Bankrupting Physics

I just spent a depressing and tedious few hours reading through Bankrupting Physics, an English translation of Alexander Unzicker’s 2010 Von Urknall zum Durchknall written in German.

When I started reading the thing I wasn’t expecting much, but figured it would be some sort of public service to take the time to identify what Unzicker had to say that made sense and what didn’t, and then write something distinguishing the two here. After a while though, it became clear that Unzicker is just a garden-variety crank, of a really tedious sort. Best advice about the book would be the usual in this situation, just ignore it, since no good can possibly come from wasting time engaging with this nonsense. I have no idea why any publisher, in Germany or here, thought publishing this was a good idea.

If you must know though, here’s a short summary of what’s in the book. The first half is about gravitation, cosmology and astrophysical observations. Unzicker’s obsessive idea, shared with innumerable other cranks, is that any scientific theory beyond one intuitively clear to them must be nonsense. Similarly, any experimental result beyond one where they can easily understand and analyze the data themselves is also nonsense. He’s a fan of Einstein, although thinks general relativity somehow needs to be fixed, something to do with it getting phenomena involving small accelerations wrong. There’s endless complaints about how cosmology involves too many parameters, and dark matter/energy shows that physicists really understand nothing.

When he gets to particle physics, we learn that things went wrong back when physicists started invoking a symmetry that wasn’t intuitively obvious, isospin symmetry. According to Unzicker, symmetries in particle theory are all a big mistake, “the standard model barely predicts anything”, “the standard model can actually accommodate every result”, and endless other similar nonsense. As for the experimental side of things, he takes a comment from Feynman about renormalization in QED, claims it means that there is no understanding of production of photons at high energy, then uses this to describe as “It’s just ridiculous” data analysis at HEP experiments. High energy physics experiments are all just a big scam, with the physicists involved unwilling to admit this, since they’ve wasted so much money on them.

The last part of the book contains lots of criticism of string theory, etc., much of it parroting my book and blog. According to Unzicker:

Woit does a great job in debunking the string and SUSY crap. Unfortunately, he has pretty mainstream opinions with respect to the Standard Model.

Well, maybe he does get something right… I have to admit that one of the things that every so often makes me wonder if I’m completely misguided, and maybe there is a lot more value to strings/SUSY/branes/extra dimensions etc. than I think, is reading rants like Unzicker’s.

So, my strong advice would be to do your best to ignore this. Luckily, there’s an infinitely better book coming out here in the US at the same time: Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality, which I highly recommend. It seems likely that the two books will get reviewed together, giving Unzicker far more attention than he deserves. If so, at least this will provide a real-life experiment indicating whether book reviewers can tell sense from nonsense.

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34 Responses to Bankrupting Physics

1. lun says:

If he says what what you write in the review about the Standard model he is definitely a crank. Cosmological models do have a whole bunch of little understood and somewhat arbitrary parameters through.

Most importantly, “if you cannot explain something you have not really understood it” is a saying of famous crank Richard Feynman. Who also wrote this from a gravity conference in Warsaw:
————————————–
I am not getting anything out of the meeting. I am learning nothing. Because there are no experiments this field is not an active one, so few of the best men are doing work in it. The result is that there are hosts of dopes here (126) and it is not good for my blood pressure: such inane things are said and seriously discussed that I get into arguments outside the formal sessions (say, at lunch) whenever anyone asks me a question or starts to tell me about his �work.� The �work� is always: (1) completely un-understandable, (2) vague and indefinite, (3) something correct that is obvious and self-evident, but worked out by a long and difficult analysis, and presented as an important discovery, or (4) a claim based on the stupidity of the author that some obvious and correct fact, accepted and checked for years, is, in fact, false (these are the worst: no argument will convince the idiot), (5) an attempt to do something probably impossible, but certainly of no utility, which, it is finally revealed at the end, fails (dessert arrives and is eaten), or (6) just plain wrong. There is a great deal of �activity in the field� these days, but this �activity� is mainly in showing that the {67} previous �activity� of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising. It is like a lot of worms trying to get out of a bottle by crawling all over each other. It is not that the subject is hard; it is that the good men are occupied elsewhere. Remind me not to come to any more gravity conferences!
————————————–

Unfortunately, this kind of research activity is most likely a lot more common than in Feynman’s time, both in gravity and particle physics.
The guy might be a crank, but regarding intuition he might have a point.

