02138

There’s a new magazine aimed at Harvard alums, named 02138 (after the local zip-code), and its second issue has just appeared. Personally I’ve never quite understood the phenomenon of people who retain a lifelong fascination with the fact that they attended Harvard, but it seems that there are a lot of them, and the magazine is partly aimed at them or at anyone with an interest in the place or its alumni. The university already has an alumni magazine that it sponsors, but 02138 appears to intend to provide something edgier and not so much along the lines of promotional material.

This latest issue contains an article about the string controversy, written by John Sedgwick and with a focus on the Harvard angle, including me, fellow Harvard grad Brian Greene, and current Harvard faculty member Lubos Motl. The piece is called Unstrung Heroes, and for the full thing I guess you’ll have to subscribe to the magazine. I fear that Sedgwick has done an excellent job of accurately putting together the most outrageous statements that he could find on this topic, including some things I told him when he came down to New York a couple months ago. He also got some interesting quotes from quite a few physicists about the current state of string theory. These included Glashow, who “said he considers a big book like Woit’s long overdue, because string theory has gone exactly as we imagined. If anything, he adds, it’s even worse than it was.” Weinberg is quoted as saying:

The critics are right. We have no single prediction of string theory that is verified by observation. Even worse, we don’t know how to use string theory to make predictions. Even worse than that, we don’t really know what string theory is.

Cumrun Vafa “calls string theory the major leagues in the field of quantum gravity. As for other theoretical pursuits, he derides them as little efforts here and there.” Barton Zwiebach promotes string theory as possibly being able to “see the origin of the universe, and the very meaning of how space and time are born and what they are.” Michael Peskin claims that we might discover a universe that existed before time as we know it began, while noting “But there is a big debate as to whether this idea makes any sense.”

Sedgwick tells the story of Lubos Motl’s reference to me as the “black crackpot”, and Lee Smolin as the “blue crackpot” (because of the colors of the covers of our books), and his discussion of the desirability of my death. Lubos has evidently been told he’s not supposed to say things like that anymore, and responded to a request for an interview with “I don’t enjoy elementary human rights right now.” There’s a quote which I think originated as a comment on my blog to the effect that Lubos has done for the image of string theory “what the movie Deliverance did for canoeing holidays.”

Perhaps the most outrageous quote is an accurate one from me characterizing some of my experiences criticizing string theory from a position outside the field’s standard rigid hierarchy as being analogous to what happens when one messes with the dominance hierarchy of a chimpanzee troupe. This leads to a lot of strange behavior, flinging of shit, showing of behinds, and all sorts of bizarre behavior. In order to avoid offending people I wasn’t referring to, I should explain that I had in mind specifically some of my experiences when first starting this blog, see in particular the comment section of this posting.

It’s a bit embarassing that I’m made out to in some degree be the hero of this piece, the oppressed underdog that the author tries to set up in contrast to overlord Brian Greene. Sedgwick sees the story of how string theory dominates an academic field despite very limited achievements as quite analogous to the phenomenon he had personal experience with of how “theory” came to dominate the humanities in academia. I think there is something to the analogy, with both kinds of “theorists” starting out as an insurgent minority needing a certain amount of fanaticism to survive and expand their influence. Both groups revel in the complexity and obscurity of their work, convinced that those who disagree with them are stuck in the past or just too dumb to appreciate the great achievements of the difficult ideas involved in the two kinds of “theory”.

Chris W. has pointed me to a site that brings together the two sorts of “theory”. It’s called Scriblerus Press, is run by Sean Miller, who has a blog and is working on a PhD thesis in English on the topic of “the cultural currency of string theory.” Scriblerus is sponsoring and now looking for contributions to an anthology of short creative works that deal with string theory in one way or another.

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80 Responses to 02138

1. Neville says:

I have fond memories of Bourbaki’s Commutative Algebra. Some don’t. I seem to remember some comment of Grothendieck to the effect that EGA started where Bourbaki’s Commutative Algebra left off.

