Tonight, David Nirenberg, Director of the IAS and a medieval historian, gave an after-dinner speech to our workshop, centered around how auspicious it was that the workshop was being held a mere week after the momentous announcement that a wormhole had been created on a microchip (!!)—in a feat that experts were calling the first-ever laboratory investigation of quantum gravity, and a new frontier for experimental physics itself. Nirenberg speculated that, a century from today, people might look back on the wormhole achievement as today we look back on Eddington’s 1919 eclipse observations providing the evidence for general relativity.
I confess: this was the first time I felt visceral anger, rather than mere bemusement, over this wormhole affair. Before, I had implicitly assumed: no one was actually hoodwinked by this. No one really, literally believed that this little 9-qubit simulation opened up a wormhole, or helped prove the holographic nature of the real universe, or anything like that. I was wrong.
Scott has been the one person in this field I’m aware of who has tried to do something about the out-of-control hype problem that has been going from bad to worse. I do disagree with him about one thing. He goes on to write:
I don’t blame the It from Qubit community—most of which, I can report, was grinding its teeth and turning red in the face right alongside me. I don’t even blame most of the authors of the wormhole paper, such as Daniel Jafferis, who gave a perfectly sober, reasonable, technical talk at the workshop…
I do blame all those people. Unlike Scott, they’ve been either participating in hype for years, or staying quiet and enjoying the benefits of it. Grinding their teeth and turning red in the face is not enough. They need to finally say something and take action.
Update: Still unclear to me what the ultimate fallout of the publicity stunt will be. One thing that is becoming clear is that the publicity stunt is part of a vigorous and very effective campaign to mislead funding agencies and those making funding decisions. The goal is to convince them that “quantum gravity in a lab” is a real thing and the way forward for fundamental theoretical physics. The bogus Quanta story, video, headlines are not a bug, but a feature. Among the funding agencies, DOE is on board, their grant funding the publicity stunt, and they are advertising it prominently in their presentation to HEPAP today (see page 7 here). At the IAS, it seems director Nirenberg’s claims that the “first quantum gravity experiment on a chip” was possibly the biggest breakthrough in a century were not off-the-cuff comments based on what he had read in the paper or at Quanta, but prepared remarks based on conversations with IAS senior faculty. I gather that what he has been hearing from at least some of them is that the wormhole “experiment” vindicates their past research and justifies supporting them in the direction they are choosing for the future. He has though now been hearing other viewpoints.
If researchers in this field want to know what they can do about the problem, contacting places like Quanta to get them to fix their coverage is one thing, another is contacting people with funding responsibilities (ie. program officers at funding agencies, directors of institutes) who seem to have been misled by the hype campaign.
Update: Quanta hasn’t done anything more to fix the wormhole article, but they have now updated their original “Physicists have built a wormhole and successfully sent information from one end to the other.” tweet. New one reads “Experimental physicists built the mathematical analog of a wormhole inside a quantum computer by simulating a system of entangled particles.”
Update: Today at HEPAP the Fermilab director was prominently advertising the wormhole publicity stunt as a Fermilab initiative (see slide 67 here). She describes future plans for more of the same, with these calculations being performed not on one quantum computer, but on two spatially separated quantum computers connected by a quantum network. This would somehow allow for a big increase in the “quantum gravity in the lab” hype with a new Nature cover story: “FNAL scientists connect two quantum computers by a wormhole between two labs”. A question for those in the “It from Qubit” field. Are you willing to contact those responsible for funding this, who are now prominently advertising this work as a major success and new direction of research they intend to fund (e.g. Glen Crawford at DOE, and Lia Merminga at FNAL)?
Update: 4gravitons has a blogpost about the Quanta article, concentrating on the issue of “tone” of the coverage. That’s relevant for the usual problematic sort of physics coverage, but in this case something much more unusual is going on. This was a well-organized publicity stunt designed to justify funding “quantum gravity in a lab” research. Quanta was taken in more so than many other journalism venues. But the really disturbing part of this story is who else was taken in: the IAS director, the Fermilab director, the DOE division director and others, who are sophisticated consumers of science journalism, and independently getting their information from senior scientists in the field.