Saturday, December 22, 2012

SciAm, firewalls, and deterioration of the physics community

Jennifer Ouellette wrote a nice piece on black hole firewalls for the Simons Foundation and for Scientific American:
Black Hole Firewalls Confound Theoretical Physicists (via Synch).
Well, more precisely, it's nice and informative if you assume that her task was to uncritically promote the views of Joe Polchinski, Leonard Susskind, Raphael Bousso, and a few others. From a more objective viewpoint, the article's main message is wrong and the text misinterprets the state of the research, too.

Somewhat but not entirely typical Czech skeptical and blasphemous attitude to Christmas. Xindl X: Christmas Eve arrived when I guzzled at home. He feels like being in shackles, much like his Christmas tree. He also has a tip and hanging balls. No reason to celebrate another lost year, he wants to return to the Saturnalia again. By the New Year, he switched from guzzling to light drugs.

Over the last decade or so, my great respect for some of the most famous names in high-energy physics was diminishing and this trend has become undeniable by now. It seems to me that my previous worries about the apparent deterioration of meritocracy within the field have turned out to be a tangible reality.

Oullette explains what a black hole is, that nothing should happen at the event horizon, that it Hawking radiates, how the Hawking radiation may be thought of, and that various arguments leading to information loss and other undesirable things have been identified as incorrect once the black hole complementarity was appreciated.

However, when it comes to the AMPS thought experiment, it just uncritically parrots the wrong statements by Polchinski et al.:
The interior (A) and the near exterior (B) have to be almost maximally entangled for the space near the horizon to feel empty; the near exterior (B) is almost maximally entangled with some qubits inside the Hawking radiation (C) because the Hawking radiation's ability to entangle the infalling and outgoing qubits. Because of the monogamy of the entanglement (at most one maximum entanglement may incorporate (B) at the same time), some assumptions have to be invalid. The unitarity should be preserved which means that the A-B entanglement has to be sacrificed and the space near the horizon isn't empty: it contains a firewall that burns the infalling observer.
That may sound good but, as repeatedly explained on this blog, this argument is wrong for a simple reason. The degrees of freedom in (A) and those in (C) aren't independent and non-overlapping. It is the very point of the black hole complementarity that the degrees of freedom in (A) are a scrambled subset of those in (C). The degrees of freedom in (A) are just another way to pick observable, coarse-grained degrees of freedom and "consistent histories" within the same Hilbert space. So the entanglement of (B) with "both" (A) and (C) isn't contradictory in any sense: it's the entanglement with the same degrees of freedom described twice.

Among the 25 papers that currently cite the original firewall paper by AMPS, this point is understood by a majority of the papers. A majority of them does explain that AMPS is wrong and they add various things and more detailed descriptions of this point – and by the details, they largely differ from the other papers.

But despite these papers' being not only right but belonging to a majority and despite Scientific American's celebration of "majorities" in other disciplines of science, you won't learn about the very existence of this majority at all. You won't hear about a single argument explaining why the AMPS reasoning is invalid. Even if you disagreed that e.g. Raju and Papadodimas understand the black hole information issues more correctly than Polchinski does, you should still agree that Joe's indication that these Harvard-trained physicists' 72-page-long work (and other papers) doesn't exist at all is disrespectful, to say the least. In fact, you're actively told by Oullette that no such argument exists! And you surely don't learn about any work that is more important and more valuable than AMPS that AMPS couldn't even ask because they already made a grave mistake in the first steps. More seriously, I think it's not really Jennifer's fault.

The most played video of 2012, Psy: Gangnam Style by a South Korean rapper, has collected more than one billion views. The version above contains some more familiar and friendly characters than the unknown South Korean non-scientist.

It seems clear to me that this imbalanced perspective was incorporated to the article by the main "informers" among the scientists who communicated with Jennifer. This conclusion of mine partly boils down to the amazing self-glorification of Joe Polchinski in particular. So we're learning that if there's a mistake, the mistake is not obvious, AMPS is a "mighty fine paradox" that is "destined to join the ranks of classic thought experiments in physics" and it's the "most exciting thing that happened since [Bousso] entered physics". Holy cow. The mistake is obvious. AMPS simply assume that complementarity can't hold by insisting on separate parts of the wave function that are responsible for observations inside and outside. That's a wrong assumption, so it's not shocking that various corollaries such as the "firewall" at the horizon are wrong, too. This wrong assumed denial of complementarity is as wrong as the assumption that simultaneity has to be absolute – an assumption made by those who "debunk" Einstein's relativity; the error is in step 1 and means that they just didn't understand the original insights.

