Wednesday, March 16, 2005 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

SF Chronicle about strings

Recently there have been quite a few good newspaper articles about theoretical physics and string theory in particular: informative, fair, balanced, organized. The article about "Twenty years of string theory" in The New York Times is probably the best example. Unfortunately, the text of Keay Davidson from San Francisco Chronicle does not fit the bill.

What is the main reason why I think that this article is dumb? The main reason is that the journalist was obviously completely unable to figure out who are the people who may give some qualified opinions about the subject. Consequently, the article is nearly equivalent to a poll between random people on Massachusetts Avenue or random people in the jungle, for that matter. The article is a typical example of the journalistic opinion that the truth about high energy physics may be determined by a referendum in the jungle.

If an uninformed person reads the article, she could think that the opinions about quantum gravity and high-energy physics of David Gross, John Schwarz - and also Brian Greene and Raphael Bousso - are as important as the opinions of Zlatko Tesanovič, Michio Kaku, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Woit, Philip Anderson, Bob Laughlin, and Carlo Rovelli. My apologies to those in the latter list who believe that their opinions about the current state of string theory matter - I beg to differ (with the possible exception of Michio Kaku who is described as the main proponent of the theory).




This method of choosing the participants is of course completely ridiculous, and such an approach can't lead to a meaningful, informative article. If a good journalist wanted to write an exciting story, she would ask the leading people working in the field and the leading researchers in related and possibly competing fields (with a preference for the outspoken ones). And she would insist that they say something technical and informative, instead of just dumb vacuous attacks and "yes/no" viewpoints.

However, this journalist failed. He or she has mostly asked people who don't enjoy any respect in answering these questions, who don't know anything about the subject (or almost nothing), and he or she reduced the answers of this strange mixture of experts and ignorants to a "yes/no" shouting match. This is what I call "poor science journalism".

Update: For a celebration of this article, see another blog.

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reader Anonymous said...

I belived that the relevance of a theory is decided by experiments. Your idea that influential proponents decide apparently comes from the Soviet sytem.
Applied to agronomy it lead to disasters.

If strings could lead to testable predictions we could avoid these discussions.


reader Lumo said...

Dear anonymous,

the value of a theory is decided in experiments, but in theoretical physics it is not just experiments but also theoretical considerations.

Neither of these things can be done by a journalist, and no doubt, a journalist must rely on authorities. If you think that this fact is "Soviet", then I must politely tell you that your opinion is idiotic.

All the best
Lubos


reader Anonymous said...

This comment will appear as the third or fourth one. Lubos, you have a wide audience among superstring practicioners. I am just curious how many of them will agree that the SF article is not balanced. I won't.
T.


reader Lumo said...

I did not say it was not balanced. I said that the NYT article *was* balanced. I also said that in most cases the SF article did not choose qualified people and did not force the chosen people to say something factual, as opposed to empty cliches.


reader Anonymous said...

I am not the previous poster. I will join those who think consider the story from California unbalanced.


reader Plato said...

I have been wandering in the realms of string theoretics trying to piece it together on a level that that few would have dared enter considering my status.

While the euclidean coordinates are a safe bet and allowing the time to those space dimensions, we learn to see a dynamical quality to what would have been surmized in its simplicty, by speaking to the gravity of this situation(this has not been proven). Then to say that any excess work should not be entertained in mathematics, seems contradictory to me.

Even John Wheeler entertained the concept of the geon, as a early entity.

I went to Peter Woits site with the intention of seeing what opposing views would establish. That indeed, string theory should be turffed. I was investing a lot of time trying to learn these concepts, and truly, nothing at Peter Woit's site have convinced me that string theory is a dead end.

What String Theory has done was presented a whole new world, in which gravity is being explored.


If you deny Einsteins added time dimension why would you add Kaluza's fourth space coordinate?

This logic was followed and mathematically explained. So from what I understand then, the math is wrong, and there is certainly preferences to the type of math we should accept and shouldn't.? This is all I could surmize from Peter Woit's site other then the rant.

