The Wormhole Publicity Stunt

The best way to understand the “physicists create wormholes in the lab” nonsense of the past few days is as a publicity stunt (I should credit Andreas Karch for the idea to describe things this way), one that went too far. If the organizers of the stunt had stuck to “physicists study quantum gravity in the lab” they likely would have gotten away with it, i.e. not gotten any significant pushback.

There have already been a lot of claims about “quantum gravity in the lab” made in recent years, and surely many more will be made in the future. It’s important to understand that these all have been and always will be nothing but publicity stunts. In all cases, what is happening in these labs is some manipulation and observation of electron and electromagnetic fields at low energies. None of this has anything to do with gravitational degrees of freedom. One cannot possibly learn anything about the gravitational field or quantum gravity this way. If there is a dual theoretical description of QED in terms of a “gravitational” theory, this dual description is about other variables that have nothing to do with space-time and gravity in this world.

I’m hoping that journalists and scientists will learn something from this fiasco and not get taken in again anytime soon. It would be very helpful if both Nature and Quanta did an internal investigation of how this happened and reported the results to the public. Who were the organizers of the stunt and how did they pull it off? Already we’re hearing from Quanta that the problem was that they trusted “leading quantum gravity researchers”, and presumably Nature would make the same argument. Who were these “leading quantum gravity researchers”? Why weren’t any of the many other physicists who could have told them this was a stunt consulted?

It’s pretty clear that one of the organizers was Joe Lykken. After I wrote about his talk at CERN a month ago, someone told me that Dennis Overbye at the NYT was looking into writing about Lykken’s claims. I found it odd that the NYT would be interested in this, now it’s clear that the behind-the-scenes publicity campaign was starting already a month ago. If you look at Lykken’s slides, there’s no mention at all of the work he had done and knew was about to appear in Nature, but the whole talk is structured around arguing that such a quantum computer calculation would be a huge achievement. I still don’t know what to make of his claims in the Quanta video that the result of the Google quantum computer calculation was on a par with the Higgs discovery. Does he really believe this (he’s completely delusional) or not (he’s intentionally dishonest)?

It’s extremely unusual to not distribute a result like this on the arXiv before publication, to instead keep it confidential and go to the press with embargoed information. By doing this though you control the first wave of publicity, since you pick the press people you deal with and the terms of the embargo. One thing that first mystified me about this story is why Natalie Wolchover at Quanta was quoting comments from me on a different issue in her story, but hadn’t asked me about the article and its “physicists create wormholes in a lab” claims. One possible explanation for this is that the terms of the embargo meant she could not discuss the Nature article with me. I have to admit that if I had heard from her or any other journalist that a group was about to hold a press conference and announce publication in a major journal of claims about quantum gravity in a lab, and would I respect embargo terms so they could share info with me and get a quote, I would have said no. Likely I (and others in a similar situation) would immediately have gone and written a blog entry about how a publicity stunt was about to happen.

Update: I just noticed that the “It from Qubit” community will be gathering Monday thru Wednesday in Princeton and Thursday thru Friday in New York. One of the Princeton talks will be from one of the Nature authors (Jafferis), talking about “Emergent Gravitational Dynamics in Quantum Experiments” (no abstract, may or may not be explaining how he created the wormholes). This would be an excellent occasion I think for this community to discuss what can be done to stop publicity stunts like this one from discrediting their subject. The New York component will be invitation only, at the Simons Foundation. Presumably the Quanta people will be there to discuss with them the huge damage to their reputation they just suffered because of the publicity stunt. I’d be curious to hear how this goes from anyone participating.

Update: Something I should have linked to before is Scott Aaronson’s blog posting about this, and the comments there. One that I think is of interest explains that SYK at large N is not precisely dual to a 2d gravity theory as one often sees claimed, and has other useful explanations of issues with duality claims.

Update: According to Spiropulu on Twitter, at 2:15 Eastern Time today you can watch Jafferis talk about this stuff to a workshop at Princeton here.

Update: Just watched the livestream of the Jafferis talk. He went over in detail the paper. At the end, a few technical questions. At this point I’m seeing no evidence that anyone (other than Scott Aaronson) in this community has any problem with the outrageous hype and publicity stunts like this one being used to promote their field to the public and attract more funding.