An Iranian interviewer asked Alain Connes about his very brief participation in Bourbaki meetings. He said:

“Another reason to leave was that they had a life style which was unpleasant. People would leave without saying good bye, being rude was the main feature of the founders they seemed to cherish. I found it very irritating. Clearly the founders did great things..”

This is the same interview in which Connes told the famous anecdote about a physicist not thinking for himself:

“I went to Chicago in 1996, and gave a talk in the physics department. A well known physicist was there and he left the room before the talk was over. I didn’t meet this physicist for two years and then, two years later, I gave the same talk in the Dirac Forum in Rutherford laboratory near Oxford. This time the same physicist was attending, looking very open and convinced and when he gave his talk later he mentioned my talk quite positively. This was quite amazing because it was the same talk and I had not forgotten his
previous reaction. So on the way back to Oxford, I was sitting next to him in the bus, and asked him openly how can it be that you attended the same talk in Chicago and you left before the end and now you really liked it. The guy was not a beginner and was in his forties, his answer was “Witten was seen reading your book in the library in Princeton”!”

Speaking of Alain Connes, he told me something to the effect that the most trivial paper he ever wrote involved string theory. Because of the string theory connection, it’s also his most highly cited paper.

Any inaccuracy in the statement above is purely due to my own feeble memory. However I’m pretty sure I’m recalling the gist of his remark correctly. The phrase “most trivial” sticks in my mind.

2. yagwara says:

It has been fashionable for the past 20-30 years to bash Bourbaki – an attitude promulgated particularly by Russian mathematicians. But it is difficult for a mathematician trained today to appreciate how confused mathematics was at the time. Each subfield had its own language, unspoken assumptions, and rules of thumb. Simple things like the definition of a vector space, or even the definition of a function, while they certainly existed in the research literature, were not common currency.

The whole picture of mathematical objects as sets with structure, which we can scarcely imagine thinking without, was the creation of Bourbaki. One can argue that we need to move past it, but at the time, that foundation desperately needed to be laid.

It is worth noting that Weil, one of Bourbaki’s prime architects, had a particularly historical and organic vision of mathematics, and was appalled that today’s mathematicians have not grown up reading Euler, Gauss, and Riemann.

3. Tony Smith says:

Peter said “… Bourbaki[‘s]… heyday was in the fifties and sixties …”.
yagwara said “… it is difficult for a mathematician trained today to appreciate how confused mathematics was at the time. Each subfield had its own language, unspoken assumptions, and rules of thumb. Simple things like the definition of a vector space, or even the definition of a function, while they certainly existed in the research literature, were not common currency.
The whole picture of mathematical objects as sets with structure, which we can scarcely imagine thinking without, was the creation of Bourbaki. One can argue that we need to move past it, but at the time, that foundation desperately needed to be laid. …”.

Having studied math in the early 1960s, and having found Bourbaki to be a useful anchor in my studies, I agree with the comment of yagwara.
It should be noted that the exercises in Bourbaki provided some useful concrete realizations of the abstract main body of each volume.
It should also be noted that the Bourbaki Seminars published much interesting work that did not all find its way into the formal Bourbaki series of books.

Peter said, further: “… Bourbaki[‘s]… volumes on Lie algebras and groups, which were mostly written by Borel, are probably the ones that people think most highly of and still use …”.
I also agree with that statement.
I would add that, almost in the spirit of the Lie Groups and Algebras volumes of Bourbaki, and the exercises,
a later pseudonymous group of French mathematicians, Arthur L. Besse, wrote such useful books as Einstein Manifolds (Springer-Verlag 1987).

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

4. Richard says:

Peter – “I suspect a project like Bourbaki needs to be reinvented and redone from the ground up every few generations.”

I agree, although this becomes more difficult as mathematics becomes ever larger in scope. On the other hand, as time passes and we continue uncovering unexpected connections between different areas of mathematics, the need and desire for updated and more sophisticated formal frameworks will become great. It should be interesting.

5. Neville says:

I agree completely with yagwara’s statement “… it is difficult for a mathematician trained today to appreciate how confused mathematics was at the time.”

Looking at old mathematics books and papers, I sometimes felt lost in a forest of words, trying to find the actual statement of a theorem, never mind the proof.

