Various Links, Latest From Kaku

Seems like everyone is getting a MySpace site, first Michio Kaku, now GLAST.

There was a conference this past week in Madrid honoring Nigel Hitchin’s 60th birthday. The program is here.

The latest issue of Nature has an article by Barry Mazur about recent progress on the Sato-Tate conjecture due to Mazur’s Harvard colleague Richard Taylor and collaborators. My meager understanding of this result is that it involves extending the Taniyama-Shimura-Weil conjecture from the case of the two-dimensional representation of GL(2) to symmetric powers of this representation.

Mark Trodden and Christine Dantas both have well-done reviews of Alex Vilenkin’s Many Worlds in One, which I wrote about here. Mark implicitly compares the book very favorably to Susskind’s recent one promoting similar ideas. I kind of disagree with him about the book, feeling that, no matter how well done, promoting to the general public science consisting of highly speculative ideas that seem to be untestable is not a good idea. It’s true that the multiverse cannot be simply dismissed on the grounds that one can’t directly observe it, but if the idea is to be considered part of science one has to come up with some way to test it. So far no one has been able to come up with a plausible proposal for how to do so, and there are solid arguments that this is inherently impossible.

[In the comment section Mark writes in to correct me, saying that he just contrasts Vilenkin’s attitude to that of others, and was not referring to Susskind’s book, which he hasn’t read.]

Update: A commenter points out that on his MySpace site Kaku has posted a copy of a forthcoming article by him that is supposed to appear in New Scientist. It is about the controversy over string theory, but doesn’t at all deal with the criticisms of the theory contained in my book and Smolin’s. It does contain a thoroughly dishonest paragraph about me, misrepresenting my position at Columbia (Kaku is well aware than I am a faculty member and teach graduate courses here, as well as administering the department computer system), and describing me as a “former particle physicist” (he’s well aware I have recently written a book on the subject of particle physics and continue to conduct research on the subject; then again, many people consider him to be a “former particle physicist”). He ascribes my criticism of string theory to jealousy over having been turned down for tenured positions at prestigious universities in favor of string theorists, and misquotes something I wrote about string theory:

String theory has only a “poetic relationship” to reality.

I never have said or written anything like this. He is misrepresenting a point I made in the book that string theory is a quite complex mathematical structure that only has a very distant relationship to musical notes and vibrating physical strings:

Once one starts learning the details of ten-dimensional superstring theory, anomaly cancellation, Calabi-Yau spaces, etc., one realizes that a vibrating string and its musical notes have only a poetic relationship to the real thing at issue.

The paragraph about me is dishonest and misleading, and so is much of the rest of the article. Kaku claims that string theory is being criticized because it cannot be directly tested by observing vibrating string modes. Critics of string theory are well aware that many theories can only be indirectly tested, and the arguments we are giving are about lack of any predictions at all. He describes five “indirect tests of string theory”, neglecting to mention that string theory makes no definite predictions about what the five kinds of experiments being described will actually see. In particular, his claim that “string theory makes specific, testable predictions about the physical properties of dark matter” is simply untrue.

Some of the article is devoted to criticizing “media hype”, and a “spoiled society, always demanding immediate results”. Given his own role over the last twenty years in over-hyping and over-promising results from string theory, this is kind of funny to read. In the end, his response to the critics is similar to that of Susskind: less than honest ad hominem attacks, misrepresentation of criticism, and insistence that any evaluation of the success or failure of string theory be postponed to the far distant future, at a time when he will no longer be around.

[Note: Michio Kaku has had this article removed from his web-site, explaining to me that it was a very preliminary draft, without any fact checking, which was never meant to see the light of day]

Update: From Stanley Deser, perhaps the shortest arXiv theory paper ever.

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67 Responses to Various Links, Latest From Kaku

  1. anon says:

    I notice from your link that Michio Kaku has a new blog entry dated today here which gives the complete test of a New Scientist article of his to come out in mid-November:

    “Civil War Erupting over a “Theory of Everything”
    “By Dr. Michio Kaku

    “… The debate is so white hot that some physicists have traitorously switched sides. …

    “… It’s a sign of the vitality of theoretical physics that people are so passionate about the outcome. Science flourishes with controversy. …

    “… Basically, any unified theory must:

    “1) unify gravity with the quantum theory (whose most advanced version is the Standard Model, with its bizarre collection of quarks, leptons, gluons, W-bosons, etc.)

    “2) yield finite answers. …

    “The Standard Model of particles simply emerges as the lowest vibration of the superstring. And as the string moves, it forces space-time to curl up, precisely as Einstein predicted. Hence, both theories are neatly included in string theory. And unlike all other attempts at a unified field theory, it can remove all the infinities which plague other theories.

