Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Good physics is conflict

Last week, The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) organized a debate around the publication of Lee Smolin's book 'The Trouble with Physics' in Great Britain. It was moderated by the Chris Isham, and besides Lee Smolin, the guests were the physicist Michael Duff, and the philosopher Nancy Cartwright. You can download the audio on this website, and find a report on the evening here.


I meant to write a concise summary of this debate about, around, and with troubled physicists since Clifford picked up the topic and stormed another teacup. What I think about the alleged trouble with physics, I've written so often, you can read this, this, this, this, this, this, or this. And, if you really want, also this, and this.

However. I find it hard to get sufficiently upset, and since it's after midnight I'll keep it short. On the one hand I fail to see what is insulting about the book. If the book is insulting for anybody, then it is insulting for all of us theoretical physicist, and for the simple reason that it's never nice to be forced to face the own weaknesses. On the other hand, I agree with Clifford that this debate should not have been lead in the public. One way or the other, what was done was done, and what we should think about now is the future not the past, so could we please move on.

Essentially, the most interesting things were said by Nancy Cartwright. Okay, she used too many words that end with -ism, but she made the important point much better and clearer than Lee Smolin or Micheal Duff (1:02 min):

Physics must be open, critical and responsive [...] Physics, good physics, is conflict.

Therefore, instead of a lengthy writing, here is my summary:

WildWestSound.mp3 (~ 1.4 MB)

Have fun. (Background music: Scooby Shack by Fun Loving Criminals).


  1. Hi Bee,

    I'm somewhat reluctant to do this because not only is the horse already dead, there's quite a depression in the ground around it, but perhaps you could refer to the seven (was it?) characteristics of string theorists that Lee lists?

  2. This audio file is just great!!!


  3. The mp3 is great. You should collaborate with the Avalanches on a string theory album.

  4. I left a comment at Clifford's new post here

    I would like to think even in the timing that something can be found useful, and was happy to see Clifford put up the new post he did.

    Finiteness of String theory and Mandelstam

    I follow these discussions of course and think that there might be some "alternate abstract thing" that does not sit well with Lee that he confronts the aspect of M theory as he does?

  5. *LOL*

    So, THAT'S what the book is about!

    This is hilarious, Bee, thanks so much. It is good to have someone around with a sense of humor.

  6. Hi Aaron,

    since you asked for it, here are the points and my opinion. Please note that they are not labelled as characteristics of 'string theorists' but (as said in the sentence prior to the listing) aspects of the 'string theory community' - see below why I think this is a difference

    1. Tremendous Self-Confidence [...]
    2. An unusually monolithic community [...]
    3. In some cases a sense of identification with the group [...]
    4. A strong sense of the boundary between the group and other experts.
    5. A disregard for and disinterest in the ideas, opinions, and work of experts who are not part of the group [...]
    6. A tendency to interpret evidence optimistically [...]
    7. A lack of appreciation for the extent to which a research program ought to involve risk.

    (p. 284 of the US edition, typos are entirely mine)

    I am not really sure how point 7 made it on the list, probably to build a bridge to the later chapters where Lee argues for more risk taking. I think it actually doesn't belong there as the risk he refers to does not mean a 'scientific' risk, but a career risk. On the scientific side I'd say, completely the opposite is true (in my perception most string theorists are perfectly aware how ambitious and risky their research is). On the career-side it doesn't belong to the other six aspects of the scientific structure, and imo also isn't true. It's not string theorists who decide on their own what research is to be funded, and the low-risk attitude (which is undoubtedly there) can neither be blamed on them, nor have I encountered this attitude more prominent in the string community than elsewhere.

    As to the other points, they describe nothing more than a group that does not interact sufficiently with the community it is embedded in. This is can easily happen to a fast growing field, esp. if you pair it with the necessity to focus research on specific projects, and the increasing complexities of today's research. It is hard to keep connections to other parts of theoretical physics. I do think that this lack of communication has been the case for the string community, but I also think that this problem has been noticed - recently one can find a lot of attempts to better the situation (e.g. the string phenomenology approaches, yes also the AdS/CFT stuff for heavy ion collision).

