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New Smolin book this year

  1. Mar 13, 2006 #1


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    The Houghton-Mifflin publishing house plans to release a new book by Lee Smolin this year

    a foretaste of the what the book is about can be gotten from this:

    The London School of Economics CPNSS has a yearly event called "The Annual Lecture"--and this year Lee Smolin gives the Annual Lecture. Here is part of the abstract:

    "Abstract: I will begin by proposing an answer to the question of what science is and why it works. Part of the answer is that scientists form a community that is defined by adherence to a set of ethics which encourages honest reporting of observations and results as well as an awareness that future generations will know far more than us. As such science is based on a tragic understanding of how easily we fool ourselves and others and its success is due to the discovery of techniques whose use helps us discovery error. In this and other ways I will discuss science is tied to democracy in that both require members of a community to adhere to ethics designed to allow us to achieve as a community far more than would be possible each on our own..."

    CPNSS stands for Centre for the Philosophy of Natural Science and Social Science---the philosophy of science part of LSE.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2006
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  3. Mar 13, 2006 #2


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    A Crisis in Fundamental Physics---Smolin NYAS essay

    another good way to get an idea of what Smolin's book will be about is to read this article by him in the New York Academy of Sciences magazine

    A Crisis in Fundamental Physics

    The central message of that essay is at the end of the first section:

    I believe we should not modify the basic methodological principles of science to save a particular theory—even a theory that the majority of several generations of very talented theorists have devoted their careers to studying. Science works because it is based on methods that allow well-trained people of good faith, who initially disagree, to come to consensus about what can be rationally deduced from publicly available evidence. One of the most fundamental principles of science has been that we only consider as possibly true those theories that are vulnerable to being shown false by doable experiments.


    The message is that a system of ethics is not just an arbitrary set of rules----it is what allows a community to exist and function effectively.
    In the case of science, the ethic involves a responsibility on the theorist's part to make theories falsifiable----not to propose theories which have no prospect of undergoing a real test. Testability is not just an abstract principle, it is essential to how the community functions and arrives at consensus.

    The aim of this NYAS article is clearly to get this message out to a broad audience----it should not be considered an obscure technical debate among specialists. Because what kind of science we have in the future---or whether we have a recognizable scientific enterprise at all---depends on whether or not we sustain this principle.

    And incredible as it seems, Steven Weinberg, a physics Nobel laureate, has come out in favor of weakening this requirement.

    WEINBERG: "...... Now we may be at a new turning point, a radical change in what we accept as a legitimate foundation for a physical theory ... The larger the number of possible values of physical parameters provided by the string landscape, the more string theory legitimates anthropic reasoning as a new basis for physical theories..."
    [ Weinberg, S. 2005. Living in the multiverse. arXiv:hep-th/0511037.]

    Smolin's NYAS article basically counters Weinberg. Smolin quotes Weinberg including the above and then replies with the passage I quoted earlier.
  4. Mar 13, 2006 #3


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    I think Smolin is right that there is a problem in the foundations of physics, but I doubt that it has much to do with background independence.

    Along this line, there is an interesting comment by Koide that I ran into a few days ago. In 1982, Koide found a simple formula that predicted the mass of the tau to experimental error. Experimental error of 2006, that is. The latest particle data group numbers follow right down the center of the 1982 Koide prediction. The relation is a restriction on the masses of the charged leptons, but since there is no accepted theoretical reason why this is so, the relationship has largely been ignored since then.

    The relation does not predict the "bare" masses of the charged leptons, but instead predicts their observed masses. According to the current theory, those observed masses should not be the fundamental ones, it should be the bare masses that are related by simple, beautiful and exact relationships.

    The fact that it is the observed masses that follow a simple rule suggests that the policy of assuming that the forces are going to be simple when they are unified could be wrong. And it suggests that the renormalization group for masses is wrong. To quote Koide:

    "The formula is well satisfied at a low energy scale rather than at a high energy scale."

    So the question really becomes why has the Koide relationship been so good for so long. Is mother nature playing a trick on theoretical physicists? Is the trick that She is simpler than they think? Or is the trick that she managed to put together a coincidence that runs to 6 decimal places? I think that it is no coincidence, and that the current method of making calculations is broken.

