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Tyson vs Greene: a lesson in demagogy

Someone sent me the following video. Indeed, it turned out to have a large capacity to make me upset.

The exchange between Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science communicator from a planetarium, took place at the 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (107 minutes) two years ago. Members of the panel included Katherine Freese, Jim Gates, Janna Levin, Marcello Gleiser, Brian Greene, and of course the omnipresent pushy hippie crank called Lee Smolin.

In the 4-minute excerpt, Tyson prepares Brian for a purposefully blunt question. At this moment, the eternally diplomatic Brian Greene may already display a facial expression indicating that he knows what he should expect and he's a bit annoyed.

Tyson says that "you guys have been at the string theory for two decades." Well, this shows Tyson's remarkable ignorance of the history of science. String theory started 45 years ago, not 20 years ago, it became supersymmetric (super) 40 years ago, and it rapidly strengthened during the first superstring revolution almost 30 years ago. Almost 20 years ago, it began to undergo the second superstring revolution.

But let's get to the point. Tyson says something like

Einstein, working alone, went from special relativity to general relativity in ten years. It was a brilliant piece of work. Just four years later, there was an experimental verification of the new theory. Legions of string theorists are working for two decades and you're sort of not there yet. Is there not enough of you? Are you chasing a ghost? Or is the collection of you too stupid to figure this out?
What a jerk, what a pack of malicious demagogy. Brian gives a perfectly sensible answer and mine won't be too different. Nevertheless, let me give you mine.

First, Tyson suggests that every theory takes the same time to be completed and the same time to be verified. Needless to say, this opinion shows that Tyson compares apples with oranges and he can't possibly have a realistic idea what science is.

The fact that two or three systems of ideas are called "theory" – special theory of relativity, general theory of relativity, and string theory – doesn't mean that they're equally large or comparable collections of ideas and equations. In fact, they're obviously not. Relativity is just a principled theory – observations based on symmetries that constrain the allowed laws of physics in a certain way. String theory isn't just about some cherry-picked constraints; it's an actual complete, detailed theory that predicts everything that may be predicted about Nature. Once string theory is fully understood, the search for the fundamental theories of Nature will be over. Given the uniqueness of this moment, it wouldn't be inappropriate if the research of string theory continued for 200 or 500 years or more.

A student with some required mathematical background may be explained the special theory of relativity on 3 pages and she sorts and clarifies the remaining calculations and principles on extra 10 pages by herself. A similar comment applies to the general theory of relativity.

If I exaggerate just a little bit, Einstein needed 10 years to realize that \(S\sim R\); the action is proportional to the Ricci scalar. A physicist with a modern background to understand physics really needs these three characters to define general relativity and she needs to solve several straightforward exercises to deduce its basic implications.

None of these comments holds for string theory. You really need something like 1,000 pages for an introduction to the subject. String theory is composed of dozens or hundreds of breakthroughs of comparable depth and importance as special or general relativity. Mr Tyson and other laymen probably don't understand this very fact and there are seven billion people who don't understand this very fact. But the high number of these morons doesn't give them the moral right to talk about the deepest theory that the mankind has ever had and probably will ever have and about those who have seriously contributed to it in this disrespectful way, especially if they're the kind of infinitesimal pseudointellectual dwarfs as Mr Tyson.

Also, I find it important to say the following comment. I have always admired Einstein and he managed to revolutionize physics several times, indeed. But he was almost certainly not the smartest physicist who has ever lived on this planet. And whether he was smarter or more creative than the top string theorists – or whether he was mostly more lucky, especially when it came to the timing of his life – is a question that doesn't admit an easy, immediate answer.

Well, I believe that 10 years to go from special relativity to general relativity is just too much and I would have been faster if I were in the same situation in which Einstein found himself after his miraculous year, 1905. For some other people I know, it could have literally been a question of days, perhaps. By using suggestive demagogic adjectives such as "brilliant", Tyson wants to outlaw the very discussion about these matters. He builds his case on the imbeciles in the audience and the expectation that Brian wouldn't have the courage to say that string theory is a much deeper and more ambitious project than just relativity. Fortunately, Brian didn't quite get intimidated (although his courage was arguably fortified by his physical absence in the hall).

Because Tyson doesn't really understand string theory at the technical level, as Brian pointed out, he can't know a legitimate procedure to estimate how much time it should "reasonably" take to complete string theory and/or settle its validity (recall the estimates of the length of the Emperor's nose). I think this task is hundreds or thousands of times more profound than just realizing that the Universe respects the laws of relativity. But no one can know the right ratio – not even the top string theorists – before all the things are settled.

Also, to think about the deadlines and quotas as methods to assign researchers to various disciplines of science is just preposterous in general. Young people in a certain quantitative, supersmart category focus on string theory simply because they understand that string theory is the cutting edge of physics where meaningful progress is happening and may happen with their help, too. People with some interest in the deepest laws combined with the competence are working on string theory because it hasn't been completed yet while it is the only game in town. It doesn't matter to them whether string theory has been around for 10 years, 20 years, 40 years, or 500 years. A theory's being the cutting edge can't be determined from some numbers describing its history.

Moreover, the experimental verification, as Brian also noted, is inevitably harder now simply because string theorists are wrestling with a problem that is much further from the everyday life experience – and therefore more profound in this particular sense. The reasons why it was easier to verify certain claims 100 years ago than it is today should be completely obvious to everyone who has at least some clue. If someone suggests that he doesn't understand these reasons and uses the comparisons to argue that string theorists are qualitatively dumber than Albert Einstein, then he's either an unprecedented moron or a hardcore jerk without scruples.

String theory isn't a completed theory yet but it has already made so many striking discoveries that they have already downgraded both the special theory of relativity and the general theory of relativity to cute and essential ideas among hundreds of similarly cute and essential ideas in physics. But even if we made a completely different conclusion – that relativity was a deeper discovery than all of string theory and Albert Einstein was smarter than any living string theorist – I don't quite think that string theorists should be ashamed because of this comparison. As Greene says, Einstein was a special genius and relativity was an extraordinary advance. So it can't be a mortal sin if you were less creative and achieved a smaller breakthrough than one of the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century.

