Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Nobel prize winners vs crackpots

Matthew Chalmers' perfectionist article in Physics World became the first popular text after Summer 2006 that has shown the real state of high-energy theoretical physics and string theory, after one year controlled by the likes of Peter Woit and Lee Smolin.

And it was quite a shocker!

Many people were surprised that virtually all leading high-energy theoretical physicists, string theorists as well as non-string theorists, consider Peter Woit's writing and Lee Smolin's writing to be irrelevant nonsense and junk. Another shocker was that virtually all people in high-energy physics think that the technical questions that are being solved in the field are just too technical for an average reader of the popular books and the corresponding blogs and the debates involving these people only bring fog, not a scientifically meaningful discussion.

Finally, people were stunned that physicists don't react in the way they're supposed to react and they are interested in many discoveries and questions that were supposed to be uninteresting: most of the 13 pages of Stringscape are dedicated to actual physics rather than sociology.

Could these surprised reactions be expected? Of course, they could. The reason is that a majority of theoretical physicists is simply afraid to say things like "Peter Woit is a stupid, irrelevant person", both in a direct as well as polite form. What is the result of this fear? The result is nothing else than that most of the public doesn't know that Peter Woit is a stupid, irrelevant person. How could have they learned it? One can only figure out this fact if he knows some modern physics. The people who don't know modern physics thus clearly depend on those who know it. If the latter remain silent, the laymen choose the second best choice - namely what Smoit tells them. It's complete rubbish but it's the best thing they can hear for free.

OK, let's look at this bizarre match. On one side, we have David Gross, Gerard 't Hooft, Steven Weinberg, Edward Witten (Nobel laureates or Fields medal winners) and their 17 peers or so. The other team is composed of giants such as
  • "M", Peter Woit, A. J. Tolland, a German physicist with a blog, Thomas Larsson, Yatima, Dr. E, Milkshake, Chris Oakley, Arun, Jon Lester

It's not a problem for these stupid people to overestimate their expertise by many orders of magnitude. Let me tell you about their recent reactions in detail.

Peter Woit, a prominent member of the anti-Nobel team, starts the thread by attacking several prominent physicists because they haven't said "string theory is not even wrong amen". Every good physicist, Woit repetitively argues, must always say "string theory is not even wrong amen". Because none of the well-known physicists has said it, it must surely mean that there's something wrong about them, right? Needless to say, Woit's mates agree.

Domenic Denicola informs us that he only knows people and students who think that "string theory is not even wrong amen". You should better find some smarter buddies, Mr Denicola.

"M" also says that "string theory is not even wrong amen" and he suggests that the author of the article has to be either a humorist or a string theorist because he didn't start with "string theory is not even wrong amen" but rather "string theory is guided by problems in the real world...".

A. J. Tolland agrees with Gerard 't Hooft that the discussions involving the lay public only bring fog. He informs us about some other guys at Caltech who believe that "string theory is not even wrong amen" or it is a fraud and he conjectures that the truth must be in between. (Nowadays, Caltech seems to be a screwed place, indeed.) Well, A. J. Tolland, what is in between physics and the stupid people you like to share opinions with is called "morosics", not "physics". :-)

Yatima proposes a hypothesis that the article was ordered by Karl Rove who works behind the scenes. The evidence is 't Hooft's statement that discussions about technical issues should be restricted to those who understand the technical issues. Yatima is apparently insulted and speculates that Karl Rove wants to shut down blogs. ;-)

Dr. E "proves" that Smoit is right by comparing him with Heisenbohr, the founder of quantum mechanics. :-) Well, Mr Woit would have to have a theory first. So far he is not even wrong. Mr Smolin has hundreds of theories but they go glub glub glub glub to the bottom of the sea before he puts them out there. :-)

Peter Woit partly agrees with A. J. Tolland and tells us that he is not interested how well the public understands string theory. Well, we would be able to figure it out even if you didn't tell us, Mr Woit. :-) What's more unexpected is that Mr Woit tells us that he cares whether physicists and mathematicians understand what's going on. I guess that Peter Woit wants to teach physicists and mathematicians. Too bad that all readers of his blog are crackpots just like him or worse. But he will surely keep on trying to educate physicists and mathematicians in the future. :-)

Anonymous worships Peter Woit.

Theo disagrees with Gerard 't Hooft that the laymen can't follow the technical details even though he doesn't follow them himself. He says that he doesn't have to be able to write a paper about Calabi-Yaus to be able to worship Peter Woit's idiotic proclamations about the set of the solutions to string theory and the key discovery by Mr Woit that "string theory is not even wrong amen".

Thomas Larsson "disproves" string theory by showing that it predicts 496 gauge bosons, among many other "proofs". ;-) He constructs an isomorphism between string theory and the aether. David Gross is the new Henrik Lorentz and Edward Witten is the new Henri Poincaré. Not bad. :-)

A. J. Tolland adds a couple of neutral statements, claiming that string theory's treatment of quantum gravity is more important for him than the predictions for the TeV physics.

Coin asks some question related to A. J. Tolland's statement whose purpose is not clear to me. He probably wants A. J. Tolland to elaborate.

