World Science Festival

Most of the time the attention paid here to efforts to popularize physics is restricted to grumpy complaints about the hype surrounding string theory as well as the more general dubious phenomenon of scientists promoting things that are more science fiction than science. Today I’m in a much more positive mood, and thought I’d take the opportunity to make some unusually sunny comments for a change.

One reason for this is that I attended the opening party for my colleague Brian Greene’s World Science Festival Wednesday night at the American Museum of Natural History, and several people have told me about the enthusiastic reception the festival events have been getting. I was hoping to attend one of the events, but it was already sold out.

Things started off during the day Thursday with a World Science Summit here at Columbia featuring a speech by Mayor Bloomberg, and award of the new Kavli prizes. That evening, at the museum event, Brian, Fred Kavli and Senator Schumer all spoke, and the crowd was entertained by the choir of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Among the people I got a chance to talk to at the event were several string theorists. One of these was Jim Gates, who I had the pleasure of first meeting last year down in Orlando. He was there with his wife, just back from South Africa where he is involved with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

Gates told me that his collection of video lectures with impressive graphics explaining quantum mechanics, general relativity and superstring theory called Superstring Theory: The DNA of Reality has been selling well, generating over a million dollars in sales, despite not being able to get it reviewed in major publications. Strong evidence of its popularity comes from the fact that if you google “The DNA of Reality” you get an impressive variety of sources for pirated versions. Evidently he has done an excellent job of reaching a wide audience with this material. From conversations with him I know that we’re in closer agreement than you would guess, sharing an interest in the mathematics behind supersymmetry and a skepticism about extra dimensions.

I have mixed feelings about the highly enthusiastic promotion of certain speculative ideas about physics involved both here and in some of the World Science Festival events, but it’s undeniable that these are reaching a lot of people and getting them excited about science. Perhaps I can convince Jim to market what could be the ideal package: his videos to get people excited and enthusiastic about the open problems in physics, and my book to give them some skepticism about the solutions now being promoted…

Update: For an article describing what happened at the World Science Festival program about unification and string theory, see here.

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27 Responses to World Science Festival

  1. The Vlad says:

    Dear Peter,

    An excellent attempt at a sunny disposition, though perhaps not an entirely successful one 🙂

    Your post leads me to ask the following question: Do you think that your critical viewpoint has acted to promote the profile of physics in the public eye?

    I am not a physicist by training, and although I cannot follow many of the more technical discussions here, I would say that I have certainly learned much from your posts and the discussions in the comments sections. Thus, to the extent that your blog has educational value to the layperson, I would suggest that you are doing physics a promotional service. Skepticism of extant viewpoints, even dogmatically asserted ones lacking experimental support, is not necessarily bad from a public-relations angle.

    Which brings me to a second question: When does ‘healthy skepticism’ cross the line into ‘irresponsible criticality’?

    A senior colleague of mine recently suggested to me that another senior colleague, whose reputation for skepticism borders on the extreme, was irresponsible and therefore lacked ‘leadership qualities’. Yet to my view, failing to speak out against false or misleading scientific claims is also an act of irresponsibility (by omission).

    I would love to your view and those of your readers.

    The Vlad

  2. Changcho says:

    With regards to doing Physics (or science in general): one needs to find the right balance between ‘wonder’ and ‘skepticism’, as Sagan often wrote. I suppose the right allocation between the two would be different for different fields, or even different problems in the same field.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Vlad,

    I don’t really think that “the profile of physics in the public eye” is something particularly well-defined or of a simple signficance. There’s lots of different kinds of physics, “the public” is all sorts of different people, and what is ultimately desirable is not that all people have a high opinion of everything physicists are doing. What’s important is that some talented people get seriously enough interested in it to pursue it as a career, that lots of people get some appreciation for what we know about the physical world, and that there’s sufficient support among the public for good physics research.

