This Week’s Hype

Over the past year or so, as public awareness has grown that string theory is a failed idea about unification due to its inherent untestability, I’ve been surprised by the way in which many in the string theory community have chosen to deal with this. Instead of just honestly admitting what the problems are and describing the sensible reasons to keep working on string theory despite them, some have decided instead that the thing to do is to go to the press with misleading and dishonest claims that string theory really is testable.

The endless examples of this in New Scientist are probably best ignored, but this week’s example is being promoted in the highly respectable journal Nature. It’s all based on this letter to Nature from a group of condensed matter physicists at Lancaster University, now prominently highlighted as an “Advance Online Publication” at the Nature Physics web-site. The authors describe an experiment in which they manipulate the boundary between phases in a superfluid, showing that when such boundaries come together, one gets left-over in the remaining phase the well-known topological defects that one would expect.

The Nature letter itself makes rather ridiculous claims that this kind of otherwise unremarkable phenomenon is somehow closely related to brane cosmology and string theory. The authors do note that

The precise correspondence between the 3He phase interface and a cosmological brane is still a matter of discussion, the closest correspondence probably being to the D-brane. For the present purposes we may note that the correspondences are as much topological as specific.

While the letter makes no explicit claims about “testing” string theory, the press release issued by Lancaster is the usual sort of dishonest nonsense:

Low-temperature physicists at Lancaster University may have found a laboratory test of the ‘untestable’ string theory.

The test – which uses two distinct phases of liquid helium – is reported online this week in Nature Physics (published 23 December). Their paper will also be published as the cover article in the paper edition of Nature Physics in January.

String theory is a multidimensional theory based on vibrating strings, as opposed to the point particles described in the Standard Model.

Within string theory, a brane is a large surface embedded in higher dimensional space — our Universe could occupy such a brane.

A collision between a brane and an antibrane can leave behind topological defects, including perhaps the Big Bang itself. But however elegant this theory, it makes no falsifiable predictions, or at least none using current technology.

Richard Haley and the ULT Group have taken a lateral step to address this barrier….

Similar wording is used in a press release put out by Nature about this.

Nature has a relatively reasonable news story by Geoff Brumfiel about this, but also an article by string theorist Cliff Burgess hyping string cosmology (“The subject of string cosmology is a hot one these days, with theoretical advances in understanding string dynamics riffing with recent precise observations of the cosmic microwave background”) and the relevance of the Lancaster group’s work to it. He mostly sticks to hype in its pure form, just devoting one paragraph to the actual scientific result. There he ends up acknowledging that this actually has nothing to do with string theory in the following rather ludicrous way:

The quality of the details of the comparison between 3He and cosmology is not really the point. Like a tap-dancing snake, what is amazing is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

After this he shifts gears to start hyping AdS/CFT, without mentioning that this has nothing to do with the Lancaster group’s claims that he is writing about.

The whole point of this kind of exercise is to generate misleading articles in the press that will convince some people that string theory really is testable. This seems to be working well, there’s already one entitled “Test tube universe” hints at underlying theory in the Telegraph, which tells the public that:

A “universe in a test tube” that could be used to assess theories of everything has been created by physicists…

The Holy Grail of physics is to establish an overarching explanation to unite all the particles and forces of the cosmos. But one of the complaints commonly levelled at a leading contender for a “theory of everything”, called string theory, is that it is impossible to test.

But now, according to the study in the journal Nature Physics, it may be possible using the universe in a test tube. “It was a serendipitous discovery,” says Haley…

For the past three decades it has been known that strings are one member of a bigger class of objects called branes, which exist in higher dimensional space, that could be extended in more than one dimension – from strings of one dimension, to membranes of two dimensions, to those of p dimensions, dubbed p-branes. Moreover string theories and p-branes are facets of one underlying 11-dimensional M theory, which suggests that we live in a brane world: a four-dimensional surface, or brane, in a higher dimensional mixture of space and time.

People and most particles move in the brane, while the higher dimensions provide a framework to unify all forces, from gravity to those that act between atomic particles. While experiments have begun to highlight cracks in the current best theory, called “the standard model”, there is evidence that M theory’s extra hidden dimensions could be revealed next year when a Geneva atom smasher – the £4.4 billion Large Hadron Collider – begins experiments. But the Lancaster team offers another route to address this impasse.

