A Tale of Two Oxford Talks

Last week (for more, see here) Eric Weinstein gave a talk at Oxford about his ideas about “Geometric Unity”, with positive coverage from the Guardian, leading to various critical commentary. I agree completely with the main point of most of the commentary: if he wants to be taken seriously, Eric needs to disseminate the details of his ideas about this, as a paper, slides of a talk, multimedia web-site, or whatever. As AJ put it here succinctly: “Paper, or it didn’t happen.”

I’ve only the vaguest notion of what Eric’s ideas are, so no way to evaluate them. From this standpoint of ignorance I should comment that I’m quite skeptical he has a viable unified theory, with reports of “very large multiplets of as yet undiscovered particles, and he has no idea of their masses” not confidence inspiring. But on the other hand, the current situation in fundamental theory is one of a serious lack of any new ideas at all. If he has been working on some very different ideas that haven’t gotten attention before, he could have something interesting or even important. But, again, until details are available, there’s no way to know one way or another. By the way, I should disclose that at one point I remember having a conversation with Eric about his plans to give a talk and make public his ideas. I tried to encourage him to do this, emphasizing though that I thought his main problem would be that he wouldn’t be able to get anyone to pay attention. Shows how little I know…

Surprisingly to me, before it was clear what was going on, there was a quick and hostile reaction from some to the Guardian piece about Eric and his work. Yes, it’s a bad idea for the press to publish overly optimistic material about grandiose and poorly supported claims from physicists, but this does happen all the time, and usually people (other than me…) don’t bother getting worked up about it. Very quickly New Scientist (not known for its general policy of only reporting on carefully vetted research) had a piece from an Oxford cosmologist denouncing Marcus du Sautoy for organizing Weinstein’s talk and not inviting any physicists:

Hosting a lecture in a university physics department without inviting any physicists is, at best, an unforgivable oversight. As my colleague Subir Sarkar put it, “It’s surprising that the organisers did not invite the particle physicists to attend – if indeed the intention was to have a discussion.”

Soon New Scientist was joined by Jennifer Ouellette at Scientific American and PZ Myers, all outraged at the unprofessional behavior of du Sautoy. Reading the New Scientist piece, for about 5 seconds I thought “wow, that du Sautoy sure is a piece of work”, before realizing “wait a minute, how likely is that?” Any experience with academic departments and dissemination of information like this should be enough to make one suspicious that the most likely course of events was that du Sautoy tried to get word out, but this didn’t happen very effectively. Yes, departments and groups have mailing lists, but the ones people pay attention to are shielded from use by outsiders. After a couple days, it came out that the true story was that du Sautoy did contact people in the physics department trying to get their help advertising the talk, sent them posters, etc., exactly as one would have expected.

What I find most remarkable about this story though is the contrast to the one that I wrote about the day before here. This involved a Sunday Times report about Laura Mersini-Houghton’s “hard evidence” for the multiverse, which she had found by analyzing the latest Planck CMB data. She plans to give a public talk about this at the Hay Festival on Friday, and a talk at Oxford is scheduled for June 11 (this talk is part of a workshop funded by the Templeton Foundation as part of their “establishing the philosophy of cosmology” effort). I assume physicists will get an invitation to the Oxford talk, but, at least at the moment, there’s no paper that I’m aware of backing up Mersini-Houghton’s claims. There is a 2008 paper about what Planck should have seen, but the Planck team reported nothing of the sort predicted in that paper.

This all leaves me rather curious about the question of why people got outraged about Eric Weinstein getting too much press attention for his undocumented claims and Oxford talk, when the same people as far as I can tell seem to have no problem with Mersini-Houghton and her undocumented claims + Oxford talk. To me it seems a lot more problematic that people have been reading in the press that hard evidence has been found for the multiverse than that they have read that Eric Weinstein has a theory of everything. Others seem to see things the other way around.

Update: Eric will be giving another talk at Oxford, this Friday, see here.

Update: To the extent you can call what’s on Twitter “information”, there’s information about today’s Oxford talk there, see for instance here and here.

Update: Denunciations of du Sautoy continue, see for instance here. For a response from him, see here. From the various very fragmentary accounts available online of the Friday talk, it sounds to me like Eric is far from having a viable TOE. Still no paper or details available, which is what is needed to see if he has a promising idea.

Meanwhile, on the BBC, it’s multiverse-mania as usual, with Mersini-Houghton,

a cosmologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill whose theory of the origin of the visible universe has attracted a lot of attention for its strong observational predictions.

explaining that

the recently released data from the Planck telescope lend particular support.

