Sunday, October 29, 2006

String Theorists at Bay

Since Professor Motl seems to be under some sort of edict or ban of the Church, I have tried to avoid making comments that he might not be allowed to respond to. That doesn't mean he doesn't continue to writing interesting, controversial, and sometimes dubious stuff. A recent post in the first category is this one. It's about George Johnson's talk to the string therorati at KITP and their reactions.

Amanda Peet explained that it had to be obvious that the authors of those books don't apply the same standards to their theories as they use for string theory - and she uses the obvious inconsistencies of loop quantum gravity as an example. George Johnson offered a truly bold hypothesis that "he thinks that no one would call [the author of the blue book] a crackpot". A massive laughter, led by Joe Polchinski et al., explodes in the room, indicating a rather strong disagreement with the journalist. ;-)


I suspect that this argument mainly indicates that Peet has not read either book. Woit hardly mentions LQG, and Smolin, while probably more generous to LQG than ST makes it pretty clear that it is a program yet to make contact with experiment.

Amanda Peet, Mark Srednicki, Gary Horowitz, and others were surprised why it was so difficult for the journalists to figure out that the recent books are nothing like a balanced view on physics but rather extreme screams in the darkness that are not supported by any real science. For example, Mark Srednicki argued that even the journalists should be able to see that someone is manipulating them if he uses the sentence "I can't understand why some people think that my book is anti-string" in the context of a book whose very subtitle links string theory and the "fall of science".


Again, this sounds like the argument of someone who has not read the book TWP. How hard should it be for a brilliant QFT textbook writer like Mark to understand that Smolin is arguing that while ST may be a promising and plausible theory, the totalitarian attitudes so perfectly exemplified by his and his colleagues remarks is hardly good for physics. It should not require heroic intellectual powers to separate string theory from the sociology of the ST community.

David Gross explained why the arguments of the critics are empty. They are either ad hominem attacks or dishonest comments about science or they try to create emotions about actual unanswered questions that are being rationally and legitimately investigated by the scientists right now.


Now that's a dishonest comment! The ad hominem has come from string theorists, not from Smolin or Woit.

He has also re-iterated his opinion that he always believed and he still essentially believes that the right policy is to ignore the weird voices in the jungle ...


A policy that can result in one becoming dinner!

In the last 100 years, no important paradigm shift in physics was started by a book.


I wonder if Lubos is familiar with Weyl's Space, Time, and Matter in which he introduced the gauge theory concept? It's also interesting that Joliet-Curie failed to find the neutron despite having the data in hand because, as Joliet said, it would never occur to a Frenchman to look in a popular book (in this case, Rutherford's) for clues to the understanding of physics.

Aside from that, popular books don't guide physics, but they may guide the public, and the people who make funding and hiring decisions. String theory may have good arguments, but the kind of whining and sarcasm exhibited here won't cut it for much longer.

What I have yet to see from any string theorist is any concrete response tthe central argument: lack of any clear way to make contact with experiment.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Gloom and Doom

To be a Democrat in the Twenty-first Century is to be acustomed to failure. It's like being a fan of a perennially losing football or baseball team. Even when things look good, it seems likely that our candidates will whiff some crucial pitches, or drop that perfectly placed touchdown pass. The refs, of course, will miss those flagrant Republican fouls and spitballs.

Despite some promising signs, I can hardly dare believe we might get a piece of this government back, pass a couple of good laws, and, above all, start holding this reckless and foolish government accountable for its actions. Whatever happens, Bush will control the executive for another two and a quarter years, and thus will have great power to continue damaging our country. Maybe, though, the most outrageous recklessness can be checked. Maybe some of the thieving war profiteers can be brought to justice.

There are three guys in my head trying to sell me their predictions. The crazy optimist thinks that the American people will finally awake, throw out fifty or sixty Republican congressmen and six senators. The more rational guy says twenty congressmen and three senators, giving Dems a razor thin advantage in The House and a slightly better negotiating position in the Senate. The pessimist thinks it will all slip through our fingers, leaving the crooks in total charge of all three branches of government.

If the last happens, I expect the mood of the country to become far angrier. At a dinner party recently I heard two retired executives talking about it being time for a military coup. I was astounded. I don't think it can happen here, and I certainly hope it can't happen here, but the anger at the folly of our leaders is intense. If political seats were proportional to overall vote, the Dem's would win more convincingly than even my optimist thinks - but they aren't, and the two Parties have conspired to gerrymander safe seats for incumbents to a degree that makes much change very hard. The result is not good for the Republic.

Uranium Weapons

Depleted uranium weapons (using the uranium left over after fissionable U-235 has been extracted) were extensively used by the US in Bosnia and in the first Iraq war. Uranium is a very dense and hard metal - 1.6 times as dense as lead and almost 5 times as hard as steel. These qualities, and the fact that it burn in air, make it a very effective penetrating weapon against hard targets such as tanks or fortified underground bunkers.

It has some adverse collateral effects. Use in Bosnia and the first Iraq war is linked to clusters of cancers that occurred in local civilians afterwards.

Robert Fisk, writing in The Independent, reports on evidence that the Israelis used uranium weapons in the most recent war against Lebanon. Two oddities stand out: the weapons were used very close to the Israeli border, where winds are likely to carry the toxic dust into Israel, and the uranium used seems to be very slightly enriched in U-235 rather than depleted.

