Sunday, April 28, 2019

String theorists approach the status of heliocentric heretics

Galileo Galilei was legally harassed between 1610 and 1633. Most of us agree that the Inquisition was composed of dogmatists who were suppressing science. Some of them were rather smart but they were still dogmatists. However, what would be wrong to imagine is that Galileo was tortured in a dungeon.

Instead, this is how Solomon Alexander Hart (1806-1881) saw Milton's visit to Galileo when the latter was imprisoned. Galileo lived in a pretty fancy prison, right? He had what he needed to keep on thinking. You may compare Galileo's fancy spaces to the modest, prison-like office of Edward Witten's or, if your stomach is strong, to Alan Guth's office, voted the messiest office in the Solar System. ;-)

Hasn't the Catholic Inquisition provided Galileo with a kind of luxury that Guth can't dream about? (Sorry, Alan, I have abused the fact that no one has access to my rooms LOL.)

OK, Galileo wasn't murdered by those intellectually inferior Catholic apparatchiks. Even his local comfort wasn't locally reduced. He was really "just" prevented from enjoying the freedom to interact with the mankind and to publish anything he wanted, from fully and directly influencing the intellectual world which a man of Galileo's caliber has deserved and which would have been beneficial for the mankind.

These days, it's happening to conservative philosophers and also to thinkers who study ideas more deeply than the masses indoctrinated by embarrassing antiscientific superstitions such as the climate change panic, psychological equality of men and women, and similar nonsense which may be classified as overwhelmingly far leftist these days.

I am convinced that the number of young people who want to do very high-brow things – like string theory research – has dropped sharply in a recent decade. I still try to follow who these people are. But as recently as two decades ago, the identity of these smartest people on Earth would be a matter of exciting debates. Who is the new young Susskind, Witten, or Schwinger? These days, I don't want to mention the names of the smartest theoretical physicists below 30 or stuff like that because I feel that the very publicity would hurt them.

These ingenious people have to hide from the public eye because the mass culture of 2019 prefers mediocrity, mindless obedience, laziness, and superficial spitting on all the essential structures and mechanisms in Nature and the society (Greta Thunberg is quite a symbol for many pathologies of the present) and these people don't fit into that picture.

Under the most recent post "Falsifiability and physics" (promoting the dogmatist and fundamentally flawed Popperist memes), an experimental (and therefore impartial) particle physicist from Rutgers, my Graduate Alma Mater, has pointed out that the students planning to learn and do string theory are the cream:
Amitabh Lath: the longevity of string theory is not due to the middle-aged practitioners you mention but kids in their early 20s who continue to choose to go into the field. Some of the best undergraduate students in our high energy experiment group have over the years chosen to go to grad school in theoretical physics 🙁

Some go into phenomenology but some are indeed doing string theory.

These students are the smartest and most sensible I have ever met, the cream of the Garden State [New Jersey]. They devour the literature, they are fully aware of the arguments on all sides. I cannot in any seriousness entertain the idea that they are led astray by hyperbole. I believe all the arguments about string theory not having made any progress in decades, not producing any testable results, being stuck in a made-up universe nothing like our own reality; these are not deterrents but attractions to this type of student.

I understand your point but the decisions made by these top tier students does much more to sway these “people who might have something to say about whether string theory research gets supported” than some national lab’s public outreach ‘zine.

Every grad program wants these students: sky-high physics-GRE, letters dripping with superlatives, transcripts with half a dozen graduate level courses completed as undergrad. They are courted with fellowships and awards. Their eagerness to join the field is seen as proof of vibrancy. If a big-name string theorist leaves your department and the acceptance rate for these blue-chips drops, you know the search committee will form quickly.
It's natural that this is how it works. A young person who has the ability to master these cutting-edge questions in physics has a significant probability to exploit the ability and actually try to move the cutting edge a little bit further. This is an instinct. An instinct that starts with curiosity. When they have an intellectual weapon in their skull, they're rather likely to realize it and they don't want the weapon to be wasted. Finding important things in physics is, in many ways, more exciting than sex. But in many ways, these two instincts are analogous. The men who have a very potent weapon in between their limbs also want to exploit it in many cases.

The Czecho-Slovak Easter Monday Whip is over. On April 30th, be ready for another nice tradition, the burning of the witches. Prepare every witch – basically every obnoxious woman or a female thief who has a visually understandable problem with beauty, even if she claims not to be a witch – pour some petrol to her glass to improve her mood, and burn her on Tuesday.

Moving the cutting edge of physics a little bit (or a big step) forward isn't easy, all these people know. If one succeeds, he or she unavoidably establishes that the likes of Edward Witten, Andy Strominger, Leonard Susskind, and/or others have been doing something silly. Or they overlooked some known insights that were relevant at another place. To have a chance to establish these far-reaching insights and change the status quo, one has to be smart and hard-working, these young people know.

