News From All Over

Last summer the entire editorial board of the prestigious journal Topology resigned, in protest over the high prices that Elsevier was charging. It was announced today that a new journal called the Journal of Topology is being launched by many of the same people. It will be published by the London Mathematical Society, printed and distributed by Oxford University Press, and the first issue should appear in January 2008.

There’s a recent report from HEPAP evaluating how far along the field is towards reaching certain set “long-term goals” (where “long-term” here is not a very long time-scale).

The New York Times Science Times section has a new columnist, John Tierney. Tierney has been with the paper for a long time, writing columns about New York and on the Op-Ed page, typically from a consistently Libertarian perspective. He also has a blog (where he promises to “rethink conventional wisdom about science and society”) and explains his conversion to science journalism by writing that he “always wanted to be a scientist but went into journalism because its peer-review process was a great deal easier to sneak through.”

The Templeton-funded magazine Science and Spirit, dedicated to bringing science and religion together, has a new issue out. It contains an interview with Max Tegmark about the Foundational Questions Institute. There’s also an article called The World on a String about the anthropic landscape and the problems with string theory. Susskind and Wilczek are quoted saying positive things about the multiverse, Krauss and I on the other side of the question. Finally there’s a review of my book by David Minot Weld with the title Stringing Us Along. It’s pretty accurate, although it’s not true that the book describes string theory as “totally without scientific merit” (that would be the string theory anthropic landscape…). Weld appears to be the son of ex-Massachusetts governor William Weld.

The Templeton foundation has a new web-site, and has announced a moratorium on new proposals over the next few months while they change their grant-making process. The web-site gives various information about the grants they have made in the past. I hadn’t realized that they make grants in mathematics. There was one last summer for about $16,000 to W. Hugh Woodin for research in mathematical logic.

New institutes devoted to “foundations” appear to be popular, with Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies starting up one at Arizona State University to be called Beyond: Institute for Fundamental Concepts in Science. This was announced by ASU president Michael Crow, who before he left for ASU was Executive Vice Provost here at Columbia and in charge of overseeing research and various “strategic initiatives”.

In the bookstore this past weekend I saw a new glossy book from National Geographic called Theories For Everything: An Illustrated History of Science. Lots about physics, but as far as I could tell, no mention of the Standard Model, Glashow, Weinberg, QCD, etc, but a whole page about string theory. In their version of physics history, one skips from Feynman to black holes, Hawking and string theory.

The coverage of string theory in popular media these days is decidedly mixed. A couple weeks ago I attended a performance of the play “Strings” by Carole Bugge, for a review, see here. It wasn’t bad as a play, and reminded me of another similar one from a couple years back, String Fever. But I’m kind of dubious that this sort of thing actually communicates any accurate understanding of physics to anyone. The play deals with themes of adultery, loss and 9/11 with a plot based on the train ride supposedly during which Steinhardt and Turok came up with the ekpyrotic scenario (the play’s train ride is jazzed up with a woman cosmologist, who is sleeping with the two other physicists). Unfortunately the playwright’s understanding of all this seems to be based on little more than watching a British TV show on the topic. In the pamphlet distributed to the audience various popular books on string theory and physics are recommended, together with much more dubious sources, like the film “What the Bleep Do We Know?”

There does seem to be a much more skeptical take on string theory getting out into the media these days. A recent episode of Numb3rs featured Judd Hirsch telling his genius mathematician son Charlie that string theory is “bogus”, more or less the same insight into the universe as that of late sixties hippies, everything is “vibes”. String theorist Larry has been shot off into earth orbit for some reason.

As mentioned here and at Cosmic Variance, the New Yorker recently actually ran a cartoon about the string theory controversy. If that’s not an indication that something has made it into the zeitgeist, I don’t know what is. Besides the New Yorker, string theory features in Zippy the Pinhead and recent Doonesbury cartoons, as well as one from Rodrigo Alonso entitled Pulling Strings that he sent me recently.

Update: What is it with Harvard string theorists and climate change?

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24 Responses to News From All Over

  1. Peter Orland says:

    As I skimmed Tegmark’s interview, I learned that he hopes his
    foundation will merit new Einstein’s. It reminds me a bit of
    Smolin’s question as to why there are no new Einsteins, indicating
    that the current scientific environment discourages ultra-creative

    What strikes me as misguided about all this is that the real
    Einstein met obstacles every inch of the way until 1905 (when
    he published all his results in a mainstream journal). I don’t see
    today’s scientific environment as being worse than 1905’s.
    I think it’s much better. In 1905, many people who did
    science had to be independently wealthy (not most of the
    people we read about – they were lucky enough to have their
    talents recognized).