6. Neville says:

I seem to recall reading the Deligne started reading Bourbaki when he was 14 years old. Didn’t seem to do him any harm.

7. geometer says:

Does the term abstract nonsense really “comes from an appropriate skepticism about overvaluing abstract formalism”, as Peter Woit suggested? I am not so sure. Certainly, this expression has been in use for a while, e.g I saw it in Lang’s Algebra written in early 60s. Was anyone skeptical back then?

I never really read any Bourbaki’s book, even though I own quite a few of them, but I suspect many math textbooks that I did read were greatly influenced by Bourbaki, and it sounds like a good history project to trace those influences. (Maybe this has been done?)

I personally dislike math research written in Bourbaki’s style (which may be okay for “dead math”). Unfortunately, this is how many (especially French) mathematicians still write: theorem-proof-theorem-proof. This style of writing has been the greatest of Bourbaki’s influences, I think. Rather I prefer the authors who motivate everything, and explain what they want to accomplish even when they cannot do it. I think, brevity is not always a virtue, and all too often people hide behind brevity when they do not want to admit they do not understand something.

8. Alejandro Rivero says:

Bourbaki’s group theory is still widely used for practical purposes, at least I have seem high-calibre mathematicians to walk the library while checking against Bourbaki.

It should be mentioned that not only Bourbaki come to the “new mathematics” textbooks. Also the Groethendiek method to get a group out of a semigroup is the preferred way to define integer numbers and then rational numbers in the “new math” textbooks. Actually I liked it, and it is useful when one comes to K-theory. The only think I do not like about the new mathematics is the algebraic aproach to the proof of Pythagoras theorem.

By the way, if I recall correctly, Groethendiek’s father and Weil’s sister fought in the same war. Probably they never met, because Simone was sent home after some months, she was assigned to a anarchist patrol (in the aragonese border?) and she accidentally put the foot inside the boiling pot they were using to cook the food. On the other hand, both Groethendiek and Weil are famous because of their anti-war postures.

9. Walt says:

A pet peeve of mine: The Grothendieck method to get a group out of a semigroup is not by Grothendieck at all, but discovered years before. (The basic idea goes back to Dedekind, but the specific construction of group from a semigroup was pointed out by someone — I forget who — well before Grothendieck.)

10. mclaren says:

You have to wonder if the drift into vacuous untestable abstractions in both literary and string theory forms part of a larger breakdown by Western culture into an essentially medieval mindset.

We find untestable wallows in idle speculation not just in literary crticisim and string theory, but also in music (the mania for set theory, aleatoric composition, and other psuedoscientific conjurations which reduce the role of the composer to nothing and consistently contradict the available data from psychoacoustics experiments), in the arts (“conceptual” art in which, no matter how negative or contemptuous the reaction from thepublic, the artist always claims “That’s the entire point of the piece”) politics (phoney think tanks set up to deny global warming, teaching creationism rather than evoution, claims that “We found the WMDs in Iraq”) religion (rapture frenzy), economics (rational choice theory which confidently predicts that MLK’s voting rights drive of the early 1960s could not have happened), finance (the disastrous reign of Merton & Scholes at Long Term Capital Management) and almost everywhere else you look in modern Western society.

Over the past 20 years, our brightest minds seem to have drifted into self-delusion, arguing about vacuous terminology with no verifiable connection to observed reality. We’ve seen it just about everywhere in Western culture over the past 20 years, from politics to theoretical physics. It’s a form of dementia which induces people to ignore measurable reality and disappear into word games and mathematical calisthenics with no objectively verifiable connection to anything we can observe.

New Dark Ages?

Whatever is going on, it’s disturbing. When simple straightforward statements like “Science has to involve experimentally testable hypotheses” become the focus of fierce controversky by some of the most respected minds in physics, we’re in big trouble.

11. Jeremy says:

Y’know, we had considered interviewing Brian Greene and Mr. Motl for our piece on Not Even Wrong, but we felt the book stood on its own (and I really didn’t want to interview Lubos). I understand the need to create controversy, but it’s stupid. It’s already there. Why make more?