    “But curiously, it does much more. Much, much more. …”

    Professor Kaku goes on to decribe you as “former” particle physicist, and tells the world his reaction to your case:

    “Personally, I smile when I hear this criticism. … My own personal point of view is that we live in a spoiled society, always demanding immediate results. We pop pills, push buttons, flip channels, and demand instant gratification. The media whips this up, lavishing praise when you are on the rise, and dumping on you when you are down.”

    The most important thing is that Kaku only tries to refute your case with a list of very “indirect tests” for string theory, without once mentioning Smolin or his work. The indirect tests could be also consistent with many other different theories, so confirmed predictions mean nothing, particularly since alternative theories are suppressed.

  2. Mark Trodden says:

    Hi Peter. I just wanted to correct you that I don’t necessarily compare the book to any specific other piece of work by anyone else. I merely comment on Vilenkin’s attitude. I haven’t actually read the other book you mention.

  3. woit says:

    Thanks Mark,

    I’ve added a note to correct this.

  4. D R Lunsford says:

    Peter – in the vernacular – you rock.

    -drl

  5. Woit wrote:

    I kind of disagree with him about the book, feeling that, no matter how well done, promoting to the general public science consisting of highly speculative ideas that seem to be untestabe is not a good idea.

    You are certainly right on this. However, I have given Vilenkin some “discounts” because he, in fact, is careful at some points:

    – Page 61: “Another important question is whether or not such scalar fields really exist in nature. Unfortunately, we don’t know. There is no direct evidence for their existence”.

    – Page 91: “A physical theory can be suported by the data, but it can never be proved. On the other hand, a single well-established fact that contradicts the theory would be enough to disprove it.”

    – Pages 116-117: “Do we really have to believe all this nonsense about our clones? (…) First of all, there is always a chance that the theory of inflation is wrong. (…) Even if our universe is the product of inflation, it is conceivable that inflation is not eternal.”

    And, this one, which probably is not a consensus, but gives some sense that things might be confined anyway to the realm of internal theoretical consitency, at least for a long time to come, and these theoretical ideas could also end up as completely wrong when experimental facts come into play:

    – page 193: “(…) quantum cosmology is not about to become an observational science. The dispute between different approaches will probably be resolved by theoretical considerations, not by observational data. (…) This issue is not likely to be settled any time soon.”

    So, I tend to believe that the public for this book, namely, people interested in science, will be able to get the warning messages. But I do think that he could have been much more emphatic on the warning signs, yes.

    Christine

  6. MathPhys says:

    I want you all to stop trashing Michio Kaku. Anyone who can figure iceskate that good at the age of 59 has my support.

  7. TheGraduate says:

    Peter,

    I was curious about why you were so hard on Kaku, calling him “dishonest”. I was thinking that “former particle physicist” was much more positive than what Susskind had said.

  8. Renormalized says:

    “For ten dark years, string theorists wandered in the wilderness. Only the true believers, those willing to suffer severe deprivation and humiliation, kept the home fires burning.these dark years.”

    This reminds me of a story from the bible where another religion was born. Nothing like suffering to bring out castrametation, fortification and entrenchment.

  9. woit says:

    TheGraduate,

    It’s remarkable that both Susskind and Kaku won’t answer the criticisms of string theory in my book and instead engage in ad hominem argument. Susskind had a lot to say about me, both in a radio interview and in the Times Higher Education Supplement. Some of it was stupid and dishonest, some of it wasn’t.

    Kaku is well aware that, besides administering the department computer system, I’m a full-time faculty member in the math department at Columbia, teach graduate and undergraduate courses, and continue to engage in research in particle theory. His description was designed to try and dishonestly discredit what I have to say. I think it’s pathetic. It’s highly tempting to respond in kind by quoting what some of his colleagues have to say about him, but I’ll restrain myself.

  10. woit says:

    Renormalized,

    He also refers to string theorists as “defenders of the faith”.

    I wonder why some people think string theory has become a cult…

  11. who is Kaku? says:

    dear Peter, maybe you should clarify to the readers outside US: why M. Kaku is so important? SPIRES tells that he wrote a paper in 1999 and various string papers many years ago, so the answer remains unclear to me.

  12. MathPhys says:

    I think Kaku is great. You have to admire a man who has the guts to call himself “one of the founders of string theory” AND look up people like Witten in the eyes.

  13. Johan Couder says:

    I rather liked the Feynman joke

    ‘(Schwarz remembers meeting Richard Feynman in the elevators during these dark years. Feynman would say to him, with a smirk, “And how many dimension are we in today, John?”)’