Update: Wired Science has an article about this entitled A Test for String Theory After All? Or Just PR?, which shows excellent judgment by linking to this posting…

On the scientific front, it’s worse than I thought. There a conference in London at the Royal Society next month on Cosmology Meets Condensed Matter, where the head of the Lancaster group will speak, and the idea that “coherent phase boundaries mimic branes” is listed as one of the four justifications for the conference. I guess this emerging new field might best be called “Squalid-State Cosmology”.

Update: David Appell has a posting about this, which includes a quote from Witten:

There is definitely no test of string theory here.

Unlike me, Witten goes on to try and find something positive to say about this.

Update: Physics World has an article about this entitled Cosmic strings in a test tube? In the short article, one of the physicists working on this Richard Haley, is twice described as denying that this is a test of string theory, and Grisha Volovik is “adamant that the work is neither a test of sting [sic] theory…”. Despite these firm denials, the press release from Lancaster about a test of the “untestable” string theory is still up.

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34 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. woit says:

    I’ve just deleted comments by “Elmer Fudd” (and responses to them), a string theory partisan who turns out to only be interested in posting insulting anonymous comments here, admitting he actually doesn’t know anything about the issues involved.

    Please, comments insulting people anonymously are never welcome here. If you understand the physics issues involved and want to tell me I’m wrong anonymously in an insulting manner, I suppose I’ll allow that. But if you don’t understand the issues, best not to do this.

  2. Florian Walchak says:

    Peter –

    I haven’t seen any comments about Kenneth Lang, the noted solar/astro physicist and astronomer, on your site. I refer you to his recent book Parting the Cosmic Veil, a popular but serious treatment of astronomy and cosmology. He gives a response to the Elmers of the string world in the last chapter (6) of the book. One notable quote is:

    “Now, a vocal minority of cosmologists [string threorists??] has pushed into the domains of myth and religion, at the boundary between what is known and the mystery of creation. Mathematical equations and computer simulations are employed to construct their own epics, using the language of science rather than mythology. They have attempted to show how everthing – mass, energy, space and time – might have originated in the Big Bang that set the Universe in flight, and then moved on to speculate about what happened before the beginning. They have become today’s shamans, hiding their magical pronouncements behind equations or even books that almost no one can read or understand. With an amazing arrogance, presumption, hubris and lack of humility, they even claim authority because of it, asserting that they alone can percieve the true beginnings of the Universe. But that does not make their explanations true.” [pages 192-193]

    And another: “If we probe further back into time, before the hypothetical inflation that created our personal Universe, the energies become higher and higher, perhaps entering the domain of the tiny, invisible vibrating strings that occupy unseen places and extra dimensions, spring out of nothing and accounting for everuthing…Yet despite a quarter century of investigation, the string experts still do now [sic – I presume a typo for not] know how to test their theory or even how to solve the equations in the extreme conditions at time zero.” [page 196]

    And finally: “Many astronomers, who like to observe the real world, are becoming fed up with all the hype, the persistent appeal to the unobservable and unverifiable, created from complex mathematics and esoteric theory that almost no one can understand. As the the American writer Mark Twain quipped: “There is something fascinating about science.One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifiling investment of fact.”” [page 196]

    There’s more. It’s an enjoyable read. I recommend it.

    Florian Walchak

  3. Coin says:

    The quality of the details of the comparison between 3He and cosmology is not really the point. Like a tap-dancing snake, what is amazing is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

    “String Theory: Like a Tap-Dancing Snake”. Now there’s a fantastic endorsement.

    So, I’d like to at least try to be charitable about this He3 thing, but I cannot access the Nature article so I’m not sure what it is they’re saying. Could someone perhaps clarify exactly how it is that they think this He3 thing links to string theory? The press release and the Independent article on the subject seem to vaguely be saying that the Lancaster people have shown similarities between helium superfluid and the large-scale structure of the cosmos. Okay, but what does this have to do with String Theory?

    1. Is the idea supposed to be that string theory predicts that helium superfluid and the large-scale cosmos will share structural similarities, so if those similarities bear out it will be a successful prediction for string theory?

