Friday, January 01, 2016

Results, brilliance of practitioners keep string theory at the heart of science

Bigots' medieval efforts to constrain what scientists are allowed to study and conclude are unacceptable

It has become literally fashionable for subpar minds to copy essays claiming that string theory is not science from each other. Two men, David Bailey, a pensioner at UC Davis, and Jonathan Borwein have joined this business when they published a rant titled
Data vs Theory: The Mathematical Battle for the Soul of Physics
in the Huffington Post. HuffPo is obviously just a very influential left-wing blog about politics but they often love to pretend that they have something to do with science even though they don't. So they occasionally publish texts that pretend to be about science but they are not. For example, two weeks ago, Lisa Randall was abused by a feminist whore at HuffPo.

Update, related ad: Tetragraviton mentions that neither string theory nor inflation or the multiverse are examples of a non-empirical confirmation – which is why he views the whole Dawid's workshop as a misguided event – because people who study these three concepts are a union of those who are actually working on producing old-fashioned predictions, even if they use novel methods such as the anthropic ones; and those who use the multiverse "heavily ambiguous" compactifications as an explanation of the failure to complete physics so far (an excuse), but those people get excited about old-fashioned empirical naturalness-like explanations as soon as one arrives. So none of these people can be said to "need, want, and merit" non-empirical explanations at the same time which is why the discussion of non-empirical confirmations is unjustified in these three contexts.
Bailey and Borwein who demonstrably don't understand what string theory actually is at the technical level are also trying to persuade the superficial, brainwashed, and impressionable readers of that political weblog by linking string theory to some science-related political causes in which the opinion of the HuffPo readers seems to be predictable. I will get to this demagogic trick soon.

The new anti-string HuffPo rant has six short sections: Introduction, String theory, The multiverse, Detractors, Whither science?, and The downsides. In the first three sections, they review some standard popular-book-level stuff like:
Physics is exciting because of the Higgs discovery. LHC folks are smart. A battle about the soul of physics is underway. Brian Greene's book explains the basics of string theory, the number of dimensions, the Scherk-Schwarz realization it contains gravity, Witten's M-theory. The cosmological constant problem is a bad failure of science, the multiverse may exist, there are many possibilities.
These paragraphs don't differ from the most basic introductions to the fields much. One may complain about various minor technical distortions. Instead, I am annoyed by their constant references to popular books. On one hand, they pretend to address some real questions in the existing research i.e. to convey some important insights and wisdom to the experts; on the other hand, they only use popular book as references. Even Susskind, Ellis, and Silk are primarily described as authors of popular books. Surely they don't believe that the popular books are sufficient to settle these questions of the cutting-edge research, do they?

As you keep on reading, the concentration of the lies, demagogy, and nastiness is increasing towards the end of their tirade. It starts with minor problems, e.g.
Efforts to demonstrate that string theory reduces to just one compelling theory have failed, in part because the underlying Calabi-Yau spaces have some 10500 different topological designs.
In the mid 1990s, "dualities" were discovered and it was therefore realized that all the "different string theories" are actually just solutions of one theory. Earlier in the article, they actually mention the very same point (in the context of Witten and M-theory) but as we clearly see here, they don't understand what they actually wrote.

Incidentally, \(10^{500}\) isn't the most accurate estimate of "the" number now and this number didn't count the number of topologies at any rate (for example, there are just 10,000 or so Calabi-Yau three-fold topologies) but this blog post isn't supposed to be about technical errors (there are obviously numerous errors because these people don't really know what they're talking about). It's supposed to be mostly about sociological and philosophical issues.
But Susskind and others see lemonade in lemons here, by proposing that the many Calabi-Yau spaces of string theory are the explanation of the cosmic coincidences...
There demonstrably is some lemonade in the lemons. It may be a "wrong lemonade" at the end but just because Bailey and Borwein don't like a particular lemonade doesn't prove that it's a wrong lemonade. Many physicists are convinced that they have very good circumstantial evidence to think that the vacuum around us is a largely random vacuum picked from a large number of possible candidates which is why they use this assumption as a working hypothesis in much of their research.

Things become much worse from the section about "detractors", of course.
But these eminent theoreticians also have their detractors, who argue that the field of physics can no longer afford to pursue speculative lines of research that, as far as anyone can see at the present time, cannot be empirically tested.
There is nothing "speculative" about string theory. The research in string theory is exactly the same kind of scientific research as the scientific research in the past or in other disciplines. Hypotheses are formulated and elaborated upon, predictions are calculated, and the hypotheses are eliminated or strengthened depending on their agreement with the evidence that is ultimately empirical in character.