    You don't have to be a sociologist to see that the six points above do not describe personal characters but are simply a consequence of the work environment. If one hears little about other fields (maybe just due to a lack of time), is not confronted with criticism and the constant reminder how one's work is perceived by others, this supports confidence and optimism.

    This is not a deliberately chosen disinterest but it is just a structure that has grown on its own and whose efficiency Lee questions. In fact, I have talked to many string theorists who agree on the above points, and find this situation needs improvement.

    The bottom line is that the criticism is raised on aspects of the community, and not on the personal attitudes on the individuals. As a comparison, say, you find yourself living in a political systems with a structure that is not working optimal for the society's well being, e.g. the media. If you write a book about it to point out why this needs improvement, you are not doing this to insulting every journalist.



  7. You know, I posted the previous comment late at night, and, on second thought, I think I'm really tired of this. I've pretty much said my piece on Lee's book elsewhere, most bluntly here.

  8. There are seven deadly sins and there are seven characteristics of string theorists.

    Just a weird coincidence!

  9. Dear Aaron,

    What do you think how tired Lee must be to repeat himself again and again. The tiresome thing about this debate is that it is completely besides the point whether or not he "presents himself with this air of affected sadness", whether his theories go gloob gloob gloob, whether he's suffering from multiple personality disorder or fluctuates on a sine-function (see recent comments at Clifford's).

    Why am I not getting tired? Because I'm not talking about Lee and his alleged personality disorders, but about the points he raised in his book that apparently everybody finds 'obvious', so 'obvious' that it's not necessary to do something about it? E.g. Clifford writes

    What you get from them in those public live debates has mostly been a very reasonable set of obvious statements that nobody can disagree with: There should be diversity in research, freedom to pursue alternative ideas, better support structures for young people working on harder problems that may not be part of the mainstream, and so forth.

    I keep writing about the topic because I have many friends who are struggling with exactly the problems that Lee points out and that he fights for. Yes, these are obvious points! But that doesn't mean you can just shoulder shrug because you know of it. Its like you're on a sightseeing tour and the guide tells you 'This postmodern building was designed by a Spanish architect and was finished in 1976. Its roof is on fire', and the reaction he gets is 'It's obvious there's some trouble with the roof. But you're totally wrong, the architect might live in Spain but was actually born in NY. (And by the way, he has a personality disorder)'



  10. Dear Bee,
    Good stuff there!

    About this whole brouhaha, an ancient book of wisdom says, telling people what they should be doing at best confuses them. The only way is to lead by example.

    I'm not sure that is exactly viable here, but thought I should mention it.

  11. (You try to get out and the pull you back in....)

    One cannot and should not ignore the actual effects of the book as opposed to whatever Lee purports to have intended. Google around a bit if you don't believe that the vast majority of readers have interpreted the book as an attack on string theory and string theorists.

    But as to the issues you refer to, as I stated here that I think that Smolin completely misses the real issue.

    Maybe I should write a review of the damn thing to collect all my thoughts in one place, but I don't particularly feel the urge to spend money on the book.

  12. Aaron

    Obtaining more seers is not a matter of identifying the iconoclasts (who in physics isn’t a bit iconoclastic, after all?), but a matter of figuring out how to make it less dangerous for a young person to devote a significant amount of time thinking about extremely difficult problems that may not get solved.

    Is "iconoclastery" a personality disorder?

    Like I said earlier I think Lee grabbed this from some place else and tried to apply it to those who speak/write work in rote, and those that are ingenuity at working the creative part of themself in the working of science.

    At least that is my interpretation. I could be wrong of course.