    2. Or is the idea that string theory predicts things about the behavior of superfluids, and they can test those predictions by analyzing He3? (If so that sounds dreadfully useful, but why bring in cosmology?)

    3. Or are they seriously saying “string theory can maybe predict things about the structure of the cosmos, helium superfluid looks kind of like the cosmos, so we’ll make some predictions about the structure of the cosmos and then instead of testing them against the cosmos we’ll compare it to the structure of a helium superfluid”?

  4. Oswald Spengler says:

    Peter, there are no legitimate reasons to continue working on string theory, and such work doesn’t warrant to be called “research.” String theory has turned theoretical HEP departments into a work place where everybody is aware that the work of most/all people there is funded and performed under the false pretense that according to current understanding a competent researcher or observer actually believes—as opposed to with intend to mislead conveys the false impression to believe—that this work is advancing scientific understanding in the field of fundamental physics in the strict, narrow, literal, original, old fashioned meaning of this term. People’s entire careers are based on this kind of work which has no genuine scientific merit at all, and, even though it is taboo to say so, everybody is, of course, keenly and painfully aware of this, as well as of the even more painful contrast to the generation of, say, Feynman and Gell-Mann.
    Everybody knows that all these people have ever done and all they do is to defile the tradition of generations of honest physicists from Copernicus, Galilei, Kepler and Newton to the fathers of the Standard Model. They are infecting new graduate students with this disease—and they have never known anything else. It creates the nauseating atmosphere of the Middle Ages where everybody is aware that their time and all their efforts are a joke in comparison to the days when science was still real and actual insight into the nature of the real world was made.

    It makes you sick in the soul when you know that everything people around you do falls somewhere between dishonesty and incompetence—because that is all they can think of, or all they can get funding for. You can feel nothing but pity and contempt for them. Now you know what it feels like to watch the sun set on a Civilization.

  5. Peter Woit says:


    There is no real connection to string theory, and Burgess admits as much. What I don’t understand here is why the Nature referee allowed this paper to be published, and Burgess thought it was a good idea to use it to hype string theory.


    Please, try and stick to the topic of the posting. I don’t think the “everything is equally awful” attitude is helpful. People are working on hundreds of different things under the name “string theory” and some are more worthwhile than others. It’s not exactly unusual in science for people to be working on not very good ideas that aren’t going anywhere. It is unusual to see this level of dishonest hype being promoted in Nature.

  6. Oswald Spengler says:

    Peter, it’s not that I disagree with you there. For me the point is to be evocative. You may think of my post as in-between quotation marks. A soliloquy created specifically for this stage. A polemic addressing a situation so dire that the characteristics of polemics are melting away like butter in a frying pan.

  7. wb says:

    If the Lancaster group were correct and were Nature not just hyping a non-test of string theory, then perhaps why Congress had it right. Why would we need a $10 – 20 B ILC when a small condensed matter lab would serve just as well to reveal the unifying theory of the universe.

  8. Tim May says:

    With apologies to Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone”:

    Well we are string theory slingers, we’ve got golden fingers
    And we’re loved everywhere we rant
    (but testing is something we can’t)
    We write about beauty and we write about truth
    At ten million dollars a grant
    We got all kind of brains to figure out the branes
    But the thrill we’ve never known
    Is the thrill that’ll get you when you get your paper
    On the cover of the New Scientist

    New Scientist
    Wanna see my theory on the cover
    New Scientist
    Wanna buy five copies for my mother
    New Scientist
    Wanna see my smilin’ face
    On the cover of the New Scientist

  9. Bee says:

    Hi Peter:

    “but also an article by string theorist Cliff Burgess hyping string cosmology “

    This actually caused me to read the article, it doesn’t sound like Cliff at all. I don’t think you are being fair on him, I find the article very reasonable and balanced. He is careful with his wording (“requires knowledge of the laws of physics at very short distances that string theory claims to have”), and he expresses his scepticism pretty clearly (“The underlying hope is that this 3He dynamics, which also produces a stringy residue, might capture something universal about a cosmic brane cataclysm. Although this hope may be faint […] and the dynamics may differ […], the comparison may nonetheless be instructive.”) And he even points out that this kind of ‘string’ effect doesn’t actually say something about THE string theory as a TOE “Even if future experiments should prove that nature spurns string theory as the description of quantum gravity…”. Yes he is optimistic and finds the developments interesting “the great irony may be that it yet lives on as part of the core curriculum taught to future generations of nuclear and condensed-matter physicists.”, but this is very far from being “hype in its pure form” as you call it. (No idea though how the AdS/CFT paragraph belongs there.)



