Monday, June 13, 2016

String phenomenology of the somewhat different kind

[Cat’s cradle. Image Source.]
Ten years ago, I didn’t take the “string wars” seriously. To begin with, referring to such an esoteric conflict as “war” seems disrespectful to millions caught in actual wars. In comparison to their suffering it’s hard to take anything seriously.

Leaving aside my discomfort with the nomenclature, the focus on string theory struck me as odd. String theory as a research area stands out in hep-th and gr-qc merely because of the large number of followers, not by the supposedly controversial research practices. For anybody working in the field it is apparent that string theorists don’t differ in their single-minded focus from physicists in other disciplines. Overspecialization is a common disease of academia, but one that necessarily goes along with division of labor, and often it is an efficient route to fast progress.

No, I thought back then, string theory wasn’t the disease, it was merely a symptom. The underlying disease was one that would surely soon be recognized and addressed: Theoreticians – as scientists whose most-used equipment is their own brain – must be careful to avoid systematic bias introduced by their apparatuses. In other words, scientific communities, and especially those which lack timely feedback by data, need guidelines to avoid social and cognitive biases.

This is so obvious it came as a surprise to me that, in 2006, everybody was hitting on Lee Smolin for pointing out what everybody knew anyway, that string theorists, lacking experimental feedback for decades, had drifted off in a math bubble with questionable relevance for the description of nature. It’s somewhat ironic that, from my personal experience, the situation is actually worse in Loop Quantum Gravity, an approach pioneered, among others, by Lee Smolin. At least the math used by string theorists seems to be good for something. The same cannot be said about LQG.

Ten years later, it is clear that I was wrong in thinking that just drawing attention to the problem would seed a solution. Not only has the situation not improved, it has worsened. We now have some theoretical physicists who argue that we should alter the scientific method so that the success of a theory can be assessed by means other than empirical evidence. This idea, which has sprung up in the philosophy community, isn’t all that bad in principle. In practice, however, it will merely serve to exacerbate social streamlining: If theorists can draw on criteria other than the ability of a theory to explain observations, the first criterion they’ll take into account is aesthetic value, and the second is popularity with their colleagues. Nothing good can come out of this.

And nothing good has come out of it, nothing has changed. The string wars clearly were more interesting for sociologists than they were for physicists. In the last couple of months several articles have appeared which comment on various aspects of this episode, which I’ve read and want to briefly summarize for you.

First, there is
    Collective Belief, Kuhn, and the String Theory Community
    Weatherall, James Owen and Gilbert, Margaret
    philsci-archive:11413
This paper is a very Smolin-centric discussion of whether string theorists are exceptional in their group beliefs. The authors argue that, no, actually string theorists just behave like normal humans and “these features seem unusual to Smolin not because they are actually unusual, but because he occupies an unusual position from which to observe them.” He is unusual, the authors explain, for having worked on string theory, but then deciding to not continue in the field.

It makes sense, the authors write, that people whose well-being to some extent depends on the acceptance by the group will adapt to the group:
“Expressing a contrary view – bucking the consensus – is an offense against the other members of the community… So, irrespective of their personal beliefs, there are pressures on individual scientists to speak in certain ways. Moreover, insofar as individuals are psychologically disposed to avoid cognitive dissonance, the obligation to speak in certain ways can affect one’s personal beliefs so as to bring them into line with the consensus, further suppressing dissent from within the group.”
Furthermore:
“As parties to a joint commitment, members of the string theory community are obligated to act as mouthpieces of their collective belief.”
I actually thought we knew this since 1895, when Le Bon’s published his “Study of the Popular Mind.”

The authors of the paper then point out that it’s normal for members of a scientific community to not jump ship at the slightest indication of conflicting evidence because often such evidence turns out to be misleading. It didn’t become clear to me what evidence they might be referring to; supposedly it’s non-empirical.

They further argue that a certain disregard for what is happening outside one’s own research area is also normal: “Science is successful in part because of a distinctive kind of focused, collaborative research,” and due to their commitment to the agenda “participants can be expected to resist change with respect to the framework of collective beliefs.”