    It matters a great deal which research areas get into the public eye and thus are more likely to get public support. As an example, if the campaign to promote multiverse studies is successful, there’s a danger that real science will get crowded out, both in terms of funding and attracting good young people. Physicists need to promote their science, but they need to do so honestly, and also to do what they can to stop misleading and self-interested promotion of unsuccessful research programs.

    As far as the whole string theory controversy of recent years goes, I think string theorists have made huge mistakes in how they have dealt with it, and this has seriously damaged both their standing in the physics community and the public perception of their field. The smart thing to do would have been to acknowledge the existence of the serious problems being pointed out by their critics and to make the case to the public that this kind of very real scientific controversy is a healthy part of science, evidence of how little we know about some topics, and a good reason for young people to go into the subject, since some of it is still wide-open. Instead the typical attitude has been to remain quiet, trying to ignore criticism in the hope that it will go away, leaving the public response to extremists who do a very poor job of representing them.

  4. Bill says:

    Now this is hilarious Peter!

    You want to ride the coattail of a string theorist promoting science including string theory to sell more of your books and thus generate more revenue. Truly bizarre.

    Best,
    Bill

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Bill,

    The comment about packaging my book with the videos was a joke, actually. Believe it or not, the book was not written to make money. It was written to explain a different point of view on the currrent state of particle physics. I’m rather proud of it, and, yes, like the idea of more people reading it.

    Besides yours, this posting also generated other anonymous comments of pure personal abuse from string theory partisans, which I’ve deleted. Weird that the most nastiness I’ve had to contend with in a while was triggered by my saying something positive about the efforts of some string theorists.

  6. Bill says:

    Peter,

    Make no mistake, the “nastiness” was not triggered by your saying something positive about the efforts of some string theorists. Rather, the observation was made that you intend to sell more books not by convincing people that your book is worth reading but by packaging it together with a book/video/lecture/etc of a string theorist. Joke, or not, this is truly bizarre.

    Why? Because one of your main issues is the public perception of string theory and the “hype” that surrounds it. This “hype” is not a scientific statement, it’s related to it’s public perception. Which is fine, you don’t have to have a scientific point, you can be a popular science journalist and you can criticize issues from that perspective. But then coming along with a “joke” that you think it would be useful to package your book with a hugely successful string theory “hype” publication makes one wonder that it’s really no surprise people don’t take you seriously.

    Bill
    (Just to avoid confusion, I’m a nuclear physicist, and yes, I’m tenured and yes, I have over 1500 citations. All of this is completely irrelevant, however, you like to picture any critique of yours as “string theory partisan”.)

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Bill,

    My criticisms of string theory hype have always been from the point of view of a scientist, addressed to the ways that science is being misused and misrepresented and I intend to keep on pursuing those. But I think it’s also important to recognize that many of the people writing enthusiastically about string theory are doing so in the larger context of an attempt to get the public interested in and excited about modern physics. This ends up producing what seems to me a mixed bag, and I’ve often criticized the problematic parts of it, but there are also valuable parts, and I wanted to acknowledge those. Lots of people have gotten interested in physics and learned something about it from Brian and Jim’s efforts. Many may also have acquired an unreasonably optimistic view of string theory, but the other side of the coin has also been getting quite a bit of attention recently.

    It was definitely a joke to suggest a joint marketing effort; given the hostility of the “string wars” I found the notion amusing although many may not share my sense of humor. The serious part of the suggestion was that I think that it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for people to be exposed to both a pro-string effort and my book. This has nothing to do with a desire to make money selling books (the book was intended to be published by a university press and addressed to a relatively narrow audience, I don’t need the money).

  8. curious one says:

    “I think that it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all for people to be exposed to both a pro-string effort and my book….” – Peter Woit

    Yes, if people actually remember to read it.