2. Ray says:

Now you know how string theorists feel about you.

3. Mark says:

4. CFT says:

Mr. Woit,
When particles are virtually pulled from the void or vacuum (ex nihilo) to allow mathematical models which contain no physical extension to function, yes, my intuition or sense of causality tells me something is wrong, starting with a lack of a logical mechanical explanation of what the heck is actually going on. Your comment about the ‘infinitely preferable’ “Farewell to Reality” kind of sums up what the very problem itself with physics really is: Physics is no longer even trying to describe reality, It’s more interested in trying to describe imaginary internally consistent mathematical spaces that have no overlap with how our reality functions. For the record, Einstein often admitted his work in relativity was unfinished and still had some problems until the day he died. Feynman himself admitted (in his more lucid moments) that something was wrong with the very heart of QED, and that he thought it wasn’t mathematically valid. You yourself have commented at some length about the abandonment of any kind of scientific rigor in string theory. I ask you honestly, do you think you are being fair calling a person a ‘crank’ because they point out the standard model is a heuristic model that requires many of its parameters to be ‘fine tuned’ by hand just to get agreement with experiment? Didn’t Lee Smolin say just about the same exact thing in his book “The Trouble with Physics” and describe it as a fundamental issue with the standard model?… are you calling him a ‘crank’ too?
*
Maybe you should be supporting strings/SUSY/branes/extra dimensions, since you seem equally unwilling to critically examine your own mathematical underpinnings and assumptions. Mr. Woit, If you expect others to seriously question their assumptions, you best be ready to do so yourself without complaint and refrain from calling them a name for questioning your beliefs.

5. Andrew Foland says:

I’ve never heard of either the author or the book–is there some building buzz around it that needs to be addressed? How did you come to want to write a review on it, if it’s purified crankery? (A conclusion that is not disconfirmed by glancing at the author’s list of publications.)

Just curious if there’s a backstory here I’m missing.

6. P says:

CFT,

As a string enthusiast, this may be the first time I come to the defense of Peter 🙂

Peter says:
“symmetries in particle theory are all a big mistake, “the standard model barely predicts anything”, “the standard model can actually accommodate every result”, and endless other similar nonsense”

and you say:
“the standard model is a heuristic model that requires many of its parameters to be ‘fine tuned’ by hand just to get agreement with experiment.”

but these are very different things indeed. Peter undoubtedly would love to know why the Yukawa couplings are what they are, as would I, but it’s just flat wrong to say that the standard model doesn’t predict anything, or that it can accommodate every result.

You want Dr. Woit to examine “his assumptions” about the standard model, etc. But the fact is that this has happened since the early 70’s, with experimental confirmation after experimental confirmation. Scientific consensus typically develops for a reason, and in this case it is 40 years of agreement with experiment. The consensus in high energy physics now — string theorists, particle theorists, and experimenters alike — is that the standard model is the correct description of visible sector particle interactions below the weak scale.

Asking one to “re-evaluate assumptions” about the standard model in the way Unzicker would like (though you are likely being much more fair than Unzicker) is the intellectual equivalent of creationists wanting us to “re-evaluate” 150 years of evolutionary biology.

Cheers,
P

7. Peter Woit says:

CFT,
Unzicker’s claims are quite different than Smolin’s and go way beyond your description of them. The quotes about the standard model I included above speak for themselves. Beyond criticizing theorists, he explicitly makes the case that the work of HEP experimentalists is “just ridiculous”. His justification for this is the claim, based on his reading of a comment in Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, that there is no valid formula for the production of photons by an accelerated charged particle, so HEP experiments can’t possibly understand their backgrounds and reliably identify phenomena like the Higgs. I think these claims speak for themselves.