The fact that it's likely that we won't have any direct tests of physics at the fundamental scale anytime soon doesn't change anything about the scientific nature of the research. And this fact isn't new, it's been known at least since the moment when Max Planck calculated the numerical magnitude of the Planck units.
String theory has yet to produce any prediction that can be subjected to empirical test (e.g., to predict the masses of current or yet-to-be-discovered particles), and the multiverse may be fundamentally beyond the realm of empirical test.
Every particular string compactification – much like every quantum field theory with given values of the parameters – may calculate the masses. We just don't know which of them is right. But once we knew which of the compactifications is right to the extent that we could accurately calculate the electron mass, for example, fundamental science would be almost over. The two detractors' suggestion that this would be a "beginning" of string theory or its legitimacy or that it's a necessary condition for string theory to be allowed as a science is absolutely ludicrous.

What they demand as a condition for a theory to be science is basically that the theory has been completely understood and there is nothing left to study. This is not the situation of string theory which is why the research continues. You could never get any theory to the status of science according to their definition (according to their rule that uncertain-to-be-true theories cannot be investigated) because the uncertainty is an inseparable omnipresent step in the scientific research.

The multiverse may or may not be relevant for the right explanation of the Universe but the fact that it may be relevant and right is a sufficient reason that makes it obvious that some scientists study the consequences of this hypothesis. This is common sense. It's a possible if not likely scenario so scientists study it. Again, the two critics would basically only allow scientists to study things that are completely settled and proven. But once something is settled and proven, there is no reason to keep on studying it. So their logic is absolutely perverted, wrong, upside down.

It is exactly the uncertainty about these big questions – such as the relevance of the multiverse – which forces genuine scientists to study the questions and look for evidence "in favor" and "against" various scenarios. The evidence may be compared. It can't be otherwise. One can't decide "in favor" or "against" the multiverse or any other scenario in physics without doing research.
Even the inflation theory of the big bang has been criticized of late as no longer scientific because it is so flexible that it can accommodate any observational result.
The fact that even inflation has been criticized doesn't mean that there is something wrong with inflation. It may also mean – and, in this case, it obviously does mean – that there are lots of deluded and incompetent people who criticize theories, ideas, and even established insights that are pillars of science or the civilization. In particular, inflation is a cornerstone of modern cosmology which explains many things about the Universe really robustly – in some sense, one could say that its status is completely analogous to the status of Darwin's theory of evolution in biology.
[A Šmoit:] The possible existence of, say, 10500 consistent different vacuum states for superstring theory probably destroys the hope of using the theory to predict anything.
Even in the absence of the knowledge about the right compactification, the theory still predicts tons of things – Lorentz invariance, gravity, the black hole thermodynamics, the qualitative spectrum of the black hole microstates, effective field theory at low energies, supersymmetry somewhere beneath the Planck scale, degrees of freedom that may be organized to excitations in 6 or 7 extra dimensions (at least at some high energy scale), AdS/CFT holography, dualities of many kinds, mathematical consequences for mirror symmetry and monstrous moonshine and lots of other things, extra constraints that aren't derivable from the effective field theories themselves (as exemplified by the swampland program, e.g. gravity's being the weakest force), and so on.

Can one ever extract detailed predictions e.g. of the electron mass from string theory? Even string theorists are split. There exist string theorists who believe that due to the large number of possibilities and our living in a random representative, that will be forever impossible. But even if that's the case, it doesn't mean that the theory is wrong. Nature doesn't care whether it's easy for us to deal with Her laws.
[A Šmoit:] If one picks among this large set just those states whose properties agree with present experimental observations, it is likely there still will be such a large number of these that one can get just about whatever value one wants for the results of any new observation.
Well, except for the constraints that may be derived even in the absence of the knowledge of details, as I have mentioned.