  13. Hi Aaron,

    I didn't say anything about the 'actual' effects of the book. If I did, I most certainly wouldn't judge on it after only 6 months and it wouldn't be based on what a google search shows up when I enter 'trouble with physics'. Opinions displayed in online reviews (or comments to these) are most often either entertaining, or upsetting, or both, but hardly ever constructive, and not representative of the majority of readers (the broad middle field between five and zero stars is most often missing, a polarization effect that is characteristic to online debates). Besides this, copy and paste is a great thing and it's unbelievable how fast opinions get echoed from one to the other. It is quite ironic that George Johnson started his infamous discussion about the so-called string wars at KITP with pointing out this echo effect - another obvious fact that people who like to get upset about the wrong things chose to ignore. Best,


  14. Well, I'm not nearly as sanguine as you are. I tend to think that the reaction from nonscience blogs probably does represent a good measure of public reaction to the book. In particular, as best I can tell the majority of them seem completely unaware of the discussions on various physics blogs.

    Moreover, I think this response is neither irrelevant no unimportant, especially when it acts not as a counterpoint to the promotion of the theory but rather as an attack on its practitioners.

  15. Dear Aaron,

    the majority doesn't care about theoretical physics anyhow. But I share your concerns about the potential damage to the scientific community as a whole, as I've pointed out long before the book was published, e.g. here. I am not happy about the present situation, but I think we should try to make the best out of it. Whether or not one likes the way it was done, at least Lee managed to bring the question how science works best, and whether it currently does work best into the attention of more people.



  16. I can't believe I got the link to the MP3 from the Reference Frame.

    Loooove it!
    One of my favourite tracks
    You should 'release' this - lol!

  17. Loooove it LUBOS! I missed it at Bee's

    :-) Hi Quasar,

    my husband was so charming to publish his new post only 30 min after I was done - and while I was asleep, so it was easy to miss it.



  18. But we started with

    If the book is insulting for anybody, then it is insulting for all of us theoretical physicist

    The thing is, Lee doesn't accuse all of us theoretical physicists as being mired in groupthink. He has an entire chapter in there (16, as I recall) full of blind quotes about string theorists. Not theoretical physicists, not quantum gravity types; string theorists. Needless to say, the quotes he chooses represent something not at all akin to my experience.

    Worse, Lee sets himself up as the exposer of this groupthink. He contrasts the lack of self-criticism he sees in string theory with the apparent utopia of LQG where they invite string theorists to their conferences (how magnanimous) and even have a specific person devoted to being critical at conferences (snort).

    Here's a particularly egregious example.

    I think the next post by Lee in that thread is also instructive. As I referenced earlier, Lee doesn't understand why people disagree with him. It must be because of groupthink or sociology or mass delusion or something. It couldn't be because they understand everything he has said and still disagree.

    The Trouble with Physics, beyond being about string theory, sociology and quantum gravity, is also about Lee Smolin. Lee Smolin is the one that cares about deep issues. Lee Smolin is the one who likes to hang out with Feyerabend. Lee Smolin is the one who has discovered the little known facts that finiteness [1] of the perturbation expansion and the AdS/CFT conjecture are, horrors, not proven. Lee is apparently the Cassandra of theoretical physics, telling the truths nobody wants to hear with nobody believing him. The difference, of course, is that Cassandra was right. Time and time again, Lee's grand critiques on any given issue are either tired and well-known or wrong.

    And this brings us to what is really my impression of all of Lee's writings on this subject. Mike Duff had a good line, but I don't think he quite got it right. The Trouble with Physics is not that there are two Lee Smolin's. The Trouble with Physics also is not sociology, group think, or even string theory. No, for Lee Smolin, the trouble with physics is that we don't all listen to Lee Smolin.

    So, yeah, there is an interesting conversation to be had about funding and incentive structures and how physics is set up these days. I'm happy to have that conversation. But there's also an ongoing conversation about Lee's book and what it actually says irrespective of Lee seems to think it says. If you're frustrated that the latter conversation is precluding the former, I understand, but both conversations are legitimate and important to have.

    [1] So little known, in fact, that it's not true that Polchinski volume II has the following quote on p. 126: "However, the subject is still unfinished -- a fully explicit proof of the perturbative consistency of the theory seems to be lacking." It's a good thing we hid this from everybody by not putting it in one of the main textbooks on the subject.

