Media and Other News

There’s filming going on outside my office window today, right at the entrance to the Columbia Mathematics building. The film is Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, with a screenplay based on the David Foster Wallace book of the same name.

On the way in here I stopped at a bookstore and took a look at the new Thomas Pynchon novel Against the Day. Over at Cosmic Variance, Mark Trodden and Sean Carroll are Pynchon fans and have postings about this. I was quite fond of Vineland and enjoyed some of Pynchon’s earlier books, but he lost me with Mason and Dixon, and this new one doesn’t look promising. From flipping through it, one important topic seems to be quaternions and their relation to 4d space-time geometry, and a group of characters are called the Quaternioneers. I almost bought the book, thinking that it was my duty as a chronicler of the nexus of math, physics and popular culture to read the thing. But when I picked it up, its sheer heft caused an immediate feeling of discouragement, so I put it back down and will wait for reports from others.

There’s a new movie out this week called Deja Vu, and evidently string theory play a significant role in its time-travel/multiverse based plot. My colleague Brian Greene was scientific consultant on the film, and the Cosmic Log MSNBC blog has a story about this, noting that he’s also involved in another time-travel movie project (Mimzy), and appeared in yet a third (Frequency). The MSNBC story does explain that time-travel is not a big topic of current physics research, but describes physicists as “intrigued by the trippy concepts spawned by string theory – indicating that the universe could follow any of 10500 possible courses, and that our course seems to be going down just the right path to allow for the development of stars, galaxies and life” (the story does note that some people have a problem with this and gives “Not Even Wrong” a mention). While I gave up on the idea of spending $35 on the Pynchon book and devoting endless hours to reading its more than 1100 pages, spending $10 and devoting a couple hours to watching a cheesy movie seems like a much more viable way of fulfilling my blogger duties, so I think I’ll be doing that this evening.

Continuing on the science fiction theme, next year’s Les Houches summer school will be on the topic String Theory and the Real World.

In further media news, last week I talked with someone from the CBC radio program The Current, and supposedly they were going to use some of this in a program on the controversy over string theory that aired yesterday. Also someone tells me that this past week’s issue of Der Spiegel has an article on this.

Finally, for some non-media science fact, the week before last there was a workshop in Paris on High Energy Physics in the LHC Era. There were quite a few interesting talks, including one by Albert de Roeck on post LHC accelerator possiblities (mainly the SLHC, a luminosity upgrade of the LHC), by Alessandro Strumia on astrophysical neutrino experiments, and by Fabio Zwirner on supersymmetry (see page 18 of his slides for a good reason not to believe in supersymmetry). The summary talk was given by Luciano Maiani, who argued that the next machine after the LHC should be a larger proton-proton machine, on the SSC size scale, to be built in the US (since it wouldn’t even fit at CERN), with an electron-positron collider to be built at CERN.

Update: For a more general discussion of the question of whether new physics that solves the naturalness problem will be visible at the LHC, see a recent posting by Tommaso Dorigo, who is reporting on a conference going on in Bologna, especially the talk by Andrea Romanino.

Update: The movie is completely generic, including no strings, but just a standard-issue wormhole.

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18 Responses to Media and Other News

  1. Moshe says:

    Someone in the New Yorker seems to agree with you on Pynchon’s latest opus:

  2. Jud says:

    Re the New Yorker review, “Pynchon writes for Pynchon,” “Pynchon writes that way just to show he can,” and “Pynchon is too damned obscure” are common complaints among Pynchon non-fans, famously including the Pulitzer jury that reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow. Lots of these accusations of egotism and playing with readers seem to stem from Pynchon’s use of humor. When the heck did we start requiring our artists to be so solemn? Joyce’s “Ulysses” has pages and pages of extended humorous vamps; what got him into trouble wasn’t the humor, it was closing the book with 50 pages of a woman giving herself an orgasm. So 80 years ago, sex was the sin; now, apparently, it’s laughter.

  3. M says:

    It is exciting that, while this epoch of endless speculations is coming to an end, we have no best guess for what LHC will see. Discovering if supersymmetry anticipated LHC results by 20 years, or if we lost 20 years on a wrong speculation will be a sensible issue, like discovering that strings predict things univocally up to a 10^500 ambiguity.

    Concerning colliders, a reasonable point of view is that now we don’t know if we will need to do precision physics with a 500 GeV ILC or explore higher energies with a SSC-like collider. So it would be reasonable to keep the second option open, by working on the needed magnetic technologies, and by finding a better name for it.

    Moving all US resources to the first option will put the US in first position, if the physics case for a linear collider will turn out to be correct. If not, it will be difficult to switch to the SSC-like option. The possibly wrong physics case for ILC has been already presented to the congress by somebody who got a recent Pinocchio award: are we sure it is a good strategy?

  4. r hofmann says:

    My personal feeling about the ILC is that there will be a lot of very clean new-physics signals to be seen at such a machine nothing to do with supersymmetry. I believe that hadron colliders at higher energies will be more or less redundant judging from the lessons learned with the linear collider and LHC.

  5. K. says:

    It is very remarkable that the MSSM adds 100-odd parameters to the SM, yet it seems to need a 1% level tuning in order to evade LEP bounds. In principle it should be able to fit about 30 elephants wagging their tails, if one believes Fermi 🙂

    As first light nears, the LHC saga is building up more and more suspense. Who says particle physics is not thrilling?

