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Views of the Smolin/String controversy

  1. 6 ("Trouble" 6 times more popular than top five string books)

  2. 5 (5 times more popular, judging by salesranks)

  3. 4

  4. 3

  5. 2

  6. 1 (on par with average of five most popular string books)

    0 vote(s)
  1. Aug 29, 2007 #1


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    The Trouble with Physics...and What Comes Next came out a year ago (September 2006) and occasioned controversy. What's your view on this? Is the controversy over? If not, how is it going? Is it a good or bad thing for the physics profession? Does it annoy you? Has anything changed as a result of discussion?

    On a quantitative level, what do you predict the Smolin/String ratio will be a month from now---say noon Pacific time on 1 October?

    Today when I happened to check the ratio was 6.2. That is the Smolin book's Amazon salesrank was 1603 and the average salesrank of the five most popular string books was 9942.4. In case anyone is interested, the five bestselling string books, when I checked at 3 PM this afternoon, were
    Greene fabric
    Randall warped
    Greene elegant
    Steinhardt endless universe
    Kaku parallel worlds
    (except for the Steinhardt, I assume everyone is familiar with the titles.)

    The ratio 9942.4/1603 is 6.2. In other words judging by salesranks, the Smolin book was selling around 6 times better than the five most popular string books' average.

    This is one measure of how the controversy is going---there are other measures we could use. What is your forecast of what this same ratio will be on 1 October, one month from now? This is a kind of reality check to gauge your understanding of the controversy, and to discover who the good guessers are.:smile:

    I will post some other readings of this ratio over the next few days to see if they show any trend. BTW I think the ratio today was boosted by the fact that it is the beginning of the college semester and university students are buying their books. By October that may not be such a factor.

    Can you suggest any other indices of how things are going, stringwise, that we could look at?
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2007
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  3. Aug 30, 2007 #2


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    We already have 2 forecasts. Arivero predicts 4, my guess is 2. I can't believe that what we are seeing now is permanent---I think it's a "spike" of interest in Smolin's book on the part of college students starting the semester. Most of the top sellers on the physics list are currently physics textbooks for first and second year university courses.

    What do you think has been the overall effect, if any, of the public discussion initiated by "Trouble..."?

    I see in popular blogs, such as Cosmic Variance and Uncertain Principles, that a public relations campaign to rally String support seems to be in progress. On U.P., a string postdoc named Aaron Bergman has offered what he calls an "Apology for the Landscape" together with some other string pieces.
    Meanwhile on C.V. Sean Carroll has attacked the main result of Loop Quantum Cosmology (LQC, a rival research line), and offered some semi-Anthropic statements that appear plausible, apparently to coax acceptance of the A.P.
    Some say this was merely a Sean Hah-hah---it's often hard to tell. :biggrin:
    Most recently he has offered straw of the type "I don't think String research is largely a waste of time but here is the best argument I can think of that it IS a waste of time."--- transparently flawed anti-String arguments leading people to suppose that all reasons to favor support for non-string QG research must be invalid.

    So there is a certain amount of suasive rhetoric in the air. On the borderline---I'd say---between charm and sleaze.

    Perhaps you would like to disagree, but I think much of the rhetoric I've seen simply confuses the issues. Smolin's book "Trouble...and What Comes Next" did NOT denigrate stringy thinking, it pointed out that a new research field (nonstring QG) had come into existence and was being denied funding and positions in the US.

    In Europe and Canada, many campuses and physics institutes have two or more non-string QG researchers on faculty. In the US there is only one such institution, Penn State.
    If you read Smolin's book you will find many reasons why this situation is flawed and unstable. A European observer has referred to the situation in the US as "bizarre". In Europe and Canada the trend is to fund graduate students and postdocs who want to study non-string QG and do their reseach in it. In the US there is no comparable support---they have to go to Penn State or abroad. US String boosters can argue that this exclusionary policy is correct because all the non-string QG research lines are invalid. We hear theoretical arguments from Motl, Distler, Carroll, Arkani-Hamed etc why "Loop" cannot possibly be right, occasionally showing ignorance of the actual directions in QG research. We hear the usual "only game in town" talk. This type of dismissal serves to justify the current exclusionary policy in US funding.
    What Smolin's book does is give careful reasons why non-string QG research is NOT invalid, and cannot be lightly denied a place at the table.

    That's my view, anyway. I don't thing the real issue is String at all. I see Smolin's book as a carefully reasoned promotion of rival non-string QG research, not as an attack on stringy theories per se.

    what we have is a new field that ONLY THIS YEAR finds itself mature enough to have an annual or semiannual international meeting. There was a Loops 05 and no one knew when or where the next Loops would be. Then there was a Loops 07. And it looks like something shaping up for 2008 (with a different name, which is fine.) Research fields hardly exist at all without a yearly conference. We have a new field---it is well funded and making considerable progress in Europe and Canada---and it is frozen out by academic politics in the US.

    In my view, therefore, there will not be a stable situation until the existence of the new field is reflected in US research funding policy (at the DOE and NSF level) and in university physics departments. So I expect the Smolin/String controversy to continue in one form or another until that is taken care of.

    If anyone has a different view, please share it with us.

    Cristo, sorry about the confusion, I meant it to be a longterm prediction (a month, say) and so I said we'd check on 1 October. I said that in the initial post, but forgot to make it explicit in the poll question.
    If you would like to reconsider and change your estimate, just say.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2007
  4. Aug 30, 2007 #3


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    I think the whole string/LQG debate is good for physics-- it's better to have a few theories competing rather than one that everyone assumes is correct.

    With respect to the ratio, I'm going to say 5. I believe it may be a "spike" also, but don't think this spike will drop in the next couple of days. If it were a long term prediction-- a month, say-- then I'd predict something in the region of 3. I think this book will always be more popular than the stringy books as it's a bit different, and thus more enticing to the general public.
  5. Aug 31, 2007 #4


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    What we are aiming for is to predict the ratio as of noon Pacific time on 1 October, so just as a dry run I sampled it as of noon today, 31 August.
    "Trouble..." was 5th on the physics list with salesrank 1483.
    I guess I could notate that as
    Smolin trouble 5th #1483
    meaning 5th on the physics bestseller list and 1483 storewide salesrank among all books.
    The top five string average was 6789.2, so the ratio was 4.6.
    (Arivero said around 4, so if our target date were today he would be the winner.)

    As you see the ratio has come down some.

    In case anyone is curious about the currently most popular stringy books they were

    Greene elegant 22nd #3465
    Greene fabric 28th # 4066
    Randall warped 71st # 7694
    Steinhardt endless 74th #7817
    Kaku parallel >100th #10,904

    Cristo you said that if the lookahead time were a month or so you would pick THREE
    And since the target date is 1 October (not 1 September) I will, unless you object, count
    you as predicting that the ratio will be closest to 3.

    So our four predictions are:

    Arivero 4
    Cristo 3
    Marcus, Skryzy 2
    Last edited: Aug 31, 2007
  6. Sep 1, 2007 #5


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    Which model shows most leg??
  7. Sep 1, 2007 #6


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    Brian Greene definitely has the prettiest face and the most sexy manner.
    We haven't seen his legs yet AFAIK.

    Some, however, would opt for Lisa Randall (author of Warped Passages). There has been some discussion of this on the web during the past week, in various blogs.

    Lee Smolin is balding and slightly overweight. He seems to be a nice guy but he'd need a lot of time at the gym in order amount to anything.
  8. Sep 2, 2007 #7


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    Yes, for some reason I lost a month there and thought it was nearly october!!! My prediction for the ratio on 1st october is indeed 3.
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