Richter Talk at SUSY06

Burton Richter’s talk at the panel on “Naturalness” at SUSY06 is now on-line. Richter blasted his three theoretical colleagues on the panel (two of whom are his colleagues at Stanford) in forceful terms as no longer doing science:

… I think some of what passes for the most advanced theory these days is not really science.

I see no problem if part of the theory community goes off into a kind of metaphysical wonderland, but I worry that they may be leading too many of the young theorists along into the same wonderland. Simply put, it looks to me as if much of what passes as the most advanced theory these days is more theological speculation that it is the development of practical knowledge.

… the distinction between theory as theological speculation and as the development of practical knowledge. Theological speculation is the development of models with no testable consequences.

[About supersymmetry and naturalness] The price of this invention is 124 new constants which I always thought to be to high a price to pay.

Naturalness may be a reasonable starting point to solve a problem, but it doesn’t work all the time and one should not force excessive complications in its name.

The Anthropic Principle is an observation, not an explanation…. I have a very hard time accepting the fact that some of our distinguished theorists do not understand the difference between observation and explanation, but it seems to be so.

… what we have is a large number of very good people trying to make something more than philosophy out of string theory. Some, perhaps most, of the the attempts do not contribute even if they are formally correct.

It is not that the landscape model is necessarily wrong, but rather if a huge number of universes with different properties are possible and are also probable, the landscape can make no real contribution other than a philosophic one. That is Meta-physics, not physics.

After all, the Hebrews after the escape from Egypt wandered in the desert for 40 years before finding the Promised Land. It is only a bit more than 30 since the solidification of the Standard Model.

Update: Clifford Johnson was there, and has a report on the session. He describes Richter’s talk as “It was basically a loud fart in a quiet cathedral, during evensong. Excellent.”

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19 Responses to Richter Talk at SUSY06

  1. Sorry if I quote too much, but here it goes:

    “(…) But in this quantum-gravity research area, since there was no experimental guidance, it was inevitable for theorists to be tempted into trying to identify the correct theoretical framework relying exclusively on some criteria of conceptual compellingness. Of course, tempting as it may seem, this strategy would not be acceptable for a scientific endeavor. Even the most compelling and conceptually satisfying theory could not be adopted without experimental confirmation.”

    “(…) And often in the media the different approaches are compared on the basis of the “support” they have in the community: one says “the most popular approach to the quantum gravity problem” rather than “the approach that has had better success reproducing experimental results”. So, it would seem, the Quantum Gravity problem is to be solved by an election, by a beauty contest, by a leap of faith.”

    “(…) Quantum gravity phenomenology requires of course a combination of theory and experiments. (…) One here is guided by the expectation that quantum-gravity research should proceed just in the old-fashioned way of scientific work: through small incremental steps starting from what we know and combining mathematical-physics studies with experimental studies to reach deeper and deeper layers of understanding of the problem at hand (in this case the short-distance structure of spacetime and the laws that govern it).”

    Amelino-Camelia
    Introduction to Quantum Gravity Phenomenology
    [http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0412136]

    Thanks,
    Christine

  2. John Stanton says:

    There is a good argument against the Anthropic “principle”:
    Apes or pigs could equally state that the universe is made for them.
    One could equally speak about the Simian or the Porcine principle.

    I read this somehwere on the internet. Always liked it.

  3. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    And I’m relieved to see a great physicist like Richter pointing out in forceful terms that what the pseudo-theorists are doing today is theological meta-physics not physics.

    Although “pata-physics” may be a more appropriate description of their activities.

  4. Tony Smith says:

    Back in January 2000 (version 2 of hep-ex/0001012) Burton Richter said:
    “… To the experimenters I would say that supersymmetry is a pure “social construct”
    with no supporting evidence despite many years of effort. It is okay to continue looking
    for supersymmetry as long as it doesn’t seriously interfere with real work (top, Higgs, neutrinos, etc.). …”.

    It seems to me to good advice today, particularly to those lobbying for building the ILC.

