• On the HEP budget problem front, Adrian Cho has an interview with Ray Orbach of the DOE. Orbach is not very encouraging on the prospects for a supplemental FY 2008 appropriation:

    … my assumption is that the last thing that Congress or the president wants is a decorated supplemental. Because, you come in for the Office of Science, and there will be somebody else coming in, and before you know it, the thing will be enormous. … My guess is that it would be very hard to single out a particular program for a supplemental.

    He does promise a very healthy FY 2009 proposed increase:

    Now, I can’t tell you, obviously, the details of the president’s budget for ’09, but I can tell you that it will be a wonderful budget request. And because ’08 has been difficult for us, the gap between ’08 and ’09 will be large.

    He notes that the DOE and the president are convinced of the importance of supporting HEP research, that the problem is with the Congress:

    I think now the high-energy physics community understands how Congress feels and has a job on its hands to explain why it should be supported at the level of the president’s request.

    He doesn’t shed any light on the continuing mystery of who exactly in Congress made the decision to target HEP for cuts or what their thinking was, leaving it still unclear who it is that the HEP community is supposed to be making its case to. It would be nice to know this before next Christmas, since if this person or person doesn’t change their minds before then, most of the US experimental HEP community may want to make permanent plans to either emigrate or go into a different line of work.

    I’ve heard nothing about the effects of the FY 2008 budget on particle theory or string theory funding. Perhaps the plan of whoever is responsible for this is that the US should shift out of supporting experimental HEP research, and concentrate on string theory and anthropic landscape research, where it continues to hold a leadership position.

  • Nature has an article entitled Experimental cosmology: cosmos in a bottle about condensed matter analogs of black holes and physics related to cosmology. One topic covered is the recent bogus claim to “test string theory” using interfaces in liquid helium to model branes. Paul Steinhardt notes one of many problems with this idea, that “string branes are flat and attract one another, whereas the helium-3 ‘branes’ are curved and have no attractive force.” Joe Polchinski on the other hand is more enthusiastic, since any prediction could have a big impact. “You never know what you might find” he says.
  • The string theory hype machine remains in overdrive, putting out nonsense press releases at an unparalleled rate. This week’s string theory hype is from Japan, where KEK has put out a press release claiming Interior Structure of a Black Hole Computed Using Superstrings, which tell us that:

    It is expected that superstring theory will develop further and play an important role in solving interesting problems such as the evaporation of black holes, the state of the early universe and the creation of everything.

    The actual calculation behind the hype is a numerical simulation of a supersymmetric quantum mechanics system, which is described here.

  • This entry was posted in Experimental HEP News, This Week's Hype. Bookmark the permalink.

    21 Responses to Updates

    1. c.r. says:

      the link to the numerical simulation paper on the arxiv is broken….

    2. Peter Woit says:

      Thanks c.r., fixed.

    3. J.F. says:

      Even though the answers were not so pleasant, those were some incisive questions, I am impressed. Enough so that I’m going to restart my membership to AAAS. I’ve always considered our scientific societies as a soft lobby, so this is one way to help. The APS, for example, will help with anyone who wants to meet their congress member or senator (as a constituent) by scheduling the meeting and providing concise talking points.

    4. String Fan says:

      You might want to call attention to the KITP program `Nonequilibrium Dynamics in Particle Physics and Cosmology.’ So far every online talk has been about the application of AdS/CFT duality to RHIC physics: no hype, it is just that these methods work. For what is arguably the hardest problem in quantum field theory – nonequilibrium strongly coupled physics – string theory has provided the solvable `harmonic oscillator,’ which both matches experiment better than any other model, and provides a standard of comparison for any other theoretical approach.

    5. jon says:

      Witten an Kontsewich jointly awarded half of crafoord prize for “for their important contributions to mathematics inspired by modern theoretical physics”.

      The longer quote finishes with “The laureates have resolved several important mathematical problems related to string theory and have in this way paved the way for its further development.” which could be hyped either way I guess depending on where the emphasis in this sentence is put…

    6. Peter Woit says:

      “String Fan”,

      While I think string theory has failed as a fundamental theory, it may very well lead to useful calculational methods in some strongly-coupled physical systems. But please, off-topic overhyped advertisements from anonymous “Fans” aren’t really informative, closer to the dozens of spam comments this blog gets each day.

    7. DB says:

      Chapter 4 of the just published National Science Board report helps to put HEP spending in a US and international context here:

      As Orbach explained back in September, FY07 was a jump over FY06 which had only progressed 0.9% over previous year. FY09 is set to repeat this cycle vs FY08. But what is important is to see how areas get treated when the budget is tight. In FY09 HEP will probably be ok and people will breath a sigh of relief. They will probably pay up for ITER and its even looking as if NASA might get an extension on the shuttle and so launch the AMS. But this alternating cycle can mislead people, and in tandem with political finger pointing can hide the underlying trends.

