Various News

Before turning to other topics, congratulations to my Columbia colleague Wei Zhang, who was awarded the Gold Medal at the recent ICCM in Beijing.

On the HEP physics front, some news is:

  • On Monday at 1:30pm Danish time, at the conference on Current Themes in High Energy Physics and Cosmology that is part of the Simons Program at the Niels Bohr International Academy, there will be an event adjudicating the bet on SUSY first made in 2000 (described here, the wager is here).

    Nima Arkani-Hamed will act as referee, a bit unconventional since he’s on one side of the bet. On the other hand, it’s clearly the losing one and I have no doubt he’ll concede graciously. Others who may be heard from as part of the event include David Gross and Gerard ‘t Hooft.

    Video streaming should be available at this site, I guess the time is 7:30am New York time, maybe I’ll be up and watch during breakfast…

  • In related news, Frank Wilczek has conceded loss on a similar bet he made back in 2009 with Garrett Lisi, see here.
  • As for other similar bets I’m aware of, Lubos Motl is about to lose his bet with Adam Falkowski, and David Gross should be losing his with Ken Lane within the next year (perhaps he’ll comment on this on Monday). The interesting story to watch here will be whether this changes anyone’s behavior. Will Gross, Wilczek and others continue to point to SUSY extensions of the Standard Model as the promising future of the field, or will they acknowledge that this is an idea that hasn’t worked out?
  • In other HEP news, the “nightmare scenario” seems to have driven physicists at CERN to try human sacrifice to propitiate the angry Gods who are tormenting them in this manner.
  • There’s a conference going on in Banff organized by FQXI, and you can follow it to some extent on Twitter. I’m somewhat of a skeptic about claims to have deep new insights into physics based on what seem like simple, vague natural language arguments. Not clear if the 140 character limit of Twitter is a good or bad thing in trying to capture such arguments.
  • Another of the vague sort of claims I’m dubious about is the “ER=EPR” one described here. On the other hand, this at least appears to have important applications.
  • Also on the dubious HEP news front, there have been lots of news articles recently about a supposed new “Fifth Force”, generated by a press release from UC Irvine promoting a PRL paper by UCI theorists. This story had been debunked a couple months ago by Natalie Wolchover at Quanta (see here).

    The usual hit on science journalism is that the work of scientists is hyped and misrepresented by journalists, but I think this shows an all too common example of the real problem: hype from physicists and their institutions (egged on by PRL), with journalists trying to hold the line against it (and not always succeeding).

  • Finally, there’s a wonderful interview with Edward Witten (part of a TV program in Dutch) that I would guess was filmed in 1999-2000 [maybe 1997?] and is available here. Witten is there quite optimistic about the prospects of string theory, and of course I’m curious whether and how the intervening years have changed his point of view. On other topics the interview is quite fascinating, doing an unusually good job of getting the normally reticent Witten to talk a bit about life and wider issues (as well as demonstrating an admirable refusal to get provoked into pontificating about various questions he’s not expert in).

Update: For a detailed explanation from one of the theorists working on the supposed “fifth force”, see here.

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27 Responses to Various News

  1. NoGo says:

    Well, if I correctly understand Natalie Wolchover’s article, the fifth force “discovery” is not completely dead yet:
    [[Their history “is reason for pause,” Thaler said, but “I still think follow-up studies on this intriguing anomaly should definitely be performed.” ]]
    Although given the history of Atomki group as described in the article, I am not holding my breath…

  2. Peter Woit says:

    NoGo,
    I think if one reads the full article, there are some devastating comments from experts, with “Their history “is reason for pause,” ” a polite version of “this is almost certainly nonsense”.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    NoGo,
    By the way, at least one of the authors has a history with this kind of press release, see
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=335

  4. Shecky R says:

    FWIW, John Horgan noted in a recent column that Witten had told him in a 2014 interview that he still thought string theory was “right” and would be validated in time.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Scheky R,
    I know Witten is still optimistic that string theory will in some sense work out, but I’m curious what effect the negative results of the last nearly 20 years have had on how he sees this. The Dutch interviewer did a great job of getting him to talk about various things, maybe he’s willing to go back to the IAS for an update…

  6. > egged on by PRL

    • The experimental paper is subtitled “Possible Indication of a Light, Neutral Boson,” not evidence or observation. That is a weak claim.
    • The abstract says that it “could possibly be due to nuclear reaction interference effects or might indicate that, in an intermediate step, a neutral isoscalar particle”.
    • The first phrase is not present in the preprint for the paper…
    • We did not highlight either paper or issue a press release on them.
    • Editors get to, in the end, accept or reject.
    • We do try to be sure claims match the evidence, as in this case. Did they discover a new boson? Possibly, but probably not. The paper does not claim discovery of a new boson.

  7. Tim M.P. Tait says:

    Peter,

    In addition to Robert Garisto’s comments, which are all accurate and fair, as far as I can tell, I am deeply disturbed by the way you choose to portray the experimental results by Krasznahorkay et al which appeared there or our theoretical interpretation. Both are suitably cautious and do not claim a discovery. I defy you to find a quote or interview by any of the scientists involved in which the need for verification is not stressed. So where is the hype? It’s not coming from the scientists.

    You are grossly mischaracterizing the article by Natalie Walchover in Quanta magazine, which, while it does contain several sobering quotes from experts, by no means “debunks” anything. All but one had nothing more to say than that there were earlier reports at a different mass. Are those earlier results inconsistent? We don’t even know because no one has mentioned the uncertainty on the earlier determination. Particle and nuclear experiments recalibrate their energy measurements all of the time. One of the experts she quoted from the Michigan State cyclotron said much stronger things, but backed them up with no specific detailed criticism. That’s hardly convincing.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. No one has made such a claim, and the scientists involved have all agreed that more evidence is needed. Before you start declaring it all to be hype and assigning blame, it would be more convincing if you actually had a clear idea of who has said what and presented the situation as it is, not as you think it should be.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Tim Tait,
    I strongly disagree with you about the Wolchover article, which I think is an excellent piece of reporting and makes a devastating case that this is an experimental result that one should be extremely skeptical about. I won’t go through what I think you have wrong, but here’s one specific example: you say “no one has mentioned the uncertainty on the earlier determination” but if you look at the paper it says 13.45(30) MeV (compare to the latest claim of 16.70 +/-.35+/-.5 MeV).

    Given such skepticism, experts can argue about whether PRL should have published the experimental result, but I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that the stories all over the press about a new fifth force of nature are anything other than highly misleading. And they’re all due to the “UCI physicists confirm possible discovery of fifth force of nature” press release. Do you really think that press release with that headline was a good idea?

    Robert Garisto,
    Maybe I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that PRL encourages authors to have their institutions issue press releases like the UCI one when a paper is published. If I’m wrong I apologize. If I’m right, what do you think PRL should do about misleading press releases about PRL papers? What if this is a repeated phenomenon? I’m referring to the Northeastern press release discussed here:
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=335

  9. Tim M.P. Tait says:

    Peter,

    To be clear, I do not have any problem with the Wolchover article, just with your mischaracterization of what it says.

    Furthermore, the claimed uncertainty on the curren mismeaurement is not what is relevant here. What is relevant is the claimed uncertainty on the previous claim.

    Finally, again, if you wish to claim that the scientists are the “bad guys” here, point to one place where they overhyped the situation. If you have no example, then concede that this part of your statement is unfounded.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Tim,
    The most egregious and problematic example of hype here is UCI putting out a press release with the headline “UCI physicists confirm possible discovery of fifth force of nature”. It seems to me that scientists have some responsibility for this kind of thing. In particular, given the long history in this field of such overhyped press releases, anyone dealing with their institution’s press office should be well aware of the potential problem and take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen.

  11. Frans Langelaan says:

    A big thank you for the link to the Witten interview, which in turn lead me to a DVD box of “Van de schoonheid en de troost” (dutch for “Of beauty and consolation) which consists of 14 dvd’s with interviews (each appx. 1.5 hours long, by Wim Kayzer, the same who interviewed Edward Witten) with Wole Soyinka, Roger Scruton, Jane Goodall, George Steiner, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Steven Weinberg, Martha Nussbaum, Karel Appel, Edward Witten, Elizabeth Loftus, Rutger Kopland, Gary Lynch, Stephen Jay Gould, Dubravka Ugresic, Simon Schama, Catherine Bott, John M. Coetzee, Richard Dufallo, Leon Lederman, Rudi Fuchs, Tatjana Tolstaja, Freeman Dyson, Richard Rorty, György Konrád, Germaine Greer, Yehudi Menuhin.

    It must have aired here in the Netherlands some years ago, but I suspect, as is often the case with programs of this quality, at a time when I was fast asleep in bed. I wasn’t aware of the existence of the show, but Wim Kayzer has a pretty terrific reputation and I could not resist ordering the box right away, looking forward to long winter nights…

  12. Anon says:

    If you listened carefully to –all of– the interview with Witten you’d have immediately concluded this *could not* possibly be 99-00, but *significantly* earlier. It is amusing to see his consistency regarding consciousness…

  13. Frans Langelaan says:

    The series of which the Witten interview was part of dates to 2000.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Anon,
    The video was broadcast in 2000. Witten at some point refers to the current situation as three years or so after a big breakthrough, with understanding of that now consolidating, (I’m paraphrasing from memory). At first I thought he might be referring to AdS/CFT, but more likely he was referring to M-theory and 1995. So, my best guess would be 1998 or 1999, but if anyone has a source for the actual date, that would be interesting.

  15. Anon says:

    I wonder if Kane will also be giving conceding defeat on SUSY?

    He wrote on Tomasso’s blog in December 2015:
    http://www.science20.com/a_quantum_diaries_survivor/supersymmetry_is_about_to_be_discovered_kane_says-160367

    “Now that we can predict the gluino mass from compactified M theory we know that superpartners should not have been expected in LHC Run 1 because the gluino mass is about 1.5 TeV, and it will appear in Run 2 once the luminosity gets over 15-20 fb-1.”

  16. A Nony Mouse says:

    I didn’t know that the death of a model was dependent on bets.

  17. Anon says:

    “So, my best guess would be 1998 or 1999, but if anyone has a source for the actual date, that would be interesting.”

    It was probably around 1996 judging by his discussion of the CC problem –clearly pre-1998– and the age of his children…

  18. Michael Shain says:

    Regarding the CC, in the interview Whitten says “suspecting the answer is zero guides a little bit my choice of attempts to solve problems”. I wonder how approach to problem solving changed after 1998?

  19. Nope says:

    In the same video series there one with Freeman Dyson
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBSnCfAcaek
    and shortly after the 30 minutes mark it is stated that this interview happened in 1997. It seems reasonable to assume Witten’s interview is from the same year.

  20. anon says:

    I found the interview with Witten very embarrassing to watch at the end: Witten would give a complete answer, the interviewer couldn’t think of anything further to immediately to ask, long awkward silence with the camera still focused on Witten, Witten squirming with embarrassment.

    The interviewer then got very personal by asking Witten about whether the holocaust affected him, which it obviously did looking at how uncomfortable he was with even thinking about the question. Again, awkward pause from interviewer.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    anon,

    I think you’re misunderstanding what the interviewer was doing. Witten is often quite reticent in conversation and the interviewer was trying to push him to say more. The interviewer’s tactics made for some awkwardness, but I think he did get Witten to say more than he usually would have on some topics, which was interesting to hear.

  22. MathPhys says:

    I agree with anon that watching the interview was embarrassing in the sense that I felt that Witten was less than well treated. Witten made it perfectly clear that he has nothing to add regarding the Holocaust. Then there were these long pauses during which I’m fairly confident that Witten expected either a change of topic, or a cut in the filming. Instead, the filming crew pressed on. They were no doubt expecting to be able to film him get emotional. Witten’s performance was impeccable. As a scientist, he was obviously happiest whenever he could steer the discussion away from personal matters and manage to talk about the universe which is “a wonderful place” that filled him with “awe”, etc.

  23. Peter:

    The most important thing we do is to try and ensure that the claims in the published PRL itself are responsible and reflect the evidence presented. The paper is the version of record, not anything in the press.

    There is a generic statement in our acceptance letter to authors suggesting they contact their press people. After all, dissemination of physics is one of our mission goals. It goes without saying that we do not encourage public statements that over-state results. When we are involved in the publicity ourselves, either through our outlets such as Physics (physics.aps.org) or through collaborating with the authors’ press offices, we do our part to ensure that the message is scientifically accurate and not overhyped. Of course, we do not have control on the message when it does not involve us.

    I did try to combat this particular instance: https://twitter.com/RobertGaristo/status/766331929348145152

  24. Pingback: Not Ever Wrong | Not Even Wrong

  25. Tim M.P. Tait says:

    Peter,

    To be honest, I hadn’t noticed the title of the UCI press release before now. (I was asked to look over a draft of text before it was posted, which I think is fine as it is, but not the title, and I overlooked it when it appeared on line). Even in the era of click-bait titles running rampant, I am not in favor of that phrasing. I can ask for it to be changed, but that article (like any piece of scientific journalism) is the property of its author, and I have no standing to demand anything of it.

    I still think your blog entry does a disservice by accusing many people of many things which they are not responsible. Robert has addressed PRL’s role as far as the press is concerned, and has only touched on the fact that the articles which appear in PRL are subject to peer review involving at least two anonymous referees. That process is hardly fool-proof, but compare the track record of PRL with something like Science or Nature, and you’ll find that over-statements leading to retractions are not the norm in PRL articles. Similarly, the scientists themselves have been measured and cautious in every communication that I have seen, and you have not provided an example to the contrary.

    Finally, what I consider the most serious problem with what you wrote is in regard to the work of the Hungarian group led by Krasznahorkay et al. The article by Wolchover (which apparently both of us thought was well done) does not “debunk” anything. You saying that it does is not fair to her, nor to its subject matter. It contains one very negative comment (and several cautious ones), but that comment itself does not offer any informed indication as to why one should discount Krasznahorkay et al.’s work. So either it is his uninformed opinion, or somehow the reasoning was not included in the text of the article. I have no way to know which it was, but given the over-all thoroughness I see in other parts of that article, I suspect the former. If there are any serious flaws in the work of Krasznahorkay et al., someone should point them out. Taking random potshots at them without being informed of what they did or did not do wrong does nothing to advance scientific understanding.

    So while I concede that there is a certain amount of hype in the title of the UCI press release, I would suggest that by over-stating the evidence against the result, you are engaging in a different kind of hype. I would be in favor of reducing over-statements on all sides.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Tim,
    It was not my intention to criticize here the PRL papers (in particular I have zero competence with regards to evaluating the experimental one). I think we’re just going to have to disagree about the implications of Wolchover’s story on one’s evaluation of the credibility of the experimental result. Yes “debunk” is strong, but as a short characterization of the situation I think it’s defensible.

    Obviously what I wrote about this is motivated by a pet peeve, due to seeing way too many examples over the years of highly misleading press stories like this latest series. These things almost always come from the same mechanism: PRL paper generates problematic press release generates misleading stories. For HEP theory PRL papers that generate press releases, it seems to me the majority lead to misleading stories (unless they’re completely ignored). This is not good at all for the public understanding of science. One can argue that the fault is that of the journalists who write the misleading stories, which is part of the problem, but I do think the phenomenon of bad press releases is a big part of the problem, and both PRL and physicists involved need to be aware of this and think about what they can do about it.

    One starting point would be to first think twice about whether a press release is really a good idea. PR people have an agenda, and it’s not caution and scientific accuracy. Once a piece is written, quite likely an editor is going to read it quickly and put the most attention-getting headline on it that they can think of, this is their job. Some non-expert journalists getting the press release are going to pay more attention to the headline than to the content, and are going to miss carefully hedged caveats. It seems to me that this case shows what goes wrong pretty clearly, would be a good idea if people involved, from PRL on, think about what can be done to improve the situation.

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