The same is true in quantum field theory, of course. Every quantum field theory used to describe the real Universe is an effective one and it may always break down in some regime (typically at higher energies) and be superseded by a different one. What happens beyond the domain of validity of the effective field theory is unpredictable by that theory. In the framework of string theory, the broad logic is exactly the same – except that string theory uses different, "qualitative" data to describe the set of possibilities than quantum field theory; and except that string theory has the potential to complete the picture so that its description of the phenomena will be exact and no longer just an effective approximation.
On 16 December 2014, George Ellis (co-author with Hawking of The Large-Scale Structure of Space-Time) and Joseph Silk (author of The Infinite Cosmos) jointly wrote a Nature article decrying developments in string theory and the multiverse, warning that recent debates in physics have taken a "worrying turn."
String theorists are continuing exactly the kind of research that has been done for decades and centuries. The anthropic fad has mostly faded away and about 50 percent of string theorists have never believed this scenario, anyway. But it is clearly a possibility that hasn't been disproven and every careful and open-minded scientist who cares about the evidence realizes that the possibility that the multiverse is needed (and that many seemingly universal constants of Nature etc. won't be predictable in any sort of unique or quasi-unique way because they're historical accidents) is still around us. Only unscientific folks believe that one may eliminate something that is self-evidently a viable, physically non-vacuous possibility by some dogmatic philosophical trash talk about falsifiability.
They note that proponents of string theory and the multiverse, faced with the failure in applying these theories to the real observed universe, have begun to argue that empirical testing should not be required – if a theory is sufficiently "elegant" and free of internal contradictions, that should be good enough to pursue it (i.e., walking away from the requirement, paramount since the writings of Karl Popper in the mid 20th century, that a theory must be empirically falsifiable to qualify as a scientific theory).
Nothing substantial has changed about the string theorists' attitude to these questions in the recent 40 years – and, in fact, in physics experts' attitude to these questions in recent 100 years. Unambiguous empirical data are and have often been inaccessible and in that omnipresent situation, the elegance and internal consistency of course becomes absolutely crucial. They were crucial for Einstein when he developed both special and general relativity. One could argue that they were his #1 guides even though the experimental data were available. But for Einstein, the elegance and inner cohesion of the theoretical ideas were more important than the experiment and he indeed found the right theories. (Before he started to study wrong ones – once he began to ignore much more solid evidence supporting quantum mechanics etc. that he found "unpleasant" as a fundamental theory.) There was absolutely nothing wrong or inferior about his attitude and strategy – on the contrary – and analogously, there is absolutely nothing wrong about the application of the same approach by string theorists in the recent 45 years.

Physics has nothing to do with a cult worshiping a philosopher. Philosophical dogmas and theses are ignored by physicists and most particle physicists, string theorists or non-string theorists, consider Popper a naive thinker. The research just doesn't follow his narrow-minded prescriptions. It's just absolutely silly to try to turn this man into some kind of an icon standing above physics. Not even the Catholic Inquisition was trying to do similar things.
Ellis and Silk are particularly concerned about those, such as Richard Dawid and others who have of late begun to use Bayesian statistical analysis involving purely philosophical propositions, i.e., because no one has found a good alternative to, say, string theory, and because the theories without alternatives in the past have tended to be viable, that these facts should be taken as "evidence" in support of string theory.
The Bayesian inference has always been a quantitative description of any rational process rooted in reason. The Bayesian inference dealing with conceptual, metaphysical, far-reaching proposition has always been implicitly made by the individual scientists or the scientific community as a whole. Such propositions are quickly replaced by much more specific, empirical statements about the newly observed data. But in the absence of those, it's obvious that the Bayesian inference about whatever evidence is available does play a role.
In the end, Ellis and Silk conclude,

To state that a theory is so good that its existence supplants the need for data and testing in our opinion risks misleading students and the public as to how science should be done and could open the door for pseudoscientists to claim that their ideas meet similar requirements. ... The imprimatur of science should be awarded only to a theory that is testable. Only then can we defend science from attack.
I have discussed Silk's and Ellis' tirade one year ago. Their claims are just wrong. The internal qualities of a physical theory have always been important and they are important in 2015, too. Good physicists have always paid a lot of attention to the intrinsic virtues of theories, they still do pay a lot of attention to that, this strategy has been very successful, and it is the physicists' duty to convey this point to the laymen, too. There is nothing "heretical" about this focus on the inner qualities of theories – and if you called it "heretical", many of the history's best physicists have been "heretics" – and this attempt by the inferior minds to delegitimize this paramount process is ludicrous.
The present authors concur with Ellis and Silk that one must draw the line on empirical testing and falsification.
The line is clear. If an idea or hypothesis has any consequences for any observations that may be done in principle, it is a legitimate physical idea or hypothesis or a theory. Any major strengthening of this requirement – in particular, the requirement that it must be possible to verify something in a foreseeable future – is indefensible. Certain questions are very important for the direction of the scientific research and scientists are obliged to accumulate legitimate evidence in favor or against these propositions even if the evidence has nothing to do with new experiments. Propagandist talking points like those by Bailey, Bolwein, Ellis, Silk, and similar men are not legitimate evidence.
As fond as we are of mathematics in general and elegant mathematics in particular, such considerations should be kept out of physical theories.
No, they shouldn't be, they have never been, and they cannot be.
The space of mathematical structures is simply far too rich and vast for one to think that string theory, for instance, is "the only game in town."
The space of mathematical structures that could replace string theory may look "too rich" to the laymen like Bailey and Bolwein who know basically nothing about this space. But this space of "alternatives to string theory" isn't really rich. It seemed empty 30 years ago and now we have 30 more years of experience and hindsight. The space of alternatives is still empty and string theory is the only game in town.