Mark/Andrew,

8. Zathras says:

Unzicker is listed as a “German theoretical physicist and neuroscientist.” Does he do both actively?

And it is quite ironic to have a neuroscientist complain about hype in theoretical physics.

9. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

To maybe put you in a better mood, there’s a very nice (for a change) review of “The Universe in the Rear View Mirror” in New Scientist. Contains a boatload of praise for Noether and her Theorem. Seems like precisely the kind of thing we could use more of in popularizations of science.

10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

I should clarify I mean the review itself, not necessarily the book, which appears to be merely OK overall, but at least gets some things right. The review at least makes this clear in a very level-headed way, I think.

11. Oldster says:

Unzicker’s comment about small accelerations and general relativity that you mention, sounds as if he’s thinking about some theory such as Milgrom’s MOND being incorporated into a modified general relativity. People have attempted to do this, but to the best of my knowledge, nobody’s effort has achieved wide acceptance …

12. Jeff M says:

@LMMI,

Thanks for the heads up about the review at New Scientist, it is very nicely done. As a mathematician it’s hard to imagine that Noether deserves wider fame, in math she’s quite famous thank you. Even to an geometric analyst like me, who spent quite a lot of time trying to avoid algebra whenever possible 🙂

13. David Bailey says:

I don’t normally comment here because as Peter says, this is not meant to be a general physics forum, and my reasonably detailed knowledge only extends as far as non-relativistic QM – as applied to chemical systems, and even that is very stale by now.

However, Unzicker’s book is clearly meant to appeal to a much wider audience, that include me, and we have all – even those that never understood algebra at school – contributed to the roughly £7nb cost of the LHC. His book is likely to ring a bell with a lot of people, and maybe help to bring about a reassignment of research priorities and resources – fairly or otherwise!

I think a lot of people have an uneasy feeling about theoretical physics – one that you yourself obviously share when it comes to string theory. It is that if you take an army of mathematicians and set them loose to produce a theory that fits the experimental facts – totally disregarding the physical meaning of most of the variables in the theory – they may well come up with an explanation that fits some of the facts (with a few dozen adjustable parameters), and which is too computationally dense to calculate others. For example, the Standard Model obviously was not able to supply the mass of the Higgs Boson – only an experiment could do that.

Given that thought, it doesn’t seem impossible that a whole chunk of the modern edifice of physics is wrong – only appearing to be correct because it was cherry picked from 10000 other theories that could not fit the facts. Even when a theory makes a prediction which is subsequently proven correct there is still the nagging possibility that it has fitted a pattern that was actually produced by a completely different mechanism!

People also see, for example, that a phenomenon such as the speed of rotation of stars in galaxies is interpreted in terms of new concepts – dark matter – rather than daring to suggest that General Relativity might not be correct at galactic-wide distances. In other words, if new evidence arrives that contradicts a reasonably well established theory, the response it to keep the theory and add another epicycle!

The LHC was sold as producing a ‘God particle’ or mini black holes, and the day may be coming when politicians and public want to see something more impressive than a bump on a graph!

14. woit says:

David Bailey,

People should certainly be skeptical about scientific claims with no serious evidence that backs them up. But what Unzicker is doing is something completely different, attacking extremely well understood and extensively tested physics, without showing any signs of understanding anything about it. There is no point in trying to seriously intellectually engage with this kind of critique, it’s just nonsense and a waste of everyone’s time.

15. Chris W. says:

Given that thought, it doesn’t seem impossible that a whole chunk of the modern edifice of physics is wrong – only appearing to be correct because it was cherry picked from 10000 other theories that could not fit the facts. Even when a theory makes a prediction which is subsequently proven correct there is still the nagging possibility that it has fitted a pattern that was actually produced by a completely different mechanism!