As far as I can tell, cosmologists and physicists think this kind of thing is just fine, or maybe they are way too busy being outraged about du Sautoy’s attack on the very fundamentals of science.

Update: Laura Mersini-Houghton and Richard Holman sent me the following which I’m adding here so that readers can have their point of view on this.

As avid readers of your blog, we were a bit dismayed to see your post lumping our work together with Weinstein’s. Unlike his case, we HAVE had not just one, but a series of papers where our calculations and predictions are laid out for all too see and argue about.

To recap, we made use of a particular model of the landscape of string theory, the one derived in the Douglas-Denef paper 2004, constructed the effective density matrix for observables in our patch and then used that to derive our predictions. Within the context of this model, we showed that the scale of SUSY breaking would be far above the reach of the LHC and thus no super-partners would be seen. We also calculated how the back reaction from the other parts of the landscape modifies the gravitational perturbations in such a way that the following would be true

a. the cold spot of 10 degrees in the sky at about z~1,

b. another highly underdense/void like region aka a suppression of power at k~1 which would give rise to:
c. a suppression by 30% of TT spectra of CMB at the lowest l<6 (k=1)
d. a modification of quadrupole, dipole and octopole (lowest l’s) which induces alignment of quadrupole and octopole, (axis of evil)
e. a preferred direction due to induced dipole power
f. the power asymmetry between the 2 hemispheres which are determined by the preferred direction (again the k~1 suppression shows as lack of structure at dipole/quadrupole level which suppresses structure in 1 hemisphere)

g. an overall suppression of sigma_8 due to the same correction to Newtonian potential by 30%.

Hints of all of these had been found by WMAP, but PLANCK confirms ALL of these (Paper 13 in the Planck series).

The two papers where predictions were derived are:



The full theory in 2005 for which these predictions are made is developed here


This theory was and remains the only one that uses quantum cosmology to derive the selection criterion from the landscape multiverse and that calculated every single prediction from an underlying fundamental physics formalism, without resorting to anthropics or any other conjectures. Silence does not imply ignorance.
While there is certainly room to argue with us (is our model of the landscape truly reflective of its actual behavior? How robust are our results to changes such as in the inflationary potential used?), we have striven to be above board in all we’ve written and said.

We also made predictions for a bulk flow that was argued for by Kashlinski et al. There has certainly been some dispute about the existence of this flow and a PLANCK paper argued that the flow is not statistically significant in their data but the jury is still out on that. However, the situation is not as clear cut as this. We are aware there was a paper by Pierpaoli et al stating they do not make a significant detection of the dark flow and another paper by Barandela et al., also a Planck team member, stating that the dark flow is definitely there and the filters used by Pierpaoli et al. were incorrect. Our current feeling is that it would be premature to say our theory is incorrect on the basis of a result awaiting conclusion while 8 of its major predictions have just been confirmed. Perhaps you are not aware that a bulk flow always arises when the CMB frame and the expansion frame in the universe do not coincide. On the other hand, should this discussion finally be resolved against us we are ready and willing to acknowledge this and move on. At least we have predictions that COULD be wrong!

It is true that there has been considerable media coverage for the last 7 years around this theory and its predictions but that is not surprising considering we made predictions for a theory of the origins of the universe based on fundamental physics. Don’t let the media coverage divert you from the science. The key issue is that we have a theory based on a well known fundamental physics formalism and we made predictions for the anomalies in 2006 that are currently in accord with ALL of the data (modulo the pending dark flow results). That is 8 predictions confirmed and one to go. As we said before, you might want to argue with the underpinnings of our ideas and we are more than willing to enter into such discussions. But we have calculated within our framework, derived physical predictions from these calculations and await further data to fully confirm or refute our model. We think that this how science should be done.

In light of this, we would appreciate it if you could revise your post to reflect these facts.


Laura Mersini-Houghton

Rich Holman

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72 Responses to A Tale of Two Oxford Talks

  1. Shecky R says:

    I too was surprised by the level of upset the Guardian piece generated (science “hype” being commonplace in the press), but apparently some folks see the Guardian as more immune to such coverage than other outlets (not always true).
    Hard not to think there’s also a bit of jealousy/envy involved when a lone genius type enters the fray without going through normal channels… but someone of Weinstein’s caliber certainly deserves a fair, open-minded hearing.

  2. Nameless says:

    The obvious difference is that Weinstein has a very high profile subject (the theory of everything), no prior published work in the area, and no clear way of getting where he claims to be getting.

    Mersini-Houghton has a relatively boring subject (multiverse aka Everett’s many worlds – known since the 50’s and accepted by a large fraction of physicists anyway), prior work (21 papers on arXiv), and at least partly mapped way of getting there (Planck data plus a description of what she’d be looking for in her ’05 paper http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0510101.pdf).