This is all reasonable enough. Unfortunately, the authors entirely miss the main point, the very reason for the whole debate. The question isn’t whether string theorists’ behavior is that of normal humans – I don’t think that was ever in doubt – but whether that “normal human behavior” is beneficial for science. Scientific research requires, in a very specific sense, non-human behavior. It’s not normal for individuals to disregard subjective assessments and to not pay attention to social pressure. And yet, that is exactly what good science would require.

The second paper is
This paper is basically a summary of the string wars that focuses on the question whether or not string theory can be considered science. This “demarcation problem” is a topic that philosophers and sociologists love to discuss, but to me it really isn’t particularly interesting how you classify some research area, to me the question is whether it’s good for something. This is a question which should be decided by the community, but as long as decision making is influenced by social pressures and cognitive biases I can’t trust the community judgement.

The article has a lot of fun quotations from very convinced string theorists, for example by David Gross: “String theory is full of qualitative predictions, such as the production of black holes at the LHC.” I’m not sure what’s the difference between a qualitative prediction and no prediction, but either way it’s certainly not a prediction that was very successful. Also nice is John Schwarz claiming that “supersymmetry is the major prediction of string theory that could appear at accessible energies” and that “some of these superpartners should be observable at the LHC.” Lots of coulds and shoulds that didn’t quite pan out.

While the article gives a good overview on the opinions about string theory that were voiced during the 2006 controversy, the authors themselves clearly don’t know very well the topic they are writing about. A particularly odd statement that highlights their skewed perspective is: “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics.”

I find it quite annoying how frequently I encounter this extrapolation from a particular research area – may that be string theory, supersymmetry, or multiverse cosmology – to all of physics. The vast majority of physicists work in fields like quantum optics, photonics, hadronic and nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, atomic physics, solid state physics, low-temperature physics, plasma physics, astrophysics, condensed matter physics, and so on. They have nothing whatsoever to do with string theory, and certainly would be very surprised to hear that it’s “the dominant paradigm.”

In any case, you might find this paper useful if you didn’t follow the discussion 10 years ago.

Finally, there is this paper

The title of the paper doesn’t explicitly refer to string theory, but most of it is also a discussion of the demarcation problem on the example of arXiv trackbacks. (I suspect this paper is a spin-off of the previous paper.)

ArXiv trackbacks, in case you didn’t know, are links to blogposts that show up on some papers’ arxiv sites, when the blogpost has referred to the paper. To exactly which blogs trackbacks show up and who makes the decision whether they do is one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets. Peter Woit’s blog, infamously, doesn’t show up in the arXiv trackbacks on the, rather spurious, reason that he supposedly doesn’t count as “active researcher.” The paper tells the full 2006 story with lots of quotes from bloggers you are probably familiar with.

The arXiv recently conducted a user survey, among other things about the trackback feature, which makes me think they might have some updates planned.

On the question who counts as crackpot, the paper (unsurprisingly) doesn’t come to a conclusion other than noting that scientists deal with the issue by stating “we know one when we see one.” I don’t think there can be any other definition than that. To me the notion of “crackpot” is an excellent example of an emergent feature – it’s a demarcation that the community creates during its operation. Any attempt to come up with a definition from first principles is hence doomed to fail.

The rest of the paper is a general discussion of the role of blogs in science communication, but I didn’t find it particularly insightful. The author comes to the (correct) conclusion that blog content turned out not to have such a short life-time as many feared, but otherwise basically just notes that there are as many ways to use blogs as there are bloggers. But then if you are reading this, you already knew that.

One of the main benefits that I see in blogs isn’t mentioned in the paper at all, which is that blogs supports communication between scientific communities that are only loosely connected. In my own research area, I read the papers, hear the seminars, and go to conferences, and I therefore know pretty well what is going on – with or without blogs. But I use blogs to keep up to date in adjacent fields, like cosmology, astrophysics and, to a lesser extent, condensed matter physics and quantum optics. For this purpose I find blogs considerably more useful than popular science news, because the latter often doesn’t provide a useful amount of detail and commentary, not to mention that they all tend to latch onto the same three papers that made big unsubstantiated claims.

Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly become obsessed with string theory. I’ve read through these sociology papers mainly because I cannot not write a few paragraphs about the topic in my book. But I promise that’s it from me about string theory for some while.

Update: Peter Woit has some comments on the trackback issue.

47 comments:

Phillip Helbig said...