David, that has always been the case. What do you think the logic of theory confirmation is about? Physical theories are never proven true, they are only proven successful across some realm of application. That is, they build up a solid track record in research.

The real issue here is that talk is cheap; if one thinks there is a completely different “mechanism”, then one should step up to the plate and propose a serious theory that incorporates it, and show how it might be tested—i.e., observationally distinguished from the currently preferred candidate—and then struggle through the process of comparison and confirmation. Doing that has become progressively harder in the last 2oo years. The Standard Model is well-entrenched for many good reasons (and some bad reasons too, perhaps, but that’s life).

16. Yatima says:

Mr. Bailey,

I am sad to say that your comment is unfortunate proof of exactly the armchair ragefisting of the populace that gets its “science news” from useless TV crud à la BCC or from the sensationalistic headlines and pseudo-scientific dross from the “scientific” press.

I am not a physicist but I am biting through the books when I have the time and by golly…

“I think a lot of people have an uneasy feeling about theoretical physics”

A lot of people have an uneasy feeling when trying to find their own behind with both hands! Most can’t make the difference between an integral sign and a random squiggle and they sadly take pride in this. The way things are going Orwell-shaped really fast, their uneasiness is bound to increase. So what. Physics is not the Wellness Studio.

“It is that if you take an army of mathematicians and set them loose to produce a theory that fits the experimental facts – totally disregarding the physical meaning of most of the variables in the theory”

None of this ever occurred. The world does not work as in a Perry Rhodan story. You cannot just “produce a theory” by committee, Nothing is being disregarded. No “fitting (using polynomials?) of experimental facts” occurs. This is exactly why there are problems now – there is not enough fresh data to reasonably know where to go.

“For example, the Standard Model obviously was not able to supply the mass of the Higgs Boson – only an experiment could do that.”

You are crashing open doors. And your statement is in complete contradiction with your previous one. You will probably find that no-one disputes that the mass could not be predicted (although I have recently read about the idea that if the m_higgs is set to 1, then the vector of all the other particles’ masses is of unit length…). That’s why the experiment was done in the first place.

“Given that thought, it doesn’t seem impossible that a whole chunk of the modern edifice of physics is wrong”

Quite likely. If you know how, you know how to post on the arxiv.

“Only appearing to be correct because it was cherry picked from 10000 other theories that could not fit the facts.”

Yet again, you do not understand how these ideas are put together. There were not “10000 other theories”, ready made, to be discarded on a whim by a hidden committe of wise men. The current edifice was constructed from those elements that seemed the most parsimonious description (i.e. no epicycles), that showed a reasonable degree of mathematical consistency and that survived the test of experiments.

Well, maybe there are “10000 other theories” out there but humanity sure isn’t old enough to have explored the first one.

“People also see, for example, that a phenomenon such as the speed of rotation of stars in galaxies is interpreted in terms of new concepts – dark matter – rather than daring to suggest that General Relativity might not be correct at galactic-wide distances. In other words, if new evidence arrives that contradicts a reasonably well established theory, the response it to keep the theory and add another epicycle!”

Completely wrong. GR is the most successful description ever. Modifications of that venerable structure, in minor or major form, is being attempted at regular intervals, but so far nothing of this has proven particularly compelling. Tell you what: why dontcha go to this link and read up on it: Alternatives to general relativity. Knock yourself out!

Dark matter is a very simple explanation, not “another epicycle” and until something reasonable comes up that explains all the experimental evidence right down to WMAP data, it will be kept.

“The LHC was sold as producing a ‘God particle’ or mini black holes, and the day may be coming when politicians and public want to see something more impressive than a bump on a graph!”

The LHC was sold as a “Higgs factory”. “God particle” moniker came from some lousy reporter and “Mini black holes” came from very speculative ideas that no-one thought would pan out.

“When politicians and public want to see something more impressive than a bump on a graph!”

Like what? Two bumps good enough? Shall one throw in the DVD collection of American Idol and a Coke for free? Seriously, whaddya want? Cold fusion? A recipe to monetize debt without concomitant price inflation? Eternal happiness? You ain’t gonna get it.