    You should definitely add this in your next edition.

  14. John Baez says:

    who is Kaku? asks:

    dear Peter, maybe you should clarify to the readers outside US: why M. Kaku is so important?

    His importance has nothing to do with his research. Just look at his website. He’s famous as a popularizer of science – a kind of media star. He has a call-in radio show. He’s written a number of popular books – you can buy autographed copies from his website! And, he writes columns for influential papers like the Wall Street Journal. So, he affects the opinions non-physicists have about physics.

    One can argue about how this matters – but I think it matters a lot. For one thing, every physicist was at one stage a non-physicist. If students hear some branch of physics is cool, they will want to enter it. For another thing, some non-physicists make policy decisions that affect physics.

  15. MathPhys says:

    John,
    I actually agree with what you say. Someone has to the job that Kaku is doing: bringing science to the layman in a glamourous way, and he’s definitely good at it.

  16. stupid says:

    “PARALLEL WORLDS
    A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions,
    and the Future of the Cosmos

    “Parallel Worlds [has been] selected as a Finalist for the Samuel Johnson Book Prize for Non-Fiction…” – http://www.mkaku.org/

    See? It’s “Non-Fiction”. So extra dimensions are fact.

  17. Chris Oakley says:

    Parallel Worlds [has been] selected as a Finalist for the Samuel Johnson Book Prize for Non-Fiction…”

    I would be prepared to nominate it for the Humour prize.

  18. Chris Oakley says:

    Oh – and by the way, Peter, Happy Birthday and keep up the good work!

  19. LDM says:

    Regarding the behavior of scientists who have managed to become famous (whether this fame was acquired through genius of research or self-promotion is moot)…

    Once a scientist becomes famous, he/she is then in a very fortunate position to positively influence events outside of science…i.e., affect public policy.

    We need only remember Feynman and the shuttle disaster…and before him, you can find Linus Pauling getting atmospheric testing banned
    (a nice video on this if interested: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=257544512953282441&q=linus+pauling&hl=en)

    I think it would be very foolish for a scientist to tarnish his/her reputation for veracity just to promote a book and make a few dollars…because once you have lost this reputation, it is very difficult to recover.

    Also, Happy Birthday Peter!…life begins at N=40
    (http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg19025450.500)

  20. hack says:

    Everyone knows that Kaku is THE FATHER OF STRING (field) THEORY.

    Anyone know how to make “field” appear in a smaller font?

  21. Happy Birthday, and many more! Your criticism of strings is needed to balance hype of Kaku, Greene and others. Whip eternal Inflation Now!
    After that, how about “dark energy”?

  22. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve just heard from Michio Kaku, who has had his webmaster take the article in question down, explaining to me that it was a very preliminary version of something he was writing, he had yet to check any of the facts in it, and had not intended it to be made public. My thanks to him for his gracious behavior when this was pointed out to him.

  23. werdna says:

    And kudos to you, Peter, for your gracious acknowledgment of your critic’s proper behavior. Giving credit where credit is due (even to your “enemies”) is a necessary characteristic of a good scientist.

  24. Mahndisa says:

    09 11 06

    Happy Birthday Peter, and the links you provided on the non commutative geometries were quite useful. Thanks. As to the other stuff, sometimes I wonder if you spend too much time dealing with naysayers but perhaps the controversy can generate book sales. In any event I wish you success and more book sales!

  25. Ron Avitzur says:

    John Baez wrote: some non-physicists make policy decisions that affect physics. XKCD illustrated this recently.

  26. Stefan says:

    Post I:

    Hi Peter,

    Peter, regardless of all the neverending cocophony surrounding HEP these days, *ultimately* it will be experiments and solid research which will decide the validity of respective theories.

    Can’t critics (of any theory – strings, LQG, or what-not) take the intellectual moral high-ground and just post a message (similar to the one above) on their websites and *move on* to conduct research.

  27. Stefan says:

    Peter, your site is no longer accepting my comments. So, perhaps later.

  28. nigel says:

    Stefan,

    Feynman and Glashow did that. They spoke out against the domination of HEP by stringy speculations, but were ignored. It did not help to create a greater diversity of research directions, because nobody listened.

    Groupthink doesn’t fall that easily. If Peter used this blog mainly to explain his own research in representation theory, he would just be another person with an axe to grind, or “pet theory”.

    Dismissing critics for promoting alternatives to string is more effective that dismissing critics for having no alternatives to string. In the former case, the critic is deemed an egotist, while in the latter case, the critic is deemed a dull plodder. Better dull plodder than egotist.