It seems that the critics of science don't even get this simple point – that one needs intelligence and hard work to move theoretical physics forward.
A vanilla science critic: ...but if you are writing about a controversy, aren’t you supposed to contact people on both sides?
What the author of these comments apparently fails to get is that science isn't a subset of journalism and scientists aren't assistants to journalists. You may call some people's irrational hostility towards a theory that they haven't mastered a "controversy". Be my guest. There is a "controversy" about string theory – there is a "controversy" about everything else, too. It's still much more accurate to call it a "difference between experts and ignorant yet self-confident simpletons". A journalist may cover the "controversy" but by doing so, he doesn't contribute to the science itself, either, and the audience expected to consume stories about these "controversies" can't be scientists, either, because the scientists know that the opinions of those who just haven't mastered the subject that they scream about are 100% worthless.

In particular, the "journalistic" critique above was about the Symmetry Magazine. But the Symmetry Magazine isn't a generic journalists' outlet describing "controversies" between the experts and the laymen. The Symmetry Magazine is an outlet whose purpose is to inform particle physicists and people who feel close to that field about the events in their field, not another outlet for the scientifically illiterate public that wants to read about "controversies" and unreasonably think that both sides are always equal. Angry ignorant laymen's rants aren't events in particle physics. The readers who read about such "controversies" are scientifically illiterate and scientifically inconsequential simpletons themselves. People who understand what the scientific method is know that the actual controversies in science are fought with scientific arguments, not just with the screaming of random angry men and their mobs in the popular books, mainstream press, or comment sections of random websites on the Internet.

The simple fact that screaming by these critics is 100% irrelevant for science is sometimes proven to a comical extent. Peter Shor of MIT, the guy who invented an algorithm for quantum computers, wanted to discuss whether a recent AdS/CFT paper involving quantum error correction was right, consistent with another, whether a deformation brought the authors outside the error correction codes, and whether this fact invalidates the analysis (these are two different questions – a point Shor seems to misunderstand). The host intervened:
A vanilla critic of science: All, I fear this is the wrong place to debate the issues raised by Peter Shor about CFT and error-correcting codes, partly because the moderator knows nothing about the topic (he would like to someday understand what that’s about, but today is not the day…)
You know, this emerging discussion was a part of something broader – they weren't sure whether the conclusions of the AdS/CFT ("quantum gravity in a box") were telling us something about our dS Universe, too. But as soon as any actual scientific arguments start to emerge, the host immediately stops the discussion because science isn't allowed there at all. The host even admits that the reason is that he actually knows nothing about the relevant science himself. Not only the host fails to encourage science (like I do here) – he actively bans it. Only superficial would-be philosophical prejudiced slogans are allowed. It's not even wrong. It's not even wrong. Orange man is bad. Orange man is bad. A worthless website run by mindless NPCs. In spite of that complete isolation from any insights about the AdS/CFT, the host still loves to make far-reaching claims about AdS/CFT. How dumb does a reader has to be to take any of these statements seriously?

I think that every person whose IQ is above 80 understands that the relevance of such discussions for the cutting-edge theoretical physics is much closer to the relevance of opinions of the cattle utilized by the McDonald's Corporation than to the relevance of young or old string theorists' opinions. But we are surrounded by mobs that tend to threaten you even if and when you make this self-evident innocent point. A journalist may write for the readers with the IQ below 80 who think that the string theorist's and critic's opinions about string theory are equally valuable. But journalists aren't and mustn't be obliged to address all their texts to moronic readers!

Before the discussion about any detailed issues in AdS/CFT, some participants mentioned the question whether string theorists are actually doing string theory these days:
A vanilla critic of science: What I see happening now (at least in the US) is that the best students are, as always, going to a small number of the top graduate programs (e.g. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford), where most of the theory faculty often identify tribally as “string theorists”, but are now working on topics in GR/QFT/quantum information, etc. that have nothing to do with quantized strings or with string-theory based unification. The odd thing I keep hearing is that such students arriving at such a grad program are encouraged to spend a lot of time studying actual string theory (e.g. by reading Polchinski’s two volumes) to prepare to start research, even though the research likely won’t use any of this.
What's going on here? The smartest undergraduate students are still capable of figuring out which places actually have the best theoretical high-energy physics in the world – and be sure that Harvard, Princeton, Stanford are at least near the top of the list. So they go there and the top physicists over there push them to study string theory.

Is that right?

