This and That

The web-site has a new useful feature, Interactions Blog Watch, which aggregates links to recent physics-related blog entries. One of the older such aggregators I know of is Mixed States, but it seems to have stopped on March 15. There’s also Jacques Distler’s Planet Musings, where he continues his efforts to pretend “Not Even Wrong” doesn’t exist.

Vanity Fair seems to think that the right person to review a book about Isaac Newton is Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens devotes much of the piece to condemning Newton as “a crank and a recluse and a religious bigot” who “spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery.” He feels the same way about most scientists before the modern era, noting that:

It may not be until we get to Albert Einstein that we find a true scientist who is also a sane and lucid person with a genial humanism as part of his world outlook—and even Einstein was soft on Stalin and the Soviet Union.

He ends the piece by accusing Newton of doing everything he could to keep people from understanding the universe, and claiming that this was typical of physicists until recently, when physics began to become indistinguishable from the humanities:

Newton was a friend of all mysticism and a lover of the occult who desired at all costs to keep the secrets of the temple and to prevent the universe from becoming a known quantity. For all that, he did generate a great deal more light than he had intended, and the day is not far off when we will be able to contemplate physics as another department—perhaps the most dynamic department—of the humanities. I would never have believed this when I first despairingly tried to lap the water of Cambridge, but that was before Carl Sagan and Lawrence Krauss and Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking fused language and science (and humor) and clambered up to stand, as Newton himself once phrased it, “on the shoulders of giants.”

Hitchens doesn’t mention Michio Kaku, who has a new book out The Physics of the Impossible, which is on the New York Times bestseller list with the blurb:

A theoretical physicist who is one of the founders of string theory discusses the possibility of phenomena like force fields, teleportation and time travel.

The notion that Kaku is a “founder of string theory” seems to be becoming very widespread in the media.

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll and various of his anonymous commenters are upset that Lee Smolin made it onto a list of Top 100 Public Intellectuals, with some suggesting that Kaku deserves to be there instead.

Finally, the latest Newsletter of the European Mathematical Society has the second part of an interview with Alain Connes, who has many interesting things to say:

they [theoretical physicists] work in huge groups and the amount of time they spend on a given topic is quite short. At a given time t, most of them are going to be working on the same problem, and the preprints which will appear on the web are going to have more or less the same introduction. There is a given theme, and a large number of articles are variations on that theme, but it does not last long…

The sociology of science was deeply traumatized by the disappearance of the Soviet Union and of the scientific counterweight that it created with respect to the overwhelming power of the US. What I have observed during the last two decades since the fall of the USSR and the emigration of their scientific elite to the States is that there is no longer a counterweight. At this point, if you take young physicists in the US, they know that, at some point, they will need a recommendation written by one of the big shots in the country, and this means that if one of them wants to work outside string theory he (or she) won’t find a job. In this way there is just one dominant theory and it attracts all the best students.

I heard some string theorists say: “if some other theory works we will call it string theory”, which shows they have won the sociological war. The ridiculous recent episode of the “exceptionally simple theory of everything” has shown that there is no credibility in the opponents of string theory in the US. Earlier with the Soviet Union, there was resistance. If Europe were stronger, it could resist. Unfortunately there is a latent herd instinct of Europeans, particularly in theoretical physics. Many European universities, at least in France or England, instead of developing original domains as opposed to those dominant in the United States, simply want to follow and call the big shots in the US to decide whom to hire…

I don’t think that we see similar things in mathematics, so there is a fundamental sociological difference between mathematics and physics. Mathematicians seem very resistant to losing their identity and following fashion…

In physics I adore reading; I spent about fifteen years studying the book of Schwinger, Selected Papers on Quantum Electrodynamics. He collected all the crucial articles, by Dirac, Feynman, Schwinger himself, Bethe, Lamb, Fermi, all the fundamental papers on quantum field theory, those of Heisenberg too, of course. This has been my bedside book for years and years. Because I have always been fascinated by the subject and I wanted to understand it. And that took a very long time to understand.

