This Week’s Hype

For the last thirty years or so, one tactic of those who refuse to admit the failure of string theory has been to go to the press with bogus claims of “we finally have found a way to get testable predictions from string theory!”. I’ve written about dozens and dozens of these over the years (see here). In recent years the number of these has tapered off considerably, as it likely has become harder and harder to find anyone who will take this seriously, given the track record of such claims.

Today though, Quanta magazine has a new example, with an article that informs us

An idea derived from string theory suggests that dark matter is hiding in a (relatively) large extra dimension. The theory makes testable predictions that physicists are investigating now.

This is about a proposal for a micron-scale large extra dimension, with no significant connection to string theory. I took a look at the “predictions” (see here) long enough to assure myself it’s more of the same, better to not spend more of one’s time on it. One positive thing to say about the article is that the writer did go ask string theorist experts about this, and while these experts tried to be polite, they clearly weren’t enthusiastic:

While physicists find the dark dimension proposal intriguing, some are skeptical that it will work out. “Searching for extra dimensions through more precise experiments is a very interesting thing to do,” said Juan Maldacena, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, “though I think that the probability of finding them is low.”

Joseph Conlon, a physicist at Oxford, shares that skepticism: “There are many ideas that would be important if true, but are probably not. This is one of them. The conjectures it is based on are somewhat ambitious, and I think the current evidence for them is rather weak.”

Better though would have been to ask Sabine Hossenfelder what she thinks about this kind of thing (or not write about them at all)…

Update: Vafa has a new paper explaining the “prediction” of the extra dimension from Swampland conjectures. According to him

The most direct way to test the dark dimension scenario is to check Newton’s gravitational inverse square law (ISL) at micron scale. Due to O(1) number ambiguities one can only predict this to appear at length scales 1 − 10 microns. Experiments checking this length scale would need to improve the current range bounds by a factor of 10.

What if such experiments can be done but don’t see anything, even down to 1/10,000th of a micron? No problem at all, that would be a new discovery that you need to change one of the many Swampland conjectures:

We can only wait for the experimental verdict. Either way, we will learn exciting new physics!

Update: Sabine Hossenfelder explainer here.

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31 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I rather thought the whole idea of large extra dimensions, especially if there’s just one, had already been so severely constrained by collider and astrophysical observations that this sort of thing had fallen out of vogue. That someone found a way to evade such constraints in another model doesn’t seem terribly surprising, but that anyone considered it newsworthy certainly does. Quanta never needed clickbait, occasional flagrant promulgation of such notwithstanding. Just…why?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,

    The Simons Foundation each year makes one or two “Targeted Grants in MPS”
    https://www.simonsfoundation.org/grant/targeted-grants-in-mps/
    which are
    “intended to support high-risk theoretical mathematics, physics and computer science projects of exceptional promise and scientific importance on a case-by-case basis.”
    One of the two such grants for 2023 was to Vafa for exactly this topic
    https://www.simonsfoundation.org/funded-project/on-the-cosmological-and-particle-physics-implications-of-the-string-swampland/
    Quanta insists that it is editorially independent of the Simons Foundation, but it is making its editorial judgements through a very similar lens to that used by the foundation to make grants, so not too surprising they end up identifying the same “projects of exceptional promise” to write about and to give money to.

  3. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Ah.

    I so loved Quanta when it first appeared I keep going back like an abuse addict, but enough’s enough, I think.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,
    I do have some sympathy for the problematic situation the Quanta editors are in with respect to this kind of theoretical physics. Their mission is to write a sizable number of articles about important new advances in this field, but there really aren’t any, so what do they do? There are lots of people out there making dramatic-sounding claims about extra dimensions/dark matter, etc, all of which seem to be highly implausible. You’ve got to write something, so why not pick out the ones who are at Harvard and write about what they are doing? On the Foundation side, looking for what hep theory to fund, they’ve got basically the same problem, and deal with it in a similar way.