There are infinitely many even integers. And there are infinitely many primes. These two conditions are independent. So a layman could guess that there must be many even primes, too. But it just turns out that the number two is the only even prime. It's just how things are. The conditions "being even" and "being prime" are almost entirely mutually exclusive – but there exists exactly one loophole. Totally analogously, "a theory respecting the postulates of quantum mechanics" and "a theory resembling general relativity at long distances" are almost entirely mutually excluding. But there exists exactly one loophole and it's string/M-theory. In some sense, the loophole is "large" or has "many flavors" because string theory has many solutions and many descriptions. It is very rich. But the proposition that one needs to remain within the string/M-theoretical framework if he wants to study quantum gravity in \(d\gt 4\) seems more or less settled.
For example, Ptolemy's system of spheres and epicycles was almost universally regarded as both elegant and self-evident for 1500 years, yet it fell to the modern cosmology of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Indeed, early predictions of the new theory were less accurate than the highly tuned predictions of the old one. Likewise, Newton's physics was considered both elegant and self-evident for 300 years before it fell to relativity and quantum mechanics.
The epicycles are often criticized too much by people whose wisdom is way lower than the wisdom of Ptolemy or his followers. It was basically a phenomenological theory not too different from a Fourier expansion of the orbits \(\vec r(t)\). But OK, let me adopt this arrogant attitude. The point is that Ptolemy's theory seemed elegant and capable of describing the real data which is why people continued to believe it for a very long time. However, it was finally replaced by a more elegant theory. People could calculate all the coordinates – including Kepler's elliptical orbits – from several universal differential equations.

It's bizarre why they talk about it because the situation of quantum field theory and string theory is completely analogous. Like the epicycles, quantum field theory was capable of describing the actually observed data. Some people have thought that it was here to stay. But a more elegant alternative, string theory – a counterpart of Newton's theory – has emerged.
In each case the paradigm shift required a mixture of new and compelling theory and sooner-or-later supporting observations. Inarguably, string theory has the first but not the second. How is that different from natural philosophy or science in its original and now deprecated sense?
No, there is no difference between the two historical situations. There is no way to exclude the "epicycle framework" that wouldn't refer to the elegance of theories. Indeed, every trajectory of the planets and the Sun \(\vec r_i(t)\) may be written in terms of epicycles and perhaps some aperiodic corrections added on top of them – greater circles etc. This claim is basically equivalent to the possibility to write periodic functions in terms of Fourier series. We're not forced to abandon the epicycles by any hard evidence. In other words, the epicycles were never "falsifiable", either. People have only abandoned them because there exists a more universal, explanatory, unifying, elegant theory based on Newton's equations.

The transition from the obsolete quantum field theory to string theory is done for the very same qualitative reasons. Like the epicycles, effective quantum field theories are not falsifiable by "purely empirical evidence". If the \(750\GeV\) new particle is discovered by the LHC later in this new year, the Standard Model as an ambitious theory will be excluded. But the Standard Model as an effective theory may still be said to be OK because an effective theory always admits that there are new phenomena (at high energies – beyond the domain of validity of the effective theory). But with lots of new phenomena (hypothetically), a more complete theory than the Standard Model will be studied and the theory that will replace the Standard Model to describe the LHC data in the future may be even "qualitatively different". Its new qualitative features will make things look more natural than the epicycle-style "Standard Model with new ad hoc corrections and additions". The logic is always analogous in science.