Number of string theorists

But let me discuss the claim by Tyson that there are too many string theorists. I find the stupidity of this claim totally unbelievable. To understand the Universe at the deepest possible level is – let's estimate – one of the three most natural motivations of life of a modern thinking human. If the mankind had the ambition to be a science-driven society, two billions of people should be consistently thinking about such issues.

Instead, the number of string theorists who are actively thinking about these questions in physics pretty much every day is almost certainly smaller than 2,000. Using a less inclusive counting, one could get down to 500 or so. But let me use the higher number, 2,000 in the whole world. That's more than 1 million times fewer than it should be.

If you have never been a string theorist, you probably can't even imagine how incomparably elite and reclusive status it is to be a string theorist. Even if we assume that there are 2,000 string theorists in the world – and it is probably an overestimate – it implies that there is one string theorist per 3.5 million people. An average nation – or the average U.S. state – with 10 million people (such as mine) may be expected to host something like 3 string theorists. You visit ever acre in a disk of radius 200 miles around you and ask every person what he or she thinks about the newest developments in cutting-edge theoretical physics and you will find roughly two people who will have something relevant to say.

Do I think that there are too few string theorists? I surely do. I don't know whether there's enough IQ among the humans on Earth for the number to be much higher but if I forget about this limitation, I surely think that the number of people who are actively thinking about string theory should be higher by a few orders of magnitude.

Just compare the number 2,000 of string theorists with some more ordinary occupation. For example, just the Internal Revenue Service in the U.S. has about 100,000 employees (tax collectors). You should multiply this number by 20 (because the U.S. population is about 1/20 of the world population) and obtain something like 2 million to get an estimate of the number of people in the world who are doing pretty much the same thing.

These 2 million people are doing a completely annoying, redundant, repetitive, uncreative work: they're just robbing the remaining folks on Earth and take a part of their income from them. A large percentage of these 2 million people is paid salaries that exceed those of an average string theorist. Again, the number of IRS-like employees in the world is something like 1,000 times greater than the number of string theorists. And I could enumerate hundreds if not thousands of occupations similar to the IRS employees that are comparably overbloated.

By now, you should have understood why I consider proclamations about "too many people thinking about string theory" to be breathtakingly idiotic and malicious at the same moment. There are many people in the world and it's guaranteed that a vast majority of them has to do something rather ordinary. But if the mankind cared about knowledge, string theorists would arguably represent the most underrepresented occupation among all of them. How someone can turn this obvious fact upside down and complain about the allegedly too high number of string theorists – while being silent about 2 million tax collectors and everyone else – is just beyond me.

A deep hatred against science and against people who are smarter is the only conceivable motivation that people like Mr Tyson may have. What makes their comments that "there are too many string theorists" even more stunning and hypocritical is that the number of people emitting dumb criticisms of string theory is vastly higher than the number of string theorists – and many of them are actually making living out of this hostile, barbarian, intellectually worthless junk. Where does this overgrown group of dishonest parasites find the chutzpah to say that there are too many string theorists?

Does string theory produce crackpot alternatives?

At 2:10, Tyson says another stunningly idiotic thing:
The pace of progress in string theory is so slow that it has led to other ideas exhibited on this panel [which also includes Smolin]. Some people say that we live in the Matrix and Marcello is questioning the whole idea of a unified theory.
Holy cow. How can the – high or low – pace of progress in string theory lead to the emergence and re-emergence of mostly stupid ideas that have nothing to do with string theory? The people who talk about our world's being the Matrix are not string theorists. They have nothing to do with string theory and frankly speaking, they have virtually no chance to become string theorists because they're just too intellectually limited for that.

How can someone attribute the existence of stupid ideas – which have existed for millions of years, since the humans ceased to be monkeys and probably well before that – to the numerical value of the pace of progress in string theory, a field that the "Matrix researchers" (not to be confused with Matrix theory researchers) have nothing to do with? It just makes no sense. A crackpot may say that the Matrix or Loop Quantum Gravity or any other idiocy are equal competitors to string theory. And many of them are saying similar things all the time. But just because a stupid person says such a thing doesn't make it true. These people are not string theorists. These people are not top theoretical physicists. These people aren't sharing the elite status with the less than 2,000 string theorists in the world. They're just random mediocre folks who are saying preposterous things and they can get away with it simply because there exists an even higher number of "consumers" who buy similar nonsense, partly because the "anti-string theorists" are populistically licking the rectums of the stupid listeners who are annoyed that someone is way smarter than they are.

When Brian told Tyson that Tyson can't possibly evaluate the pace of progress in string theory because he has no clue about string theory at the technical level, Tyson agreed that he had no idea about string theory at the technical level but he added:
That's why I invited this panel. And they're apparently thinking about other things.
Great but what does it have to do with the pace of progress in string theory? Clearly, nothing. Most people have been thinking about other things than string theory – and most people are still thinking about other things than string theory – simply because string theory is way too demanding for them. Some members of the panel were downright cranks. How can you determine the pace of progress by looking at the activities of a randomly constructed panel of good scientists and not-so-good scientists? This "argument" makes absolutely no sense, especially because Tyson who has composed the panel doesn't understand cutting-edge physics at the technical level so he can't be expected to know who really belongs to a panel that could reasonably discuss questions of the cutting-edge physics.

It's exactly like saying
Look, I invited 7 pigs over here and they are primarily eating leaves, grasses, roots, fruits, and flowers. All of them are doing something else than molecular biology which proves that the progress in molecular biology has been so incredibly slow and the molecular biologists are probably chasing a ghost or they are too stupid. This slow pace of progress in the molecular biology has created the pigs that eat leaves, grasses, fuits, and flowers instead of research of molecular biology.
WTF? Are you really serious, Mr Tyson? And please, give me a break with possible suggestions that the comparison of you and the pigs is inaccurate. The empirical evidence in your extempore is overwhelming that you're much closer to average pigs than to average string theorists.