  5. LMMI

    The mathematics articles on Quanta are generally of very good quality, even if they have a very strong house style that they all seem to stick to, and which I now find less charming than I originally did. I’m not in the target market, though, and usually hunt for the link to the actual research paper and go read that, too.

  6. Eric Weinstein says:

    That is an interesting take Peter. I am not sure I see it as you do however. You write: “Their mission is to write a sizable number of articles about important new advances in this field” but this is not fully accurate to my way of thinking. I would say they are charged with writing a sizable number of articles about new developments that IN NO WAY repudiate, question or examine what is actually holding the field back.

    What if that specific charge IS the problem? Why are we expected to protect the people who have been taking a gratuitious and unprecedented collection of ‘premature’ victory laps for the last 40 years as of 2024? That isn’t a normal part of science.

    As I see it the failed community has set themselves up as the player-referees of progress in the game of fundamental physics. Everything that repudiates their belief structure and bizarre way of life is excluded. Hence the one team that are allowed to be both players and referees always wins.

    Imagine that a Vatican science magazine were to be charged with writing about all the exciting developments in biology that in no way called the account of man’s creation by G-d detailed in Genesis into question? You would not get any report on actual biology.

    It’s not that there is nothing interesting going on. It is that there is nothing interesting compatible with the failed community going on. Hence the illusion. I may think your Twistor theory is wrong, but it is still interesting to me and I don’t want to laugh at it or make it go away. I just want to find out if you are right and hopefully outcompete you if you aren’t. Yet you are not compatible with this player-referee community. Ergo…no glossy articles. Sic transit, gloria mundi. Alas.

  7. Alessandro Strumia says:

    Technical question to string theorists: do I correctly understand that the dark dimension conjecture does not apply if the tiny cosmological constant arises as an unnatural cancellation (motivated by anthropic selection)?

  8. Yasin Şale says:

    Whenever I read or hear something about extra-dimensions, I recall Penrose’s bland and cool reaction I have recently met in one of his interviews on YT: “But unfortunately our universe is three dimensional” 🙂

  9. Peter Shor says:

    Quanta Magazine does occasionally print articles about non-orthodox theories that compete with string theory; for example, see their article from last year on
    Jonathan Oppenheim’s theory of non-quantized gravity.

    They clearly should be writing more of these, and fewer string theory articles, but it’s hard to fight the Zeitgeist.

  10. Sabine says:

    As I have said way too many times, the biggest problem with theoretical physicists is that they don’t learn from their mistakes. (And neither, it seems, do science writers…)

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Eric Weinstein,
    The Simons magazine/foundation combo is interesting to look at because they cover a wide range of science/math. For most areas while I’m sure there’s valid criticism, on the whole they seem to be doing arguably a better job of choosing what to fund and what to cover than other organizations. In fundamental theory though, we’re not the only ones to see a big problem, so why aren’t they doing something?

    The organization is fairly transparent: you can see that in this area there’s only one person on the Quanta advisory board (David Gross). On the Foundation scientific advisory board there’s really no hep-th (Shankar doing condensed matter, two others mainly in cosmology/astrophysics), but the head of math-physics is Gabadadze, one of whose specialties is extra-dimensional/modified gravity. That the organization is funding and covering this research promoting string theory based extra dimensional gravity models is unsurprising.

    The problem though is that in this area they’re just doing exactly the same thing they do in other areas. How do you get them to start treating it differently and more skeptically? It’s in their DNA to listen to and support elite US institutions, and as long as the people there are saying all is well, we’re doing A+++, they’re not going to go against this. Unfortunately it seems to me that more and more people like Vafa and Strominger have decided it is in their interest to not acknowledge any problem.

    Vafa I think is also a very good example of an important aspect of the problem. He has done wonderful work in areas like topological string theory, involving great mathematics and physics. But the criticism of string theory as “it’s mathematics, not physics, string theorists need to stick to physics and come up with testable predictions” has moved theoretical physics away from any interest in bringing new mathematical ideas into physics. The description in the Simons Foundation abstract is a good example, it has him working on deviations from the inverse-square law, which looks much closer to the mathematics of the 17th century than anything new.