Incidentally, their negative comment about "natural philosophy" is bizarre, too. This is exactly how Newton called calculus-based physics that he founded – in the book titled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Physics is a sort of natural philosophy, one must simply do it well. "Natural philosophy" may have been formulated as an insult but most physicists don't view it as an insult because they know very well what Newton has done and how he called it.
It is also ironic that in an era when mathematics itself is becoming more experimental, with experimentation – by computer – now considered fully complementary with rigorous proof, that theoretical physics is becoming more focused on pure mathematical theory and less on experimental evidence.
This is a bizarre claim. In theoretical physics, the theoretical and advanced mathematical arguments and calculations have become more important not because of the rise of computers (which theoretical physicists don't use too often for calculations) but because the experimentally easily accessible situations have been understood and to study unsolved questions, people simply have to look further – e.g. to quantum gravity which is easily seen to be probably inaccessible to direct experiments.

(Deja vu: I wrote a favorable 2012 blog post about the interesting Bailey-Borwein untruths about experimental mathematics.)

If this increase of the importance of theoretical arguments and advanced mathematics occurred in the same epoch as the rise of computers, it's a coincidence. Well, it isn't quite a coincidence because both things – the number and power of computers; and the depth of the mathematical ideas that are needed in fundamental physics – are pretty much increasing at all times. So there is nothing really special about the contemporary era. When Ada Lovelace was alive, it was also true that the computing machines were becoming more widespread exactly at the time when physicists had to learn new mathematical concepts. Both signs of progress occur at almost all times (which is why it's dumb to say that their co-existence is "ironic") but they have no "easy" causal relationship!

But the most terrible part of the Bailey-Borwein rant is the final section, The downsides. They claim that the reliance of string theory on elegant and mathematical arguments is responsible for 5 evils in the world: the Americans' belief in a young Earth, in creationism, the climate skepticism of the presidential candidates, the vaccine-autism beliefs, and the popularity of essential oils. ;-)

Especially when I write it in this concise way, their populist claim sounds as a parody, doesn't it? Do they really believe that string theory decides what people think about geology, Darwin, the climate apocalypse, causes of autism, or benefits of essential oils? No person with the IQ above 100 can really believe such a thing. These topics have virtually nothing to do with each other and people's beliefs in one answer or another in each question are only weakly correlated to the beliefs concerning the other questions.

It is very obvious why they link string theory to these five other topics. They can figure out that most readers of the left-wing server such as HuffPo love to criticize conservatives and most of these readers have embraced an old Earth, evolution, climate hysteria, trust in the safety of vaccines, and they probably don't care about the essential oils. And Bailey and Borwein are simply telling them: You see! String theory is exactly the same right-wing conspiracy as the climate denial or the essential oils.

Except that string theory is in no way correlated to opinions about the essential oils or climate hysteria. And most string theorists are left-wingers, anyway. This whole link is totally fraudulent and only complete imbeciles could buy it. Moreover, the five non-stringy topics they discuss aren't really related to each other. And the opinions of the two ranters about many of the issues are deeply problematic.

Let me skip the old Earth and Darwin's theory because I obviously consider these two things to be facts just like they do. But the third topic, the climate change debate, is totally shocking.

When it comes to string theory, they demand string theorists to calculate the exact masses of all particles to be even allowed to call string theory "science" or to be allowed to study it at all. String physicists are also demanded to make direct experiments at the Planck energies – something that requires colliders that are as large as the visible Universe. Everything must be rooted in direct experimental evidence. But what is these two men's justification of the climate hysteria? least 15 years of scientific consensus that the earth is warming due at least in part to human activities...
Their evidence for the sky-is-falling conspiracy theories is "fifteen years of scientific consensus" (by researchers 90% of whom were hired in order to produce hysterical pseudoscience). What the hell is this supposed to mean? People doing the unification of gravity with other forces have had at least "thirty years of consensus" that string theory is the only game in town. But in the case of theoretical physics, it's not enough, these two jerks say. When it comes to the absolutely preposterous climate hysteria, 15 years of "consensus" is enough?

Sorry, science isn't about consensus. Science is about evidence. It uses the empirical data and logical and mathematical arguments – in mixtures that can vary – but the "consensus" is never a valid argument in science. String theorists don't use it because they have actual technical arguments. They're arguments of the kind that subpar minds such as Bailey and Borwein don't understand and can't understand but they are still scientific arguments, unlike everything that Bailey and Borwein have exploited in their trash talk about string theory.