12. D R Lunsford says:

mclaren – ah men. see what you lost.

beyond postmodernism is narcissism, and for that, no answer.

-drl

13. LDM says:

“Science has to involve experimentally testable hypotheses” become the focus of fierce controversky by some of the most respected minds in physics, we’re in big trouble.

There is no controversy…
Can you imagine something similar in Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, etc adopting a similar view. I cannot. Anybody who thinks an eventually testable hypothesis is not needed has stopped doing science — by definition. Period. And anybody who advocates such a view has just become a non-respected mind in physics.

14. Aaron Bergman says:

Anybody who thinks an eventually testable hypothesis is not needed has stopped doing science — by definition. Period. And anybody who advocates such a view has just become a non-respected mind in physics.

Good thing nobody thinks that, then.

15. Alejandro Rivero says:

Walt, indeed I had always suspected of Dedekind (and his methods to define numbers). But I was actually very surprised in the graduate courses in K-theory when they finally explained us about these virtual bundles, then the teacher menaces us with “The Groethendiek Construction”, and next day he comes with a argument we knew from the elementary school 😀

16. ME says:

“Can you imagine something similar in Biology, Chemistry, Medicine, etc adopting a similar view. I cannot.”

—————

I can imagine, it’s happening.

* Take for instance all the people in those fields who say clinical trials regarding the efficiency of ADD medication is not needed (or that they exist when they don’t).

* the thousands of people “diagnosed” as manic-depressive (oh! sorry, “bipolar”) on the basis they have a brain chemical imbalance that never gets measured. Similar things (worse) for the physiological reasons behind schizophrenia.

* I could find others

The current situation in HEP is bad, but not nearly as bad in some of the fields you mention…

At least in HEP most people agree there is a problem and (I think) are trying genuinely to address it. Other fields usually don’t even see the problem.

Why do you think most scientific frauds happen in the so called “life sciences”. I know, most research happens in those fields, but I “think” that even after normalizing in some meaningful way, it would still be quite higher than in Physics.

Bottom line: things are rough in Physics but they haven’t even reached that point on the other fields you mention and thats not a good thing.

17. woit says:

Aaron is correct, in that few if any string theorists believe it is all right if string theory doesn’t eventually produce a testable hypothesis. They’re not saying that, and it isn’t fair to say that they are.

But what many of them are saying is much the same thing, and almost as dangerous. The way I read Susskind and many other string theorists, they are claiming that string theory remains the most promising approach to a unified theory and deserves to continue to dominate research in this field, even though they believe it inherently leads to an exponentially large number of different kinds of physics, and there is no plausible known way to use it to legitimately predict anything. While they are not claiming it is fine for the the theory not to predict anything, they are saying that it is an acceptable situation to have a theory which now can only be used to make “anthropic” predictions (and they claim the CC “prediction” as such a success). While not having any ideas about how to ever get real predictions out of the theory, they acknowledge the importance of ultimately doing so, making dubious historical analogies like “well, it took more than 2000 years to get predictions out of the theory that there are atoms”. In practice I don’t see much difference between saying it is all right that your theory doesn’t predict anything, and saying that you hope that some day it will, with these hopes not appearing to be much more than wishful thinking.

18. a says:

actually, the analogy with ancient greeks seems a good one. For some time it was nice to debate theories about atoms, water, fire, etc, etc, etc. At some point greeks realized that the net result of all these speculations was empty words and get bored. Real progress started 2000 years later, when it was possible to experimentally explore atoms.

Quantum gravity seems in a similar situation. String theory shows that quantum gravity does not need to imply a predictive theory of everything able of predicting something at low energy, and that does not need to imply new detectable effects (such as violations of Lorentz invariance from spacetime foam). If today we have no way of experimenting quantum gravity, people will continue trying fascinating speculations until they will get bored by the lack of real progress.

19. In the beginning, string theory was supposed to have a GUT and GUTs do make predictions. I still think a GUT is the best way to get predictions out of string theory. Course anything other than a minimal GUT would worry me cause the GUT could be tweeked to fit the data maybe. One can have a minimal GUT even in a SUSY model, right? One could maybe have a correct GUT and an incorrect overall string theory but the correct GUT would be quite wonderful just by itself.