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that Mersini-Houghton found one of the signatures from the ’05 paper in Planck data, even in the absence of a new paper. (Whether or not that signature would in fact prove the existence of a multiverse, I have no opinion.) I am much more skeptical about Weinstein’s magical leap.

  3. Mitchell Porter says:

    Shecky R, there are literally hundreds of similarly hopeful “theories” on the arxiv – theories which are outside of the model-building mainstream, I mean. (The number of mainstream models runs into the thousands.) Should all those people have their 15 minutes of fame too?

  4. Peter Woit says:


    The cosmological multiverse is not Everett’s Many-Worlds. The Mersini-Houghton 2005 paper you link to seems to be about something completely different anyway: there’s no multiverse in it, it’s about string theory inflation. Of course, since the only source for her claims about an analysis of Planck data is a Sunday Times article, with even less detail than the Guardian article, we have even less idea what this “hard evidence of the multiverse” is than what Weinstein’s TOE is.

  5. anon says:


    The biggest difference is that Mersini-Houghton has 43 entries in SPIRES, and over 1000 citations to her work (one paper has 365 cites). Eric Weinstein has zero publications. This should give her work more credibility.

    That said, I agree that the Sunday times article, given no paper or arxiv entry, was overly hyped.

  6. Nameless says:

    OK, sorry – this paper is more directly relevant http://arxiv.org/pdf/hep-th/0612142.pdf

    I’m picking this up as I go along but Figure 4 seems to be the key. Their theory predicts that the correlation between the spectrum of CMB and cosmic shear (weak gravitational lensing) is substantially different from what’s predicted by Lambda-CDM. There’s a number of other predictions too (which include cold spots and dark flow as mentioned in the other thread).

  7. Peter Orland says:

    I agree with anon (and probably everyone else on this thread) that work which is available in some form should be taken more seriously than unpublished claims. A lot of citations can suggest additional merit.

    Unfortunately, such criteria aren’t foolproof. Sometimes heavily-cited papers don’t stand up to close inspection (of course, papers which are never cited often have even less value).

  8. Peter Orland says:

    Bad construction in parentheses. I meant to say:

    (of course, papers which are never cited ON AVERAGE have even less value).

  9. Kuas says:

    The unwritten rules of who is and is not allowed to spin the science press are always a subject of curiosity to me. Clearly the bandwidth for science hype is limited public resource which must be managed responsibly.

    In Weinstein’s defense, it’s not clear that he actively sought out the Guardian coverage, which was a tad ridiculous. I can see a scenario where he innocently responded to an invitation to talk, and an overzealous reporter somehow got wind “Weinstein, Einstein- it practically writes itself!”

  10. Snm says:

    Also, Eric Weinstein will be doing another talk in Oxford this Friday – I don’t know if it’s the same one, or a follow-up

  11. oxfordanon says:

    I think the talk on Friday will be the same as the previous one, except this one has been advertised. I think this is a good faith attempt to address the issues with the previous talk, and I will be attending.

    Just to be clear about what happened and why people were annoyed. Most departments with particle theory groups, anywhere in the world, have a regular weekly seminar on particle theory at a regular fixed time. This is true in Oxford (Thursday 4.15). This Weinstein seminar happened at 4pm on Thursday (ie clashing with the regular seminar), and the first people in the particle theory group heard about it was after it had happened, and in some cases via outlandish claims in the national press.

  12. Anonyrat says:

    Shecky R, no one is denying Weinstein a hearing. The problem is that few know what he is saying. There is a paper, as per du Sautoy, but it is not available anywhere. Why is a hype piece so readily available in the newspaper, but the actual work is not?

  13. Shecky R says:

    Don’t want this to degenerate too far, but worth noting that Marcus du Sautoy has now indicated his umbrage over the issue with several tweets at his Twitter feed:


    one of which reads as follows:

    “I spent two years looking at @EricRWeinstein work. @newscientist and @apontzen didn’t bother to check their facts. Scientific?”

    (p.s. – he also mentions Peter’s post here as a “fair assessment”)
    And he mentions the repeated Weinstein talk this Fri. at 2pm at the “Mathematical Institute” (Oxford) …I’m guessing physicists can probably sneak in ;-))

  14. op-ed says:

    The tweet itself indicates part of the problem “I spent two years looking at @EricRWeinstein work. …” But in all of that time, du Sautoy does not seem to have said to Weinstein “Write this up, post a preprint on the arXiv (or a personal web page) etc. After you post a preprint, then I shall arrange for you to give a lecture at Oxford.” It’s only du Sautoy who has seen Weinstein’s work. And the Guardian op-ed piece was a clear personal endorsement of Weinstein’s work.

