Alain Connes (PDF: page 31/64)gives interesting although weird - as we will see - answers to some questions about the relationships between science and politics and about the differences between mathematics and physics. Connes is quite a character so I will help him to be heard. ;-)
He says a few words about his version of the Standard Model that has also been claimed to predict particle masses and to be unique. We have already spent a lot of time with that - perhaps too much time. So we will focus on different topics from his article.
Later in the interview, Connes compares mathematics with physics. He correctly says that physicists tend to spend less time with a given problem than mathematicians. Although there is clearly no general rule, I think he is right. Physicists are "faster" in this sense. When you look at the years of publication of papers cited in a particular new paper, you will see that they are much newer in the case of physics than they are in the case of mathematics. Physics tends to be much closer to an "industry".
You might think that it may be just due to the accidental traditions of the fields but I actually think that there are good reasons behind this difference. Physicists are still the people who are sometimes expected to solve real-world problems. And the speed is often important in this business, especially if your government needs to beat the Japanese. Because of similar reasons, physicists are also more likely to work in teams than mathematicians.
But Connes gets really carried away in the following paragraphs:
The sociology of science was deeply traumatized by the disappearance of the Soviet Union and of the scientific counterweight that it created with respect to the overwhelming power of the US...He spends much more time with musings about the "U.S. monopoly" in physics that was created after the "sad" collapse of the Soviet Union. Wow. I don't know whether he is being serious or whether it is just a mandatory ritual exposing some of his irrational anti-American sentiments. Apparently, some people are traumatized by totalitarian systems while others feel traumatized by the return of freedom and democracy.
Soviet-style science: reality
I happened to live in the Soviet bloc for about 1/2 of my life so far, I was largely educated by the socialist system, and even Russian books and translations of books have influenced me. So let me tell you something.
A priori, the Russian or e.g. Czech nation should be approximately equally good in science as the U.S. The average IQ in all these nations is around 97. But the actual results are often influenced by sociology and management, too. Was the Soviet management using the intellectual resources of the socialist nations more efficiently than the U.S. system?
I think that the answer is a resounding No. Bright scientists are born in many nations and they can contribute to science if they are allowed to become scientists, at least under some modest but good enough conditions. So we know many examples of great Russian physicists, too. But did the Soviet Union contribute 2/3 of the amount of American contributions to the 20th century physics, as expected from the population count? Not really. The actual fraction is much smaller.
Among the great Russian physicists, there are way too many thinkers whose real powers were only unlocked by the U.S. system (because they emigrated). In the scientific and technological topics, the space research is arguably the only major discipline where the Soviet Union may have been ahead of the U.S. at some moment in the history.
Now, it doesn't mean that everything was bad in the Soviet bloc. The socialist countries had very good and free education systems that could bring everyone up to a certain level. And there were many cheap books being published in the Soviet Union, including translations of pretty much all relevant Western books into Russian. The Soviet Union didn't have to care about the copyrights because it was OK to screw the imperialists: another advantage. ;-)
But once you look into the actual research, beyond the education systems, the socialist science was plagued too often by some problems whose links to socialism should be completely obvious, especially by
- the political manipulation of science
- the lack of competitiveness.
Genetics remains the most shocking example of the first problem. If you forgot what Lysenkoism was, let me remind you about Lev Landau's public debate at a meeting of the Academy of Sciences with Trofim Lysenko (the right man on the photograph above), a superdarling of the Communist Party:
When Lysenko's report was over, Landau asked: "So, do you argue that if we will cut off the ear of a cow, and the ear of its offspring, and so on, sooner or later the earless cows will start to be born?" - Yes, that's right. - "Then, how do you explain that the virgins are still being born?"One must think for a while to fully appreciate Landau's joke. ;-) At any rate, Lysenkoism was a huge problem both for the Soviet agriculture - scads of the Russians were starving - as well as for the biological sciences - many real scientists were scourged.
There was no clear "ideological content" in Lysenko's ideas about genetics except that the communist regime really wanted to surpass the capitalist agriculture (and the "training" of crops to be better without any breeding or selection looked attractive and politically correct!) - there was a lot of wishful thinking in it. But Lysenko was simply so personally close to the communist elite that they were able to reshape the biological research in the whole country because of this peasant. In 1948, it became illegal to oppose the scientific consensus about Lysenkoism.
However, there were also examples of disciplines that were not affected by similar madness, at least not to the same extent. I would like to claim that theoretical physics was an example. Moreover, I think that Connes is wrong if he thinks that the Soviet theoretical physics had a fundamentally different style from the American one. I just think it is not true.