I am grateful to remember some of the times when the progress in theoretical physics was so intense and the process of discovery of manifestly right new insights was so effective that wrong papers would simply disappear and were ignored. Individual great contributors were celebrated but the number of "manhours" invested into verification and extension of important results was so high that it wasn't really possible for a group of people – not even the most famous ones – to deliberately spread wrong results. But gradually, over the following years, some physicists eager to make "new revolutions" entered the mode in which they became happy to publish revolutionary claims even if they had to know that they were incorrect or at least they required a great amount of skewed self-brainwashing to be believed.

Moreover, and this is even more worrisome, many famous physicists apparently decided that they don't want the real progress in physics to continue and they just want to use their relative fame to convince their environment that whatever stupidity they are writing papers about right now is the most important thing happening in the field. And they seemingly decided they wanted to be the last golden generation. I feel that many of those folks don't want the next generation to emerge and thrive at all. The remarkable omission – well, downright denial – of some of the great work in Oullette's article forces me to adopt this conclusion.

And the omitted work isn't great just by some subjective evaluation of the content. It's also written by some of the greatest minds of their generation that have been shaped at the greatest universities, that have joined faculties of other universities in some cases by now, and that have proved (usually already as students) their ability to understand everything that Polchinski and others have ever written and their ability to find comparable new insights and go beyond them, too. But when you look at magazines such as Scientific American, it seems clear that there's pretty much no one left in the physics establishment – and in the journalistic and P.R. environment surrounding the physics community – who is interested in genuine progress anymore.

What I no longer see in the physics community is the passion for the truth, at least among the folks who are most visible in the media. I feel that the most competent folks working on similar research are social-engineered from above and from outside to languish and remain invisible. It seems to me that the achieved physicists are gradually switching to the production of random, cheap, and wrong ideas of the type that "everyone may understand" and their unquestionable defense and promotion.

Fifteen years ago, 't Hooft would start to write lots of preposterous papers about hydrodynamic models replacing quantum mechanics and all this amazing junk. At that time, I didn't care because I saw a thriving community that didn't have to respond to those things because it was busy with genuine advances. This thriving community had leaders – some of the very names described negatively in this blog entry surely belonged to it.

But whether or not it is a viable strategy for the "real deal" physicists to ignore the bad apples is a subtle question that depends on the balance of influence at various places. I never liked the anthropic hype but its influence on the community seemed tolerable because there existed natural authorities that were defending the kind of research I would consider valuable who could have been heard, and so on.

Sometime around 2006 when hardcore crackpots such as Lee Smolin and Peter Woit "charmed" the media with their uninterrupted stream of shameful and hostile lies, I decided that the balance had been almost irreversibly destroyed in favor of the bad apples. At that time, I was scared to see that the only place in which most of the top physicists had the courage to even mention the basic fact that Lee Smolin is a crackpot was a closed room somewhere at the KITP in Santa Barbara. Journalist George Johnson was stunned because it was the first time when he learned that Lee Smolin was a crank at all; this elementary fact had to be classified. The likes of Smolin have literally hijacked the environment of science journalism and the part of public and the scientific public that is getting information from it. It was a highly unhealthy development.

It didn't end up with the general spitting on the greatest advances in theoretical physics of the last 30 years. Many people, including those whom you would surely not count as Smolin's soulmates, also began to invent crackpot theories – or at least not too justified theories whose main point is to pompously reject some important principles of physics, whether or not they have sufficient evidence to do so. So Petr Hořava came with his non-relativistic "Lifshitz" models of gravity. That was still OK. Erik Verlinde's "gravity as an entropic force" was of course much worse.

