Friday, June 26, 2009

Imagine there's a war and nobody notices

As you might have read on Peter's blog already, Gil Kalai, a mathematician from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the blog "Combinatorics and More" wrote a book ‘Gina Says,’ Adventures in the Blogsphere String War. It's advertised with the praising remark among others by Elchanan Mossel "I read it when I was sick and couldn’t do other things, and it cheered me up."

Some of you might remember a commenter called "Gina" being omnipresent in the discussions around Peter's book "Not Even Wrong" and Lee's book "The Trouble With Physics". Gil's book summarizes these conversations. I didn't follow them then, and am not tremendously interested to read them now. I have a pdf of the book, but didn't look at it, so don't ask for details. I recall wondering back then though whether Gina is indeed female as the name suggests.

The reason I'm mentioning this is I'm always stunned how people create dramas or 'wars' to lift themselves above irrelevance. The most sensible comment in the discussion came from George Johnson who said "Nobody of the public cares about string theory one way or the other." String theory or any other part of theoretical physics, that carelessness is what really bothers me. And while the question whether string theory is science or religion has indeed received public attention, the mudslinging has shed a very unfortunate light on the way we lead scientific debates.

What dismays me most however is the lax use of the word 'wars'. Science wars, string wars -- we should put our petty arguments a little more into perspective. Some people have real problems. People die in wars every day. They get shot, they are blown into pieces, they lose their children, their homes, their own lives.

We all have the same goal of understanding Nature. And we are in a very privileged position to be able to work towards this goal. Instead of focusing on what divides us we should focus on what we have in common.


And a good weekend to all of you.


  1. I don't think publicizing warts-and-all scientific debates like the string wars and such is harmful, rather the opposite actually. The actual content of theoretical physics is pretty inaccessible to the public, but they can still follow the debate.

    Plus while "focusing on what we have in common" sounds nice, I think not only the public but a good chunk of the scientists are in science because they like debating with their peers. Granted most of the debates are more good natured then the string wars.

    Also, people have been using "war" as a metaphor for non-war activities since the beginning of time. Maybe it does trivialize the suffering of people in actual wars, but even if it does, I think the boat has kind of sailed on stopping it.

  2. Blazing Saddles (not bowdlerized, unexpurgated, free of censorship) when the new sheriff comes to town. Then, OJ Simpson in the slowest police car chase in memory.

    Take care when you create the future - you'll be stuck in it.

  3. Simplicio: You are right about the part of the debate that was scientific. I was referring to the one that wasn't. Best,


  4. "people have been using "war" as a metaphor for non-war activities since the beginning of time."

    What sort of an argument is that? Men have been raping women since the beginning of time...

  5. String wars and similar "wars" is all part of a bigger game invented by humans to deal with the intrinsic boredom of all things. We need a game to pass our time. Any game. There is no purpose, there is no goal; the goal is the play itself. Without the game all we can do is waiting for Godot.

  6. Bee,

    I am surprised that under Disaster Capitalism(Naomi Klein) one could not have created "more of a presence" by recognizing funding agendas were designed by such controversies? :)

    Either for, or against, and there is some metronome meter to signal economic signs of work to produce, and societies in change?

    Now this comment can be seen as independent free of and should not know it's allegiances, yet, it could always make for a good story if you sight whose war it was, or, is for what advantage? You see?

    But yes I remember Gina. I was watching that discussions very carefully and since not being a scientist I guess what I had to say "could be part of Gina's world?":)

    Synoptic events unfold during the discussion are very important in my view to identify the "limitations of one reader" to see where another can help to move on. That's what Jacques and Clifford did for Lee. Some, cannot be helped?:)

    So in this vein Sean Carroll and Mark Trodden's conversation on Bloggheads tv is a good one with this in mind.

    If one cannot get this sense of the universe as it is expressed in the dynamics of false vacuum to the true one would never of understood how a genus figure could have been an indicative feature of one universe in a multitude of universes.

    So, who knew it was an Anthropic discussion?:)

    That's the joy in my mind of having scientists "set up the conversation( Plato and Bacon knew of the dramatic prose of literature to advance perspective while holding a conversation with the self) and now so it seems with "blogging heads" in such a way as to empower the general public with right knowledge?


  7. Hi Plato,

    You are mangling the way in which Klein referred to Disaster Capitalism. Funding agencies hardly make money out of problems in the academic system. To draw an analogy you should be asking why hasn't anybody yet offered a service that invests money in foundational research smarter than funding agencies do. That is an excellent question. The reason this didn't happen is probably that nobody spend much thought on what Lee's been trying to say in his book... Best,


  8. Bee,

    I should have place "Architecture" in front of Disaster Capitalism and would this not sound better? Simply, a rouse to defend a point of view about one not "having enough" while somebody else "gets it all?"

    I am saying we have to take it one step further and not remain part of "that framework" designed as dialogue as to a "warring state." This takes some insight into future events although it is never that clear for any of us.

    Even as a pawns one might not recognize as being as to what they had done, but from another "vantage point" it soon becomes clear. Some might??? recognize what I am saying?