"To me the notion of “crackpot” is an excellent example of an emergent feature – it’s a demarcation that the community creates during its operation. Any attempt to come up with a definition from first principles is hence doomed to fail."

John Baez's crackpot index is usually pretty accurate.

Michael Fisher said...

You are one of my favourite bloggers Bee ~ not that I understand 90% of the physics, but I try
Good post & I'm looking forward to the book

Andrew Thomas said...

It's funny John Baez's 50 point entry is a sneaky reference to string theory.

Unknown said...


If theorists can draw on criteria other than the ability of a theory to explain observations, the first criterion they’ll take into account is aesthetic value, and the second is popularity with their colleagues. Nothing good can come out of this.

I think that is too dogmatic an assertion.


Scientific research requires, in a very specific sense, non-human behavior. It’s not normal for individuals to disregard subjective assessments and to not pay attention to social pressure. And yet, that is exactly what good science would require.

I would say you don't have to "disregard subjective assessments and to not pay attention to social pressure" you just need to be aware of the influence of these on your own thinking.


“String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics.”


I would imagine this statement is referring to theoretical physicists working in quantum gravity.


Also nice is John Schwarz claiming that “supersymmetry is the major prediction of string theory that could appear at accessible energies” and that “some of these superpartners should be observable at the LHC.” Lots of coulds and shoulds that didn’t quite pan out.

I suppose the second "should" should have been a could. We still could/should find supersymmetry in a future accelerator - so it's definitely work looking for more than once.

Uncle Al said...

http://www.quantamagazine.org/20160112-string-theory-meets-loop-quantum-gravity/
Unite the unworkable into the grant fundable.
http://www.ics.uci.edu/~eppstein/junkyard/nested-klein-bottles.jpg
Klein gravitation.

Geometric tests of spacetime geometry (existing apparatus!) offer more inclusive gravitation consistent with observation. Physics' chiral and parity anomalies, "dark matter," and SUSY failure are sourced. Luboš, it's about empirical validation not love. Spacetime is a trace oddity (fermionic) not a strict eventy (bosonic).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-uIQgq0obk
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js0evCum83o
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OADGS587eOs
Close-packed concave homochiral spacetime. giggle
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Mf0JpTI_gg

Haelfix said...

Its clear the notion of a scientific consensus isn't always right in science (Lysenkoism etc), and definitions of 'crackpot' which use this criteria are hence flawed.

But I think its fair to say that the subject has a much higher likelihood of being correct if a large number of independant specialists believe in it. Yes yes, societal biases, group think blah blah blah. Despite all of that, the statement remains true.

It's worth noting how things progress in the mathematics community. Almost always when a problem is close to being solved, there are several groups trying the same methods. Like for the Poincare conjecture, it was widely believed that Richard Hamiltons methods would be part of a solution, and indeed they were... This years before the eventual solution. Of course there was almost assuredly some other individual coming at the problem from a different way who would disagree, but nevertheless you could say there was a sort of consensus amongst the best people about what the most promising avenue was.

String theory is like that, since there is so little experimental guidance. It's certainly a less strong belief than a traditional scientific consensus (like the belief in say the veracity of GR, which has experimental support) but that's about as good as you are going to get in quantum gravity... Basically mathematical consistency arguments, plausibility arguments, no go theorems for everything else and theoretical aesthetics.

Also finally, its not like string theory has given zero contributions in return. It's returned many different ideas to a wide array of fields in physics. For instance, many of the highly cited hep-ph of the past 20 years are stringy inspired models (some of which are now known to not quite work, but in that field almost any new and original idea is a big breakthrough, and string theory furnished many of these). Then of course there is AdS/CFT which it's fair to say has objectively contributed to the understanding of physics in many different diverse areas of physics.

John Baez said...

This is indeed a strange sentence: “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics.”

Yes, there's the usual arrogant thing that particle physicists do - mixing up particle physics and theoretical physics as a whole. But even apart from that, it seems to be saying something like “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of enjoying a privileged status.”

APDunbrack said...

I think in popular media language, "theoretical physics" = high-energy/GR/cosmology/... and "applied physics" = condensed matter/biophysics/..., regardless of whether a particular individual would be classified as an applied or theoretical physicist in the language used within the physics community. Accordingly, calling string theory the dominant within "theoretical physics" (meaning, in practice, BSM physics and open areas of GR) would be not unreasonably inaccurate within the language of the community/intended audience.

notevenwrong said...