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59 Responses to This and That

  1. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the Connes quote, that is interesting. Regarding his assertion

    “Unfortunately there is a latent herd instinct of Europeans, particularly in theoretical physics. Many European universities, at least in France or England, instead of developing original domains as opposed to those dominant in the United States, simply want to follow and call the big shots in the US to decide whom to hire…”

    I can’t quite agree on that for Germany. Yes, there is definitely that trend that Germans should do what the Americans do because they are just so cool, but at least in academia this isn’t such a pronounced influence and as far as I can tell it’s been getting weaker lately. The reason I guess is mostly that Germans are (in my impression, on the average, apologies to every exception) rather conservative, cautios and suspicious when it comes to ‘new’ ideas. It’s for that reason I believe that many young researchers have left Germany for North America where research is more progressive, and the academic system not as conservative. These ‘fashion’ trends are considerably more pronounced in the USA – and that not only in research, it’s a far more general sociological phenomenon that I believe just reflects in the scientific community. I don’t generally think it is bad to have these trends. It is a good idea to have some established stuff, but also to have some topics of the months to try out new things. But I think the balance is somewhat off here (that being related to the short-time funding I believe).

    But anyway, the problem that one needs to have letters and to produce papers isn’t related to these fashion trends, and exists independent of that. Best,


  2. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Bee,

    I think that the remarks by Connes about US theory faddishness are a bit out of date, since the subject seems to have gone into a funk around 2000, and since then fads have been having trouble getting off the ground. Crudely, the problem is that string theory has become too moribund to generate an idea interesting enough to create a fad, but the fad-generating powers-that-be refuse to give up on string theory and try other things.

    As for his comments about Europe, note that he refers especially to England and France, perhaps well aware that things have been different in Germany. When I was in Italy last year and talked to quite a few Italian physicists, their attitude seemed to be that the string theory hype was an American phenomenon, that Italy had never had the over-hyped fad problem with the subject that the US had.

    Even here in the US, I think that in the past year or two, attitudes have changed dramatically, with string theory starting to become quite unpopular among most physics departments. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It is definitely becoming true that someone most concerned about their career prospects is going to be thinking twice before promoting themselves purely as a string theorist.

  3. Peter Woit says:


    One other comment. I increasingly find it odd to see string theory set up as a progressive “new idea”, contrasted to conservative “old ideas”. It has dominated the subject in the US now for nearly 24 years, since before most of our graduate students were even born, and the physicists who started string theory research almost 40 years ago are now pretty much all old enough to be collecting Social Security. How old does an idea about physics have to get before it no longer is a “new idea”?

  4. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    I wasn’t referring to string theory in particular, but to fashionable topics more generally (the extra dimensional stuff e.g. or the unparticles, both of which originate in the USA and seem to abundantly happen there). I noticed Connes was speaking about France and England, that’s why I meant to add this isn’t all of Europe. From the German perspective I too would have said the string theory hype is an American phenomenon (anybody knows a hype which isn’t?). I also didn’t call string theory a ‘new’ idea, though it was ‘new’ at some point and in my impressions the Germans where considerably slower jumping on the train than the Americans. I guess an idea stops being ‘new’ when you find it in the obituaries 😉 Best,


  5. Bee says:

    PS: “It is definitely becoming true that someone most concerned about their career prospects is going to be thinking twice before promoting themselves purely as a string theorist.”

    Indeed, I too noticed a certain change in attitude (people assuring they are no string theorists/don’t want to become string theorists). I am not sure though whether this is desirable, or where it will go. It might just backlash – the public sympathy is often with those in the defensive.

  6. JC says:


    Were there any supergravity and/or string theorists appointed to German professorships before the Berlin Wall came down and German reunification? From what I can recall, I don’t really remember many German university professors doing string theory before 1989-1990. (At least nobody who was famous).

  7. Allan says:

    The article by Hitchens is useful
    at least for its first paragraph
    where Hitchens admits that he is stupid,
    something many of us have suspected for some time.

  8. Joseph Triscari says:

    Connes’s belief that the Soviet Union was some sort of moderating counterweight to American science is downright silly. I was a genetics major in the 80’s and it was widely understood that genetics from behind the iron curtain had not yet recovered from Lysenko. I vaguely recall there being resistance to the Big Bang Theory in the Soviet Union because it smacked too much of a Creation which might be interpreted incorrectly as confirming religion.