Of course it's right. If you are a graduate student who says that your specialization is formal enough, non-phenomenological theoretical high-energy physics, you simply have to master string theory which is the state-of-the-art picture of theoretical high-energy physics as of 2019. In fact, string theory was born 51 years ago. It would be ludicrous to say that it's some recent fad or something that theoretical high-energy physicists may ignore in 2019. And if graduate students at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford were ignoring it, it would be really really bizarre.

In principle, you may make some important contribution to theoretical physics without knowing the state-of-the-art apparatus. You deserve a PhD if you do so. But you don't deserve a PhD just for a chance that it happens. If you haven't made a real breakthrough, you only deserve a theoretical physics PhD if you have mastered the tools close enough to the cutting edge of a sub-discipline that give you a reasonable chance to make a breakthrough later. In particular, you should learn the damn string theory.

I think that the percentage of non-stringy papers written by string theorists is much higher than two decades ago or even one decade ago. I also believe that the political atmosphere in the broader society is one of the main culprits – probably the main culprit. So people do various things – string theorists may do many things, indeed. I am also convinced that most of the stringy authors of such non-stringy articles realize that their non-stringy research is less profound than the string research they could do a decade or two ago. But it's OK enough for them.

The situation is completely analogous to the times of Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. They were employed by our glorious and playful leader, Rudolph II who reigned from Prague (I just watched the hilarious Czech movies The Baker's Emperor and The Emperor's Baker), and they were getting much of their income for astrology. Is it right to criticize these famous astronomers for getting some money from astrology? I don't think so. It wasn't primarily their fault. They preferred to do things that would soon lead to Newton's physics. But the society and the powerful wanted them to do things like the horoscopes. And these activities were easy enough for the astronomers because the skills are similar to the serious astronomy which helped to make sure that they actually did some astrology. Well, these old physicists and astronomers actually liked astrology to some extent, too. But this positive attitude wasn't a characteristic trait of them. They were also products of their epoch.

Obviously, what the string theorists do outside string theory is much more scientific than the horoscopes but the basic dynamics is the same. What the researchers do is affected by the societal pressures and pressures from the sponsors etc. And because lots of the ignorant activists have pushed the image of string theory to something similar to the heliocentric heresies 4 centuries ago, string theory is also being hidden from the public eye to a similar extent as heliocentrism was 4 centuries ago. It became at least questionable whether you may materially benefit from stringy results that you produce – even if they are rather important ones. It doesn't mean that there's something non-essential or even wrong about heliocentrism or string theory. It is just a reflection of irrational beliefs that are prevalent among the laymen in one epoch or another.

The top theoretical physicists still have the duty – and internal instincts – to preserve the field. So even when the pressures make it likely for the new PhDs to work on something else or to produce horoscopes, it's still essential that the knowledge of string theory doesn't evaporate when a new generation replaces the previous one. A top university simply cannot give a theoretical physics PhD to someone who just solves the average exercises in a textbook of quantum field theory – or who writes diatribes against theoretical physics. If this became normal at such a university, that university would clearly cease to be a top one because almost everybody can do such things. People who succeed as writers of anti-scientific diatribes aren't exceptional because they are exceptionally good. They succeed because they are exceptionally close to the average people.

If the last 20 papers by a string theorist were about "non-string theory", does it make sense for him or her to be called "a string theorist"? You bet. If he or she hasn't forgotten the theory, it's still the most accurate description of his or her expertise. A string theorist is someone who has mastered and/or done some research on string theory – which also required him or her to become a good enough expert in quantum field theory (and all of its prerequisites; and it's likely that an average "string theorist" understands QFT more than an average "quantum field theorist"), some algebraic geometry, general relativity, quantum information, and more. These folks first needed to master the prerequisites and then they could jump on string theory which added some expertise that is equivalent to a few more years of studying.

The reason why such people – regardless of the detailed content of the recent papers – call themselves "string theorists" and not e.g. "quantum field theorists" is exactly the same as the reason why a person both with a bachelor and doctor degree prefers to call herself a "doctor": it's simply the superior degree! Being a string theorist does incorporate being a quantum field theorist and other things. So why would a string theorist call himself a quantum field theorist? Why would a doctor call himself a bachelor? Why would Kepler call himself an astrologer (as the primary job description) if he were also and primarily an astronomer?

During Kepler's times, certain people wanted to turn astronomy, especially the heliocentric astronomy, into a heresy. Some of them might have preferred the masses to imagine that being an astrologer was more important. But the actual experts knew it wasn't the case. They already knew that astronomy was more important than astrology. It was more scientific. It also required more time and hard work to be studied and researched. The smartest folks actually knew that the astronomers (and consumers of astronomy) were smarter in average than astrologers (and consumers of horoscopes in particular). This knowledge has always affected what they emphasized while talking to each other.