Some commentary on the Ritson article is at my blog
http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=8578

If anyone ever finds the answer to "one of the arXiv’s best-kept secrets", please let me know...

Jonathan Tooker said...

> the first criterion they’ll take into account is aesthetic value, and the second is popularity with their colleagues.

Why would you say Higgs' theory was found to be "successful" if not only because the math had quite a pleasing look to it when printed on the page and that the result was very popular with his colleagues?

akidbelle said...

Hi Sabine,

so if I read (perhaps not so) correctly, discussing Angel's sex is science because Angel's sex scientists enjoy discussing it. But they still don't know if it's good for something... let's hope I will never.

More seriously, there is conceptual bias, which is well-known of psychologists (and zen practitioners among others) under the name of projection. It's interesting that you never mention it because its effects is what this post describes to me (rather more than less, my own projection?).

J.

Plato Hagel said...

It seems to me that a shift too, as Quantum realism, has pervaded science as a Kuhnian shift now regarded as quantum cognition.

Geometrical underpinnings, has underscored our progressions, and such a basis serves to illustrate how our understanding as a base reality now functions derived as that quantum realism. So different models help you to see reality in different ways?

piein skee said...

"It’s somewhat ironic that, from my personal experience, the situation is actually worse in Loop Quantum Gravity"

Smolin's thesis wasn't primarily historic in terms of String Theory (you said decades without experiment). To borrow your symptom/cause vocabulary Smolin saw the long running lack of experiment as symptomatic of the much more fundamental problem specific to String Theory that it was untestable in principle.

I think you've said somewhere that String is testable in principle because the necessary energy could be reached in the future, or some get-around might come with advance of technologies. String Theory can't be falsified even there, because at least one category of String Theory is decoupled from strings.

To be fair on him Smolin actually placed the absence of experiment plaguing alternate streams like Quantum Loop Gravity, front and centre of his argument, and went on to juxtaposition QLG and Strings as part of the construction of his argument, by demonstrating that QLG was testable in principle and had tests (which in the event came to nothing) in the pipeline.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Jonathan,

Higgs' idea was found to be successful because... they found the Higgs-boson. I don't think that the idea at the time was thought of as particularly beautiful. But more to the point, you have it backwards. I am not saying that beautiful ideas cannot work. I am saying merely that there isn't any known reason for why they should be more likely to work, hence putting an emphasis on beauty is a distortion of objective judgement. Indeed, if you look at what's been going on in theoretical physics since the early 80s, ideas from beauty have been dramatically unsuccessful. (And also in the course of history supposedly beautiful ideas have often failed.) Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

akidbelle,

Yes, I know what projection is. I ask myself about it constantly. If there is some mistake I am making that I am not aware of, please let me know.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

piein,

The sentence you quote is about communal reinforcement not about testability.

Jonathan Tooker said...

I guess another way to ask my question is why did Higgs win all these prizes if not only because his theory was nice to look at and his colleagues liked it?

• Hughes Medal, Royal Society (with T W B Kibble) 1981

• Rutherford Medal, Institute of Physics (with T W B Kibble) 1984

• Scottish Science Award, Saltire Society and Royal Bank of Scotland 1990

• James Scott Prize Lectureship, Royal Society of Edinburgh (delivered April 1995) 1993

• Paul Dirac Medal and Prize, Institute of Physics 1997

• High Energy and Particle Physics Prize, European Physical Society (with R Brout, F Englert) 1997

• Royal Medal, Royal Society of Edinburgh 2000

• Wolf Prize in Physics (with R Brout and F Englert) 2004

• Oskar Klein Memorial Lecture and Medal, Stockholm Academy of Sciences 2009

• J J Sakurai Prize, American Physical Society (with R Brout, F Englert, G S Guralnik, C R Hagen and T W B Kibble) 2010

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

Hello Sabine,

As far as any privileged status is concerned :


String theory :

+: It has the ambition to explain space AND matter

-: It starts from spacetime as currently described, therefore de facto, it cannot look underneeth hyperbolic spacetime.

LQG :

+: It tries to describe what spacetime itself is constructed from.

-: It does not attempt to incorporate the nature of matter in the concept.So de facto not a unifying theory.


