News of the Multiverse

Just about ten years ago, my April 1 posting here was a fantasy about the Stanford ITP getting major funding from the Templeton Foundation, using it to fund a program on the multiverse, and renaming themselves the Stanford Templeton Research Institute for Nature, God and Science. The last part hasn’t yet come true yet, but I just noticed the announcement last year of a $878K Inflation, the Multiverse, and Holography grant from Templeton to the SITP, the third part of “A three component Templeton Initiative at the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics.”

To get some idea of the scale of this funding, note that the entire NSF budget for theoretical HEP is about $12 million (the DOE spends about $50-60 million, but that supports groups at the labs, as well as computational hardware, and is decreasing). The Templeton Foundation has an endowment of over $3 billion (growing rapidly), and pays out over $100 million in grants/year (also growing rapidly). I don’t think my skills as a fantasist are good enough to imagine what this means for ten years from now in the future.

In other multiverse news, the Literary Review of Canada has published a review by David Orrell of the recent Unger/Smolin book, and an exchange of letters between him and Matthew Kleban. I wrote something about the book here, and I’m in many ways not very sympathetic to the point of view of Orrell and Unger/Smolin, especially about the role of mathematics in physics.

I’m more on Kleban’s side about mathematics, but the way he paints multiverse studies as the latest scientific descendant of the mathematics-driven successes of physics of the past is highly problematic. While this is a point of view favored at Stanford and at Templeton (Kleban has a $175,000 grant from them), I don’t think it’s a defensible one. Kleban’s arguments are

  • More to the point is the string landscape, a relatively concrete structure believed to follow from the mathematics of string theory.

    Here “relatively” is a weasel word (relative to what?), masking the fact that we don’t at all know what the structure of the string landscape is.

  • contrary to Unger and Smolin’s assertions, recent work indicates that current or near-future cosmological observations – specifically, the detection of positive spatial curvature – would falsify the landscape (if it is false).

    The situation with the measurement of spatial curvature is that recent Planck results give |Omega_K| less than 0.005 and the expectation is that it is zero to a much higher accuracy than that, way beyond anything measurable (this is considered one of the main arguments for inflation). This “prediction” isn’t “recent”. Susskind’s book on the multiverse ten years ago gave this one bit of sign information as the only prediction of the multiverse (see here). Shortly thereafter some authors were arguing that you could get positive curvature from the string landscape (see here). I have no idea if they’re right, but in a recent paper Kleban himself writes about this:

    Positive curvature would probably not completely end discussion about a multiverse but it would be very bad news for the eternal inflation/CDL bubble nucleation framework.

    and I think Orrell has it right that

    I would be interested to see if the detection of positive spatial curvature actually falsified the theory – wouldn’t it just adapt?

  • Furthermore, the theory can be used to predict the signatures of cosmic bubble collisions: violent events where two previously separate “universes” collide.

    There’s no evidence at all for such “signatures”, and I don’t think there’s any plausible argument for why they’ll appear in new data given that they haven’t been seen yet (I wrote here about Kleban’s Columbia talk about this). Final data from Planck on polarization are expected soon, but this is so implausible that I’m not sure Planck will even bother to look.

    The problem with this kind of “testable prediction” is that it’s much like my claiming that my theory that the universe is controlled by a giant turtle is testable and predictive, since if you saw a big picture of a turtle in the CMB, that would be strong evidence for my theory. There was a reason Popper went on about falsifiability…

  • the standard model of particle physics combined with Einstein’s theory of general relativity – two of the most well-established theories in physics – predict a large landscape quite similar to that of string theory.

    This one brings back the “string wars” era, since I haven’t heard anyone trying to use it (based on this) since 2007. Whenever people make a “string theory is just like the standard model” argument I’m never sure what to respond. How do you argue with someone trying to claim that the most successful physical theory ever, by far, is “quite similar” to a theory that has had zero success? It’s kind of like trying to argue with someone who wants to tell you that black is white, because they’re both kinds of grey. Surely they’re not serious?

    In this case, sure, if you put the standard model on a complicated space-time background, added lots of fluxes, etc. to the background, maybe you could turn it into as useless a theory as string theory. This doesn’t mean it’s “quite similar”.

Update: Just noticed another recent essay about the multiverse, Marcelo Gleiser’s examination of whether Fairies live in the multiverse.