    On the other hand, about Laura Mersini-Houghton … the Sunday Times article opens with “SCIENTISTS believe they have found the first evidence that other universes exist.” It’s a third-party reporting of published material, and one can criticize the 2008 paper by Laura, but at least there’s something out there for independent researchers to examine dispassionately.

    But Weinstein will give a second talk on Friday, physicists will be there (or have been invited), and hopefully a publicly available preprint will follow soon.

  15. A.J. says:

    *It’s only du Sautoy who has seen Weinstein’s work. *

    This is definitely false, and the original Guardian article makes that clear.

  16. Ted says:

    The entire du Sautoy dust up looks like petty office politics to me. 

    As far as Weinstein goes, his approach is obviously unorthodox, but perhaps not unacceptable. Someone correct me if I am wrong (I wasn’t quite born yet so my history might be off!), but didn’t Witten present his M-theory argument at Strings 1995 without circulating a paper or publishing prior? Obviously Witten was already a household name at that point and he was working within an already established paradigm at a major conference. And exploring strong coupling limits and playing with dualities of established theories is easier to follow in a lecture setting than proposals of an entirely new framework. But this situation doesn’t  seem so different that people need to unleash the hounds on Weinstein.  Maybe Weinstein wanted feedback before finalizing a paper? I’m very skeptical Weinstein has anything close to a coherent theory of quantum gravity, and when he finally gets a paper out there we’ll see (though what I’ve read about it doesn’t sound promising), but some of the rhetoric against him seems undeserved at this point. 

    As far as the press, I’m all for going against the press hyping scientific claims. I think it pollutes both the scientific process and the dissemination of realized knowledge to the public. Too often the media talks of speculative hypotheses and conjectures as facts, and not just in physics. The Guardian article was obviously inappropriate. That said, I would be more sympathetic to those angry about this if they showed similar outrage about a whole host of speculative claims the media disseminates. To give an idea of what good science journalism would look like, take this Mersini-Houghton case. Before announcing that the multiverse exists, the press should wait until the evidence is formally presented and rigorously examined by her scientific peers – and then disseminate the claim if her colleagues agree. 

  17. cormac says:

    I’m not upset, nor am I jealous, and I consider Professor du Sautoy an excellent professor for the public understanding of science. I was just a little surpised that Peter, who has such withering criticisms for the publicity afforded entire fields such as string theory and supersymmetry, seemed to be stay his hand when it comes to the publicizing of work that has yet to be examined by experts in the field.
    I could certainly see how an author of ground-breaking advances in theoretical physics who have never received media attention might be miffed at the publicity given by the Guardian to this work, but my real point is that I think this is another example of the media interfering in the normal process of science

  18. Yatima says:

    Implying there is a “normal process of science”.

    The “advancement of science” is an entirely human affair, indeed.

    Papers got to sell copies and fill column space. Writing about as-yet-unproven and unknown ideas does that. Which means there is some interest in these things.

    Does it need firing up with ludicrous formulations? Considering that most Guardian readers will run away screaming at the sight of an integral sign, quite possibly. Some showbiz required.

    The alternative? No headlines, no-one cares about fundamental science and it dies an underfunded death. Choose your poison.

  19. David Nataf says:

    People give colloquiums about work that is in progress and not yet published on a regular basis. It’s quite normal, and those of you arguing against it strike me as likely operating on either the fringes of science or outside of science.

  20. Tammie Lee Sandoval says:

    This idea of expecting the press to do the job that scientific ethics have abandoned is laughable. Its not really their job, but more to the point they wont do it. The press needs to sell papers and hype sells.

    Scientists going the press, before having their work independently checked (or even completed) means this: Fame is becoming more important to Scientists than being right.

    After all, in the days of book sales, talk shows, and speaking fees, what counts is fame. And even if your stuff is found to be wrong, the fame remains. And if you spin it right, you’ll always be known as the scientist with the data on the multiverse. The scientific contraversy, which you can always muddy up for the public, only helps spread your fame.

    The Mersini-Houghton case is especially disturbing.

  21. Mitchell Porter says:

    I’ve just been looking at Mersini-Houghton’s work and it’s actually somewhat interesting. She throws around the word “multiverse” but her “other universes” are really just other regions of our one universe, beyond the cosmic horizon. The predictions that have been mentioned recently on this blog (dark flow, the cold spot) are imprints of early influences from outside the horizon.