Disadvantage of both : Infinitesimal calculus fails to describe the finite character of a necessary quantumlike description.


So both (actually more than these 2 of course) can keep claiming to have the best approach, but without new oxigen they will not live up to the requirements right from their conception forward.


Joining forces instead of more war would be a good start towards better insights, as opposed to more (tax payer unfriendly) stagnation and not enough positive energy to start over.

In his latest paper from december 2015 Lee Smolin argues that 'first and foremost, we need new physical causal principles, only than can we proceed to develope a mathematical description for it'.

That's hard to disagree with in my opinion.


Best, Koen

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Jonathan,

Because it solved a problem.

Anyway, you're not making sense focusing on a theory that was popular, was tested, and turned out to be correct. You should be asking how many theories are there which were (are) popular and turned out to be not correct (think: geocentrism, mechanism, steady state, vortex theory, etc), and how many theories are there which are not popular and their lack of popularity might have the consequence we'll never find out whether they are correct.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Koenraad,

You have some misunderstanding both about quantization (you seem to confuse it with discretization) and about infinitesimal calculus (which is, as the name says, a method of calculation. That calculation is either correct or it isn't, but the method itself not to blame for the failure of a theory.) Best,

B.

Louis Tagliaferro said...

Hi Sabine,

Another article I really enjoyed. When John Baez replied to your sentence, “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of being the dominant paradigm within theoretical physics.”… He says, it seems to be saying something like “String theory currently enjoys a privileged status by virtue of enjoying a privileged status.”

I believe that is your point when you said, “Scientific research requires, in a very specific sense, non-human behavior. It’s not normal for individuals to disregard subjective assessments and to not pay attention to social pressure. And yet, that is exactly what good science would require.”

I believe there are too many scientist who do not fully appreciate how difficult it is to truly separate the influence that, social pressures and personal motivations have in steering one’s own “objective reasoning”.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

Hello Sabine,

Ok on the bad nomenclature.

I will certainly not argue on the proven usefulness of infinitesimal calculus, but the question is wether it is the adequate instrument specifically for a theory of quantum gravity. T. Padmanabhan for instance tries to avoid it in his extensive work on emergent gravity.

Best,

Koen

akidbelle said...

Sabine,

I don'k know about your own mistakes; only you can. But I know there are training methods against projections. First one I heard of is by Korzybski (Science and sanity, 1933), which inspired PNL. Next, but not from Korzybski, there is a trick too long to explain here, about automatic judgement, personal history/training, refusal/denial and their relation to automatic and reactive emotions (not true sentiments).

If I were a top gun physicists (like I suppose you are), and considering the amount of theoretical work already on the table, I would change my point of observation, and hypothesize that the next productive step is theoretically impossible. In other words, and following Korzybski, I would guess that I would see it contradictory to the language I learnt - and then that I would instantaneously discard it.

I would be happy to discuss the point further.

Cheers,
J.

Jonathan Tooker said...

What is the difference between the case where one solves a physics problem only using math tools and the case where on develops a theory that can be considered successful even before it is tested? I don't get it. It seems like if your theory was good enough that someone might want to test it, that means it was a successful theory.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

akidbelle,

I read a book about NLP many years ago, but to my knowledge that idea itself turned out to be pretty shaky science. In any case, I'm always happy to learn something new, so if you have some reference, let me know. Best,

B.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Jonathan,

You write

"It seems like if your theory was good enough that someone might want to test it, that means it was a successful theory."

I sincerely hope you are not a scientist. Because this sentence of yours sums up pretty much all that's going wrong in science right now. The purpose of science is to describe nature. A theory is successful if it correctly describes nature. A theory's success should not be assessed based on whether other scientists believe it has chances to do that. That's a popular vote, not science.

See, this is exactly the problem I have with Richard Dawid's idea of "non-empirical theory assessment" - it comes down to sociology. Science is a community enterprise, yes. But in the end the judgement call is made by nature. The big problem is that if we maneuver ourselves into a situation where we continuously test hypotheses that are wrong, we might just entirely miss to build experiments that could confirm correct hypotheses.