This was never a reflection of the man, but of the stance taken, and the rant supported. I endeavored to find the source of this resistance, even hoping that the confrontation of two minds at the forefront, would present the answer?:)

Sorry to say it didn't work.

I know I am not a journalist and might be assigned even a lower level then the status of these writers, but one thing I do know is there are a lot of math people who are being consistent with the math they use while they explore it's potentials.


reader Anonymous said...

Come on -- are Anderson and Laughlin some random people from Mass Ave?
T.


reader Lumo said...

Dear T.,

I would not object that the article is balanced (sorry to the other colleague who thinks otherwise). It is "balanced", in the sense that "yes" and "no" have appropriate fraction of the space.

But it is not a faithful picture of string theory. It focuses on theology, wormhole travel, and other things with very weak relations to actual string theory - the string theory that string theorists study.

Therefore most of the yes votes and no votes are pretty irrelevant, and the ultimate balance of yes/no is an accident.

All the best
Lubos


reader Anonymous said...

How can you do faithful journalism with a theory that so far gave no concrete result?

Your answer "rely on authorities" means asking only to the party of string theorists. People who studied string theory and decided not to work on it, did not become "authorities". But might have good arguments. On the contrary people that spent their life trying to get something from string theory, might have problems in admitting or even understanding their failure.


reader Anonymous said...

This article makes it very clear that there is a very thin line between the landscape mantra ("our universe is just one of zillions of alternate, invisible -- perhaps even inhabited -- universes where the laws of physics are radically different. String buffs claim this bizarre hypothesis might help to explain various cosmic mysteries"..,)
and the wormhole travel... For John the curious SF housewife, it's the same thing.
There is something to worry about, Lubos.
T.


reader Lumo said...

Dear T.,

yes, as far as the actual particle physics and quantum gravity goes, they are. It's a sociological fact that a condensed matter Nobel prize winner is more likely to be listened to, but on the other hand, what RB is saying about the black holes is otherwise equivalent to many random crackpots from Mass Ave who are only ignored because they have not gotten a Nobel prize for anything, not even for peace.

Philip Anderson has discovered important things, but he was only able to say that he agrees with some other insane comments and that string theory is theology. This is not a valuable statement about a complicated physics issue. It's just a lame ad hominem statement only supported by the fact that the speaker is famous for other things.

Compare it with the NY Times article. It's a totally different level as far as the penetration between the insiders and the real questions that they solve goes.

Best
Lubos


reader Anonymous said...

Of course, a "balanced" article would only ask the opinions of those qualified to truely understand string theory, which by definition are the string theorists.

Just as a "balanced" article on Marxism would only ask opinions of those whoe really truely understand Marxism, i.e. the Marxists.

Idiot.


reader Plato said...

I think we should LIGOlize Gravity

Hulse and Taylor were very specific here I think, about the determinations of those oscillations. If you transferred this thinking to the quantum harmonic oscillator, it just didn't seem so far fetched to me that we could comprehend the universe in the ways that Webber saw in using those aluminum bars.

So we have progressed to LIGOlization?:)


reader Lumo said...

The comparison with Marxism is flawed. I completely understand Marxism, which means the very particular questions and arguments and proposals it gives, but I am not a Marxist.

The situation with string theory is very different because those people really don't know even the basics. I don't just say that they disagree: they don't know what the statements are and how to calculate.

Bad journalists will write an article about a topic based on the first people who offer their opinion. Better journalists are trying hard to find those who really matter.

Let me enumerate a couple of non-string-theorists who should naturally be asked by the journalists what they think about the issue:

Weinberg, Hawking, Gell-Mann, Wilczek, Randall, Arkani-Hamed, 't Hooft, Rubbia, Yau, Singer, Atiyah, Ashtekar, Penrose, Hartle

Some of them are almost never asked, some of them are.


reader Anonymous said...

"Superstringers have now created a culture in physics departments that is openly disdainful of experiments. ... There is an intellectual struggle going on for the very soul of theoretical physics, and for the hearts and minds of young scientists entering our field," says physicist Zlatko Tesanovic of Johns Hopkins University.