  19. Dear Aaron,

    I don't understand your first remark? If you mean to indicate that I disagree with myself, I don't see how.

    Besides this, how can I make it more clear that I don't want to talk about Lee? He uses the string community as an example, and given that he knows the field it's an obvious choice for him. Though a very unfortunate one. If I had written the book, I had probably chosen the nuclear physics community in Germany. If he was a meteorologist, he might have chosen to elaborate about the global warming issue, or I don't know what. It might have been better to broaden the argument by add further examples, maybe he shouldn't have written this, or maybe that, and I probably sent him an endless list of points that I didn't like about the book. But hey, it's his book, it's his story, and yes, obviously is also about Lee Smolin. So what?

    It's an observation about the dynamics of a group that has developed such that it doesn't function most efficiently. That this happened is not to blame on string theorists, but is to blame on our all neglect of the question how science works best, and whether the current situation is optimal for progress. This is why I write if it is insulting at all (what I don't think), it is insulting for all of us.

    Yes, please, if you want to discuss what Lee seems to think something says or doesn't say, please discuss it elsewhere.

    I'd be interested to hear your opinion about the funding issue though.

    Best regards,


  20. If you don't want to talk about Lee Smolin, then don't talk about Lee Smolin. I already tried to bow out of this once. I'll do so again now.

  21. I should say, too, that my thoughts on incentives and things are at the link above.

  22. what to say about Nancy comment that majority unification attempts failed? None failed, in fact unification scheme has been so succesfull that only one unification remained: Quantum & GR. What's more, every progress in physics IS progress precisely BECAUSE of unification of some kind.

  23. Hi Anonymous,

    well. The reason why I am 'as sanguine as I am', is probably that I don't pick on every point that doesn't agree with me. But yes, that statement didn't make sense to me too. I am not completely sure though what she had in mind when talking about 'unification' - it might not have been in the technical sense that we use the term. Best,


  24. hi bee, I wanted to refrain myself but... :))

    She didn't made 100 points, she made 2 points:
    1 we don't know what is the best strategy for progress (choice problem)
    2 unification scheme is wrong

    Second point is corrolary of 1.
    And I certainly don't see any support for 1. point in her talk, only remark that 'every theory so far failed'. That is vary ambigous statement, and to conclude something about the whole programm of physics , which is unification, from that is childish .

    And, btw, term unification is well defined in philosophy of physics and it's the same as in physics. She can't talk with her private vocabulary.

    best and allll:)


  25. "Lee Smolin is the one who has discovered the little known facts that finiteness [1] of the perturbation expansion and the AdS/CFT conjecture are, horrors, not proven."

    What seems to be little known facts are that the physical predictions of [1] perturbative string theory (unbroken susy, 10 flat dimensions) and [2] AdS/CFT applied to QG (negative cc) are in sharp disagreement with experiments. At least nobody ever mentions this, presumably because experimental data are classified as sociological arguments.

    As for Lee Smolin, I can witness that I learned from him that string theory's prediction about black holes only apply to extremal and near-extremal ones, not to physical Schwardschild ones. Experiences like that make you doubt every claim made by string theorists.

  26. hi a,

    She can't talk with her private vocabulary.

    she shouldn't.

    regarding your points 1 & 2, I understood her statements like 'good physics is conflict' and we don't know which way is the best so we should be open to all possibilities etc, not so much to be about 'what' but about 'how'. Whereas your point 2 is about the 'what'. So. I can agree on 1 but not on 2. indeed, i'd say unification is the essence of progress in theoretical physics. I am tempted to paraphrase unification as simplification. I have admittedly no idea why she thinks otherwise. But one should also keep in mind that just because something has lead to progress over a long time doesn't mean it has to stay that way forever.



  27. Bee said:
    "... this [physics] debate should not have been lead in the public.
    Nancy Cartwright ... made the important point ...
    "Physics must be open, critical and responsive" ...".