    I don’t have a list of Soviet silliness but, I really doubt the Soviet Union was influencing science in a positive manner because of its existence as a super-power.

    I think his belief that mathematicians are above fads is just as wrong. The history of math is filled with times where some areas are neglected to the benefit of others. Math has the advantage of being able to generate ideas by axiomatic proof which makes the damage less when the fad ends. I doubt very much fad mentality is correlated to which department you find yourself in.

    The problem with quantum gravity – as I believe has been said repeatedly by others – is that experiment is not supporting theory as well as it has in the past. Math doesn’t have this problem and other areas in physics and science don’t have this problem (they have others).

  9. dan says:

    Dear PW

    “The ridiculous recent episode of the “exceptionally simple theory of everything” has shown that there is no credibility in the opponents of string theory in the US.”

    What did Connes find “ridiculous” over Lisi’s ESTOE and how does this show “there is no credibility in the opponents of string theory in the US”?

  10. Peter Woit says:


    Interesting question. I don’t know what Connes thinks of the Lisi story, or what he means by that comment.


    In many areas of science, I don’t think the former Soviet Union was of much influence. But in theoretical physics and mathematics, they had a very strong presence, with a large number of very good people, working to some extent isolated from the West, and within a different tradition and environment. It really was in many ways a separate, strong culture, and its existence was significant for how math and physics developed. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emigration of many of its best people, this changed dramatically.

  11. Eric says:

    “From the German perspective I too would have said the string theory hype is an American phenomenon (anybody knows a hype which isn’t?).”

    And yet, I know of several German string theorists, two of whom are coauthors of a string theory textbook.

  12. anonmo says:

    Unless I missed it, Sean Carroll didn’t seem to be complaining about Smolin being on the list. In fact he compliments him in the comment thread.

  13. Joseph Triscari says:


    I don’t disagree with a word you said. Let me emphasize: Some scientists (mathematicians and physicists in particular) in the Soviet Union did tremendous work with the resources they had available. Their contributions are all the more heroic given conditions under which these contributions were generated. That’s a far cry from saying science (or math or physics) was “traumatized” by the loss of the Soviet Union.

    The Soviet Union’s contributions to math were, in my opinion, greater than their contributions to physics but we’re not dealing with the same problem in the math community. If the loss of the Soviet Union, meant that a “counterweight” to wrong headed thinking disappeared, we’d have the same problems in the math community as the physics community – possibly worse. Connes seems to recognize this and tries to inoculate his argument by saying mathematicians have a higher resistance to fads. As I’ve said, I doubt that such a resistance exists and history doesn’t seem support that belief.

    Connes seems to be saying that, with the Soviet Union present, we wouldn’t be enduring this current string theory fad. Maybe. Maybe we’d have two silly fads to deal with – one based on correct communist thinking. Maybe more. Who can say? What I do know is that the loss of the Soviet Union was not a “trauma” to science or math or physics but a relief. Science was not stifled by the loss of the Soviet Union. It was enriched.

    I cannot see how the existence of the Soviet Union would have prevented the current string theory fad except in some random future time-line way. I cannot see a plausible mechanism by which young physicists would be able to pursue interests in quantum gravity outside string theory even if the Soviet Union were present pursuing something else – even if that something else was the objectively correct theory. Would they be getting grants from the Soviet Union? Would the move to to the Soviet Union to pursue their interests? What experiments would be supporting that theory?

    If the problem is that European funding doesn’t come without implicit approval of one super power or another, then that’s a problem that can and should be solved without enslaving thousands of scientists.

  14. chris says:


    This is what sean carroll said:

    Speaking only for myself, I don’t think that I “give Lee Smolin s**t.” I disagree with him strongly on certain matters of substance, and I don’t think that his presentation of the state of play in modern theoretical physics is especially accurate. But I applaud him very sincerely for his efforts to talk to a wider audience — I very much wish that others would also do so.

    doesn’t soound hostile to me, now does it? and in fact, one may really wonder why Lee Smolin is more of a public intelectual than Stephen Hawking, no?

  15. simple z says:

    Thanks for the quotes!
    I remember Hawking doing the very same thing to Newton:
    making him appear like a complete monster.

    (think this was in “A Brief History of Time”)

  16. MathPhys says:

    I recently saw a full page interview with M Kaku in a local newspaper so I suspect similar articles have appeard all over the world. His claims are very carefully worded.