AMPS isn't as bad or as obviously wrong as "gravity as an entropic force" but it's still wrong and what's worse about it is that it is pushed by some of the names that are more famous than Erik Verlinde's name. None of those bad apples would really destroy an otherwise healthy research community but the main problem I see is that the bad apples can no longer be efficiently wrestled with. Or it's not happening. It doesn't look like anyone cares at all. Instead, it seems to me that people are defending their subjective and increasingly non-quantitative (and often downright wrong) ideas and these people's connectedness to the journalists and other folks outside the research community itself and the related populism – instead of the scientific evaluation by those who actually understand the things as experts – have become the key determinants of success.

Yuri Milner showed it's possible to change the balance in the good direction, too. Still, it's questionable how much it helps the current research. The average breakthroughs celebrated by his Fundamental Physics Prize are about 20 years old. Of course, one could say that it's because those advances that took place 20 or 30 years ago are more important than most advances in the last 5 or 10 years. Maybe, the Milner Prize will inevitably exhaust the great contributors from the 1980s or 1990s and it will have to switch to very recent research. When it happens, I hope it will still be decided by similar people and according to similar criteria.

Even if one concludes that the advances done several decades ago are more important than those found in the latest 5 or 10 years, and I am inclined to agree, it's no excuse for physicists to abandon meritocracy and to transform their fields into a dumping ground of garbage. Instead, it's their duty to meticulously continue to produce new research and filter the research offered by others so that the best seeds are found and allowed to thrive, whether these seeds are larger or smaller than the seeds found several decades ago.

Incidentally, George Musser presented Polchinski's point of view on his SciAm blog equally uncritically a week ago, too. Too bad that no one is trying to find out what some other famous folks – e.g. Witten – have to say about those matters.


  1. Oh, well. This type of thing has been happening in the experimental community of HEP since it became such a large group effort. Public Relations and "charming persona" and other sociological factors taking over from judging the hard physics basis of the "leaders".

    It was easy for a gifted in gab experimentalist to put on the mantle "us great physicists", but hard for a theoretician. I suppose this information age has tipped the scales for theoreticians too, since their audience is so enlarged now. And for an HEP experiment it does not matter much if the leader's physics base is shaky, as long as he/she can steer through the politics and sociology of large groups and get the money/approval for the experiment. It is the data that matter in the end, that is the outcome of the best group effort and does not depend on the leader. I can see the problem with theorists though.

  2. I can't follow the physics, but I've always admired your integrity. You always say what you think, without respect for reputation or fear of consequences. Perhaps there are not many consequences where you are now, but still you deserve credit. You might still lose some old and famous friends. I just hope you have figured out by now that now everyone to the left of Reagan is a murderous communist! :-)

  3. It may be that magazines like the Scientific American, Nature, etc are still ok concerning scientific fields like biology, chemistry, medecine, and others; but when looking for popular articles about "what is shaking" in fundamental, theoretical, and high energy physics one should better ignore them.

    To bad, that Jennifer Ouellette did not even a proper literature search to find out what has been published concerning this firewall discussion. She would not even have to read the papers, the nice TRF articles explaining the arxiv papers and which should really not be too hard to read for a science journalist, would have been enough to write a much better and correct article.

    I never understood and I'll probably never understand why good theoretical physicists refrain from dealing properly with trolls trolling about physics in the internet or in the real world; I mean why they let it happen that things detoriate so much :-/. Lumo seems to be the only one who dares to clearly point out wrong things and call people doing wrong and dishonest things intentionally by their proper names etc ...
    For example Matt Strassler once said in the comments on his site that he would never deal with the Trollking more appropriately and more agressively in bublic as long as his colleagues would not support him in public too ...

    Concerning the FPP I am quite obtimistic that things will go well (as long as the foundation has enough money) since Mr. Milner choose nice winners to start with and they are now selecting the next ones etc... I expect that as soon as the most deserving advances and break throughs from the past are awarded, younger people doing nice things will be correctily considered too by the commitee.

  4. it's a problem when someone that is an authority in a subject has authority to affect the course of research and the career of others in a subject. the opinion of the person should be respected and have of course duties that have to do with funding but when it comes to having power to end or damage the career of others there is a big problem. the other problem is that the kind of people that would react are usually filtered before or right after they get a PhD.
    of course when i judge or say something about someone and some of your readers jump and say who are you to judge, there is a problem with your readers too.