  12. maxstroke says:

    How does one get onto the advisory board? Of course, folks need to devote their time and energy as they see fit, but perhaps having Sabine or Peter Woit or other not-quite-so-dogmatic folks on the advisory committee would help.

    I, for one, welcome our new Twistor-exploring overlords.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Sabine,
    I think a bigger problem is that they don’t admit they’ve made a mistake. Hard to learn from your mistakes if you think you don’t make any, that you’re A+++.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    maxstroke,
    That’s certainly not going to happen.
    In any case I don’t think the advisory board is that important. I doubt that David Gross is getting consulted all that much. The Quanta writers and editors surely are doing what journalists do, calling up prominent experts in the field and getting their opinions. The problem is that most of the time in other fields they’re getting sensible advice, but when they start calling up influential people in hep-th, they’re getting told that wormholes are being created in Google labs and that progress is being made on getting testable predictions out of string theory, not that this is nonsense.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    As I try to figure out why anyone at Quanta thought it was a good idea to put out a new story with a “string theory finally makes testable predictions” sub-headline, one thought that occurs to me is that they know it’s a sure way to get me to write a blog entry that will drive traffic to their site. I’m not coming up with any other plausible reason they would do this…

  16. Jerome says:

    I’ll never visit Quanta again, as long as Wolchover is writing for them. The “real and traversable wormholes” fiasco of 2022 is perhaps one of the most egregious and unforgivable instances of blatant, intentional, malicious fraud in science journalism of my entire life, and I’m done with them until the day they pen a formal apology for their participation in the whole debacle. My jaw is still on the floor from the falsehoods they spouted and the degree to which they doubled down on their misinformation.

    Their reputation is permanently tarnished.

  17. SRP says:

    New term: Woitbait.

  18. Eric Weinstein says:

    Sabine: This is not “Theorists not learning from their mistakes” as we all know. This is the ethics of a particular sub-crowd who installed themselves as the arbiters of all theoretical physics and who refuses to recuse themselves due to conflicts of interest. Imagine if Georgi and Glashow were convinced that protons were decaying left and right due to SU(5) but we weren’t looking hard enough. Or if SUSY theorists were claiming that selectrons and gluinos were everywhere at the LHC but only virtuous people could see them. Or if Norman Mailer’s publisher claimed that all of Philp Roth’s books didn’t exist. Or if the The Rolling Stones claimed that all good music that people liked was theirs and took the royalties. Or if a judge finding himself innocent of bribery. That is what we are talking about: the “String Mass Delusion” at the level of Qanon.

    That is the level of nonsense with which we are now dealing. Like it or not, String Theory has gone from Idea to Program to Failure to Scam to Madness. And it is not about the equations or the spaces or the operators. I will say it again: you all are too focused on the problem of strings being with the science. The pseudoscience of String theory is its anti-scientific sociology. The equations and Calabi-Yau manifolds are not the problem. It’s the lying. It’s the bullying. It’s the sabotage. It’s the money. It’s the skulduggery. It’s the political economy. It’s the failure to recuse yourself or find any critics with whom you will appear and test your ideas.

    I don’t care whether these folks are ethical in their private lives. That is nobody’s business. But in the seminar room, they are not playing by the rules of science. And we need to stop tip toeing around this. As Edward Witten says “There are no other routes. There are only words.” I mean, that is breathtaking in terms of self-indictment. No explanation needed for anyone paying attention.

    I still can’t even believe that is a real quote from a geometer and mind I have *mostly* revered since 1983; to my mind that is all you need to know after 40 years of bullying those who dare openly discuss the most profound and clear cut public failure in science any of us have ever seen. It doesn’t get easier than this. But we are afraid to say it becaused it involves people we all know. And often like…at least when they are not lying to themselves, each other, us and the public. Pity that.