    Roughly speaking, he refers to himself as “One of the pioneers of string theory”. I took that to refer to the papers of Kaku and Yu from the early 70’s on loop calculations. They were not bad papers, but they were not pioneering either. They followed other people’s works.

    He also refers to hismelf as “one of the founders of string FIELD theory”. The emphasis here is on FIELD. I take that to refer to a couple of papers that he wrote on the subject. Siegel and Witten were the true pioneers, but the subject didn’t get very far anyway.

    He also talks about pioneering a different theory and later on to realize that “his theory” coincides with strings. I take that to be a reference to his on conformal supergravity. Here too, the real pioneers are the supergravity people.

    His statements are so carefully worded to give the layman a certain impression, but in such a way that an expert cannot say that he’s making things up. He’s just very misleading.

    Very interestingly, the interviewer asks him if his very frequent public appearances and commercial book writing (he must have written half a dozen by now) aren’t taking too much time that could be devoted to scientific research. He “gently smiles” and reminds us that Einstein played the violin.

    If statements like that aren’t misleading, what is?

  17. Peter Woit says:


    The two physicists you have in mind may be German, but they are pursuing their careers in the US.

    anonomo and Chris,

    The first comment in the thread is a nasty anonymous one unfairly attacking Smolin (many respectable people agree with him, and he has published many peer-reviewed papers):

    Smolin… so “top public intellectual” can mean “one who disagrees with nearly every respectable person in his field, and instead of persuading others through peer-reviewed literature, appeals to the general public for support”?

    Sean’s response is not to defend Smolin, but to agree with the anonymous attacker, complaining only that people haven’t disagreed with Smolin more vigorously.

    If the “respectable” people can’t be bothered to explain themselves compellingly to the general public — then, yeah.

  18. Bee says:

    Hi Eric, Peter,

    Of course there are string theorists in Germany (e.g. Lüst, Nilles, Louis, etc), and also Germans in the US. I said I think the Germans were slower jumping on the topic than the Americans, and I can’t say I’ve noticed much of a hype.

    Hi JC,

    I honestly don’t know. I was 13 then, and I wasn’t particularly interested in string theory.



  19. Eric says:

    Yes, but non-string theorists such as Sabine Hossenfelder are also pursuing a career in North America. So, maybe there is some conservatism in Germany, but it isn’t restricted to string theory. From other conversations I’ve had, the real issue is that proferships in Germany tend to be given to old men who’ve been at it a while, whereas in the US/Canada, it’s possible for younger people with new ideas to receive advancement.

  20. Bee says:

    Btw, regarding this comment section over at CV, I find this pretty much disgusting. Once again, I can’t understand why Sean just lets people (even anonymously) bash others for no good reason whatsoever. This list isn’t a list with scientists who’ve made a good deal publicizing their work, and it also isn’t a list of the most influential researchers in the respective field. Lee isn’t on that list because he’s “manufactured” a “public controversy”, as another anonymous commenter found it necessary to proclaim. Didn’t anybody actually read his books? Or the articles that one finds online, the stuff on the website etc? Doesn’t anybody realize that a discussion about which environment scientific research needs to function best is necessary, overdue, and should have been lead probably a decade ago? Doesn’t anybody see how this polarization into the string-haters and string-lovers completely distracts from the actual problem that is the circumstances under which scientists do their research? And how Sean promotes this? Can’t all these people just please look somewhat farther than the tip of their own nose?

  21. Bee says:

    Hi Eric,

    Yes, that’s what I meant to say. In my perception Germans are more conservative than Americans (again, restrictions apply, exceptions exist). And yes, the reason why I moved to the USA was that I couldn’t find a place to fit in. The German academic system has several problems, some of which are different from those in the USA, some are similar. E.g. there is the usual problem of networking, if you have connections, know the right people (preferably those in the hiring committee), have been in the right places, you have a much easier time getting a job. That I believe is quite similar to the USA. One thing that’s different is that there is no tenure track, so people hang in thin air until they eventually make it on a professorship which is a livetime position (you can’t be fired). I don’t think though Germany has a specific problem with women. The reason why I think there are little female professors is what I just said: you have no secure position possibly until your late thirties. Everybody who wants family must be appalled by this idea. Another thing that’s different is that a professorship in Germany requires an additional academic degree called habilitation. They are trying to change this, but this discussion goes back a long time and hasn’t been very fruitful so far. Best,


  22. Bee says:

    Err, I mean ‘few female professors’

  23. David Nataf says:


    Late thirties doesn’t sound too different from North America.