Arrogant morons such as Mr Tyson is something I just can't stand.

By the way, I am just preparing The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene for the second Czech edition, after a decade. It's kind of amazing to see how I could still subscribe to every word of it, how every sentence plays a role, makes sense, and is stylistically and artistically exciting and optimized.

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snail feedback (58) :

reader Robert Sykes said...

If Tyson wanted a fat target, he should have focused on the tokamak projects. Forty years, tens of billions of dollars and literally thousands of physicists' careers...and literally no progress.

And since the 1970s, it has been known that the capital costs must be an order of magnitude larger than fission reactors. So such machines have no possible civilian or military use.

Tokamak is the greatest waste of capital and human resources in history.

reader Dilaton said...

I completely agree with you Lumo,

this Tyson guy is such a big arrogant ***hole :-(0) !!!

I better dont try to watch the video, it has a high potential to make me throw my Laptop out of the window out of anger ...
(I have heard that Italian football fans sometimes throw their TVs out of the window if the wrong team has won :-D)

Why in the world did Brian Greene and the other good physicists agree to take part in this farce? Me thinkgs it should have been clear to them before what the real purpose of this "dabate" is ... Good for Brian Greene that he could give some contra to this Tyson troll, and better for him to not have been physically present there. Who knows what such lynch mobs who enjoy such "discussions" or "debates" are capacle of doing ... :-/

What you say in this post is exactly why I always get upset, if I observe that on Physics SE, serious people interested in theoretical physics (in particular string theory) and students get alienated by the horrible political moderation established since the elections. They should be encouraged and find help good answers and inspiration there instead of being discouraged by closing their questions for political, language, and other nitpicking reasons!

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Tyson has a Phd. in astrophysics from Columbia. He should not be excused for making such incredibly stupid and arrogant statements, even if he were playing Devil's advocate with Greene. (but then Smolin has a Harvard physics Phd, and look at his stuff :))

The Matrix comments likely refer to James Gates, who is a string theorist. His pet idea is that there is computer code (error-correcting) embedded in the equations and structure of string theory. IMO this is likely numerology and the human brain's penchant for imposing spurious patterns on our sensory inputs.

A problem with programs for the public is that there is a group of "public" physicists who aggressively make themselves available for these programs and for publications of all sorts, as "experts", and appearances in say, Sci Am, Atlantic Monthly, etc, are used by them to promote the idea of their expertise---in case you are wondering to whom I am referring...Lee Smolin, Lawrence Krauss mostly.

reader Metod Rybár said...

Tyson often plays stupid moderator to explain complicated things to general public. He often ask stupid questions, often make fun of things, but not to be demagogic, but to get attention of ordinary people to the science. I don't think he meant to undermine physicist researching string theory with this, he just tried to get them to explain what they do and how they're doing it in most simplistic way to general public, as he often does in hist discussions, book and appearances. Maybe it's not interesting or good way for real scientist, but talking about mathematical figures doesn't simply catch public attention, and everybody cannot be scientist.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I would have lots of understanding for this explanation if it emerged as the right explanation at the end. Except that it has not.

This undeservedly harsh treatment of Brian and other string theorists wasn't just the attitude at the beginning and the bulk of the exchange but it was also the desired conclusion.

You say that everybody cannot be a scientist. Fine. But in a civilized world, some people should still have the right both to be scientists - string theorists in this case - and to preserve their human dignity.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Gordon, thanks for the insightful comment.

Gates' word "the Matrix" isn't trying to pretend that it is something else than a colorful description of a technical result that has almost nothing to do with the movie and this particular work by Gates results from some of the most stringy work that he's been doing (well, with some numerological addition that makes no sense, I agree with that), so it's nonsensical to market it as an "alternative to string theory".

Right. Some folks are aggressively making themselves brutally available for such programs, a nice point. But that still doesn't explain why the organizers etc. aren't able to see those things. Eastern European and Russian and other ice-hockey players are aggressively making themselves available for the NHL but that doesn't imply that all of them are hired, it doesn't mean that the Eastern Europeans and Russians dominate the NHL. They're regulated at appropriate proportions - despite the fact that the managers who draft the players mostly can't play ice-hockey themselves!

So at the end, this wrong flavor of similar events requires some misbalanced attitudes not only of the chronic attendants of these events but also those who organize and master-mind such things. These folks must be either ignorant of the simple point that Smolin, Krauss, and others are just playing their own game for their own egotist interests which are only as tightly linked to science as Krauss' and Smolin's excessively humble contributions to science are visible in the actual body of science; or these organizers are consciously teamed up with this kind of qualitative distortion of the physics and with the chronic participants' desired emotions.

reader Shannon said...

I saw this video on Greene's tweeter this week-end and I was hoping you would write something about it :-).
This video reminds of Sheldon's "discrimination against the otherwise located"...;-). More seriously I think Brian Greene did very well in this exchange. He's won the argument. He's good.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks, Dilaton, for the shared feelings. But: Maybe it's a good idea for sensible people like Brian to try to participate in similar debates. They may end up as farces exactly because mostly/only the not-maximally-reasonable and/or utterly idiotic people accept the invitations and this is also the fault of those who reject them.

Of course, this dilemma is something people would face often during communism. Many people who joined the communist party, for example, for career reasons and were doing some decisions were boasting that by having done so, they have protected the society from worse things that would happen if someone else and worse took the job. ;-) This excuse is a very dangerous thing to make, of course, but it has some point, too.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Well, I don't know how much money and time the fusion research has eaten by given the clear benefits if it succeeded in practice, and I see no proof that it won't, I have a problem to believe that the investments have been excessive.

Fusion is the energy of the future and it will always be, some bad tongues are saying. ;-) Well, I don't know. I think that in 100 years or so, there will be fusion power plants. Tokamak is among the most promising technologies now. It may change but one can't switch to a competition before there's sufficient evidence that it's a sensible thing to do.