  5. On a different topic, what if you project lines on the Calabi-Yau onto 2-d surfaces and look at the knots that result?

  6. Is Witten keeping completely silent on this issue? He ought to have something to say in support of your opinion/understanding.

  7. Hi, I would say that Witten stays almost completely silent on anything that isn't written in his papers. ;-)

  8. It's because he is not as audible as Lubos ;-)

  9. Witten talks only by papers ...? Cool :-D

    I thought after he has been attacked by a horrible sourball in Munich, he and the rest of the physics community would finally know that ignoring things that are going wrong does not help in making anything better again...
    They should actively do something about it!

  10. Now the physics community is definitively detoriating at Physics SE too, people who are neither physicists nor honestily interested in physics are taking over, dominating the meta discussions, closing perfectly valid questions etc :-( .

    For example Sklivvz, a pompous asshole who is neither a physicist nor interested in physics but has the power to closevote and is a moderator at Skeptics SE, has started shooting down perfectly legitimate fundamental theoretical physics questions such as this one for example:

    In Chat, , he even proudly admists it and threatens that he will continue shooting down question and attacking peope answering them, about theoretical physics topics he has no clue about :-(.

    In addition he keeps insulting and personally attacking Ron and his knowledge and contributions at worst.

    Can really nothing be don to stop this pompous trolling asshole? As long as this guy is ravaging around I dont even dare to retage any imperted TP.SE questions, since this would bring them to the attentions of this troll and he would try to get them closed.

    This guy is abusing the powers and priviledges he has earned due to his reputation! And it seems physics SE will be taken over by such and similar destructive trolls who hate theoretical physics :-(

  11. Has Hawking commented on this?

  12. Dear Dilaton, yes that guy is an asshole. No, let me correct that. He's a major league AH. Big time.

    Now I'll try one more time to explain the facts of life. SE is
    NOT a kiddie playground
    NOT a grassroots community
    NOT a democracy

    It is a BUSINESS and the owners of that business have every right to run their websites as they see fit in a way that maximizes their income and the value of their property.

    If they decide that it is to their benefit to encourage assholes like Spliff and Brightblades with zero credentials as professional physicists to throw their weight around physics.SE, that too is their right. Presumably they have done the math and decided that traffic from passive-agressive weenies, limp-wristed ninnies and whiny little assassins is so much greater and more valuable that they are willing to accept the losses from voluntary defections like Prof. Neumaier's and forced suspensions (expulsions, in effect) of the likes of Ron (and, soon, you).

    I, too, am an expert on Stackexchange, though not on Physics. Well. strictly speaking I'm not an expert but an expert practitioner. For the German language, an expert should be a university professor (current or retired) of germanistics but there are none on german.SE, at least none that so identify themselves.

    I have been through the exact same rigmarole there. Got dragged into kangaroo court and raked over the coals on meta.german.SE because some user got his panties in a twist when I pointed out to him that his Answer was wrong. And just a few minutes ago, someone there asked me to change my Answer because he feels it is rude. ("Did you read the Wikipedia article?" is apparently too rude nowadays!)

    But, here's the thing. NO-ONE FORCES YOU, ME OR ANYONE TO BE THERE AND PLAY THE MMORPG. If you and Ron had invested half the time that you've spent protesting into building an alternative Q&A server for physics, you could be already ten percent of the way towards that goal.

    Alternatively, take a leaf out of the Book of Lubos and try to emulate his zen-like equanimity. If anyone has a right to blow his top regularly at the cretinous vermin on Stackexchange; if anyone has a right to scream blue murder at the dilettantes posting Answers they don't half-understand, surely it is Dr. Lubos Motl far more than (with due respect) Ron Maimon or Dilaton. And yet he accepts that he only has the power to change those things that he has the power to change.

    Maybe he has something to teach us beyond physics?

  13. Eugene, I now know :-(((

    It is just that apart from TRF, Physics SE was the seconde place on the whole world wild interenet, where I could safely ask and learn about fundamental physics without getting attacked by horrible sourballs and trolls ...