    Say one finishes graduate school at 27, and then does two postdocs for six years (both optimistic assumptions), one will then get an assistant professorship at 33 and get tenure (if things work out) at 43.

    Between undergrad through professorship that implies a minimum of five different locations to live in. Hardly the optimal situation in which to raise a family… and now as more and more scientists date other scientists, two-body problems will become more frequent.

  24. Professor R says:

    Hi Peter, slightly off-topic for discussion above, but on-topic for your original post.
    I’ve finally got around to starting a physics blog ( mainly concerned with cosmology and particle physics at an introductory level). I’ve listed NEW as a link I use myself if that’s ok. Have a look at

    would appreciate any comments/tips.
    Regards Cormac

  25. chris says:

    hi Bee,

    seems you are away from germany for quite a while now. there is tenure track now – just starting but many positions are out there already. and from a family point of view – i am not too excited about the prospects of financing 3 children until grad school in the us on a mere academic salary or two. germany is way more attractive from this point of view. what is really true is the networking however. smaller countries have less people so inevitably there will be more room for this kind of stuff.

    and on a very different note, i find it amusing how harsh you and peter woit are with cosmic variance. sean has not said one bad word about lee smolin there. there is a certain tendency of course, but come on, if you read this blog and don’t see a certain tendency here either then i don’t know who can’t see beyond the tip of their nose. there are people out there – smart people – with a very different mindset and that’s just it. i must say that compared to your comments, sean was very civil towards lee smolin, really. and it is a very good practice in my opinion not to censor except obviously illegal or spamy content

  26. chris says:

    Dear Peter Woit,

    note the quotes around “respectable”? i am not an english native speaker, but for me sean carolls statement clearly meant that he does not agree with the previous asessment. furthermore, he says that if these “respectable” people don’t raise their voice they will certainly not be heard. i don’t see anything wrong with that.

  27. Bee says:

    Hi Chris,
    Yes, I’ve heard the Germans are experimenting with tenure, and I think it’s a good thing. Reread what I said, I didn’t say the system in the states is better, I said they are both different, and tenure is one of the differences. You misunderstand my problem with CV. I have nothing against Sean. I just very much dislike his attitude to let commenters insult others, even anonymously. It doesn’t matter to me whether he just doesn’t read it (as I think he said somewhere), or whether he doesn’t care – it’s his blog and it’s his responsibility. I’ve said repeatedly previously that I think tolerating such ‘discussion’ corrupts the values of our society, and I still think so. I want to see one of these commenters stand up in public and say openly I don’t think so-and-so belongs on this list because (upon which it would probably turn out they don’t know why person x is on a list with public intellectuals, or what a criterion could be for a public intellectual to begin with, just that they maybe don’t like person x). What do they do instead? They anonymously make fun of those who have the courage to stand to their opinion publicly. I think this is disgusting, full stop. I have the impression that many people do that kind of thing or like to read it because they find it entertaining (thus your suggestion not to delete it, thus I think the reason Sean doesn’t delete it, because it attracts readers like shit attracts flies.) I also have occasionally had the strong impression that a large part of the blogosphere just sits there and waits for some ‘scandal’, some physicists arguing publicly, things get personal, somebody get called names. What do you think why Lubos’ blog has attracted so much attention? Certainly not because he has such a great writing style. No, because he’s provided exactly that, and I believe people read it with some disgusted fascination, and then pass it on (have you seen, did you read, he said WHAT?). However, one has to give it to Lubos that he’s always signed with his own name, so at least he’s not a coward. Hope that clarifies my disliking. Best,


  28. Daniel de França MTd2 says:

    The decline in the Big Physics (and related engeneering) project budgets on USA is clear with the period in which soviet union declined (ending of the 70´s and one) and even worsened after its ending. If it was a coincidence or not, I cannot say for sure. But if I could bet, I would say it had a negative influence on US, because the output of experiments do have political consequence when it comes to claim a superior technological level.