  19. Eric Weinstein says:

    Peter: I mostly agree with your comment above to me. I generally like Quanta as well and have a high opinion of many things that the Simons foundation does. Having talked last with Jim about 2 years ago in California, I can say that even he wasn’t entirely sure how the Chern-Simons theory was supposed to be related to real physics. So the reporters rely on the experts. I get that.

    But the reporters then have to start reporting and IVESTIGATING claims that there are serious questions about Quantum Gravity / String Theory / M-theory having become a funding/earning/bullying cult just the way they investigated Claudine Gay or Francis Collins and gain of function. Or Richard Nixon. Or Trump.

    Call it the “StringAnon Mass Delusion”. It’s basically a variation on the idea of a citation cartel in academic publishing. Or the “Replication crisis” in soft sciences. Or asking why macro economists failed to see that ‘The Great Moderation” was an investment banking scam threatening the world financial system. Or the Sokal Hoax. Or the Bogdanov affair. Or the Boskin Commissioners’ attack on Social Security. Or the Gain of Function disaster.

    All of those are now discussable. Why is StringAnon/M-Anon any different as a mass delusion? I’m not happy about it. I would prefer that they take the Dan Friedan route and admit the error. But given how they bully everyone else, it is as if Susskind, Strominger, Kaku, etc. have diplomatic immunity from common sense, scrutiny, journalism or science as a discipline which their bullying targets do not.

    Quanta: if you are reading this, consider this an invitation. Reach out to anyone you trust.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Jerome,
    My understanding is that Wolchover has been on leave from Quanta for the last year or so to write a book, so you can’t blame her for this latest.

    On the wormhole fiasco, if you were a journalist and
    1. the Spiropulu, Lykken, Jafferis claims of existence of wormholes in the lab were vouched for by Nature
    2. Preskill, Susskind, Gross all told you this was real
    3. the IAS faculty seemed to be on board
    wouldn’t it be journalistic malpractice not to tell the world about the wormholes? Put differently I think you’re blaming the victim of a scientific fraud instead of the perpetrators.

  21. Sabine says:

    @Peter Woit Yes, indeed

  22. Sabine says:

    @Eric Weinstein

    You seem to put the blame on certain individuals. I think it’s a systematic problem. By this I mean a problem of how the scientific system operates. If science was “self-correcting” as many scientists naively believe, this should not happen — at least not to this extent. Why does it happen nevertheless? Because there’s no “invisible hand” that corrects science any more than there is an “invisible hand” correcting trade. A system can only optimize what it’s been configured to optimize.

    So long as researchers get rewarded for producing papers that are deemed good if many of their colleagues like them, we will continue seeing these bubbles. It’s a positive feedback: the more people work on a topic, the more they tell each other it’s good research, the more they feel they’re on the right track etc. People go where money goes and in academia, money goes where people go. Not hard to see how that’s a positive feedback, is it?

    The tragedy is that this is hardly a new insight, and yet nothing has been done about it. It would be simple enough if journals would just stop publishing such stuff because it isn’t real science. Of course I don’t think that’s actually going to happen because (a) the people on the editorial board are the same people who work on this stuff and (b) the publishers make money from publishing it.

    One would think that funding agencies would at some point realize it’s a waste of money, but that doesn’t happen either, because they outsource their reviews to the same people who work on the stuff. This system is basically incestual and I find it somewhat surprising that it doesn’t work even worse than it does.

  23. Chris Rijk says:

    Speaking as an outsider who is interested in science, it feels to me that the above posts are describing the same underlying problem, just from different perspectives (eg top-down vs bottom-up).