    She’s also known for some non-anthropic “landscape” predictions. As with “multiverse”, the word “landscape” may evoke a negative conditioned response among many readers of this blog, but it just means that there are multiple distinct configurations that the fundamental fields can settle into at low energies. Here she predicted a small cosmological constant and a high supersymmetry scale, but the interesting thing is that she obtained those predictions *not* through anthropic reasoning, but purely from the posited dynamics.

    So people who hate parallel worlds and anthropic justifications shouldn’t be hostile to her on that account; her style of reasoning does actually fit the old-fashioned method of “make a theory about how physics works in a single universe, and deduce the consequences”.

  22. P says:


    You’re spot on. I’ve given talks on work about to be released, as have many of us. I suppose the only difference is that most of us don’t claim a brand new theory of everything and don’t get it publicized in the Guardian. The latter should be the criticism, not talking on unpublished work.


  23. richard says:

    I blogged on the du Sautoy column, and may yet return to it — for me the issue was not someone working outside physics, or Oxford providing them with a venue to share their ideas. The issue was a Professor of the Public Understanding of Science (or whatever his exact title is) hyping work which no-one else had seen in an area full of brave failures — if it had been written by a journalist I doubt it would have prompted the same reaction.

    Perhaps a different question here is the extent to which a professional scientist who writes for a wider audience “on the side” is able to avoid being held to the usual standards of “preprint/peer review or it didn’t happen” — and in this sense, it is clear that people in the community expected more from du Sautoy. And perhaps fair enough — du Sautoy would have been much less likely to be provided with space in the Guardian if he was not already a serious mathematician.

    As far as the Mersini-Houghton issue is concerned, I got asked questions about the same piece at a conference in New Zealand last weekend, on the basis of the press coverage — whether it was read on a website or syndicated by a New Zealand publication is still not clear to me.

    As many people have pointed out, very few astrophysicists ever took claims about “dark flow” seriously, and Planck has cast further doubt on the topic — and any extravagant theoretical architecture justified by its ability to explain a non-existent phenomenon is not going to get a lot of attention from scientists. (I work in this general area, and I think it is fair to say that this idea has no real traction in the community.) That said, I don’t think it is my job or anyone else’s to correct every piece of bad science journalism that comes down the pike — there would not be enough time left for science.

  24. David Nataf says:


    It doesn’t matter if the idea has no real traction among astrophysicists. Neither did dark matter when Fritz Zwicky first suggested it (in the correct quantity) 40 years before it was found in Galaxy rotation curves, and neither did a cosmological constant when people were suggesting it before the supernovae teams did. Science shouldn’t be a popularity contest. The dark flow is still a legitimate scientific hypothesis, that I’m sure a small niche community will continue to work on.

    I have no attachment to it myself, and I work on Galaxy-scale astrophysics. However I totally don’t get your snarkiness. It seems a lot better motivated to me than some other questions people work on, like looking for variations in the fine structure constant by studying high-redshift AGN, or looking for Lorentz violations by timing of GRBs, or modified newtonian dynamics, or inferring axions from white dwarf cooling curves. These latter questions come off as either similarly or far less well motivated, yet as far as I can tell, more people work on them.

  25. Giotis says:

    There is a correction/apology in New Scientist piece by Andrew Pontzen.

    But why this secrecy? Where is the video of the talk? Why it is not available in Oxford page?

    Or maybe the talk was so bad and crackpotish and they are embarrassed to publish it in their page:-)

  26. D.G. Perkin says:

    It shouldn’t be too hard for physicists in Oxford to find the talk at the Mathematical Institute – the Nuclear Physics Department is just across a very quiet road from the Institute (unless something has been moved since my time).

    However, I chance to recollect that the Maths Institute lecture hall is quite small so they might have trouble getting in. Also, physicists tended to ignore mathematical physics events at the Institute. I doubt if things have changed much.

    I attended many external seminars and lectures in Oxford but I heard about most of them by word of mouth – I don’t think there was an accepted system for informing people. Since this is Oxford, it is not unlikely that nothing has changed.


    David Perkin.

  27. Pingback: An Outsider’s Theory of Everything | Ronin Institute

  28. MathematicianNotPhysicist says:

    Read oxfordanon’s post above to see how much effort was made to make the (1st) talk available to the Oxford particle theory group.

    Anyway, the second talk must have happened by now. I wonder how it went.

  29. MathematicianNotPhysicist says:

    Oops. Silly me. The 2nd talk is tomorrow. Show how good I would be at scheduling.

  30. Shantanu says:

    Just fyi, in my univ from where I graduated. we usually never got any notices of seminars in math or astronomy
    even though many of them were relevant to physics (and probably also vice versa)
    However usually all talks used to be advertised on the department websites and that’s
    how we came to know about it.
    and anyhow in this case looks like the notice of seminar was sent to physics department folks.