Completely analogously, some people want to mislead masses and hide the simple basic fact that e.g. the string theory graduate students are generally smarter and more advanced than the average graduate students who have learned quantum field theory at a decent level. And this misinformation of the masses may work. But by definition, it doesn't affect the genuine experts who have actually studied these things and who interact with string theorists as well as the people in adjacent fields. Those still know the truth.

Most of the critics of string theory know that they're simply lying 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And I have doubts that they get some real psychological relief from the deception. Why? Because they still know that the people who buy this ridiculous garbage – such as the claim that it's just OK for an intelligent theoretical physicist to dismiss string theory – are just easily manipulated dimwits. They still know that these dimwits' opinions don't matter for the science itself. One can manipulate hundreds of easy-to-manipulate dimwits but it still doesn't change the underlying truths. Is it more psychologically pleasing when some uncritical readers repeat some slogans? Does it make the "trainer" more psychologically satisfied than when he trains a parrot – an actual bird – to repeat a sentence? The parrots' achievements look more remarkable to me because the birds are punching above their weight. The average human's repetition of average stupid slogans is the business-as-usual.

I find it staggering how completely these critics of science misunderstand what science is and how it works:
A vanilla critic of science: What’s disturbing to me is that, increasingly, the string unification/SUSY research program seems to have moved from “evaluate us by LHC results or progress on these crucial problems that are in between us and a testable theory” to “there is no way to evaluate us, you just have to believe us, because there are so many of us and we’re so smart.” That’s not the way science is supposed to work, for good reason.
The number of string theorists isn't large (as in "many of us"). The currently professional ones are around 1,000 – it's a big part of the intellectual cream of the mankind. But the claim that "the layman has no way to evaluate them" is self-evidently true and it was always true. A non-expert who hasn't mastered even the basic chapters of a textbook about a given field obviously cannot evaluate – and could have never evaluated – the statements about the field. Why would someone doubt this self-evident fact? Only if one actually works and becomes an expert herself, to one extent or another, she can start to (meaningfully) evaluate the statements about the field.

In theoretical high-energy physics, the results from the LHC influence the physicists' beliefs about many questions (but surely not all questions that these physicists investigate), but you still need expertise to figure out what the LHC collisions actually imply for the validity of various big statements about particle physics. The layman just doesn't know and can't know how to deduce some truths about deep questions from the LHC collisions. For example, a layman just cannot have a reasonably justified opinion on whether the Standard Model or the MSSM is more likely at this point, after some 160/fb of data collected by major LHC detectors (and after many theoretical advances). Everyone who has been persuaded that this is possible without real expertise in theoretical physics has been deceived.

The non-expert may choose to believe or not believe, it's his psychological dilemma, but whatever he chooses doesn't affect the scientific truth in the field – in this case string theory. A rational expert who doesn't really understand anything about the theory at the technical level should primarily realize that he doesn't know what the truth is. To some extent, even the experts do not know the answers to many questions, even the very important ones. The ability to live in the state of ignorance is one of the first conditions for the scientific attitude to the world. A person who just "needs" to pick some answers, even if they have at least 50% probability to be wrong, just isn't approaching the truth in the scientists' way.

The very act of choosing to "believe" – or "not believe" – is an irrational move. And "not believing" is obviously as irrational as believing! Well, it's a bit more irrational because even a layman should be able to figure out (a sociological argument) that the critics are less informed and less intelligent and therefore less likely to be true than the experts chosen by the intelligence.

And the actual dynamics of the funding and support of pure science in a healthy society should work exactly in the way that the vanilla critic of science tries to mock: the society should give some support and funding to the smartest yet curious people to do the research wherever it seems to lead, whatever the generic members of the society think about the direction in advance. This really is the cornerstone of science or any honest research (or police investigation). You just follow the evidence wherever it leads. And it's only the smart yet hard-working people who meaningfully manipulate with the evidence who have a high enough chance to move theoretical physics forward.

The researchers must have the freedom to do their pure scientific research as they see fit. And the people who are allowed to (and have the material backing) do this kind of a job should be chosen meritocratically – as the most intelligent and those who have mastered the "previous" picture of physics better than others – and not according to the proximity of their opinions and beliefs to the opinions of masses! The other, critic's approach would liquidate the science and it would turn the ex-scientists into corrupt defenders of sponsors' or the public's prejudices.

So yes, please. When these dark ages are over and almost all people realize once again why the ideology and methods of the critics have been medieval and pathological, the nations will support at least a few thousand of the smartest yet curious people to do the pure scientific research according to their own judgement and their own evaluation of the evidence as they see it – not according to the judgement and prejudices of the society – because this picture where "only the scientific evidence matters" is how science differs from the irrational and oppressive enforcement of orthodoxies for the masses!

And that's the memo.

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