The climate hysteria is the most shocking example of the authors' double standards but it's not quite the only example.
Despite endless assurances, for example by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, that vaccinations are not a cause of autism or other childhood diseases, more than half of the U.S. public either are sure that they do cause autism, or are not sure.
I tend to think that autism doesn't have this cause (and I might remain a supporter of vaccination even if a weak enough autism effect existed). But I am not quite sure about the non-existence of the link and I am sure that "endless assurances" by some U.S. government bureaucrats are not a solid foundation to make a careful person certain about the invalidity of the link. The possible autism effects of vaccines isn't something that only nut jobs talk about. It's been investigated in numerous papers because the vaccines often contain thimerosal that has rather good reasons to influence the nerve system, like every compound containing mercury. The most well-known papers are negative but e.g. this paper in an Elsevier journal concludes that some autism cases have been caused by thimerosal and the paper has over 400 citations; and this paper is saying that the link is plausible has over 70 citations by now. All the laymen who feel "certain" that the link is totally impossible have been simply brainwashed. The duty to scream that "the vaccine-autism link must be absolute rubbish" has become a part of the political correctness in some circles but it's not a conclusion one may easily obtain from reading the scientific literature. The believers that "the link is surely bogus" can't possibly have access to any balanced, non-cherry-picked data that would imply a certainty about the negative answer.

But surprisingly, I am more certain that they are wrong when it comes to the seemingly bizarre issue of "essential oils":
Friend-to-friend marketing of essential oils is exploding in popularity, both in the U.S. and internationally. Among the utterly unsubstantiated health claims that have been made are that essential oils cure Ebola, bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, tumor reduction, and ADD/ADHD.
Holy cow. The evil string theorists have made people sell the evil essential oils to their friends, too. What did the essential oils did to them to launch such a holy war against them? I tell you what the sin is: The authors decided that most of the people who included essential oils to their diet for health reasons are conservative and "therefore", they must be wrong.

But that's not how it works. First of all, I find it highly debatable that the essential oils are only considered beneficial by the conservatives or creationists or young-Earth geologists or autism-vaccine conspiracy theorists or climate skeptics. I am sure that there are tons of climate alarmists – and also enthusiastic green Earth-saving vegetarians – who love essential oils, too.

Second, while there are many superstitions, there are tons of effects of these essential oils that are demonstrably beneficial. I don't want to make dramatic statements that I am not sufficiently certain about but I do find it plausible that the oregano oil – most (more than 50%) of it is carvacrol – has saved my life (after my fungal/yeast infections became obvious and I identified them). I could observe the effects immediately and I can still observe the effect these days when I reduced the oregano oil capsules to 2 or 3 per week.

This is no placebo effect.

Just look at Google Scholar and search e.g. for articles that have investigated the inhibitory concentrations of carvacrol against various yeasts and bacteria. There is no doubt in the literature that carvacrol kills almost all the yeast and a big subgroup of the bacteria. The concentrations needed to destroy these microorganisms are comparable to the concentrations of -azols that you need to do the same thing – but the essential oils are almost certainly healthier than -azols in other respects.

Just an example. A 2001 paper by Lambert et al., A study of the minimum inhibitory concentration and mode of action of oregano essential oil, thymol and carvacrol, has studied the effect of carvacrol (mostly in oregano oil), thymol (mostly in thyme), and their combination on Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, some bacteria. The effect is huge and especially the combination is almost "fatally" deadly for the bacteria. The mechanisms are known, too. Carvacrol, thymol, and similar compounds from the essential oils destroy the membrane integrity, they "pinch" the cells. For yeasts, this occurs because the essential oils basically dissolve ergosterol, the material in the membrane walls (analogous to cholesterol in our bodies but more "clearly positive" for their small bodies).

Now, the paper by Lambert et al. is no conspiracy theory posted in an obscure fake medical journal. It's posted in a prestigious journal and has accumulated 1208 citations over the 15 years. Twelve hundred and eight damn citations. I can find dozens of similar papers about related topics with different affected microorganisms and different essential oils (or other natural "food supplements"). To claim that the essential oils do nothing to fight bacteria is just plain insane, a sign of someone's complete ignorance about the whole field. For obvious reasons, I was more interested in the effects of the essential oils and other compounds on the yeasts. But I became quite an expert. I know what spices and oils in them help, which of them don't, what propolis and other bee products do to Candida, and tons of other things.

