Various and Sundry

  • The online magazine Smashpipe has the first part of a two-part article written by Gerald Alper, who recently came up here to Columbia to talk to me about string theory/etc. It was an interesting conversation, so I’m curious to see what he makes of the more substantive part, which is in part two, planned for next week.
  • If instead you’d like to read about a conversation with my colleague Brian Greene, there’s a piece at Cosmos Magazine. Brian is taking his World Science Festival to Australia next month and will be on tour there.
  • In other Columbia news, LHC experimentalist Emlyn Hughes has evidently
    baffled the students in Frontiers of Science again. Three years ago he undressed for the students, this year the performance somehow involved a student mistress (see here and here). No, I don’t understand any of this either.
  • As a last Columbia story, this semester in the physics department Bill Zajc is teaching a string theory course for undergraduates, Physics W4012, based on the Zwiebach book. While Zajc isn’t a string theorist, he is a frequent commenter at Lubos Motl’s blog.
  • There’s a new issue out of Inference, which has some interesting articles, including an essay by Pierre Schapira on category theory (French version here). Also there’s Jean-Pierre Luminet on holography.

    Inference is a bit of a mystery, unclear who is editing it (some speculation here). Whoever it is though, it’s quite worth paying attention to.

  • The HEP Postdoc Project is collecting anonymously information aimed at helping potential postdocs (or even Ph.D students) find out more about what it’s like to work with various senior HEP theorists. No, like Inference, I have no idea who is behind this.
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18 Responses to Various and Sundry

  1. Harald says:

    Inference, oh my? Whoever Michael Fumento is, he does support my theory that no journalist ever will get the difference between watts and watt-hours right.

  2. jsm says:

    There are some interesting articles in Inference (but did they have the authors’ permissions to publish?).

    However, a supposedly scientific article (Fumento, The Nuclear Reaction) that quotes the Cato Institute in its first paragraph arouses deep suspicions among those of us who regard the Cato Institute as a far-right propaganda mill.

  3. Scott Church says:


    Michael Fumento, who also contributed to this issue, is a long-time Far-Right PR hack. He’s been a key player in the anti-global warming propaganda machine for nearly 20 years as well as other under-the-table antienvironmental lobbying. At one time or another he’s been affiliated with the Cato Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a number of other industry-funded astroturf fronts. A quick overview of his background is available at ExxonSecrets, and Tim Lambert has been tracking his antics for some time now at Deltoid. I’m not advocating poisoning the well here, but from long experience I can tell you that any forum he’s associated with isn’t likely to be a good source of science.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    jsm/Scott Church,
    The question of who is editing Inference is still a mystery to me. I linked to Michael Harris’s speculation about David Berlinski as the only serious guess I’ve seen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he and/or people connected to him had something to do with it. This doesn’t change the fact that whoever is behind this has gotten some intelligent people to write some interesting things worth reading.

    For a very small number of publications, based on long experience I trust the editors completely and start reading the articles they edited assuming I’m reading something reliable. For most though, if I don’t know about the author I don’t start out assuming reliability. About 30 seconds of googling “Michael Fumento” gave some indication of where he’s coming from, and it wouldn’t occur to me to expect an even-handed treatment of his subject.

    My own main scientific interests (mathematics and theoretical physics) mercifully are topics that don’t line up ideologically in any of the conventional left-right ways. So I find that I can get something out of articles on these topics written by people whose political and cultural views I strongly disagree with, while at the same time finding appalling some articles by people I’m otherwise on the same side with (e.g., the multiverse…).

    I appreciate the point people make about Fumento, but, all, it wasn’t an article that seemed worth paying attention to. Please help me out by keeping the usual left-right fights out of this comment section. I’m generally a partisan of the left, but that doesn’t mean that I have any interest in reading more of my side’s take on the usual hot button issues, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

  5. srp says:

    Mr. Alper’s first part seems a tad self-indulgent, but I’m hoping part 2 gets out of his head a bit more.

  6. crazy_horse says:

    I suspect Waddingtons are behind the HEP Post-doc Project – it’s obviously a ruse to collect data for a new Top Trump cards game about famous physicists..

    I play Susskind, Degree of expertise in general physics 10

  7. adrian says:

    Dear Peter,
    the las intention of this comment-post is to be aggressive or offensive. Please, read it with that in mind.

    Periodically, you write an article ”This week hype” where, in my opinion, you correctly criticise some online or newspaper article/TV show, etc. I believe it is a healthy exercise to alert people that an exaggeration, deformation of truth, misrepresentation of reality, etc, is being made.

