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Peter Woit's book is out (Thomas Larsson just received a copy)

  1. May 30, 2006 #1


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  2. jcsd
  3. May 31, 2006 #2
    I also have a copy that arrived yesterday. I look forward to reading it next week, when I will have some time to do so.
  4. Jun 3, 2006 #3


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    after I buy a book it often takes me a while to get around reading it. I am curious if you have looked Woit's book over yet, and what your impression was
  5. Jun 5, 2006 #4
    Well, I've read the first couple of chapters, and there's nothing new for anyone who has taken a few physics courses, or perhaps even read popular science books on physics. It seems that there is also no equations in the book, which may be a blessing or a curse. Personally, I believe things become clearer with equations, but I'm sure many others would rather not have them.

    The problem with omitting equations is that it relies on the author's skill with language to explain things. One or two things so far cause me to wince, but I believe it's a deliberate over-simplification for the lay-reader. It seems the meat of the book is in the later chapters, which at present I'm scared of jumping to just in case I miss something important. I should hope to have something more interesting to report on when I've read them.

    I must admit to have forgotten ordering this book since I ordered it a couple of months ago when Amazon told me it was published, when it obviously wasn't. Quite a surprise to see it land on my doorstep last week!
  6. Jun 9, 2006 #5
    Before you read "Not Even Wrong"

    Hello Marcus:

    Reading Robert Matthew's piece about string theory and Woit's book in the Financial Times (ft.com) has made me aware of the nasty battles that seem to be raging between string theorists and those who (like Roger Penrose) don't believe in such extreme theoretical extrapolations.

    And I thought that cosmology was a wild subject!

    It also seems, from browsing the web and looking at a polemicist's blog (motls blogspot.com), that one of the current aspects of string theory which makes it look so ridiculous is the large Landscape of vacuum states out of which our universe with all its Constants may have erupted.

    Some physicists seem not to like the idea that our universe is as it is because it was one chance quantum fluctuation among many others. Who am I to judge my betters?

    But while reading "Not Even Wrong" I recommend that you reflect on the size of the landscape of chance events out of which you personally have indubitably emerged. Among these are the condensation of the sun's overdense region, out of which has evolved just the right sort of planet to nuture you; the possible genesis of dinosaurs after the Wilkes Land impact; their extinction by the Chicxulub impact; our rise in Africa; the genealogy of your own parents, the vagaries of your everyday life, etc.

    The odds aganst you being just as you are --- now --- are as large as only combinatorial numbers can be.

    And yet --- here you are!

    Maybe the string theorists are about as right as the cosmologists who believe in dark matter and energy. What do you think?
  7. Jun 9, 2006 #6


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    What I think? I don't know that run-of-mill working cosmologists BELIEVE in Lambda-CDM model so much as they use that model and are always checking it. Whenever they get new data they test that model in particular to see if there is reason to reject it. But they also test other models.

    Besides Lambda-CDM there are some "modified Newton" models which don't have nonzero Lambda ("dark energy") and or don't have CDM ("cold dark matter"). You can be a cosmologist and be interested in checking those models too! You don't have to "believe" or "disbelieve" in modified Newton ("MoND") in order to want to test it and see if observations can shoot it down.

    And you don't have to believe or disbelieve in nonzero Lambda or in CDM in order to want to test LambdaCDM and see if you can shoot it down, or at least constrain tighter what the parameters have to be.

    Cosmologists are dealing with falsifiable models. Their models make predictions about ongoing observations which can get the models in trouble with risk of refutation if the next observation goes against them.

    The closest analog I know of in Quantum Gravity is that several QG predict dispersion at very high gammaray energies which should be observable by the GLAST satellite observatory scheduled for launch in 2007. See this paper and references therein
    and also this earlier paper

    the point is that gammaray bursts often show a micro structure of millisecond spikes. the predicted dispersion is suppressed at planck scale (order one quantum correction coefficient), which makes it extremely hard to detect, but if one looks at photons which have traveled for a billion years and are arriving in a millisecond timewindow then, if the correction to the speed is order one,
    one should see very much more energetic photons arrive earlier.

    Your statement puzzles me because i cannot decide who these physicists are that you mean.

    the Landscape school of string theorists (led by Leonard Susskind) and their supporters seem to LIKE "the idea that our universe is as it is because it was one chance quantum fluctuation among many others." (He has said he would not accept the Templeton prize because he rejects any connection of Landscapery to religion. Random fluctuation means random, in other words. But they didnt offer him the prize so who knows if he would or not.)