Thomas Larsson self-confidently describes himself as a "physicist" and repeats that string theory must be just like the aether.

Milkshake offers five stages of coping with catastrophic news. It is not clear whom he addresses his list, especially because of the recent catastrophic news from Physics World. :-)

Chris Oakley mentions that the words Smoit and Swolin have already appeared as verbs in the Book of Zweig. I don't know what the book is but it looks like a new kind of the Bible and your humble correspondent is the new Jesus Christ. Must be a great reading. Shouldn't I get some royalties?

Matthew Chalmers, the author of the article in Physics World, points out that Peter Woit deliberately hides research such as AdS/QCD. Also, Chalmers reveals a basic inconsistency in Mr Woit's reasoning. According to Mr Woit, string theory is both unfalsifiable as well as falsified! :-) Ouch, that gotta hurt. :-)

Cheeky Bastard doesn't want to believe Chalmers that Gerard 't Hooft thinks that technical debates should be limited to the technical audience. Cheeky Bastard wants Chalmers, 't Hooft, or both to retract what they have said. ;-)

JE offers a proof that string theory has already failed. The reason is "string theory is not even wrong amen" and this fact contradicts a theory's being physical. :-) Note that the basic prayer is very powerful: it can be used and it is used to answer every question in the world.

Arun doesn't understand how string theory can be a theory of quantum gravity if the existing tools are a set of rules how to construct approximate solutions in consistent classical backgrounds. Well, there are a few billions of other things he doesn't understand (and he will probably never understand). He also thinks that Gross' statement contradicts the facts about the finiteness, consistency, and general relativity in the low-energy limit. How exactly Arun came up to his bizarre conclusions about contradictions that clearly don't exist and can't exist is not clear to me.

Jon Lester is worried that leading physicists have an influence over Physics World. String theory will be remembered as the worst ever, he argues. It seems that in his perfect world, Physics World prints the same thing as "Not Even Wrong", especially the key insight that "string theory is not even wrong amen".

Peter Woit insists that Matthew Chalmers should have read Mr Woit's book. Why should Chalmers read the junk? Because Mr Woit writes dozens of misleading pages arguing that the insights behind Witten's Fields medal have nothing to do with string theory. That's important for Mr Woit's religion but it's of course untrue propaganda.

Witten got his medal partly for the positive energy theorem, motivated by supersymmetry, a principle invented in the context of string theory where is still plays a crucial role, and partly for his study of infinite-dimensional homology and homotopy and especially the index theorems and elliptic genera that he embedded in string theory in 1990, see this bio. Chalmers correctly writes that this elliptic genus is a crucial quantity - and perhaps the most fundamental continuous quantity - in string theory on Calabi-Yau manifolds. Peter Woit either has absolutely no idea about these things or he is deliberately hiding them.

That can't prevent him from attacking Matthew Chalmers (or anyone else).

Witten has also done a lot of work in topological field theory. A significant portion of these results is now understood as a selection of aspects of topological string theory, a topological twist (simplification) of the full string theory.

Mr Woit says that if he were writing about RHIC and AdS/QCD, he would write primarily about the "Pinocchio award" for this approach from an author of a competing approach. Well, that's really relevant, deep, and honest, Mr Woit! It's exactly how I would imagine that this Sir would describe AdS/QCD. Mr Woit argues that there is no contradiction between being falsified and being unfalsifiable: a new kind of logic that can be derived from his basic insight, namely that "string theory is not even wrong amen".

Mr Woit criticizes Matthew Chalmers for not giving geniuses like Smoit about 1/2 of the article (and the other one-half could perhaps be covered by Swolin, just like in the work of dozens of idiotic journalists who have written rants about string theory in the last 12 months). He even suggests that "string theorists would find Chalmers' article dubious" because string theorists apparently think that "string theory is not even wrong amen". Very entertaining.

A German physicist with a blog demonstrates that the author of the following sentence in the article is a completely silly. What sentence?

It’s only in particle physics that a theory can be thrown out if the 10th decimal place of a prediction doesn’t agree with experiment.
What she probably hasn't noticed that this sentence - for normal particle physicists surely a completely uncontroversial sentence - comes from David Gross. So Ladies and Gentlemen, we have an extraordinary opportunity to see a direct fight – using some very simple weapons – between a Nobel prize winner and someone who is not.

OK, so how does the other side prove that David Gross is so silly? She says that 1) nobody throws out a theory that agrees in 9 significant figures and 2) the author of the sentence has never heard about general relativity.

Well, 1) disagreements in "g-2" of the electron on the 10th place are commonly used to deduce new physics, i.e. to throw out a minimal QED theory if the discrepancy survives. I think that every high-energy physics PhD should know these basic things. And every physics PhD should know that particle physics is the only field with this or similar degree of accuracy. David Gross' antagonist knows virtually none of these things and she's immensely proud about her ignorance.

And 2) here you have 92 papers written by David Gross and containing the term "general relativity". This list indicates that he might have heard of general relativity, after all. Moreover, general relativity is in no way a counterexample because it is not tested that accurately (Gross only meant some quantities to be that accurate in some theories) and general relativity is not really particle physics either. So it's not surprising that it is not that accurate.

