Various news about the usual topics:
- Natalie Wolchover at Quanta magazine keeps coming up with great, in-depth stories about interesting new topics in physics that are getting no attention elsewhere. Her latest is about the universality of the Tracy-Widom distribution.
- The LHC is cooling down, in preparation for a restart early next year. Nature has a good story about what is going on here. Latest status and plans are described here. The current plan is to start beam recommissioning next March, have 1 fb-1 by mid-June, in time to perhaps have some results to report at EPS-HEP2015 at the end of July. Another 10 fb-1 would be accumulated later on, before a heavy-ion run late in the year.
In the long term, by 2023 there should be 300 fb-1 and many components of the machine and the experiments will start to become unusable due to radiation damage. Planning is going ahead for “Phase-II”, or the HL-LHC, with Bertolucci’s comment that “It is inconceivable under any reasonable scenario to stop the LHC program at that point”.
- Nature has an editorial this week about What lessons can be learned from the presentation of the gravitational-waves story?, pointing to a planned discussion next week about Lessons in the communication of science from the BICEP2 story. I’ve already written extensively about this, but since the editorial refers to bloggers (and I know some people at Nature were unhappy with my blog entry about this, which was poorly worded), I’ll take another opportunity to do so.
From the purely scientific point of view, this is a pretty straightforward situation. The BICEP2 people fooled themselves into thinking that they had something much more exciting (primordial gravitational waves + evidence for inflation) than what they really had (a good measurement of B-mode polarization at one frequency). They then wrote a paper with over-optimistic claims, which later blew up in their face. This is perfectly normal science.
What’s not normal science is the behavior of a lot of theorists in response to the BICEP2 claims. The Stanford University Linde video and its 3 million downloads will live forever as an example of misguided PR for science. The comments from theorists about the significance of this for string theory that Nature quoted were an embarrassment for the field (why not just say that you could get any value of r out of string theory?), and even worse were the publicity campaigns from Linde, Guth and Carroll aiming to convince the public that this was evidence for the multiverse.
What’s the lesson for science journalists? Take a hard look at the behavior of some prominent theorists in this story, and draw the obvious conclusions for your future coverage of developments in this field of science.
- Just noticed that Sean Carroll is now trying to raise research funding online with a website devoted to attracting private funding. Will be interesting to see if that works, maybe it will become a model for how to fund this kind of research.
- One of the few things I’d change about my book written ten years ago would be the discussion of the philosophy of science “demarcation problem”, that of deciding what is science and what isn’t. Only after writing the book did I learn about the distinction between a “progressive” and “degenerating” research program due to Lakatos, which is a very good way of addressing the question of how to evaluate string theory. I also missed a paper that came out a few years ago by Johannson and Matsubara on String theory and general methodology. At one point they write that the string theory landscape business shows that:
String theory is a degenerative programme, according to Lakatos’ criterion.
There’s a lot more in the paper, it’s a good example of what I’ve seen too little of, philosophers of science engaging with the real issues here.
- For the latest on the string landscape, there was a conference last week on Fine-tuning, Anthropics and the String Landscape. See if you can find anything there like a plausible idea for how to get any testable physics, I couldn’t. Alan Guth’s introductory talk mainly explains why the measure problem means you can’t predict anything, but then ends with a claim that physicists take the multiverse seriously anyway, quoting Weinberg from 2005 about Martin Rees’s dog.
Back in 2004-5, the expectation was that the string theory landscape could be used to predict whether SUSY breaking would take place at a high or low scale (see for instance here). That idea is long dead, and no other proposal for a prediction has replaced it. So, the string landscape is itself a degenerating research program. What do philosophers of science call it when a research program degenerates into something else, and that research program in turn degenerates. A (degenerating)2 research program?
- The standard defence of string theory these days acknowledges that it can’t explain particle physics, but claims it has had great success in quantum gravity. Next spring the KITP will have a program on quantum gravity foundations. The description of the program has a lot to say about “deep connections between quantum information theory and gravity”, no mention of string theory. There seems to be a move away from string theory and a convergence between the KITP and the sort of alternative research favored by the Perimeter Institute.
- Speaking next month on Quantum Mechanics and Spacetime in the 21st Century at Perimeter will be Nima Arkani-Hamed, one of the organizers of the KITP program. Not clear what he’ll be arguing for then, but he did just give a talk at an Oxford workshop on New geometric structures in scattering amplitudes, with the title “The Amplituhedron, Scattering Amplitudes, and the Wavefunction of the Universe”. I’m curious to see how he gets the Wavefunction of the Universe, although I suppose one should keep in mind his comments here.
- Not announced yet what the price of tickets to Arkani-Hamed will be. For a real rock star of physics though, I think you want Brian Cox, who is on tour in Australia. Premium tickets there are about $175 US.
Update: The latest on the Journal of K-theory situation, from algtop-l
The time has come to advise your librarians to cancel the subscription to the Journal of K-Theory. The precious money could be better spent elsewhere.
As you know the journal is going through a crisis. The most recent development is that the Bak family has written to Cambridge University Press informing them that they are under a contractual obligation to keep publishing the journal through the end of 2017, whether they like it or not. I haven’t seen the contract in question, not have I seen the letter from the Bak family to Cambridge University Press, hence I cannot comment on the legal merits of the case. The Baks evidently feel confident, Tony Bak has accepted at least one paper for the 2015 edition of the journal without clearing it with any of the other editors.
The Baks might be right, Cambridge University Press might have no choice but to continue publishing the journal. But the vast majority of the editors will be walking out and the scientific standards of the journal are bound to plummet. It would be a waste of money to continue subscribing.