17. chris says:

oh my. as if it wasn’t bad enough that this guys second book in German just appeared, this drivel gets translated into english now. i just hope he won’t have such a large audience as he unfortunately has here in Germany.

for those who don’t know: he’s a frustrated high school teacher (frustrated because his scientific career failed) and now grinds his own axe in revenge.

18. David Bailey says:

Yatima,

I believe Leon Lederman coined the expression “The God Particle” (at least he used it in the title of his book), not a “lousy reporter”, and my point was that the physics community has allowed hype to run wild, and ultimately people and politicians are likely to start asking what that hype really amounts to, and whether it was worth £7bn!

19. srp says:

It seems that our host is taking up my earlier suggestion (in the context of the debate over open-access journals) for “anti-publishing”–effectively eliminating from readers’ purview items that are a waste of time.

The only scruple here is you really have to trust the anti-publisher and you have to have a pretty clear idea about what is a waste of time. For example, there might be sociologically interesting patterns in the things said by “cranks” and dissenters and the ways in which they are kept off stage by actions like Peter’s.

But even as someone with a stronger taste for contrarian views than usual, the quotes and description in this post are sufficient to anti-publish this book for me.

20. Matt says:

Hi Peter,

Related to this discussion of deciding when a scientific approach is valid, I have a question that I never thought to actually ask you before now—if you have, in fact, answered it before, I’d appreciate it if you’d please let me know where so I can look it up.

The most familiar way to make progress in science is to be confronted with data, either by accident or because of looking at some new feature of the world, and then trying to find a parsimonious explanation that ends up making new nontrivial testable predictions about data not yet in hand.

But what if we already have several theories that exactly account for a large set of our observations and, while not explaining certain other observations, don’t actual contradict any data we know about. And suppose that these theories we already have don’t agree on their mutual overlap, but that mutual overlap occurs only for data that one can show on general grounds are ridiculously out of reach of conceivable experiments, possibly always out of reach.

In general, one might say we’re stuck and simply should go any further. Just do experiments where we can, far below where these mysterious data are, and just be satisfied.

But suppose that when we look at the theories we know, we find that their mathematics creates a long series of highly nontrivial constraints on any other possible candidate theories that could possible extend them. That is, suppose the theories don’t allow arbitrary speculation. And suppose that theorists find a candidate theory that beats the odds and actually makes it through that crazy gauntlet, and despite much work no other approach comes anywhere close to accomplishing the same feat.

By construction, this candidate theory cannot predict any data we have access to, or will have be guaranteed to have access to in the foreseeable future. All those data are explained by the theories we already know and trust.

My first question, and I’m interested to hear your answer: Is it worth provisionally proceeding with this approach?

This is the situation string theorists find themselves in right now. The first quantum corrections to gravity in our solar system are 10^-70 effects. Earth’s Bohrian principle quantum number is somewhere around 10^150. There are lots of other examples—when we combine quantum mechanics and gravity, we find that the discrepancies in the resulting data involve crazily inaccessible scales. This isn’t the fault of string theory, or LQG, or any particular candidate theory of quantum gravity. It’s the nature of the data at which quantum mechanics and gravity become incompatible.

And yet in order to have a quantum theory with classical general relativity in the low-energy limit, one runs into a huge number of highly nontrivial constraints, which one might have doubted could be passed any any conceivable theory. But somehow string theory passes them.

So my second question: Do you have a detailed understanding of all those constraints string theory has passed? To the string theorists, this is by far the biggest deal—this is the absolute fulcrum of their entire case—so I was wondering if you are aware of the full—and I mean full—list and how delicately string theory manages to make it through, and what your answer is to the string theorists who are inspired by this incredibly unlikely ability to pass many highly nontrivial constraints.