You may imagine that with my standards, I was obviously deeply dissatisfied with various forums where people enthusiastically promoted their experience with one essential oil or something else. I just naturally distrust such things. But once I read some of the papers and evaluated whether they were done correctly or at least whether other top experts in that field believe that research, the answer was clear. Lots of these effects are totally true and essential oils are deeply underestimated.

The carvacrol is a very strong anti-oxidant – easily beating the vitamin C and other things – so it may help in prevention of cancer. I don't want to make too strong claims here even though I do believe that this effect exists. But there is a lot of research of this kind. There also are indications that some food, like the saturated fatty acids (caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic etc.) found in goat milk and oregano oil do act as prevention of cancer even if this claim sounds ambitious (goats don't have certain kinds of cancer, probably for that reason).

But the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effect of some essential oils is a settled fact. By placing the benefits of essential oils on par with young Earth creationism, Bailey and Borwein prove that they know as little about the anti-bacterial agents as they know about string theory. They must be capable of realizing that they know nothing about those topics so why the hell don't they just shut their stupid mouths?

Who decides about research directions

In the last three paragraphs, they start with:
In short, we concur with Ellis and Silk that the only way to keep these and numerous other pseudosciences at bay is to hold fast to the high ground of empirical testing.
Right. They have to harass string theorists in order to fight against creationism etc. Holy cow. This reminds me of Lee Sm*lin who has also made string theory responsible for the exploitation and oppression of women by the evil men with penises. What a bunch of nasty left-wing scumbags.

But this short paragraph is equally deluded and sort of important:
Along this line, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the eminence of some of the proponents has given super-string theory a 'free-pass.'
Superstring theory isn't hyphenated. It's a detail but what would you think about a self-confident essay attacking Darwin's theory that would spell his name as Dar-win? This detail surely suggests that the author is a total idiot, doesn't it?

Sorry but the achieved scientists do get and have to get a free pass to do research according to their choice. This is the basic justification for the institution of tenure, for example. Although I believe that tenure is ultimately a flawed paradigm in the organization of science, I surely agree with this key principle used to justify the institution of tenure. Scientists who have been checked to have the skills and integrity have to be free to pursue their evidence as they see fit and protected against pressure from their environment. Some 500 years ago, the Catholic Church thought it had the right to tell scientists what they were allowed and what they weren't allowed to conclude but science as we know it was only created when it earned the true freedom to look for the truth wherever it is and whether it is convenient to someone or not.

Also, I think that it's totally idiotic for them to suggest that the eminence of the proponents "shouldn't matter". It must matter. Various people have various opinions but the opinion of the people who have already proven to be smarter, to be visionaries, to have contributed more than others simply has to count more than the opinion of others let alone average people.

So when David Gross is one of the few people who has received a well-deserved Nobel prize but who also vigorously follows what's happening at the frontier of fundamental physics and who has some unequivocal opinions and expectations, and when his view is that string theory is indisputably the right direction and the only right direction in theoretical particle physics that goes beyond the limited paradigm of effective field theory, this fact simply has to matter.

Gross got the Nobel prize but he and many other people have gotten tenure and influence at the universities because they have made certain achievements. Achievements make it more likely that they have taken place because these people are really good and will push the field in the right direction in the future, too. This gives them the political capital to influence where the science is going, to express their opinion about which younger physicist is more ingenious than another young researcher, and so on. You just can't avoid it. This is a basic manifestation of meritocracy in science.

Similarly, there are somewhat younger folks at top universities – like Strominger and Vafa at Harvard. They have also made numerous famous discoveries – at times when it wasn't fashionable to write anti-physics populist crap like the Bailey-Borwein tirade. They influence what projects the students may get and which postdocs and faculty are hired. It simply has to be like that.

There are also people in the same groups who are not string theorists. And people with different preferences and views about the research compete. They are trying to convince each other. So you may imagine that when a postdoc is hired at Harvard, Andy Strominger and Cumrun Vafa have some opinions, Lisa Randall has others, and Howard Georgi who is indifferent-to-slightly-negative about string theory may present other views. The people constructively interact with each other. They agree about the young people's qualities much more than some people could imagine. Georgi may also sometimes find someone who is an emerging star and propose her or him.

But at the end, it simply works in such a way that the people (and I mean people close to formal theory) who look like the best ones are either doing string theory or they have at least understood that there's something deep about it. Some of the very smart young people don't start (and maybe still aren't) as full-fledged string theorists but they may still be recognized by everyone – string theorists and non-string theorists – as monster minds.

