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The utter insanity of Woit's Rutgers colloquium

I did my PhD at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey. Those were 4 interesting years – ending by the PhD defense on 9/11/2001, 9:30 am, some 50 miles from the Twin Towers.

Shortly before I came to Rutgers in Fall 1997 (not counting a visit in Spring 1997), it was a powerful thinking machine, arguably a top 5 place in string theory in the world. (This comment does not say that Rutgers is not good today, it's very good; and it does not imply that a new graduate student like me was the cause why Rutgers ceased to be at the absolute Olymp of theoretical physics, I was too small a master for such big changes. In the mid-to-late 1990s, it was simply natural for the richer universities like Harvard to attract folks from that "hot field" that did much of their recent important work at "slightly less obvious" top places such as Rutgers and Santa Barbara.)

Before the brains were absorbed by some of the "more expected" famous universities in the U.S., string theory faculty at Rutgers as a group were known – relatively to other physics professors at Rutgers – for their unusual contributions to science and also funding and they enjoyed some teaching advantages relatively to non-string faculty, and so on, a setup designed to further improve their efficient research. I was always imagining how hard such a setup would have been in Czechia, due to jealousy, a feature of the Czech national character.

Fast forward to 2016. Last week, the notorious critic of string theory Peter Voits (yes, this is the right spelling) gave a physics colloquium at Rutgers. Colloquia are held in the round underground building pictured above every Wednesday. The speakers are almost universally active physicists. Another exception occurred a week before Voits' colloquium when David Maiullo talked about his Broadway show.

The Rutgers website suggests that the host – the man who probably had the idea to invite Voits – was Herbert Neuberger, a lattice gauge theory guy. This hypothesis makes some sense; Voits' only papers about physics, those written in the mid 1980s, were about gauge theory, too.

Along with a string theorist whom I know very well and who is located in Asia, we agreed that the string theory Rutgers faculty were no warriors. And indeed, the reports say that no local string theorist has attended the anti-string colloquium and if he did, he remained completely invisible. If we insist on polite words, Mr Neuberger is quite a jerk. Can you imagine that a string theorist would organize a colloquium by a non-physicist who attacks e.g. lattice gauge theory?

The slides from Voits' colloquium are available as a PDF file. Let me go through them.
Needless to say, the first crazy thing about the talk was the title:
Not Even Wrong, ten years later: a view from mathematics on prospects for fundamental physics without experiment
Ten years after the publication of an anti-physics tirade (one of hundreds of similar tirades by the laymen you may find in the libraries or on the Internet) that no high-energy physicist has ever taken seriously, Voits and his host must think that it was such a big deal that it deserves a colloquium. Now, the following page (2/32) is the outline:
  • Advertisements: old book, blog, coming book
  • What happened to string unification
  • 2x about how mathematics helps to guide physics
  • Representation theory is useful for the Standard Model
Now, this is just plain sick. First, why should a fifth of a colloquium be dedicated to "advertisements", let alone advertisements that don't help the scientific research in any way? Is Prof Neuberger also planning to turn the physics.rutgers.edu website to a porn website?

The second point is said to be about the string unification – except that the speaker hasn't written a single paper (or any text that makes any sense or could earn a citation from a scientist) and there are many other ways to see that he is 100% unqualified to talk about these difficult matters, especially when it comes to advances that emerged in the recent decades (let alone recent years).

The remaining three bullets out of five want to convey the idea that both mathematics in general and representation theory are useful in physics and the Standard Model. What? Is this meant to be the topic of a colloquium? I understood the importance of mathematics in physics when I was 4 and the importance of representation theory in physics when I was 10. Every janitor who was allowed to clean my office for grad students had to know these basics, too. You must be joking, Sirs.

Page 3/32 makes the story of the anti-physics book even crazier. We learn that the book wasn't actually written 10 years ago; it was mostly written 15 years ago. Huge developments have taken place in string theory and theoretical physics in the recent 15 years. Even if the book were relevant for scientists back in 2001, and it obviously wasn't, it would have been outdated by today. So how can one possibly organize a colloquium in 2016 for which this book is meant to be one of the main pillars?

Page 4/32 shows a screenshot of the "Not Even Wrong" blog. Voits boasts that it has 1,500 blog posts (TRF has 6,600) and 40,000 comments (we have way over 100,000) and most of the 20,000 page views a day are by "robots" (maybe Voits' own robots). Now, why would anyone care? All this Internet traffic is completely negligible relatively to the most influential servers on the Internet. Why would someone talk about it at all? Why should the time of Rutgers students, postdocs, and professors be wasted by a mediocre website? Because it claims to have something to do with physics? It has nothing to do with the professional, serious physics.

Slide 5/32 promotes Joseph Conlon's book – quite embarrassing for Joseph. Page 6/32 says that Voits is writing a book about quantum mechanics. Given the fact that Voits misunderstands pretty much everything that is more complicated than a certain modest threshold, one can't expect much from that book.

