Sunday, March 18, 2007 ... Deutsch/Español/Related posts from blogosphere

"Einstein may have started the rot"

According to Roger Highfield, another rather unintelligent person with a PhD, in The Telegraph, "Einstein may have started the rot". This is an exact quote from his rant against modern theoretical physics. Wow. It was apparently a sin for Einstein to develop a theory (GR) based on mathematical principles if he couldn't simultaneously do all experiments to prove it, the author argues.

That's getting pretty far although it can't be quite unexpected: what string theory is doing is nothing else than continuing in Einstein's program of theoretical physics, while avoiding all of his known imperfections.

It's very clear that if someone dislikes string theory, she or he must dislike most of modern theoretical physics, too (Lee Smolin certainly does!). It's because string theory is nothing else than the crown, unification, or culmination of modern theoretical physics and all of its crucial results, insights, methods, principles, and values.

I believe that the reason why the stupidity of these writings about physics has exceeded all reasonable bounds is that everyone who knows the right answers is afraid to inform people like Roger Highfield PhD that they are breathtakingly ignorant, degenerated, bigotic, and obnoxious pseudointellectuals and it's not a good idea for them to write about something that exceeds their abilities by so much.

No one tells him that his more or less average intelligence is about 30 points smaller than what is needed to meaningfully evaluate these questions, and his education is 10 years shorter than what is required for these cutting-edge questions. This expansion of stupidity can thus be blamed on political correctness, more precisely the idea that all people are equally qualified to evaluate ideas in quantum gravity.

Virtually all of Einstein's papers, at least those written by 1916, were later proven to be either correct or nearly necessary steps that led to the correct answers after several corrections. Good physicists care whether what they write is right or wrong. Compare with more than 98% of Lee Smolin's papers that are complete hogwash.

The main criterion that divides the work in physics and the rest of science to good and bad is whether the results are right or wrong. All other adjectives may be a part of your strategy but they can be never counted as ultimate values in science. Whether things are politically correct, diverse, not even wrong, background-independent, easily testable, progressive, discrete, environmental, denialist, or anything like that is at most of secondary importance in science, and everyone who spreads these alternative criteria is contaminating science by BS.

Whether or not there were experiments available during Einstein's time is completely irrelevant for the main question in science - namely the truth (validity of general relativity, in this case). If the experiments are unavailable and physicists can nevertheless find the right answers to some questions in advance by a more careful, sensitive, and ingenious evaluation of the known facts and laws, it just means that they're ahead of time and their insights are perhaps more impressive (and they may be solving a more difficult task). It certainly doesn't mean that they're being unscientific or anything else that various Highfields keep on writing in their tabloids.

He also writes:

  • Science is a never-ending dialogue between theory and measurement. At the intersection of these points lies the experiment, ...

That's a very biased and unrealistic understanding of science. Theory is as important - and as close to the intersection whatever it means - as the experiments. One can't make progress in physics without theory. Experiments wouldn't know what to expect and where they should look to find something interesting if they had no theorists. There has never been any multi-year progress in physics without theorists.

On the other hand, there have been many examples of progress of theorists even in the absence of experiments. That's how it works. Mathematics makes progress without any experiments whatsoever, and physics has always been and always will be somewhere in between mathematics and sciences that don't care about mathematics much. That's why purely theoretical progress in physics is possible whether someone likes it or not, much like progress made by experimenters and theorists together.

  • Since the start of the 1980s, after two centuries of extraordinary fecundity in physics, Smolin admits that "we have made no real headway". "We have failed," he says. "It has produced a crisis in physics."

What's amazing is that some of these shoddiest journalists are unable to even ask the question whether the blue crackpot's proclamations are true or false. They just uncritically copy this garbage.

  • String theory strikes a false note, according to Smolin's clear analysis of the calculations behind it.

Smolin's text is not a "clear analysis" but a technically meaningless rant that has nothing whatsoever to do with any calculations - which he can't do - and that is addressed to the least demanding readers that one can imagine who have no idea how physics actually works and who don't want to have any idea about it in the future either: they just want a semi-reliably looking source of political clichés that confirm their anti-mathematical and anti-scientific sentiments.

  • But it still managed to intoxicate a generation of physicists with the power of its promise.

It has almost become dangerous to say that string theory is clearly on the right track and "opinions" contradicting some very basic well-established results are silly. Are we intoxicating someone if we are teaching string theory? If we are stating a fact that is obvious to everyone who knows what's going on - just because it apparently irritates many pompous ignorants?

Well, I guess that it's still legal. What I personally call intoxication is Highfield's way of spreading emotionally loaded lies and stupid propaganda by non-experts among other non-experts. It's the blackmailing of experts by generic uninformed people who like to promote certain myths for purely irrational reasons and who try to force scientists to agree with these myths.

String theory is an amazing product of Nature's wisdom on one side and human creativity and ability to listen to Nature on the other side.

  • But the widely shared hunch that it would be the final theory to unite all the particles and forces of nature has been undermined.

There has been nothing undermined whatsoever and string theory remains our one and only way towards our complete understanding of Nature. The only thing that happened is that crackpots and crappy journalists have been writing lies and nonsense for a year or so (and the black blogging crackpot has been writing vicious lies for three years - congratulations to all organized science-haters), and the most intellectually challenged part of the population (20%?) has bought it. But this is a social phenomenon that has nothing to do with the actual events and developments in science.

Highfield then offers some of the usual irrational misinterpretations of the number of stationary points in the landscape, and mixes up dark matter with dark energy, making it clear that he has no idea whatsoever how different roles these two concepts play in the structure of the world.

