Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Foot-trap rage and spanking the messenger

  1. Oct 23, 2006 #1

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    Readers will have noticed that The Trouble with Physics is far from a diatribe against string research---it gives a sympathetic exposition which may well be the clearest down-to-earth non-mathematical discussion anyone has given so far.

    The book deals with quite a range of issues relating to several separate areas (research funding policy, the behavior of research communities, details of various current approaches to quantum models of space time and matter, fundamental ideas, history of scientific innovation etc...) maybe too many to list.

    It deals with a range of issues and has a number of different messages----the tone meanders between recounting personal experience and giving thoughtful (basically friendly) advice.

    There are several things in the on-going RESPONSE to the book which I find fascinating and would like to discuss with you if you have noticed them too. One of these is the remarkable anger we are seeing from string-folk.

    I don't think there is any need to go into detail. What I am wondering is where the anger comes from.

    what I've heard so far does not come from people who have read the book and who cite some specific paragraph on some page. In his KITP talk G.J. kept pointing out that what people were ranting about was not what the book actually said, and he repeatedly asked and discovered people had not read the book. Likewise over at Woit's blog one of the commenters has expressed bitter resentment but says he has only read parts of the book in a bookstore. He does not refer to specific stuff on specific pages.

    Instead, what the commenter starts talking about is basically his own life situation and his frustration. He indicates he can barely read the L.S. book because he gets so angry while reading it. This is extremely interesting. I want to understand this anger.

    I suspect it may be that Smolin has actually put his finger on the main blockage in string research.

    (this would be the lack of a manifestly background independent formulation)

    The anger I hear confirms my suspicion that Smolin may actually be right about the root cause of a stringy frustration. So I want to take it as a clue and look at it some, in this thread.
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 23, 2006 #2

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    As grist for the mill here is some of
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=475#comment-18087
    the particular person making the comment is not important, but the general themes of anger and frustration----we also heard plenty of the same stuff from the audience at the KITP 20 October G.J. talk but I would have to transcribe it and I just want a sample. I will quote a lot more than is really needed to be sure not to get something out of context.

    ===part of A.B. comment at Woit's blog===
    I notice you mention CDT as a background independent approach, but last I checked, they fix a spatial topology (somewhat akin to fixing a boundary condition as in AdS/CFT). Has this restriction been removed and they sum over topologies now?

    [here A.B. quotes Smolin] By the way, each time I note that string theory does not have the property of strong or manifest background independence, this is more than anything a criticism of myself as, to my knowledge, few others took the problem of making such a formulation of string theory seriously enough to spend years working on it, as I did.

    How do you know? People have certainly considered it in the context of nonperturbative approaches. There’s not terribly much to say in the perturbative approach after all. What most string theorists are interested in is finding a general nonperturbative approach. It is only in that context that the question can be usefully addressed.

    I should mention that I just spent some time reading chapters 16-20 of your book in the bookstore (actually, I skimmed 17). I can’t help but wonder, especially with all the blind quotes in chapter 16, who are these people? They certainly don’t seem like the vast majority of the string theorists I know. Just to pick one example, the issue of whether or not string theory is correct or not is hardly verboten. Most of your list of seven facets of string theorists (which I confess to not remembering very well — perhaps someone with the book could summarize them again) didn’t seem particularly representative of the people I know either.

    When your book wasn’t angering me (for reasons we’ve talked about in the past and which I won’t get into here), it was immensely frustrating because you circle around some real problems but completely miss, in my opinion, the real issues. You base your solutions, it seems to me, on the idea that there exist these two types of people, the seers and the craftspeople. That seems to me to be fundamentally misguided. What we have are smart people doing their best to get by in the incentive structure that exists in theoretical physics. This structure rewards production. It rewards brilliant results also, of course, but there is a strong incentive to write lots of papers so as to get a job. Obtaining more seers is not a matter of identifying the iconoclasts (who in physics isn’t a bit iconoclastic, after all?), but a matter of figuring out how to make it less dangerous for a young person to devote a significant amount of time thinking about extremely difficult problems that may not get solved.

    People are doing their damnedest to get by in a market where there are scarce resources, and, contrasted with your proclaimed dissident seers, the lack of respect you evince (to my mind) towards the people who are willing to work and survive in this framework is dismaying.
    ===endquote===
     
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2006
  4. Oct 23, 2006 #3

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    Because it seems to be central to the discussion, i will quote Smolin's definition of background idependence at length:

    ===quote===

    In more technical language, what has usually been meant by background independence is that no classical metric, field or global symmetry appears in the definition of a theory. Thus, by definition, formulations of a theory with asymptotic boundary conditions are excluded. This definition, and the motivation for it is discussed many places in the literature, for example in my recent hep-th/0507235. For a discussion of why the Maldacena conjecture does not satisfy what is usually considered background independence, see pages 23 and 24. There I am responding to various discussions with string theorists including David Gross, who insisted that string theory does not need a background independent formulation, because the AdS/CFT correspondence gives string theory a non-perturbative definition.