At any rate, I agree with your broader point that there are surely fatter targets one could have taken, even within physical sciences.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Exactly, I couldn't stop thinking about Sheldon's morphing himself into a virtual personality.

reader Dilaton said...

That is a very strange approach to motivate people to explain things by insulting and badly attacking them ...

And I question that it works. When such "questions" as the first one Lumo cites get "asked" at physics SE, they get largely downvoted and closed (rightly so!) and I always flag such posts as hate speech against accepted mainstream physics which is not allowed on a serious physics site ...

Insulting and attacking people is really not a good way of asking them to explain their work.

reader John Smith said...

Lubos, you wrote: Well, I believe that 10 years to go from special relativity to general
relativity is just too much and I would have been faster if I were in the same
situation in which Einstein found himself after his miraculous year, 1905. For
some other people I know, it could have literally been a question of days,

That's very interesting, considering that Edward Witten has stated in his lectures on modern physics, which can be found on youtube, that it would have been a long time before anybody had the insight into general relativity that Einstein had. Also, if you knew one thing about the history of science, you would know that after 1905, there were several theorists who were constructing relativistic accounts of gravity that were not general relativity. Einstein was after the equivalence of all reference frames. Had it not been for Einstein, forget 10 years, I don't think we would have it in 2013.

reader Rathnakumar said...

And here we catch Tyson saying stupid things about global warming :-)

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear John, I suppose that Witten was painting his parallel-universe-like alternative history in which GR was found much later and perhaps when GR appeared for the first time, it emerged from string theory.

I find this hypothetical world totally plausible, too. Relatively to *that* world, our world is an anomaly in which GR was found unexpectedly soon, probably due to Einstein's unique ingenuity.

But if you forget about this non-existent parallel world and you actually study the details of the thinking by Einstein - and others - in 1905 and after 1905 - and be sure that I've read lots and lost of it - I think you will reach a different conclusion than Witten.

Einstein was severely slowed down by some ignorance of mathematics. He has realized the importance of the equivalence principle from his Prague years, perhaps 1911, see

From that principle to GR, it was almost 5 years and that was too much. At the same moment, the previous 6 years from special relativity were too long as well and Einstein *did* play with various special relativistic theories that were trying to incorporate gravity.

I've played with those things when I was a teenager as well. In some sense, special relativity may look more economic. So one may just try to devise a special relativistic field theory with an extra scalar field PHI, something like a gravitational potential, and write corresponding equations for that.

The problem is that once you derive any physics from this scalar theory of would-be gravity, the equivalence principle will be severely violated. You will have to notice. You will have to realize the uniqueness of the gravity we know that does respect the equivalence principle. Einstein has essentially gone through this thinking. It led him to realize that the gravitational field had to be a symmetric tensor, one linked to the variable spacetime geometry.

Most other people were just not interested in gravity at those times at all so he had a limited competition. But he still did have some competition. To say the least, David Hilbert got all the ideas of GR at virtually the same moment when Einstein was publishing them. Hilbert published papers about GR instantly, leading some people to talk about priority disputes etc. (Hilbert never suggested those things). When new physics is understood that quickly, I have a hard time to believe that it wouldn't be discovered for the next 100 years if the discoverer weren't there.

All those things are speculations, however. There's only one possible history that is more sensible than others - the history we actually know in the world around us. GR was found by more or less one person - with some help from Grossmann etc. - who worked in near isolation for 10 years. This fact may be spun in many ways - Einstein was slow, Einstein was fast, relativity was hard, relativity was easy, and so on - but all these things are just spin. The speed and difficulty only makes sense with some units or comparisons and no comparison is really legitimate here because comparing totally different scientific revolutions is mixing apples and oranges.

The only claim we may really make today is that none of the Tysons is anywhere near the scientific depth that string theorists have displayed, otherwise these Tysons would have contributed something valuable to physics at the fundamental scale which they have not.

reader Luboš Motl said...

It's just so annoying. In many cases, I like Maher. But here both Maher and Tyson are acting despicably. They don't seem to be interested in the question whether their claims are true or not.

They're just interested in inventing would-be clever ways to insult other people and their knowledge and stories about "denial" etc. In these stories, the validity of the AGW assumptions has to be accepted unquestionably.

I think that they must know that this approach is extremely risky to say the least and probably immensely idiotic in the content. Take Maher's discussion with Lutz. Maher says that everyone is in the consensus so if someone isn't, he must live in a bubble. But the guy in the room who is living in the bubble isn't some random crackpot on the street. He is the ex-boss of General Motors and arguably much more sensible and achieved man than Maher and Tyson combined.

Would Lutz - or the Nobel prize winners etc. - who disagree with the climate propaganda lead Tysons and Mahers and others to rethink what they actually believe about the science? No way. The crap they believe about the global warming - including the myth that there is a consensus about it - is a holy dogma for them. They're not interested in critically assessing the validity of these assumptions at all. They're only interested in the "applications".

reader Luke Lea said...

Correction: according to Wikipedia the modern study of electricity and magnetism began in 1600 "when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber." Nikola Tesla experimentally demonstrated the transmission and radiation of radio frequency energy in 1892 and 1893, again according to Wikipedia. That would be 292 year later.

reader Dilaton said...

BTW this kind of attention Tyson manages to get to science by his attacks and insults of smart hardworking physicists does not help to popularize the field at all !

On the contrary, Tyson's attitude supports well known trolls and sourballs (from Columbia University for example) who make a living out of spouting uninformed hate tirades against string theorists, their work, and everything related, and who try very hard to make this research disappear.

reader Gene Day said...

We will run out of fossil fuels eventually but that will likely be two or more centuries from now. “Run out” means only that other energy sources will become more economic, of course. It is likely that the energy storage problem will have been solved, perhaps by efficient lithium-air batteries, making wind power much more economic than it is now.

We can’t really know whether fusion power will, ultimately, be needed. We cannot realistically predict either the supply or the demand in the distant future but it seems to me that the expenditure on fusion power

reader Gene Day said...