For example, pick supersymmetry as an example to study the differences.
The first thing to notice is that supersymmetry was discovered almost simultaneously in both blocs. How did it happen? Well, the relevant scientists were reading pretty much the same papers. It follows that they thought about similar questions. And even though the Soviet co-fathers of supersymmetry were more mathematically oriented than their Western counterparts, it was probably just a matter of chance. There were also many heuristically and experimentally oriented Soviet physicists who have made great contributions.
The main point I want to make is that the disciplines that are allowed to evolve freely will end up with a very similar structure of research topics. If scientists are allowed to interact with the global science, read and use the results of others, and export their results, the discipline inevitably gets "globalized" which is a good thing.
There is only one science whose results are universal and independent of nations and other cultural factors. Whenever a science ends up with very different answers or a very different evaluation of the importance of different topics in different countries, you can be pretty sure that at least in one of the countries, the problem has been politicized and/or the free exchange of ideas has been tampered.
The Soviet high-energy physics is an example of a field that was never politicized in this sense. Genetics was a discipline that was politicized. And climatology is a field that is politicized in the West today. The very fact that "global warming" remains a non-issue for Russian scientists - and believe me, this nation is not really stupid - should tell you something.
Such a huge difference has never existed in high-energy physics. As the Standard Model was being discovered, it was - of course - accepted and taught in the Soviet Union. The socialist system was boasting its "scientific" (Marxist-Leninist) roots and in most cases, it did tolerate (and tried to promote) science even when it came from the West. The same comment applies to string theory. In contradiction with Connes' hints, there have never been major attempts to suppress string theory (or other disciplines) across the Soviet bloc.
(And Connes seems to forget that string theory wasn't really born in America. The first amplitude was found at CERN by Gabriele Veneziano, and among the three people who realized it came from strings, Holger Nielsen was Danish and Yoichiro Nambu was Japanese - although he moved to Chicago.)
But it is true that the positive activity in these very advanced disciplines such as string theory has always been weaker in the Soviet bloc (and, to some extent, in Europe), too. This brings me to the second problem that I describe, somewhat inaccurately, by these words:
The lack of competitiveness
The communists often wanted the working class to acquire the university education so that these educated workers could lead the communist party in the future and preserve its "working-class core". So the workers sometimes used to have infinitely many attempts to pass an exam at the university etc. Eventually, the teacher lost his or her patience and the students passed. While loads of dopes have been given university degrees in this way, it is true that this policy hasn't influenced and couldn't influence cutting-edge scientific fields.
But the situation was still bad because what I would classify as a "lack of competitiveness" existed not only in the commercial sector but, to a large extent, even in science. And while capitalism has returned to the post-socialist economies, at least some of them, it is fair to say that it hasn't yet returned to the world of post-socialist science.
In fact, this problem was not a problem restricted to the socialist countries only. Germany and especially Austria-Hungary have seen similar problems for more than a century and you could probably name other European countries, too. People don't really have to compete, a rather important driver of their activity is therefore suppressed. They can get any job they want and they get promoted primarily by getting old, not by their achievements.
That's a major reason why the Eastern European universities - with some exceptions in Moscow (did I forget someone else?) - have never made significant contributions to string theory. But it's not only about string theory. A similar picture exists in most scientific disciplines. The fact that it was primarily the discoveries and meritocracy that mattered in the U.S. science - and not the age or political or other colors - was always extremely intriguing for me and it is (or it was?) a reason of the impressive U.S. success in science. Some activists are trying (and succeeding) to change it even in the U.S.
And once again, similar comments apply not only to the post-socialist Europe but even to Germany and other countries. Even though Germany has many good string theorists these days, it is still true that America is ahead of Germany not only in string theory but in high-energy physics in general.
It is true that a competition between different social and managerial systems is healthy for progress, too. But it is time for Alain Connes to notice that the battle between communism and capitalism has already ended. I feel the urge to inform him that communism has lost. It is not a viable system. It is not viable in the arena of the human rights, it is not viable in the economy, it is not viable in science. Trying to put 1/3 of the world back to communism would be equivalent to a reduction of living standards, human rights, and efficiency in this part of the world.