    Back then, 6 years ago, Richter was more or less agnostic about string theory, saying “… String/brane theory … represents an attempt to bring together gravity and quantum mechanics, a problem worth serious effort. … these are early days … String/brane theory may even give the necessary constraints that supersymmetry needs to reduce the number of constants to a believable level. It is still too early to say, but it may be much more than metaphysics. …”.

    Sadly (for string theorists) but realistically (for the rest of us), the results (or lack thereof) during the past 6 years lead Richter to say (as quoted by Peter) as of now:
    “… what we have is a large number of very good people trying to make something more than philosophy out of string theory. Some, perhaps most, of … the attempts do not contribute even if they are formally correct. … it looks to me as if much of what passes as the most advanced theory these days is more theological speculation that it is the development of practical knowledge. … Theological speculation is the development of models with no testable consequences. …”.

    A problem with contemporary high-energy theoretical physics is that the mainstream, dominated by superstring theory plus a bit of Loop Quantum Gravity, is unwilling to make any significant effort to understand and evaluate alternative approaches leading to the deveolpment of models that do have testable consequences.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  5. Sailorstar says:

    As a young theorist, it benefits me if as many potential competitors spend their lives on string theory as possible. Meanwhile, I will follow theories that produce testable results. Go ahead, make my day.

  6. MathPhys says:

    Peter,
    Could you please link to Motl’s blog where he says that B Richter is an average squirrel and all that? It must be there somewhere but I can’t find it.

  7. string advocate says:

    dear Peter,

    the fact that string theory happens to be “vacuous” enough to be a candidate theory for an anthropic interpretation of the smallness of the cosmological constant and of other old anthropic coincidences is not something that string theorists wanted. Rather, string theory was over-sold as the uniquely predictive theory of The Elegant Universe, and various string theorists, including Lubos, are still trying to defend this old propaganda. Discovering theories better than theorists is not unusual: Einstein tried to prevent the expansion of the universe and Dirac tried to make the positron 2000 times more massive than the electron, etc.

    Probably we will never be able of testing the landscape, but it is the most plausible scenario (or, if you prefer, theology) we have today. String theorists willing to explore this direction hopefully understand that doing meta-physics with hype is much more dangerous than doing physics with hype.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Peter,
    Could you please link to Motl’s blog where he says that B Richter is an average squirrel and all that? It must be there somewhere but I can’t find it.

    Squirrels are very smart. They can do complicated multi-factor dynamical calculations using local approximations to Newtonian gravity with air resistance taken into account far better than any String Theorist. They also have a strategy for coping with tough times that does not involve wishful thinking or deception.

  9. MathPhys says:

    Very clever, Chris 🙂

  10. nontrad says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for bringing this to attention!

    It is a welcome relief to hear someone of Richter’s stature make such sober comments. If only there were more of the same from similar High Energy figures.

    Alas, the combination of a lack of data, lack of funding for extracting that data, power in the wrong hands, the glory of the Einstein effect (successful theories such as SR / GR crafted by an individual in isolation) and the addictive nature of pursuing beauty for beauty sake (unchecked by reality’s unforgivingly counter intuitive nature QM / SR / GR / Chaos)… is too powerful a temptress. So, instead, until the day when there is finally some data, we will continue to hear of the wild pie in the sky speculations in HEP.

    I suppose the consolation for the interim are voices such as yours, Richters or Laughlin’s. We can only hope that these voices grow in number and finally impact the check writers.

  11. Doug says:

    If what passes for advanced theory today is not really science, but theological speculation, then, given the huge amount of government money spent on supporting it, the ACLU should be expected to step in soon on grounds that such expenditures are a violation of the doctrine of separation of church and state.

    If they don’t, and the high priests of string theory get more and more state sanction, the likes of string theory priests such as LM may eventually be able to enforce their views by purging heretics through a program of inquisition, funded by the “holy see [it our way or no way].