Do you realize that literally dozens of experiments have been build to search for dark matter, beginning in the mid 80s? Every time they come back with a null-result, the "expected" scale for the mass and interaction rate shifts. It's pretty much the same with collider searches for susy. They've been looking for this already at LEP. That was 20 years ago. Now that it doesn't look like it's showing up at the LHC, it's supposed to show up at the next bigger collider.

Read this for example:

"Physicists thought they might find these superpartners when the LHC's predecessor, CERN's Large Electron-Positron collider, came online a quarter of a century ago. They did not. When superpartners also failed to appear in the much bigger and more powerful LHC, some physicists panicked.

But there is hope. Recent theoretical research suggests that Higgsinos might actually be showing up at the LHC—scientists just cannot find them in the mess of particles generated by the LHC's proton-antiproton collisions.

This is where the International Linear Collider would shine."

akidbelle said...

Sabine,

Korzybski's work is not NPL.

Let us try with an example; for instance, you state in a response: "A theory is successful if it correctly describes nature." OK, but the words "correct" and "describes" are not clear to me. Let us try a definition.

"correct" = sufficiently similar quantities pop-out of equations when compared to experimental results.

"describes" = no other quantities and equations are needed and can I understand.

Second: "this sentence of yours sums up pretty much all that's going wrong in science right now". Disagree, it's going right, because success is firstly mimetic in the human world - group's meme selection. No one stands a chance against that; the only thing you can do is start your own church. But you are right, it is not scientific! So this sentence shows an incomplete analysis (I mean the sentence, not you.) And I'll add that for many "deciders", success = money.

Then : "The big problem is that if we maneuver ourselves into a situation where we continuously test hypotheses that are wrong, we might just entirely miss to build experiments that could confirm correct hypotheses." In the sense of the meme/group, it is not a problem at all, it is a guarantee of success for the next 30 years; this is an experimental fact.

Now please, tell me in 3 lines what is the technical need for super-partners?

(the meme/group answer is play super-ball, I know this one, more work for collision machines - 30 more years to grow; we do not change a winning team).

J.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

akidbelle,

Well, then I don't know what the acronym means.

I don't understand what you are trying to say with your example. I agree that in the first sentence I haven't explained "correct" and "describe," I hope we can agree that in conversation it's quite uncommon to define every word (not to mention that it's in most cases impossible). If I write a longer text, I am usually doing something similar to what you ask for.

I don't understand however what your issue is with the second sentence, since the first explains exactly that "success" for a "scientific theory" is not group selection, but adequacy to describe nature. (Now we can debate whether we agree that's what science should do, if that's what you mean.)

Your further elaboration just continues to deny what I stated in the first sentence, that scientific success means to describe nature.

There is no technical "need" for superpartners. I can tell you the main motivations for supersymmetry, if that's what you mean: aids unification, provides dark matter candidates, supposedly avoids the need the finetune the Higgs mass, though that has turned out not to work. What do we learn from that?

Best,

B.

akidbelle said...

Sabine,

I am trying to explain you what success is in practice. You are trying to tell me what it should be in science. All that for a word: "success". We could debate like this and not understand each other indefinitely.

What I am trying to tell you is that if you fight facts, you loose. Not because you loose the debate/fight but because you loose your energy. (Believe me, realizing this in my own work changed a lot of things; it's even become funny.)

In my opinion, a successful theory leads to a technological gap. In this way, the sorcerer who could make fire was the scientist of the time - whatever the fairy tales he used to explain his doing. This is not a problem until a class of sorcerers emerges working not for the fire, but for the fairy-tales explanation that support their class.

What I learn from your list is that super-symmetry is not mentioned to lead to a technological gap (- in your list). What about string theory?

Best,
J.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

akidbelle,

I'm not fighting facts. (Which facts anyway?) I am merely telling you how I used the word success. In the example you picked I even explicitly explained how I use it, so I don't understand why you insist on redefining it.

You are telling me that for other people in other circumstances it might mean something else. I don't disagree. But fighting about the use of words I find rather pointless.

Let me hence just rephrase the point without the word "success": if scientists would ask the public to please give them money so they can write papers about topics they like which they hope will also be liked by their colleagues with no intention to describe some aspect of our observations, I doubt that they would get much funding. (Look, I haven't used the word "success" at all. I am merely drawing upon what people think scientists should do with the money they get.)