In the West, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to attack competitiveness. Now, many of us may find it physically unpleasant when we have to compete. And such things are surely not the actual driver of many of us. But that doesn't mean that we can live well without it - because they drive many people and even if they don't drive them, they are essential in the effective distribution of the resources and time. These days, we often hear the fairy-tales how competitiveness kills the diversity and the diversity should be promoted at all costs and all this breathtakingly intoxicating vanity. ;-)
Diversity doesn't have any infinite value of this type. Diversity only has a finite value. Too much diversity may hurt just like too little diversity. The optimum amount of diversity must be determined by the free markets - and also the free markets of ideas - including competition. The most viable arrangements, ideas, and people tend to win and the system should be such that it is they who win. Such a system doesn't necessarily work optimally in each individual case but any other policy is bound to be counterproductive in the long run.
I am always appalled when I read the amazing ideological nonsense written by Lee Smolin and similar far-left ideologues about the diversity or the philosophical character of science being hurt by globalization or competition. The goal of science is to find the truth about the real world; the goal is not to increase diversity or the philosophical flavor in science. Globalization is a sign of freedom and competition is a key driver of progress.
Any attempt to enforce some kind of "affirmative action" to promote a certain kind of ideas returns us to communism. Once someone tries to invent propaganda about classes of people who must get an additional support because they would be otherwise exploited or discriminated against or what are all these far-left verbs that people like to use, he is doing a textbook example of politicization of science. The results of such an approach are bound to be less efficient and more twisted than the results in the free markets of ideas.
This kind of affirmative action for "different" people in physics has been tried. The result can be seen across the post-socialist Europe. A lot of places with people who have no results but who can still boast how different and independent they are. In fact, pretty much all of them are like that in certain fields. Whole departments and whole universities are controlled by people who haven't achieved much and who are afraid - and, frankly speaking, rightfully so - of everyone else who has achieved more or who could achieve more in the future. To be "really different" actually means just the opposite.
Moreover, I see some clear signs that the ideology promoting stagnation and fake, ideologically-driven values over the actual results is beginning to spread in the West, too. Third-class scholars with no significant achievements are increasingly trying (and succeeding) to skew the character of the scientific research by purely ideological goals and clichés.
Europe: can it and should it resist?
Alain Connes also claims that the European science should "resist" America. What a dangerous idea.
The U.S. science is an important factor for the management of the European - or other - science not because of some magic imperialist vampires who are secretly influencing the decisions of everyone. The true reason are the results of the U.S. science that seems to be - or at least seemed to be - ahead of the rest of the world, at least in the last 60 years.
Most of the scientific progress in many disciplines occurs (or has occurred) in the U.S. which is why it is wise to leave most of the decisions up to the U.S. scientists, too.
The only justifiable reason to "resist" would be a collection of scientific results that are more amazing than the results of the U.S. science. And quite certainly, such examples may exist and do exist in some very specialized disciplines. But that's not how all of science looks like as of 2008. The U.S. science - physics, chemistry, biology, etc. - is simply extremely important and trying to deny this fact would be utterly foolish and dangerous.
I can't believe that the famous Alain Connes would advocate a "resistance" against the U.S. ideas just because they are the U.S. ideas. Not even the communists did such a thing in most disciplines. For example, the communists have never tried to hide that the West was ahead of us in the development of nuclear weapons, information technologies, and many other fields.
For example, in the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks bought (and were allowed to buy) Sinclair ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 and everyone knew that the socialist countries didn't quite have fully competing models. There are hundreds of examples like that.
The propaganda could have said many things - especially about the hard life of the working class in the West - but certain lies would be so flagrantly obvious that no one has ever attempted to distribute them.
Once again, when science works properly and the free exchange of ideas is allowed, the percentage of scientists who believe or focus on a particular subdiscipline tends to converge to an equilibrium value in every large enough (more precisely, significant in a given field) country. This convergence doesn't really suppress diversity because the individuals - and groups - should still be free to deviate from the average. But this convergence is about the search for the "right" mean value as determined by all data available to the market of ideas.
Europe certainly can't surpass the American science by trying to be different than America. Europe can only surpass America by having better results which, in many cases, really means more American results than America whatever the adjective really means.
After all, America has also surpassed Europe in the last two centuries by becoming more European than Europe, in a certain way. ;-)
Connes is right that the Europeans often have less self-confidence than the Americans but he is lethally wrong when he implies that self-confidence is the same thing as anti-Americanism. It is a very different thing. And incidentally, anti-Americanism as an ideology doesn't have too good a record. What has it really achieved besides 9/11?
As long as most of the recent achievements in science, as measured by ideologically and nationally blind criteria, are connected with America, it will inevitably continue to be the case that America will remain the most important benchmark in wise decisions about the choice of disciplines and even in the individual hires or acceptance of individual articles for publication. Any other approach would be a blatant and extremely dangerous politicization of science.