  10. Peter Woit says:


    I think the Burgess piece carefully avoids making completely untrue statements, but the whole thing is fundamentally a piece of dishonesty. This experiment has as much to do with string cosmology as my jumping in a swimming pool has to do with how heavy quarks lose energy in a heavy-ion collision. Burgess is aware of this, and if you read carefully what he says, that’s clear. The sentence that I quoted about string cosmology is pure hype, and the tacking on of AdS/CFT hype without mentioning that it has nothing to do with this is intentionally misleading.

    Burgess’s contact information is on the Nature press release describing this as a “laboratory test of the “untestable” string theory”.

    Sorry, but I think this kind of thing is really disgraceful, and not honest, no matter how carefully worded the article is.

  11. Bee says:

    Hi Peter:

    “Burgess is aware of this, and if you read carefully what he says, that’s clear” I think this was the intention of his article? He makes clear what it is and what it isn’t about, I don’t see how you find it ‘clear’ while at the same time calling it ‘a piece of dishonesty’ because you would probably have been more blunt. Is your criticism that one has to read it carefully because the headline doesn’t explicitly state it’s not a test of quantum gravity? The only “hype” I could see in your quotation is the word “hot” (I am not actually sure what ‘riffing’ means I have to admit, something like ‘goes along with’?). I fail to see what’s disgraceful about him finding a field interesting that you apparently don’t find interesting, and calling something an ‘irony’ doesn’t actually sound overly enthusiastic either. I said above I agree that the AdS/CFT reference doesn’t quite belong there, but whether or not he knew his name would appear with something about a lab test of ST his article is clearly far off other ‘hypes’ you’ve pointed to, and I find calling it ‘hype in its pure form’ an exaggeration.



  12. Peter Woit says:


    The use of the musical term “riffing with” to describe the relationship between “theoretical advances in understanding string dynamics” and “precise observations of the cosmic microwave background” is just pure hype and obfuscation. The actual relationship is that Burgess and others would like to use the first to predict the second but have so far failed to do so.

    It’s not a question of whether the claims of this paper are “interesting”, it’s a question of whether they are nonsense. Looking at boundaries between phases in a superfluid is not a test of brane cosmology models and Burgess knows this. If the editor of Nature calls you up, and says “we are publishing a letter claiming to test string cosmology models by looking at phase boundaries in a superfluid, will you write an article explaining the significance of this?”, what would you do?

    1. Tell them the truth, that this is nonsense and they shouldn’t be publishing it.

    2. Agree to write the article, spend most of it promoting string theory, only very indirectly indicating that the claims in the letter aren’t true.

    Don’t you think one of these is honest, and one isn’t?

    The headline of his article “A surprising and fascinating interplay may be emerging between string theory and condensed-matter physics” which is outrageous hype about this experimental result, and his name is on a press release about how the experiment shows testability of string theory in the lab. Maybe this is none of his doing. It will be interesting to see if Nature publishes a letter to the editor from him saying he has a problem with this.

  13. Peter Shor says:

    I assume that Cliff Burgess’ article was solicited. Nature editors often solicit commentary on especially exciting research results, and even ignoring all the dubious connections to strings, this sounds like a fairly exciting and ground-breaking experiment; correct me if I’m wrong, but I assume this is the first demonstration of topological defects introduced by phase boundaries.

    Unfortunately, it seemed as if the Nature editor made the mistake of assuming that there was a much more solid connection to string theory than existed, and furthermore asked the wrong string theorist for commentary. Even if he did then realize the article was mainly PR, he may not have had the guts to reject a solicited submission.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Peter Shor,

    Independent of the claims about string cosmology, I don’t see any evidence that this is a ground-breaking experiment in terms of what it demonstrates about either topological defects or phase boundaries in a superfluid. The authors claim nothing like that in their abstract, and I suspect that if they did have such a result, they wouldn’t be going on about cosmology. If there’s an expert on this subject, I’d be interested in hearing what they have to say about the significance of this other than as a “test of string theory”.