Take David Simmons-Duffin whom I sold some of my furniture when I was emigrating from Harvard. His first paper was one about dark matter halos with Lawrence Krauss, surely not one of the most persuasive champions of string theory out there. This couldn't prevent anyone from seeing that he was really smart. He wrote lots of things about field theory, AdS, the Ising model etc. His so far latest, 24th paper, is about the CFTs on K3 manifold – the same theories that define the compactifications of perturbative string theory on the important 4-dimensional hyper-Kähler manifolds.

But let me return to my broader point. Even young physicists who are not string theorists but who seem powerful, smart, and creative end up having positive opinions about string theory and most of them become familiar with the field to one extent or another.

What activists like Bailey and Bolwein seem to want is to create a revolution or counterrevolution in the physics community that would see the expansion of physicists who don't know anything about string theory and who are hostile towards it. But there are just no good candidates of this kind. People who are good, even rather young ones, already know rather well that the likes of Bailey and Bolwein are full of šit. And the people who tend to agree with rants such as the Bailey-Bolwein rant are just no good. At the end, the picture is rather simple. The people who are offended by this Bailey-Bolwein-Ellis-Silk-Šmoit-Šmoit crap are mostly good and sometimes brilliant; the young people who agree with this stuff are hopeless crap. Science does care and has to care about the quality.

The good young people have the indisputable right to reach these conclusions. Their older colleagues also have the right to influence who is hired and who is not.

At the end, string theory remains so important – the chips are up, not down – because people see an increasingly coherent theoretical picture that increasingly clearly unifies all the other good ideas in physics, a theoretical framework that keeps on generating wonderful insights, a framework that hasn't hit any wall as of today. The field is generating many papers because genuinely competent and creative people are inspired by their colleagues, other competent and creative people. It's really the authors of the new ideas that are deciding about the papers that will be written in the near future, not David Gross' eminence.

High-energy theoretical physics is a difficult subject and most laymen – including Bailey and Bolwein – just can't get most of the conceptual let alone detailed points in the cutting-edge research. That's why the typical opinions of the experts and the typical opinions of the laymen substantially differ. But the scientific research simply has to be done by the experts and there are no good, ready-to-be-hired experts who would actively agree with them populist anti-science trash that the likes of Bailey and Bolwein keep on emitting. One can't build a particle physics community out of people who would agree with the Bailey-Bolwein stuff because it's too obvious that people with these opinions suck. People with these opinions looking nothing like promising young physicists; they look like the idiots who read the Huffington Post to learn about science.
This does not mean that all research in string theory and the multiverse must stop. But the practitioners of these fields should recognize that the chips are down: they cannot exist much longer as science if they cannot at least establish some crisp, testable connections with the real world of scientific data and analysis. They should not be given a free pass for all time.
It's hard to define the stock price of string theory. If the price is quantified as the amount of excitement (quantified by the concentration of certain hormones) it is expected to generate among the competent professionals in the next 5 or 10 years, the stock price may be down relatively to 1985 or 1995 but it is still much higher than in 1979 or 1992 (the stock didn't really exist before 1968). If the stock price reflects the insights that have been already accumulated and settled and may be used at any point, the stock price is higher than ever before.

The discussion about the "chips" isn't quite well-defined but what is well-defined is the fact that many people love to search for the most fundamental laws of physics and string theory remains the only game in town which is why numerous people among the smartest people on Earth pursue these goals and some of them get employed to do it, regardless of the highly competitive atmosphere and the shortage of jobs.

As long as we remain a Western, enlightened society, people will be free to pursue their ideas (in the case of scientists, their hypothesis about Nature's inner workings) and they will be protected from intimidation by the churches or other organizations that would love to suppress the freedom of thought and research. In this sense, the "free pass for all time" to study string theory as a science is here to stay – as long as there will be people who will think that string theory is exciting and probably the only game in town. This "free pass for all time" is what defines the Western civilization. The likes of Bailey and Bolwein have no credentials to dictate what can be called science and what cannot be called science – and they surely have no dictatorial credentials to determine what scientists are allowed to study or conclude.

Unfortunately, the violent anti-string crackpot movement (Bailey and Bolwein are obviously full members of that entity) has become a vastly more threatening organization for the very survival of science (and perhaps the very freedom of thought) than any Christian church.

No comments:

Post a Comment