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Panel: Michael Duff and Lee Smolin

Prof Chris Isham introduces two main panelists, Prof Michael Duff, Abdus Salam Professor of Theoretical Physics and a string theorist, and Prof Lee Smolin, a physicist and non-string-theorist from the Perimeter Institute.

Prof Isham puts these debates into a broader context - the separation of theoretical physics to the particle-physics-centered community (four-dimensional people) and the community that is largely ignorant about particle physics (my words). The four-dimensional people have evolved into ten-dimensional people.

Lee Smolin argues that his book was misinterpreted as being against string theory - usually by people who have not read the book. I agree with this reasonable Lee Smolin (the adjective will be explained below) that one would have to be really, really limited to argue against the research of string theory as such after all these very clear insights that have been made. Lee Smolin then generates a lot of bizarre misleading would-be truisms, trying to create the impression that we are surely on wrong track, without a glimpse of a rational or scientific argument.

Michael Duff: clear words

Michael Duff argues that there are two Lee Smolins. One of them is the reasonable Lee Smolin who says kind of obvious things about science and one can't disagree with them. It's the Lee Smolin in the panel and debating him would lead to a meaningless sequence of truisms. Then there is the second Lee Smolin who wrote "The Trouble with Physics", and this Lee Smolin is far from reasonable.

(Well, I think that if one analyzes the words carefully, the first Lee Smolin is not reasonable either - but Michael Duff's point that it is very important to distinguish different Lee Smolins is an essential point.)

Michael Duff analyzes the inaccuracies of the book in some detail. He mentions that many other scientists refused to participate in the panel because they view Woit and Smolin as making living on the backs of those who do the real work. Michael Duff thinks that a dog must eventually respond which is why he was there. ;-) He continues with the publicity that the parasites and their distortions and lies are getting in the media, for example the outrageous statement uncritically copied in "Mail on Sunday" that string theory has made no discernible progress in the last 20 years.

Duff explains the 20th century physics, the incompatibility of its two main pillars, and the fact that it was never guaranteed that their reconciliation would be easy. He discusses the progress and the reasons why we feel certain that we are on the right track - dualities, black hole entropy etc. Theories often present their own new issues and he describes the different opinions about the vacuum selection problem or the anthropic principle.

Duff considers a thought experiment that we abandon string theory tomorrow morning and he explains that none of the "problems" - such as the large number of possibilities - would go away because any attempt to do the same as string theory will have to answer the world is what it is. No "competitor" can even ask these questions. Duff argues that theories are almost never written in the final form: instead, the germ of ideas must be nourished. A long evolution of the concept of black holes and quantum entanglement are two examples.

The point is that Lee is wrong when he says that it always took a few years only to complete a theory: the extreme form of this silly Lee Smolin's opinion are his "deadlines". Michael Duff also debunks Smolin's silly opinions that one can't do science if you don't have the technology to test it. Didn't [ten famous physicists] do science? Of course they were: the only subtlety is that they were ahead of time.

Duff returns to the nasty book and talks about the craftsmen and the seers, bringing evidence that Smolin wants to include all string theorists into the craftsmen dust bin. The people who lack foresight according to Smolin include Hawking, Gross, Weinberg, Gell-Mann, and many others. On the other hand, Duff also mentions silly Smolin's comment "I view myself as a seer". ;-)

Duff also entertains the public by mentioning that Smolin talks about racism and sexism together with string theory, making it clear that practically all evils of the society arise from string theory. ;-) Duff also gives Smolin an idea for a new book: The Trouble with Football. Manchester United is a team that drags the football to the bottom. The real creative people are in some [countryside team I've never heard of]. What will happen with this book? A few copies will be sold and "Mail on Sunday" will endorse it because they never liked United anyway. :-)

However: will it convince the football fans? Probably not. It's because they know that you can only change the balance of the teams by playing the game instead of writing popular books.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the trouble with physics is that Peter Woit and Lee Smolin have lost the game in the court of science and they are desperately trying to win the case in the court of popular opinion. [Intense applause.]
Chris Isham says that he was worried that the panel would be boring and everyone would agree with each other. :-)

Nancy Cartwright

The next speaker is a professor of philosophy and sociology of science who speaks about the subject in the context of "The Trouble with Physics". If I understand well, her perspective attempts to be neutral and I don't see more than a linear superposition of quotes of both sides.