As usual I have found your post to be accurate, insightful and hugely entertaining. I fell a little sheepish in making any criticism but I do take issue with your blanket dismissal of American IRS agents. I have known a couple of them and can assure you that they were hard-working professionals, doing their best to enforce the law against intimidating odds. Their problem is twofold:
First, American income-tax law is enormously complex, for which we have only Congress to blame. Second, there are far larger numbers of people trying to pay as little as possible. The great majority of these folks are also hard-working, honest people whom are just trying to do their jobs, but there are, alas, many who are willing to defraud the government. Worse, many areas of tax law are in the gray area and constant effort is required to clarify the intent of the folks who wrote the law. It is not simple and not is not easy.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Gene, maybe you're right about the hard work of IRS employees. I know the people from our Pilsner tax office most of whom are incompetent. When it comes to any issue that just slightly deviates from the tax situation of an average taxpayer (including pretty much anything that has to do with foreign income), they have no clue. I know more about tax laws than they do.

First, American income-tax law is enormously complex, for which we have only Congress to blame.

It's analogous to saying that the laws of Nature at the Planck scale are incredibly complex and only Nature is to blame. ;-)

My goal wasn't to blame anyone which is sort of silly because a world where the number of tax bureaucrats or string theorists would be very different from the actual ones would be a very different world. Lots of reasons led to one number of another.

Still, I believe that the number of people employed in tax collection could be reduced at least by an order of magnitude with currently available technologies.

reader Gene Day said...

Tyson does seem a simpleton, Gordon, but he gets his rewards these days from being an entertainer not a scientist. It is very hard not to act in one’s own financial interest, isn’t it?.
Our capability for self-delusion is limitless and Tyson is far from alone in this regard.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Einstein relied on his friend, mathematician, Marcel Grossman, to tutor him on the relevant mathematics to apply to his theory.
His (one of) famous paper about GR was written with Grossman as second author.
Einstein's use of gedanken experiments, and intuition was incredible, but his mathematics skills were certainly nowhere near the Newton or Witten level. This is not a criticism of him.

reader John McVirgo said...

Lubos, you have experience of learning about SR, GR and String theory, so on a scale of 1 to 100, what difficulty rating would you give each of these subjects?

reader Luboš Motl said...

I don't know how to quantitatively define the scale. Is there a natural "linearity" structure on this axis? If you define the rating X between 1 and 100, can't you redefine X to X^2 / 100, for example? ;-)

GR is surely more complicated than SR and string theory is more complicated than GR and SR because it contains both as a tiny trivial feature. In some sense, the mental focus one needs for string theory is "orders of magnitude" harder than for SR and GR - but these "orders of magnitude" of concentration are normal so one may use a logarithmic axis.

You may discuss how much time people need to learn those things. A one-semester undergraduate course on special relativity is usually more than enough and the excess time makes it redundant or one has to start about things "not directly included in SR as such".

Two semesters of GR are appropriate for older undergrad students of physics. String theory only makes sense to be systematically studied (except for bright young individuals) at the level of graduate students and several semesters only give one the real basics, with a lot of need to learn other things individually.

I am pretty sure that tens of millions of people in the world sort of understand the "core of special relativity" correctly and a significant fraction of them understands GR, too. The number of people in the world who have a technically recognizable knowledge of string theory - in the ballpark of the active researchers' knowledge, so to say - may be 10 thousand or so, about 3 orders of magnitude lower than for GR. Sadly enough, many people who only belong to the much more inclusive GR category are offering their opinions about string theory, too.

reader PlatoHagel said...

TVO S James Gates on Does Reality have a Genetic Basis

I do not think James Gates quest here to be consider numerology as you suggest. It is a very good lesson here of the move to a experimental basis as a question of the mathematical language considered to be a source code for a question with regard to a genetic basis applied to nature.

Complex ideas, complex shapes Adinkras — geometric
objects that encode mathematical relationships between supersymmetric
particles — are named after symbols that represent wise sayings in West
African culture. This adinkra is called "nea onnim no sua a, ohu," which translates as "he who does not know can become knowledgeable through learning."


reader Dilaton said...

I always find it most astonishing how so many people (strictly speaking the majority of commenters in not properly moderated physics blogs for example) has the impudence to spit and spat on topics (and the corresponding researchers) they have no clue about and sometimes even admit this ...

This attests to them a particular kind of huge breath taking arrogance that leaves reasonable people often speechless and which is completely beyond me.

reader Honza said...

Hi Lubo. I think that you are way of on this one, as far as the Tyson goes. I would bet that his opinions on the string theory are close to yours but he is just more diplomatic than you would be in the same situation. He sets BG up, by asking him question that general public would ask (but cannot, as they do not have a microphone, so he asks for them) and allows BG to answer it. Paraphrasing his words - I brought all of you here to give me the answer.

If he starts with: "Hey, Brian, why don't you tell us why Lee Smolin is a total idiot?", it would not get over very well, and he would lose most of audience right there.

I am not sure how often do you talk with "true general public" about physics, but probably not much. When it comes to Albert Einstein, people know (or more precisely hold opinion) that it was a really smart guy and did something about physics. That's it. Possibly they know that he had something to do with the theory of relativity. Try to ask people, if AE got the Nobel Prize and for what. If one out of twenty will give you the right answer, you have been asking average or more likely better than average crowd. And I am not talking necessarily about blue collar crowd. The same goes for biologist, lawyers, liberal arts...

Tyson calls Einstein brilliant, because he was (give Einstein some credit, please), but more importantly because if he does not, once again, most of the audience will stop listening right there.

And his salary, as most of other physicists, is payed after all by those idiots. He knows that, as Sheldon Cooper's mother puts it, it is OK to be smarter than everybody else, but it is not OK to point it out. That way you get beaten up at best. ;-)

As I see it, Tyson does not want to intimidate Green at all. He is just giving him a space in joking manner. I do not know how much Tyson knows about the string theory, but he definitely does a lot of communication with public.

He does not state that there is too many string theorist either. He just asks - is there enough-too many-too little, and lets BG answer.