    Some other string theorists confess not to like the idea, and express the hope that "we don't have to resort to it". (Witten's statements smack of this.)

    A few others, such as David Gross, say that is "giving up" and vow a diehard determination to continue trying to explain the fundamental proportions of the universe with ever fewer arbitrary choices. Gross says he suspects that further progress may require radical changes in our picture of space and time. He is one of the few string theorists who is vocal about rejecting the Anthropic Landscape recipe. The only prominent senior one I can think of.

    I suppose that both David Gross and Peter Woit are examples of those who do NOT like "the idea that our universe is as it is because it was one chance quantum fluctuation among many others."

    I would call this attitude a conservative one. Neither wants to give up the traditional scientific quest to EXPLAIN the fundamental features of nature by FALSIFIABLE THEORIES.

    I think this is based on a gut feeling that we don't HAVE to give up yet. The scientific quest has not failed enough yet so that we should say it is time to quit.

    this issue makes strange bedfellows. One hardly thinks of Gross and Woit as allies! And string insiders tell us that much of the string rank and file reject the Anthropic Landscape urged by Susskind. Last year at the Toronto Strings '05 conference, after a panel discussion, they voted overwhelmingly by show of hands AGAINST resorting to Anthropics. But these rank-and-filers are not very vocal.

    a 2-hour video of the panel discussion and audience participation is available online, should you care to watch. one can fast forward to near the end, for the surprising vote, if one doesnt wish to watch the whole show.

    Neither Gross nor Woit are primarily concerned with the MAIN NON-STRING QG ALTERNATIVES. So that is a whole other topic of discussion!
    The non-string QG efforts don't have a "Landscape" and they still aspire to traditional falsifiable theories with traditional explanatory power. Mainly what those people want is not to be shut out of US academia by what they see as a string monopoly.
    That is a whole other issue. Should bright young person with an impressive track record of publication and independent motivated research in QG be shut out of postdoc and faculty positions in US simply because they do non-string?
    In the whole US there is only one non-string QG research group with more than one faculty------that is Penn State, with one senior faculty and two junior. Typically a research "group" with only one faculty will not be assigned postdocs. So the halfdozen other solo faculty "groups" tend not to have postdoc positions. So non-string QG young researchers go to Canada, UK, France, Holland, Germany, sometimes after a stint at Penn State.

    Is the discussion of this what you identify as "nasty"? You mention "nasty battles that seem to be raging". Again I am uncertain what you mean. You mention Penrose, but does he "take sides" with non-string QG people who want more open competition in US fundamental physics research? Or does he "take sides" on the falsifiability issue? That is, string seems to be bogged down in a Landscape without a selection principle so it's time to examine the non-string alternatives that aren't bogged down? I really don't know what Penrose position is, or what he has said that seems "nasty" to you. Again, I didn't read Robert Matthews, so I dont know what issues he is discussing.

    My own position is

    1. people should try to not be nasty
    2. physics theorists should play the traditional game of presenting us with practically falsifiable theories
    3. mathematicians should explore the consequences of new formalism and push the envelope of what we can model and test against nature
    4. physics theory support should not be tied to a preconceived program but should be open to independent minds with excellent trackrecord to work on what THEY think is promising (not what some old guy has decided----support for the individual mind, not for the "camp"
    5. to the extent that US investment in fundamental theory brains has to be by program (political reality is never purely one thing or the other) then I favor spreading one's bets, a mixed portfolio of several approaches to QG, rather than putting all support in one program.

    Well old man:smile: you asked what I think. that's it. I havent seen Woit's book, so i dont know how IT fits into all this. But I have tried to respond to your questions
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2006
  8. Jun 10, 2006 #7
    Thanks, Marcus, for a full and informative reply. Your comments about the state of string-theory research in the US are most enlightening. I was especially struck by the conference voting you mentioned, although I don't believe that physics has much to do with democracy. Its funding has, of course. I recollect that once, when undergraduates were asked to vote between two possible numerical answers to a problem and the winning answer was declared correct, there was a collective gasp of horror at such a democratic misdemeanour. As well there should have been.

    I fully agree with you that "people should try to not be nasty".

