Various and Sundry

  • Lots of people seem to be unhappy with my characterization of Lawrence Krauss’s question “why is there something rather than nothing?” as meaningless. I’m well aware that one can give this question a non-trivial meaning, I just don’t think Krauss does, nor do the many commenters here on the topic whose comments I’ve deleted. Happily for those of you who want to discuss this topic, the Templeton Foundation has funded a whole new institution, the Rutgers Templeton Project in Philosophy of Cosmology, and they now have a blog, called What There Is and Why There Is Anything. They give a long list of questions they want to address which are pretty much orthogonal to ones I find interesting, ending with

    13) Why is there something rather than nothing?

    I imagine that all of these will be discussed during the course of our project. However, I suggest holding off definitively answering question 13 until our grant has expired.

    So, go right ahead and help them out, but hold off on your definitive answer to this question for at least 3 years (if not more, they might want a grant renewal).

  • Another new website is the all-new, shiny, WordPress-based website for the Columbia Math department. We needed a new site since the university software running the old one (“Hypercontent”) was about to die. The new university plan, involving Drupal, didn’t seem ideal to me, so I convinced our staff that WordPress was the way to go. Web designer Matthew Kressel did a great job setting up the site for us, and our staff member Nathan Schweer has turned it into a huge improvement over the old one.
  • In other Columbia news, tomorrow there will be a panel discussion on Recent Developments in Access to Research, which will discuss the Elsevier boycott amongst other things. I’ll be on the panel, not sure how much I’ll have to contribute, we’ll see.
  • A correspondent sent me a link to this wonderful piece centering around Fred Hoyle and film.
  • For interesting video to watch, I recommend this interview with Yuri Manin at the Simons Foundation, and videos from the Clay 2010 conference in Paris about the Poincare conjecture proof.

Update: I hadn’t realized that “Why is there something rather than nothing?” studies is now a burgeoning field, with heavy Templeton funding. Besides the Rutgers Templeton Project in Philosophy of Cosmology, this past fall Yale hosted the Templeton + Yale Divinity School funded “WITA” (Why is there Anything?) conference (see, which has its own blog here. As Multiverse Mania gets to be old-hat, perhaps WITA studies will take over as the cutting edge of this kind of science.

Update: This news from a “Cambridge University spokesman”:

It is not true that Professor Hawking is a “regular” visitor to the club [Freedom Acres sex club in Southern California] in question.

‘This report is greatly exaggerated. He visited once a few years ago with friends while on a visit to California.’

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28 Responses to Various and Sundry

  1. Dave B says:

    Adam Curtis makes some superficially interesting documentaries, but they always leave me with the feeling that he is making the same mistake as internet conspiracy theorists.

    His films tend to establish tenuous sets of connections between interesting events, turn them into a narrative of “what really happened” and ignore everything else that might have been going on at the time. Cherry picking + over simplification essentially.

    The films are interesting, and contain plenty of fascinating trivia but after a while it becomes obvious that the visual style is mostly designed to distract the viewer so they don’t notice the unfounded assertions and flawed logic.

    Having said all that I did like the quote about fish comprehending Yarmouth. Having been there I suspect that they might be able to 🙂

  2. CU Phil says:

    A group of philosophers/physicists at Oxbridge got a similar Templeton grant for philosophy of Cosmology:

    I think the Rutgers grant and the Oxford grant are each in the neighborhood of a million dollars.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Phil.

    By the way, I just noticed this:

    Not all our local philosophers are interested in Templeton funding….

  4. Bob Levine says:

    Peter notes:

    “As Multiverse Mania gets to be old-hat, perhaps WITA studies will take over as the cutting edge of this kind of science.”

    I’m not sure that the hardcore MM enthusiasts will let that happen. An obvious option would be to *subsume* WITA under MM by asserting that the MM predicts that there are universes within the multiverse where there is nothing, rather than something. (The question of whether or not there can be more than one such universe is left as an exercise for the reader) An elementary application of the Anthropic Principle then yields the observed state of affairs. The WITA problem thus simply goes away… a wonderful demonstration of the far-reaching explanatory power of cutting edge science, eh?