  31. Richard says:

    David — dark flow and dark matter are not really analogous. Zwicky’s point about dark matter was based on cluster peculiar velocities (as I assume you know): if clusters are bound objects the galaxies inside were moving too fast if you assumed galaxy masses based only on their apparent stellar content. In the 1930s this would not imply non-baryonic dark matter, just the presence of a large amount of non-stellar but otherwise normal material, or perhaps a large number of very faint stars. With the benefit of hindsight, Zwicky’s point was clearly not given the attention it deserved, but I do not believe it was ever fully addressed or refuted.

    By contrast, the claims made by Kashlinsky were not convincingly reproduced, and other results (including the Planck paper) are entirely consistent with the preculiar velocities one expects to see in LCDM models — so the current data suggests that the dark flow simply isn’t there, at least in the sense implied by Kashlinsky. Galaxies are moving, including the Milky Way at 627 km/s relative to the rest-frame of the CMB, or whatever the number is — but their velocities do not have a magnitude or long-range correlation beyond that predicted by standard theories.

    So yes, you can say that dark flow is a legitimate hypothesis, but it is not a hypothesis that appears to have survived contact with the data. However, the corollary of that is a multiverse theory that can “explain” dark flow is in a similar position to a modified gravity theory that “explains” the Pioneer anomaly: it is not something that needs to be explained, and should probably not be presented as evidence for a multiverse theory.

    As to the fine structure constant by studying high-redshift AGN, Lorentz violations via timing of GRBs, or modified newtonian dynamics I completely agree with you — the specific models being tested are simply not that compelling.

  32. Ian Sample says:

    There has been plenty of over-reaction to this, and much it from otherwise sane people. We ran a blog post on a talk at Oxford that we thought was interesting. That’s about it. Hardly a reason to reach for the torches and pitchforks. To look at the reactions of some, you’d think the foundations of science had been violated. The piece appeared on the science website’s Notes & Theories blog, which we set up as a home for our musings about goings-on in the science community. Nothing appeared in the newspaper, for all the talk of “splashes”. The post carried plenty of comments from the author and jobbing physicists on how the idea wouldn’t – indeed couldn’t – be taken seriously without a paper for others to assess. But take a step back: from an outsider’s point of view, this was nonetheless an interesting lecture on a fascinating problem in physics. It was well within the scope of material we want to cover.
    There may be a category error afoot. We are journalists, not scientists. We write about issues in science that we find interesting. We make the calls on that. We don’t treat our readers as idiots who are too stupid to be exposed to ideas before they appear in a peer reviewed journals. Most can even read without moving their lips. They understand that a talk without a paper is not a paper with a talk. We can and should write about university talks, conference presentations and posters, claims made by government scientists, and of course, peer reviewed studies, and we will of course continue to do so.

  33. Stuart says:

    Du Sautoy isn’t a journalist. People are irked by how he went about things, not that a newspaper published a wildly overenthusiastic blog post.

  34. Dom says:

    Ian Sample. I have your excellent book “Massive” but you are wrong here – I’m with Ben Goldacre that Science writing cannot abandon reality and facts in search of a good story accessible to the layperson. I speak as a layperson.

  35. merian says:

    I have no problem with researchers giving talks before publication. This is a completely legitimate way of circulating your ideas. I’m also not unhappy with Weinstein – who I’m unhappy with is first Marcus du Sautoy and second Alok Jah: Science-by-press release and splashy sycophantic reporting of unconfirmed and even unpublished claims has been undermining the public’s trust in the scientific process. If du Sautoy, as a professor for the public understanding of science, neglects this, he’s not doing his job. I’ve always liked him a lot when he cooks down mathematical concepts for the lay listener on the radio, so I’m also disappointed. On a personal level, I understand it actually that he may be overly enthralled by some new mathematical physics that he has studied and admires, for sure. I wish he wouldn’t forget to step back and assess where this thing stands in the scientific process. Not even a pre-print? Seriously?

    In comparison, the Sunday Times article, from the little I can see peeking over the paywall, addresses precisely one of the next steps – comparison with experiment. It reports on new experimental results which are great in their own and quite solid.

    To be entirely clear, I’m a geophysicist, cosmology isn’t my field, and I tend to be sceptical of new great theories-of-everything, so it’ll be a long time until I might be convinced that either of the two has something true to say about what the world’s like. And reports about both are a little over the top. But only one I see as actively harmful.

  36. merian says:

    @Ian Sample, an hour earlier: “Roll over Einstein: meet Weinstein” and the harping over trite clichés (the new theory of everything, the hermit [21st century version – an independently wealthy finance guy] working alone in his cave, the upset of established science by the unknown pure brain) — if you really think this is the best science journalism can do I’m not hopeful.