    What would I suggest doing about it? After thinking about it for a while I came up with this idea: Try to get 10 or more people who can reasonably be described as experts in the field to collectively write a book, with one chapter per person, where they describe their personal experiences and frustrations with this problem and make it clear that they believe that scientific progress is being held back. In effect a public petition to call attention to a problem that is too big for any one person to solve.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    Chris Rijk,
    There already exists much more than what you are suggesting, probably ten whole books, not just chapters, of the sort you describe. Off the top of my head, besides my own, there’s Smolin’s, Hossenfelder’s and Penrose’s (Fashion, Faith and Fantasy). The reaction of the string theory community to these has been to refuse to engage with the arguments of the books and denounce the authors as ignorant of what they are writing about. The books have had an effect on the public, journalists and on non-string theorist scientists, with the general perception changing over the last 25 years from string theory as successful and promising, to string theory as a failure. 20 years ago when I was describing string theory as a failure, the reaction I’d get was that I was saying something very unusual and provocative, now this more often is dismissed as boring and well-known, just beating a long-dead horse.

    Changing the behavior of journals doesn’t seem a promising route at all. What would have an effect would be cutting off funding to and hiring in these fields. I think it’s exactly because people see an increasing danger of this happening that you’re seeing efforts like the World Science Festival panel and this Quanta article to fight back against widespread negative perceptions.

  25. S says:

    Sabine,

    You write,

    “This system is basically incestual and I find it somewhat surprising that it doesn’t work even worse than it does.”

    It seems to me that that last part is key. It *does* work better than we should expect, and I think it’s that phenomenon that causes people to become enamored of science as “self-correcting,” etc. (and then take it farther than the facts warrant). In a very similar way, there *is* a kind of invisible-hand phenomenon with markets, which accomplish an incredible amount; without which fact, it would be hard to explain why some people become so impressed by them that they ascribe unrealistic powers of insight and virtue to them.

    It seems to me that it is important, but incredibly hard, to prize and preserve that which does work while preserving what does not. For example, one can imagine “fixing” the journal or grant system by having untrained bureaucrats make decisions without consulting scientists. It’s hard for me to imagine that this wouldn’t be far worse, just as the twentieth century taught us that there are cures to market problems that are orders of magnitude worse than the disease.

    I’m afraid I don’t have any very clever solutions, but my point would be, it seems necessary to find ways to improve the system piecemeal around the edges (a la market regulation), keeping in mind its real strengths as well as the spectacular pathologies that a field like hep-th has made manifest in the last four decades.

  26. Diogenes says:

    There are well known conditions for the operation of competitive markets in regularly transacted goods. Here, we have much more of a luxury maket, where both the producers and consumers are a small elite. In this case, the ideas of competitive markets, available information, price discovery and so on, just collapse. One thinks of the art market – is it fair? How would one define that? As hep-th moves away from experimental contact it is very much like an art market, with rich buyers and sellers.

    I will however disagree strongly with this kind of authoritarian impulse of SH:
    “A system can only optimize what it’s been configured to optimize.” This is a very bad and popular kind of idea in academia that fits no historical evidence whatsoever. It is in fact what leads to the current kind of sub-optimal equilibrium. More physicists should take economics classes! Or think about spin magnets more! Or just reduce the number of degrees of freedom in the SM by one. How hard could that be?

  27. Sabine says:

    @S

    The reason it partly works is that writing papers that are well-cited is in some cases indeed an indicator for relevant scientific work. The problem is that the cases when it isn’t can run away and create these empty research bubbles.

    I guess one could say that the hand is “invisible” in the sense that in both cases (markets/academia) it’s a decentralized system. I hesitate to call it that because it’s not like the rules of interaction (or call them regulations) are invisible. We know what the rules are. The issue is that a lot of actors (in either case) tend to blame “the system” as if that was a living thing rather than something that they themselves create.

    I have written and talked about this for 20 years now and nothing has changed and honestly at this point I’ve basically given up hope the scientific community will do anything about it. They’re just not interested. The only thing that could eventually make a difference is taxpayers realizing that their money is being wasted, demanding that the issue is cleared up. Alas, for this to happen the problem isn’t big enough, basically, and in all fairness I guess the world has bigger problems.