I just cannot shake the feeling, that if rather than publicly attacking Tyson, you try to suggest to him, who to invite for the next discussion panel, he would probably listen. (But that boat probably sailed by now, so it would be difficult to experimentally prove now. ;-))

Also, as I am in it already, I would not call the IRS people non creative. They keep coming with new ways how to suck money from general public and how to rationalize it all the time. ;-) Not creativity I appreciate, but creativity nevertheless.

reader Luboš Motl said...

No, Honzo, your comment that it's just a game and Tyson's opinions are close to mine is a complete fantasy. This does reflect Tyson's attitudes he's held for years or decades. Listen e.g. to this NOVA podcast:

where he says pretty much the same thing as in the exchange with Brian, pretty much in the same aggressive tone.

reader Honza said...

OK. You could be right. I do not know him that well. I just had that feeling that you are starting war with somebody you could very well get to fight on you side, if you ask first. ;-). But I take it as - you have tried that already.

reader George Christodoulides said...

people pay too much attention to this guy. i saw him in an interview once and he could not even explain why Pluto would stop being considered as one of the planets of the solar system and he was being corrected by the commentator that was not an expert.

he would not have his position if it was not for his race, this is why he gets upset when invited somewhere because of his race. he knows this is why he has the position. as a scientist he is average at best in a field far much easier than Greene's, if Greene still works at it.

didn't Einstein try for a couple decades to unify general relativity with electromagnetism?

reader Scott Ferris said...

Regretting my first comment on your feed is a negative one; I found this post to be a hot headed ramble that needs a disclaimer on the top hinting that if only believers of string theory should read forward. What you consider "idiotic" questions are based for a general audience which I didn't find enlightening but respectable in the context of general audiences. Finally, I hope your close minded attitude to physics outside of string theory does not hinder your professional or personal relationships.

reader James Gallagher said...

Einstein's theory of GR is beautiful, but since it is only an approximate description of Nature it is not so different to poetry - and I believe the theory would have been created in quite a different form if Einstein had not lived. Especially if the quantum revolution had kicked in a decade earlier.

Even the experimental strong-field confirmations (pulsars) of Einstein's GR are still within the linear approximation to the theory - unless someone can point me to a stronger result?

I don't think you would have got the result Lubos knowing QM, you'd have to wipe your mind of QM, then be convinced that the equivalence principle is REALLY IMPORTANT, and then be beguiled by the powerful beauty of riemannian geometry and it's description by tensors - but I don't think you're even close to being as imaginative as Einstein was.

reader Robert said...

Ingemar Bengtsson wrote in 1998:
"One can probably prove a theorem to the effect that string theory has an ergodic property that will make it come arbitrarily close to any point in idea space, if one waits long enough."

My impression - which is that of a non-insider in the field - is that this still applies today.

So, my question to some string crack out there would be this: Can one see some convergence in idea space these days and if so, where does string theory converge to ?


reader Luboš Motl said...

OK, I don't understand your way of reasoning. You must be confusing science with some kind of religion that may converge to God. You may want physics to play the same role but it's simply not the purpose of science to "converge" in this sense.

The purpose of science is to understand, predict, and organize/relate/connect observations. Because there are still many different observations, they need different parts of science or insights in science to be explained and they're related to some other phenomena - but not all phenomena.

String theory may indeed contain "all good idea in physics", as Polchinski once semi-jokingly but not quite jokingly wrote. In this sense, it may indeed ergodically come arbitrarily close to any other valuable enough or valid enough idea. There's nothing wrong about it. Instead, it is a testimony to the immense power of the theory, to its being a "theory of everything".

In this sense, the whole body of the string theory research surely doesn't converge. It keeps on spreading, you may say that that it's "diverging". More particular questions are converging but to expect that "all of a scientific discipline converges to a point" is a complete misunderstanding of what science is. Science wants to understand more and more, so its reach is always expanding, not converging.

However, string theory still says things. The fact that it's relevant "almost everywhere", if we exaggerate, and the fact that it admits many solutions doesn't make it vacuous. Quite on the contrary, it dictates pretty much everything once one defines the question - which includes the environment - accurately.

reader Robert said...

Dear Lubos,
"You must be confusing science with some kind of religion that may converge to God." -
I don't think so, I am an atheist and I don't care about such kind of "esoteric" convergence at all.

What I mean is actually this: SR for example can be derived from a simple principle, the invariance of the line element. It is conceptionally easy to learn. Quite similarly GR, starting from the equivalence principle.
My hope has always been that string theory would converge to a comparably clear (and lasting) principle such that it can more easily be learned by people - like me - who do not have the time to dig into all these technical papers which is what seems to be required according to Greene.

My impression is that the statement by David Gross still characterizes the situation quite well, who once said something like "String theory is not a theory, it is rather a framework".

If I understand you correctly, you go even one step further in that you say that string theory may well always remain a framework. Is that so ?


Oh by the way, Opera gets hung up for quite a while when loading - due to mathjax - very annoying. I have the same problem with my website too.
Anybody out there who can help ????

reader Luboš Motl said...

I see, understood. The universal principle hasn't been found yet. While I am immensely interested in this issue, it's important to realize that this goal is a tiny fraction of the string theory research because it's in no way guaranteed to "converge" anywhere.

reader Peter Fred said...

If string theory is concerned about foundations, what about the very foundation of the mass-based foundation of the Newton and Einstein gravity theories. I have simple repeatable table top experiments to support my views on how gravity works. Your 2000 string theorist have no comparable experiments to support their mathematical rumination on gravity. Look at the picture of the experiment that I have posted . Or see some more in the comment section of my old heat-based gravity theory:

reader Robert said...

I understand your point. I wonder if this is due to the non-perturbative nature of the theory.


reader Gordon Wilson said...

Hmm, I don't understand, Dilaton. Are you suggesting that the moderation is improving at physics SE? I will have to go look again.
BTW, is Ron back?

reader Gordon Wilson said...

No, Gates does explicitly speculate that we are living in the Matrix--

"If this is the case, we might have something in common with the Matrix
science-fiction films, which depict a world where everything human
beings experience is the product of a virtual-reality-generating
computer network."