    But I don't think it has anything to do with background independence. The standard model and quantum mechanics has predicted and been experimentally tested far more than Einstein's gravity ever will. I don't see the foundations of quantum mechanics as more or less elegant than the foundations of relativity.

    In my years debugging electronic equipment (mostly graphics and internet chip design) I learned a deep lesson.

    When you have a system made from two subsystems and the system doesn't work but it seems that both subsystems are working, then it is very likely that both subsystems are, in fact, defective, and their defects are masking each other. This is rare, but when it happens, these are the sorts of problems that you will spend the longest time sorting out.

    I think that physics has gotten itself into trouble because both quantum mechanics and relativity are defective. I think that both theories are in trouble philosophically.

    What happens is that physicists will either assume that relativity is perfect and use it as a tool to examine quantum mechanics, or they will assume that quantum mechanics is perfect and use it as a tool to examine relativity. The effort fails because both are defective and cannot be used to locate the errors in the other.

    Last edited: Mar 13, 2006
  5. Mar 14, 2006 #4


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    I am glad you think Smolin is right, but you lose me when you start talking about background independence. The NYAS article "A Crisis in Fundamental Physics" is quite an interesting article and describes Smolin's view of the trouble physics is in---and the article is not primarily about background independence.

    Background independence certainly comes into it, but the article is mainly about other stuff.
  6. Mar 14, 2006 #5
    Wasn't Smolin founder of the theory that says that, 'Any Universe that develops life will inherently have the same intrinsic properties needed to create black holes?'
  7. Mar 14, 2006 #6


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    that is not what Smolin theorized. AFAIK there is no scientific theory proposed by anybody, Smolin or anyone else, that says that.

    however Smolin has proposed a theory, and suggested that people test it empirically to see if they can disprove it, that involves black holes---this is CNS

    the central idea of CNS does not involve life (which is kind of hard to define and pin down)


    it says nothing at all about life. by "optimal" is meant that the parameters, the numbers determining our universe, are at a LOCAL PEAK for black hole abundance.

    so the CNS conjecture (when it is translated into mathematical terms) challenges other scientists to find a continuous change in the parameters which would initiate a rise in BH abundance. If you can find a direction in which a small change would increase abundance, you will be famous as the person who disproved CNS.

    it challenges you to disprove it by saying "I say that any gradual change you can think of, in the parameters of the universe, would initially DECREASE the abundance of black holes---show me that I'm wrong!"

    The curious thing is that this core CNS idea has been standing since 1994, when it was first published, and has not yet been disproved!

    Smolin has suggested ways to disprove it, by observations of neutron stars and several other methods. So far none of the observations have shown CNS to be wrong.

    The details are in a paper, which happens to be available online, called
    A Scientific Alternative to the Anthropic Principle

    popularized speculations connecting the CNS idea to the occurrence of life (in particular carbon-based life in some sense similar to what we see on earth) are necessarily more vague, and they are not part of the core CNS idea.

    the important feature of the CNS idea is that it is FALSIFIABLE. Smolin has pointed out several experiments or astronomical observations which are practical ways to try to disprove it.
    an idea doesnt qualify as a scientific theory unless it is falsifiable.

    there are interesting elaborations on the core CNS idea if it continues to survive testing.

    like "The universe was created by a God who thought black holes were pretty so He arranged things to produce a lot of them!"

    "If each BH produces its own big bang and sprouts a new branch of time, then the numbers might have EVOLVED to make the universe prolific."

    (a typical branch in the tree of time may be one optimized for branching)

    That is my take on it. I focus on the scientific part of the idea----the part that is empirically testable.

    CNS means "cosmological natural selection"
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2006
  8. Mar 14, 2006 #7


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    I wonder why Smolin picks this fight on their terms.

    The Landscape is not new science, it's not a change in the way we do science, it's simply a lot of bla bla that justifies that we need to meassure the fundamental parameters and that the best way to do this might be indirectly.

    It can be disproved by finding a theory that explains the values or their naturalness, and hence disproves that these parameters are enviromental. So if you hate the Landscape come up with something better...
    If you believe String Theory can't, work outside String Theory.
  9. Mar 14, 2006 #8


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    I see nothing wrong with your summary of the situation. But as regards Smolin, he has several "irons in the fire"

    It was the other poster Chaos-Little who brought up CNS. I would not have mentioned it in the context of this thread.