Well, name me one other field of science or even field in physics other than high energy physics and relativity which makes a distinction between a "theorist" and a "phenomenologist". Heck, count the number of fields which distinguishes between "theory" and "experiment".


reader Anonymous said...

Lubos,

do you suffer from hypergraphia?


reader CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Lumo said: What is the main reason why I think that this article is dumb?...

I think the main reason you think the article is so dumb is because it offends your religious sensibilities. Most of the comments by non string theorists were more sociology of physics than physics, complaining about string theorists attitude and competition for tenured spots. Laughlin was pretty insulting and arguably a distortion of the evolution of string theory, but nothing compared to your assaults on LQGers.

The substantive critiques were things that I doubt you dispute(correct me if I'm wrong): that string theory has made no successful predictions of new or previously unexplained phenomena, that the current version of string theory has a whole lot of very different solutions, and that string theory has undergone several drastic revisions.

I too would like to hear Weinberg, Penrose, and Gell-Mann on string theory, but you can't write an objective article without including the critics, even harsh critics. Phillip Anderson, Bob Laughlin, and Larry Krauss have earned the physics stripes to criticize, and that criticism isn't dependent on being an expert.

Note that very few of the critics are calling string theory wrong - they are mostly questioning its priority.


reader CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Lumo said: What is the main reason why I think that this article is dumb?...

I think the main reason you think the article is so dumb is because it offends your religious sensibilities. Most of the comments by non string theorists were more sociology of physics than physics, complaining about string theorists attitude and competition for tenured spots. Laughlin was pretty insulting and arguably a distortion of the evolution of string theory, but nothing compared to your assaults on LQGers.

The substantive critiques were things that I doubt you dispute(correct me if I'm wrong): that string theory has made no successful predictions of new or previously unexplained phenomena, that the current version of string theory has a whole lot of very different solutions, and that string theory has undergone several drastic revisions.

I too would like to hear Weinberg, Penrose, and Gell-Mann on string theory, but you can't write an objective article without including the critics, even harsh critics. Phillip Anderson, Bob Laughlin, and Larry Krauss have earned the physics stripes to criticize, and that criticism isn't dependent on being an expert.

Note that very few of the critics are calling string theory wrong - they are mostly questioning its priority.


reader Lumo said...

Hypergrafia? Not sure. I have not been diagnosed with it one yet. ;-) Sorry, now I'm far too tired to write a more illuminating answer.


reader Lumo said...

Well, call it a religion, but your second description was far more appropriate, CIP. It's dumb because it's not about physics, it's about politicized sociology of physics, and I just consider articles based primarily on this type of arguments dumb, much like I consider dumb the people who want to measure the distribution curves of mathematical aptitude by political votes. I always did and I always will consider these approaches (and partially also the people backing them) dumb.

Concerning the opinion of some of the people:

Gell-Mann said that "String theory is a fantastic thing"; Weinberg wrote the preface to Joe Polchinski's textbook "String Theory" and he is known to be a defender.

Penrose does not like strings, as commented in the article about Wilczek's review of his new book.

I totally disagree that string theory has "undergone several drastic revisions". Almost nothing that people were doing in the 1980s turned out to be wrong - even quantitatively. What you say is that usual misunderstanding the people say about physics - that Einstein effectively showed that Newton was an idiot, and so forth.

It's not a fair description of reality, and it's not true in string theory either. In the 1980s, only the perturbative part of string theory was known, and people knew that they were missing non-perturbative physics, and they started to understand it in the mid 1990s.

If you mean, by your "drastic revision", the jump from bosonic string theory to superstring theory in the early 1970s, then it is was a change, but it was never really believed that *bosonic* string theory should be the theory of everything. By "string theory", we usually mean "superstring theory", and it has undergone no revisions that would identify the previous insights as wrong.

It is also completely stupid to say that string theory has not explained any previously unexplained facts about Nature. String theory has shown that the low-energy physics must contain gauge groups, fermions organized in generations, chiral couplings, and it has predicted the existence of gravity. It has also explained the microscopic origin of black hole entropy which was not explained previously either.