    Of course they do not always succeed, given the frailty of human nature. My comment about nasty battles was derived from the piece in the FT (A very prestigous UK newspaper read by many financial movers and shakers), which I append here:

    Nothing gained in search for 'theory of everything'
    By Robert Matthews (visiting reader in science at Aston University, Birmingham)
    The Financial Times: June 2 2006

    They call their leader The Pope, insist theirs is the only path to enlightenment and attract a steady stream of young acolytes to their cause. A crackpot religious cult? No, something far scarier: a scientific community that has completely lost touch with reality and is robbing us of some of our most brilliant minds.

    Yet if you listened to its cheerleaders – or read one of their best-selling books or watched their television mini-series – you, too, might fall under their spell. You, too, might come to believe they really are close to revealing the ultimate universal truths, in the form of a set of equations describing the cosmos and everything in it. Or, as they modestly put it, a "theory of everything".

    This is not a truth universally acknowledged. For years there has been a concern in the rest of the scientific community that the quest for the theory of everything is an exercise in self-delusion. This is based on the simple fact that, in spite of decades of effort, the quest has failed to produce a single testable prediction, let alone one that has been confirmed.

    For many scientists, that makes the whole enterprise worse than a theory that proves to be wrong. It puts it in the worst category of scientific theories, identified by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli: it is not even wrong. By failing to make any predictions, it is impossible to tell if it is a turkey, let alone a triumph.

    It is this loss of contact with reality that has prompted so much concern among scientists - at least, those who are not intimidated by all the talk of multidimensional superstrings and Calabi-Yau manifolds that goes with the territory. But now one of them has decided the outer world should be told about this scientific charade. As a mathematician at Columbia University, Peter Woit has followed the quest for the theory of everything for more than 20 years. In his new book Not Even Wrong he charts how a once promising approach to the depest mysteries in science has mutated into something worryingly close to a religious cult.

    It began in the mid-1980s with the emergence of so-called superstring theory, according to which all the particles and forces in the universe are linked to vibrations of tiny, multidimensional, string-like entities possessing something called supersymmetry (don't ask). By unifying so much so neatly, superstring theory seems to be a glimpse of the theory of everything that had eluded even Einstein himself. Many of the world's smartest theoreticians joined the effort to understand superstrings, including several Nobel Prize winners. But they soon ran into trouble. The mathematical elegance of superstring theory collapsed under a mass of messy facts about the real universe. Worse still, hopes that it would lead to a unique theory of everything evaporated, with ever more versions emerging and no obvious way of deciding between them.

    By the mid-1960s superstring theory had been subsumed into something called M-theory. Not even its inventor - the charismatic Edward Witten of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton - knows what the M stands for. Nor has he, or anyone else, succeeded in persuading M-theory to make single testable prediction. As such, it has more in common with a religious conviction than science. Most theorists pay aat least lip-service to falsifiability, popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper, according to which scientific ideas must open themselves up to being proved wrong. Yet those involved in the quest for the theory of everything believe themselves immune from such crass demands. Mr. Woit quotes a superstring theorist dismissing the demand for falsifiability as "pontification by the 'Poperazi' about what is and what is not science."

    Coming from a community that refers to Professor Witten as The Pope yhis is a bit rich. But it also suggests that the whole field is now propped up solely by faith. Mr Woit provides plenty of evidence for this: the insistence of M-theorists that, in the quest for ultimate answers, theirs is the only game in town; the lectures with titles such as The Power and the Glory of String Theory; the cultivation of the media to ensure wide-eyed coverage of every supposed "revelation".

    Mr. Woit has shown that some very smart people in academia have lost the plot. But why should the rest of us care? The rerason is simple: the quest for the theory of everything has soaked up vast amounts of intellectual effort and resources at a time when they are desperately needed elsewhere. We can ill afford to let more brilliant talent vanish into the morass that is M-theory.

    Those who have show signs of having fallen prey to the "sunk-cost fallacy", the huge intellectual effort needed to enter the field compelling them to plough on regardless of the prospects of success. It is time they were put out of their misery by being told to either give up or find funding from elsewhere (charities supporting faith-based pursuits have been suggested as one alternative). Academic institutions find it hard enough to fund fields with records of solid achievement. After 20-odd years, they are surely justified in pulling the plug that has disappeared up its Calabi-Yau manifold.​

    I hope this provides a somewhat scary answer to your question:

    As for Penrose, there is not a hint of nastiness in expressing his reservations concerning string theory, or for that matter inflation.