  9. somebody says:

    Frank said:

    >I’m a QCD person, not a ’string partisan’, and it is hard to
    > disagree with Bill. Peter’s suggestion involving his book
    >and Jim Gates’ DVD is one of the reasons why so many
    >people consider Peter a parasite.
    >
    >In the ‘mixed bag’ of the ‘hype’, what are the ‘problematic
    >parts’? Let me guess. They’re the parts that don’t allow Peter
    >to feel important and to earn a few bucks.

    Being a string theorist, I have found a lot of people who are in the hate-string-THEORY camp because of the string THEORISTS’ arrogance or know-it-all attitude. I have found VERY few critics of string theory whose views have not been corrupted by this aspect. Incidentally, I think that this arrogance is a very real phenomenon, even if I believe it is beside the scientific issue. I would have given you the benefit of the doubt if you said Peter was one of them who hated string theory because of the string theorists, even though I have no idea whether it is true.

    But to say that he is after money, seems ridiculous to me. I think a real and honest critic of science should really walk the middle ground and we should congratulate Peter for making such an effort in this post. I personally would find a post like this far more refreshing than an unqualified rant.

  10. Matthew Putman says:

    peter,

    I am a patron of the festival, so am a bit biased as to its merits. Still the entire thing went even better than i had imagined. i am both a scientist and involved in the arts, and while in sciencific circles we tend to debate the merits of theories, outside of science the worlds of art and science dont really know how to communicate at all with each other. This event gave me hope in a different way than an invidual project would give me, and instead gave me a chance to be myself in art and science. I give Brian and Tracy a lot of credit for this, but also you, and others who have differed in regards to string theory, for attending, and embracing the romantic notion of an event like this. This is one of the reasonsons it worked so well.

    Matthew Putman

  11. Peter Woit says:

    My apologies to the string theory partisans of the world for making unfair accusations…

    Matthew,

    Glad to hear you also found the festival to be a success!

    somebody,

    Thanks for your comments. My problems with string theory don’t have much to do with string theorists personally. Some of my best friends are string theorists… and the theorist I have the highest opinion of professionally and personally (Witten) is also probably the one most responsible for promoting the subject to his colleagues. One interesting thing I learned after getting involved in this controversy is that the sheer complexity and difficulty of string theory is a large part of the story. That has made it very hard for people to sensibly evaluate it, and that’s behind some of the bizarre behavior surrounding the “string wars”.

  12. somebody says:

    > the ‘arrogance’ accusations are frequently raised against all
    > of science, not just string theory, by those who don’t
    > understand it.

    I was saying that against string theory there is certainly anatgonism of this kind even within the scientific community. Here is a view from the other side:

    http://cosmicvariance.com/2005/11/18/a-particle-physicists-perspective/

    I think her claim that string theorists are arrogant is true. But I also think she is upset only because she is at the receving end of it. I am pretty sure that she seems equally arrogant to somebody doing plasma numerics. There is, and has always been, a heirarchy of “fundamentalness” in physics. The reason why string theory is strange is because it claims to be the most fundamental thing, stakes a claim on all the glory, while not (yet) producing a single new experimental test. We string theorists claim that it is because quantum gravity is inherently difficult to test, and that we need more time, but that hasn’t stopped people from getting pissed.

    Please note that I am not endorsing the arrogance of string theorists – but I feel that this specific piece of sociology has been a huge reason why the anti-string wave has been so powerful. I think the scientific case is much weaker than the popular reaction, Peter of course might disagree.

    > the ‘arrogance’ accusations are frequently raised against all
    > of science, not just string theory, by those who don’t
    > understand it.
    >If there is a difference, could you please
    > enlighten me about this difference?

    As has been already pointed out by others, string theory is perhaps more complicated than other subjects. At the very least it is certainly BIGGER than the other subjects.

    But I think the real reason for the arrogance is that string theory forces you to know both QFT and general relativity really well, and between the two it exhausts most of the juicier aspects of theoretical physics – from critical phenomena to particle physics to the big bang and black holes. Then there is the fact that string theory has a lot of geometric tools usually unncessary in other physics. There is a very real sense in which a COMPETENT string theorist has to be a jack of all trades.