    ... until some weeks ago.

    Since the beginning of this month these horrible guys and mods from other sites whod dont care in the slightest for physics are systematically tearing apart the physics site, if it goes well they will be content with degrading it to a homework help. Sklivvz even attacks Anna v. in chat :-(...

    I just cant ignore it if these sourballs and trolls are randomly shooting legitimate theoretical questions down and attack posts of people who answer such questions (I got my part too today:, but I am by far not the only one) just because they hate Ron and Ron used to be good in answering theoretical questions.

    So I'll probably not be able to keep that cool as Lumo and ignore it, if people interested in theoretical physics get attacked by pompous ignorant assholes, who just are greedy for power enough to obtain the necessary rep and priviledges to do real damage without being honestly interested in physics. It hurts me just too much...

    So I guess the only long term obtion will be to stay away :-(. I just wanted to retag the TP questions we saved because I's like them to be properly sorted in and nobody else does it :-/.

    No I'm gonna rewatch a nice Lenny-Lecture about some extended objects to cheer me up ;-)

  14. well since since it's a business there's a market for someone to invest in. something similar with better moderators. if it was not a business it would be worse.

  15. I have to say Eugene, it's always a pleasure to read you :-).

  16. Dear Dilaton, before you rewatch Lenny lecture why don't you just go out for a nice pint of beer in one of your legendary German brasseries ? ;-)

  17. Yeah, that is a good idea too ;-).

    But but we had some annoying freezing rain yesterday, and I am I am living in the middel of nowhere with no pubs, brasseries, or anything inside of my walking cosmic horizon ... :-/

    BTW, have a nice holiday and everybody else here too :-)

  18. Yeah, up to some weeks ago we had quite a nice community consisting mostly of physicists (at different stages in their education) and positively and seriously interested in physics non experts and the level of the questions and answers was reasonable (although not all research-level, but it was ok).

    But now other people have taken over who absolutaly dont care about the physics content of the site and its level, and by puting Physics SE in a strict strait jacket of SE policy with now leeway for even the slightest quantum deviation from the party line they chasing real physicists and knowledgable people away. Some trolls are even explicitely attacking knowledgable people (such as Chris Gerig, a calm and nice guy), closing legitimate questions they dont understand down etc ...

    Since they have thrown Ron out and all these bad things came crashing down on Physics SE, I've stopped recomanding the site to anybody.

    Maybe I'll start a test physics question to see if it gets teared apart now ...

  19. That's a shame. In Ireland even if you live in the middle of nowhere there is always a pub not too far (that's because the pub is also the grocer and the newsagent ;-)). Have a great Christmas too Dilaton ;-)

  20. Die Frage wahr wieder eröffnet. Ich wünsche Ihnen ein frohes Weihnachtsfest. I must however further address this in English given that my German has become as rusty as my physics. Rust never sleeps.
    .I gather from the various remarks that you are in Germany.
    I am not sure that the "business model" makes any sense. But then much that people do makes no sense. I have trouble keeping up with the TRF posts. I have been reviewing those related to firewalls and some of the referenced articles on this. I doubt we shall run short of material to learn regardless what happens at SE.

  21. Hi Robert thanks :-),

    Yeah, there were enough reasonable and nice people (such ast twistor59) around such that we could achieve that the wrongly closed question got reopend.

    This Slivvz-guy is really horrible, he behaves as if he were an additional BAD moderator on Physics SE who nobody has ordered; and he makes himself very present and dominant all the time now :-(.
    And he is so pompous and arrogant, just because of his rep he claims having the right to randomly shoot questions about topics he has no clue about down and playing havoc with the site. He does all these bad things while pretending wanting to make the site better etc. And have you seen how he threatens me all the time ... ;-)?

    And he is a blatant impostor too, in chat he clamed that while at the University his focus has been on theoretical physics too ... But then again, in the comments below my answer to a question asking about the multiverses (which he downvoted) he asked me so stupid things, that I could see that he really has much less a clue about theoretical physics than I have ...

    Among many other things, I enjoyed the firewall TRF articles too, and I am very glad that we still have TRF at east ...