Many Lebanese, however, long ago concluded that the latest Lebanon war was a weapons testing ground for the Americans and Iranians, who respectively supply Israel and Hizbollah with munitions. Just as Israel used hitherto-unproven US missiles in its attacks, so the Iranians were able to test-fire a rocket which hit an Israeli corvette off the Lebanese coast, killing four Israeli sailors and almost sinking the vessel after it suffered a 15-hour on-board fire.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The World

Site Meter has this nice facility for displaying where your visits and page views come from. I'm always amazed to see the wide geographic distribution. At first I assumed that it was just some people getting unlucky with next blog, but apparently some of you seem to keep coming back.

If you are a regular, or even an accidental next blogger, feel free to pipe up and let us know what you think. And, if you feel like it, let us know where you are!

Non-Sequitur

As I was driving to work this morning Bush was talking about Nancy Pelosi's statement that Afghanistan was a legitimate part of the war on terror, but Iraq was not. Bush's critique: She should ask the people of Madrid, and London, and Bali, and Morocco, etc.

How f****** dumb do you have to be to think this is a meaningful argument? Or how double-f****** ignorant? How many of the bombers or planners of any those attacks were Iraqis or had ties to Iraq? Zero!

The 9/11 bombers, like Osama bin Laden, were mostly from the country ruled by Bush's kissy face buddy, Saudi Arabia. Yeah, he was from the bin Laden family, the family of Dad's former business partner. Yeah, the same family Bush hustled out of the country on a private jet right after 9/11. The London bombers were of Pakistani extraction. The Madrid bombers from North Africa. Bin Laden, last we heard, is still holed up in Pakistan, another Bush ally, where he continues to issue death threats against America and send Taliban to Afghanistan.

Maybe our schools need to start teaching deductive reasoning.

Not to worry, though. Thanks to Bush and friends, a whole generation of Iraqis now has ample reason to passionately hate America.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Scandal O'Rama

Despite total Republican control of all three branches of government, every week seems to bring a couple of new GOP scandals. A mistress strangler here, An attempted rapist and alien hider there, throw in some crooked land manipulations here, here, here, a bit of voter intimidation there, and pretty soon you start wondering about these guys. The GOP or the Soprano's?

Add a couple of Republican Congressmen with a taste for same sex (male) pages and a Republican running for governor who allegedly has a felon for a boyfriend. Sounds like a moral, Christian group if I ever saw one.

Of course Democrats have their own scandals. Harold Ford, running for Senate in Tennessee, is clearly guilty of supporting stem cell research and running for Congress while (partly) black.

Josh Marshall has this collection of politico's and their friends who have actually been charged, indicted, or convicted. (There is actually a dem on the list, though he hasnt't been indicted yet).

If this is how much trouble they get in when they control the levers of power, no wonder they are terrified that the Dems might win one house of Congress.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

It Takes a Family

One interesting point made in Thomas Rick's book Fiasco - The American Military Adventure in Iraq is that, calamitous as the actions of George W. Bush have been, he is not soley responsible for the debacle. Some of the other big blunders were made by his father, George H. W. Bush.

The worst was that, after we failed to destroy Saddam's Imperial Guard divisions, he explicity encouraged the military and the cities to rebel against Saddam, and after they did, let American forces stand by while Saddam sent the Imperial Guards to destroy them. American airpower would almost certainly have been decisive if it had been used.

The Iraqi's took the obvious lesson from this, that America could not be trusted. Saddam similarly concluded that the Americans lacked follow through and a coherent plan.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Department of Stupidity Department

One of the many ludicrous charges being floated by the Republicans now is the notion that Democrats are plotting "to establish a Department of Peace." That's good old Majority Whip Roy Blunt. Not that there is any remote possibility of this being true, but more interesting is trying to fathom the reason Republicans find this particular bogeymany scary.

Greg Sargent of TPM Cafe is reminded of the great Onion headline:

Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'
That was on 17 January, 2001, folks. Pretty damn scary how prescient it was.

Friday, October 20, 2006

TWP IV: Seers versus Craftperps

Act IV, Scene 1. On the Heath
[Lights come up dimly. Two men, dressed as witches, stand around a large iron pot on a fire. Wind howls. A red-haired man, THE DIRECTOR, stirs the pot, while the larger man, THE PLAYWRIGHT, looks on.]

DIRECTOR: Double, double...

PLAYWRIGHT: I'm thinking of a ballet, with a phalanx of dancers in grey military uniforms, dancing in strict unison - groupthink.

DIRECTOR: Toil and trouble...

PLAYWRIGHT: Seers would be highly individualized principal dancers, with brightly colored and distinctive costumes. They would have highly varied dance steps as they are pursued about the stage by the groupthink phalanx.

DIRECTOR: Cauldron boil and cauldron f****** bubble...

[fade to dark]

Lee Smolin makes a pitch for democracy and diversity in theoretical physics in the fourth part of his book, and I'm sorry to say that I found it a bit irritating. I definitely agree that lockstep thinking, with everybody working on the same approaches to the same problems is not a good idea. I also suspect that he is right in saying that the US system of postdocs and the whole funding concept create scientific conservatism and allocate too much power to the old guys.

It's his picture of "Seers" and "Craftspeople" that really gets under my skin, though. According to him, most physicists are technicians, or "craftspeople", only in physics because they could do the math and get away from the bullying jocks. An elite few, though, are driven "Seers", determined to get to the bottom of things. The revolutions in physics come from these people, the Galileos, the Faradays, the Einsteins. The craftperps are left to do the tedious detail work of calculating spectra, specific heats, and terms in pertubation theory.

It is certainly true that the big breakthroughs came from just a relatively few people. I think it's a little facile to just attribute this to some special feature of their character, though. After all, how many times can you discover America? Kepler, Galileo and Faraday used methods that seeming have little resemblance to those of Einstein and Dirac, but they made equally important discoveries.