    But given the information revolution happening, i’d say that the overall situation, in other fields, specially the nanotech field, everything got much better, there are much more brains and information sharing problems and information and brains.

  29. Peter Woit says:


    Sean’s reaction to the fact that someone had anonymously submitted a comment to his blog attacking Lee Smolin in a quite unfair way was not to delete it, not to ignore it, but instead immediately add his own comment elaborating on the original comment, and ending with “yeah”. In English, this unambigously means that you agree with the original statement, given the elaboration (which in no way indicated any problem with the nasty characterization of Smolin).

    As Bee notes, Sean has somewhat of a history of this, not only allowing the comment section of his blog to be used for nasty, unfair anonymous attacks on people (including Smolin), but responding in an insulting manner to complaints about this practice.

  30. Jeff McGowan says:


    I saw Kaku give a talk a while back (pre the “string theory wars,” or at least the public ones) at the CUNY GC. The talk was for a general audience (not a general scientific audience, just a general one). He mentioned string theory a number of times, and even put up a slide with an integral, I can’t remember but I assume one of the loop calculations you mention, and commented something along the lines that this was the first real string theory calculation. In any case it was clear he was claiming to be one of the “founders” of string theory. I was sitting next to my thesis advisor and turned to him and said I thought he was angling for a Nobel (not that they would give one for that).

    In any case it struck me that back then at least, when string theory was riding high, he was positioning himself very carefully.

  31. Christine says:

    I will never understand people’s behavior. If someone is in some list made by someone, so what? I really don’t care. I would care, of course, if the existence of the list would somehow harm me or my family/friends in a very direct and personal way. What is the harm of X being in the list and Y or Z being not? It is a list made by someone (or by a group of people), right? What is the intrinsic value of this list? If Y or Z feel it is not just, it’s their problem. It’s just a list. People care too much about unimportant things. Or maybe this is just a reflection of the fact that they themselves don’t have more important things to do with their lives.

  32. jhk says:

    Kaku started out describing himself as one of the founders of “string field theory”, which was technically sort of defensible, but over time the word “field” was put in smaller and smaller font until finally it has disappeared completely. Or perhaps it’s still there just not visible to the naked eye.

    I’d love to see him debate Susskind in public over the paternity of string theory.

  33. Professor R says:

    Re annonymity, I think Bee is absolutely right.

    Just today I had the rather unpleasant experience of discovering an enitre thread on a politics blog

    concerning a letter I had published in a newpaper.
    (In the letter I was simply making the point that Ireland’s non-membership of CERN has decimated Irish research in particle physics).
    On the blog the letter have been attacked by all sorts of people who know nothing of physics, or CERN, and who hide behind silly names…annoying.
    I think I will restrict comments on my own blog to people who declare themselves, at least to me!
    Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh

  34. woit says:

    Hi Cormac,

    Good luck with the new blog, I’ll look forward to following it. Figuring out what to do about comments can be tricky, although if you avoid the controversy over string theory the comments you get are likely to be few and relatively polite.

  35. Shantanu says:

    Bee, the idea of branes were discussed initialy by C. Wetterich and he mentioned
    this in one of his talks at PI.
    Does anyone know how well was the theory of inflation (in early 80’s ) received
    in Soviet Union? I do know that Ginzburg was not a big fan of it.

  36. Changcho says:

    “and now as more and more scientists date other scientists, two-body problems will become more frequent.”
    And sometimes, eventually the two-body problems evolve into three and more body problems, and as is well know, there are no anaytical solutions to the N body problem with N>2 (i.e., it may get more complicated!)

    I agree with commenter Allan on Hitchens…what makes people still think that Hitchens has anything worthy to say anymore?

  37. David Nataf says:


    Hitchens’ popularity arises from his mastery of the English language and his bold approach to controversial social issues such as atheism. There’s a general theme of people being fatigued by nuance and articial centrism, and that explains the popularity of George Monbiot, Ann Coulter and everyone in between.

    Was your joke referring to love polygons or children?

    I do think it’s a serious issue however. There’s a risk three or four postdocs might become the expectation. I’ve heard of one individual doing five postdocs.