    I certainly agree also with the other points you made, namely:

    I only wish that we lived in an ideal world.
  9. Jun 10, 2006 #8


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    No, this is wrong. It began in the early 1970s with the doctrine of effective theories: it was suggested that due to Wilson-Kogut renormalisation every field theory was always an effective theory scaled down from an higher theory. If this was believed at full, er, effectivity, then the unavoidable conclusion was that a Theory of Everything can not be a theory of 3+1 dim quantum fields. The candidates are asked to meet a prerequisite: be different of the most sucessful theory of the XXth century!
  10. Jun 10, 2006 #9


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    too much here for me to give an overall immediate reaction. I am pleased to learn that Penrose has consistently kept his cool. I have his recent book, in which I found no trace of invective-----the tone was civil and I thought he raised legitimate questions.

    I am indebted to you for taking the trouble to TRANSCRIBE Matthews' piece from the Financial Times. I had only seen a few isolated exerpts which didn't begin to suggest the full impact.

    I don't know who Matthews is-----an academic, a science journalist, both? But I will look him up with google and try to understand the context. It may be that the culture of British journalism allows more heckling and combativness than ours. These days US journalism is actually pretty tame (except in the vulgar sensational sector which sells to a different market). Journalists make contentious points by QUOTING other people and usually doing so with a semblance of BALANCE.

    I think Matthews piece would not have been published in the NY Times, and if it had been published anywhere would have appeared in the "Opinion" section as distinct from book reviews or news.

    Someone misspelled "Paparazzi" to make what I think is a witty pun----"Popper-azzi."

    As far as I can see there is no slur on religion in this pun. Or any other kind of poor taste unless one disapproves of puns in general. There is no reference to the Vatican. The fact that the string theorist was quoted using the verb "pontificate" confuses the issue because it DOES have a pejorative reference to Rome. In case anyone under the age of 50 is reading this----paparazzi are intrusive street photographers who hound celebrities and the name was coined in the wake of Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

    I cheerfully confess to being one of the Popper-azzi. I think for practical purposes falsifiability is a good quick check on whether something is empirical or not. Karl Popper may have overdone it a bit, as philosophers will sometimes, but I am glad that he put the spotlight on this criterion of scientific theories. Actually if I were going to install someone on a pedestal it would be Sir Francis Bacon, but popperazzi is a way better epithet than baconian (which doesnt even sound contemptuous!)

    I better go and check to see if I can find anything about Matthews.
    That essay of his is trenchant, to a jarring extent. My expectations about things British are doubtless naive but I was not anticipating what he said about Calabi-Yau manifolds.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2006
  11. Jun 10, 2006 #10


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    Here is Robert Matthews' website


    Apparently he has a degree in physics and a bluff down-to-earth journalistic manner. Interestingly, he has academic credentials but he does not sound like an intellectual. He sound more like your average guy.

    Brief Biography

    One June day in 1981, I woke up to find myself in the middle of something called "Natural Science Finals" at Oxford. Apparently, I had gone up to Corpus Christi College in 1978 to read physics, but for the life of me I can't remember anything about it. They grudgingly gave me a degree anyway, and I left before they called Security.

    Just in case they're still looking for me, I've taken to wearing two different hats, one for academia and another for science writing. The links at the bottom of this page give some idea what happens when I swap between them.

    Other stuff

    I've written a few books: these two came out in 2005: click on the
    covers for a description and contents list:

    [covers of
    Q&A: Cosmic Conundrums and Everyday Mysteries of Science
    25 BIG IDEAS: The Science that's Changing our World]

    I also do what I can to prevent this small nation and its art and
    culture from being airbrushed out of existence:
    [Tibet flag with link to "FreeTibet"
    http://www.freetibet.org/ ]


    digging a bit deeper, i see he has a list of 43 refereed publications, an MA from Oxford, pretty good credentials as a science writer

    ...Date of Birth: 23 September 1959 Age: 46

    Professional posts, qualifications and memberships

    Visiting Reader, Aston University Dept of Information Engineering 2002-date
    Visiting Fellow, Aston University Dept of Information Engineering 1993-2002
    Fellowship, Royal Statistical Society, 1997
    Chartered Physicist, 1996
    Membership, Institute of Physics, 1996
    MA(Oxon) 1984
    BA (Hons) Physics, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, 1981
    Sidgwick Essay Prize, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, 1981
    Fellowship, Royal Astronomical Society, 1980
    Science and Media