    The inclusion of the Calabi-Yau manifold with its many variable parameters makes M-theory inherently insoluble and speculative. The response to such criticism is a Watergate-type cover up by a Nixon-like stringy leadership.

  29. D R Lunsford says:

    Happy integer T sub P, Peter – my friend the high school physics teacher ordered both the UK AND the US editions of your book for his library – and Smolin’s, and to be fair, Susskind’s. Here’s hoping T sub P = k for large k.

    -drl

  30. woit says:

    Stefan,

    My blog software decided you were a spammer after you submitted several short comments in quick succession. Please don’t do this, and please avoid submitting long comments (in one part or many) that aren’t directly related to the postings here.

    Yes, critics of string theory should, now that the problems with string theory are finally getting a proper airing, devote more of their time and energy to working on alternatives and explaining to others what they are. Now that my book is done and out, that certainly will be more the focus of my attention.

  31. Stefan says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for the guidelines; I’ll try not to post in succession from now on.

    As for your second paragraph: yes, it’s time to discuss alternatives. If you recall (?) our previous discussions, I have browsed through Amazon looking for works in Operator theory (for QM), Gauge-theory (the best ones I could find), and other areas in HEP. If you don’t mind may I share the list with you to elicit your feedback? (I don’t have much expertise in the areas covered).

    If you should agree please send me a confirmation e-mail at my supplied address.

    p.s. I know, the post is somewhat out-of-topic, but I don’t have your e-mail. Please forgive… 🙁

    Your friend,
    Stefan

  32. dan says:

    I personally have read Kaku’s books, and I object to how Kaku presents string theory as established fact.

    From what I am reading now, it sounds like Kaku is another Lubos.

  33. MoveOnOrStayBehind says:

    “Can’t critics (of any theory – strings, LQG, or what-not) take the intellectual moral high-ground and just post a message (similar to the one above) on their websites and *move on* to conduct research.”

    Right, critics and alternatives always occupy the moral high ground, just for contradicting the main stream, isn’t it, no matter whether it makes sense or not (a classic german attitude).

    Alas…. hmm.. there may be a little little bit of a problem…. while it is easy to convince laymen that the mainstrem needs to be abandoned just for the sake of it, the experts need to be convinced too, of any viable “alternative”… and, lets face it…. where is such a thing? The string community eagerly waits for tips and guidance as to what those alternatives were!

    It’s like NASA engineers being told that they should abandon their trade and rather consider alternative rockets and engines, out of old dishwashers, car motors, etc while carpenters propose to build rockets out of wood. I am sure if it came down to a vote on the internet, the mainstream rockets would be eliminated in favor of such “alternatives” everyone with zero education can have an idea about. It doesn’t matter what the engineers say, as everyone on the internet is an expert and counts equal, as Lenny says so nicely. Indeed this is democracy at its finest!

  34. Peter Woit says:

    MoveOn,

    The problem with your analogy is that NASA engineers have designed rockets that do what they are supposed to do. String theory, as an idea about unification, doesn’t do what it is supposed to (explain anything about the standard model). In your analogy, string theory would be a heavily financed program to design a rocket that, after more than 20 years of effort, had only produced a sequence of more and more complicated test rockets, each performing worse than the last, with the latest versions (the anthropic landscape ones) blowing up in people’s faces at launch.

    String theorists should stop whining that no one is presenting them with a well-worked out alternative that can do the things string theory has failed to do, and either get to work on an idea about string theory that goes somewhere if they have one, or help look for an alternative.

  35. MoveOnOrStayBehind:

    Your comparison of string theorists with NASA engineers would be correct if string theorists had at least one flying rocket. They hadn’t. Isn’t it a better analogy to say that string theorists are trying to build a rocket out of yarn? Then switching to old dishwashers does look as a big step forward.

  36. dan says:

    Incidentally Peter,
    one reason I come to this weblog is that I find your comments about string theory entertaining.

    “In your analogy, string theory would be a heavily financed program to design a rocket that, after more than 20 years of effort, had only produced a sequence of more and more complicated test rockets, each performing worse than the last, with the latest versions (the anthropic landscape ones) blowing up in people’s faces at launch.”

    LOL

    Incidentally, Peter, I read your book, including your anecdote about seeing Witten at the library and then disappearing, and musing he’s an extra-terrestial alien with teleportation, wouldn’t the quickest, easiest, most economical and most straightforward way to get string theorists to work on other research programs (such as LQG & Sundance-Bilson preon models of the standard model) would be to convince just one man, Edward Witten, to work on them? I would imagine if Edward Witten could be convinced to work on LQG, a lot of other string theorists would follow suit.