Seers are very rare in the world dominated by technicians, says Smolin. Well, maybe at Harvard they were. Out in the sticks at Great Desert State, though, Seers, or at any rate, would be Seers, were as common as horned toads. One of my grad school colleagues quit to take a job as a greenskeeper which left him free to think about quantum mechanics. Another became an engineer so he could build supercomputers to solve his generalized Dirac equation.

My guess is that almost every physicist has a bit of "Seer" in her, but the fact is that tractable fundamental problems that suit their talents - or anybody's talents, are just rare. "If quantum mechanics doesn't worry you, you're crazy," said Feynman. But most people who have spent their lives worrying about it haven't gotten anywhere. You climb the mountain before you by whatever means you have at hand. I'm not convinced that taking bigger chances necessarily equates to a higher likelyhood of success. Einstein was profound, Einstein was exceptionably able to free his mind from the prejudices of common sense, but he was also exceptionally lucky. He just happened to live at a time when a whole group of fundamental problems was ready to yield to a deep and original thinker.

In the end, though, I do think physics needs a better way select the next generation, and a better way to encourage diverse approaches. Maybe a few more rich guys can be found to support institutes that are willing to work on the edge. Maybe the government should try some experiments in the sociology of physics.

***************
For those who prefer more conventional reviews of Smolin's book I recommend: Sean Carroll's, Bee's at Backreaction, or Wolfgang's short one with links here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Donnybrook

Sally Quinn has a story about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in today's Washington Post. The opening line pretty clearly announces the provenance:

Don Rumsfeld is the shrewdest person in Washington.

At this point, that's an opinion held by approximately one person in the inhabited universe, so this is pretty clearly announcing itself as a letter from Donny. So what's the SecDef concerned about?
He understands better than anyone that somebody has to be in line to take the blame when things go wrong. So far he has been willing to do so. But not much longer.

The drumbeat to get him out of the Pentagon has reached deafening proportions. Republicans and Democrats, the generals, the media, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, Andy Card, the first President Bush, and even Laura Bush all want him gone. Until now George W. Bush has resisted all of the pressure to get rid of his defense secretary. But those in the know say that the president may have reached the point where he realizes that Rumsfeld has outlived his usefulness.

Yep. He thinks he's about to get the boot. And he just wants to say that if it's his turn to sleep with fishes, he doesn't intend to sleep alone.
In the Bible, the high priest would transfer the sins of the people onto a goat, and, as it was written, "the goat shall carry all the sins of the people into a land where no one lives, and the man shall let it loose in the wilderness."

(The word for scapegoat in Hebrew means, literally, "into hell.")

Rumsfeld has seen others take on the role of scapegoat. Look what happened to Nancy Reagan. When she was first lady, she rightly realized that Donald Regan, the chief of staff, was causing her husband enormous damage. What she hadn't realized was that Regan was filling the role of scapegoat for the president. When Don Regan was finally fired, Nancy herself was made the scapegoat. She then took the brunt of criticism for the errors of her husband's administration.

Only, says Donny, it won't be Laura taking the fall this time.
It is hard for the American people to turn completely against the president. It seems tantamount to patricide. We're much more comfortable being able to blame someone else for the president's mistakes. Laura Bush will never be the scapegoat. For now, it's Rumsfeld.

Patricide? We call it impeachment, but that's our only way to fire a President in midterm.
And it's improbable that Rumsfeld can last. He may not have an exit strategy for Iraq, but, old Washington hand that he is, he undoubtedly has one for himself.

I suspect that he has already told the president and Cheney that he will leave after the midterm elections, saying that the country needs new leadership to wind down the war. And he will resign to take a job in some sort of humanitarian venture, thereby creating the perception that he is a caring person who left of his own accord to devote the rest of his life to good works.

Bush and Cheney, who don't want him gone, will then have to contend with the reality of the new situation: One goat must be sent off into the wilderness. Who will it be?

Another symptom, I think, of Rumsfeld's dreamworld. The time is long past when firing a lackey, even Rumsfeld, will make much difference.

Monday, October 16, 2006

TWP III: What Lies Beyond?

Act III, Scene I
[Lights up to reveal a The Sage, seated cross-legged on a low platform. Standing before him is The Student. Both are dressed in white robes]

STUDENT: Master, tell me how I may know the secrets of Nature.

[Sage appears to ignore him, remains seated with his head down.]

STUDENT: Umm...

[Sage looks up slowly, adjusts volume control on his Ipod.]

SAGE: Listen...

STUDENT: I am listening!

SAGE: Listen to what Nature is telling you!

STUDENT: But there are all these moduli - all these minima!

[Sage removes earpiece.]

SAGE: I didn't say listen to Lenny friggin Susskind! Listen to the data. To Nature.

[Student bows, looks puzzled. Upstage center is illuminated to reveal a set of large speakers. Sage plugs Ipod into sound system.]

PINK FLOYD: Teacher, Teacher... [very loudly. Fade to black as song continues.]

[Spotlight on a short redhead, the director, fourth row center.]

DIRECTOR: OK, better. Lose the Pink Floyd though. Go with something from this century.

*********

So is there physics after string theory? It's clear that many string theorists don't think so. Typical of the arrogance that is so offensive to outsiders is Joe Polchinski's oft-quoted reaction to being asked to organize a conference section on alternatives to string theory: "There aren't any."

The gods are notorious for singling out that sort of hubris for special punishment. Smolin clearly regards it as a kind of self-inflicted blindness.

So, what is our author's advice?