It is undoubtedly true that America is much faster than the rest of the world in catching and expanding hot products, topics, and ideas - perhaps both the good ones as well as the bad ones. Because most of the scientific ideas that have a chance to get to this inflating regime are good, the ability of America to elaborate on a hot idea faster than other countries is a clear comparative advantage. Of course that if a fad is a bad one, it is much better to be conservative and the American ability to grow the bubbles may hurt. But as long as most of the activity in a discipline can be characterized as progress, America is more progressive which makes it more important.
And if I am more specific, until (or unless) Alain Connes presents some ideas whose relevance for high-energy physics is comparable to that of string theory - and he seems to be decades away from such a point - he can't expect any sane physicist to give him the same (or higher?) amount of attention as string theory is getting (except from the scientifically irrelevant, brainwashed people who read Smolin's or Woit's books etc.).
Even though this is a conservative blog (be careful about the different meanings of "conservative" and "progressive"!), I can't agree with Connes' implicit assertion that it is always good to be conservative and avoid any fashionable topics.
Wise and smart people often (or mostly?) choose the right topics to be their fashion. In some sense, almost every discipline or insight in science that we currently consider important became a "fashion" at some moment which has helped to develop it. I don't see anything a priori wrong about all fashions. I only have problems with stupid fashions. And let me say that the widespread fashion-busting that Connes has joined is one of these stupid fashions.
Not doing something just because it is popular is as irrational as doing something just because it is popular. These are two sides of the same coin. Both of the decisions are unscientific and they are actually equivalent because "not doing something" is pretty much equivalent to "doing something else" as long as one does something.
Moreover, the people who advocate these ideas are already controlling the world of Academia (and beyond). Show me one person besides your humble correspondent who openly emphasizes that it is wrong to put "diversity" above the "merit". Such a comment has almost become politically incorrect in many corners. The "warriors against fashions" and "advocates of diversity" - much like the "advocates of the consensus" (and sometimes it's the very same people) - already control pretty much everything but they still have the stomach to argue that they are being suppressed. The similarity with the communists who controlled 1/3 of the world, including the lives of all individuals over there, but who were still complaining should be obvious.
Mathematics: should it and did it resist?
Another bizarre comment by Alain Connes is that unlike the physicists, the mathematicians seem very resistant to losing their identity and following fashion. Well, we probably live in different Universes.
To make the comments even more ludicrous, Alain Connes worships the Bourbaki movement. The Nicolas Bourbaki movement was one of the most counterproductive fads in the history of exact sciences. If you don't know, it was a French collective movement in mathematics around a fictitious mathematician called Nicolas Bourbaki that attempted to eradicate any intuition, visualization, heuristics, or links with natural sciences from mathematics and to transform people into dull mechanical engines who can only evaluate fully rigorous and formally perfect proofs.
Now, there are good aspects of being rigorous but the degree of fanaticism and narrow-mindedness of this group, together with the goal to impose the same values on everyone, is simply scary.
And the history has proved that the Bourbaki approach was not really viable. This comment deserves a few more words. Well, the Bourbaki movement was a reaction to Henri Poincaré's approach to mathematics that was emphasizing great heuristic ideas even though their presentation could have been incomplete. The Bourbaki scholars emphasized very abstract things but that doesn't mean that they were the best ones in the abstract approach.
Today, the very abstract and the most axiomatic approach to mathematics is based on category theory. But the essence of category theory already contradicts some dogmas of the Bourbaki school: the Bourbaki school turned out to be useless for category theory. It was mostly useless for geometry, too. Significant modern progress in geometry only occurred after the effective death of the Bourbakism when the importance of the interactions with physics was appreciated again.
The Bourbakists simply wanted to confine all mathematical talents of their nation - or the world - into a very narrow box confined by dogmas, conventions, and formal rules i.e. to remove the brain power from the research of all topics that didn't fit the box - and today we know that most of them didn't. It is somewhat telling that Alain Connes is defending Bourbakism on the same page as the diversity and independence of thinking even though these two things strikingly contradict each other. It reminds me of the proverb "In capitalism, man is exploiting another man. In socialism, it is the other way around."
Mathematics has seen many other fads and periods in which various subdisciplines were completely neglected while others were over-hyped. I think that these fads have been alternating about as quickly as in physics. And given the fact discussed at the beginning that the progress in maths is generally slower than the progress in physics, the relative rate of the alternating fads was perhaps even faster in maths than it was in physics.