20. Peter Orland says:

John,

The main purpose GUTs have served was to promote the construction of huge neutrino detectors. This was timely,
but there are reasons not to take this kind of unification
too seriously.

There were two theoretical “successes” of GUTs. One
was the prediction that the sum of electric charges in
each generation of quarks and leptons is zero. The
other was that there seems to be a common unification
scale for the U(1) and SU(2) of the Schwinger-Glashow-
Ward-Weinberg-Salam model and the SU(3) of QCD.

The first “success” is a fake – it is necessary to insure
that anomalies (quantum breaking of gauge invariance)
are absent. It turns out that the sum of electric charges
in each generation has to be zero anyway, to eliminate
anomalies from the standard model. So GUTs buy nothing
here.

The second “success” just tells you that there is probably
some sort of unification at 10^{16}eV. This is a huge scale,
not as lofty as the Planck scale, but still way up there. And
it is by no means clear that the wherever the theories unify,
the unification is a GUT.

I think even Georgi and Glashow are skeptical about GUTs
these days, though I wouldn’t want to put words in their
mouths.

21. James Graber says:

John, Peter O., Peter W. and anyone else:
About GUTs: Long ago, people used to talk about SO(10), SU(4)xSU(4), and flipped SU(5)xU(1), after SU(5) was ruled out. Now you almost never hear about them. Does anyone care any more? Could LHC produce any results which would significantly favor or disfavor these GUTs? Or is only proton decay relevant?

By the way, there was a Harvard magazine called “Cambridge 38″ way back in 1958. This old chestnut never dies.

Best,
Jim Graber

22. Peter Orland says:

James,

The main problem is that the unification scale is very high.
I don’t know if the LHC will have any bearing. There are,
however, new generations of astrophysical neutrino
detectors which might (Ice Cube for example). The details
of neutrino mixing does tell us something about what
happens at scales of the order of the unification mass.

A neutrino experimentalist or phenomenologist would know
more about all this than I do.

23. mclaren says:

Dr. Woit astutely remarked:

“While they are not claiming it is fine for the theory not to predict
anything, they are saying that it is an acceptable situation to have
a theory which now can only be used to make anthropic’ predictions
(and they claim the CC prediction’ as such a success).”

Several questions:

Q: What is the difference between a HEP theory which predicts anything
you could possibly observe, and a HEP theory which predicts nothing?

Q: What is the difference between an elegant scientific theory with
so many adulterations and encrustations and baroque modifications, like
current string theory which has now turned into M-theory, that it becomes ugly and intractable…and an outright kludge that’s ugly and intractable to start with, like the Ptolemaic epicyclic system?

Q: What is the difference between saying “it took 2000 years to
experimentally verify the existence of atoms, so it could conceivably
take that long to experimentally verify string theory” and “it took
2000 years to experimentally verify the existence of atoms, so it
could conceivably take that long to experimentally verify [feng shui /
ufology / orgone energy / (ad nauseum)]”?

Q: What is the difference between a theory like the phlogiston
theory of heat, which was pursued for several hundred years
without success, and string theory if we pursue it for another
50 or 100 years without producing any experimentally falsifiable
predictions?

Q: If people like Motl claim that it’s okay to continue to
pursue string theory for decades or perhaps generations
before getting testable numbers out of it, what’s the time
limit? How long is long enough? 50 years? 70 years? 100
years? 200 years? Longer?

Q: How can the statements “String theory is currently the dominant
theory in HEP” and “there are no viable scientific alternatives
to current string theory in HEP” be falsified, given that
current HEP grad students find themselves forced either to work
in string theory to get tenure, or find another profession?

Bonus question: Isn’t this like saying to a young Russian
economist circa 1970 “Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialist
theory is (and must be) the one correct theory of economics,
for there is at present no other viable theory of economics in
the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics”?