Look around, he says. There are lots of odd facts lying around just crying for some explanation. How about some details of the cosmic microwave backgound? How about dark matter? How about MOND? And dark energy! He likes GKZ and DSR (GKZ is the puzzle that there seem to be slightly to many ultra-energetic cosmic rays. DSR is a cure based on a variable speed of light.) Loop Quantum Gravity is close to his heart, but here, perhaps even more than in Strings, it has proved impossible to make contact with experiment.

MOND seems a bit sickly after the latest evidence for dark matter, and one of his other arguments is a bit dented by the fact that he thinks 10 billion light years is 10^27 sec (try 9.4 * 10^27 s) as pointed out by another reviewer.

It seems to me that the book has lost some speed in part III, but not because his narrative powers have lessoned. The problem is that there isn't much there out there, beyond string theory. The odd facts he points out are interesting, but a lot of people are looking at them.

One point he does make is that DSR, if confirmed, would seem to falsify string theory. Of course that is only because it falsifies special relativity.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Freedom of Speech

is one of those things everybody wants for themselves, but a lot of people can't tolerate in others.

Kevin Drum has a few examples. The offending parties are mainly governments (French, Turkish, German) but include Jews, Muslims, and pro-immigrant protesters. The targets may be artists, reporters, historians, or just people on the street. Some are worse than others:

Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya, a frequent critic of Vladimir Putin, was gunned down in broad daylight in her apartment building. "According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Ms Politkovskaya is the twelfth journalist to die in a contract-style killing since Mr Putin came to power."

After Pope Benedict XVI delivered a speech critical of Islam, Christian churches were firebombed in the West Bank, a Pakistani terrorist group called for the pope's murder, a Baghdad terrorist group threatened to kill all Christians in Iraq, and a nun was murdered in Somalia.

Others are just too close to home:
Steven Howards of Beaver Creek, Colorado, sued a Secret Service agent after being arrested for assault for telling Dick Cheney that his policies in Iraq were "reprehensible."

Midnight for Fluffy

William M. Connolley's post, Holocaust of the fluffy toys brought back some slightly shameful memories for me.

I think the occasion was some sort of theatrical gala - raising money for a local theater. As I recall, we payed big bucks (for me) to get dinner and a chance to sit around with other theater fans. There was, however, some entertainment, a series of carnival type booths around the room. For a small fee, one could participate in various games of skill or chance, with fluffy animal toys as prizes.

One of these was target shooting with a Nerf bow and arrow. As it happens, relatively few people can hit the broadside of a barn from twelve feet with a Nerf bow and arrow. With two subteen sons, I wasn't quite innocent of the machine's dynamics, though, and quickly figured out that a steady hand and an aim about three feet South-South-West of the bullseye could get the job done. I expended a few tickets, collected a couple of fluffy animals, and that should have been the end of it.

I had bought a lot of tickets though, wasn't any good at the golf game, and the fortune teller didn't want to tell me anything that I wanted to hear. Meanwhile, at a nearby table some orthopod was collecting quite a mound of fluffy animals. Unable to resist, I found myself drawn into a kind of competition. If he could win two fluffies in one turn, well then I could win three. At the end of the evening I left with an indecent armful of fluff. Ditto the doc.

My kids liked a couple of them, and some other relatives or friends probably did too, but most of them filled a box for a year or so. I didn't take them to the dump though. I gave them to some sort of charity store or other. Maybe they got recycled at somebody else's gala.

TWP II: Enter the Dragon

Act II, Scene I
[String Theory, an alluring young woman clad in slightly revealing rags, enters stage right, and starts to walk toward center stage. A short, red-haired man, front row center, stands and loudly interrupts:]
MAN: No! No! No! NO! Too trite, too NO! This is supposed to be a book review, not a high school skit. Start over!

[Lights go down. Muffled sounds of movement on stage. Light comes up slowly, a single red spot illuminating a large and peculiarly marked egg, downstage center. Spot spreads to reveal a ring of kneeling men, clad in loin cloths, surrounding. Each man in turn leans forward, touches his head to the egg, returns to his position, and tosses a handful of powder on the egg, which flares up in smoke and crackling flame. Then the egg speaks.]

EGG:
By the wiggling of my strings,
I do promise you all things.

EGG: Particles! By the wiggling of my strings!

EGG: Gauge Fields! By the wiggling of my open strings!

EGG: Quantum Gravity! By the wiggling of my closed strings!

EGG:
Particles and Forces!
Forcinos and Sparticles!
By the super, duper,
Symmetry of my strings!

[Egg cracks. Tiny dragon head emerges in a burst of flame.]

Chapters 7 through 12 are devoted to string theory, and once again I really admire Smolin's exposition. He manages to compress the historical and conceptual development of String Theory into three rather short chapters, including the travails of the founding fathers:

Pierre Ramond was denied tenure at Yale in 1976, a few years after having solved several of string theory's central problems...

John Schwarz, meanwhile, had been denied tenure at Princeton in spite of his fundamental contributions to string theory...

There is no doubt that the original inventors of string theory paid heavily for their pioneering discoveries.

Smolin emphasizes these points because he wants to show how the academic deck is and has been stacked against the truly original thinkers, rewarding instead skilled technicians. Once Green and Schwarz consigned some nasty quantum anomalies to the dust bin, the damn burst, and everyone became a string theorist.

One sentence in his discussion of the first superstring revolution caught my eye:
For example, they [Candelas, Horowitz, Strominger, and Witten] showed explicitly how you could trade constants in the standard model, such as those that determine the masses of the different particles, for constants describing the geometry of a Calabi-Yau space.


Wait! Whoa! Why isn't this game over? Just plug in the measured constants and do the trade. There must be some reason it ain't this simple.

Smolin sounds what will be one of his primary themes: lack of predictivity. Just as with Einstein's unified field theories, we have an embarassment of theoretical possibilities. He quotes from a 1986 paper of Strominger's:
...All predictive power seems to have been lost.