    I read the first part of the article by Mr. Alper in the website ”Smashpipe”. While I found charming the fascination he has with academia and its environment, you will probably agree with me that phrases like

    –‘all semblance of ordinariness falls away and you quickly realize you are in the presence of a remarkable mind’

    –‘he is putting the finishing touches on a major textbook’

    — ‘ the famous theoretical physicist who had written the controversial, radical book, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law.’

    –‘only a little bit louder than the click heard around the world on February 11, 2016, signaling the detection and verification for the first time in history of of Einstein’s prediction of gravitational waves’

    [this last one, is just imprecision with poetic license]

    –‘Top flight mathematicians, I can see, think twice as fast as the ordinary person’

    –‘He seems to be concentrating fiercely, in a private self-space into which only he can slip at will and where no one is allowed. It’s the place where lonely geniuses like Gary Kasparov […] ‘

    [these last two, poetic ways of describing you]

    Perhaps you will agree that these are also forms of ‘hype’.
    As I mentioned, I find the article ‘endearing’ (I am professional physicist and know the environment, Columbia, etc), but you can imagine the impact this may have on a young person.

    So, may be you could also criticise that article for its ‘hype’ content. Also for being (this part one) contentless for a blog like yours—that characteristically contains interesting links and information. You wrote a line about that. I await for part II.

    The article about Brian Greene’s visit to Australia is also misrepresenting his place among his theoretical Physics peers. One may understand, these are journalist licenses. But let me insist, they can play badly on the young person, who could believe, is in presence of a *great* scientist.


  8. a l says:

    Inferences publishes high quality work and obviously there is money behind it. The Editors offer a mix of popular science with (right wing) political views and one understands why they prefer to remain anonymous. Just for fun one can check some authors and look what pops up, e.g.:
    Henri Lepage, Mont Pelerin society
    William Kininmonth, climat sceptic,
    Michael Denton, anti-Darwinist

  9. Peter Woit says:


    My concern about “hype” has always been about misrepresentation of scientific ideas, trying to convince the public that ideas that don’t work are actually successful science. The world is full of other kinds of hype that are more harmless and that people themselves should be able to easily recognize, not needing my help to point out. Most profiles of people in magazines make them out to be more accomplished, more significant and more interesting than they really are, and I don’t think I should need to explain that to people. The young will sooner or later figure this out for themselves…

  10. Jeffrey M says:

    I will point out, for those who aren’t mathematicians, that in the math community there is quite a lot of argument about category theory. Interesting obviously, anything Grothendieck worked on is bound to be interesting, but there are issues. One of my professors in grad school, who was a student of Eilenberg’s at Columbia when Eilenberg was busy developing category theory, used to call it “general abstract nonsense.” And he liked it and used it all the time. I swear every proof for an entire year of topology was “the diagram commutes.”

  11. Radioactive says:

    Peter, if you read back your last comment and don’t see the slightest bit of irony I don’t know what to do for you.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Well, no more irony in that comment than in most of mine, so I guess I’m beyond help. I do try my best to stick to criticizing (hype about) ideas rather than people, can’t think of an example of my writing about an article and criticizing it along the lines of “this says X is so great, but he’s not”. That people, young or old, might believe incorrect claims about science made in usually reputable information sources seems to me to make challenging such claims worth the effort. Not so with claims about personalities…

  13. adrian says:

    Dear Peter,
    your answer to my comment and that of the reader ‘radioactive’ is satisfactory in my opinion. Indeed, I do notice that when you entitle ”This week’s hype” you mostly discuss a mis-represented idea, experiment, or a misrepresentation of its consequences.

    I agree with you, the hype is to be criticised. The public must be correctly informed. Many times, it is not the fault of the scientist, but of the journalist (or in most cases, the journalist’s editor).

    There is one point I wish to comment with you—not sharply related to the one we discussed above, but that is ”around that”.

    The public should also know, or be explained, informed and appreciate the fact that technical issues about science are to be decided by the practising scientists, in the usual forum. Let me take an example, close to your heart: the validity of the theory of strings (or a subset of it) as a physical description of reality. This technical issue is NOT going to be decided in a blog. Neither yours, not Motl’s nor anyone else’s. It will certainly NOT be decided in a newspaper’s hardcopy or online article, by some enthusiastic or critic journalist.
    It will be decided in the arXiv, the regular seminars, the conferences.
    I mention this, because in various popular presentations I gave recently, I noticed how people—specially young people–confuse ‘science’ with ‘what they read in the blogs’.

