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The Bogdanoff papers

A fascinating book on the Bogdanoff affair and the rest of physics: click and buy.

The book is published in French on January 24th, 2008 by Presses de la renaissance. See also the table of contents of L'equation Bogdanov.
One of the topics that has not been discussed on this blog yet is the Bogdanoff affair (or Bogdanov, if you use another spelling).

Let me remind you: Alan Sokal from NYU became famous because he was able to submit a paper on "Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" to a renowned journal called "Social Text" and published by the postmodern social science experts at Duke University. The paper was a continuous flow of nonsense: for example it argued that the value of PI changes with the amount of political pressure and discrimination. It flattered these social scientists and repeated some of their weirdest opinions about the nature of science and its interactions with the society. Although it had to be clear to anyone who has an idea about the world of physics that a physics professor could never seriously write these things, the editors simply published it. Once they accepted his work, Sokal simultaneously published another article that revealed that the paper in "Social Text" was a hoax.

Incidentally, Plato has pointed out that the process of writing lit crit articles has been completely automatized and some of the best postmodern essays today are generated by Postmodernism Generator. Reload and read a couple of them, they are very good.


Later, two French journalists and scientific comedians with Russian names, namely Gritchka Bogdanoff and Igor Bogdanoff (whom the French TV audience knows as geniuses from a certain TV show), published something in "Classical and Quantum Gravity" that many journalists promoted as the "reverse Sokal hoax".

Actually, the originator of the conjecture that the paper was another hoax was apparently no one else than John Baez. As of 2005, it seems pretty clear that this widely accepted conjecture - that the paper was a hoax - was not correct and it never had any experimental support; the only point supporting Baez's speculation was that he knew that the Bogdanoff brothers were also a kind of journalists and showmen.

I view such a sociological argument as an irrelevant example of silly discrimination because the journalists have undoubtedly the right to try to learn physics and contribute to it and there is no physical law that could make such attempts completely impossible although most of us feel that such an approach to becomes a physicist is unlikely.




In 2005 it seems pretty clear that the Bogdanoff brothers, although they may be viewed as physics outsiders, honestly tried to study physics and propose and realize an interesting idea and the paper in CQG was also a result of many months of interactions with many physicists who tried to cure the problems of the previous versions of Bogdanoffs' paper.

Baez called it a "reverse" Sokal hoax because the authors are more famous as actors but they successfully submitted a paper on physics. I will discuss the content of the paper later. If you're at a university, you should be able to access the full text of the article (for example via hollis.harvard.edu). A very detailed summary of the affair was written by

You must realize that many points of John Baez are his personal conspiratory theories that were later adopted by the media. But others have written comments about it, too - for example Peter Woit or Jacques Distler. The lesson is pretty serious and ambiguous, I think. However, let me first say that all physicists seem to agree that

  • the detailed structure of the paper (and very similar papers published elsewhere) probably makes no sense - at least no one has been able to understand the content of the paper in detail; I am not a new Planck who has been able to identify new Einsteins either ;-)
  • isolated pieces of the paper are more or less true - and they were probably copied from other papers
  • the brothers have had a financial interest to promote themselves as geniuses because it helps their books (and other things) to be sold well in France and elsewhere - which is at least one of the reasons why they would continue to say that the papers were serious even if they were not

However, the question whether papers like that should be published is dividing the community of mathematical and theoretical physics. Some of the papers of the Bogdanoff brothers are really painful and clearly silly - for example those that discuss the origin of inertia and/or combine the pendulum with the hyperspace. But the most famous paper about the solution of the initial singularity is a bit different; it is more sophisticated.

Let me finally present my summary of the paper.

  • They want to resolve the initial singularity of the Universe - a very difficult question
  • They open a good question whether the signature of spacetime is allowed to fluctuate
  • They conclude that it can
  • Near the origin of time, they know that they are in the Planckian regime
  • They propose a new relation between this Planckian regime and the "zero scale" regime
  • The zero scale regime is described by a topological field theory
  • They even define what the right observables should be - and in my opinion, this is one of the punch lines that shows that they're either pretty smart or someone helped them: the observables are replaced by homology cycles on the moduli space of gravitational instantons; are you sure that this won't be the ingenious final explanation of the origin time in the geometric language that we will understand in 2030? I am not sure - it could well be an extension of the ideas of quantum foam from topological string theory
  • They show a lot of formulae - many of them apparently being correct basic formulae copied from elsewhere - involving quantum groups, Lagrangians of N=2 supergravity, Donaldson theory, KMS states, topological field theory, various index-like invariants etc.
  • They thank the right people, including C. Kounnas and S. Majid (a co-father of quantum groups). One of the acknowledgements that could have determined the fate of the paper was thanking to Edward Witten for "some determinant conversations" and it appears in the last sentence; otherwise the paper can't be classified as a string theory paper

Once again, the links between the ideas and formulae do not make sense to me, but it would be much harder for me to show that (and why) this paper is nonsense as opposed to many other papers, including some papers that are also published. (I think that it would be harder for them to write a paper about string theory without knowing anything properly if they wanted to hide that it is nonsense; string theory has much more strict rules.)

Moreover, I really think that they ask many important questions and propose intriguing possible answers. Although they were apparently considered to be weak students, their quality of choosing rather important questions and attach conceivably relevant jargon and formulae could be compared with the quality of some papers written by pretty well-known physicists. Therefore it does not surprise me much that Roman Jackiw said that the paper satisfied everything he expects from an acceptable paper - the knowledge of the jargon and some degree of original ideas. (And be sure that Jackiw, Kounnas, and Majid were not the only ones with this kind of a conclusion.)