    Science columnist Financial Times, BBC Focus, Daily Express,
    Science consultant, BBC Focus
    Science Correspondent, The Sunday Telegraph, 1990 - 2005
    Technology Correspondent, The Times, 1987 - 1989
    Presenter, Counterblast BBC2 April 1998
    Presenter, Open University programme on neural computing, 1997
    Cover feature Scientific American April 1997
    Appearances as academic commentator on Channel Four News, Tomorrow's World, BBC Radio 4
    Today, World Service, and many TV and radio programmes in the UK and world-wide.

    this does present some things to puzzle over. Matthews qualifications, as I read it, puts him in a class with Dennis Overbye of the NY Times, a top US science writer. However Dennis Overbye generally has nice admiring things to say about string theory and he does not write anything like Matthews' rough earthy style.

    the closest to a US kindred spirit I can think of would be Lawrence Krauss-----an eminent physicist/cosmologist who also does popular science-writing-------"The Physics of Star Trek"----Krauss is also an outspoken string critic calling the program "a colossal failure" and quoting Feynman's remark that "string theorists don't make predictions, they make excuses."
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2006
  12. Jun 10, 2006 #11


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    As for the vaticanist references, it is worth to note that between English-speakers, "Popish" (and "Popery") is more of an insult for British than for Americans, and if the author comes from Oxford, it is surely amplifyed.
  13. Jun 14, 2006 #12


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    Thomas Larsson has been watching the sales of Peter Woit's book and posted about the amazon.uk sales rank at N.E.W. blog, prompting some slight comment by others.:smile:

    Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics (June 2006)

    The book is hardcover, so I guess its sales could be compared with other hardcover physics-related wide-audience books that have appeared recently. One that comes to mind, which Thomas did compare sales with, is Leonard Susskind's new book (which is hardcover, recent, and has the catchy phrase "Intelligent Design" in the title)

    The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design(December 2005)

    as of 14 June 18h GMT woit= 208 and susskind=30,419

    Would anyone have a suggestion of some other wide-audience physics book that is still in hardcover and has appeared recently enough to provide a comparison gauge?
    Lisa Randall's book is still in hardcover but came out June 2005, so I think it would not be a fair comparison (sales probably peaked earlier)

    Larsson's original comment about this is here

    it appears that Woit's book is currently selling at least an order of magnitude better than Susskind's book

    (I wouldnt expect it to stay at #200---that is just the result of the recent reviews, but it could go as low as #3000 and still be doing an order of magnitude better than Susskind's)
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2006
  14. Jun 14, 2006 #13

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    Popperazzi, not Poperazi

    I'm not sure who made the typo here - oldman or Robert Matthews - and I'm not sure if it's a mere typo or an actual misunderstanding, but let me clarify: the phrase is not "Poperazi", it's "Popperazzi".

    Popper is a famous philosopher of science who emphasized the importance of falsifiability. So, the "Popperazzi" would be people who demand that string theory make falsifiable predictions.

    Popper has nothing to do with the Pope. And, "Popperazi" is pronounced exactly like "paparazzi", so it makes for a better pun.

    Thanks for copying in that article! I'm eager to see what the reactions will be to Peter Woit's book - and also to Lee Smolin's book. Taken together they may have an effect on the public perception of string theory.
  15. Jun 14, 2006 #14


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    rest easy, Prof. Baez!
    the typo was just a local glitch
    Matthews original in Financial Times said
    Mr. Woit quotes a superstring theorist dismissing the demand for falsifiability as "pontification by the 'Popperazzi' about what is and what is not science."

    the FT used to have Matthews review available free
    and a copy was pasted here (by a well-meaning soul:smile: )
    http://www.scienceforums.net/forums/showthread.php?t=21370 [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  16. Jun 15, 2006 #15


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    UK amazon sales rank roughly unchanged

    as of 15 June 23h GMT woit= 184 and susskind=40,942
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2006
  17. Jun 17, 2006 #16

    I want to ask for clarification. Were the majority of string theorists saying that they did not approve of

    (a) the idea of the Landscape - that there are millions of possible universes in principle. (According to Leonard Susskind the landscape doesn't describe universes do and must exist; rather it only describes the range of universes that in principle could exist. The number of universes that actually exist is likely huge, but much, much smaller than the landscape number.)