    I believe the major reason these research bubbles don’t happen more often is that the scientists involved don’t actually want to work on irrelevant nonsense because there isn’t enough money to make in academia. They need to be genuinely confused. This is different to economic bubbles that people have a reason to contribute to even if they know they’re bubbles because there’s money to make (eg the 2008 economic crisis was an extreme example — actually many people knew it was a bubble, they just couldn’t not contribute to it).

    In the case at hand (Quanta article) it’s rather obvious what the confusion is — I have written and talked about this several times before. There is a very large fraction of physicists (and science writers) who erroneously believe that a theory which is falsifiable is scientific. It’s a basic misunderstanding of what Popper said: a theory which is not falsifiable is not scientific (or, equivalently, if it’s scientific then it’s falsifiable). This simple misunderstanding has funded basically thousands of researchers for decades. It’s embarrassing.

  28. Anonyrat says:

    What can force a bunch of scientists that what they are doing is no longer science? Only retirement, death, and an unyielding skepticism of the next generation.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Yes the way hep-th works may be more like an elite luxury goods market than a standard competitive market, but like such markets, those directly involved understand well how they work. In the hep-th case, central are jobs and funding. For jobs, there aren’t a lot of them, you can easily follow the postdoc and tenure-track rumor mills to understand exactly who is getting these jobs and exactly what you need to work on and what kind of connections you need to get one one of these few jobs. For grant funding, in the US it’s basically DOE + some NSF and Simons. Again, you can easily see who these small number of grants are going to and what you need to be doing to get one. Not hard to find out who is on the grant panels and making these decisions, or what criteria they are using to make them.

    So, in principle changing this system would just require a relatively small number of people to acknowledge there’s a problem and come up with a plan to do something about it. But, those who could do this are instead arguing everything is A+++.

    As for the idea that the system will self-correct by retirements and skeptical younger people, note that Andy Strominger’s father is a distinguished Harvard researcher in another field who only recently retired in his mid-nineties, still getting grants. My impression of younger people in hep-th is that for decades now this field has been weeding out anyone skeptical, more and more attracting the unusually credulous.

  30. entropic says:

    Condensed matter physicist here, who has been eagerly reading this excellent blog and the comments over the years; this is my first comment.

    There is one characteristic of hep that has been bothering me since my student years and it has played a major role in my decision to pursue a different field of Physics, namely the existence of a person-cult atmosphere in it. There have always been in hep, even before the times of strings, semi-gods revered by their disciples, who recited their sayings as though they were speaking the words of irrefutable truth. I always found it bizarre to witness both my fellow students and mature researchers refer to whatever those (undoubtedly brilliant) colleagues said in religious awe [*], and following uncritically the research paths laid down by them. This attitude has reached monstrous proportions with strings. There are no doubt leading personalities in all fields (of Physics) but the situation in hep has always seemed extreme to me. This aspect of it, combined with the disturbing arrogance of many hep practitioners to look at other physicists as lesser beings, kept me away from the field.

    I feel genuinely very sorry for the current state of affairs of hep and I am not experiencing any Schadenfreude about it. It makes me sad as a fellow physicist, also because I know that this hype-beast has already extended its tentacles elsewhere and it is hurting all parts of Physics, some more and some less. I believe, however, that in trying to analyze all the reasons for these negative developments in hep, one should also consider the cult-like sociology of the field as an additional factor: hep has been depending on the holy words of a few superstars for way too long. Maybe this is a lesson to be learned for other fields (and for hep in its effort to recover from its present state.)

    [*] A particularly alarming sign has been whenever someone who had never met the leading hep-person Robert Smith [fictitious name] in his life, would start a sentence saying: “As Bob recently said …”

  31. jack morava says:

    @ Sabine :
    … we will continue seeing these BUBBLES…

    Speaking of condensed matter, I think this is an accurate diagnosis, and that it may be useful to think in these terms, with funding agencies as inefficient steampunk engines powered by political heat. Bubbles are quite interesting [cf K Uhlenbeck] and deserve to be better understood.

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