    Arrogance or the perception of arrogance happens when you can understand THEM relatively quickly, while they need lot of new tools to undertstand YOU. Once again, I am not trying to defend the phenomenon, just trying to explain it.

    Of course, there is also a kind of arrogance that comes from being associated to a field of work where you are basking in the reflected glory of people like Witten, but I think this applies mostly only to the not-so-competent string theorists. I was talking about the more serious kind of arrogance, the one that stems from true vanity. I also want to emphasize that I have known some exceptionally brilliant and creative guys in this field who are also extremely modest. The ratio of the jerks to the nice guys is probably the same in string theory as it is in any field.

  13. Peter Orland says:

    This thread seems off-topic, but after Somebody’s last comment, I feel I have to say something.

    “But I think the real reason for the arrogance is that string theory forces you to know both QFT and general relativity really well, and between the two it exhausts most of the juicier aspects of theoretical physics – from critical phenomena to particle physics to the big bang and black holes. Then there is the fact that string theory has a lot of geometric tools usually unncessary in other physics. There is a very real sense in which a COMPETENT string theorist has to be a jack of all trades.”

    Actually, any good theoretical physicist should try to know at least a little about all these things! Add the Hubbard model, superconductivity, integrability,…. It is important to keep learning things.

    I have never been frustrated by anybody’s arrogance. Arrogance is par for the course. What bothers me is that so many people are working on problems where there is no specific goal in mind. You’ve solved a problem at three loops, so do four. You have one formulation of something, so find another. Much of this activity is pure mountain climbing and teaches us nothing. This is very different from finding a new way to understand a well-formulated problem, even if it is only a toy model (like N=4 Yang-Mills or 1+1-dimensional theories). For the past several years, almost every seminar speaker I see doesn’t really have anything to say. I want to stress that it isn’t only string theorists who are guilty of this.

    For some reason, people feel they can get away with solving problems with no motivation other than someone else is doing it. It’s important to have a message in your work.

    If you don’t like what I’ve said, call me arrogant.

  14. Peter Orland says:

    I should correct my next-to-last paragraph. It should read:

    For some reason, people feel they can get away with formal things with no motivation other than someone else is doing them. It’s important to have a message in your work.

  15. somebody says:

    > I have never been frustrated by anybody’s arrogance. Arrogance is par for
    > the course.

    It is precisely attitudes like this that has left the string theory community with few friends these days. Instead of recognizing arrogance as a form of insecurity, there is a certain glorification of it in the community. Now it has come back to bite us in the behind. It is one thing to be vehement and passionate about what you think, and that can sometimes come across as arrogant. I must admit that sometimes I am massively guilty of that myself. But some of the more visible string theory blogs are very clearly conscious attempts at shushing the opposition through condescension and disrespect.

    The collateral damage is that now we are slowly left with no friends and no funding. You just need to take a look at the hiring patterns last year to see the truth of this statement. You cannot treat everybody else like cattle and then expect them to see how good string theory is.

  16. Peter Shor says:

    Peter Orland says “Much of this activity is pure mountain climbing and teaches us nothing. … For some reason, people feel they can get away with formal things with no motivation other than someone else is doing them. It’s important to have a message in your work.”

    This is, of course, what all of mathematics looks like, at least at first glance. After you learn more about a specific mathematical field, you realize that many of the better mathematicians in it are actually pursuing some kind of directed program that is moving forward, while others are just solving random problems and accumulating publications.

    String theorists have now lost the guidance of experiment, so they are doing something much closer to pure mathematics without having been exposed much to the mathematical culture. I can’t say for sure whether this culture helps mathematicians make progress in such a vague and fuzzy environment, but I suspect that it does.

  17. Peter Woit says:

    This thread has wandered from the topic, partly due to the anonymous insulting comments from “Frank”. I’ve deleted those comments, but mostly left those responding to him.