Fashions as well as independent revolutions and mavericks are inevitable components of the scientific process. An optimum arrangement shouldn't completely remove one of these categories. It should guarantee that the correct, working, deep, and useful ideas win regardless of their origin.
Connes and Lisi
Connes seems to misunderstand certain basic statements related to string theory and its alternatives. He thinks that the recent media bubble about Garrett Lisi's theory of everything was "ridiculous". That's right but Connes also thinks that the story has shown that the opponents of string theory have no credibility in the U.S. Well, he is of course right that the opponents of string theory have no credibility but he is wrong that it follows from the first statement about Garrett Lisi. ;-)
How did Connes end up with the implication? Well, I think that the explanation is obvious. Connes thought that Lisi's theory was a paper on string theory which is why it was uncritically promoted. Quite on the contrary. Lisi's work was a hopeless non-string-theoretical attempt to use somewhat abstract mathematics to revolutionize our understanding of the Standard Model. In fact, Lisi's work is completely analogous to Connes' work about the Standard Model. Both of these groups of papers try to find some new, unknown patterns behind the Standard Model classical Lagrangian. In both cases, all the predictions are either vacuous or wrong. The actual physically relevant results are zero. And by the way, both authors like to trash-talk string theory.
So Garrett Lisi's story hasn't shown that the opponents of string theory have no credibility (among qualified people; and indeed, they don't). It has shown that the opponents of string theory have so much credibility among some (severely intellectually limited) journalists that some of the media are ready to sell a pile of a surfer's babbling as a new revolution in science analogous to Einstein's relativity just because it is not string theory and because the author is broke.
Connes also seems to be completely unaware of the very bad influence that Mr Smolin, Mr Woit, and similar pseudointellectual waste has recently had on the public perception of high-energy physics in the U.S. Or at least he pretends that he is unaware of it.
If some other theory works, we will call it string theory
Connes has also misunderstood the statement above. It is not a sign of a "victory in a sociological war". Instead, it is a wise reflection about terminology based on the following facts:
- The term "string theory" is already obsolete because the theory hiding under this name is no longer just a theory of strings.
- We don't know everything about quantum gravity and new types of vacua or ideas may appear in the future.
- Whether or not these ideas are a part of the same "string theory" we partly know today may be a very subtle question.
We can still say that physics of vacua where these p-branes dominate is indisputably a part of the same old "string theory" in regimes where the string coupling constant is no longer tiny. That's why we know that it would be incorrect to say that some of the new vacua we found are not parts of string theory. But because we know much more about the theory, we also know that the term string theory is not the most accurate description we could have. For some time, "M-theory" was considered as a replacement but today, "M-theory" is only used for vacua described by a system of equations where the traces of the UV-completed 11-dimensional supersymmetric theory (supergravity) can be explicitly seen.
String theory has been proven to be a consistent theory of quantum gravity and we know many classical solutions of string theory. It is likely that we don't know all of them and there can even exist qualitatively new classes of theories of quantum gravity. Imagine that you find a new theory of quantum gravity. Is it a part of string theory?
Well, there are many cases in which the answer is clearly Yes. For example, the BFSS matrix model could look like a completely new, UV-complete description of 11-dimensional supergravity. Except that if you look more carefully, you will be able to prove that the model is string theory. It seems that it is always the case: all roads lead to string theory.
But someone can hypothetically find a consistent theory in the future whose links to string theory will not be obvious. It won't be a part of the moduli space and we won't be able to see any tunneling process that can switch between the known vacua of string theory and the new one. But these transitions could still exist. And there might also exist ways how to write the conditions of quantum gravity that are solved both by the well-known string theory as well as the new hypothetical description of quantum gravity.
If that happens, people would be uncertain (and split) whether the new theory should be included in string theory. Fortunately, real physicists don't care too much about terminology. Some of them would continue to investigate the new theory and it is the results that would matter. At any rate, we don't have to solve this dilemma today because all fully consistent descriptions of quantum gravity that we know of today are demonstrably a part of string theory.
But we realize that we don't know everything and we don't know which point of the configuration space describes the real world (although some people may have guesses). I think it is extremely important in science to be allowed and ready to admit that we don't know something if we don't know it. In 2008, no one knows the complete theory that explains everything. In the past, no one has known it either. Claiming that this fact means that we are not doing science is ludicrous and extremely dangerous because it encourages people to say that "something is known" even if it is not known.
And that's the memo.