  12. Pingback: SUSY06 Wednesday Night SmackDown! | Cosmic Variance

  13. knotted says:

    ‘If they don’t, and the high priests of string theory get more and more state sanction, the likes of string theory priests such as LM may eventually be able to enforce their views by purging heretics through a program of inquisition, funded by …’

    Doug, you need the past tense throughout that sentence.

    The mainstream has been using state money to fund LM for the inquisition for ages, also the purging of heresy off arxiv has been done by Jacques Distler. The mainstream has the power and uses it to censor out all criticism and to label all alternatives crackpot. It is all over. Physics was conquered by complete lies (deceiving hype) funded by the taxpayer and the media. If I lied that I had extra dimensional-based unification and quantum gravity, without actually having a shred of evidence, I’d be ashamed of myself.

  14. Walt says:

    Sailorstar: Funny.

    Knotted: Note that HEP is not all, or even most, of physics.

  15. Chris W. says:

    String Advocate says: Probably we will never be able of testing the landscape, but it is the most plausible scenario (or, if you prefer, theology) we have today.

    It is only as plausible as string (and M-) theory. Insofar as string theory deserves to be judged by its consequences, including those that undermine its very testability, it’s high time to start regarding string theory as it stands as implausible—not because of its lack of experimental confirmation, but because of the emptiness of any putative experimental confirmation in the context of the Landscape and its anthropic interpretation.

    The question that ought to be asked now is why the original physical idea—a shift from a dynamics of point particles interacting in spacetime to a dynamics of one-dimensional objects with certain properties in spacetime—should have produced any interesting results at all, even if only in the nature of a rough correspondence. What does this mean? If quantum field theory and spacetime itself have a substructure, as GR + QM lead us to suppose, what sort of substructure might lead to string dynamics as a sort of residual trace? M-theory is supposed to be the answer to that question, but it is much more obscure than string theory itself. When deep physical questions are at issue we ought to be willing to step back from the formalism and ask simple, penetrating questions. Most string theorists, and for that matter, particle physicists, seem to have little interest in this kind of thinking. (Gerard ‘t Hooft is a notable exception.)

    ——————————
    PS: Putting the Landscape on a par with the positron and the Hubble expansion is laughable.

  16. anonymous says:

    dear Chris W

    I disagree with you. Anthropic arguments have not been invented by string theorists. Anthropic arguments survived for many years at the borders of science because they offer plausible interpretations of various observations: why there are many nuclei, why the cosmological constant is small, and now why string theory never gave predictions. For the first time all this makes a coherent scenario.

    The only little difference with respect to Einstein and Dirac is that we miss experimental confirmations and ideas on how to get them. If you want to see something laughable, the probability distributions in the talk by Linde are a better candidate.

  17. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    Anthropic arguments are essentially an isomorphism to more basic “God of The Gaps” arguments. They run thusly:

    We cannot (currently) explain $phenomenon, therefore $deity is responsible for $phenomenon.

    As far as I can see, anthropic arguments explain nothing, and do little except say “This is as it is because it is.” Universal constants are “fined-tuned”, but this in itself is evidence of nothing, except that the constants are as they are.

    For all we know, any number of supposedly “sterile” combinations could have produced a universe with life. Just not as we know it. It’s safe to say that universes are chaotic systems and that small perturbations in the initial conditions can have big effects on the final solution.

  18. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    Life imitating Humour.

    String theory and the Antropomorphic “Prinicple” can be summed up by that famour cartoon.

    http://www.drabruzzi.com/images/Then%20a%20Miracle%20Occurs.jpg

  19. I think Burton Richter either knows Galileo Galilei’s sentence (written in golden letters on the stairs of my Physics Department, which bears his name),

    “Io stimo piu’ il trovar un vero, benche’ di cosa liggiera, che il disputare lungamente delle massime questioni, senza conseguir verita’ nissuna”,

    (“I have higher regard of finding a truth, although on something silly, than to discuss endlessly about the most important questions, without achieving any truth”)

    or would easily subscribe to it.

    Any reference to the meeting in Beijing is voluntary…

    Cheers,
    T.

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