    If people want to continue this discussion, that’s fine, but keep in mind that posting insulting comments anonymously is out of bounds here. Don’t do this and don’t respond to those who do.

    Note: The original version of this comment mentioned that I suspected that “Frank” was someone who used to post here as “amused”. He assures me that this was not the case, so the comment has been edited, with my apologies to him.

  18. somebody says:

    > This is, of course, what all of mathematics looks like, at least at first glance.
    > After you learn more about a specific mathematical field, you realize that many
    > of the better mathematicians in it are actually pursuing some kind of directed
    > program that is moving forward, …

    This I think is an excellent characterization of the situation in string theory. All the fad, for example, are about minor breakthroughs that take us a tiny bit closer to a better understanding/control of the theory – even if they seem pointless to an outsider. In some grandiose sense, they are indeed pointless, because they are minor stepping stones. But we cannot do without (most of) these stepping stones on our way. Most serious people do understand the mission statement, and even though progress is slow, it has direction. Unfortunately, it really does seem that even though the physical picture has a lot of coherence to it, the technical and conceptual problems that need to be solved before we can wield string theory with sufficient comfort (so as to be useful for making predictions for low energy physics) are many and difficult. The hope is that they would not turn out to be insurmountable, and that they would not lead to an asymptotic slowdown of the field. I am not worried about the latter yet because we have been making progress in fits and starts so far (even though these last couple of years were admittedly a bit dull).

  19. Peter Orland says:

    Somebody,

    I’m not a total outsider, so that’s not why these activities seem pointless, at least not to me. I know enough string theory to see that most of what string theorists are doing really doesn’t have a point (and this is also true in other areas of physics, as I said above).

    Most people are just refining calculations of models or playing with formalism. They are doing technical things with no motivation for what they are doing. I’m absolutely sure of this, because I sometimes ask WHY THE HELL ARE YOU DOING THIS? (but more quietly and politely) and get no answer.

    So what should they do? Well, this works for me: when I can’t get further with some line of research, I’ll usually work on something else for a while.

  20. somebody says:

    > I know enough string theory to see that most of what string theorists are
    > doing really doesn’t have a point (and this is also true in other areas of
    > physics, as I said above).

    So you are essentially saying that most of the scientific research that goes on in most fields is pointless. I agree that bad research is FAR more common than good research. But that said, I still don’t see your point. I think your view amounts to looking at the bad research going on in string theory and related fields and vaguely IMPLYING that that is essentially ALL that is going on. If thats the case, I disagree.

    Even today on the hep-th arXiv, there are some interesting papers. Lets look at the first two papers. I would say they are immediately interesting to any theoretical physicist. I find it interesting that there is a dual gravitational description for the quantum hall effect. The second paper talks about the emergence of geometry from doing matrix model quantum field theory. I think these are interesting results, even if they are not making predictions about low energy physics. I think an understanding of the relations between the mathematical structures in theoretical physics is essential to see beyond the technical complexities, so even if not immediately, these papers are useful to my mind. They are not revolutionary, but they are certainly doing good science – which is to push forward during the interval between two successive revolutions.

    If these works seem pointless to you, I don’t know what wouldn’t. In fact, at the risk of sounding arrogant, it would make me suspect your competence in string theory. Because the only systematic thing we know in science is to push forward. Paradigm shifts do not appear on demand.

    If you were saying that MANY of the papers that appeared on the arXIv today are crap, I would agree with you. But I would still think that you are missing the point. I have looked occasionally at research in condensed matter, astrophysics/cosmology and quantum computing, and I have never felt that the ratio of quality papers is significantly less in string theory. I HAVE felt that the progress in string theory could be a little faster, but thats because I know exactly what I would LIKE to do with string theory if I had all the necessary tools, whereas in other fields the future is much more open.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    somebody,