Nobody expects either supersymmetry or string theory to lead to a technological gap any time in the next 100 years (at least I've never met someone who thinks this). But I'm not sure why I should care what in your opinion counts as a "successful theory" - it's clearly not the way the word is currently used in science...

Best,

B.

akidbelle said...

Sabine,

thanks; I'm not trying to fight, be sure of that.

I agree with your description of the current definition of "success" without using the word. I agree from the beginning with all you said, I'm merely trying to discuss with you a different perspective (and I think you probably have it for long, or I would not even try).

Now if scientists ask the public to please give them money so they can write papers, make congresses, careers, receive prizes, and make experiments about topics they like and in which they have no hope to lead to a technological gap any time in the next 100 years, would that be true?... and what would happen? That is the sorcerer class stuff, and the true, real output is to maintain societal stability, to begin with the position of the sorcerer class (and hopefully improve it).

That's my point. No offense meant, of course.

Best,
J.

Uncle Al said...

The Shroud of Turin projects a bicurved face onto a planar cloth without distortion. Peer-voted faith and theory suffer Galileo, Popper; science.

Principia's first page assumes the pendulum equation has no bob. Newton bobbled c, h, and k_B. All are falsifiable, but not within the axiomatic system. Two fat black holes merged in external real time, with no firewall (anomalous binding energy), with no angular momentum blip as singularities danced (if they existed) re unaltered general relativity. The universe did not, Higgs versus top quark masses, nucleate into vacuum decay.

Theory must look outside postulates to fundamentally allow baryogenesis, then repair itself.

Jonathan Tooker said...

I am going to have to disagree with you when you write "The purpose of science is to describe nature." I think the purpose of science is to attempt to do that. The accumulation of many such attempts is success in itself because the history of science demonstrates that many attempts to describe invariably lead to increasingly accurate descriptions. I am compelled to point out that approximately 0% of practicing scientists have found anything that does affirmatively describe nature, and most efforts show what does not describe nature, perhaps by testing as-yet untested theories. By your own words, it could inferred that the still-absent theory of everything represents a failure of the entire scientific effort of mankind because all of our descriptions are still in some way wrong. I take the other position, the one I think is most popular among scientists, that science is a collection of baby steps, and any steps that aren't obviously in the wrong direction must have then been in the right direction, i.e.: the direction of scientific progress.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Jonathan,

I actually agree with you, that sentence of mine was somewhat sloppy, sorry about that. I expressed a very similar opinion to yours here.

You write: "The accumulation of many such attempts is success in itself because the history of science demonstrates that many attempts to describe invariably lead to increasingly accurate descriptions."

Just because something has worked before doesn't mean it will always continue to work. Science has changed dramatically in the last 100 years. There's no reason to expect that the methods from the past will continue to work in such a different environment. Either way, I am not so much worried that there won't be no progress at all, but that progress is much slower than it could be and that a lot of money is wasted. Best,

B.

Jonathan Tooker said...

When do you think we will get a final answer on the spin of the Higgslike particle that got discovered n 2012?

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Jonathan,

I don't know, I'm not the right person to ask this, maybe ask Tommaso instead.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

@akidbelle

I don't think technological spin off should be the only motivation for physics research, although a very important one.
To understand more of our position as human beings in the great unknown universe is an equally valid reason.

But if we observe stagnation in both areas, then the tax payer might indeed become increasingly impatient.

Before the internet, it was very difficult for a layman to inform himself on the actual status of research. But nowadays every bit of information is available to everyone.
Physicists and universities are therefore facing an adaptation period to cope with this rapid evolution.

Knowledge bastions are losing that monopoly of single guardian, maker and distributor of information.

On top of that, systems like Google are not only data bases but are evolving into auxiliary instruments of research, somewhat in competition with 'the professor'. These professors are facing the upcoming challenge of how to stay relevant and how to produce added value in the face of this powerful almost-artificial-intelligence.
This is also the reason why academics with a degree and laymen are increasingly clashing.
Physics education faces the challenge to procure physicists who know how to handle this artificial intelligence,how to incorporate it in their problem solving methods. To make sure they stay far ahead of the intelligent laymen, thus providing him with the added value the laymen offers them his tax money for.

Best,

Koen

piein skee said...