    However, in my most recent conversation with Gross, he argued instead that the AdS/CFT correspondence should be considered to satisfy a form of background independence. Recently others made the same argument to me. Their claim is that if the strong form of the AdS/CFT conjecture is true, a dynamical ten dimensional asymptotically AdS spacetime will have arisen out of a theory defined on 4d Minkowski spacetime with global Poincare symmetry. This does not satisfy the definition just given. But it is true that 6 of the ten dimensions transmuted from the space of scalar fields in the N=4 SYM theory to dimensions of space in the dual theory. In this limited sense a weak form of background independence will have been achieved. This is what I agreed to in conversation with David and others.

    But, as I thought I made it clear in these discussions, there is a big difference between this and what has usually been meant. Classical GR achieves this usual meaning, as do LQG, spin foam models, causal sets, causal dynamical triangulations, and not, at least so far, string theory.

    In a recent discussion, Brian Greene proposed a new terminology to straighten out the confusion. Brian proposes to use manifest background independence for what quantum gravity people and philosophers have up till now meant by background independence and background independence for the weak form satisfied by the (strong form of the) AdS/CFT conjecture.
    ===endquote===

    Note that background independence is a PROPERTY OF THE FORMULATION of a theory.

    One can say that two formulations are EQUIVALENT if they lead to exactly the same predictions, and then one formulation might be B.I. and one might not. I think that is to close to being empty semantical quibbling. Like talking about the "soul" of a theory as distinct from its "body".

    I identify a physical theory with its formulation (its "body") and that formulation (in terms of particular mathematical objects, equations etc.) is either B.I. or not B.I.

    The formulation of a theory is B.I. if, as L.S. says,
    no classical metric, field or global symmetry appears in the definition of the theory.

    this doesnt prevent one from restricting topology----the commentor may have been confusing things when he said, in the passage I quoted,

    "...I notice you mention CDT as a background independent approach, but last I checked, they fix a spatial topology (somewhat akin to fixing a boundary condition as in AdS/CFT)..."
     
  5. Oct 23, 2006 #4

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    I have a bunch of things to say about this, and don't have time to say them all---so far I've just laid out some of the data to talk about.
    But as a rough approximation to part of what I have in mind: readers of TwP will have realized that Smolin spends a lot of pages saying NICE things about string. He is appreciative and admiring and marvels at it and does IMO a great job of presenting and explaining.

    He has policy crit and sociology crit and groupthink crit etc, but he is nowhere trying to tell the reader that "string is bad". However he does make one modest point----in his opinion A THEORY CANNOT BE FUNDAMENTAL UNLESS IT IS FORMULATED B.I.----and string is not, and a only a few people have tried to achieve a B.I. formulation (L.S. being one) so far without success----and his FRIENDLY ADVICE is to focus more research attention on that.

    (Also he thinks there should be more opportunity for researchers outside of string program---but maybe that is not even controversial, no one seems outraged by the suggestion.)

    So why are string people reacting with such sensitivity on the B.I. issue?
    Apparently it really gets their goats. David Gross had a long rumbling rant about this in the middle of G.J.'s talk. He portrayed L.S. as two-faced because, according to Gross, he AGREED that string was really B.I. in a conversation with Gross and then, in Gross view, went back on that in the book and said that string was NOT B.I.

    Also in that same exciting KITP video L.S. was said to be two-faced because, basically AFAICS "he says he's our friend and then he tells us bad news!"

    It seems to me personally that this is one thing friends are for. Smolin makes his admiration for string research very clear and points out his own participation and then he says "but you know, it can't be a fundamental theory, it needs work in a certain direction..."

    So why does this cause such defensiveness and even vituperation? I would think string folk would just say yes yes we know that, we are very much in favor of people working towards a B.I. formulation! Right! we know that with AdS/CFT we don't yet have the real thing because it has Poinc symmetry at the horizon.

    Well I have to do some other things, but maybe someone else would like to add to this commentary.