    Don’t laugh. I’m sure at least one of the MM heavies has already thought of this one. We’ll know how bad things are when arxiv papers exploring this ‘solution’ start appearing.

  5. Guillaume says:

    I didn’t know this Adan Curtis; he’s got some pretty fascinating stuff on his blog! Dave, History his all about cherry-picking and interpretation, so unless you can show that Curtis’ choice of facts and interpretation doesn’t stand up, your criticism doesn’t go very far…

  6. Dave B says:

    Watch the films and make your own mind up. I’m not saying he is definitely wrong, but while I do find the films interesting and entertaining, I can’t really take the conclusions seriously. The connections are just too tenuous and far fetched for me.

  7. Christian Takacs says:

    When someone studies or examines “Why not something instead of nothing?” it is called Existential Angst, and can be cured by growing up and getting a good job. When someone studies or examines “Why not nothing instead of something?” it is called Nihlism, and can’t really lead to anything (by its own definition), except perhaps a fatal overdose of drugs or self inflicted gunshot to the head (or foot). If a contemporary Mathematician wanted to model either of these “Why not” scenarios, all they would need to do is take the possible number of speculations in this universe and multiply by the number of multiverses, then multiply by (n+1) dimensions in an infinite series, divide by the number of papers that could be produced with “X” amount of funding in “T” amound of time, then multiply by zero. This formula should provide an extremely predictive and accurate answer.

    I must disclose that this experiment has actually already been performed by the very well funded “Deep Thought” Project. Unfortunatly, their results diverge from mine by exactly 42, and took… slightly longer to calculate. It has already been proposed that with even greater government funding and resources a third research venture might take place that will settle the discrepency between the two answers and maybe snag a nobel prize in the process!

    It saddens me that physics has come to the point where Douglas Adams begins to sound more visionary and less absurd than current theory.

  8. Giotis says:

    This is indeed a great initiative by Templeton foundation.

    I can’t imagine a nobler human activity than to ponder about these fundamental questions exploring the origin of the Cosmos.

    This is what defines an advanced civilization.

  9. Bernhard says:


    this is a really nice response of yours to the critics and thanks a lot for the links to the proper places to discuss the question. As always, you do a a better job then asked for.

  10. harryb says:

    The Templeton funding issues has been around a while – plenty controversies eg between Richard Dawkins and Paul Davies because of the latter’s Templeton funding and his view science is never free of “faith”. MM and ST does not help Dawkins’ view.

  11. Steven M. says:

    Regarding your involvement in “Recent Developments in Access to Research”:

    As a Ph.D. physicist who works in applied science and not associated with any university or major industrial lab, I cannot access most journals unless I am willing to pay ~$25 per article. Needless to say, this hinders me from doing serious research (for free… my day job pays the bills). The question I have is why do journals need to charge at all? Reviewers (I am one) work for free. The editing is mostly done by the authors—for free. Publication is electronic and automated and costs almost nothing. Does anyone use printed journals anymore? So where is the cost that justifies the high price? This is a wall that prevent people on the “outside” from participating in scientific progress.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Steven M.,

    This is what is behind the Elsevier boycott, and this has been an issue among physicists and mathematicians for a long time.

    In more and more fields, people are putting everything on the arXiv, making this literature freely available. To the extent they aren’t, you also need to ask the scientists themselves why they aren’t doing this.

    My impression, at least in math, is that mathematicians are moving toward non-commercial journals, and these are going to be cheaper, but not free. There is a significant amount of work involved in running a journal, even on the cheap, and someone has to pay for it. Note that there never was an ideal age in which journals were free. People’s time is an expensive item, and even when journals are “free”, someone somehow is paying for it. The existence of an arXiv of unrefereed, unedited papers is the one way you’re going to get close to really “free” (although someone has to pick up the tab for the arXiv itself).

  13. Bane says:

    Hey Peter, your colleague, Briane Greene, gave a scintillating talk on the multiverse at TED in Long Beach this morning. You hear him speak?