I suspect that one reason many string theorists are reluctant to listen to you is that they don’t believe you’ve seen what they’ve seen, that you are fully aware of the crazy gauntlet string theory has (almost magically) sailed through, so they don’t believe you really understand why they keep doing what they’re doing. (Third question: Do you believe that this isn’t the reason they do what they do?)

It’s certainly true that the public, and most science writers who are not trained in theoretical physics, have no idea about all these constraints and what it means to say there’s a theory that passes them.

With appreciation, Matt

Matt, from what I understand it is precisely because String Theory has utterly failed to pass through those highly non-trivial constraints that motivate critics. Despite legions of effort and decades of study no one has demonstrated the Standard Model as a low energy limit of String Theory. And from what I understand, even had we the sufficient technology to probe those energy levels where gravity and quantum theory would both necessarily play a role that String Theory – even in principle – would provide no prediction. So I think your hypothetical does not illustrate the true picture.

22. Peter Woit says:

Matt,
This really is off-topic, since it has nothing to do with Unzicker, and I’ve written a great deal about these questions on the blog and in the book.

I’m well aware of the argument you are making, that the existence of a consistent quantum theory of strings is a very non-trivial fact, and worth investigating. Yes, this is a good argument that there’s something there, and people who want to should investigate this. It’s also true that everything we have learned (after literally tens of thousands of person-years of work) about this theory, whatever it is, says that it explains nothing at all (nothing, not a single thing, do you understand the significance of that?) about particle physics. The issues surrounding quantum gravity are complicated and murky and have been argued endlessly here. But the bottom line is that no matter what glowing terms you use to describe the situation, we’re talking about an idea that has failed completely to accomplish what it was advertised (in equally glowing terms) to do. Yes, there’s an interesting structure there, but no, it’s not one useful to construct a unified theory, as far as anyone can tell.

Sorry, but I don’t want more of this same sort of argument here, it’s very tired and off-topic.

23. eggcrook says:

Peter,
That may be want you want, but I don’t think you’re gonna get it. Not Even Wrong may have been an argument to judge string theory based on the claims and predictions for the theory as made by the theory’s inventors; and a warning of how and why that record of failures was misrepresented. But sadly most people just see a reduction of the complex problem of “How to pursue Mathematical Extensions to the Standard Model”, to simple problems of freshman philosophy: “What is SCIENCE? What is EXPERIMENT?”

And they’re gonna invoke your name, and your books name, to grant themselves permission to ignore complicated results, because they can expound on their own understanding of simple and accessible concepts like “experiment”.

So I think you’re gonna be stuck with cranks like Unzicker claiming to be on team Woit, and even educated opponents like Sean Carrol arguing against you by attacking “Popperian extremism,” instead of arguing against your deconstruction of string theory promotion. Cause string theory is a stupid theory by stupid people too stupid to realize science means using experiments! Duh! Peter Woit even wrote a whole book proving it!

Regards.

24. John Urbanik says:

Unzicker’s book was written for some of the masses, just like other books by Greene and Hawking. So to completely dismiss how the “uneducated” masses take it is wrong. Peter has the right idea in confronting it head on.

Being in the field it is easy to dismiss what he is saying and call him a ‘crank’. But if his ideas are planted in the minds of others, especially politicians, you can start to kiss your funding goodbye. The population today is very skeptical about science. Without taking sides look at climate science. Despite huge media backing there are very strong opponents and unless something really proves to the masses that AGW is real it will cause repercussion not only on climate science but all types.

Unfortunately it seems physics today is at a crossroads. You need a Copernicus and a new telescope to advance it. But who knows how long that will take. In the days of smaller budgets and everyday folks questioning why any money should be spent on things like the LHC it falls to those in the field to explain it and defend their field.