  38. DB says:


    The thread you point to is a good example of the level of public understanding of HEP and the LHC. And it’s not hard to see why. Back in the fifties people could understand the potential benefits of nuclear physics – it won the Pacific war and promised electricity “too cheap to meter”. And its dangers. They could visualize the splitting of the atom and could marvel at the recreation of the sun’s furnace on earth. Most importantly, they could translate this wonder into perceived benefits in their daily lives. It turns out that the hype didn’t live up to reality. Yes, they got the Standard Model. But they also got Chernobyl.

    Since the fifties, HEP has become terribly remote from the ordinary individual whose taxes fund it. While they understand very little, they doubt that it is likely to be of any real benefit to them, the lumpen proletariat, in the foreseeable future. They also know it is far too complicated for all but a very talented minority to properly grasp so that any understanding gained will be reserved for a tiny elite. And if that’s all they get in return for their taxes they are likely to say, thanks, but we have more pressing priorities.

    Which is precisely why James Orbach felt obliged to tell his Fermilab audience last week: “You scientists must make the case”. It was a very salient warning.

    Europe is currently revelling in its leadership position but I suspect it is just at an earlier stage of the US learning curve. US politicians have “been there, done that” and they appear to be fast losing faith with expensive fundamental science. I don’t believe the average European voter is all that different to his American counterpart.

    Without a much more successful outreach effort from the HEP community the outlook is not great, post-LHC.

  39. Eric H says:

    I agree very strongly with Alain Conne’s, (Connes’?) comment about the traumatizing influence of the fall of the Soviet Union. Much of the work they did that was important related to extentions of Einstein’s original geometric approach. That is, instead of making the huge jump to 10 and 11 dimensions, they used the conservative approach of investigating the connection between spin and the 5-d approach in Kaluza-Klein theory.

    In the West the KK idea is treated as a toy construct that can’t be taken seriously. The provisional reason for doing this is that spin isn’t inelastic but can “break” in a sense and this negates KK. However, a proton’s quarks really can be seen in a sense as having an inelastic bond – > 10^32 years and counting – they still haven’t found a limit.

    I think the real reason KK was thrown out prematurely is that Einstein used the KK ideas in constructing his unified field and by that time quantum mechanics occupied all the energy and time of physicists. It’s sad really. How many people actually know the details of Einstein’s theory but have only been told that he wasted his life on it. It’s also sad because gravity emerges naturally in KK theory. While it may be too low-brow for some around here check out the English Wiki site on “zero point field” that I did a lot of editing of. Andrei Sakharov was a real pioneer.

  40. Professor R says:

    DB, you’re absolutely right.
    I thnk the statement ‘Europe is currently revelling in its leadership position but I suspect it is just at an earlier stage of the US learning curve’ is all too correct. I’m afraid where the US goes today, we generally follow tomorrow (with Ireland leading the way).

    The terrible irony is that CERN has saved Euroean a fortune – by centralizing mst of the accelerator build in one location, individual nations saved millions and avoided duplication.

    My own viewpoint is Tim BL and Cern missed a trick – while I am very glad he (and not a commercial firm) put the web together, there should be a permanent reminder that this came from CERN research – everytime you open a browser in fact. If they had done that, no-one would need to argue the case for CERN …Cormac

  41. Changcho says:

    D. Nataf – actually, the joke referred to children…In matters of atheism, I’d turn to Dawkins, not Hitchens. The latter may have a mastery of the English language, but little else imho ; regards.

  42. Michael Bacon says:

    “While they understand very little, they doubt that it is likely to be of any real benefit to them, the lumpen proletariat, in the foreseeable future.”


    Lumpen proletariat? Really? What an odd way to describe people in this day and age.

  43. anonymous says:

    Bee, you are annoyed that Sean Carroll lets anonymous commenters insult people … well, so does Peter Woit, as you’ll notice by reading the comments about Christopher Hitchens in this thread (I count a first name with no link as anonymous, since it effectively is).