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Missed that one. For one thing I was here in New York with other things to do. I see there’s a report here:

  15. Geoff says:

    Brian Greene was scheduled to speak here tonight at the University of Utah. A massive storm rolled just prior to his talk so I’m not sure if it was cancelled. Regardless, and despite my scepticism of string theory, he took time out this morning to speak to the physics undergraduates which I thought was pretty classy.

    John Morgan was out a few weeks ago and gave a talk to the math department. Out of curiosity does he ever need notes when he lectures or does he simply carry everything around in his head? It was pretty amazing to watch.

    I’m grateful your colleagues took time to visit our little corner of the world.

  16. anonymous says:

    Briane spoke at the University of Utah tonight – sort of a lecture on general science ( – no multiverse in this talk but I am guessing he worked in a special lecture for the physics department that covers more detail.

  17. Nicky Nichols says:

    There are other places on the internet where you can talk about speculative concepts in a rigorous way without being made to feel foolish. But not WITA which appears to be as blinkered as anything else I’ve ever seen. They won’t want to get to the answers too quickly.

    If you want to see something really impressive take a look at the incredible efforts of the amateur mathematicians over at the Xkcd bigger numbers discussion.

  18. Geoff says:

    I spoke entirely too soon. The first line of the student newspaper describing Greene’s visit reads: “We are all holograms existing in multiple universes simultaneously, said Brian Greene, a renowned theoretical physicist, at a lecture Wednesday night”.

  19. jean says:

    “When someone studies or examines “Why not something instead of nothing?” it is called Existential Angst, and can be cured by growing up and getting a good job.”

    Hum, Leibniz would have been glad to know the name of his illness. And to discover your (easy) treatment. Thanks Doctor.

  20. uair01 says:

    Totally unrelated to the above, but I could not resist:

  21. ajkem says:

    How terrible for you that no one should notice your article in the 2 hours after you posted it.

  22. @ajkem
    You misunderstood. My meaning is that PW always ignores any argument I make that on fundamental grounds (not string hype) criticizes his consistent pooping on multiverse and many world concepts. So here I thanked him in advance for what he will surely do, namely ignoring. Which is fine; he will have his reasons; just that I will henceforth also ignore him more. Nice links here often, but it sometimes sounds way too much like creepy crackpots’ “oh those establishment physicists with their obviously wrong nonsense left common sense behind”.

  23. Peter Woit says:


    Yes, I’m really just not at all interested in the sort of multiverse argumentation that you are, hope you find useful the links to other places on the web run by people that are interested.

    I’m not attacking here “establishment physics”, since my impression is that it’s a majority opinion among “establishment physicists” that most arguments about the multiverse are a waste of time and not really science. Lenny Susskind may disagree with me, but I’ll bet David Gross and Edward Witten are closer to my point of view on this than Susskind’s. You don’t know very much about “establishment physicists” if you think Susskind is more of one than Gross and Witten.

    I can also assure you that the Templeton Foundation is definitely not the scientific establishment. No matter who they get to agree to take their money, it’s a well-funded fringe organization trying its best to muddy the distinction between science and non-science, for its own ideological purposes.

  24. Wow – a reply.
    “the sort of multiverse argumentation that you are”
    If you knew(understood) *my* argumentation, you would either reject it with arguments or become much more receptive to the concept.
    “I’m not attacking here “establishment physics”, …”
    I wrote: “sometimes *sounds way too much like* creepy crackpots’ “oh those establishment phys…”
    Thanks for lecturing me about Templeton and who Lenny and Ed are as if I don’t know them personally, all proving that you do not know “the sort of multiverse argumentation that” I am interested in (for example my harsh critic against Lenny and Max Teg).
    I am out of here – your answer was arrogant.

  25. ajkem says:

    People who live in glass houses …
    Try not to behave like a petulant child and others might be more receptive to you.

  26. Pingback: Uncommon Descent | Templeton now funding “What There Is and Why There Is Anything” blog

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