This essay of his is fascinating, and I see his adinkras as similar to Feynman diagrams and very valid and powerful ways of thinking. Also interesting--the error correcting codes. Whether linking them is valid --don't know, but I don't agree that his conclusion about us living in a virtual reality construct is correct.

If everything he writes is correct, this could just be the structure of nature and not some purposive computer program.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Robert, the phrase "nonperturbative nature of the theory" is somewhat or slightly confusing or confused. The adjective "perturbative" refers to methods to calculate. One can't have a physical theory that is perturbative. The term "perturbative theory" doesn't really denote any physical theory - it denotes the mathematical methodology to calculate. A physical theory may be at most non-perturbatively well-defined etc. and string theory is. But so is QCD or anything of this sort. String theory is not "more non-perturbative than QCD" in any sense.

And the right way to say what you probably wanted to say is that the impossibility to define all of string theory by a universal law only emerges if we want to include strongly coupled regimes that aren't accessible to perturbation theory.

reader Gordon Wilson said...

Gene--having seen him before, I think he was just playing devil's advocate to spice up the show---but I think he is a string skeptic. It is really unfortunate that many shows about modern physics (Hawking's and Greene's) excepted) showcase Smolin's ugly mug and/or Krauss' smug and condescending comments. These guys are a two ring circus.

reader Robert said...

"And the right way to say what you probably wanted to say is that the
impossibility to define all of string theory by a universal law only
emerges if we want to include strongly coupled regimes that aren't
accessible to perturbation theory."
Yes, I think that's what I wanted to say. Thanks for this more precise formulation. (Actually I thought about "Witten's elephant").


reader Dilaton said...

Hi Gordon,

hm, I did not at all mean to say that the moderation is improving on Physics SE :-/.

It is still way too political, focused on establishing externally by the SE people prescribed rules and enforcing constraints about what is allowed on the site, instead of trying to make the site as helpful and useful and interesting as possible for physicists and people (at least at a certain level) interested in learning (more about) physics. (Math SE is better since they simply allow what is useful for the community and what the community likes).

Instead of being a site for academics, active resarchers, and students of Physics and Astronomy, it has rather turned into a Q&A site for popular, homeworky, and very basic physics. Some people answering and asking questions at this level have already enough rep to closevote higher level stuff they have no clue about etc ... :-/

Manishearth has posted a quite constructive post saying what people can do if the disagree with a close/migration/delete decision:

But this does not change the fact that the rules they apply to close questions are applied very arbitrarily, randamly, and dependent on the opinion of powerful enough user who wants to shoot down things ... Astonishingly, I most often disagree, with David since quite some time ago. He has become very political and I am not sure if he still cares about having good and higher level physics on the site at all ...

Ron is not back, and he would never have a fair chance of coming back since the people who contributed to successfully driving him away and who are happy that he is gone are still lurking around :-( ...

Dear Gordon, I would be interested in what you think if you take a (more independent than I) look of the site. People always play it down if I say that the level has horribly dropped for example ...


reader John Smith said...

At the time Einstein was completing his work on general relativity, the mathematics was not understood very well. To understand the mathematics, it was best to have some discussions with those specializing in it. The same is true of modern advancements in physics. Nima for example has been working very closely with mathematicians to construct his latest papers. Nothing wrong with that.

Your suggestion that Edward Witten has anything on Albert Einstein is complete crackpot nonsense. Witten is a great mathematician, but his contributions to physics are marginally above zero. At 26 (e.g. before GR), Einstein had contributed 1000 times as much to physics as Witten has throughout his entire career. No, this is not because Einstein was lucky to exist at the right time. It's because Einstein was 1000 times greater at physics than Witten. You may not like speculation about what would have happened had such and such existed at a particular time, but I'm completely certain that had Witten existed in Einstein's spot in 1905, none of those 4 amazing papers would have been written. Let alone, GR which Einstein said made special relativity look like child's play. Lubos's comments about 10 years too much time, I would have gotten it faster, are just completely arrogant and total rubbish. Perhaps someone would have thought of it by 2013, but I'm dubious that anybody would have understood the importance of the equivalence principle, which is really the key insight which leads to general relativity.

Also, one other thing that separates Einstein from everybody else, which is not appreciated, was his work on quantum mechanics. Although his ideas turned out to be wrong, he was without a doubt the most important contributor to the quantum theory, because he actually understood what was going on, and it was Einstein's work that lead to everything that's ever been done on foundations. Bell did title his legendary paper, "On the Einstein Podolsky, Rosen Paradox" for a reason. Bell and Bohm were but a handful of people who appreciated what Einstein was getting at. And, it was this very appreciation that lead to Bell's theorem. It would indeed be very fascinating to hear Einstein's reaction to Bell's theorem.

reader Mikael said...

Dear all,
here is a link to the popular article Gates mentions in the discussion about the link between information technology and physics.

Dear Lubos,
Gates is not known as a crackpot to me. So I would be immensely interested in your view, maybe even in a new article. It seems to be 100% opposite to your view that discrete information plays not the primary role in physics but the continuous one.

reader Dilaton said...

The link looks interesting, I have seen an article about these adinkras once on Uduality too ...

reader Dilaton said...

Ah, I'd like so very much to see coming out of the screen and doing what you promise ...!

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Mikael, you want me to react to too much stuff at the same moment and I don't think it's a sensible investment of time.

Sylvester James Gates is great and he's producing and produced lots of work that is totally solid. He also offered some interpretations of the work that are wrong and some stuff that doesn't have anything to do with the work or serious scientific research and that often contradicts it.

He's also said lots of things about discrete fundamental principles and of course that I can't say that it's anything else than garbage - after all, it's almost the same garbage that many others have said and I've explained why it was deeply flawed.