    My thought is that, although this business about the critical importance of a B.I. formulation is basically JUST SMOLIN'S EXPERT OPINION, and could of course be wrong, it MIGHT be that he has identified a major roadblock and that things would improve for string reseachers if they could get past this blockage, and that their present frustration may reflect the fact that Smolin is actually RIGHT. That's what I mean about punishing the messenger.

    I'll try to get back to this later and elaborate some.
     
  6. Oct 23, 2006 #5

    selfAdjoint

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Marcus, after reading you very interesting points of this controversy I have a suggestion for interpreting what you show as the string theorists "unwarranted affect" (as the psychologists say) toward TwP. It is cognitive dissonance, a concept introduced in the 1950s to account for just such unexpected behaviors.

    Basically it says the individual expressing the emotion has an inner conflict, of which he may not be consciously aware. His self-image requires him to retain some belief that the world is showing him may be false. He is going to have to do something about it, and because this is a subconscious stuggle the anger against this need has no apparent target and thus is projected on the nearest target - which in this case is Smolin. It is very significant that what they persistently accuse him of is not stupidity or vanity or even malice, but betrayal ("two-faced", false friend). They do feel a sense of betrayal that they can't account for, and project it on him.

    Thomas Kuhn must be chuckling.
     
  7. Oct 23, 2006 #6
    Not just anger. :wink:

    To me it seems like an obvious human reaction.

    Researcher X get funded for his string work, he beliefs in it and is convinced he is researching in the right direction. Now someone who is a respected and well known physicist writes a book, to laymen of all things, that at least hints at another emperor's new clothes in the history of science. That just understandably rattles the chains of some who are in the middle of it. :smile:
     
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2006
  8. Oct 24, 2006 #7

    Chronos

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award

    It's the human condition, I think. People do not tend to invest a career in studying a subject alien to their belief system. The two tend to merge over time. Most researchers are also keenly aware of the chinks in the armor and regard them as unknowns, paradoxes, etc., rather than refutations. They have also invested deep thought into these issues and view most criticisms by outsiders as naive. And I think they have a point.

    Here the issue is background independence. Most string theorists, IMO, view background independence as a thing of beauty, but not one of necessity. The virtues are obvious, but there is no compelling evidence it is necessary. I think it is also valid to object on the grounds that BI is, in the strictest sense, unphysical. We can limit the number of assumptions, never totally eliminate them - at least not without abandoning any semblance of causality.

    Not unlike the planck wall, first principles are a necessary evil in any theory. By definition, they cannot be emergent. I sympathize with [IMO] the most basic ST objection - who is to say there must only be one 'first principle'? That is a good argument. Our current best guess includes over two dozen 'first principles' [fundamental constants of nature] last time I checked. I think that is more than necessary, but, doubt we can reduce the number down to one.
     
    Last edited: Oct 24, 2006
  9. Oct 24, 2006 #8
    I think part of the problem is that Woit doesn't have a very good reputation. He is not a crakpot, by any means, but he has not made much of a contribution to physics through his own research. Take a look at his publications:
    http://www.slac.stanford.edu/spires/find/hep/www?rawcmd=find+a+woit&FORMAT=WWW&SEQUENCE=

    You can see that there is not much there. I don't think he even has tenure - Columbia's web page lists him as "Computer Systems Administrator". However, the public don't see this - they see a genuine physicist at Columbia criticising a theory they don't understand and latch onto it. Smolin adds a lot of weight to the critcisms in the theory community, but one can't help but feel he is just jumping on a bandwagon.

    So I am not surprised the string theory community react with anger. What the hell does Woit know about the subject? If it were Witten making these criticisms then everyone would stand up and take note.
     
  10. Oct 24, 2006 #9

    turbo

    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    The fact is that Smolin was a String theorist for years and abandoned that field for something that (to him, at least) seemed more promising. I don't think that it's a fair characterization to say that he is jumping on a bandwagon - his conviction was demonstrated years ago by his career choice.
     
  11. Oct 24, 2006 #10
    What difference would it make if Witten made the same arguments Woit makes?

    String theorists -- Greene, Randall, Motl, Distler, Suskind, Gross, "RX", Witten, Bergman have the opportunity to provide counter-arguments to Woit.

    One of Woit's criticism is that SUSY-breaking scenarios are not very plausible, very complex, involving unobserved second SUSY field and messenger particles, a doubling of the SM with an increase from 18 to around 103 underivable parameters, and allows for phenomena like flavor changing neutral currents and predict a CC in disagreement with observation on the order of 10^115.



    What does it matter if Witten were to publish a popular book with the exact same arguments Woit presents? String theorists with ditinguished publication records including Witten and Randall can rebut this claim if it is false. Perhaps it occurs to Woit but not to string theorists that SUSY-breaking scenarios do not seem physically plausible.