  15. Gabe says:

    I really don’t have any knowledge of this, but: What exactly are they trying to say about liquid helium phases and extra dimensions?

  16. Bee says:

    Hi Peter:

    If the editor of Nature calls you up, and says “we are publishing a letter claiming to test string cosmology models by looking at phase boundaries in a superfluid, will you write an article explaining the significance of this?”, what would you do?

    I’d assume he dialed the wrong number.

    1. Tell them the truth, that this is nonsense and they shouldn’t be publishing it.

    2. Agree to write the article, spend most of it promoting string theory, only very indirectly indicating that the claims in the letter aren’t true.

    Don’t you think one of these is honest, and one isn’t?

    Well, what I’d try to do if I find the field interesting is explaining why I generally think it is interesting, while trying to make clear that the claims in the paper are somewhat far fetched. That’s what Cliff did, at least the way I read it. It doesn’t seem like a place to tell the editor what to publish and what not, it’s not a referee report? True, one could interpret the article as he just used the opportunity to talk about what he knows and likes, true, maybe he should (could?) have insisted on toning it down, but I find it far from being an ‘outrageous hype’.



  17. Peter Woit says:


    Again, “interesting” isn’t the point. The claims about testing string cosmology in this article are nonsense, and Burgess should have just said so, whether he’s the referee or not, instead of going on about how it “stands out like a sequoia in the Sahara” and is “Like a tap-dancing snake”.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Or, to make the point more clearly using Burgess’s analogy:

    Finding a sequoia in the Sahara would be interesting. But if the fact of the matter is that there is no sequoia at all, the only interesting thing is why a reputable science journal is publishing a bogus claim that there is one.

  19. Peter Woit says:


    There is no relation at all between liquid helium phases and higher dimensions. The authors are claiming that the two dimensional interface between two phases is in some way vaguely analogous to the idea that our three-dimensional space is a brane in higher dimensions. There is nothing here other than an extremely vague analogy between two very different things.

  20. Stugots says:

    You really need to get a life. Who cares if they try to connect their work to string theory? To me, this is not string theory hype, but rather some condensed matter physicists trying to sex up their own work by mentioning it in the same breath as string theory. So much for your thesis that string theory is losing favor in the scientific community…

  21. Peter Woit says:

    “Stugots” (my you string theorists have classy nicknames…)

    Sure, you’re right that what is going on is condensed matter physicists trying to sex up their work by connecting it to string cosmology (I think the cosmology is the sexy part though, as many string theorists have noticed, they’ve given up on particle physics and moved into the “hot” area of cosmology).

    What’s pretty funny though is that Burgess is clearly trying to sex up his work in string cosmology by connecting it to rather obscure behavior of phase interfaces in low temperature condensed matter physics.

  22. Tim May says:

    Mathematical structures, models, and theories are not necessarily the way the world actually is put together, the physics of it. There’s the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” issue, which makes the point that often things found in mathematics are found somewhere in the natural word, whether in seashells or curved space-time or (yet to be determined) Calabi-Yau manifolds. (And some of the best stuff to come out of the last half-century of work in HEP is the new mathematics, a point many of you make. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that the real world is actually like some of this math. Experiments will provide answers, someday.)

    So it’s interesting that certain results in topological defects may show up in superfluid work. (I’m far from from an expert on this, but isn’t this close to a lot of the “anyon” work that Freeman and others are working on, a la fractional quantum Hall effects?) So maybe there’s a mapping from math to these states….wouldn’t be the first such mapping, that’s for sure! But taking something from condensed matter physics and saying it provides support for M-theory seems way too big a speculative reach.

    And _maybe_ there’s also a mapping between the math and the actual structure of the universe a la string theory and branes.

    But finding the one mapping doesn’t imply the other mapping. (No functor between these mappings is guaranteed, loosely speaking.)