      One outfit that doesn’t get much attention but is undoubtedly one of the master puppeteers in playing off Congress vs the administration is the Office of Management and Budget, a basically independent bunch of bean counters who are like departments of finance in other countries, i.e., their function is to reign in the ambitions of spending departments. They harbour a pathological hatred of all big science projects. Over the last 50 years of cancellations of key US science projects their role has been absolutely pivotal, as in Apollo, Project Nerva, the supersonic passenger aircraft, SSC, Space Station Freedom etc.

      The best and most scholarly analysis of the roles the different actors have played during these budgetary crises I’ve seen is James Dewar’s study of Project Nerva: To the end of the Solar System, which despite its apparently narrow focus, gives a thorough and fascinating insight into how budgets for big science projects have been managed historically. His conclusion is that without a very powerful sponsor in the Senate, large science projects invariably get eviscerated by the backroom bureaucrats.

    8. srp says:

      If only the OMB guys had managed to kill the space station. A greater waste of resources is hard to imagine. The SST was also pretty much a no-brainer. The SSC is more of a borderline case, but the overruns on it destroyed its credibility.

      You should read Freeman Dyson’s essay about big science and small science in Eros and Gaia. It is balanced and wise.

    9. amused says:

      Re. the string hype from KEK: At least these people had the decency to document the worth of their work by publishing it in PRL before issuing misleading hype to the press. Unlike the surfing independent physicist and Boltzmann Brain enthusiasts…

    10. Suvrat Raju says:

      Hi Peter,
      This paper is not about supersymmetric black holes. I remember looking at this when it came out and it is about non-supersymmetric Schwarzschild type D0 black holes in IIA theory. This system is dual to Matrix quantum mechanics with 16 supercharges.

      While the underlying theory is supersymmetric note, that the black hole itself is not.

      Calculating the black hole entropy is a question of simulating this matrix quantum mechanics at strong coupling. The KEK group seems to have done a fantastic job in doing that, and they find answers that match precisely with gravity.

      These results have not received much attention, perhaps because they are numerical and the technicalities are hard to grasp for many people, but they seem to be tremendously important.



    11. amused says:

      As I understand it, the main result of the KEK paper is that supersymmetric quantum mechanics with 16 supercharges can now be simulated numerically, and the internal energy agrees at low temperature/strong coupling with a previous calculation (in Ref. [27], from 1996) from a stringy black hole geometry (via gauge/gravity duality) while at high temp/weak coupling it agrees with previous results from high temperature expansion. In the summary of the paper, the authors describe this as significant evidence for gauge/gravity duality in the non-conformal case. They don’t seem to be claiming to have calculated any new properties of stringy black holes; rather, they are reproducing the previous result of Ref.[27] via gauge/gravity duality.
      The press release gives a completely different impression though…

    12. Suvrat Raju says:


      I dont wish to be involved in a long debate here. Where supergravity is valid, the properties of the black holes are, evidently, well described by classical supergravity.

      The point is that they have reproduced the predictions of type IIA supergravity in 10 dimensions, from a totally different calculation in 0+1d quantum mechanics. Second, this is a genuine strong coupling calculation, that does not rely on BPS non-renormalization theorems(as many calculations in AdS/CFT — including the original Strominger/Vafa calculation for the D1-D5 system — are forced to do). Finally, the black-hole involved is, itself, non-supersymmetric.

      This, I think, is a fairly remarkable and interesting achievement.



    13. DB says:


      I’m not going to debate the merits of all the projects the OMB has torpedoed, because they have won in that the US has clearly decided that basic science better be cheap if it is to be funded at all. Unlike politicians, the OMB plays a long game, which is why only a senior senator can hope to be around long enough, and be influential enough, to see these multi-year projects through in the teeth of the OMB’s (unelected) opposition.

      In relation to HEP, killing off the ILC and the Nova experiment tells me that they still have it in for High Energy Physics, that their real target is Fermilab. Others console themselves with the thought that all that’s happening is that HEP research is being concentrated at Fermilab. To which I say, don’t be fooled by any FY09 sweeteners.

      String theory is the perfect answer to the OMB’s concerns with HEP. It’s really cheap, and doesn’t lead to any predictions which can be tested, so no need for expensive labs. It still claims to be HEP, even though many physicists view it as mathematics masquerading as physics, as evidenced by the application of Ads/Cft duality to RHIC physics: big deal, it’s just another mathematical tool and further evidence that the string theory program can create useful mathematical tools. It’s also environmentally friendly.

