including some way of dealing with neutrino masses. Personally I don’t see why dealing with them exactly the way one deals with all the other fermion masses (Dirac mass terms) shouldn’t be thought of as the “standard” way.

    That said, a right-handed neutrino is something very different than other particles (no em/weak/strong couplings) and this makes the neutrino sector and the issue of neutrino masses the place one is most likely to find something new and unexpected that finally improves on the standard model. Personally the seesaw mechanism seems to me to open more problems than it solves, but tastes differ. In the Euclidean twistor stuff I’ve been thinking about, right handed neutrinos are something very fundamental, and I’m hopeful that one might get somewhere very interesting thinking of them in these terms (I haven’t yet).

  23. Anon says:

    SM has relevance as a low energy effective field theory. If neutrinos have Dirac masses then SM is not the low energy effective field theory, as the matter content gets modified at low energies by the addition of 3 right handed neutrinos.

    When people say SM they mean it without right-handed neutrinos I think, in the sense of a low energy effective field theory.

    SM + Dirac masses to neutrinos goes beyond the SM, even at low energies.

  24. The Big Red Scary says:

    Concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Woit and Motl have finally found something to agree about.

  25. Peter Woit says:

    I just don’t agree with your conception of the meaning of the words “standard model” as something
    1. Completely wrong, since doesn’t have neutrino masses
    2. Only a low energy effective approximation.
    but arguing over the meaning of words leads nowhere.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    The Big Red Scary,

    I think, as a matter of principle, if Lubos and I agree on something it must be true.

  27. martibal says:

    Peter and Anon, maybe this is off-topic, but besides words, is the issue Anon is mentioning something physically problematic ? I mean: does incorporating in the Standard Model right handed neutrino with low Dirac masses create some incoherence regarding renormalization, or other incoherence ?

  28. Anon says:

    From the literature in the field, SM refers to a very specific, well-accepted, model that predicts that neutrinos have no mass. The discovery of neutrino mass is considered the first new physics found that goes beyond the standard model.

    But I think it gets step-parently treatment — it wasn’t the new physics people hoped would be discovered (like SUSY etc) — and since larger issues in the field are framed without any reference to neutrino masses, those discussions continue with neutrino sector ignored.

    Which “Beyond standard model theory” do neutrino masses indicate? I think this is an important question that experiments would have to decide. There is no experimental evidence one way or the other yet of whether neutrinos have Majorana or Dirac-type masses. This has to be experimentally determined — we can’t just say the SM prediction is that neutrinos have Dirac masses (which is what Peter is implying). The SM prediction was that neutrinos have no masses, which has been ruled out.

    The implication of Dirac mass for the neutrinos is that you have to modify physics at low energies — new light degrees of freedom — right handed neutrinos that exist in our world even today!

    If they have Majorana masses then right-handed neutrinos do not exist at low energies (their mass could then be at the much higher seesaw scale ~ 10^14 GeV), and below that scale it is just the usual SM without right-handed neutrinos.

    I think Peter takes the Hierarchy problem very seriously (just as SUSY folk did :-)) and ends up arguing for SM + 3 right handed Dirac neutrinos as being the theory of nature, that doesn’t require further proof as he equates this to SM.

    But in my opinion, this requires the same level of proof as SUSY did, especially if 3 Dirac neutrinos is what is the solution or implication of the Hierarchy problem.

    martibal — you can add 3 right handed neutrinos to the SM and give them Dirac masses by imposing a B-L global symmetry. This introduces a bunch of small dimensionless numbers (very tiny Yukawa couplings with the Higgs of the neutrinos)… much much smaller than for any of the other particles — like even electrons. But one can live with that. Also, once you add 3 right handed neutrinos to the SM, the most general Lagrangian would include Majorana masses to the neutrinos anyway — you would have to impose B-L symmetry as a global symmetry of nature to exclude the terms giving rise to Majorana masses.

  29. Peter Woit says:


    I agree with your answer to Martibal.

    My view on the hierarchy problem is that the SM has no hierarchy problem, including if you interpret “SM” as treating neutrino masses like other masses, caused by a Dirac mass term and right-handed neutrino fields. The hierarchy problem is a problem for people trying to build theories that include the the usual Higgs and some new physics at a much higher mass scale, whether it be seesaw masses, GUTs, high-scale SUSY, your favorite Planck scale quantum gravity physics or whatever. To my mind, all such attempts have more serious other problems than the hierarchy problem (they explain very little by adding a lot of complexity, with zero experimental support).

    Again, what I think is really interesting here, indicating a way truly beyond the SM, is the very unusual nature of right-handed neutrino fields.

  30. Anon says:

    yeah I agree Peter that the right handed neutrinos are interesting.

    In fact, the minimal left-right symmetric (LR) model anticipated/predicted that neutrinos would have masses. Basically, because of parity, both left and right-handed neutrinos must be included, and right-handed neutrinos pick up a large Majorana mass at the parity (or B-L) breaking scale, and set up the seesaw mechanism. In fact, you cant have Dirac type neutrinos in the minimal left-right symmetric model (they’d be too heavy and experimentally ruled out…. the Yukawa couplings of neutrinos to the usual Higgs cannot be made arbitrarily small in the LR model, as right-handed neutrinos are integral to the model and don’t just decouple if their Yukawas vanish, like they decouple in SM with 3 right handed neutrinos ).

    LR model also makes other predictions.

  31. Peter Woit says:

    I have to assume the headline about “a prediction from string theory” is just trolling.

    This kind of thing is a blast from the past, something some people engaged in during the string wars 15 years ago but have long given up on. Of course, there is nothing like an actual prediction from string theory here. What Strassler is writing about is some exotic models he worked on 15 years ago, for which there never has been the slightest evidence or even any sort of significant motivation. The only connection to string theory is that conjecturally you could use AdS/CFT to calculation some implications of these models.

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