25. Hansl says:

Maybe the masses should be tought more physics instead of being flooded with wrong analogies (even if this cuts Peter’s wealth, sorry) and funding should only be assigned by committees of extremist Popperians in order to avoid that cranks can endanger science. Hmm.
I read Unzicker’s book in German and was mostly annoyed by his style of permanently attacking people personally. If the book wasn’t just a rant against the physics establishment, I would find on the positive side the list of problems which haven’t been settled yet (with the exception of the Higgs particle discovery and the Pioneer anomaly) and not all of which I was aware. But that’s not worth to buy the book in times of search engines.
BTW the German title “Vom Urknall zum Durchknall” means “From the Big Bang to madness” and is for the phonetic similarity of “Urknall” and “Durchknall” only, which is more than just a rhyme, a marketing coup.

26. Hansl says:

I forgot to mention that I am also puzzled that Springer, one of the most reputable science publishers published the book, which doesn’t shed a good light on its current lectorate. Science and money again.

27. Martin says:

Unzicker was scheduled to give a colloquium at my university a couple of weeks ago, but for some reason he himself cancelled the talk a week before the scheduled date. ( have not idea how he got invited in the first place.) Looking at his website (full of typos) made me curious and suspicious at the same time.

28. mike says:

Well, when physics is stuck in a rut like it is right now, the cranks are going to get a lot more attention. Remember, even LQG was considered crankish a few years ago

29. Stephen Cliffe says:

Chris
“for those who don’t know: he’s a frustrated high school teacher (frustrated because his scientific career failed) and now grinds his own axe in revenge.”
As a high school teacher whose scientific career took off when I re-entered the classroom, I am jut wondering which axe I should grind.
I enjoyed this book greatly, but was suprised by how personally some people are attacked in the bookand how personally some react to thr book in blogs.
I try to give teenagers meaningful answers to questions about the big-bang, dark matter and genetically altered humans. As a biochemist, the last question is the easiest for me. To help me with the first two, my summer reading over the last few years has included many physics texts, of which the critical ones by Smollin and Laughlin stand out. Unzicker has much less standing and is much more personal in his attacks, but the message for me is the same. Teenagers are right to be sceptical about modern physics -it is no longer a case of just being too difficult but rather the students (and teachers and the public and physicists) have difficulty separating humbug from real science.
Ignore Unzicker at your peril. Read “The Golem- What you should know about Science” for a less emotional discussion.

30. emile says:

Stephen:

According to Peter, Unzicker wrote the following: “the standard model barely predicts anything”, “the standard model can actually accommodate every result”.

This is completely wrong. This means that this individual does not understand the Standard Model at an introductory level, yet writes about it anyway. If he is completely wrong on this issue (we are talking about facts here, not opinion), he’s got not credibility left on any other subject as far as I’m concerned.

Possibly one should add here one remark on the political and sociological context that allows books as Unzicker’s to enter the laureate lists of Germany’s prestigious popular science magazine ‘Bild der Wissenschaft’. As some reviews on the german amazon indicate, the book nicely fits into a ‘movement’, in especially in Germany, which seems to aim at a ‘re-naturalization’ of science in general. That is, one claims to detect a tendency to ‘overabstraction’, ‘lack of intuitiveness’, ‘dominance of superficial mathematical concepts’ and connects this openly or more or less subtly to alleged traits of discourses or methods which are considered as ‘non-european’, ‘pragmatic’ or ‘american’, only avoding to openly claim ‘non-german’. The inherent contradictions in those constructions, namely, just one example, to critisize ‘pragmatism’ and ‘over abstraction and non-intuitiveness’ at the same time, are quite typical for such lines of argumentation and although I know that Peter would prefer not to read such accusations in his blog here, remind me of the way ‘jewish science’ was characterized by the antisemtic german discourse in the 1930s and 40s, with known results. That Unzicker claims to be a ‘fan of Einstein’ is just one of these painful details in this row of all-too-obvious irrational discourses of people who see their culture or their ‘peer group’ or just themselves ‘excluded’ from discourses they therefore have to condemn as ‘the other’. It wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me to learn that Unzicker was, if he was involved at all, into branches of science, that, if ‘sufficiently intuitive’, lack a certain rigor and entail a certain degree of speculative reasoning by their very foundation (cf. neuroscience).