It's clear that some outsiders don't understand that these things were independent before string theory, but they became inevitably correlated and inseparable in string theory. You can't create string theory with gauge groups but no gravity, for example. Gravity is a universal part of string theory.

But there are just so many people who are not familiar even with the basics of string theory - I mean the things that the readers are supposed to learn from The Elegant Universe - and who say so many incorrent statements - like yours - that it is almost politically correct to assume that these wrong statements - like the "drastic revisions of string theory" - must be correct. They are not correct.

Other statements of you, CIP, are also misleading. Concerning the number of solutions, I don't think that it is really well-established that the number of vacua is super-large, but even if it will be, it will be a fact of Nature, not an argument against the laws of Nature, which is a complete nonsense. Whoever is dissatisfied with the laws of our Universe, the number of different states of objects within the Universe, and the number of stationary points of the scalar fields themselves, should move to a different Universe instead of writing idiotic complaints about the laws of physics. ;-)


reader CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Lumo - String theory has shown that the low-energy physics must contain gauge groups, fermions organized in generations, chiral couplings, and it has predicted the existence of gravity. It has also explained the microscopic origin of black hole entropy which was not explained previously either....

These are not predictions Lubos, because they were all observed before string theory "predicted" them, except for black hole entropy, which still hasn't been observed but was also predicted before string theory. Dirac predicted the positron, Yukawa the pion, and Gell-Mann the Omega - before they were observed. That's what the word prediction means.

Also, when you start calling String Theory a "fact of Nature" you are talking religion not science. It is still a theory, an entirely untested one, which does however seem to be consistent with a lot of the known facts.

A great biologist (I forget who, but a Nobelist) once said good theories lead to new discoveries, bad theories just lead to more theories. I think string theory still has to prove which it is - and I don't need any mastery of string technology to say that, just a belief in the scientific method and a modicum of common sense.


reader Anonymous said...

Am commenting on CIP's whinge:

May be the mark of an ultimately unifying theoretical approach [whether a mainly rationally mathematical TOE or a mainly rationally philosophical 'FOOT' (for 'Foremost Overview Of Truth' %}] is the unsurpassable depth and bredth at which it manages to illuminate never before as clearly (if at all) recognized connections between already known or surmised manifestations of 'What Is, going on' (ultimately generally so to speak :>).

And, the way it may do so could be through (e.g.) never before conceived of (or made as concrete logical use of) concepts.

And, these concepts may never be observable; different to how the once upon a time altogether intuitive and abstract concept of "atoms" has now become almost directly observable and measurable (and even picturable by electromechanical means).

A case in point being "strings".

Peter


reader Anonymous said...

String theory has shown that the low-energy physics must contain gauge groups, fermions organized in generations, chiral couplings,...

Renormalizability pretty much restricts low energy 4D theories to these possibilities.

...gravity

There are emergent theories of gravity, you know. Condensed matter physicists have come up with many such models.


reader Lumo said...

Dear Anonymous,

the renormalizable theories are, indeed, gauge theories with some scalars - and scalar interactions - and fermions with gauge and Yukawa couplings.

However, this is a correct criterion for a theory to describe this whole Universe because the real Universe requires one force outside this list i.e. one non-renormalizable force - gravity.

String theory gives, unlike your "renormalizable" criterion, the correct low-energy objects including gravity.

Also, it's not true that there exists a *consistent* theory of gravity emerging from condensed matter physics, and if your understanding is that one of these papers actually gives a theory that looks like GR in any sense, then you seriously misunderstood it.

Best
Lubos


reader Lumo said...

"this is a correct" should have been "this is not a correct".

The "emergent gravity" papers never give any correct interactions of the fields whatsoever, they don't imply anything like the equivalence principle or diffeomorphism invariance, and in fact, even the appearance of spin 2 bound states is a speculation - and the same speculation can also be used to "derive" (incorrectly) the existence of massless fields whose spin is greater than two.