    While citation of a paper makes sense if there are strong experimental confirmation, one problem I have with the current system is that string theorists cite string theorist papers without regard to experimental validation --- what this implies is that citation index is not necessarily indicative of its physical usefulness.

    What-if, in the US Witten and the entire quantum gravity physics community poured their efforts behind LQG, whereas string theory remained a remained marginal theory of 26 D and bosons, no fermions, and tachyons?

    Then anyone publishing loop papers would have a good chance to have their papers cited by other researchers of a larger community.
     
  12. Oct 29, 2006 #11
    Hi Marcus.

    I would think that if you want to discuss me in a separate forum from where I usually post, it might be considered polite to first of all respond in the forum in which I made the post with at least a comment that you will be discussing me elsewhere, and, second of all, to not misrepresent my positions.

    I only read parts in the bookstore because I didn't feel that the book was worth spending the twenty dollars on. Since I was posting from home, I couldn't very well post specific quotes without a copy of the book. As you well know, Peter Woit was kind of enough to send me a copy of his book, and I spent eleven pages writing a review of it replete with quotations.

    This is a lie. I never said such a thing, and it is certainly false. I also was not talking about my own life situation and "frustration". Might I suggest that you know next to nothing about me? Is this a forum for armchair psychoanalysis or for discussing physics?

    Perhaps the best way to understand this anger would be to ask me about it. I would think that it would be more polite than baseless speculation about someone's mental state in a forum where the subject of the discussion does not participate.

    As for the various other comments, I can assure you that the anger at Smolin has little to do with a sense of betrayal, although I doubt you'll believe me. The issue is that people feel that Smolin has dishonestly presented the situation. People get angry at dishonesty.

    I don't plan on spending much time here; the personal nature of Marcus's posts compelled me to respond (although I suppose it might have been better to leave well enough alone). I'm sure all the participants here know where to find me.
     
  13. Oct 29, 2006 #12

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    Hi abergman, and welcome! This is the first time we have had you here at PF and I am glad to see it. Please don't make it just a onetime appearance.
     
  14. Oct 29, 2006 #13

    marcus

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award
    Dearly Missed

    abergman, now that you have become a member of PF, you may find that the format is very relaxed and comfortable for initiating discussion. I think we would all appreciate it (certainly I would) if you wished to start some threads about matters that concern you.

    You could start a thread about why you think string theory is the most promising approach to unification,

    or a thread about why you think non-string approaches (such as loop and spinfoam QG) have not made contact with classical gravity or with matter.

    If you do think those things. I don't wish to put words in your mouth but merely to suggest the range of possibilities. It would be great if you would start some threads and contribute to discussion!

    Again, if you think the recent Smolin book is dishonest, and this is what stands out for you and determines your response, why not start a thread about it!

    I am virtually certain (although I can actually only speak for myself) that we would all very much welcome your contributing your views

    =========
    in case anyone is not familiar with abergman as a frequent commentor at Peter Woit's blog "Not Even Wrong", let me give
    a minimal introduction: IIRC he is a postdoc at one of the top physics departments in the US.
     
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2006
  15. Oct 29, 2006 #14

    selfAdjoint

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    May I second Marcus's invitation. This particular subforum, "Beyond the Standard Model" is open to anybody with a professional interest (or serious amateur interest, like me) in the subject indicated. We do NOT except string proponents, and as you will see from that neighboring thread with the insulting title, the last several posts have been positive ones about recent research in String Field Theory.

    We have had Lubos here and I believe Jaques Distler has visited in the past. I for one take Distler's strictures on the technical results of non string quantum gravity programs very seriously, and hope and look for reasoned responses to them. I do not consider myself a partisan of any single approach but celebrate all new research, especially when it seems to break a logjam, as Schnabl's analytical solution of the tachyon vacuum in SFT appears to me to do.

    So do post, and don't feel you are in enemy territory.
     
  16. Oct 29, 2006 #15

    Kea

    User Avatar

    Hi Aaron

    Welcome to our home! Yes, we would be interested to hear some of your thoughts.

    :smile:
     
  17. Oct 29, 2006 #16

    Chronos

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member
    2015 Award

    Another belated welcome to PF, Aaron! I [like many others] would be fascinated by your insights. I am a card carrying member of the unwashed masses groping for clues. Most of us here do not understand string theory [it is pretty math intensive]. Your insights would be most welcome.
     
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?



Similar Discussions: Foot-trap rage and spanking the messenger
Loading...