All this points to an overwhelming need to find a dynamical principle for determining [which theory describes nature], which now appears more imperative than ever.

Going on to the second revolution and beyond, Smolin points up a few items that aren't usually mentioned in the usual string theology: That M theory doesn't actually exist, that strong-weak duality is probably only approximate, that the strong form of the Maldacena conjecture is unproven, that the highly trumpeted finiteness of the string perturbation theory terms is only proven for the first three.

I've talked about the Smolin and the Landscape before here, so I won't say any more about this particular elephant in the bedroom, except:

[Lights up to a scene of disarray. String Theory, now grown to monstrous size, tramples the stage, tearing up the landscape. Some string theorists flee before it, while other bow down to worship it. As ST appears about to trample a group of worshippers, lights go dark.]

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Trouble with Physics: Notes for a Review I. Prologue and Dramatis Personnae

Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics, is a long and detailed argument about the current state of physics and the nature of science by a passionate and profound thinker. Naturally, no review, much less this one, can do it full justice. These posts are my attempt to assimilate his argument and my offer to discuss the interesting questions he raises with anyone interested.

I've called the book an argument, but it is also a tale in the mode of the heroic quest. In that genre, where should I place it? Somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Jason and the Argonauts, I should think, maybe over there next to Moby Dick. The White Whale in this epic is the search for a Theory of Everything, or at least a theory of Quantum Gravity. At the risk of stretching this analogy well beyond its elastic limit, the roles of Ahab and his crew are played by the String Theorists.

Some time ago, never mind how long precisely, physics set out to achieve a unified view of all the phenomena of the world. It is a remarkable fact that this enterprise has had a great deal of success. All the phenomena of everyday life, and probably all the phenomena of any consequence in our solar system, are encompassed in just two theories. Even if we look out to the most distant regions of the cosmos there are only a couple of little exceptions.

Smolin's first chapter is a look at what he considers to be the Five Great Problems in theoretical physics: 1) quantum gravity, 2) foundations of quantum mechanics, 3) a unified theory of elementary particles, 4) how the constants of nature are chosen, and 5) the nature of dark energy and dark matter. Most physicists would agree with most or at least some of these problems. I personally would add one more: what is the nature of time? Much of the enthusiasm for string theory stems from its claim to solve 1, 3, 4, and possibly 5. The most skeptical physicists might claim that only 5) is truly a physics problem, and that the others are more like problems of philosophy.

Chapter two, The Beauty Myth is the story of unifications past. Physicists are familiar with the successful ones, but he also considers a lot of beautiful theories slain by cruel facts. The takeaway story here is that a pretty face is not enough for a good scientific theory.

Chapter Three, The World as Geometry, introduces General Relativity, the geometricization of physics, and, I think it's fair to say, Smolin's hero: Background Independence. General relativity, he says, is a background independent theory: the geometry of space and time is not the stage on which physics plays out, but a dynamical actor in the drama. The lesson he takes from this background independence is that any future theory incorporating GR needs to be background independent.

I'm not sure how seriously to take this argument. It's certainly obvious that the world does exhibit dynamical space and time, but does that fact imply true background independence? A lot of even classical General Relativity seems to consist of constructing a solution of GR with some symmetries and then treating that geometry as a background.

The chapter ends with the failure of Einstein's attempts to construct a unified field theory of electromagnetism and gravity. The problem was not that such unifications were hard to find, they were not. The problem was that none of them predicted the world we actually have. By Einstein's death, physics had moved on to other forces and other ideas, and elementary particles were at the center.

Thus, the next chapter celebrates the great unification of fundamental physics in the Standard Model. All of the forces evident in elementary particle interactions were described by the U(1) x SU(2) x SU(3)gauge theories. The next step sounds plausible even if you don't know anything Lie Groups: combining them all into an SU(5) gauge theory. It was one of those beautiful ideas that forgets to be true - protons have quite stubbornly refused to decay.

The story of supersymmetry finishes out the prologue. In case I haven't mentioned it, Smolin tells this, and all his other stories very well. He has a remarkably lucid prose style, and though I often found myself stopping to think, I was always brought up short by the ideas, not by any lack of clarity in their expression.

If the failure of supergravity to lead to a good theory of quantum gravity depressed us, though, it was also liberating. All the easy things had been tried. For decades we had tried to make a theory by extending the methods of Feynman and his friends. There were now only two things to try: Give up methods based on a fixed background geometry, or give up on the idea that the things moving through the background geometry were particles. Both approaches were about to be tried, and both would yield - for the first time - dramatic successes on the road to quantum gravity.

(To be continued)

Friday, October 13, 2006

Liberals and Libertarians

So what do Liberals and Libertarians share, besides the first five letters? Just as those five letters suggest, I think that commonality is a belief in freedom. Libertarians are beginning to notice that they aren't entirely comfortable in the Party of Bush, Ashcroft, and James Dobson.

The problem is that Libertarians only seem to consider the threat posed to liberty by the government. Liberals are wary of oppressive government, but they also fear the power of entrenched wealth - historically probably the more significant oppressor.

Of course it's also true that the Libertarians are larded up with Ayn Randers and various other nutcases, but there are probably many who can be brought to see the light - or at least some of it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Landscape Architecture

Readers of Lee Smolin's The Trouble With Physics will recall that the whole string theory landscape problem depends on flux compactification. I probably can't be trusted to explain it correctly, but the trouble starts with the fact that you need to curl up six of the space dimensions of ten dimensional spacetime. Once one has done this with Calabi-Yau manifolds, you have two more problems: They don't naturally lend themselves to a positive cosmological constant (which we observe) and they seem likely to spontaneously self-destruct.