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35 Responses to News of the Multiverse

  1. JG says:

    I think you should give the Templeton Foundation a break, they wouldn’t need to fund bright young scientists if democracy worked better – it doesn’t, the majority of the population don’t care that bright young scientists have to go into IT, Finance etc rather than pursue a career in academic research.

    These Templeton funded students/researchers are not stupid people, they must learn a lot of advanced physics to come up to expert level on the multiverse question – and I am sure they are allowed to conclude it is not a workable idea, and I am sure the Templeton Foundation would be delighted if their funding was responsible for rigorous arguments explaining why the multiverse is a bad idea, just as much as they would be delighted with strong arguments supporting the idea.

    Are you worried that these people aren’t doing “proper” physics?

  2. Peter Woit says:


    If you pay closer attention, you’ll notice that I’m not criticizing the Templeton Foundation, I’m just reporting what is going on (by the way, I’ve attended events sponsored by them, and recently wrote an essay for an essay competition they fund). They’re free to do what they want with their money, but I’m also free to comment (if I had $3 billion I’d stop blogging and instead spend my time giving grants to people with my point of view). There are definitely problems with DOE/NSF funding and how their panels work, as well as the problem of Templeton’s fondness for mixing religion and science. No source of money is problem-free. In some cases (e.g. the Simons Foundation) I actually agree more with their choices of how to spend money than I do with the DOE/NSF peer-reviewed choices.

    But I think people need to be aware of the changes going on. The shift from public funding to funding by wealthy donors is very real and there should be awareness that this is happening, who the donors are, and what their agenda is. When you see lots of activity going on in the field related to the multiverse, you should keep in mind that there may be more to the story of why it is happening than “physicists are excited about the multiverse” .

  3. JG says:

    Ah, my bad understanding of the situation.

    Templeton are giving the money to established academics, NOT young students and researchers.

    Ok, yes you should call them out, and continue to do it, it is a very valuable service.

    Sorry I must have been thinking about some other private funding agencies who actually are doing something useful.

  4. nicola says:

    Fairies surely live in the multiverse although they are most likely higher dimensional – my guess is M5 branes.

  5. Jim Baggott says:

    I have a favour to ask. I think it’s time that opponents of what I call ‘fairy-tale’ physics dropped arguments based on Popper’s criterion of falsifiability. Popper published these ideas in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1934, and I think it’s fair to say that the literature on the philosophy of science has moved on since then. Few contemporary philosophers have many good words to say about it.

    I’ve just posted an article on this theme on my new website (!) – see

  6. Steve Bergman says:

    I thought the Planck polarization results were finally released a couple of months ago, on Feb 5. Am I in error?

  7. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Peter,

    I am glad to see the issues raised by Mangabeira Unger and myself getting discussed. But re Kleban’s remarks, “contrary to Unger and Smolin’s assertions…”, let me note that the prediction of eternal inflation of slightly negative spatial curvature is discussed in our book on page 460. I explain why this is a genuine prediction of eternal inflation but conclude, “However, this will be difficult to confirm or falsify with near-future observations because it will require a great deal of precision to distinguish this from vanishing curvature.”



  8. Bernhard says:

    Is there any comprehensive document where all these alleged multiverse “predictions” can be found? These bubble collisions are what keeps popping up, but there seems to be little hope there. Anyway, not that I believe the proponents have anything compelling, but it would be educational to see a list.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Steve Bergman,
    Some polarization results were released, especially ones related to the BICEP2 claims. But if you look at the public Planck results page, you’ll see that of the 28 2105 results papers listed, 8 are still “in preparation”. The page says “Additional 2015 products will be released near the end of March 2015”, yet another deadline they haven’t made, don’t know what the latest is. As far as I know there’s nothing in the 20 released papers about even looking for bubble collision signatures, I have no ideas if that will be somewhere in the 8 still to come.

    Thanks for pointing that out. I think you’re being too kind though. It seems to me that the generic prediction of inflationary scenarios, including any bubble universe ones, is that there is no conceivably measurable spatial curvature, and thus that spatial curvature observations will never tell you anything about bubble universes.

    I think Kleban’s list is pretty comprehensive, which is why I bothered to write about it. As far as I know, no one has put together a list of all the claims made about “bubble collisions”. Claims about the possibility of seeing such things get lots of play in the media, with never any followup when someone looks at the data and sees nothing.