Incidentally, Gates' combination of SUSY with the discrete delusions is particularly ironic because supersymmetry is *inevitably* a continuous symmetry. Superalgebras are generalizations of Lie algebras in which the generators are Grassmann-odd. One can't find any similar Grassmann-odd generalizations of ordinary finite groups, for example, because it's only the infinitesimal neighborhood of the identity - the Lie algebra - that may be switched to the Grassmann-odd mode. Discrete parts of groups etc. can't be made Grassmann-odd or "producing elements of the supersymmetry group".

This simple point is also heavily misunderstood by the laymen - and perhaps not just the laymen - because supersymmetry is often presented as a Z_2 symmetry of a sort, one exchanging bosons and fermions (superpartners). But that's completely wrong. It may "act" as a Z_2 on a table of particle species but this is not the real action of the transformations. Those act on the actual Hilbert spaces and the action is inevitably continuous. SUSY makes the need for continuous fundamentally continuous building blocks of Nature more inevitable, not less.

reader hroent said...

I'm really surprised at the level of nastiness in Tyson's tone. This comes off not as "teasing" (as in the video title) but as bitter anger thinly veiled by a joking tone. A man who has built his career - at least his "celebrity career" - on his charisma should realize how bad this makes him look. Greene on the other hand comes off as very genuine.

The "he's on a roll" comment at 3:48 is very telling. Tyson can't refute any of the claims Greene makes about the successes of string theory, but his opinion won't change, because it's based on emotion rather than on scientific merit.

reader Patrick Van Esch said...

Religious wars like these are an illustration of Sayre's law: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake."

Indeed, what is the value of string theory, or for that matter, any other part of theoretical physics unrelated to observation ?

Theoretical physics has 3 value aspects:

- engineering ("making material life better")

- entertainment (selling books, having TV shows)

- theology ("what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything")

Obviously, the engineering promise of string theory and contenders is essentially zero for at least our generation and the next, to put it mildly. On the other hand, on the entertainment side, there is a certain value of which this TV show is a part. A kind of intellectual's reality TV if you like. Greene's been doing not too bad on the entertainment side (yes, I bought his books too, next to those of Polchinsky). On one side, any entertainment industry should be auto-supportive (why should the tax payer be obliged to pay for entertainment he doesn't want to buy directly ?), but then the amount of money, as you justly point out, concerning financing string research and other contenders is so tiny that it would be more expensive to set up a politician's committee to decide, rather than to spend it directly. It is within the reasonable error margin of any state budget's spoiling. So string theory and contenders score well on the subvention-receiving entertainment industry side and this TV debate is part of that. It is an important raison-d'etre of string theory.

But finally, and when I read things like

"String theory isn't just about some cherry-picked constraints; it's an actual complete, detailed theory that predicts everything that may be predicted about Nature. Once string theory is fully understood, the search for the fundamental theories of Nature will be over. Given the uniqueness of this moment, it wouldn't be inappropriate if the research of string theory continued for 200 or 500 years or more."

I know I'm dealing with a theological debate. And as we all know, all theological, iconoclastic debates are bitter, violent... and in the end totally irrelevant apart from the suffering they created.

In the end, the "extraordinary" stuff 2000 string theorists (and contenders) do as compared to the "ordinary" things of creating actual value other people do is nothing else but self-delusion. The economical value of your local grocery shop is higher than that of any string theorist's output. On the other hand, the total waste of public money on it is so small that it isn't worth trying to cut it away.

So the value at stake is negligible, and hence Sayre's law indicates that the intensity of the debate must tend to infinity. That's about the definition of a theological debate.

reader Dilaton said...

-1, Theoreticel phyisics is not religion or theology, it is science!

And I guess that you have Brian Geen's or Polchinski's book just as neat decorations and nothing else in your bookshelf, since you obviously have no clue about the value and purpose of fundamental phyiscs:

It is NOT just for engineeringt, theology, and entertainment!

Trying to understand and find out how nature works is valuable by itself, it is the most valuable undertaking of humenkind. It does not need to be justified by further pretexts of any kind.

reader Mikael said...

Dear Lubos,
when did I ask you the last time to follow up on something? :-) I don't remember.

In any case your answer is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for, easy to understand but nevertheless deeply rooted in mathematics (as far as I can tell).

I work with computers for a living so this idea of Gates about the error correcting codes appeared just too tempting.
I understand that you do not want to write a long article on something which is bullshit (although you sometimes do).

reader Dilaton said...

No Patrick,

Curve fitting another data analysis methods belong to the tools experimental physicists need to understand their data, this is completely different from the purpose of fundamental or theoretical physics.

Again: theoretical physics has nothing to do with religion.

you obviously do not ujderstand the scientific method correctly either and the role of theoty and experiment therein.

reader Dilaton said...

Ok Patrick, no I disagree with you somewhat less strongly than before ;-)

Of course are is fundamental physics not the only thing worthwile to be done ...

Today there are just too many very loud sourballs and trolls that can be heared everywhere in blogs, the media, on TV, popular science magazines, Newspapers, etc that begrudge fundamental physics every cent it gets (even though it is at mosth a third order effect in the whole budged spent by any nation of the world!), claim that it should be abolished and forbidden immediately because everything is worthles crap, etc ...

And it is such people that I just cant stand and that make me explode ... :-(...

So, as you seem not to be among them after all, everything is fine :-)


reader Gordon Wilson said...

Can you read? I specifically said his mathematics skills. There is no comparison made about their relative contributions. Also, in the next sentence, I said this is not a criticism of Einstein. Einstein is one of my absolute favs, much ahead of Bohr, for example.

I would, however, disagree with saying Witten's physics contributions are marginally above zero. This is ludicrous. His math contributions in the future will be seen to be physics contributions.

When his father, Louis Witten, was asked what his (he was a physicist who did work on GR, my former field) greatest contribution to physics was,
said "my son, Ed" :)

reader Luboš Motl said...

I am seeing that Yorkshire is a cute puppy, indeed:

The comparison is OK, I am sure that everyone sees that I am a wonderful man to be with.

reader IACSC said...


Yes, he has, and even has a documentary and book regarding it.
The IAU, Dr. Tyson and hundreds of astronomers can tell you.

Get your facts straight.