A way was found to stabilize them with tape and baling wire, or, more technically, electric and magnetic flux bound to branes. A lot of ways. Say 10^350. Kachru and Douglas, the inventors, have a new Reviews of Modern Physics article: hep-th/0610102 on the subject, and Peter Woit has some commentary. The article has at least some elementary parts, and Peter's commentary is interesting. So are the responses in his comment section.

Opinions remain divided as to whether a)the landscape really exists and b)whether anything can be deduced from it if it does.

Epicycles! We need more epicycles!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Knowhow

There is a lot of information in the blogosphere. There are, for example, 58 million plus web pages on How to meet girls, including such helpful step-by-step instructions as these. Or, if you are just interested in the Geek Rock band Nerf Herder's album of the same name, there is also a lot on that, including a Wikipedia entry.

Thanks, no doubt, to the diligent efforts of world wide antiterrorism forces, there are only about 1050 web sites googleable on How to build an atomic bomb. Apparently the North Koreans didn't read the right one.

There are, however, apparently no instructions on how to reset the pressure on a Remstar CPAP machine. Homeland security needs to hire these guys.

Educating California: Some Good Teachers, Left Behind

Samuel G. Freedman takes a look at the operation of No Child Left Behind and the educational establishment in this New York Times article.

Jefferds Huyck stood in a corner of the gymnasium, comfortable in being inconspicuous, as the annual awards ceremony began one Friday last May at Pacific Collegiate School in Santa Cruz, Calif. He listened as the principal named 16 of Mr. Huyck’s students who had earned honors in a nationwide Latin exam, and he applauded as those protégés gathered near center court to receive their certificates.

Then the principal, Andrew Goldenkranz, said, “And here’s their teacher.” Hundreds of students and parents and colleagues rose unbidden in a standing ovation. In that gesture, they were both celebrating and protesting.

As virtually everyone in the audience knew, Mr. Huyck would be leaving Pacific Collegiate, a charter school, after commencement. Despite his doctorate in classics from Harvard, despite his 22 years teaching in high school and college, despite the classroom successes he had so demonstrably achieved with his Latin students in Santa Cruz, he was not considered “highly qualified” by California education officials under their interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Rather than submit to what he considered an expensive, time-consuming indignity, a teacher-certification program geared to beginners that would last two years and cost about $15,000, Mr. Huyck decided to resign and move across town to teach in a private school. And in his exasperation, he was not alone.

Take some good ideas, some bad ideas, add a generous dose of special interests and mix vigorously with federal mandates and you can bake a cake guaranteed to drive many of the best teachers out of the profession.
TO call this situation perverse, to ascribe it to the principle of unintended consequences, is to be, if anything, too reasonable. With the quality of teacher training being widely assailed as undemanding, most recently in a report last month by the Education Schools Project, a nonpartisan group, Pacific Collegiate in 2005 had what certainly looked like the solution. Out of a faculty of 29, 12 already had or were nearing doctoral degrees, primarily related to the subjects they taught.

And if the performance of the school mattered for anything, which unfortunately it does not in the credentialing issue, then Pacific Collegiate could show results. Admitting its 400 students in Grades 7 through 12 by lottery rather than by admissions exam, it recorded an average of 1,982 out of a possible 2,400 on the three-part SAT and sent graduates to Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Swarthmore and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among other elite universities.
...
Under California law, a teacher must successfully complete a certification program to fulfill the mandate of No Child Left Behind that there be a “highly qualified” instructor in every classroom. Marilyn Errett, an administrator with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said California did offer a fast-track route for experienced teachers in the core subjects of English, science and math, as well as a path that combined a teaching internship with 100 hours of college course work.

She was not sympathetic, however, to the notion that teachers with doctorates and instructional experience at college get some kind of waiver. “Certainly, no one is questioning their grasp of the subject matter,” she said. But she added that they need to learn how to work with children in immigrant families who have limited English skills and students being moved from special education classes to regular ones. “Those are skills we think they need to have,” she said.

I'm not totally unsympathetic to those goals, but there has got to be a better path. Many States attempts to comply with NCLB impose utterly unreasonable burdens on teachers in record keeping, training and classroom management. Each child is supposed to get an educational program tailored to her individual needs, but the teacher has twenty plus other students needing exactly the same.

In the post-Sputnik days of America's scientific humiliation, we adopted a program of Summer teacher institutes which not only provided free education for science teachers, but a modest stipend. If we are serious about improving American education, a similar program with wider scope could be set up today. If Mr. Jack or Dr. Jill has a demonstrated need for more skills in working with children of immigrant families with limited English, let them get it there rather than pile on miscelleaneous coursework and often utterly irrelevant instruction at the end of a long teaching day.

This particular requirement, by the way, has much less to do with ensuring qualified teachers than it has to do with ensuring full education college classes.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Butcher's Bill

From The Wall Street Journal: Iraqi Death Toll
Exceeds 600,000, Study Estimates
.

A new study asserts that roughly 600,000 Iraqis have died from violence since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, a figure many times higher than any previous estimate.

And George still can't figure out why the Iraqis aren't more grateful.

For comparison:
Human Rights Watch has estimated Saddam Hussein's regime killed 250,000 to 290,000 people over 20 years.

Direct American action is probably responsible for less than 1/3 of the casualties. The others are indirect results, caused by disbanding the Army and the Police, failing to control stockpiles of weapons, and failure to control the border.
The Lancet study, funded largely by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for International Studies, said while the percentage of deaths attributed to the U.S.-led coalition has decreased over the past year, coalition forces were involved in 31% of all violent deaths since March 2003. Most of the deaths in Iraq, particularly in the past two years, have been caused by insurgent, terrorist and sectarian violence.

