Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mike Duff vs an anti-string layman

Giotis has pointed out an argument published in the Guardian:
A theory of everything ... has physics gone too far?
Mike Duff of the Imperial College tries to teach something about the foundations of physics to a self-confident layman called Jim Baggott (yes, I had to press backspace when I instinctively started his surname with an F) who is obsessed with irrational critiques of the state-of-the-art physics and who has even written a book based on all these fallacies (see the link below).

The title of the article asserting that "physics that has gone too far" is a rather accurate picture of the basic nature of the string theory's critics – their proximity to the Inquisition that wants to dictate which boundaries science isn't allowed to surpass. Science is "allowed" to surpass any boundaries. Any question where a sufficient body of evidence and relationships between the known and hypothesized facts may be developed is likely to become a fruitful subdiscipline of science. String theory undoubtedly belongs to this list.

Baggott effectively claims that string theory was completed 40 years ago and by this time, everything should have been settled. Duff explains to him that string theory was actually born 40 (well, 45 if one includes the years in which it wasn't called string theory but it was already the same subject) years ago and the insights have been accumulating during the subsequent years and they're still being accumulated which is really why the ongoing research makes sense.

Duff can't resist to point out an important example of such a development that occurred much less than 40 years ago – the discovery of 11D M-theory and the role of membranes in M-theory. It was important, indeed, and Duff himself has made important contributions to this advance years before M-theory got its name. My estimate is that a dozen of advances are as important as the discovery of M-theory and its connections to string theory.

Baggott, like many laymen, believes that science is supposed to talk about things that have already been measured only. Duff corrects him and explains that an important, nearly defining part of science is about predictions and analyses of things that have not been observed, even things that are not gonna be observed soon according to any plan.

So there's some debate in the British daily on whether or not the atomic theory or Einstein's papers about entanglement were physics or metaphysics or speculation. It's a matter of terminology but it seems totally obvious to me that this activity is an important part of what physicists do, have always been doing, and have to do for the progress in physics to be balanced. Einstein was clearly doing physics when he was writing EPR-style papers. We cite him (and them) for those insights and questions. Some of the physics was wrong, some of it may be classified as speculations about alternative theories that can't exist, but in some of it he just followed the proper laws of quantum mechanics to derive certain interesting phenomena (whose validity and whose character in Nature Einstein often misinterpreted and mispredicted).

It was right or wrong but it was surely physics and we cite Einstein for these things, too. What string theorists are doing is much more robust and rooted in the empirical data than Einstein's work about entanglement. String theorists are arguably much more right about string theory and questions it addresses than Albert Einstein when he talked about entanglement. Duff also has to point out that string theory is as rooted in the known empirical facts as the Standard Model.

There are other topics – I endorse every word by Duff – and at the end, Duff tries to clarify a common laymen's (and Baggott's) fallacy. They love to confuse implications derived from a theory and theory's assumptions. In particular, Duff explains that supersymmetry, extra dimensions, the existence of string or membranes (at energies smaller than or equal to the Planck scale), and various other types of physics aren't assumptions of the theory we have but its predictions, something we have derived from a more coherent and fundamental starting point.

Even if you're confused about these matters, you should be able to understand that it's important to distinguish assumptions from derived predictions – the difference is as important as the difference between positive and negative numbers, between credit and debit. They're really standing on the opposite sides of a seesaw so if you're confused which side, it is likely to dramatically invalidate your conclusions. ;-)

String theory allows us to derive known aspects of physics such as general relativity, gauge theories, chiral fermionic matter, but also new aspects such as supersymmetry, grand unification, exotic heavy states – and more theoretical insights such as the nontrivial mechanisms that preserve the information when black holes evaporate, and so on, and so on – from a more unified and fundamental starting point. Only the starting point which is extremely robust or rigid is "adjusted"; all the other claims are implications of them.

Update: There was another exchange in the Guardian on Sunday between John Butterworth and Mike Duff (e.g. first comment), among others. Butterworth isn't a layman. He is an experimenter but it seems he completely misunderstands the work of theoretical physicists. Among experimenters, he isn't the only one. I won't spend more time with Butterworth's musings because they're just a softly formulated form of the very same delusions that the deeply misguided anti-theoretical-physics mob writes everywhere. I sort of believe in the renaissance man so even if someone like Butterworth is an OK experimenter, his Fachidiocy and a complete misunderstanding of a closely adjacent discipline to his – theoretical physics – is just stunning. If he could at least keep his mouth shut instead of boasting his delusions.


  1. Excellent piece in the Guardian. Duff diplomatically demolishes the ignoramus. One is reminded that many prefer to listen to those who know nothing. We have always had many who have not even tried to learn or understand, declare their expertise despite total ignorance.

  2. Jim Baggott reminds me of John Horgan with his ignorant and stupid comments. He has a Phd in physical chemistry from Oxford, and should know better. But then, so should Woit and Smolin. Some of these people are just stupid, and some are confidence tricksters (surname starts with last letter of the word before the bracket), but their drivel is eaten up by the media and cause actual damage to progress in science. Baggott is ok when he sticks to science history. Statements that string theory makes no predictions is just, at best, ignorant--at worst, lying propaganda. I don't claim to know anything but very superficial stuff about string theory, but obviously more than Baggott does.

  3. Vladimir KalitvianskiJun 16, 2013, 7:03:00 PM

    Lubosh, I could not agree with you more : "Science is allowed to surpass any boundaries". However it somewhat contradicts to your claims and endorsements of correctness of string theory (see
    discussion in your "Richard Dawid: String Theory and the Scientific Method"). According to you, other direction should not be funded. Your proximity to the Inquisition that wants to dictate which boundaries science isn't allowed to surpass is evident.