    I wish you a Merry Christmas and happy holidays too :-)

  22. Well, I think that physicists should push back against what some of the moderators are doing, which, imo, borders on bullying. Particularly on closing some good questions or saying that there is no physics in some of them. I saw one moderator saying that he doesn't believe anything David Gross says, for example. Does he even know who David Gross is?
    Yes, physicsstack is a commercial site, but unless people stand up for their opinions they will be bulldozed.

  23. Hi Gordon,

    can you give me the link to where a mod said that he does not believe anything David Gross says? I thought I had a very similar discussion with a user but it was not a mod (?) ...

    I am actually very worried and concerned about this Slivvz-Troll. I saw him actually, in the comments of a (now closed) question asking about the difference between ST and religion, blatantly insulting string theorists. He says only philosophers should be allowed to answer this questions and not phycisists, string theorists are biased, etc

    And among the good questions he wrongly closevotes or reviews (and says close it) are many theoretical or ST questions :-(

    Since the phase transition has happend on Physics SE culminating in Shog9 throwing Ron out, things are very bad. It seems a number of mean and malicious non-physics people have flooded the site. The first time I got downvoted on an (accepted) answers on the main page even though I am 100% sure there is nothing wrong with the physics I have written. Such a thing never happend to me before the phase transition ... Our site is now obviously infected with the destructive, mean, and unfriendly atmosphere and behavior I have observed on Meta Stack Overflow for example. On this meta site, people who get upvoted discuss how they could best patronize and harrass normal everyday users, and people who suggest really helpful things or complain (rightly so) about unjust things get downvoted to extinction.

    I am obviously the only one who tries to push back against these bad things going on on Physics SE. Whenever I log in to retag some TP questions, I browse the activities of the Sklivvz-Troll, to see what he has done again I have to complain about. This guy is so penetrant and omnipresent; he does a lot of edits, reviews, closevotes, etc

    This he wanted to be closed too, I saw it in his review and warned the mods to not close it:

    In addition, he tries to get Rons answers deleted by editing the question such that the answesr no longer fit, for example here:

    Unfortunataly I can not to ouspokenly disagree with the troll, since he and Manishearth are constantly threateig me :-/.

    It would really be helpful, if some TRF readers (and hosts ;-)...) could help pushing back against this grievance too ... Otherwise, the trolls will soon start to openly spit and spat on fundamental physics (and in particular ST of course) and shoot down corresponding questions more rigorously without anybody doing something about it :-(.

    The best alternative would still be to start a physics Q and A siite outside SE of course ...

  24. Hmmm, I thought he was a moderator, but I think it is the guy you were talking to. I just pop in occasionally and lurk now, so I am unfamiliar with the politics. Jeff Harvey and a few other heavy hitters took off long ago (not sure if he came back.)

  25. I apologize in advance this must be a dumb question but I beg indulgence as I am not able to follow the technical arguments sufficiently,
    Once we accept no drama, how would Alice know whether she has reached the horizon. If she has not then the only "information" she has is already available to other observers. If she has then the only "information" she sees will not be seen by others. If she must be right at the horizon where does she get knowledge of the location of the horizon in order to send at just the right moment? Even if she had prior knowledge would not the uncertainty principle make it impossible for Bob to know whether her knowledge was that gained at the moment when she could obtain information from inside rather than outside?

  26. Dear Robert, indeed, it's the very point of the canonical no-drama picture that Alice has no way to determine whether she has already crossed the horizon. The equivalence principle guarantees that nothing special is happening at the even horizon. In fact, if one talks about the horizon of a newly formed black hole, it's not clear in advance where the horizon is - it may depend on the future evolution of rather distant regions that may decide "where the black hole starts".

    In the normal picture, she may try to send the information at every moment, but only the signals sent before she crosses the event horizon have a chance (are allowed by causality) to reach the observers at infinity - observers outside the black hole again. All the results of the measurements she makes after she crosses the horizon will remain private forever. In a very physical sense, these data (results from measurements, "facts" inside the black hole) don't exist for the external observers at all.

    That's really the starting point for black hole complementarity because this "non-existence of the facts inside the black hole" allows the field operators inside to have nonzero commutators with the fields outside.