    Smolin's new book will NOT, I expect, be about CNS.

    I expect it will be about the sources of the current situation in physics, and what is needed to have a healthy scientific community. there might be a significant overlap with the points you just made!


    CNS plays a minor supporting role in this, as I see it, because it shows that you can have an alternative to the anthropic principle which is TESTABLE. One of the arguments that Weinberg makes for anthropic reasoning is that we are FORCED to resort to it. We must fall back on anthropery because there is no other way to explain fundamental parameters. Smolin shows by example that we are NOT forced to resort to an unfalsifiable explanation of fundamental constants-----there is at least one testable conjecture, there may be others and one or more may turn out to be wrong, but there is at least one falsifiable explanation.
  10. Mar 14, 2006 #9


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    Hi CarlB

    We don't see enough of you over here. You should visit more often. :smile:
  11. Mar 15, 2006 #10
    Thanks Marcus, great answer, I feel satisfied that I now know what CNS is now.

    I guess I was recalling a tiny part of CNS that suggests that a Universe that creates BHs is also likely to create life, since BHs arise from Supernovae and Stars are needed to provide energy for planets that harbour life.
  12. Mar 15, 2006 #11


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    you point out what is from a human, philosophical point of view an all-important part of CNS-----this is what catches people's attention.

    It is quite fair to say that.

    I am being somewhat dogmatic and inflexible in contradicting you because I want to make a point. For me, a theory can only be a SCIENTIFIC theory if it is TESTABLE. And the part of CNS that simply says the universe numbers are at a local peak for BH abundance is something that one can test.

    I don't think we know enough about life, and all the possibilities of life, to make a testable theory connecting BH abundance with life. We can TALK about it and think and imagine. But when it comes down to empiricals (like experiment and observation) it is probably simpler to leave life out of the equation!


    but yeah.
    one can philosophize and it is good to philosophize TOO
    and one can argue that the same values of the parameters that favor making lots of BH also favor a universe which allows galaxies and stars to condense (instead of expanding so fast it defeats condensation)

    and also favor a universe where stars can burn (instead of condensing to slowly cooling inert lumps) and produce heavier elements like carbon and oxygen

    and also favor a universe where some stars that have cooked a lot of these heavier elements can then explode and enrich the clouds (that other stars form from) with these elements

    because seeding the gas and dustclouds with C and O (besides accidentally being good for life as we know it) actually helps more stars condense because C and O compounds are good radiators of heat and help a contracting cloud radiate away heat that builds up as it condenses.

    so these heavier elements which supernovae blow out into space help the formation of more stars and ultimately help promote the abundance of BH

    this is speculative----it is not part of the TESTABLE part of the theory AFAIK

    so one can speculate that our sort of life is a kind of accidental by-product of conditions which have evolved to produce a lot of BH

    because some of the same sorts of things that promote formation of galaxies, and then stars, and then BH-----the same kind of parameter values that do that----also help foster the kind of life we know about.

    but so far this kind of speculation is a bit nebulous, and vulnerable to being shot down by people who dont like it

    so I have this reflex reaction, which is admittedly a bit doctrinaire and one-sided, of always emphasizing the limited aspect of CNS that is comparatively clear and well-defined
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2006
  13. Mar 15, 2006 #12


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    this paper by Bert Schroer, an eminent senior QFT guy, has been getting some attention

    String theory and the crisis in particle physics
    Bert Schroer
    30 pages

    "In the first section the history of string theory starting from its S-matrix bootstrap predecessor up to Susskind's recent book is critically reviewed. The aim is to understand its amazing popularity which starkly constrasts its fleeting physical content. A partial answer can be obtained from the hegemonic ideological stance which some of its defenders use to present and defend it. The second section presents many arguments showing that the main tenet of string theory which culminated in the phrase that it represents 'the only game in town' is untenable. It is based on a wrong view about QFT being a mature theory which (apart from some missing details) already reached its closure."