    I also wonder how these people would react if a new Einstein
    finds some breakthrough in an area of physics other than quantum gravity or multiverses?

  2. island says:

    Davies is an atheist… just to clear the air of any possible misunderstanding.

    Interesting factoid:

    Davies has pre-released and then withdrawn the book that you reviewed Peter, on two separate occasions now, in the U.S.

    It is now scheduled for its third release sometime in mid-April under then new title of, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life: instead of The Goldilocks Enigma, like it was in the U.K. and elsewhere.

  3. hack says:

    Thompson is indeed a string theorist from Harvard, but a cursory glance does not reveal any obvious tendencies towards Lubos style crackpotism on the issue of climate change. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say on the issue.

  4. Jason says:

    On climate change I don’t see how Lubos is a crackpot. He clearly knows more about it than Al Gore for example.

  5. Anti-Lubos says:

    On climate change I don’t see how Lubos is a crackpot.

    Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahahaha. Hahahahaha.

  6. Ari Heikkinen says:

    “On climate change I don’t see how Lubos is a crackpot.”

    Ok, seriously, that must be the funniest thing I’ve ever read here. I’m actually laughing. 🙂

    Would actually be interesting to hear what Thompson has to say about the climate change considering in another Harvard string theorist’s dimension greenhouse effect apparently don’t exist at all while that same person apparently considers himself the allknowing expert on the subject dismissing actual experts in the field as charlatans and anyone who disagrees with his conclusions a crackpot.

    Surely if Thompson’s that bad I’ll never take anything anyone from Harvard says seriously no matter what degrees they might have.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I don’t know anything about Thompson, and have no reason to believe that he has anything other than sensible and well-informed views on climate change. It just seemed remarkable that there’s this much interest in climate change in the fairly small community of Harvard string theorists.

  8. Ari Heikkinen says:

    I actually have a question about this:

    Can string theory actually be used to (or tell) anything about the earth climate, perhaps temperature changes as correlated to measured amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere considering known amounts of carbon dioxide emitted due to burning of fossil fuels worldwide (according to EIA in the US that was 27000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide worldwide total in 2004) ?

  9. Chris W. says:

    Looks like some young string theorists are keeping their options open, and working on something whose relevance is unquestionable. More power to ’em…

    (LM, on the other hand, is probably consulting for Exxon-Mobil.)

  10. anonymous says:

    Ari and Peter,

    Dave is a very bright guy who had an interest in environmental issues long before coming to Harvard. While I can’t speak for him, I do know that he is a very reasonable fellow and, as far as I could tell, has a sensible take on climate change.

  11. Clark says:

    Cal State’s eccentric Professor Larry Fleinhardt ( Peter MacNicol ) is moonlighting as senior presidential advisor on the new season of 24, which is also a Numb3r.

  12. Robert Musil says:

    I don’t think a diversion here into climate warming is a good idea. And I don’t think calling anyone a “crackpot” is going to be any more effective a rhetorical technique for commenters on this blog than it has been for Lubos. That’s the kind of weapon that mostly backfires.

    For what’s its worth, Harvard has pretty high profile people on various sides of the climate warming issue. For example, Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas, both at Harvard Smithsonian, have published papers suggesting that solar variability is more strongly correlated with variations in air temperature than any other factor, even carbon dioxide levels. Obviously, this is not a view held by a majority of climate scientists. But these people are far from “crackpots.”

    Here’s a Wikipedia article with some links:

    Of course, I don’t want to be construed as endorsing her views. But I do want to be construed as opposing calling people “crackpots” without justification far exceeding what Lubos or his critics have mustered to date and further opposing bringing up global warming here in the first place.

  13. Aaron Bergman says:

    Soon and Baliunas? Seriously?

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Please, all. The global warming debate is definitely off-topic here, unless you have a specific insight into the interest certain string theorists are taking in it.

    From what I can tell, there’s a long list of other blogs where those interested in this debate can discuss it, sometimes even with people who actually know something about the subject. Please take such discussion there.

  15. Close, but no cigar, Clark.

    The school on the hit show where professors include Charlie Eppes (David Krumholtz), Dr. Larry Fleinhardt (Peter MacNicol), and Amita Ramanjuan (Navi Rawat), is ‘Cal-Sci’ (based on Caltech). Caltech’s IP attornies were ready to approve this; but CBS legal staff had last-minute cold feet and invented ‘Cal-Sci’ which, in any case, is not “Cal State.” I’m quite clear on this, as I was a Physics-turned-Math graduate of Caltech, one of my professors was NUMB3RS’s Math Advisor Gary Lorden, and my son is about to graduate with a double B.S. in Math and Computer Science from Cal State L.A.