  • Smolin resorts to sociology to explain how so many brilliant minds, his own included, became tied up with strings.

Smolin is a mediocre, slow thinker with a bad memory, below-average imagination, bad ability to focus and investigate details, and with kindergarten ideas - it is always hard to tell whether he is just joking when he talks about his childish ideas or whether he is serious - who is unable to learn the state-of-the-art physics at the technical level and who has never written a paper that would remain both valid as well as important among physicists who know their field for more than 10 minutes - you can check it yourself - and Highfield's description is simply another misinformation.

You may imagine whether Lee Smolin's disciples are more or less original and capable than himself.

The whole hype around Smolin's work is artificially created by himself, by the media, and by other crackpots. Smolin's work is much less correct and much less important than the work of a typical - even young - particle physicist or string theorist and the positive words about it are mostly created by politically organized ignorants. Whoever buys that Smolin is a good physicist is being had.

Let me mention that it is a very bad idea for Clifford Johnson et al. to participate in the discussions that create a feeling of legitimacy of these crackpots, a feeling that these discussions are a part of science. They are certainly not a part of science and these crackpots have nothing to say about science. They're a part of the frequently problematic interactions between the physicists on one side and the public on the other side.

I think that science requires a societal protection, and if there is no protection of science - and of the essential right of scientists to end up with any kind of answers - against similar aggressive imbeciles and their witch hunts in the media and elsewhere, there can be no honest science.

And that's the memo.

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reader Unknown said...

Dear Lubos

This is a general comment which may be relevant. I have been trying to understand why people like Smolin, Woit and Penrose to name a few are so strongly biased against string theory...I have not had the time to read all their books, but I did read relevant sections of Penrose's book Road to Reality...It seems he is mistaken about some very simple things when he expresses his misgivings both on stability of extra dimensions and black hole entropy computations and AdS/CFT. Is the problem that experts in string theory have not taken their time to explain things to these people in sufficient depth for them to correct their errors? Would this be a worthwhile venture to attempt on the blog?? I had a lot of respect for Penrose's achievements in classical GR and it is disappointing that his book for the layman does not perform the basic job of informing accurately. I am not even getting into the misguided gravity role in state-vector reduction here, but when he provides a series of comments against the achievements of string theorists the least he should do is consult experts in the field, one would think.
Anyways, just inquiring your opinion on this...



reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Ram,

thanks for your comment. I completely agree with you. The errors look like simply explainable.

For example, see Penrose and holography.

Is it possible that this is just a huge pedagogical failure of all of their stringy and other modern friends?

Well, it depends whom we exactly talk about, and the answer is probably No anyway.

I think that PW doesn't want to listen or hear anything that would contradict his opinions that string theory is a failure. You won't get anything constructive out of him, I guess.

LS wants to listen and he seems to understand these explanations at some level, but when he gets home to write a new book or make another interview, he "forgets" everything that he has learned. There are far too many examples of that around. It's the famous two-Smolins effect.

Roger Penrose could probably get all these things. It is very plausible that string theorists haven't talked to him deeply enough about any of these issues. I haven't. Others probably haven't either.

For example, the role of singularities. It seems clear to me that he has everything he needs to understand why string theory regulates singularities e.g. near the conifold. Many of these things are similar to his own discoveries.

In AdS/CFT, we are heavily using his Penrose limit of geometries to prove that AdS/CFT contains not only SUGRA but also strings. He should like it because it is a natural dual description of something he discovered, just like his twistors are a dual description of spacetime. It is very strange to imagine why he should ever dislike these things that are clearly true at the mathematical level and tell us important things about spacetime.

But in all these cases, it is plausible that these people are just far too stubborn and they have connected a lot of their prestige with certain things, and they won't admit that they learned something positive even if they do. I am sure that this is the case of the notorious professional critics but it is conceivable that it could be the case of the great critical physicists like Penrose, too.

I was always convinced that the string theorists who communicated e.g. with Feynman had to be lousy expositors because Feynman was exactly the type of person who should have liked string theory. George Chapline told me the same thing.

Because it's not automatic that physicists instantly understand new theories, it's fair to say that such a communication gap can be a failure of either side. One side doesn't understand it and the other side is not able to convey the key ideas that many others understand efficiently.

All the best

reader Luke Lea said...

Since your concern here is the standing of contemporary theoretical physics in the popular mind, and hence, in some degree, the public support for research in your field in the years ahead, here is a thought, perhaps counter-intuitive: at present there is great hostility on the part of much of the scientific establishment towards even feeble attempt by the general public to defend the "intellectual space" in which traditonal relgious ideas are held, which are very important to most ordinary people. Now the fact is (I think you will agree) science has little if anything to say about such "metaphysical" questions as the existence of God, intelligent design, the objective existence of such moral values as right and wrong, the nature of beauty, or even the existence of conciousness itself (as distinct from the organization of that conciousness in the brain). Yet the scientific establishment, in its hubris and disdain for the popular mind, contents itself with "shooting down" unscientific claims for "intelligent design" to choose the current rage, without bothering to point out that there is no conceivable evidence either for or against such design for the simple reason that the very idea of design, or of beauty, or of justice, or lots of other stuff that people care about tremendously. In other words, they are unwilling to frankly admit the limitations of science as a way of knowing.

Now, most of these guys are pretty stupid and bigoted in my opinion. If someone in your position would take them on in this area and champion the public's right to know about these important issues, I think you might become a kind of public hero -- plus it would held insure the future public support of science via government funding,etc. Because if someone doesn't start to speak up in behalf of the public here -- I mean someone with cred -- scientists need only blame their own stupid, naive, ignorant, proud, vain selves if the public finally turns. just a thought

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