    (B) Or that they did not approve of using the anthropic principle as a way to generate testable hypotheses? Susskind thinks that by turing the traditional anthropic principle on its head, we can make claims that produce scientific results. (However, the great majority of his work has little to do with the anthropic argument.)

    IUnless I hear otherwise, I am under the impression that most string theorists agree with (A), and its (B) that they disagree with.

    I trust people far smarter than I that the mathematics of string theory does indeed predict a landscape, and I would agree that its the most interesting model going. Nonetheless, for me its about 20 to 100 years to early to put substantial trust in any ToE. (Even Brian Greene and Lenny Susskind don't claim any certainty, and they fill their books with modest admissions of a lack certainty, something their critics don't always acknowledge.)

    For the time being we are doing scientific exploration of the landscape of cosmology ideas. As time goes by will we (a) come to a consensus as to which arguments are valid, and which are invalid, and (b) find data that seriously argues for any particular ToE.

  18. Jun 17, 2006 #17


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    I will get the link to the video for you. No substitute for hearing the moderator Steve Shenker put the question. it is 2 hours long but you can DRAG the timepointer to right near the end---last 5 minutes----so you dont have to watch the whole 2 hours.


    the showofhands vote has a kind of spontan. unrehearsed feel as if Shenker had not even thought it out. my sense is that the essential meaning of the vote was that it went against Susskind
    (and in a sense it went for Gross, or for the diehards who believe that a way will be found, a real physics way, to get out of the damned mess of the 10^500 string theory vacua that the KKLT paper presented in 2003)
    and Shenker was clearly surprised and said Holy Shyt. that part is clear.

    the basic story is that in Jan 2003 KKLT (Kachru Kallosh Linde Trevedi) put a paper on arxiv, which you can download and is one of the most cited string papers ever, which said 10^200 or so groundstates of physics, M-theory has a lot of groundstates or vacuum states, instead of just one, because of different ways to roll up the extra dims.

    KKLT are mostly stanford people and Susskind and Shenker are at stanford (or some are at SantaBarbara---there is a westcoast feel to all this). And when KKLT posted the paper everybody realized there was a crisis in string theory and started wondering what to do.

    And Leonard Susskind arose in 2003 and said THAT'S JUST HOW IT IS and string theory is so perfectly real that probably all of these different vacua REALLY EXIST (maybe because of Linde's multi-bubble-inflato-universe ideas) and of course we are in one of the good ones AND ITS USELESS TO LOOK FOR SOME MECHANISM THAT FORCES IT TO BE THIS ONE.

    and he commenced a kind of campaign to persuade people---public and specialist alike----to this point of view

    the curious thing is that while some of the other top people quietly grumbled and said milquetoast things like "gee I hope it doesnt come to that, I sure hope we dont actually have to resort to the Anthropic principle" almost no body STOOD UP AND SAID NO. David Gross was the only leadership level guy who objected and he said we should not give up, we should keep looking for reasons why nature IS THE WAY SHE IS and the way the universe is not just an "environmental" effect like the distance to Jupiter is just what it happens to be, with no fundamental reason determining it, and it is not just a "selection" effect of our happening to be alive in this particular version so it must be hospitable to life THERE STILL SHOULD BE A FUNDAMENTAL MECHANISM to explain the fundamental numbers

    and they argued back and forth and fired off their salvos for most of 2003 and all of 2004 and half of 2005 and then it came to Toronto June 2005 and Steve Shenker was "just curious" and asked for a show of hands.

    and the rankandfile, the young low status people basically, voted overwhelming against the "environmental" or "accidental" view and in favor of there being some fundamental explanation that you could continue to look for.

    (the curious thing is that the leadership, the people who organize the conferences and workshops and give the invited plenary session talks and attend the Solvay Conference etc, the leading lights are largely talking about the Landscape and statistics of the vacua and basically accepting the Susskind picture of things. the vote by the rankandfile did not decide anything)
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2006
  19. Jun 17, 2006 #18


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    Another voice in opposition to the Anthropic Landscape approach
    Burton Richter, exerpts here, and a link to the whole talk



    … I think some of what passes for the most advanced theory these days is not really science.

    I see no problem if part of the theory community goes off into a kind of metaphysical wonderland, but I worry that they may be leading too many of the young theorists along into the same wonderland. Simply put, it looks to me as if much of what passes as the most advanced theory these days is more theological speculation that it is the development of practical knowledge.