    14. amused says:

      Hi Suvrat,
      What you wrote seems to be in agreement with my previous comment, so I’m happy to agree with it. And also about this work being a remarkable and interesting achievement. (I’m less enthused about the press release though.)

    15. Another String Fan says:

      Indeed, this paper looks like serious and hard work. They continue the efforts of (and claim to do better than) Kabat (your colleague at Columbia University, Peter), Lifschytz and Lowe. The matching of the 12-year-old Klebanov-Tseytlin calculation (Ref. [27]) of the charged 10-d black hole entropy looks quite good, but to be even more sure about the scaling with temperature one needs to reach even lower T. The press release is somewhat strongly worded, and will not get a prize for scientific journalism, but we cannot blame the KEK for being proud of their hard work, and of their Hitachi supercomputer. Some amount of `hype’ is inevitable because the science writers think that they have to `rise above the noise’ and to address those who have heard of Hawking but do not know much else.

      Also, Peter, I wish you stopped trashing the press releases about some of the recent PRL’s. It is a current PRL policy to encourage the authors to contact their local press offices to try to inform the general public of their work. The authors of a few such recent press releases were just following these instructions. These press releases might be imperfect, but in the judgement of PRL (a flagship journal of the APS) they serve a useful purpose of educating the public. They have to involve a very recent paper, so it is always too early to tell how important this work will be in the long run. But what is wrong with trying to give people some glimpses of current research in theoretical physics?

    16. Peter Woit says:

      Another String Fan,

      First of all, if you’re actually a professional physicist who knows something about this subject, I really wish you would consider post comments like this using your real name and not hiding behind anonymity and referring to yourself as a “string fan”.

      Sorry, but I intend to continue to trash over-hyped press releases about string theory based on PRLs. I don’t believe this is about “trying to give people some glimpses of current research in theoretical physics”, it’s about a continuing campaign of claims of string theory “progress” towards a unified theory that is not honest, and that is designed to try and mask the fact that this is a failed research program. I don’t think you inform the public or get their respect by putting out press releases that are not true, the effect of this is quite the opposite.

    17. just a fan says:

      I was wondering if there was any way an average person could help get congress to restore your funding?

    18. Zathras says:


      The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is not an independent in any way; it is part of the executive branch and submits exactly what the president want it to submit. What you are describing sounds more like the General Accounting Office (GAO), although I do not think they had anything to do with this. This cutting decision was done by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

      PW: ….the continuing mystery of who exactly in Congress made the decision to target HEP for cuts or what their thinking was….

      This statement disguises a bit how decisions are made. The problem wasn’t that anyone was against it; it was that there was nobody for it. Without a patron in the CBO this type of cut was inevitable.

    19. eddie says:

      I get the impression that ‘big science’ isn’t really about science at all. The ‘big’ part is about the flow of cash;

      tax dollars –> construction co’s –> campaign contributions

      Outside of the community of researchers, the debate about SSC, and other projects, was about which politician could get it built on their patch for electoral kudos.

      I suspect that the OMB was set up to cut out the middle man…

    20. J.F. says:

      just a fan,

      If you want to help, on thing you can do is write your senators and members of congress a letter (actual paper, not email). Contrary to what some believe it is NOT a futile act. My understanding is that the staffers for people on Capitol Hill often include bright, knowledgeable people who would like to support (for example) basic research science, but find it difficult to do so without an outpouring of constituent support. Your letter may even carry more weight as a patron than one of the many from people employed in the profession.

      Here is a website that has some info in case you need it:


      Thanks for asking!

    21. DB says:


      No, I was and am thinking of the OMB, not the CBO or the GAO, although I don’t rule out some minor involvement by the CBO. Incidentally, the CBO was set up by Congress in 1974 in order to take some power back from the OMB – which Congress correctly perceived was usurping its constitutional authority – by establishing a non-partisan watchdog and analysis body to keep an eye on the OMB. But the CBO doesn’t prepare budgets so what a “patron” would achieve there is unclear to me. HEP needs a senior senator on its side in the way that NASA has senators fighting its corner. Now that most US terrestrial HEP is concentrated in Illinois, Senators Durkin and Obama are the obvious choices.

      The OMB aggregates the spending desires of the executive departments, then makes recommendations on those programs which should be cut to meet the overall budget targets and goals. It is here, and in the continuing to and fro with Congress, that OMB officials get to influence projects they deem undesirable. I suspect Orbach spends as much time arguing with the OMB as he does with congressional appropriations committees.

      Here is the presentation his staff made sometime in 2006 to the OMB:
      I draw your attention to slide 22 which shows the variance of FY06 vs FY05 and ask, plus ca change?

      just a fan,

      Senator Durbin is up for reelection in 2009 so is an obvious target for lobbying.

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