  10. David Orrell says:

    Interesting that multiverse theory is being funded by money from investment firms. Not sure if they will turn out to be as good at picking scientific winners as they are at picking stocks. I have posted an article on this:

  11. bhr says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but the $878K is spread out over three years according to the link to the project description. This might make the comparison with the NSF/DOE numbers a bit less scary.

    That comes out to just under $300K/year. I’m a bit confused about where it’s going. According to the link, this will fund one postdoc, 2-3 peoples’ summer salaries, and a workshop. I would have guessed that only adds up to about half the total award.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    I think the numbers roughly add up, you may be underestimating what people get paid. I’d guess very roughly $100 K would go to summer salaries, $100 K for postdoc salary + benefits +overhead, $100 K for visitors + workshops + public lecture.

    Note that this is supposedly only one of three Templeton grants to the SITP. One of the others is this
    which is for $600K, so $200K this year. I don’t know what the third grant is, but
    there’s at least $500K this year. For comparison, the same people also have an NSF grant
    $1 million for 3 years (correction, I’m told this is for two years), which presumably covers another month of summer salary, more postdocs and grad students.

    It seems likely that they’re now taking in significantly more about the same from Templeton than from the NSF.

    It also seems to me that some of the newer Templeton grants like this one are structured to be very much like NSF grants, with the standard summer salary/postdoc package (although it looks like they’re not now supporting students). The Stanford Templeton postdoc is a conventional condensed matter theory postdoc, indistinguishable from NSF ones, see the ad here

    Templeton has always favored giving grants to the most prestigious universities around. It may be that in the future the most prominent theory research groups will be getting their funding more from Templeton than from the NSF/DOE.

  13. Missleaded layman says:

    Is a a big picture of a turtle in the CMB a requirement for the giant turtle controlled universe theory, I mean, if no such picture is found in the CMB data, would that rule the theory out?

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Missleaded layman,

    Certainly not! My giant turtle theory works equally well with a turtle who likes his image spread over the sky, and one who doesn’t.
    But the point is that I can answer the criticism that my theory is empty and makes no distinctive predictions. There is a distinctive prediction: “if the image of a giant animal shows up in the CMB, it will be the image of a turtle”. And I think it’s undeniable that if and when a convincing turtle image shows up in the CMB, that will give good reason for taking the turtle theory seriously.

  15. Missleaded layman says:

    Thank you. I started to search the web for multiverse related topics after reading an unsatisfactory book about multiverse theory targeted at laymen earlier this year, and eventually came across your blog. And for sure I’ll be back seeking your point of view frequently!

  16. vmarko says:

    “it’s undeniable that if and when a convincing turtle image shows up in the CMB, that will give good reason for taking the turtle theory seriously.”

    I think we should take the turtle theory seriously already now. Namely, in addition to the prediction of turtle image in the CMB, there are theoretical reasons as well — it naturally explains why there are no unicorns in the observable universe, and why the world is flat. Not to mention the explanation-through-randomness for the values of the fundamental coupling constants, which is equally good as in inflation+antropic principle+string theory.

  17. emile says:

    Ironically, in the multiverse, there must be a few universes out there with a picture of a Giant Turtle in their CMB.

  18. paddy says:

    …and one in which it is turtles all the way down.

  19. N says:

    I like the Turtle Approach.
    As many turtles, so many universes.
    And everybody happy, even the Templetones.

  20. JG says:

    For people waiting for Planck’s final say on bubble universe collisions and turtles I think the paper to watch for is

    “Planck 2015 results. XVI. Isotropy and statistics of the CMB”

    Still “In prep” as of this posting

  21. DrDave says:

    Nice acronym.

  22. former mathematician says:

    From Rebecca Goldstein’s “Plato at the Googleplex”: “It’s not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi, all the way down.”

  23. ateixeira says:

    @Peter why do you say that the standard model is “the most successful physical theory ever”. In terms of sucess I think that GR is at least as good as the SM. Or is it because the range of application of the standard model (either be it theoretical or practical) is far greater than the range of application of GR?

    Now that I think of it I think it is safe to say that Condensed Matter Physics may be even more successful than the SM and GR together (again in a theoretical and practical level)

    More in line with the main focus of your post I’d say that this situation of research funding being more and more dependent from private donors is kind a return to the old days of gentleman science where patrons were responsible for providing the means of subsistence of influential scientists. This of course has two problems in my view. In the first place it may happen, as you already alluded, that these modern day patrons pay for the kind of research they want to see and lastly young researchers can be drawn to this highly visible and profitable fields of research hindering progress in other worthy areas (like condensed matter for instance).