I simply can't believe that Gross' critic is so incredibly misinformed whenever it comes to modern physics. Can't she just listen and try to understand? She is surrounded by so many simpletons that she can't help to become another one. But unlike them, Gross' critic is meant to be a physics postdoc, not someone like Chris Oakley.

Well, this is how the public discourse about theoretical physics looks like these days. You work for 40 years, discover the most complex part of the Standard Model, co-discover heterotic strings, and write hundreds of important papers. You become one of the best physicists of your generation. Then you say an obvious thing in an interview that particle physics sometimes achieves 10 significant figures of accuracy that decide about the fate of a theory and it is the only field that can be so accurate - and they start to attack you that you have surely not heard about general relativity. Why? Just because your obvious statement is inconvenient for an aggressive cult of anti-physics bigots.

The critic of David Gross finally says that we should be grateful that David Gross' name is not Peter Wirch. Well, I am grateful, too, because it sounds like something in between Peter Woit and Peter Bi**h PhD which would clearly be a lose-lose situation. :-) (I missed her pun, it is explained in the fast comments.)

Another anonymous prefers to stay anonymous because he or she explains why the number 10^{500} itself can't make a theory unpredictive - a comment that could offend the anti-Nobel team. He explains that as far as the vacuum energy goes, there is just one unknown number. Alex confirms the point and identifies the unknown with the superpotential W_0 in the KKLT constructions.

Peter Woit asks the readers not to use his blog to vent their dissatisfaction with string theory. That's pretty funny given the fact that this dissatisfaction is manufactured by Mr Woit (or Smoit) himself, it is the main and only purpose of Peter Woit's blog and Peter Woit's life, and it is why all the readers are reading it.

DB thinks that Matthew Chalmers' opinions about string theory's being oversold in the 1980s is a "pretty serious criticism" because of the finiteness of resources, and he speculates about the scientific integrity of the physicists. Well, I, for one, don't think that there has ever been a moment at which string theory was oversold at the global level. But even if there were such a moment, I think that theoretical physicists today must study things and distribute their attention according to their best knowledge and their best judgement instead of attempts to use theories to punish someone who has oversold something 20 years ago.

JD recommends the paper by Nilles and Choi to see that IIB compactifications predict gaugino masses. Well, if JD wrote "string theory is not even wrong amen", he or she would probably be more welcome! ;-)

Thomas Larsson uses 140% of his brain capacity and figures out that the recommendation by JD must mean that if the gauginos are not found, string theory is gonna be falsified. Well, Mr Larsson, you would probably need to run your brain at 14,000% to get closer to the right conclusion.

Matthew Chalmers offers the Pinocchio award to Mr Woit himself and he proposes some sources that could help Mr Woit to become less narrow-minded as far as the definition of science goes. He sketches how the article was created and that the 10 non-string theorists were not critical enough to satisfy Mr Woit or to change the spirit of the article.

JD asks Thomas Larsson where did JD make the point about the falsification of string theory. Of course, JD has never said such thing - it's just Thomas Larsson's brain that is not sufficiently refined to see the difference between the two assertions.

Peter Woit adds some hateful comments about Matthew Chalmers and describes the dates of publication of his book. He also figures out that the paper by Nilles and Choi is "misleading". Mr Woit's "evidence"? Well, his own comment at Cosmic Variance. ;-) The comment says "string theory is not even wrong amen" and then informs the readers that the content of Woit's criticism is unfortunately missing because Woit had to catch a plane. ;-)

Thomas Larsson "answers" the question by JD who asked where did JD say that string theory would be falsified. Thomas Larsson answers: you used the phrases "LHC", "reliable predictions", and "gaugino masses". So surely JD had to say the sentence as quoted by Mr Larsson because it is the only sentence containing the phrases that Thomas Larsson can imagine, with his Planckian brain. ;-)

Summary: an abyss

As you can see, there is quite a gap between the top physicists on one side and readers of recent popular sources about physics on the other side. It's a gigantic chasm. Its creation is mostly a result of political correctness.

People are just afraid to say that some people are dumb and some physicists are simply not as good as other physicists and their different "opinions" about theories are not a matter of diversity but a matter of their limited skills and intelligence: every good theoretical physicist must be able to learn string theory whatever he or she thinks about its interpretation.

That's a taboo - especially if the less intelligent physicist is a woman. Here you have the results of that political correctness. A chasm separating 2,000 people in the world who know from the remaining 6+ billion people who don't know.

So I am curious what will happen next. Is Gerard 't Hooft going to apologize for the statement that Cheeky Bastard from Peter Woit's blog didn't like? Is Physics World going to publish an answer to Chalmers' article to satisfy Mr Smoit? Will the Swedish Academy give Nobel prizes to those will be interviewed in such an answer, to achieve equality? Stay tuned.

And that's the memo.

1 comment:

  1. When did I say this? The "amen" doesn't sound like me, and I'm not really one to use the "not even wrong" phrase too much. I mean it's possible that it's out there somewhere on the internet, but I sure don't remember saying such a thing...