    This is (I think/hope it is clear!) not an accusation in any form. But a suggestions, that, from time to time, it would be good if you can prevent your readers, specially those who are not professional physicists, that some of the topics discussed are NOT ”free debate” and that the people who work on those things are not idiots awaiting their illuminating comments. In this sense, I find Strassler’s blog, the one that best delivers this idea (and others related).

    I do appreciate the role of the blogs. The discussion is nice, sometimes it is interesting.
    Some issues can be talked about and your blog, specially, is in some cases an important source of links and information.

    But please, consider this comment. I started to feel, since some years ago, this influence of the blogs on lay people. Most worryingly, in young people. On the one hand, it is good as people are interested, on the other hand, it is making them confuse what the thing is actually about.


  14. Peter Woit says:

    I just don’t see the problem. Before there were blogs, non-scientists got their information about string theory from magazine articles and popular books, which generally were full of misleading, over-enthusiastic claims about string theory (often put forward not by journalists, but by scientists themselves). To do something about this I wrote a book, and some fraction of the entries on this blog. For people who know nothing about the subject, all this does is tell them that there is a disagreement about the issue. For those who know more about the subject, they can read both sides, think for themselves, follow links and learn more, and see if they can make their minds up about who has the better arguments.

    I think what’s really bothering you (and bothers Matt Strassler, and a lot of people who are not happy with my blogging), is that some of the arguments made on my blog discredit conventional sources of authority in the subject. My response is that unfortunately this is a very unusual situation in which certain such authorities are, because of human unwillingness to admit failure, making a serious mistake. Their behavior threatens to discredit their own subject, which is one I care about. The worst of this is the string theory multiverse, which is a way to avoid admitting failure, at the cost of abandoning conventional standards of what is science and what isn’t. The whole point of this abandonment is to ensure that the issue of failure cannot be adjudicated in the usual ways, by careful argument in the scientific literature. There is no way to show that the string theory multiverse is “wrong” (it’s “not even wrong”…).

    For those unhappy about this situation, I think the proper thing to do is to take your complaints to the people who have led the subject into this mess, not complain that I’m pointing to the problem.

  15. Erik says:

    I looked around a bit on the HEP Postdoc Project website. I am not a high energy physicist, but I think it is an interesting project. Unfortunately, it struck me that there are already a few hateful/insensitive/harsh ‘reviews’ on there. How hard can it be to give an honest review of somebody’s teaching/supervising skills without bashing them completely? Somehow I had hoped that physicists would prove to be better than the general audience, which also has a tendency to do this.

  16. Ned says:

    Dear Mr. Woit,

    sorry for butting in – just in regard to your 7:44 pm comment to adrian I wanted to say as a grateful longtime reader of your blog that I’ve never yet read such a succint and concise statement about the point you’re coming from.
    If you ever should put up something like a FAQ or a “mission statement”, these 2 paragraphs maybe would have a place there.

  17. Scott Church says:

    Peter, I second Ned’s comment. Great summary of the service you’re providing to the physics and lay communities here. 🙂

  18. Yatima says:

    [Attempt to carry on a tedious left/right argument deleted. Please don’t do this. No sensible person wants to read such a thing.]

    Anyway, I finally got around to reading Pierre Schapira’s article on Category Theory, which references this nice Scientific American blogpost about computer-assisted theorem proving which I would like to point out:

    Voevodsky’s Mathematical Revolution

    We red:

    The same week as the Heidelberg Laureate Forum was a conference in Barcelona on univalent foundations, which Voevodsky skipped in order to be with us. A special issue of a journal (perhaps Automated Reasoning — Voevodsky couldn’t quite remember) will come out of the conference, with papers written by the participants. Almost all of them will be submitted together with the formalized proof in Coq. That’s most likely the first time such a thing has ever happened.

    Some of those computer verifications rely on a library of verified proofs that Voevodsky himself has created, so Voevodsky decided to submit his library to ArXiv. He imagined a one-page description of what the library is, along with all of his Coq files. It turns out, however, that ArXiv isn’t yet up to the task — while it can accept attached files, they can’t have any directory structure. Voevodsky plans on pestering the folks who run ArXiv until they make it possible.

    Said blogpost references a no-longer existent lecture video, which however can be found on YouTube:

    Vladimir Voevodsky: Univalent Foundations: New Foundations of Mathematics

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