    Peter Woit has a blog post called BAEZ AND SCHROER

    which is about this Schroer paper and also Baez talk at Luminy: "Where we stand"
    The topic of Baez talk is actually the same as of both Smolin's NYAS article and Schroer's paper----it is the crisis in fundamental physics. But Baez doesnt say that explicitly in the title---it is just the theme running through the talk according to f-h comment and as one can see by reading Baez notes.

    So these recent talks and articles have a kind of consensus that
    1. there is a real crisis in fundamental (particle) physics
    2. one way or another, it has do with string theory
    3. it can also have to do with other changes and social factors

    [e.g. maybe with philosophical shallowness of late-Century greats "shut up and calculate, don't ask why" of the socalled American school, compared with the European-educated greats of the early Twentieth---and remember in some situations a shallow boat skims along faster and shallow is the way to get ahead with business---sometimes probing the foundations can be a waste of time, and other times it is absolutely necessary]

    Smolin's book might be titled "The Trouble with Physics"

    At least one source says that title. But that could change and in any case you get the drift, there are a bunch of people writing about trouble in fundamental physics and it getting off the right track (and getting away from the ethic of testability)----and people are writing their ideas of what could be done about it.

    like: revive the ethic of empiricism (only theories that make falsifiable predictions)

    like: grapple with fundamental questions like what is space what is time, given that Gen Rel (which is backgroundless) works better

    like: face up to the job of rebuilding QFT to make a General Relativistic quantum physics

    like: be more independent and don't follow the crowd and the fads so much------and don't be so mathematicky---act more like real physicists

    and several other ideas like that---I am not sure I am paraphrasing adequately.

    So there are these guys----Carlo Rovelli, John Baez, Lee Smolin, Bert Schroer, Peter Woit---who are identifying a crisis and expressing their ideas of what could be done.

    And there are guys who (reasonably enough) are hunkered down waiting for some unanticipated clues from the Large Hadron Collider---that may give them ideas of something to work on---and maybe the troubles will blow over.

    As I see it, it is THIS CONTEXT that Smolin's book will be coming out this year.

    have to go, must finish this later
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2006
  14. Mar 15, 2006 #13


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    Marcus this is an excellent summary of the mood that is growing and taking place, and affecting the carreer choices of the people I study with....
  15. Mar 16, 2006 #14
    Agreed. The life-BH arguement seems likely to me, but untestable and speculative, its a dead issue.
  16. Mar 22, 2006 #15
    I really tried not to answer to this thread, I REALLY tried, (... sitting here, trying to figure out what to do with a calculation I have no idea why I should be interested in it.)

    I don't think that the so called crisis is related to the US or Europe. Europe has it's own crisis, but it looks different. Its a global problem and the problem is called materialism. I can see it every day when I talk to whoever, doesn't even have to be a physicist. Peoble grow up in the believe that having a career, money and being famous will make them happy. You start with that, the present situation is a natural consequence.

    Its good there are people in the communities who do the tough calculations, we need these people and I surely appreciate their work!

    The problem is that the rest, who is supposed to give directions, is motivated by the wrong reasons. Physicists should in the first place be interested in describing nature, seeking truth and gaining insights to the mysterious ways our universe works. Thats what I think. You wouldn't believe how many times I have been smiled at as being hopelessly naive and overly idealistic, up to the point of professional suicide.

    Physics has become a place for ideas that suddenly come into fashion, and the right career move is to jump on and off board at the right time. That happens very dominantly in the US. But Europe as well as Asia is always very eager to repeat every possible nonsense the US do. Its a homemade problem, ampified by the US being an immigrant nation that 'buys' instead of exchanges research.

    People have goals they want to reach in their life. Goals like being permanent, having 3 cars and a topcite 500, being mentioned in the NY times, goals they think are important and that they place above their instincts. I think they are misled, that they would be happier listening to their inner voice. When I talk to my collegues, I very often find that they actually would like to do different work, just that they don't dare to. Its a pity. All these smart people talking about the string landscape!

    I see this 'crisis' not only in physics, but also in politics, and almost every other job I can think of. Call some customer service, attidute is: I don't care, that's how life works. Thanks for you busssines. **** you very much.

    What we need at this point is someone who comes with the right idealism, with the rethoric skills and the ability to convince that there are other paths besides the career path. Someone who is able to reach those who have to decide which field in physics they want to enter, and those who have to decide on the future financial funding.