    What matters is taking some of the “unreasonable effectiveness” of the math and predicting some particular particle not yet seen, or something not yet seen in the larger universe. As with the Eightfold Way, which said that if the real world actually matched the group theory analysis, there ought to be a previously-undiscovered particle with these properties…and there was. Pretty impressive stuff.

    But if the “predictions” stay at the metaphorical level, whether about how the universe is a foam, or a turbulent sea, or a test tube filled with liquid helium, then not much is gained. (The rubber sheet view of curved spacetime is an intuitive, easily-explained mode of gravity, but had it just stayed at the level of a metaphor and not made certain numerical predictions which could be checked, not much would’ve been gained. String theory is still seemingly at the metaphor level–bundles of vibrating strings, with way too many adjustable parameters, and with even more exotic stuff, like colliding brane-worlds, with absolutely no predictive behavior, at least not at energies obtainable by Earth-level economies.)

    I hope this changes, either by concrete predictions testable within the next few decades, or with new theories that are so testable. This whole situation has a lot do to with why HEP funding is getting cut, I think.

    Partly it’s the “desert” in energy, and the logarithmic increases in energy and budget to find the next range of interesting experiments. It didn’t cost much in real dollars to find the particles that past theories predicted. A detailed analysis of budgets in real dollars for the Bevatron, AGS, SLAC, Fermilab, and CERN would be interesting to see, but we can get a Feynman-like estimate of the real costs just by looking at the physical _sizes_ and _staffs_ of these labs….by any economic measure, the Bevatron was very inexpensive, SLAC was a whole lot smaller in footprint, building costs, and staffing costs, than the LHC will be. If the LHC doesn’t find something crucial, say goodbye to the generations after that for a long time.

    And it’s also what a couple of astute posters here have mentioned: by now there is no longer any hope or expectation that any new kind of weapons-suitable or industry-suitable physics will come out of HEP.

    So the main theme of Peter’s blog, “Not Even Wrong,” is also related in a deep way to the funding situation in HEP. And the hype of the PR campaigns for string theory is clearly part of this whole mess.

    But, hey, I’m working on a theory that our universe is just one bubble in a giant bathtub of soap bubbles. I think I’ve found evidence for this in some experiments I’m doing in my kitchen sink….Now if I can just get this on the cover of the New Scientist.


  23. milkshake says:

    When I came to US in early 90s I joined a tiny startup biotech technology company. Our finances were precarious (we stood 3 months from folding at one point) and I understood the need for our research boss impressing the investors. There was a steady stream of press releases and gee-whiz publications (typically communications without any detailed experimental supplementary) coming out of our little company – and it bothered me great deal to see how oversold everything was: Half-baked or tentative stuff was presented as a “core technology”, experiments were carefully staged to produce impressive results to demonstrate the usefulness of our proprietary methodology. This was done all at the time when there was growing doubt within the company whether *any* of it was actually useful.

    I am not very proud of taking part in it (at least my papers were not a baloney) and I gather this is a quite usual PR coming out of a struggling startup company. It bothers me to learn this kind of lack of integrity is now common in theoretical physics also

  24. Roger says:

    To those with long memories, has it always been this way ? Renormalising away the effects of the rapid internet communication we have available today, were, for example, the GUT models hyped in a similar way ?

  25. Peter Woit says:


    My memories of particle physics coverage in the press go back to the seventies and I don’t remember anything at all like this going on 20-30 years ago. GUTs got attention in the media mainly in the context of proton decay experiments that were testing them, not in a context of pure hype.

    I don’t think think what’s going on now has much to do with the internet. Several years ago the internet was there and there was string theory hype, but you didn’t see the kind of dishonest claims about “We’ve found a way to test string theory!!” that you see in recent years. This only started once it started to become obvious that string theory couldn’t be tested, and its partisans started feeling they had to deal with this public perception somehow.

  26. Bee says:

    ah, Buffy, what I actually meant to say is don’t waste those silver bullets, not everybody is a vampire. Have a nice weekend and a happy New Year,


  27. Tim May says:

    My memories of physics hype go back to the 1960s. I certainly remember a lot of coverage of tachyons, black holes, wormholes, white holes, etc. The difference then was that most of this coverage was in “Science Digest,” sort of the “New Scientist” of its day, and even in “Popular Science” (which was more about gadgets and tools, more akin to “Popular Mechanics,” than about science per se).