    My problem with string theory boils down to the ongoing problem of a refusal to evaluate what has failed and what still has promise. Sure, as in the examples you give, string theory provides interesting models for strongly coupled QFTs, and for quantum gravitational effects, and these are, among many other possible things to work on, worth looking at. But the idea of a 10/11d superstring as a model of particle physics has failed miserably, and the unwillingness to acknowledge this has created huge problems for the field, including sending parts of it down the multiverse blind alley. It increasingly seems like a waste of breath to keep pointing this out, as most have decided to ignore the problem in hopes that the LHC will make it go away. We’ll see over the next few years…

    I very much agree with Peter Shor that physicists should look carefully at the culture in mathematics and try and understand how it has continued to allow progress, in a context of no experiments to decide things, and of ideas that are often so abstract, demanding and understood by very few people as to make string theory look easy. It’s a fascinating and not well-understood question how this culture has done as well as it has.

  22. somebody says:

    “But the idea of a 10/11d superstring as a model of particle physics has failed miserably, and the unwillingness to acknowledge this has created huge problems for the field, including sending parts of it down the multiverse blind alley. It increasingly seems like a waste of breath to keep pointing this out, as most have decided to ignore the problem in hopes that the LHC will make it go away. We’ll see over the next few years…”

    Peter, You have discussed these things many times here, so I will not start with the rehashing of what I believe are the counter-arguments. Lets just agree to disagree.

  23. Peter Orland says:

    I am not complaining about bad research per se. Nor am I complaing about string theory specifically (though people don’t always agree as to what string theory is. At Perimeter, a talk I gave was a String Theory talk. At Brookhaven the same talk was a Nuclear Physics seminar). What I am complaining about a lack of direction, the absence of passion. People are giving talks and writing papers, but all they care about is getting their work cited. The content seems secondary.

    Passion is important. Give me a bad paper, in which the author tries to solve a real problem, over a pointless correct paper any day. At least I might learn something by reading it.

    Next time you are in a seminar, ask yourself what you are getting from it. Is the speaker telling you something really new about Nature/the model/the concept? Is a number calculated? Is there some new intuition about some field? Or maybe the speaker tells you that his/her research program will do one of the above? Well, in ninety percent of the talks I have been to, for more than a few years, the answer is NO.

    I suppose I have now alienated everybody and destroyed my chances of future funding and invitations to speak. I better get used to my new status as a pariah. I don’t know if it was worth it.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    “amused” requests that I add a new comment here pointing to the note I added to this comment

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=696#comment-38786

    to the effect that the anonymous commenter “Frank” was not him. I’m happy to oblige.

  25. Eric H says:

    I think its great to encourage more people to get involved in science professions and especially in the physics profession. But my personal experience, which may be unique for all I know, is that physics is very myopic in its criteria for selecting people to encourage. People like me, who are very visually oriented, can tell in a minute that a dimension you can’t visualize has no meaning. Symbolic meaning in the absence of a physical correlation seems just silly to many of us. But we get discouraged from even entering the physics field because of our unexceptional mathematical ability. People that have brains that are more visually oriented can be very useful in physics.

    I would say that Einstein’s greatest gift was in his visual acuity and intuition and certainly not his mathematical ability. But he was very unusual in that he had “sufficient” mathematical ability to translate his visual approach into mathematics. That is very rare. People like me who feel we have something to contribute will still be shunted aside. So what is the point of putting on the World Science Festival to get people interested if the sorting method for encourageing people doesn’t change to become more inclusive?

  26. Ethan Siegel says:

    An inspiring read from your colleague Brian Greene made it into the New York Times this past week…

    …and it’s about the power of Science to inspire. How do we manage, while still keeping everyone in the scientific community honest about what we know, what we think we know, and what’s still speculative, to be unified in our approach to raising awareness of this beautiful enterprise?

  27. Hooray for the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences! It’s great to see it make an appearance on this blog. Along with the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, there are some interesting things going on in theoretical physics in Southern Africa. In fact, blogs are the great leveller – they give an opportunity for those who have traditionally been on the sidelines to become a part of the exciting day-to-day issues and debates.

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