  6. Indeed, it is thrilling.
    And, that were not enough, there’s more. One of the most thrilling things is that many of the people working in the experiments (Atlas and CMS) do not seem to realize, as close as 1.5 years from serious data taking, how complex are things at a hadron machine.

    At the workshop I attended in Bologna Anna Maria Zanetti gave a very nice talk on the experience in CDF with the start of Run II and the first problems with data taking. I knew all of the stuff, so I could lay back and enjoy the terrified look in the face of many at the sight of what a lost proton beam can do to your apparatus, what fraction of the silicon sensors were burned by beam incidents as the first few nanonarbs of data were being collected, and the ugly effects resonance (not a particle, but the nasty effect of elastic forces at work) can do to sensitive parts of your electronics – exemplified by wirebonds broken in scores in the silicon readout as data taking causing lorentz forces passed through the resonant frequency of the bonds.

    I think it will really be exciting…


  7. King Ray says:

    On the topic of science fiction, I don’t know if many people know that Harlan Ellison and Sidney Coleman are childhood friends. I was at an LSC lecture given by Ellison back in the 80’s at MIT in Kresge Auditorium and Harlan introduced Sidney as a close friend and had him stand up in the audience.

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    Science fiction was much more entertaining when science fact had its act together.


  9. King Ray says:

    Has anyone seen this?

    Cosmologists expose flaws in anthropic reasoning

    Many scientists never liked it anyway, and now Glenn Starkman from Oxford/Case Western and Roberto Trotta from Oxford show that too many details—and too many unknowns—mean that anthropic reasoning gives inconsistent values of the cosmological constant, some that are far from current estimates. In their recent paper, “Why Anthropic Reasoning Cannot Predict Lambda” (Physical Review Letters), Starkman and Trotta find that different ways of defining the probability of observers in different universes leads to vastly different predictions of the cosmological constant.

    “The significance of our work is to offer a concrete example of how anthropic methods of reasoning can be used to reach conclusions contradictory to those usually arrived at,” Starkman told “This suggests to us that anthropic explanations of fundamental questions should be treated very cautiously.”

  10. Thomas Love says:

    If “anthropic methods of reasoning can be used to reach conclusions contradictory to those usually arrived at” perhaps it is not anthropic methods of reasoning which are wrong. Perhaps the usual modes of reasoning are wrong. Not that I believe in “anthropic methods of reasoning “.

  11. Chris W. says:


    I think the point that Starkman and Trotta are trying to make is that anthropic reasoning provides way too much room for fudging, to the point where it can’t be relied upon to yield coherent conclusions. That is, it can yield one set of conclusions that contradict another set of conclusions previously arrived at by anthropic reasoning.

  12. Chris W. says:

    More on the media front: A story for NPR by Robert Krulwich on manufacturing universes in the lab, with Brian Greene and Andre Linde featured prominently:

    “Just imagine if it’s true and there’s even a small chance it really could work,” [Linde] said. “In this perspective, each of us can become a god.”

  13. Chris Oakley says:

    Re: the Universe Machine, I was not clear on how much customisation is possible. Presumably you can adjust basic things like the total mass, amount of dark matter and Hubble constant, but what about the finer adjustments? Could you, for example, create a universe where the majority of what theoretical particle physicists say to reporters is not total bullsh*t? That would be a challenge.

  14. Ari Heikkinen says:

    So, the movie has to be cheesy because Brian Greene was their consultant on science? I’m sure Greene, even though he’s a string theorist, is competent enough to be a credible consultant for a film.

    Just pointing this out, because you keep pointing out that people should read your book first before commenting it, so wouldn’t it be only fair to first watch the film and comment it afterwards?

  15. Peter Woit says:

    You’re completely making things up I never wrote. I didn’t characterize the movie as cheesy because Brian was a consultant, I characterized it as cheesy because I think pretty much all big-budget thrillers with time-travel themes are cheesy. I had seen the trailer for the movie, read reviews and other articles about it, and all the evidence was that that this would be a cheesy movie. I often like to see cheesy movies, so happily paid my money expecting to see a cheesy movie, and was not disappointed.

  16. anonymous says:

    “I often like to see cheesy movies,”

    (Ahem, perhaps you shouldn’t be so frank, or some bits of what you say in jest will be quoted out of context by your enemies to make you sound cheesy.)

  17. Chris W. says:

    More on the media front: In the December 1 Science Journal (Wall Street Journal) Sharon Begley focuses on anthropic reasoning, with special attention to recent criticisms and research that bears on its alleged effectiveness in answering substantive questions about things like the value of lambda.

    In particular she discusses work published in August (in Physical Review D) by Graham Kribs, A Universe Without Weak Interactions (hep-ph/0604027, 4 April 2006).

    (Kribs is also a co-author of another interesting paper posted last April, on an alternate derivation of some important AdS/CFT predictions — hep-th/0602110.)

  18. Benni says:

    Job Openings:

    2 String theory professorships available in munich:

    # We expect to fill one W1 Junior professorship position (Junior research group) within the Excellency Cluster “Origin and Structure of the Universe” on Extra Dimensions, Strings and Branes (see here for more information). The announcement will appear soon.

    # We expect to fill one W2 Associate Professorship position as well as one W1 Junior professorship position within Elite Master Study Programme “Theoretical and Mathematical Physics” (see here for more information). The announcements will appear soon.

    There aren’t many string theory professorships available in europe, and especially in munich, theres lots going on on high energy theory:

    especially here:


    and here:

    I think these are worthy positions to take.


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