At any rate, Prof Michael Duff is the man - someone who has the spheres including the interior. ;-)

Lies, shameless lies, and Lee Smolin

In the discussion, Lee Smolin generates a continuous five-minute stream of shameless lies, pretending that the unreasonable Lee Smolin doesn't even exist and it's a "construct". He even denies that his book is an (oversimplified) popular book and quotes various versions of his book that don't contain various words from Duff's quotes. The Reference Frame thinks that this person must have at least four stomachs.

Michael Duff says that there are as many versions and editions of Smolin's book as interpretations of quantum mechanics. Every time you try to quote it, Smolin offers another version. For example, they discuss whether Smolin counts himself as a seer, and several U.S. versions of the documents are being compared. Lee Smolin blames a copyeditor for the "error" that Smolin counts himself as a seer while Duff points out that many insults written by Smolin were actually quoted from the British version of his book - a version that Smolin pretended to be "fine". I don't think it's too important whether he wrote one thing or another in one edition or another: what's important is that Smolin misleads the public into thinking that he belongs to the "seers" while he belongs neither to seers nor to craftsmen but a very different group.


A random person from the audience argues that both Duff as well as Smolin have been superseded because falsification and Popper's rules don't apply to science and philosophers have known that Popper was wrong for 60 years. ;-) He wants Nancy Cartwright to confirm his observation and she, if I understand well, gives no clear answer.

Another person explains Smolin that it can't hurt the "seers" if many young "craftsmen" are going to string theory so his worry would be inconsequential even if his weird assumptions were right. Smolin clearly misunderstands the point or at least pretends so.

One more person wants to question unification. Duff thanks Maxwell, Glashow, Salam, Weinberg, and others for continuing to search for unification instead of thinking about doubts. Duff wants to be on the winning team so he goes on with the idea.

Smolin argues that more than 90% of people should fail, otherwise we're taking insufficient risk, as his investor friends told him. He also says that it shouldn't matter whether someone has ever failed. It's just all so mad what this guy is saying, I can't believe that anyone would ever make an interview or publish a book by such a mad person. What do you think will happen if success or failure become irrelevant for decisions? What do you think is the main driving force of all progress of the mankind if it is not a selection?

Smolin wants to throw all of society into some kind of ultracommunism where increasingly bad, stupid, uneducated, and impotent people are making increasing meaningless, inconsistent, vague, and failing activity, and all of them tell each other how great all of them are and how beautiful new clothes they have. I just can't stand intensely unreasonable and ideologically blinded people like Smolin influencing the Academia in such a profound way.

Can't we just agree that this man is insane?

A woman - a fan of theoretical biology - is also clearly irritated by Smolin's instructions to actively go down the hill. She says that evolution has always tried to go up. Of course, in reality, it inevitably makes "negative" steps sometimes but they can't be counted as a part of the progress. Also, one can't make any progress by trying to manipulate scientists' minds: we must just wait for their opinions to change spontaneously - we must wait until the old guys die out. Smolin misses the point again.

A student asks whether Michael Duff agrees with the books that one must work in string theory for career reasons. Duff of course says that the statement is not true, and compares phenomenology to string theory in this question. Smolin then complains that crackpots in quantum gravity don't get as many jobs as string theorists. Smolin blames all lies written by the journalists in the context of his book on the journalists, while making a totally crazy statement that most science journalists are doing a superb job. They will certainly be helpful for this bizarre appraisal which will lead them to write even worse junk than what they have been doing so far. Concerning the primary guilt: well, I have read his book very carefully and happen to know that the primary source of most of these lies is Lee Smolin himself.

Smolin argues that the string theory conferences should be transformed into an incoherent gathering of crackpots and random critics, resembling the conferences that Smolin likes. He's obviously doing everything he can to pollute science with all this crap and popular misunderstanding and emotional battles between scientists on one side and idiots and their imbecile friends on the other side, and Michael Duff is one of the few people who realizes that this should be stopped.

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reader Akhila Raman said...

I heard Lee Smolin in NPR and I tend to agree with him.

What bothers me about string theory is this rather religious belief
in the postulate that "mathematics = physics". The notion that
if theorists are able to come up with a set of equations- consistent
and elegant and fit observations in a finite set of points, then
it must be "true". That if mathematics requires 11-dimensions,
then universe also should have 11 dimensions. Never mind the fact
that mathematics uses infinitesimal calculus which requires
infinite number of points to observe(as dx->0, Number of points->infinity) to make any "exact" statement about Nature.

-Akhila Raman

reader Lumo said...