  24. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’m really encouraged to hear that someone, even in the guise of reductio ad absurdum, is putting the Fairy Question out there in the public discourse. My daughter is captivated by and obsessed with all things Tinkerbell. I don’t know how to tell her Tink isn’t real. I dread that conversation more than the one about the Easter Bunny, or even Santa. Now it occurs to me I don’t have to disabuse her of anything. Thank you, Multiverse! It’s also comforting to realize there’s a copy of me somewhere that’s totally pumped to have The Talk about sex and menstruation. The gifts you bestow are truly infinite!

  25. Shantanu says:

    atexeira, Unfortunately even these private foundations such as templeton (or Fox)
    also mainly fund fad topics (and probably topics already funded by NSF/DOE etc)
    There is still a fundamental problem that people who work on non-mainstream ideas
    or independent research find it very hard to get funding or jobs. (Again I don’t want
    to go into which topics are these or examples of such people in this post.)

  26. Anthony Reynolds says:

    In Orrel’s comments, he states at least twice that “if we take time seriously”, then follows some conclusion. I don’t know what it means to take time seriously, or to take it lightly, for that matter. To be taken seriously is not a possible attribute of time. I would say that statement is “not even wrong.” I haven’t read Unger and Smolin’s book, but some of Smolin’s writing that I have read (not all of it) suffers from the same problem. At least his more wild speculations.

  27. Anthony Reynolds says:

    Jim Baggot,

    Regarding your wish to get rid of “falsifiability.” In Chapter 1 of your book “Farewell to Reality,” you put forward the “Testability Principle” as part of the demarcation problem. But it seems that this principle includes both ‘verifiability’ and ‘falsifiability’ at some level. Neither of these works all the time, but together, with some notions of how to interpret the tests gets you what you want. Indeed, you state

    While this is not quite falsifiability, it certainly has some of its flavor. So, while perhaps Popper’s falsifiability notion should not be our sole criteria, it certainly should be an element of the solution to demarcation.

  28. Anthony Reynolds says:

    Sorry, my cut and paste failed me. It should be:

    Indeed you state

    A theory that continually fails repeated tests is a failed theory.

    While this is not quite falsifiability, it certainly has some of its flavor. So, while perhaps Popper’s falsifiability notion should not be our sole criteria, it certainly should be an element of the solution to demarcation.

  29. Jim Baggott says:

    Anthony Reynolds,
    Peter’s blog is probably not the best place to have a discussion about this. Have a look at the article I posted on my website (the link is in my earlier post). I have it on authority from a highly respected academic philosopher that I am, at heart, a Popperian. That’s OK by me, but it doesn’t make my point any less valid. We need to accept that the business of accepting or rejecting theories is all rather fuzzy, and doesn’t lend itself to easy, black-or-white demarcation. To continue to construct arguments based on falsifiability alone simply plays into the hands of the fairy-tale physicists, I think.

    An approach to theory development based on mathematical (rather than physical) logic and intuition is perfectly valid and has been enormously successful in the past. Obvious examples are general relativity, Dirac’s relativistic wave equation for the electron, and even the Higgs mechanism. But, whether by accident or design, all these examples predicted or at least hinted at effects that might be discernible in empirical reality: the perihelion of Mercury and the bending of starlight, the positron, the masses of the W/Z bosons and the existence of the Higgs boson.

    The criticism of ‘fairy-tale’ physics is that in many cases there are simply no empirical references; no tests. And where ‘predictions’ are made, these are so loose, adjustable or negotiable that taking the trouble to establish the empirical facts takes us no further forward. Some philosophers use the term ‘progressive’ to describe a theory that allows us to make scientific progress in this sense and, it seems to me, ‘testability’ is an adequate criterion to help us to understand what it means for a theory to be progressive.

    For sure, a theory that is ‘testable’ is also in principle ‘falsifiable’, but these two terms are not synonymous. Is Newtonian mechanics false? Arguably no, it’s not – it still holds good within its domain of applicability, which is why we still teach it in schools and colleges. Falsifying a theory can be really difficult – philosophers reference something called the Duhem-Quine thesis: when a prediction is not upheld by empirical data this could mean the theory is false or it could mean that any one of a number of approximations or ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ required to make the prediction are invalid, but the data don’t tell us which. A test is a test.