    “String theorists should stop whining that no one is presenting them with a well-worked out alternative that can do the things string theory has failed to do, and either get to work on an idea about string theory that goes somewhere if they have one, or help look for an alternative. ”

    Where Witten goes, string theorists follow.

  37. TheGraduate says:

    dan,

    That’s an interesting point. I would be interested to read what Witten had to say about the current situation. I read that his undergraduate degree was in history. I bet he’s a pretty good writer.

  38. dan says:

    TheGraduate,

    I forget if I read that in Peter’s or Lee’s book (that Witten was a history major.) It amazes me I would think Witten was a super-child prodigy, math olympiad, etc. I wonder if he’s like a Good Will Hunting.

    I would be interested to read what Witten had to say about the current situation as well. I would be interested to read what Witten had to say about Peter Woit’s NEW or Smolin’s Trouble books.

    One wonders whether Witten’s pursuit of strings is like Einstein’s pursuit of a unified field theory, and Smolin-Sundance-Fotini’s preon model might be the equivalent of Tominiga-Feynman’s pursuing quantum field theory.

  39. ak says:

    move on said:

    ‘Indeed this is democracy at its finest! ‘

    it seems it wouldn’t be quite that simple to translate the failure of a ‘TOE’ to layman’s terms if string theory wouldn’t obviously fail on layman’s grounds, one could call this a problem of perspective: for to judge rocket launchers not-launching-rockets you don’t even have to see the rocket launcher.

  40. Chris Oakley says:

    I would be interested to read what Witten had to say about Peter Woit’s NEW

    I think that we already know the answer to this: he did not want the book published as he felt it was airing the HEP theory community’s dirty laundry in public.

  41. dan says:

    Dear Chris Oakley,

    Did Edward Witten specifically state he did not want NEW published, and if so, where does he say this? And Peter, if Witten expressly did make such statements, how do you feel about that?

    Curious
    Dan

  42. Peter Woit says:

    About Witten,

    As far as I know, it’s not at all true that Witten opposed publication of NEW in any way. After I ran into trouble with Cambridge about publishing it, I sent Witten a copy and asked him what he thought. I don’t want to quote personal communications here, or put words into his mouth, but he certainly didn’t in any way tell me he didn’t think it should be published. He definitely disagreed with my point of view, gave some reasons why, and wasn’t offering to call up Cambridge and tell them they had to publish my book, but he also was not at all telling me that he objected to its publication in any way.

    Chris’s characterization does describe one of the referee reports that Cambridge got, but from the very little I was told about the referee, it definitely wasn’t Witten.

  43. dan says:

    Dear Peter

    “He definitely disagreed with my point of view, gave some reasons why”

    I understand that your communication with Witten is private and personal, and that you will not inclined to share them, which is entirely understandable, but generally speaking, (not necessarily speaking about Witten) what reasons do respectable, seriously scientific string theorists who are familiar with the arguments and criticisms levelled in your book (i.e landscape, SUSY-cosmological constant, etc.,) and Lee’s, continue to research string theory?

    String theorists in general disagree with your viewpoint, and what are the general reasons they give, that are non-polemical rationally defensible, scientifically respectable?

  44. Peter Woit says:

    The most recent thing Witten has written about his views on string theory that I am aware of is from late last year, a piece in Nature:

    http://www.sns.ias.edu/%7Ewitten/papers/Unravelling.pdf

    I think it reflects well the views of sensible string theorists and is scientifically respectable and rationally defensible. It’s not really “polemical”, but it definitely takes the most optimistic possible view about string theory that can be defended and, as readers here are well aware, mine is rather different.

  45. Dan says:

    Well thank you Peter. Do you whether he’s made any public statements about LQG?

    Thanks
    Dan

  46. Peter Woit says:

    Dan,
    I don’t know of any place Witten has made any public statements about LQG. At least in the past, rumors were that he wasn’t very enthusiastic. No idea what he thinks now.

  47. dan says:

    Thanks. I think Witten’s research interest is the single most influential decision into the direction of physics.

  48. woit says:

    dan,

    Not always. For some reason, very few people are following Witten in the direction of his latest research interest, relating QFT and the geometric Langlands program.

  49. a says:

    in the above link, Witten writes: “And where critics have had good ideas, they have tended to be absorbed as part of string theory, whether it was black-hole entropy, the holographic principle of quantum gravity, noncommutative geometry, or twistor theory”.

    Did he forgot anthropism (e.g. Weinberg 1987)?

  50. stupid says:

    I notice that the first Google hit on the Geometric Landlands Program states prominently that it is partly funded by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:

    http://www2.math.northwestern.edu/langlands/

    Perhaps this military sponsorship is putting some people off following Witten?

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