  44. DB says:

    Cormac wrote:
    “My own viewpoint is Tim BL and Cern missed a trick – while I am very glad he (and not a commercial firm) put the web together, there should be a permanent reminder that this came from CERN research – everytime you open a browser in fact. If they had done that, no-one would need to argue the case for CERN ”

    Yes, CERN invented the World Wide Web, but the US made best use of that invention and paid nothing for the rights. A similar attitude seems to have emerged in the US with regard to ITER, i.e., “Let the others pay for the fundamental research, we’ll clean up on the commercial side”.
    Had CERN licenced that invention, it would probably never have to raise a cent from governments again.

    My use of the phrase was a poor attempt at irony. But I do think that is how they view themselves when it comes to subjects such as HEP.

  45. anon. says:

    Having left the anonymous comment at CV, maybe I should have picked someone other than Smolin, since people seem upset about that and don’t notice that he’s not the only person I singled out. Lomborg is the worst, being a fraudulent hack who is actively hurting the entire world with his efforts to delay action on climate change. (His pose as an ‘environmentalist’ makes it all the worse.) There were other people on the list who are similar, but outside the sciences — Kagan, for one, surely takes part of the blame for a great deal of human suffering. Arguments within theoretical physics are, ultimately, utterly insignificant compared to these things, so probably my complaint should have focused on that, but since I was commenting on a physics blog I mentioned Smolin. He isn’t really hurting anyone, of course, but he’s someone who is taken far more seriously in the press than by other physicists.

  46. Peter Woit says:


    My objection is specifically to the use of blogs by scientists to anonymously attack their colleagues in unfair ways. I wish people would not post comments anonymously like the ones about Hitchens, but I don’t find it so objectionable that I delete them.

    More problematic actually were the comments about Kaku, which I did seriously consider deleting. I left them because I thought that the question they addressed of claims being made that he is a “founder of string theory” is a valid one, and they did not treat it unfairly. But I encourage people to not post anonymously, and if they do feel it necessary to do so, they should bend over backwards to be polite and fair to anyone they have a critical comment about.

  47. Bee says:

    “Bee, you are annoyed that Sean Carroll lets anonymous commenters insult people … well, so does Peter Woit”

    So what? I’m not the insult-police of the blogosphere and I actually don’t read Peter’s blog very closely (or any other blog for that matter, not even my own), and I have no idea what Peter did or didn’t do elsewhere.

    But since you bring it up, you are trying to excuse behaviour by saying others do the same. This is exactly the reason why I think one should not tolerate insults in discussions. This isn’t something specific to CV, NEW or TRF, you find this in almost every more or less public comment section (just pick a random blog-section of a newspaper or magazine). Can’t you see how this is pushing the boundaries farther and farther aways from what the average human would consider a civilized communication? I mean, come on, it is well known that humans test the boundaries that are being set to their behavior all the time, may that be laws, morals or ethics. It will get worse until they perceive they’ve reached that boundary, but where is it supposed to come from if not from us?

    Thanks for your explanation why you don’t want to see some people on that list. It sounds very similar to what I guessed above doesn’t it? I don’t like that person or his opinion, and soandso is taken more seriously by the press than by his community. What has this to do with anything?

    Anyway, I actually agree with Christine’s comment above that it’s more or less irrelevant who appears on what lists of which magazine, that wasn’t the reason why I brought it up (and given that I don’t know most of the names on that list, I see no point in discussing it.) My problem is just, one again, how it comes close to impossible having a sensible exchange on the blogosphere.



  48. Professor R says:

    Bee and JC, in response to disscussion at top

    ‘Were there any supergravity and/or string theorists appointed to German professorships before the Berlin Wall came down….’

    I was sorry to see Julius Wess didn’t rate a mention (a pioneer of supersymmetry, he and Zumino pactically invented supergravity). Julius had a very big group in Munich and was a great collaborator
    with my Dad’s group at th Dublin IAS. I think they were fairly typical of the continental European school – rather than get hung up on string theory itself, they were much more interested in the mathematics of supersymmetry and other gauge symmetries.

    In fact I would argue that while Peter’s quote from Connes is interesting, it pretty much ignores the whole field of gauge symmetry…Cormac

  49. Professor R says:

    P.S. Julius passed away last summer, but you can find his bio on wiki ( or his famous book at

  50. Bee says:

    Hi Professor, JC,

    Yes, I’m sorry. I wasn’t an attempt to give an exhaustive list of Germans who’ve worked on st or related things, just the first three names that came into my mind. Best,


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