Dear Akhila,

the fact that mathematics is the language in which physical phenomena are described accurately is not religion but the main qualitative conclusion of the last 2500 years of science.

The people who think that there must be something wrong with mathematics - or calculus - applied to reality, for example because calculus depends on "infinitesimal" numbers, are textbook examples of what is called "crackpots", and indeed, I agree with you that this set includes not only you but also Lee Smolin.

The method to determine robust and coherent mathematical laws that are consistent with known observations and then extend their consequences has been known to work for centuries if not millenia, and only a person who is completely ignorant about all of science may seriously suggest that theoretical physics shouldn't work this way.


reader In Memoriam Logos said...

Ulrich, the protagonist of Robert Musil's unfinished novel "The Man without Qualities" gave up theoretical physics when one day he read in the newspaper an article about "A Racehorce of Genius". Ladies and Gents, there is no point in fighting these "geniuses", as canonized by the media and publishing companies. Anyone who has spent a number of years studying quantum field theory, general relativity, black-holes etc. know and understand that string theory has made significant contributions in understanding these fields (although by no means is this adventure complete).

Unfortunately to communicate this understanding to the "public" would take a lot of effort, and most of us who do string theory are too busy solving the next puzzle or problem and further the cause of understanding Nature (and, understandably our own careers). As Hardy says in his book, "A Mathematician's Apology":

"Exposition, criticism, appreciation are for second-rate minds"

After having spent more than a decade learning physics, we become, as professional (and aspiring to be tenured) physicists, part of an intellectual elite. The word "elite" has taken on negative connotations thanks to psuedo-Marxism and populist democracy (how they unite to deify mediocrity!). The popular media sneers at this intellectual elitism while maintaining its gawkish reverance for the supermodel, rich elites. When someone from this intellectual elite goes to the public and gives a rather skewed picture of the programme of one its branches (string theory in this case), it is certainly disappointing. The only consolation is that the people who make funding decisions in committees know the "truth" about the achievements of string theory.

If the string theorists want to reach out to the public (as I think they should) I propose the following.

1. They should write a book addressing the damages done by Voit and Smolin. It shouldn't be a direct rebuttal but a long and thorough exposition of string theory which takes into account the questions raised by those two books. This book could have many "tracks" (like MTW's "gravitation") so that different readers can read at different depths.

2. The group of writers should choose a nom de plume, such as Bourbaki, so as to avoid personal mudslinging. After all, our words must have the strength to stand by themselves. However, this must be considered carefully since this might be construed as cowardice. But if the book is not a direct attack then this would show that "personal journey" or that sort of stuff, while giving rise to legends and personality cults, have essentially nothing to do with the true achievements of physics.

A theory that needs to be defended is not a theory that should be defended. My proposal is a concerted attempt at an exposition of one of the most fascinating structures discovered by mankind.

-- IML

reader Craig Bolon said...

18 Nov. 2007

In his 2006 book, "The Trouble with Physics," Prof. Lee Smolin of the University of Waterloo proposes to plow up the previous 30years of theoretical physics and reseed the ground. He claims that string theory and other adventures following the 1973 standard model of particles failed to make progress solving underlying problems. Smolin proposes five unsolved problems.

While Smolin would have readers think his views are radical, actually they are timid. Problems he poses are grand issues of philosophy. Solutions to them whould have no practical uses. Smolin continues a tradition of three generations of theoretical physicists who, unable to solve problems of practical importance, decamp to remote quarters where they hope to apply skills they already possess rather than develop new ones.

A genuinely radical approach would roll back the previous 80 years of theoretical physics, returning to the unsolved problems of quantum mechanics from the late 1920s and developing a theory that reliably predicts from first principles commonly needed properties of matter that agree with practical measurements, including:

(1) complete electromagnetic emission and absorption spectra of any atom or molecule at any ionization state, including wavelengths, linewidths, strengths and sensitivities to environmental factors.

(2) collision cross-sections between any atoms and small molecules, including end-states, branching ratios and product energies, angular momenta and angular distributions.

(3) structure and interaction of complex molecules, including physical conformations, sensitivities to environmental factors, and rotational distributions and energies.

(4) structure of solid materials, including mechanical properties, electron energy bands and conductivity, surface properties and superconducting transitions.

(5) complete energy and decay spectrum of any atomic nucleus, including lifetime, modes, branching ratios, and product energies, spins and angular distributions.

(6) collision cross-sections between free neutrons and any atomic nuclei, including energy dependence, intermediate lifetimes, modes, branching ratios, and product energies, spins and angular distributions.