    The tendency to uncritical hero worship and the preference for splashy ideas is indeed one of the reason the Guardian science podcast isn’t in my top 5 of science podcast even though 3 times of 4 I enjoy it. The fourth it annoys me so much I give up listening for a few months.

  37. Anonyrat says:

    Ian Sample:
    One of the problems with what happened is it is not that Weinstein isgiving a talk without a paper. There is a paper.

    du Sautoy wrote so in his Guardian piece:

    “Weinstein begins the paper in which he explains his proposal with a quote from Einstein: “What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” Weinstein’s theory answers this in spades.”

    Where is this paper? Is it top-secret or something? Or should du Sautoy have written:

    “Weinstein begins the private communication in which he explains his proposal…..”

    You wrote that your readers “understand that a talk without a paper is not a paper with a talk.” But du Sautoy wrote that there is a paper. Without Peter Woit’s blog how would I have known that there is no paper?

  38. Peter Woit says:


    The way the Sunday Times article addresses “comparison with experiment” is just by repeating Houghton-Mersini’s unsubstantiated claim that her (unpublished) analysis of Planck data provides “hard evidence” for a multiverse. This is despite the (published) analysis by the Planck team showing exactly the opposite. I don’t see any good argument for why the Sunday Times should be publishing such claims.

    I also don’t understand people’s complaints about du Sautoy writing about unpublished work. Why shouldn’t he (or any academic) write for the public about unpublished work that he finds interesting? If it turns out to be highly significant work, he’ll have done very well his job (“Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science”), if it turns out there’s nothing there, he’ll have done his job less well. I can easily imagine a circumstance where a mathematician I know had a big result and didn’t mind if I wrote about it. If I thought it was probably correct, I’d blog about it. If du Sautoy wrote about Weinstein on his “Finding Moonshine” blog, would that have been a problem?

    My suspicion is that people are skeptical of Weinstein’s claims (as well one should be of people who claim to have a TOE…), so their problem with du Sautoy is that he was publicly promoting something they think should be treated skeptically. In that case though, they should also have a problem with most of the press coverage of string theory, the multiverse, and any number of other popular speculative ideas about physics.

  39. exscientist says:

    I understand du Sautoy is the successor of Dawkins.
    I’m no fan of Dawkins, but I can’t imagine him doing something like the Weinstein thing.
    “Well, there’s this guy Weinstein, who hasn’t been active in research in ages, but he has this beautiful biological theory that may solve all the puzzles left by Evolution Theory, so, although he hasn’t published anything and no biologist ever saw this theory, I’m going to write an article in The Guardian about it and give him a forum and endorse his theory …” etc.
    Or imagine a bunch of physicists who organize a seminar by someone who claims he has solved the Riemann Conjecture – without a decent article, without scrutiny by mathematicians etc.

  40. Peter Woit says:


    Mathematical proofs are a different kettle of fish. In any case my understanding is that Weinstein is not claiming to have a finished TOE, but some important new ideas about such a thing. I think a more accurate analogy would be a physicist deciding to organize a seminar by someone who had a quantum mechanical model which gave new insight into the Riemann hypothesis, and a possible route to a proof (this is not an implausible scenario…). Most mathematicians would be skeptical of such a thing, but I don’t think they would get very worked up about an account of it appearing in the Guardian.

  41. I agree with Peter’s latest remark. Why set the bar this high for Weinstein and Du Sautoy, and not for String theory? Thousands of scientists have worked for 40 years on String theory; is there any experimental evidence that supports it?

    Nobel laureate Martin Veltman wrote a good and readable book: “Facts and Mysteries in Elementary Particle Physics”; he concluded the book with:

    The reader may ask why in this book string theory and supersymmetry have not been discussed. (…). The fact is that this book is about physics, and this implies that the theoretical ideas discussed must be supported by experimental facts. Neither supersymmetry nor string theory satisfy this criterion. They are figments of the theoretical mind. To quote Pauli: they are not even wrong. They have no place here.”

    Half a year ago Veltman was interviewed for the Dutch magazine Elsevier.
    A quote in my translation:

    He still follows developments in theoretical physics. ‘Sometimes they ask if I can keep up. The honest answer is that I do not have to make any effort for that. Since 1973 it stands still’.

  42. book says:

    Actually, Veltman has been on the record (in the past, anyway) that he doesn’t believe in the Higgs mechanism either. (Although he did acknowledge that the resulting theory was renormalizable.)