These numbers push Bush well beyond the architects of the Rawandan, Ugandan, and Bosnian genocides, even if still just a bit behind Pol Pot, Hitler, and Stalin. The genocide in Iraq, which is quite likely still a long ways from completion, was the fruit of a long series of bad and even monstrous decisions by Bush and his minions. He deserves a place in the roll call of great war criminals - too bad he is unlikely to ever be tried.

Monday, October 09, 2006

NK Squib?

Rumors abound that the NK nuke was only about .55 kilotons. This would likely indicate premature or other ignition failure. A 10 k or so explosion was expected.

It could still be a bit early to celebrate. 1,100,000 lbs of TNT is still a pretty big firecracker. It's not a city killer, but it could lay waste to several dozen city blocks.

See, e.g., this weapons effects calculator.

Swiftboating Harry

Slate Magazine has managed to escape my wrath of late by sheer inconsequential irrelevance. No longer. By reposting this vicious slander by Chris Sullentrop, they have crossed the line. Sullentroll, who has now been promoted to the New York Times cabal of known deatheaters posted an article titled Harry Potter: Pampered jock, patsy, fraud.

Let's look at a few of the specific slanders:

Like most heroes, Harry Potter possesses the requisite Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.


What crap! Harry is indeed brave and loyal, indispensable qualities in a hero. He is as disobedient as Tom Sawyer, rather irreverent, and unremarkable in all the other BS virtues.
Why isn't the movie that comes out next week titled Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets? Why isn't its sequel dubbed Hermione Granger and the Prisoner of Azkaban? Why Harry? What makes him so special?

Simple: He's a glory hog who unfairly receives credit for the accomplishments of others and who skates through school by taking advantage of his inherited wealth and his establishment connections.

Another vicious and unmotivated slander. Like Frodo Baggins, Harry is not one who seeks greatness, but one who finds it thrust upon him. His courage and charisma do indeed attract others to him, others who prove very helpful to him, but in the most critical moments, he is the one whose courage and character are most directly on the line.

"Inherited wealth and establishment connections?" The kid is an orphan who grew up in the most demeaning circumstances. He is repeatedly persecuted by powerful forces of government. At least three of his teachers attempt to kill him, and two others single him out for special abuse.
Harry Potter is a fraud, and the cult that has risen around him is based on a lie. Potter's claim to fame, his central accomplishment in life, is surviving a curse placed on him as an infant by the evil wizard Voldemort. As a result, the wizarding world celebrates the young Harry as "The Boy Who Lived." It's a curiously passive accomplishment, akin to "The Boy Who Showed Up," or "The Boy Who Never Took a Sick Day."

By now this jerk is beginning to annoy me. Heroism is a matter of fate as well as character. If Harry had been what he is accused of being, he would have always taken the easy way, chosen Malfoy for friend and ally, and coasted through school until Voldemort got around to killing him. Harry is a winning character because he bravely undertakes difficult and dangerous deeds, faces his fate and battles relentlessly, despite suffering most of the other faults, weaknesses, and misjudgements of a typical adolescent.
Even Harry's greatest moment—his climactic face-off with Voldemort in Goblet of Fire—isn't much to crow about. Pure happenstance is the only reason Voldemort is unable to kill Harry: Both their magic wands were made with feathers from the same bird.

Another typically slimy slander. The linking of the wands did not save Harry, it gave him a chance to save himself. Sword stabbed, broken limbed, and tortured, Harry nevertheless found the courage and strength to fight and overcome the greatest and most terrible wizard of the age in the battle of wills for control of the linked wands.
Harry's one undisputed talent is his skill with a broom, which makes him one of the most successful Quidditch players in Hogwarts history. As Rowling puts it the first time Harry takes off on a broom, "in a rush of fierce joy he realized he'd found something he could do without being taught." Harry's talent is so natural as to be virtually involuntary. Admiring Harry for his flying skill is like admiring a cheetah for running fast. It's beautiful, but it's not an accomplishment.

Of course it is, though. Talent and beauty are admired. Shakespeare, Lance Armstrong, and Einstein are noted for their talent - and what they did with it. So it is with Harry. The books would indeed be boring if they resembled the story Sullentrop tells.

I might be tempted to turn him into a toad, but, quite obviously, he already is one.

Counting to Nine

North Korea made it official, testing their first nuclear weapon this morning. Once again the Bush policy of do-nothing braggadocio has laid a big egg. Josh Marshall calls it just right.

For the US this is a strategic failure of the first order.

The origins of the failure are ones anyone familiar with the last six years in this country will readily recognize: chest-thumping followed by failure followed by cover-up and denial. The same story as Iraq. Even the same story as Foley.

...

All diplomatic niceties aside, President Bush's idea was that the North Koreans would respond better to threats than Clinton's mix of carrots and sticks.

Then in the winter of 2002-3, as the US was preparing to invade Iraq, the North called Bush's bluff. And the president folded. Abjectly, utterly, even hilariously if the consequences weren't so grave and vast.

Threats are a potent force if you're willing to follow through on them. But he wasn't. The plutonium production plant, which had been shuttered since 1994, got unshuttered. And the bomb that exploded tonight was, if I understand this correctly, almost certainly the product of that plutonium uncorked almost four years ago.

...

The Bush-Cheney policy on North Korea was always what Fareed Zakaria once aptly called "a policy of cheap rhetoric and cheap shots." It failed. And after it failed President Bush couldn't come to grips with that failure and change course. He bounced irresolutely between the Powell and Cheney lines and basically ignored the whole problem hoping either that the problem would go away, that China would solve it for us and most of all that no one would notice.