On slides 7-8/32, we learn that Voits liked the years 1975-1979 and one of his achievements was to be an unpaid visitor at Harvard in 1987-1988. Wow. Who could possibly give a damn? I've attended dozens of colloquia by the Nobel prize winners but if the speaker or the host began to talk about some detailed affiliations, it would turn me off totally. Now, why should the Rutgers physics community suffer through a talk that lists unpaid visits by a crackpot that took place some 30 years ago?

Pages 9-12/32 include some popular-book-style introduction to string theory as understood in the 1980s, with 2 vague sentences about the 1990s and a purely non-technical comment about the recent years. Is this level of depth enough for a Rutgers physics colloquium these days?

Page 13/32 says that there is "hype about string theory" and uses a 17-year-old New York Times photograph of Lisa Randall as evidence. Now, Lisa's and Raman's finding was important in phenomenology; it wasn't quite string theory, just string-theory-related ideas; the article was rather sensible; it appeared 17 years ago; and physicists shouldn't get their knowledge about their field from the New York Times, anyway. So what the hell is the role that this slide could play in a physics colloquium in 2016?

Page 14/32 says that the multiverse may exist according to string theory and Voits states that "it is not science" and "it is dangerous" without a glimpse of a justification. Page 15/32 claims that there is the "end of science" and mentions Susskind's term "Popperazzi" for the religious cult claiming that some stupidly misinterpreted oversimplified ideas by a random philosopher should be worshiped as the most important thing by all physicists. If Voits at least invented something as catchy as "Popperazzi". He hasn't. He's done no physics for 30 years but even when it comes to talking points, he is purely stealing from others – whether it's Wolfgang Pauli, Leonard Susskind, or someone else. Is that enough for a physics colloquium?

Pages 16-17/32 inform us about the shocking thing that mathematics is a non-empirical science. Great to learn something new and deep. He also lists some random buzzwords from mathematics like "Riemannian geometry" but it remains absolutely unclear why he did so. Let me tell you why: all these buzzwords are meant to mask the fact that he is nothing else than an ignorant layman and crackpot.

On pages 19-20/32, we are invited to buy a "different vision" and "radical Platonism". Everyone knows what is "Platonism" but what it means for it to be "radical" remains unclear – but it must be related to Lee Sm*lin's "mysticism", we learn. What? A slide says that the Standard Model works rather well. A janitor would be enough for that, too.

Page 21/32 lists things like lattice gauge theory and some nonperturbative electroweak theory but says nothing about those random phrases. On page 22/32, it's said that "quantum gravity could be much like the Standard Model", but it's not explained how this could be true. He suddenly jumps to the stringy multiverse again and says that it's "circular". Whether string theory implies a multiverse or not, there is obviously nothing circular about it.

Page 23/32 starts to mix the random buzzwords from representation theory such as the Dirac cohomology and categorification. On page 24/42, we're told that the momentum is related to translations, a thing that many high school students know, too. Voits has "nothing to say about the mysterious part, how does classical behavior emerge". Nothing is not too much to say about this foundational issue for someone who claims to be writing a book on quantum mechanics.

Page 25/32 escalates the crackpottery. He works at the level of basic definitions of a linear space or a commutator – the stuff approximately from the first undergraduate lecture on linear algebra – but he pretends that he has found something that could perhaps compete with string theory and maybe supersede it. What? This is just a collection of randomly mixed up elementary buzzwords and super-elementary mathematical expressions from the undergraduate linear algebra courses. A few more slides say some ill-defined things that try to pretend that Voits knows what the Dirac operator or category theory mean – except that it's self-evident that he doesn't actually understand these concepts.

The last page, 32/32, summarizes the talk. Ten years after the "string wars", string theory is failing even more than ever before, the audience was told by the stuttering critic of science. A problem is that this is clearly a totally untrue statement and the talk didn't contain anything at all that could substantiate this statement, especially not something that would be related to the recent 15 years in theoretical physics – developments that Mr Voits doesn't have the slightest idea about, not even at the popular-book level.

We "learn" that the Standard Model could be close to a theory of everything – yes, it is surely "somewhat close" (not "too close") but no more details are offered by Voits – and representation theory could be useful.

The second, key bullet of the summary says that if the number of available new experiments is limited, physicists must "look to mathematics for some guidance". Holy cow, but that's exactly what string theorists are doing and that's exactly why Voits and Sm*lin – and the brainwashed sheep who take these crackpots seriously – criticize about string theory at almost all times. And now he wants to recommend this "power of mathematics" as "his" recipe to proceed? Holy cow.

(Emil Martinec made a much better comment on this breathtaking cognitive dissonance of Mr Voits.)

The fact that a colloquium like that has been allowed at Rutgers looks like a serious breakdown of the system. Mr Neuberger should be given hard time but because I know most of the string theorists who are currently at Rutgers faculty, I don't believe that anything like that will actually take place. The tolerance for talks with the right "ideological flavor", despite their unbelievably lousy quality, has become a part of the political correctness that has conquered much of the Academia.

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