    … Theological speculation is the development of models with no testable consequences.

    [About supersymmetry and naturalness] The price of this invention is 124 new constants which I always thought to be to high a price to pay.

    Naturalness may be a reasonable starting point to solve a problem, but it doesn’t work all the time and one should not force excessive complications in its name.

    The Anthropic Principle is an observation, not an explanation…. I have a very hard time accepting the fact that some of our distinguished theorists do not understand the difference between observation and explanation, but it seems to be so.

    … what we have is a large number of very good people trying to make something more than philosophy out of string theory. Some, perhaps most, of the the attempts do not contribute even if they are formally correct.

    It is not that the landscape model is necessarily wrong, but rather if a huge number of universes with different properties are possible and are also probable, the landscape can make no real contribution other than a philosophic one. That is Meta-physics, not physics.


    maybe some background on Burton Richter would be in order. he is of David Gross stature but mainly experimentalist. His 1976 Nobel came from work at SLAC. He is Director Emeritus of SLAC. Voices like this from the top people are still quite rare, my impression is.
  20. Jun 17, 2006 #19

    john baez

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    Don't be so sure. The same set of calculational rules that predict a landscape also predict unbroken supersymmetry. This is not something we see in nature! So, none of the "universes" in this landscape match our world.

    What do string theorists say about this? They say that for some currently unknown reason, supersymmetry is spontaneously broken. This would have to be "nonperturbative" effect - in particular, an effect nobody knows how to calculate. Such an effect may or may not actually exist in the theory.

    The same sort of not-yet-understood, possibly nonexistent effect would need to be invoked to explain why the particles we see have nonzero masses!

    Currently all these effects are stuck in "by hand". People simply stick extra terms into the equations to break the supersymmetry and give particles their masses!

    Why? Because nobody knows anything better to do!

    The simplest theory with a chance of matching our universe, the "MSSM" or http://www.krl.caltech.edu/~subZ/content/theory/MSSM/MSSM.html" [Broken] in this way. They're called "soft supersymmetry breaking terms".

    What does this mean? It means that either string theory is wrong or some not-yet-understood mechanism breaks supersymmetry and gives particles their masses. Until we understand this mechanism - which may not exist - it is premature to take the landscape scenario too seriously. Sure, it's okay to write papers about it. But drawing grand philosophical conclusions involving the anthropic principle? Nah. Not for me, at least.
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  21. Jun 17, 2006 #20
    Right, but up to what point do you think will make people agree it is philosophy or science? :bugeye: Specially considering that there is a huge amount of work being published (and cited) without peer review? It is getting more and more difficult to understand what is science and what is not in theoretical high energy physics. :cry:

  22. Jun 17, 2006 #21


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    sorry that this is a wee bit off topic, but couldnt pass it up.
    at Peter Woit's, in the Burton Richter thread, someone named John Stanton had a comment:
    There is a good argument against the Anthropic “principle”:
    Apes or pigs could equally state that the universe is made for them.
    One could equally speak about the Simian or the Porcine principle.

    I read this somehwere on the internet. Always liked it.


    Porcine Principle has such a nice ring.

    sorry for interruption, back to topic.
  23. Jun 17, 2006 #22


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    "God must have loved the beetles best, because He made so many of them."

    Was it Darwin or Huxley who said that?
  24. Jun 17, 2006 #23


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    lovely quote, lovely mind
  25. Jun 18, 2006 #24
    Carl Sagan made fun of the Anthropic Principle by proposing what he called the "Lithic Principle": if the laws/constituents of nature were changed just a bit, there would also be no rocks. Therefore, the most important thing in the universe must be rocks.:wink:

    Best wishes
  26. Jun 18, 2006 #25

    john baez

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    I don't think I have trouble understanding what is and what is not science in theoretical high energy physics... but less and less of it is science.

    I think we may be watching a lot of smart people marching down a dead end. Until they hit the end, they won't turn around and try a different road... because there is always a chance that it's not a dead end!

    Right now string theorists are waiting for the Large Hadron Collider to find evidence of supersymmetry. If it does, or if they even can convince themselves it does, they will feel they are on right road and continue marching. If it doesn't, funding agencies will start deciding not to put so much money into string theory... and then more people will be forced to try other approaches. But, they won't give up until the money runs out. It's just too embarassing to admit defeat.

    So, until the LHC starts up in 2007 or 2008, we can expect string theory to become stranger and stranger.
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