    And indeed, Bob outside will never know anything about her subsequent life inside the black hole - it's the same statement.

    The firewall-like pictures completely change - eradicate - the life story after the crossing of the horizon. However, they don't really change the outer observers' interpretation of the inner events - these inner events were always inaccessible to the outer ones.

  27. AMPS may or may not be right, but what makes you think Jennifer and I are not interested in "genuine progress"? That's quite an extrapolation from the facts at hand!

  28. Dear Lubos, while I would subscribe to your reply to George Musser I feel that you are neglecting a real-world aspect. Scientific American is in the business of selling copies of its magazine and advertising targeted at its readers, an audience of educated readers with an interest in science.

    In recent years, science journalism is falling increasingly under the sway of two narratives. The first is, "Everything you know is wrong;" the second, "It's even worse than you think."

    In his play Arcadia, Tom Stoppard has a character (a mathematician, by the way), say:

    “It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing.... A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It's the best possible time of being alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.”

    I submit that this is not representative of the way actual mathematicians or scientists think. But it does capture a mindset that is prevalent in the secular culture. Our attention spans are continually growing shorter. We are conditioned by marketing and hype to always expect the Next Big Thing. Reading about incremental innovations or discoveries makes our eyes glaze over and induces an alpha-wave brain state popularly known as "stupor".

    The second, "It's even worse than you think," is an embodiment of what the Germans call Angstlust: the thrill of being scared out of our wits. Hollywood caters to this demand by producing ever more gruesomely violent horror and disaster movies. In science journalism, it seems the most effective way to meet this demand is by promoting the "catastrophic anthropogenic climate change" hypothesis.

    Scientific American and similar publications ignore this demand at their peril. They will simply go out of business if they do. For all we know, George Musser and his colleagues may be fighting a valiant fight to keep things from becoming even worse.

    Of course, this is grossly unfair to scientists like yourself and Prof. Matt Strassler who are busting their tails to make the forefront of scientific research comprehensible to a lay audience. Unfortunately I know of no way to reverse the powerful trends in our culture.

  29. Dear Eugene, thanks. Sadly, I fully agree with the trend in the media that wants to present new and new anecdotal evidence of the (deluded) theses that "everything you knew is wrong" and "it's worse than you thought".

    Still, I don't think that the journalists are innocent victims of this trend. They have actively built this situation - and they're still building it. They're "training" their readers to expect this sort of stuff and increasingly legitimize that these are the perspectives from which everything should be studied.

    Otherwise the word "incremental progress" is surely designed to sound unimpressive. But the truth is that every advance in science may be described as incremental progress. Newton's equations or his explanations of something were incremental progress over the less quantitative views by Galileo, Kepler, etc. Special relativity was just a gradual incremental improvement of Newton's mechanics, and general relativity had the same status relatively to Newton's gravity. Quantum mechanics was an incremental progress improving the old Bohr models and other things. DNA was just another important molecule. And many of the revolutionaries who did these important things did describe the advances modestly as humble improvements of the giants' picture from the past.

    I don't understand what people expect that could look as something totally and qualitatively different from "incremental progress". One is either interesting in the advancing and improving science or he is not. If he dismisses the most important examples of incremental progress, he is clearly not interested in science - so the media whose policy is to dismiss the bulk of progress as "incremental research" and only talk about things that are staggering for armchair physicists etc are simply assuming that their readers aren't interested in physics and science itself; they're only interested in some power struggles around science, about sociology, about tabloid media topics, these people just suck.

  30. To be sure, I agree with you fully regarding incremental progress. When I wrote "our eyes glaze over" I did not mean to include myself, although an earlier version of me would surely be included.

    Perhaps sci-fi stories and movies, with their hallmark "sense of wonder", play a role, too. Although science fiction has lured many into subsequently developing a sense of genuine appreciation for science, it has also created unreasonable expectations for what lies just ahead, exemplified by a comment on TRF by someone a few years ago: "Dude, where's my warp drive?" A mixed blessing.

    And if you will permit me just one tiny dig at yourself, a term such as "superstring revolution" may also play a small part :)

  31. Hem, maybe journalists just go for what they are able to understand Lubos.