    I also remember the wild speculations about “baby universes” shortly after Guth’s work, especially around 1982. (I vividly remember a party where this was debated for an hour…I think “Science” had even run a one-page piece on this possible implication of rapid inflation, but I may be misremembering events from 25 years ago.)

    And of course there’s been a lot of coverage, even hype, about black holes for at least the past 37 years (I remember it escalating dramatically after “Physics Today” did a famous cover story on black holes, circa 1970).

    At least back then “Scientific American” could be counted on to do their articles in a certain, even prosaic, way, with little hype. They later went more Madison Avenue, abandoning the old article format, jazzing up the graphics, and putting pure speculation on the covers. I no longer even read it.

    As I’ve already opined, I don’t think _some_ of this speculation is harmful. It may even get the kids interested in physics (though whether we need more kids interested in physics right now is itself an interesting question). Where there’s real risk is when the hype is used to “sell” a very expensive public project. If that hype is seen as hype, or if the “God Particle” (for example) turns out to be not quite so important in the scheme of things, the backlash may be huge. I suspect this is what killed the SSC (before it even had a chance to find the God Particle).

    Finally, I’ll give my memories of the “funding climate” back in the late 60s, early 70s. The story of the day was this: “Physicists are driving taxi cabs.” That was the scare story, circa 1970. Indeed, some physicists were unemployed in their profession. A lot of staffing-up in physics after Sputnik had filled physics departments with tenured professors…some of these tenured physicists lasted until just the past decade or so. I think Lee Smolin makes this point in his book.

    There had also been huge layoffs in the aerospace business, dumping a lot of engineers into the unemployment lines. Some physics grads, too.

    Some went into finance (the rising “quants,” even before the term was used). Some went into semiconductors.

    Hype, Unified Field Theories, Theories of Everything, and God Particles are not something new.


  28. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for the advice, and best wishes for the New Year.

    Maybe 2008 will see the end of the living dead stalking the land with their “tests of string theory”. Already, New Scientist seems to be ignoring this one, causing it to die a quick death. Hopefully Nature won’t take its place as Zombie-central…

  29. Brett says:

    GUTs were hyped too. I can remember numerous TV programs and popular articles about particles physics that claimed that we would see X particles soon. People were excited about the discovery of the first intermediate vector bosons and expected to see more of them soon (at the SSC, I guess). But that stuff disappeared when the proton decay experiments came back empty handed. The SU(5) GUT was wrong. The X particles weren’t there where people had hoped, and people stopped hyping them (although the failure wasn’t conveyed to the public very well).

    However, I think the hype was pretty forgivable. The SU(5) GUT really seemed too good not to be true, and I don’t think people were being intellectually dishonest. (A few years back, a friend told me that it was really unfair that Georgi wouldn’t win the Nobel prize. The GUT theory was wonderful, and it wasn’t his fault that it happened to be wrong!) And when the theory’s predictions were wrong, people accepted it and either stopped working on the GUTs or tried to come up with a reasonable generalization that wasn’t ruled out.

  30. Roger says:

    The whole business of hype and its influence on public perceptions and funding would be a very interesting topic for a science communication Ph.D. .

    Is anyone aware of any research on this issue ? It would be useful to know what policy makers and the public make of particle physics these days. We could learn an awful lot of lessons in making our case for continued funding.

  31. nc says:

    Roger, the hype in particle physics is unique: in other sciences you get controversy, not pure unadulterated hype. Journalists don’t believe everything they’re told in other areas, they get counter arguments from other experts and publish those in the article to give some sense of balance. There’s endless research by Professor Brian Martin into controversies in other sciences, but these people don’t take any interest in stringy hype even if they are relatively well qualified to investigate it. (Martin is now Professor of Social Sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication at the University of Wollongong, but his PhD was in theoretical physics.)

  32. Oswald Spengler says:

    Brett, but then the plausibility of GUTs evaporated. More and more it became an old and artificial idea—but the community never adapted to this. In fact, nobody’s argument shows the natural evolution of an intellectually honest and competent observer. Instead, their positions evolve like those of ideologues or those of lawyers. It is then inevitable that one adjusts one’s view of them accordingly.

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