    Bearing in mind that, even taking into account private contributions by RIM and Kavli etc,
    the vast preponderance of funding for physics comes from the public (taxpayers worldwide),

    is it not a contradiction for physics to be both "open" and "not ... debate[d] ... in ... public" ?

    Tony Smith

  28. Hi Tony,

    You are mixing up various different issues. Open to what, which debate is public? Let me clarify what I meant.

    I totally agree that 'physics must be open, critical and responsive' - but actually this statement is so general, I would agree on it also if you replace 'physics' with 'literature' or 'customer service' or whatever. I have chosen to quote it because being 'open, critical, and responsive' is supported by some strategies better than by others. It is definitely not supported by specializing a field into almost disconnected sub-fields and neglecting communication within the community as well as with the society that we are a part of.

    However, if it comes to criticising the efficiency of the way we do our research, I think the question would better have been raised within the community first. Most scientists are in my experience very intelligent and reasonable people, and Lee's book is a careful investigation with the important (though 'obvious') conclusion that the presently realized strategies to support science (scientists) are not working optimal. Finger-pointing in the public eye pushes people into the defensive, results in desperate tries to blame somebody or something else for the lack of progress, or simply in denying the existence of a problem altogether. But worse than that, the whole discussion leaves those who are not able to understand the details with the impression that the whole community doesn't know what to do, or what it wants, because the points on which we all agree are hardly mentioned when we yell at each other. E.g. I guess we do all agree that funding is generally too short and too short-termed, and this severely hinders progress. This is a point that could have been brought into the public attention.

    As to the question whether physics (content) should be debated in the public, I have no problem with that. Personally, I think it is great to share the discussions, and to give people a chance to follow the most recent developments - even if the issues are unsettled. If properly presented, I think this is a source for inspiration for both sides. But this getting closer to the public is a very recent phenomenon, and it seems to me many researchers are not comfortable with it. Or maybe they don't know how to deal with it. On the other hand, there are many misconceptions on the lay-men's side. E.g. there seems to be a large number of people who fall for the 'Einstein-syndrome', and who believe all we Ph.D. holders are just stupid, and the solution to all our problems is totally obvious. In almost all cases the reason for this is that the alleged genius has not even understood the problem, not having followed the developments post Einstein (if at all). There currently is no real tradition (as I imagine there was one centuries ago) to discuss physics as we might discuss, say, art. You don't have to be an artist to share the beauty, and to have an opinion about it. I would say though that artists are more used to this kind of public opinion and criticism, and know better how to deal with it.

    I believe that this part of the trouble will fade out over the next decade or so. It's another sign of how much our society has changed, and it's a change that I welcome very much.



  29. Bee, you said that you "... have no problem with ... physics (content) ...[being]... debated in the public ... even if the issues are unsettled ...".

    Last year, over at Cosmic Variance, JoAnne had a blog entry "Should the Data be Public?",
    referring to a panel discussion at SUSY06 in which JoAnne said "... Tao Han ... (Wisconsin) ... proposed that the LHC data should be made available to the community as maximal openess would only benefit the physics ... he proposed that LHC- experimenters ... make ... their data ... available to the public ...
    Tao Han did not ask for raw data - nobody without the proper background or code can comprehend that - he asked for the 4-vectors (the energy and momentum read-outs) in ASCII. In other words, he asked for the data after it had been processed and sifted, and churned into a useable format. It is the form of data that us particle theorists deal with in our Monte Carlo codes and is what the experimenter works with in the end.
    It is a reasonable request, but not likely to happen. ...".

    Does that mean that you agree with the proposal of Tao Han that LHC data should be made public as soon as the data is processed into its standard useable format ?

    Would you be willing to lobby the LHC bureaucracy in favor of such public data release ?

    Would you be willing to lobby your institution (Perimeter) to get it to lobby the LHC bureaucracy in favor of such public data release ?

    Tony Smith

  30. Dear Tony,

    again you are mixing up issues. With public debate of physics 'content' I do not mean the LHC data, neither do I (here) want to go into the open access discussion with regard to scientific publications. We were talking about popular science books that summarize research results.