On a more serious note…

The big question remains whether string theory can produce any slight but experimentally observable departures from the Standard Model at energies much lower than those required to reach the Planck scale. If so, we have a real shot at observing something that might confirm or disconfirm string theory. No possible accelerator built by humans could reach the energies required for unification — but are there subtle phenomena which would emerge at energies reachable by either the LHC or its successors, or astronomical observations, which string theory predicts, but which lie outside the Standard Model?

At present I’m not aware of any. Are there any?

Planck’s quantum hypothesis implied the photoelectric effect, which was observed. De Broglie’s matter wavelength implied Bragg diffraction, which was observed. Einstein’s general theory of relativity implied the bending of starlight around massive objects, which was observed. Quantum chromodynamics implied the Casimir effect, which was observed.

What slight but experimentally detectable effects does string theory imply? Are there any (which are not predicted by the Standard Model, that is)? If not, can we call it a scientific theory?

24. Walt says:

Does anyone else feel sorry for the Ptolemaic epicycle system?

25. Excerpt from Pharyngula science blog
http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2006/12/blank_post.php

(medieval): Nature abhors a blank post.

(modern): Blank posts are spontaneously filled by virtual posts and antiposts.

(postmodern): String Theory (strings of alphanumerics) has failed to make any useful predictions on a Blog Theory of Everything. Or, more properly, Character String Theory predicts a “landscape” of over 10^500 possible blogs in a blogmultiverse.

See, for instance,
Not Even Wrong
http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post | December 25, 2006 02:41 PM

26. woit says:

Walt,

Some commenter here pointed out that Ptolemaic epicycles are at least much better than string theory. They make loads of experimentally verifiable predictions.

27. J.F. Moore’s question, and the mention of ancient Greeks, and Ptolemaic astronomy are connected.

For instance, J.F., Aristarchus may not have been thought mad, but his heliocentric theory was ignored for a millennium, until Copernicus rediscovered it.

www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Aristarchus.html

Democritus was not thought mad, and was seriously discussed by Epicurus (who sort of predicted chaos theory in cosmology) and Lucretius (so long ago that science was disseminated in poetry). But most people thought that atoms were only a philosophical construct, until Dalton updated them. Until Einstein’s quantitative analysis of Brownian motion, many scientists STILL thought atoms a mere calculational convenience.

Odds are good that some other obscure ancient pre-Socratic Greek theorists will be rediscovered in some exciting future way. Those folks were actually in favor of experiments. That died out, for reasons unclear to me (Aristotle?) and ivory-tower theory dominated until the modern era.

The attack on String Thory is, in part, a historical analogy to the debate between pre-Socratics and later natural philosophers on the value of empirical methods.

I can’t recall the author and title of a science fiction story about someone who created a hierarchical theory of genius. He systematically searched the trash heaps of insane asylums for ideas thought mad that turned out to be true, but ahead of their time. In the story, he found a few. Wasn’t Grassman thought mad, and eventually accepted the claims, with his algebra filled with nilpotents. Turned out right, but ahead of its time.

28. So the cosmos is not a dodecahedron embedded in a 5-dimensional composition of 4 elements plus Quintessence, but rather of strings of phlogiston?

And these string can be plucked in a Pythagorean mathematical harmony so as to become the electric fluid?

I have not the Humor to follow this, but wonder what the soothsayers determine from the portents on how long such a theory will be accepted.

As pointed to by Ars Mathematica, here’s a wonderful quotation, and fascinating paper, on the
misapplication of scientific statistical methodology, which might just as well be applied to String Theory by its critics.

“… a potent but sterile intellectual rake who leaves
in his merry path a long train of ravished maidens but
no viable scientific offspring….”

From:
“The Earth is Round (p ‘less than sign’ .05)” by Jacob Cohen, 1994.
http://camargue.unibas.ch/cohen1994.pdf

29. XPM says:

I can’t recall the author and title of a science fiction story about someone who created a hierarchical theory of genius. He systematically searched the trash heaps of insane asylums for ideas thought mad that turned out to be true, but ahead of their time.

The story (or more precisely, a “review” of a fictitious story) “Odysseus of Ithica, New York.” in Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum.