Response to Smolin and Woit books, and other barometers


by marcus
Tags: barometers, books, smolin, woit
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Aug20-06, 11:13 AM
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There are a lot of barometers to keep track of!
this thread is to try to keep together a bunch of signs of a changing situation in fundamental physics theory research and how it is perceived. I'm particularly interested in what's going on in the open media accessible to nonspecialist audience.

Smolin and Woit books are only part of what we can gauge by, but they are at least something to watch. Smolin's is due to hit shelves next month 16 September. The US edition of Woit's is due 30 September.
So we can gauge the ADVANCE SALES of these on Amazon.

I watched the sales rank numbers (i.e. low is good) at scattered times over 5 days or so last week---BTW there may have been temporary reasons these numbers looked good, like Smolin being on Talk of the Nation: Science Friday, with Ira Flatow and Brian Greene, and appearance of some favorable reviews. For various reasons the numbers could be misleading, but here they are:
Smolin book: 1819  1729  1058 926
Woit book:   5075  3427  2789 2694
You can see what the numbers are today if you want.
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0618551050/
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0465092756/
Remember these are amazon advance orders, the UK edition of Woit's book has a slightly different title and different amazon.co.uk sales figures.
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Aug20-06, 11:38 AM
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Then there are the reviews, and varous other barometers

Ira Flatow's Smolin-Greene conversation is archived here, so you can listen if you missed it when broadcast Friday 18 August
http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/2...r2_081806.html
================
Discover magazine has a review of the Smolin and Woit books called "Tangled Up in Strings".
http://www.discover.com/issues/sep-0...s/septreviews/
The review is by Tim Folger
http://www.timfolger.net/bio.html
================

Tom Siegfried had an article in 11 August issue of Science magazine called “A Landscape Too Far?”. This is NOT a review of the Smolin and Woit books, but it spotlights some of the same issues. It covered discussions at the SUSY06 conference and the article been made available at the conference website
http://susy06.physics.uci.edu/press/...aturalness.pdf
Alternatively go to the conference proceedings page
http://susy06.physics.uci.edu/proceedings.html
and select it from the “susy06 on the web” listing.

==============
Time magazine just had a review of Smolin's book by
Michael Lemonick (senior science writer for Time for past 15+ years).
The review is titled The Unraveling of String Theory and is posted on web, free for download.
http://www.time.com/time/magazine/pr...226142,00.html

===============

September 2006 issue of Sci Am has a review by George Johnson
of the new book by Lee Smolin.
The title of the review is "The Inelegant Universe"
I haven't yet seen this review.
Here is some background on George Johnson
http://www.santafe.edu/~johnson/
http://www.santafe.edu/~johnson/gravestone.jpg

================

Smolin has set up a webpage for his book: it has links to reviews and also a bunch of critics comment
http://www.thetroublewithphysics.com/
marcus
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Aug20-06, 12:01 PM
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OK it is nice to be able to glance at reviews and it is a way to gauge the temperature of the response to the books and helps, like straws in the wind, to tell how the wind blows in the open public. It would be different, for example, if the Woit and Smolin books weren't getting any media attention at all.

But I was struck by a recent issue of the New Scientist, a magazine that I usually don't read and am a bit suspicious of. In my deep curmudgeonhood I regard it as like THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER used to be, when Bobby Lee Jones, the man in black, would consult it regularly for news of alien invasions. But, well, here it is, the 12 August issue

http://www.newscientist.com/contents/issue/2564.html

It says very plainly on the cover YOU ARE MADE OF SPACE-TIME.

Yes I know. I realize that, but I didn't think you had caught on yet, Mr. New Scientist.

It has to do with an article by Davide Castelvecchi, who is a web editor employed by the AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF PHYSICS in Washington DC, same people who publish Physics Today. I would like to get some sample exerpts from that 12 August issue and urge people to check out the full articles. It represents non-string QG coming into broader public awareness.

and it relates to some sections of the Smolin book. Let me get the TOC of that book and see where it fits.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction vii
PART I: THE UNFINISHED REVOLUTION
1: The Five Great Problems in Theoretical Physics 1
2: The Beauty Myth 18
3: The World As Geometry 38
4: Unification Becomes a Science 54
5: From Unification to Superunification 66
6: Quantum Gravity: The Fork in the Road 80
PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF STRING THEORY
7: Preparing for a Revolution 101
8: The First Superstring Revolution 114
9: Revolution Number Two 129
10: A Theory of Anything 149
11: The Anthropic View 161
12: What String Theory Explains 177
PART III: BEYOND STRING THEORY
13: Surprises from the Real World 203
14: Building on Einstein 223
15: Physics After String Theory 238
PART IV: LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
16: How Do You Fight Sociology? 261
17: What Is Science? 289
18: Seers and Craftspeople 306
19: How Science Really Works 332
20: What We Can Do for Science 349

http://www.thetroublewithphysics.com/
(click on "contents" in the top-bar menu)

I guess what we are talking about is Part III BEYOND STRING THEORY, chapter 15 "Physics After String Theory"
What we are hearing about, from Davide Castelvecchi of the AIP, is work on manifestly background independent post-stringy quantum theory of space time and matter. Matter as a kink in quantum geometry. So that space time and matter all emerge from a substrate of abstract geometric relation. Since this sounds fairly confusing, I had better fetch some exerpts from the New Scientist.

Bobby Lee Jones says they get things before the New York Times does. (He was talking about the Enquirer, but it's the same idea.)

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Aug20-06, 12:55 PM
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Response to Smolin and Woit books, and other barometers


Here's exerpts from page 5
===N.S. editorial===
THE accepted idea of matter is that it is made up of minuscule particles guided by quantum force fields. This is already far removed from the common-sense view that matter is, well, just chunks of stuff. If that seems hard enough to take, then brace yourself for another step away from common sense.

Theoretical physicists working in the rarefied field of loop quantum gravity have developed a way to describe elementary particles as merely tangles in space (see "Out of the void"). If they are right, it could be the most profound scientific generalisation of all time, in which everything in the universe emerges from a simple network of relationships, with no fundamental building blocks at all.

Up to now, loop quantum gravity has seemed like a poor relation of string theory, which for years has been the most popular route to a "theory of everything" in which all the forces of nature - and especially gravity, the outsider among them - are united. ...

Yet to some eyes, string theory has unravelled. It has become clear that there are inconceivably many different solutions to its equations,... String theory seems not so much a theory of everything in our universe as a theory of everything else. Another criticism is that rather than predicting the existence of space and time, string theory takes them as a given.

...

Loop quantum gravity, despite its confusingly similar name, takes a different approach in which everything is built up from a network of relationships. They are not even relationships between objects as such, just an abstract graph of connections, yet at large scales something like our smooth space and time emerge out of the network. Now, perhaps, matter does too, because it turns out that when the network is tied in a braid it forms something like a particle. This entity is stable, and it can have electric charge and "handedness" - a property of particles that has them spinning either to the left or the right. What's more, some of the different braids match known particles. That already seems to be an improvement on string theory, which allows universes in which there are completely different sets of particles.

As a get-out, some string theorists have turned to the anthropic principle, suggesting that the laws and constants of our universe have to be the way they are to allow the emergence of life - otherwise we wouldn't be here to measure them. This anthropic reasoning is philosophically uncomfortable for many scientists, who question whether it is even testable....

...

Both theories have been criticised because they have so far failed to predict even a single number that can be tested by experiment. ... That's a little unfair. What they're doing is struggling to accommodate what we know about the universe within a single framework.

... If loop quantum gravity turns out to be true, and everything we see is made from a single thing that is not really a thing but a connection on a graph, we could after all be left with one ultimate question ... where does that reality come from?

From issue 2564 of New Scientist magazine, 12 August 2006, page 5
===endquote===

the above is from the N.S. editorial introducing or pointing to the Castelvecchi article. some exerpts from the latter are here:
http://www.physicsforums.com/showpos...7&postcount=40
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Aug20-06, 12:59 PM
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Quote Quote by Marcus
Bobby Lee Jones says they get things before the New York Times does. (He was talking about the Enquirer, but it's the same idea.)
They have this pool of super-smart super analytical highly trained failed boffins over in Blighty (failed as in couldn't find a job doing what they were trained for) who staff mags like this, and also, the economy wallahs, the Economist. It makes for wild and crazy stuff, but every now and then, just like wildcat oil drilling, it pays off.
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Aug20-06, 01:14 PM
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elegantly put
taken with a grain of salt, and laughter
selfAdjoint
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Aug20-06, 03:16 PM
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I originally used the wildcat oil search as a metaphor for pure mathematics. It also pays off occasionally.
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Aug20-06, 04:09 PM
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I get the impression that the actual complaint is that universities are hiring too many string theorists -- because of the bandwagon effect? I don't know enough to judge -- and not enough some-other-currently-useless-theory theorists. Knowing how rigid academia can be, I suspect it's easier to tarnish the reputation of string theory via pop-sci books rather than directly attacking this institutional flaw.
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Aug20-06, 05:34 PM
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Quote Quote by marcus
Then there are the reviews, and various other barometers

Ira Flatow's Smolin-Greene conversation is archived here, so you can listen if you missed it when broadcast Friday 18 August
http://www.sciencefriday.com/pages/2...r2_081806.html
...
I probably shouldn't have to repeat this, as several technical papers have made the point and it came out again in Friday's radio program: Freidel indicates his spinfoam model predicts energydependent photon speed and that a certain number should be detectably greater than zero---as measured at the GLAST satellite's level of sensitivity. Majid, with whom Freidel has co-authored, has echoed this. There is a prediction on the books which if confirmed by GLAST in 2007 or 2008 would have deep and broad consequences, and if not refuted would shoot down some excellent work by a number of people. When measured from GLAST data, the number in question could, after all, turn out to be negative Related testing is already in progress with the AUGER experiment. So these ongoing and upcoming empirical tests of some non-string QG are part of the background and came out in oblique references during Friday's Talk of the Nation radio program IIRC. It probably has or will have some effect on how things are perceived.
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Aug21-06, 05:53 AM
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Here is George Johnson's review of the Smolin and Woit books in the September issue of SciAm.

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?cha...F0000&colID=12

here is the printer version
http://www.sciam.com/print_version.c...EC83414B7F0000

I shall quote a brief sample to give some indication of the general tone of the review

===sample exerpt from Sept 2006 Scientific American===

The Inelegant Universe

Two new books argue that it is time for string theory to give way

By George Johnson

The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next
by Lee Smolin
Houghton Mifflin, 2006

Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law
by Peter Woit
Basic Books, 2006

When you click the link for the Postmodernism Generator (www.elsewhere.org/pomo), a software robot working behind the scenes instantly throws together a lit-crit parody with a title like this: "Realities of Absurdity: The dialectic paradigm of context in the works of Fellini." And a text that runs along these lines: "In a sense, the main theme of the works of Fellini is the futility, and hence the stasis, of precapitalist sexuality. An abundance of deconceptualisms concerning a self-falsifying reality may be revealed."

Reload the page, and you get "The Dialectic of Sexual Identity: Objectivism and Baudrillardist hyperreality" and then "The Meaninglessness of Expression: Capitalist feminism in the works of Pynchon."

With a tweak to the algorithms and a different database, the Web site could probably be made to spit out what appear to be abstracts about superstring theory: "Frobenius transformation, mirror map and instanton numbers" or "Fractional two-branes, toric orbifolds and the quantum McKay correspondence."

Those are actually titles of papers recently posted to the arXiv.org repository of preprints in theoretical physics, and they may well be of scientific worth--if, that is, superstring theory really is a science....
...
...

===end of sample quote===
R.X.
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Aug21-06, 02:52 PM
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Quote Quote by marcus

With a tweak to the algorithms and a different database, the Web site could probably be made to spit out what appear to be abstracts about superstring theory: "Frobenius transformation, mirror map and instanton numbers" or "Fractional two-branes, toric orbifolds and the quantum McKay correspondence."

Those are actually titles of papers recently posted to the arXiv.org repository of preprints in theoretical physics, and they may well be of scientific worth--if, that is, superstring theory really is a science....
This just shows that you obviously have no idea about this field. To laymen almost any relevant scientific work sounds the about the same as complete crackpot papers (and that's why the crackpots thrive on the internet). The latter can be equally well generated by paper generators. Experts can of course in most cases immeditaly see whether something makes sense or not, while others have no clue.

Anyway, what you try to convey here is a disservice to science.
RandallB
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#12
Aug21-06, 04:08 PM
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Quote Quote by R.X.
This just shows that you obviously have no idea about this field.
R.X. I’m not sure what you mean.
First, the quote you are attributing to Marcus was clearly given as quoted from George Johnson and his review of the two books by Smolin and Woit.
I’m sure the magazine can relay your comments to George if you send them there.

But when you say he (George) has “no idea about this field” to what “field” are you referring too, (that I assume you support)?
The ideas being perused by Smolin and/or Woit in opposing Strings.
OR the field of String / M Theories.

I don’t really find G. Johnson’s review as picking sides.
R.X.
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Aug21-06, 04:36 PM
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Well, just read the quote I was referring to, and this is what I mean: picking on titles of papers without any understanding.

And since we are at it: how to think about those "barometers" ... as if these were in any way meaningful or relevant. Shall the general public decide whether GR or QM or string theory are right? I am sure that in a public vote, all three will be voted down. Not the least for the common attitude: "I don't understand it, therefore it must be wrong".
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Aug21-06, 06:35 PM
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Quote Quote by R.X.
Well, just read the quote I was referring to, and this is what I mean: picking on titles of papers without any understanding.

And since we are at it: how to think about those "barometers" ... as if these were in any way meaningful or relevant. Shall the general public decide whether GR or QM or string theory are right? I am sure that in a public vote, all three will be voted down. Not the least for the common attitude: "I don't understand it, therefore it must be wrong".

Nope, you miss the point still. String physics has been sold and oversold to the public and the media in the USA for years. The barometer is tracking the unravelling of this smoke and mirrors act. If string physicists don't want the public and the media calling them on their empty claims, let them clean their own act up. But letting the likes of Lubos Motl be your spokesman is just going to drive the stake further into the heart of string research. And you yourself sound to be in furious denial. Wake up and smell the coffee! The landscape problem isn't going to go away because someone famous waves his hands and says "Anthropic".
R.X.
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Aug22-06, 07:09 AM
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As for overselling, I see mainly Kaku, and judging from a scientific
viewpoint, Brian Greene's works are a bit too rosy; but I think selling
any kind of science in the media to the public always needs a bit
of exaggeration. But you cannot hold an entire generation of hard
working, honest scientists responsible for that. There was tremendous
progress in the field until a few years ago, and denying that and
even worse, publicly misrepresenting its state for whatever personal
reasons, is really dishonest.

Quote Quote by selfAdjoint
The barometer is tracking the unravelling of this smoke and mirrors
act.
Misleading statement. Just look what the leading key people do and
write, and there is nothing wrong with that -- there is no such
thing as "the emperor has no clothes". As in any field, there are
always brilliant leaders of the trade, other good scientists,
mediocre researchers and bad researchers close to crackpots. It's
typically the latter who make illegitimate statements, but they
don't count. Just listen to the big guys, and you won't find much
objectionable.

>But letting the likes of Lubos Motl be your spokesman is just going
to drive the stake further into the heart of string research

As you guys always insist, there is free speech.

Quote Quote by selfAdjoint
And you yourself sound to be in furious denial. Wake up and smell
the coffee! The landscape problem isn't going to go away because
someone famous waves his hands and says "Anthropic".
I am aware of this problem for a longer time than most of the other
string physicists, in particular those who wave their hands today.
It is a problem and needs to be resolved. It is
first of all a scientific problem, and discussing it and performing
computations to get a better handle on it is not only legitimate,
but a necessity. There are all those people who say "it's no science,
so you must drop it", but that's simply foolish - no progress can
be made with this kind of thinking. That the landscape appears to
exist (within the approximations that were made) is an important
scientific result per se, and one needs to find out whether it
really exists in the exact quantum theory or not (which is unclear
as the whole framework dealing with this problem is intrinsically
perturbative and background dependent). It may or may not exist,
and it may also well be that a major point has not yet been understood
or a major ingredient is missing. All these considerations is
perfectly valid science that has to be done.

And whatever the outcome will be, string theory has ammassed to
many results which make sense (eg about gauge theories, black
holes), that it is pretty clear that any improvement will come from
an extension (or rather reformulation) of it and not from some
disjunct "different" alternative. There are simply too many consistency
criteria in the game to be satisfied that there is little space for
"something else".

Unfortunately, most of this is thoroughly misrepresented not only
on the web but now also in books and probably soon on TV, and since
controversy is always more attractive in the media, "alternative" always
sounds morally more justified than the real thing, and undermining
the success of others is a major motivation of human beings,
things will only get worse for the immediate future.
marcus
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Aug23-06, 12:23 PM
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I found a new way to keep track of the advance sales of Woit and Smolin books---probably some of the rest of us knew this already, but it is very easy so I'll explain

you just go here
http://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers...540543-7840144

and it gives the sales rank of all books in the "Physics" category---a lot are either widely used textbooks or popularizatons like Hawking "Brief History". It is updated hourly.

In that category, right now when I looked, Woit was #10 and Smolin was #17.

Smolin's book came right below Hawking Brief History of Time, which was #16 in sales.

this sales rank page is gotten by narrowing down from All Books salesrank
Books > Science > Physics

The "Science" category is too broad to be useful because sales in "Science" are dominated by diet books and stuff like that. So you have to go down to the next narrower category.

==============
By Jove! I just went back to that link to check that it worked and Woit had moved up to #5!
With Smolin now at #16.

Woit has moved ahead of Brian Greene "Elegant Universe" which is #7. All that stands between Peter and the top is now three college physics texts and one about the brain and music.
RandallB
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#17
Aug23-06, 03:02 PM
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Quote Quote by marcus
track of the advance sales .... amazon.com .... sales rank ....
Now I am depressed – I find “What the Bleep” much too high on Physics List !
– It’s too bad it sells at all under any list let alone the wrong one.
Do you know how long they keep counting a sale, just those from the past hour, day, week ?? I couldn't tell from the site. I assume it only counts Amazon Sales.
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Aug23-06, 04:02 PM
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Quote Quote by RandallB
I assume it only counts Amazon Sales.
I assume so too.
I don't have any idea how long the time period is.
I know what you mean about dumb books that shouldnt even be on the list.

===edit Thursday===
I just checked at 9AM pacific time today and the two books were #16 and #18


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