  30. David Orrell says:

    You say that “To be taken seriously is not a possible attribute of time” so to assert that it can be taken seriously or not, as Unger and Smolin do in their book, and I do in the review, makes no sense.
    Being taken seriously is not a fundamental attribute of time, any more than it is a fundamental attribute of the multiverse. It refers to the attitudes of people. One of the main arguments in Unger and Smolin’s book is that some scientific approaches take time as a given, while others invest more energy in exploring its attributes and see it as playing a more active role – in the authors’ words, they take it more seriously. It would be a shame to write off their approach based on what looks like a case of semantic confusion.

  31. gadfly says:

    “I’m in many ways not very sympathetic to the point of view of Orrell and Unger/Smolin, especially about the role of mathematics in physics. ”

    I think spending time with complex systems (plasmas, proteins, shockwaves in materials, glasses, ecological and economic systems) would rapidly disabuse you of the notion that mathematics is anything more than the scientific equivalent of democracy: that is to say, a mediocre and tragically limited way of doing things, but vastly superior to any of its competitors. There was a very good article in IEEE about the reasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics recently which establishes this point pretty well.

  32. David Orrell says:

    Further to gadfly’s comment, apparently there is a NOVA show on this evening about this topic of the effectiveness of math:

  33. gadfly says:

    That NOVA looks amazing, thanks for sharing!

  34. Pingback: Good Reads | Timothy Potter

  35. Lee Smolin says:

    Dear Anthony,

    “Taking time seriously” is of course just a slogan , which is shorthand for “investigate and test scientific hypothesis which incorporate a notion of physical time which has one or more of the following attributes”:

    -Laws are not timeless, but evolve, according to some specific dynamical mechanism, which has testible consequences.

    -The arrows of time have their origin in a fundamental irreversibility or time assymmetry, of the fundamental theory, out of which the standard, time irreversible laws are emergent.

    -The fundamental laws refer to an objective distinction between the past, present and future, not available within a block universe interpretation of GR.

    -At the fundamental or quantum gravity level, the refoliation invariance of GR is replaced by dependence on a global slicing as in shape dynamics.

    The conceptual and philosophical analyses of my recent book with Mangabeira Unger have value to the extent that they suggests new hypotheses like these which may be developed and tested-because they make falsifiable (or if you prefer, testable) predictions.

    Here are some papers which propose and develop such ideas:

    –Marina Cortes, Henriques Gomes and Lee Smolin, Time asymmetric extensions of general relativity, gr-qc. arXiv:1503.06085.

    –Marina Cortês, Lee Smolin, Quantum Energetic Causal Sets, arXiv:1308.2206, Physical Review D, volume 90, eid 044035.

    –Marina Cortês, Lee Smolin, The Universe as a Process of Unique Events, arXiv:1307.6167, Phys. Rev. D 90, 084007 (2014).

    –Marina Cortês, Lee Smolin, Spin foam models as energetic causal sets. arXiv:1407.0032

    –Henrique Gomes, Sean Gryb, Tim Koslowski, Flavio Mercati, Lee Smolin, Why gravity codes the renormalization of conformal field theories, arXiv:1305.6315 [hep-th], published as “A Shape Dynamical Approach to Holographic Renormalization, “European Physical Journal C, January 2015, 75:3,

    –Lee Smolin, Precedence and freedom in quantum physics, arXiv:1205.3707. International Journal of Quantum Foundations 1 (2015) 44-56.

    –Lee Smolin, A perspective on the landscape problem, Invited contribution for a special issue of Foundations of Physics titled: Forty Years Of String Theory: Reflecting On the Foundations, DOI: 10.1007/s10701-012-9652-x arXiv:1202.3373

    –Lee Smolin, Unification of the state with the dynamical law, arXiv:1201.2632. Foundations of Physics: Volume 45, Issue 1 (2015), Page 1-10

    –Lee Smolin, A real ensemble interpretation of quantum mechanics, Foundations of Physics, 2012, DOI 10.1007/s10701-012-9666-4 arXiv:1104.2822

    –Mohammad H. Ansari and Lee Smolin, Self-organized criticality in quantum gravity, hep-th/0412307.

    –Julian Barbour and Lee Smolin, Variety, complexity and cosmology, hep-th/9203041.

    –Lee Smolin, Did the universe evolve? Class. and Quantum Gravity 9 (1992) 173-191.



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