  4. Dear Vladimir, the "alternative theories", as they pompously call them, aren't behind any boundaries. It's like a man who wants to fly to the Moon along with Aldrin and Armstrong but he steps in shit (of loop quantum gravity) in the middle of Springfield, Colorado, instead. Has he surpassed some boundaries?

  5. OMG, just saying the title upsets me because it promises the involvement of a huge, ugly troll ... :-/

  6. No matter how much J.Baggott gets it wrong it is always instructive for the layman to see precisely where they are mistaken. This discussion puts it in black and white.

  7. Hi Lubos,

    Baggott, like many laymen, believes that science is supposed to talk about things that have already been measured only.

    Bee of Backreaction, has an article with regard to science journalism where in comment section she mentions "tacit knowledge."

    I believe your perspective here catches this essence and understanding. While even myself I reveal my layman status, it is is important that It also be understood that I recognize the mathematical structure underlying the theory and realization the constraints that language puts on the wording and vision you share with the lay public. This perspective about what you may be revealed in terms of your vision, it represents the basis of this understanding as we see the surface description played out on a public forum.

    So the visionary aspect talked about in terms of J Baggott must include this tacit understanding, as a basis of a request for that vision, and what it represents. You are constantly defining this for us which I appreciate. Which I appreciate deeply from the science leaders who help the public with the mathematical structure.


  8. Lubos. I wonder if Mike Duff is secretly "Matt" from a recent discussion thread on Woit's blog. (See the first May 28 comment and the lengthy resulting debate over at
    He really takes Woit to the toolshed by the end!

    Check it out Lubos. It sounds very similar!

  9. Hi Lubos,

    I guess then, the tacit response for me then would be to say that a visual reasoning is an immediate response about what is easily transferable (an aspect of consciousness), but has a mathematical basis. In these terms I am thinking of Dirac being analytical, yet very visual.

    In the sense of journalism(why I linked Bee's post), this is what Baggott was missing, while it is understood that the visual aspect of that mathematics is casual and understood by string theorists?

    I may only invoke Plato's Heaven:)


  10. Yours must be some highly generalized notion of "visual". Dirac's manifestly abstract and equation-based ideas - both his bra-ket formalism and the Dirac equation, among others - surely don't agree with what I consider visual.

  11. The guy actually has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Oxford. Characterizing him as a "layman" is rather misleading. In your view, what is the minimal resume required to rise above the rank of "layman"?

  12. Dear Poser, apologies but I always judge people's expertise meritocratically, by their actual skills, knowledge, and understanding, so nothing in the resume can guarantee that someone rises above the category of laymen, surely not in theoretical physics.

    Another question is whether PhDs in physical chemistry should know something about how theoretical physics actually works and makes progress, aside from specialized and no-longer-evolving knowledge from the very narrow discipline of physical chemistry. I think that they generally should know at least something but this guy obviously doesn't.

  13. [PAUL DIRAC]

    When one is doing mathematical work, there are essentially two different ways of thinking
    about the subject: the algebraic way, and the geometric way. With the
    algebraic way, one is all the time writing down equations and following
    rules of deduction, and interpreting these equations to get more
    equations. With the geometric way, one is thinking in terms of pictures;
    pictures which one imagines in space in some way, and one just tries to
    get a feeling for the relationships between the quantities occurring in
    those pictures. Now, a good mathematician has to be a master of both
    ways of those ways of thinking, but even so, he will have a preference
    for one or the other; I don't think he can avoid it. In my own case, my
    own preference is especially for the geometrical way.

  14. He is a complete layman concerning theoretical and fundamental physics. A PhD in chemistry, philosophy, etc does nobody make knowledgable about fundamental physics! This holds in particular for the aggressive species of laypeople, who not even consider learning about ST for example a bit themself but think they have the right to attack it without having any clue what they are talking about ...

  15. Matt is just great, I enjoyed his comments so very much, reading them was well worth it to break my oath to not click that troll site again :-)

    Henceforth I'll stick to it again ...


  16. A reasonable definition. Thank you.
    However, by that reckoning I could (but won't!) name several prominent ivy-league tenured professors of theoretical physics who I feel would fall squarely into your "layman" category - they can't for example properly define the mathematical concepts that they throw loudly around, and they resort to mumbling nervous nonsense when you raise the issue of various paradoxes afflicting their field. However, "layman" really refers to someone who is outside the profession, and has had almost no training (or self training) in these fields. To use the term "laymen" to describe someone who's received decades of training, perhaps chaired a department, published widely, and acquired numerous awards, seems an abuse of language. If after all this experience they still don't know or care what they're talking about, then they are indeed morons. But not laymen. In the current case, I'd say an Oxford Ph.D. in physical chemistry exposes one to enough quantum mechanics to make the layman label inapplicable.

  17. My undergrad degree in physical chemistry old and worn as it is acquainted me enough with QM to be qualified to agree. Forty years later I know that my much less credentialed professors and I had reached the same correct conclusions. But Regardless credentials anyone who wishes to ignore that reality is not required to be consistent with their childhood thoughts is wrong and ignorant.

  18. You just dont get it!

    Having a PhD in physical chemistry may offer one some knowledge and understanding of QM. But this allone does not put you in a position to legitimately judge or even worse condemn cutting edge fundamental physics. Non morons use this knowledge to improve, deepen, and extend their understanding to QFT etc if they are seriously interesred in fundamental physics.

    Dr. Baggott obviosly decided to keep being an agressive (!) Layman concerning fundamental physics topics and attack what physicists who know their business do.

    I just tried to read the interview, but the pompous stupidity and arrogance of Dr. Baggott is simply too much and I had to stop reading ...

  19. Theoretical physicists can be agressive and arrogant too ;)