    It's good that there are more and more critiques about string theory and the justification of so-called physical theories, but that in itself is not going to help. It would only leave people without direction. I don't know what Lee's book is going to say but I say we should go back to the basics, the reasons why we studied physics in the first place.


    PS: You ask me, the M stands for Mathematics. Maybe thats an inverse Witten.
  17. Mar 22, 2006 #16


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    the person who should reply (and may if he sees this) is Garrett. he thinks he can do theoretical physics more freely as a free-lance. he likes living in Maui. Actually i believe he turned down a tenuretrack faculty position just so he could live and think the way he likes to.

    It is not my place to agree or disagree or approve/disapprove---or about your life philosophy and choices either.

    I think Smolin's book is not about these issues directly, but I am not sure. I think Smolin's book assumes that science is traditionally a community of peers. The respect of one's peers is more important than money---they are the only ones that can judge the validity and importance. Or so it was 100 or 200 years ago.

    Every community is underlayed by some ethic. A community can only be healthy if it has a strong fundamental shared ethic. Even among crooks we have the saying there is "Honor among thieves":smile: So it is not just scientific community but all communities.

    I think Smolin's book examines the empirical ethic basic to the scientific community. I think he probably draws the conclusion that it requires of theorists that they make any theory testable. If there is no way to test, then they have a moral obligation not to propose it. Because it is only by keeping theories testable that the community can stay whole. Testing is what allows differences of opinion to be resolved between reasonable people of good faith.

    Social philosophy and social ethics is important too. But I dont think Smolin's book has anything to do with that.

    having said that, I will now put in a plug for your latest paper, hossi
    Interpretation of Quantum Field Theories with a Minimal Length Scale
    S. Hossenfelder

    "It has been proposed that the incorporation of an observer independent minimal length scale into the quantum field theories of the standard model effectively describes phenomenological aspects of quantum gravity. The aim of this paper is to interpret this description and its implications for scattering processes."

    BTW hossi, Joao Magueijo has a new paper, just posted in past week, about using lasers to test DSR.
    (I know, what you are talking about is different, but DSR has an intrinsic length scale and he was thinking of ways to test in the laboratory----possibly more as a way to disprove or falsify DSR---I think you must know him personally, so you must be well aware of this paper)
    Last edited: Mar 22, 2006
  18. Mar 22, 2006 #17
    I don't know what the book is about. But I am afraid it's impossible to disentangle the one from the other. You can't address issues like ethics and moral obligations without looking at the picture as a whole. Sure, you can make concrete suggestions for improvement in specific cases, but they are doomed to fail when the key problem is not addressed.

    Its a personal opinion but I don't think the pure requirement of making theories testable will lead to progress. It will certainly lead to a shift in priorities for researchers, but it could result in just another blind fashion wave. I hate to give that example because I have been working on the field myself, but look what enourmous amount of completely nonsensical sub-hybrid-models eventually came out of the idea of large extra dimensions. All these people are desperate on contributing just SOMETHING on a field that is currently important.

    (As to this example, I think Lee will have to say something about the idea of extra dimensions as not qualifying as a viable theory, see review on Penrose's book in Physics Today... last month? or so).

    You can try to fix things by dictating rules you think are objective, and promising to lead to progress. You can try to force research into a direction you think is right. But you can't force people to be inspired.


  19. Mar 22, 2006 #18
    Oh, forgot, thanks for mentioning my paper - which up to now has caused almost no reactions (despite a collegue warning me it makes the DSR people look kind of stupid).

    Yeah, I know Joao and read his latest paper. I can't make too much sense out of the Laser thing but the 2nd quantization in Section V I consider to be an important investigation.

    Last edited: Mar 22, 2006
  20. Mar 22, 2006 #19


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    what is the B for?
    let me guess----second and third syllables of Sabine?
    reminds me of the word for bee: Biene
    or is it something else?

    I just looked at your acknowledgments and saw that you thanked Magueijo for discussion/comment
  21. Mar 22, 2006 #20
    Yeah, you are right :smile: My German friends nicknamed me Biene (which is pronounced as Bine). That's the German word for Bee. It seems to be easier than getting people to spell or pronounce 'Sabine'. The latest version I had today at starbucks was 'Sippina' :rolleyes:
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