Update: Something from Ethan Siegel, who as usual, gets it right:

There are no lessons to be learned about quantum gravity here. There are no lessons to be learned about traversable wormholes or whether they exist within our Universe. There are not even any lessons to be learned about the uniqueness or capabilities of quantum computers, as everything that was done on the quantum computer can be done and had previously (without errors!) been done on a classical computer. The best that one can take away is that the researchers, after performing elaborate calculations of the Sachdev-Ye-Kitaev model through classical means, were able to perform an analogous calculation on a quantum computer that actually returned signal, not simply quantum noise…

Wormholes and quantum computers will likely both remain topics that are incredibly interesting to physicists, and further research into the Sachdev-Ye-Kitaev model will likely continue. But the connection between wormholes and quantum computers is virtually non-existent, and this research — despite the hype — changes absolutely nothing about that fact.

To get a taste of the utter nonsense people are now getting as “News” because of this publicity stunt, try watching this ABC News segment.

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59 Responses to The Wormhole Publicity Stunt

  1. Peter Woit says:

    David Roberts,
    Jafferis is a tenured full professor at Harvard, I think he’s at a point in his career where he doesn’t need to go along with this kind of thing if he doesn’t want to.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve had a discussion with the editor at Quanta. My point of view on their article is that it is not fixable, with far more serious problems than my quote. I’d like to convince them that there’s a problem and they need to do better in the future: there will be a lot more people coming to them with “quantum gravity in a lab” stunts. My arguments about this are having limited effect since I’m not a researcher in this field. I urge researchers in this field to contact Quanta with any complaints about the article. Jafferis would be an example of someone who has responsibility to do something about the situation, but he’s not the only one…

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Somdatta Bhattacharya,
    I watched the entire Jafferis talk, the reason for not concentrating on discussing their calculation in a sparsified N=7 SYK model is that it’s not interesting. The only significance of the calculation is as a publicity stunt which Jafferis has significant responsibility for. Given this, I’d argue it was inappropriate for people to spend the question time on technical questions, they should have been asking him about the larger significance of what he had done, which was the stunt.

    Matt Strassler I think agrees this is a publicity stunt, he’s trying to use it as an opportunity to discuss a completely different topic close to his interests.

  4. @Peter W

    Oh, I was taking the phrase “young Jafferis” at face value. I guess “young” is relative. I really should have checked, though… :-S

    On a different note, I’m sure every single illustration attached to this story is using a cartoon of a wormhole with too many dimensions. Instead of the problem of not being able to accurately picture 3+1d spacetime and an ER bridge in it, here the problem is that accurately picturing the appropriate and accurate 1+1d would uncover the hype for what it is.

  5. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Martin Bauer explains the physics of the experiment here for lay people. As usual for him, the explanation is clear and insightful. Tl;dr: No wormholes were created.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Santo D’Agostino,
    From what I’ve seen, post the publicity stunt, the coverage of this story by physicists has been uniformly on the negative, no wormholes side. Matt Strassler for instance has “an international spectacle about a quasi-simulation of a cartoon of a wormhole” as his description. Since the stunt, I’ve yet to see anything, anywhere from one of the authors or anyone else defending what they’ve done. It just doesn’t seem to matter that the physics community overwhelmingly is critical of this: journalists at Quanta and others taken in won’t admit now that they were taken in, likely never will.

  7. Evgeni Ku says:

    What would the point of a publicity stunt be here? Opportunity for future grants for the scientists involved?

    It seemed fishy to me even as a lay person with minimal understanding of the matter beyond pop-sci books, which is how I got to this blog post. I can’t understand the reason for making such an elaborate hoax though.

    One thing I could imagine is this being heavily pushed by Google as a form of marketing for their quantum computer work, though it feels like that should also be doable with far more reasonable and non-contraversial experiments.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    For the Google people involved, this was pretty explicitly a publicity stunt designed to promote their Sycamore quantum computer. If you look at what was actually being done, it was a calculation for which their machine was dramatically worse than any conventional computer.
    For the physicists involved, this was a stunt designed to justify current funding and attract future funding. Some of the people involved have been at this for 25 years, back then concentrating on misleading people about “experimental tests of string theory”. This is just more of the same, with “string theory” evolving into “holographic quantum gravity”.
    What’s remarkable is how successful this was, with the con taking in not just the press but the directors of the IAS and Fermilab. There will clearly be an ongoing effort to pursue this, we’re going to see a lot more bogus “quantum gravity in the lab” claims, unclear if those at the IAS and Fermilab who have been conned will wise up.

  9. Frank says:

    Why in the world do you think the directors of Fermilab and the IAS were not in on the con? They benefit from increased funding for “quantum gravity in the lab” and had access to experts who could explain the significance of what was done. Fermilab in particular has severe cost overrun problems and needs to fight for continued funding.

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