  9. Oh Bee, One Small Step...for Humankind

    If one recognize how the wars or events can be manipulated to affect society, then I do not think I have mangled it, just recognized a deeper "undercurrent of it" psychologically functioning within society. Shock of any kind can change people whether they like it or not.
    Concepts are just a milder form.


  10. With this kind of "argumentation" you condemn every single philosophical discussion to be nonsense. You mentioned yourself the key point: "We all have the same goal of understanding Nature." Do you think that this debate was started only because the persons involved were bored? The "string wars" like most other philosophical debates aim towards the point you mentioned: one wants to unterstand the essence of string theory - is string theory a scientific theory? Is it predictive? Isn’t it justified to ask this questions when there are no testable quantitative experimental predictions at all? And yes it is according to the unterstanding of modern analytical philosophy a philosophical debate, because it’s a begriffsreflektierender debate and not primarily content-related. And thus it is a scientific debate.

    Why should it be irrelevant to ask and try to answer this questions?

  11. Peter, the thing is that sometimes we debate for the sake of the debate in our effort to keep a certain game alive and ourselves busy. By using exaggerative language and slogans like "string wars" we try to make the game vivid and more interesting.

    People don't have to be divided into camps and fire behind their trenches to seek answers to their questions. They can simply talk to each other.

  12. Hi Peter,

    "you condemn every single philosophical discussion to be nonsense"

    If I had wanted to say that I would have said that. You totally missed the point of what I wrote. I didn't say the discussion shouldn't have been lead, I said it shouldn't have been lead the way it was lead. Which in the end has painted a picture of physicists spending their days insulting peers whose theories they don't like and making a public show of it, all financed with taxpayer's money. In addition to this I haven't been so much interested in the 'philosophical' questions, but in the sociological ones. These dropped out even before the discussion started, which is very unfortunate because it is really a discussion we should have had. Best,


  13. Bee:In addition to this I haven't been so much interested in the 'philosophical' questions, but in the sociological ones. bold added by me for emphasis

    I do not disagree in this context above Bee with what you are saying.

    Bee:What dismays me most however is the lax use of the word 'wars'. Science wars, string wars -- we should put our petty arguments a little more into perspective. Some people have real problems. People die in wars every day. They get shot, they are blown into pieces, they lose their children, their homes, their own lives.

    This has faint sounds of the discussion that could lead too, events of and around the God Particle inception. One finds that later, this somehow misrepresented what was actually said "off the cuff" when students of science became amazed at the values of energies of particles as they came from their cosmological sources. Was that Lederman? Can't remember.:)Fly's Eye.

    But the point is that it was speaking about something that pointed too, "beyond the [current description of everything that existed]" to realize then that "afterword" it was a sound perspective in recognition of the cosmological sources being distributed to earth, and that it was just a poor choice of words expressing the amazement.

    Now, that somehow implied some God relation and so it is that "war is highlighted here" and afterwards, the entrenchment of position is clear. You see?

    I have seen the conduct by example where scientists can fill another's space that they leave open, and by such movement, move forward methodologically and in literature prose(media) as mentioned, reveal the current state of, as to where science currently resides.

    So "above the framework," more or less, to your points.


  14. Oh, yeah? I saw little evidence of your, er, camaraderie at PI. Weren't you interested in any of the talks at the category theory conference?

  15. Kea: Was that directed at me? If I'd be going to every single talk and every conference I could be going I would never have time to work. What is your problem?

  16. Dear Bee, I completely agree that this is not a war. So did my book's hero Gina
    where she said "it is not really, really, really a war")

    I don't know if war metaphores or games based on wars (e.g. chess) are ways to substitute real wars by harmless activities (by reducing the need for real wars) or perhaps such metaphores and games encourage real wars.

  17. Hi Gil,

    Thanks for your comment. My post wasn't so much addressed at you or Gina as more at the participants of these games that fail to put their problems into perspective.

    I'm sorry btw I have nothing more substantial to say about your book, but I presently really don't have the time to read it. Best,


  18. This post implicitly assumes that the only people contributing in any way to the 'battles' of the war are privileged, qualified, well funded theoretical physicists. Given the present situation, this appears to me to be a very rash assumption, not much founded on reality. People who do not fit the abovementioned criteria may not be at risk of being shot, but starvation is also an unpleasant way to die.

  19. This post assumes nothing of that sort. As I said above, people fighting for their jobs is exactly what we should have been talking about. I fail to see how this relates to my non-appearance at a conference on category theory.

  20. Dear Kea, the part of Bee's post to which you really ought to have devoted attention is the sentence

    "The reason I'm mentioning this is I'm always stunned how people create dramas or 'wars' to lift themselves above irrelevance. "

  21. Really? So anonymous cowards will take over the world peacefully and without resistance?

  22. Pope Maledict XVI10:06 AM, July 01, 2009

    Dear Kea: Taking the hook was ok. And I'll throw in the line for old times' sake. But must you swallow the sinker too?

    ps when Bee suggested that people start wars to lift themselves out of irrelevance, she didn't mean that this strategy actually *works*.

  23. Sigh. Unlike anonymous cowards, I can think of nothing I would like better than to be an irrelevant hermit back in the mountains where I used to live. If only the times allowed me to be so complacent.


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