Dr Bee "piein, The sentence you quote is about communal reinforcement not about testability"

Hi - I thought I replied to this already. You are referring to the comment you still have not published? In fact my response in that comment is also about communal reinforcement. The testing is for construction purposes, and is legitimate because his own context is very much that of String Theory contributions to adjacent or other fields as counter-argument to the lack of tests.

The point in that comment is that the contributions to adjacent fields are no less subject to the prediction than String Theory major.

I hope everything is in order now and I will see my comment.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

(piein: There's no unpublished comment from you in the queue. It must have been a submission error.)

piein skee said...

Sabine - ok thanks for letting me know. So your comment referred to the QLG quote I took from you regarding Smolin?

piein skee said...

Haelfix says " Then of course there is AdS/CFT which it's fair to say has objectively contributed to the understanding of physics in many different diverse areas of physics." (plus a more general statement of String Theory indirect contributions made)

Haelfix - these contributions, if they lead to non-trivial predictions in the recipient field, are perfectly adequate as major confirmation of String Theory.

But there have not been any non-trivial predictions in the recipient fields. And that means String Theory may be contributing things that are wrong that leave those other fields undermined in the longer term.

Which will be case even if String Theory contains large amounts of truth. Because the amount of truth that would be needed would have to be at or above the standard already in play in those fields.

For that reason, just because String Theory brings something that seems very plausible and has eloquence and opens up new avenues of enquiry, this cannot be seen as evidence of usefulness. Because the levels of truth needed for effects like that is a fraction of what is necessary to add rather than diminish.

Sheever said...

Koenraad,
" But if we observe stagnation in both areas, then the tax payer might indeed become increasingly impatient."

I haven't read such nonsense comment long time. Tax payers in general have no idea what is going on, they are flooded with physics news continously. Lets clear some misconception here, which is because one theory can't yet be tested successfully doesn't mean other theories need to sit, and theorists of other models do nothing.
Again, there is no theory up to date which is successful and frankly theoretical physics is in deep shit in its own regarding to ANY model as the lack of confirmation and experimental evidence.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

Sheever,

We may have a simple misunderstanding here, easy to clear up. By stagnation I mean precisely what you say, not that physicists would not be working very hard to obtain results.

As for the tax payer, in recent years and years to come, he has access to much more than the popsi section, if he takes an interest.

Best,

Koen

Sheever said...

Koenraad,

I havent ever heard a complaint from tax payers,to pointing to slow or no scientific progress.To be fair,to actually monitor this by a layman, need quite a bit of study.. not just reading a paper or two,or blog posts because the lack of understanding of the contents in general.You may agree on this.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

I agree, and I would like to see more accounts of accurate reports in the popsi section to keep the public informed on the actual status of things. Instead of the sensationalism that keeps the layman stupid. That is why I like blogs such as this one.

An example. I saw a video online of the World Science Festival. A known physicist spoke the following words in the context of approaching the speed of light : "If I can walk fast enough, I can walk into your future." That - in my oppinion - does not belong in the 21st century concerning informing the layman on physics.It should always be accompanied by many ifs and a serious amount of nuance, because people take that for granted coming from important physicists.I completely dislike this oversimplification when communicating to the layman. Same thing for the rubber sheet with the earth 'weighing' on it to explain spacetime. Why not inform the layman that it is a totally unsatisfactory representation because gravity comes in over the horizontal plane semi-downward (hyperbolic line), and simultaneously from above with the earth's weight on the sheet, in that picture. Why keep people stupid about that ?

Sheever said...

I don't think people originally that stupid. Some percentage due lack of interest may accept such description and care no more about it. However some who have the intention to understand mathematical description will take its time to background check surely, on the level fit to their understanding. You know the good thing these days that, you just need to look up on the Stanford or Oxford University youtube page and can study Sr or quantum mechanics freely. Layman whom interested in reliable source will find it eventually.i understand your concern and its can be reflected back to the speaker (who influenced by another ones, used your same example) but have you ever heard a complain of the taxpayer against the rubbersheet analogy? :)

Sheever said...

As a different note I would like to express this in different comment. These days I noticed that, people much more interested in science and this is i think because the effective access to sources are easier and more convenient. The can do from home and enjoy spending time on look up things in general. They are more informed on the current status on the developments of different physics branches and that is a communication I think is necessary to bridge Laymans to professional physicists at the first place.