  43. I meant: Peter’s latest-but-1 remark, of May 31, 2013 at 3:05 pm

  44. exscientist says:


    An even better analogy might be this: Dawkins giving a forum to Weinstein, endorsing his theory as interesting and beautiful, writing a piece in The Guardian etc. People would have wondered if he was out of his mind. Dawkins is a biologist, not a physicist. I haven’t read everything he wrote nor heard everything he said, but as far as I know, if Dawkins voiced opinions on the merits of a theory, he stayed close to this subject: biology.

    And du Sautoy is a mathematician, not a physicist. If he wants to organise a seminar with Weinstein, that’s fine. Perhaps Weinstein did some interesting mathematics. But du Sautoy shouldn’t voice opinions about physical TEO’s etc.

  45. In this 2003 book Veltman left all options open, but he took the Higgs particle very seriously, and dedicated 1 of the 12 chapters to it. Quote:

    So what is the situation? Most likely there is only one Higgs (if any!) and there is a vague prediction for its mass. however, there is trouble brewing and it is not at all sure that the Higgs actually exists. (…)

    BTW. A preview of the book is on scripd.

  46. merian says:

    @Peter Woit: The Sunday Times article doesn’t reach very high in science journalism either, I agree, and if you asked me which of the two theories is more likely to describe reality, I’d obviously (I hope) opt for Weinstein. Still, as a piece of science writing the du Sautoy/Jah approach makes me increasingly uncomfortable in a way the bubble universe one doesn’t. And that’s even though I won’t believe for a second the multiverse idea is more than an idle thought experiment.

    The public understanding of science currently has huge deficits in familiarity with the scientific process. Texts purely concerned with scientific contents, however beautifully written (du Sautoy is extremely admirable in this regard), won’t help. We used to have scientists talk about new spekulative ideas, then publish them, then the relevant scientific community hash things out in small committees, then popular though still ambitious articles written, then the press add a gloss of celebrity. Now we get a media machine gobbling up stuff even before an result or proposition has even been examined.

    And yes, “most of the press coverage of string theory, the multiverse, and any number of other popular speculative ideas about physics”, the way it is currently done (and include some stuff from evolutionary science and microbiology into it) is not something I consider helpful for science in the long run.

  47. Peter Woit says:


    du Sautoy’s specialty is the mathematics of symmetry, which is not as far removed from unified field theories as biology is. Yes, he’s possibly out of his depth here, but academics commenting out of their depth on speculative physics is not unusual (although mostly it’s physicists doing it…)

    Funny, but the very little I know about Dawkins does agree with your claim that he is more cautious about this sort of thing than du Sautoy. I picked up a copy of “The Magic of Reality” in a book store, which had a really lurid cover, and looked to see what he said about physics. He had some sort of discussion moving to shorter and shorter distance scales. When he got to the nuclear scale, I was expecting him to go on something like “then there are quarks, then physicists believe there may be strings, etc…”. Instead he said something like “I don’t understand physics at the nuclear scale or below, so I’ll say no more”. Admirable. But unusual…

  48. book says:

    Veltman’s book: quote from Introduction (opening paragraph):

    “The twentieth century has seen an enormous progress in physics.
    The fundamental physics of the first half of that century was
    dominated by the theory of relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravitation,
    and the theory of quantum mechanics. The second
    half of the century saw the rise of elementary particle physics.
    In other branches of physics much progress was made also, but
    in a sense developments such as the discovery and theory of
    superconductivity are developments in width, not in depth. They
    do not affect in any way our understanding of the fundamental
    laws of Nature. No one working in low-temperature physics or
    statistical mechanics would presume that developments in those
    areas, no matter how important, would affect our understanding
    of quantum mechanics.”

    I imagine Anderson will be livid to read the final sentences about the theory of
    superconductivity (more accurately, the formulation in terms of spontaneous symmetry breaking) ~ “They do not affect in any way our understanding of the fundamental laws of Nature.”

  49. Peter Woit says:

    book/Andre van Delft,
    Enough about Veltman please, this has wandered completely off topic.

  50. exscientist says:


    Dawkins – love him or hate him. But I think he adhered to the correct academic standards when he refused to judge physical theories.

    The correct attitude for someone like du Sautoy – Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in Oxford, after all – would be to put question marks around all those outlandish speculative claims by physicists.

    But he just seems to add an outlandish claim to the multitude. I agree it’s bad that “academics” are “commenting out of their depth on speculative physics” and I agree it’s bad that “mostly physicists” are doing it.

    But I think it’s even worse that people outside of physics are starting to do it. Certainly if they have – or seem to have – some authority, like a Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in Oxford. Du Sautoy could have presented the work of Weinstein – which might be very important – as a mathematical exploration, and that’s what he should have done.

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