I agree with this description although my policy would always be not to accept paper unless I can check that all essential things are more or less correct or at least not stupid in such a way that many people could immediately tell and that the paper will be useful to some people I know. In this particular case, I would probably decline to review their paper as being "not my field of expertise".

These questions about the Planckian quantum cosmology are very attractive and we know too little so that it is inevitable that a paper about them must be fuzzy to some extent. Moreover, such mostly speculative papers always existed somewhere and therefore the situation is not just a result of a postmodern society. The postmodern character of this "acceptable" paper only reflects the fact that we have made very little progress in understanding of the very beginning of the Universe.

Do you think that the signature of spacetime may fluctuate? In what sense can the geometries with different signature (or complex geometries) contribute to the path integral? Is the supershort regime of quantum gravity inherently topological so that the continuous degrees of freedom disappear? I think that these are important questions that may eventually become meaningful, and I also think that such an observation about a paper is usually enough for most of us to justify a paper with some proposed answers to these questions.

Once again, quantum cosmology and the science about the very young, Planckian universe is a rather speculative subject, and in this context, I would expect that the words will come before the formulae. If someone claims to have solved the problem of the origin of time, she or he should explain whether the initial state has to be specified, or whether it is unique. She or he should say what is the full class of the final states into which the initial state(s) can evolve, and how the probabilities (or whatever replaces them) should be calculated. Is the unitarity preserved in one way or another, or is it completely sacrificed? Neither of these questions has an obvious answer and they're more important than some formulae as the Bogdanoffs' paper shows, I would say. Of course that a convincing piece of evidence for one conclusion or another will eventually arise from some formulae but it does not diminish the importance of the qualitative answers.

Some papers seem to pretend that the solution of the difficult questions - such as Bogdanoffs' initial singularity - is a purely technical generalization of the known machinery in physics. I beg to disagree. There is a lot of conceptual ignorance we have about these questions, and the difficult task is not just about removing the apparent infinities of the singularity but also about the right questions that may be asked in this context. This is inevitably a lot of "philosophy" and it must be so.

Technically, their paper connects too many things. It would be too good if all these ideas and (correct) formulae were necessary for a justification of a working solution to the initial singularity problem. But if one accepts that the papers about these difficult questions don't have to be just a well-defined science but maybe also a bit of inspiring art, the brothers have done a pretty good job, I think. And I want to know the answers to many questions that are opened in their paper.

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reader Plato said...

How Sokal Affiar was Generated

The text was generated I believe, as it was generated for the text this info below is linked too.

The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link. If you like this particular essay and would like to return to it, follow this link for a bookmarkable page.
The Postmodernism Generator was written by Andrew C. Bulhak using the Dada Engine, a system for generating random text from recursive grammars, and modified very slightly by Josh Larios (this version, anyway. There are others out there).

This installation of the Generator has delivered 1721990 essays since 25/Feb/2000 18:43:09 PST, when it became operational. It is being served from a machine in Seattle, Washington, USA.

More detailed technical information may be found in Monash University Department of Computer Science Technical Report 96/264: "On the Simulation of Postmodernism and Mental Debility Using Recursive Transition Networks". An on-line copy is available from Monash University.

More generated texts are linked to from the Communications From Elsewhere front page.

If you enjoy this, you might also enjoy reading about the Social Text Affair, where NYU Physics Professor Alan Sokal's brilliant(ly meaningless) hoax article was accepted by a cultural criticism publication.


There is sincerity by those who would maintain a good course for us as has been demonstrated. I find this medium, very important.


reader Fyodor Uckoff said...

An excellent essay, Lubos, one which should be read by all referees. The most important criterion for accepting a paper [apart from the absence of technical errors of course] should be: does this paper address a question of real interest? Might it be useful to somebody? I would rather read a sketchy paper that advances a new point of view about something interesting than some heavy proof of something that everybody is sure about or [what is more common] a technical paper that establishes something that nobody cares about.


reader nigel said...

Sokal and Copenhagen interpretation:

http://www.mathematik.uni-muenchen.de/~bohmmech/BohmHome/sokalhoax.html :

"While publicly abstaining from criticizing Bohr, many of his contemporaries did not share his peculiar insistence on the impossibility of devising new nonclassical concepts--an insistence that put rigid strictures on the freedom to theorize. It is on this issue that the silence of other physicists had the most far-reaching consequences. This silence created and sustained the illusion that one needed no technical knowledge of quantum mechanics to fully comprehend its revolutionary epistemological lessons. Many postmodernist critics of science have fallen prey to this strategy of argumentation and freely proclaimed that physics itself irrevoably banished the notion of objective reality.

"`We know better now'

"In an exchange several months after his New York Review of Books article, Weinberg admitted that the founders of quantum theory had been wrong in their "apparent subjectivism," and declared that "we know better now" [15]. What exactly do we know better now? Do we know better that one should not infer from the physical to the political realm--and if yes, why? Or do we know better that the `orthodox' interpretation of quantum physics--the one that confidently announced the final overthrow of causality and the ordinary conception of reality-- is not the only possible interpretation, and that, ultimately, it might not even be the surviving one?
The philosophical pronouncements of Bohr and other founders of quantum physics are not just an anachronistic curiosity. A flood of popular writings by physicists and science writers continues to proclaim the victory of Bohr's conception of reality over Einstein's, especially since Bell's seminal theoretical results and their confirmation by Aspect's experiments in the early 1980s. These writers do not mention that the most prominent feature of Bell's results, nonlocality, is, in fact, naturally contained in David Bohm's causal, observer-independent alternative to the standard quantum theory. (See the article by Sheldon Goldstein in Physics Today, March, page 42 and April, page 38.) Bohm's nonlocal theory and recent variants of it incorporate the essence of Bell's results in an immediate way, without recourse to Bohr's philosophy. [16]"