    Oddly enough, in real life, Judd Hirsch (who plays Alan Epps) has a bachelor’s degree in Physics! At least, that’s what he told me…

  16. nontrad says:


    In an attempt to get back on topic, (and this may be off topic…sort of reaching out on a limb here) did anyone read Banks’ most recent lanl posting discussing entropy in the early universe? I ask since this paper repeatedly discusses various ‘beliefs’ and ‘religions’, which seems relevant to Peter’s post above.

    Now, I only ask since I do and have, to some degree, followed Bank’s work for reasons related to some of his early work in nuclear physics and some vaguely related matters…

    Prior to reading / skimming Bank’s recent article (which I went over very early this morning), I was unaware that a certain someone posted on their blog about this article. So this might be hot water to raise this topic. And forgive me if I’m stirring the pot here by raising this subject: That’s not my intention.

    Instead, in reading this article I was reminded of the time when (over a decade ago) Coleman, Polchinski, Susskind and others wrote articles about the ‘Attack of the Giant Wormholes’ and ‘Revenge of the Giant Wormholes’ etc in NPB. A time when…well things didn’t look promising at all.

    Even Banks states in his article that there are concerns about ‘calculating the number of angels that dance on the head of a pin’ in these matters. By comparison, the recent HEPAP report seems far more cogent, sober, constrained, rational and realistic…

    Aren’t these two very very different in nature?

  17. woit says:


    I also took a look at the article by Banks, but decided it wasn’t worth the time needed to try and figure out exactly what he was talking about, life is too short. This kind of absurdly speculative discussion of anthropic/cosmological topics seems to me highly unlikely to ever lead anywhere, and it’s questionable whether it’s science at all. I also noticed that at times Banks appeared to be to some extent making fun of the subject, which is encouraging, because the whole thing does seem a bit nuts.

    Anyway, sorry but I can’t help you understand this paper. There’s always Lubos, but his endless posting about this appears to just be the usual stew of misinformation about physics and claims that anyone who disagrees with him is stupid. I wonder what Banks thinks about how his student turned out…

  18. Peter Orland says:


    Banks did not do nuclear physics in the old days. He worked on lattice gauge theories (and did primarily analytic, not numerical research).
    This subject is part of nonperturbative, relativistic quantum field theory.

  19. Steve Myers says:

    I glanced at Banks paper. Immediately I thought of Wells’ “Dr. Moreau” & the monkey-man’s Big Thinks & Little Thinks. It seems real science has more to do with the little thinks than those Big Ideas.

    Does it come to this: Second Law implies no low entropy implies no consciousness implies no me. But I only know that because I am; therefore, I am not if and only if I am. Will that get me a Templeton grant?

  20. Tierney a science columnist? I predict that he will vigorously contest with Gregg Easterbrook for lamest science columnist award – if his political columns provide any hint.

  21. Ari Heikkinen says:

    If there’s a transcript or perhaps audio (mp3?) somewhere of that Thompson’s talk perhaps post a link here? Thanks.

  22. Ari Heikkinen says:

    “While teaching at Harvard, he developed software that allows blind students to read papers in physics and mathematics. As the lead researcher in Harvard’s Alternative Fuel Vehicle Project in 2001, David assembled recommendations that led to the use of environmentallyfriendly biodiesel in all of Harvard’s trucks and buses.”

    I’m sure he’s a very reasonable guy based on all this and I acknowledge it’s unreasonable to prejudice solely based on another person’s musings on the subject.

  23. “But I’m kind of dubious that this sort of thing actually communicates any accurate understanding of physics to anyone.”

    I think most physicists would agree that the way in which “relativity” transmuted to “relativism” in the first half of the 20th C
    (a) had buggerall to do with physics
    (b) provided apparent support for a set of occasionally dubious ideas, which, right or wrong, should have stood on their own, unbuttressed by big words hijacked from physics.

    OK, we all agree with this — and yet we are supposed to cheer, or at least shut up, when other physics ideas (entropy, chaos theory, string theory, [coming up next: phase transitions and spectroscopy]) are misused as hooks for artworks. Personally I think the tolerance of the scientific community for this sort of thing is quite daft.
    If you can write a kickass play about phase transitions, well you’re obviously some sort of genius and good for you. But if what you are writing is a play about how life is sort of like phase transitions as you misunderstand them, well let’s leave it to the theater critics to talk about the play part, but we, the physicists, should be criticizing misunderstood physics wherever we see it not be, with with the subtle condescension of diminished expectations, praising a playwright for using some of our words, and look, he almost got them in the right order, how precious.

    Simile and metaphor have their place in art, fine, but we don’t tell botany students to make a special point of reading “My love is like a red red rose”.

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