    As to the LHC data, I recall JoAnne's post, and I was at the SUSY06, but I have not followed the discussion and have no distinct opinion about it. I personally am in favor of public data release (generally), but the question is when, i.e. after what kind of processing was already performed etc. I am not sure though how public public means in this regard, as I can hardly imagine anybody who's not already a particle physicist being interested in an endless amount of tables that without appropriate tools are completely useless to begin with.

    I am not Perimeter, and with this I am not expressing the opinion of 'my institution'.



  31. This whole debate has degenerated so far into excessive bs, it boggles the mind intelligent people still partake in it.

    Not a single damn equation anywhere in the recent asymptotia or cosmicvariance blog wars about this. Indeed not even a debate about the science perse.

    Instead people are now routinely partaking in ad hominum and discussing sociological effects.

    I find it sad that physicists are now partaking in the very thing they worry about the most. Namely that the debate has moved away from the content of the science, into the netherworld of he said, she said fuzziness.


  32. Haelfix, may I point out that although I did not write down an equation at Cliffords blog, I linked to one.

    Also, I noted above that the physical predictions of [1] perturbative string theory (unbroken susy, 10 flat dimensions) and [2] AdS/CFT applied to QG (negative cc) are in sharp disagreement with experiments, and that string theory's prediction about black holes only applies to extremal and near-extremal ones. Is this really an ad hominem attack?

    There are some good things about the string/LQG conlict, though. Without it, I would not know about the limits of the string black hole prediction, nor would I know that LQG quantization does not work for the harmonic oscillator.

  33. Not a single damn equation anywhere in the recent asymptotia or cosmicvariance blog wars about this. Indeed not even a debate about the science perse.

    Instead people are now routinely partaking in ad hominum and discussing sociological effects.


    In case you haven't noticed this post is not about string theory. I'm not a string theorist and I hardly have anything new to say in this regard. I'll leave this part of the discussion to the experts - preferably not in the blogosphere. I have made more than clear what I think blogs are good for, and what not.

    And yes, I'm discussing sociological + political questions because I happen to be interested in it and find the topic important. If you are not interested in what I write, nobody forces you to read my blog.



  34. Haelfix:-

    You're right, it is notable. But there are three discussion threads all tangled up, which are legitimate ones to have:

    (1) The strong claims about string theory. I've been trying to get concrete answers about these claims in the form of real scientific arguments, including equations, but with no success.

    (2) The concerns about the structure of research, and research careers. An interesting issue. No equations likely to appear here.

    (3) The issue of how these matters are being perceived by the public, with the aid of the press, strong claims in (1), etc., and the role of public debates, and radio and other media appearances.

    Actually, since most of the discussions of type (1) were had in 2005 with no success -and seemingly no memory of it- most of my posts on Asymptotia have been about (3). It interests me because I have an interest in how the public, with the aid of the mass media, perceives the process of scientific research, how it loves the role of the "underdog" or "outsider" (picture the Einstein in patent office image loved so much). Some beginnings of the issues of type (2) almost started in the recent thread, but it seems to have been lost again by irrelevant matters, sadly.

    I'm sorry that it seems like I've raised another pointless slagging match again, and that it might have been better left alone, but this new business accompanying the Smolin book release in the UK - the arranged debates, is sufficiently interesting as a public science event, and longer and more in-depth, to warrant commenting on it to blog readers. Inevitably, it has meant that we are revisiting old circular patterns again, and all concerned are less patient than before.

    I'm sorry for bringing this up again, but it is important to point out to whoever will listen that the messages being put out by those authors have considerable shortcomings, to say the least.



  35. Hi Clifford,

    thanks for sorting this out. Yes, I have been writing about and only about (2). I am following (1) with interest, but don't feel qualified to comment. Regarding (3), I think the issue has been very carelessly dealt with esp. regarding the very unfortunate influence that media appearance seems to have.




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