I have to emphasize, that this book comes in a long row of best-selling books in Germany in which science, or better ‘pseudoscientific reasoning’ play a very pivotal role in establishing certain political agendas, I only remind on the ramifications of ‘genetics’ and racism that was established in the realms of the ‘Sarrazin-debate’ in Germany.

In general, I would critisize one special trait that Unzicker unfortunately has in common with the criticism of Peter, although I am far from equating both. From my perspective this amounts to a certain tendency which can possibly be described as ‘overestimating sociology’ in science and drawing borders not by means of mathematical or physical content, but by the *perceived* presence of certain sociological boundaries. This is to a good part encoded in modern science itself and reminds me of André Weil criticising the group around Hasse for having lost sight of the ‘Riemannian’ point of view in their work on p-adic numbers and class field theory. But on a ‘meta level’, as Peter and Unsicker establish, these reductions to ‘schools’ and ‘ sociology’ are even more harming since they suggest that for instance there wouldn’t be *deep* common principles in theories being described as disparate and even ‘rivaling’ to the public, which might be deduced even to a certain degree from the personality of the scientists themselves, but bare a deeper truth on the scientific level. For instance once can be surprised that M-theory and the theory of ‘spin networks’ are regarded as rivaling, while certain ‘coincidences’ as the ‘modularity’ of certain partition functions in both theories undoubtedly show there are deep mathematical and physical links between such ‘rivaling’ approaches. Can someone explain to me here why theta functions appear in Gromov Witten theory as they appear in spin network theories and in DT-invariants? Mathematics and physics are to a high degree ‘existant’ and independent of the sociology of certain groups and for anyone who is more interested in deep mathematics than in post-adolescent rivalries the boundaries produced in nowadays discourses on physics and mathematics by predominantly sociological means must be understood as highly arbitrary and superficial and tend to deepen the ‘crisis’, if existent at all, in physics or mathematics more than they help to surmount it.

32. Fred Bortz says:

I am in complete agreement, Peter.

Before the month is out, I expect to see my review of Farewell to Reality appearing in a major US metropolitan newspaper, after which I will archive it at my Science Shelf web site.

My editor originally offered me the chance to do a slightly longer comparative review with Bankrupting Physics, but it didn’t take me long to see that Unzicker’s broadside pales beside Baggott’s insightful critique. My editor agreed that it made sense to spend our limited word budget on Baggott’s book alone.

I admire your dedication in trying to describe what Unzicker set out to do, but I was grateful to set the book aside before I threw it across the room. 🙂

33. Fred Bortz says:

Just heard from my editor that the review is delayed a bit by internal priorities, but it will run.

Stay tuned

34. J Woods Halley says:

I just read the Unziker book (as quite a few commentators apparently have not). Though I am not knowledgeable about string theory, beyond what could
be gleaned from some popular accounts and physics colloquia, it was easy to spot a lot of elementary physics errors in Unziker’s book and a lot of resentful personal
venom. And I share some commentators’ concern that the hostility takes an uncomfortably nationalist tone, somewhat reminiscent of what I have read of what happened in German physics in the 1930’s. Nevertheless, I think that Unziker is
pointing out some real problems in contemporary physics. Though he clearly doesn’t understand gauge theories and their role in the standard model, and though he understates its achievements, practically everyone is uncomfortable with the large number of unexplained parameters which it requires. And it is true that the efforts to do something about this, mostly but not entirely with string theory, seem to have failed despite extensive effort. Perhaps some of the learned participants on this page will disagree, but I am also of the view that renormalization is a way around, but not really a resolution, of the problem of ultraviolet divergences in quantum field theory. In fact, people explained to me in the 80’s that a primary virtue of string theory was that it has no such divergences. (Smolin says in one of his recent books that it is not fully established that that is true.) So though Unziker’s book is often overstated and incorrect, I think it is pointing to some real problems, not all of which have been emphasized in the recent spate of books criticizing string theory.