Do you notice now?

I've left out a lot of the details, including Josh's look at the history of the problem, which is relevant for dealing with what has become Bush's strategy for excusing all his failures: Blame it on Clinton. As with so much else, including 9/11, this is utter bullshit - the panicky flounderings of a regime living in denial.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Standing Up and Standing Down: Reality's Day

We will stand down as Iraqi troops and police stand up has been a long time Bush Administration mantra. We have now reached the goal levels of Iraqi troops and police, but as Amy Scott Tyson notes in tomorrow's Washington Post U.S. Casualties in Iraq Rise Sharply.

The number of U.S troops wounded in Iraq has surged to its highest monthly level in nearly two years as American GIs fight block-by-block in Baghdad to try to check a spiral of sectarian violence that U.S. commanders warn could lead to civil war.

Last month, 776 U.S. troops were wounded in action in Iraq, the highest number since the military assault to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004, according to Defense Department data. It was the fourth-highest monthly total since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The sharp increase in American wounded -- with nearly 300 more in the first week of October -- is a grim measure of the degree to which the U.S. military has been thrust into the lead of the effort to stave off full-scale civil war in Iraq, military officials and experts say. Beyond Baghdad, Marines battling Sunni insurgents in Iraq's western province of Anbar last month also suffered their highest number of wounded in action since late 2004.

Once again, George Bush's insistence on substituting wishful thinking for logic has been exposed by the realities of a harsh world. This collection of dimwits knows nothing and has learned nothing. Once again, this is a catastrophe long predicted. Just as in Vietnam, as General Anthony Zinni predicted, our efforts to turn over responsibility for "our war" to the locals has merely armed local factions against each other.
Thousands of additional U.S. troops have been ordered to Baghdad since July to reinforce Iraqi soldiers and police who failed to halt -- or were in some cases complicit in -- a wave of hundreds of killings of Iraqi civilians by rival Sunni and Shiite groups.

U.S. commanders have appealed for weeks for 3,000 more Iraqi army troops to help secure Baghdad but as of Thursday had received only a few hundred, according to military officials in the Iraqi capital. Mistrust of Iraqi police in Baghdad remains high, Abizaid said. Last week, an Iraqi police brigade with hundreds of officers was removed from duty over its involvement in sectarian killings.

Once again, reality is having its day. Tens of thousands of American soldiers have now paid the price for an Administration too cowardly to admit error or correct its blunders. If Bush and Rumsfeld continue to refuse to budget or plan for the war they have blundered so badly, we can console ourselves that the Republicans do have the upside covered. Our Congress has appropriated a few tens of millions for the victory celebrations. That ought to buy a lot of "Mission Accomplished" banners.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

33 Percent

A new Newsweek poll shows that 33 percent of those polled still approve of the job George Bush is doing. My reaction: What in the hell are those people thinking?

Let's review. Recently we have learned that:

1) The Bushies had not one but at least three strong warnings that bin Laden was preparing an attack but ignored them - just as they later ignored the predicted destruction of New Orleans.

2) The consensus of all 16 US intelligence agencies is that Bush's war in Iraq has increased the strenth of anti-US terrorism.

3) Bush continues to lie about the situation in Iraq.

4) Republicans offer a lot of lip service to family values, but their true allegiance is to keeping power in the family, even it it means top House leaders have to conspire to keep secret the fact that one of their members is a sexual predator, preying on the House pages.

It boggles my mind, but it does remind me never to underestimate the human power of self-delusion.

Democrats are understandably encouraged, but any of them who expects this election to be a cakewalk has learned nothing from the past ten years experience with the power of the right-wing noise machine, money, incumbency, and computer tailored gerrymandering.

ST - The E-Channel Biography

E Channel biographies are highly formulaic: Young person, armed only with looks, charisma, indomitable spirit, and, sometimes, talent, overcomes formidable obstacles to become a star. As money and adulation come flooding in, the usual bogeymen show up to drill a little hole in the fairy tale castle wall: sex, drugs, and hubris - that pride by which the gods bring down those who look like potential competitors. The significant other splits. The fans get bored. Financial inflow drops while outflow mounts. As the crisis mounts, we can all see what is coming next: 30 or 40 consecutive commercials.

It's a bit of a stretch to say that String Theory has reached this point in its career, but tiny cracks in its public facade have widened. Peter Woit and Lee Smolin are hardly the first or most prestigious critics to go public. Philip Anderson, a long time critic, is one of the most important twentieth century physicists. Robert Laughlin, another condensed matter Nobel prizewinner has made his disapproval known. Roger Penrose has likewise been critical.

None of them has been as detailed and forceful as Peter and Lee in their respective booklength critiques, though, and none has resonated so much with the intellectually curious public. The reaction of the string elite has mainly consisted of hunkering down, apparently in the hope that if they ignore the critics, they will fade away.

In the best E-Channel tradition, this public attack has crowned string theory's own internal crisis over the problem of the vast landscape of apparent solutions, which itself threatens to destroy any predictivity of the theory.

So how will it all come out? If you can stay tuned through the commercials, either comeback or trajedy may await just around the corner.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Admiral of the Ocean Seas

Five hundred and fourteen years ago next Thursday, a sailor on one of Christopher Columbus's ships spotted the island of Hispaniola, thus initiating the European conquest of the New World. A man of somewhat uncertain origins, Columbus has been variously claimed by Genoa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Judaism. He was the greatest mariner of his age, a brilliant leader, an inspired (if deluded) navigator, brave, indefatigable and pius. He was also a monster.

In his generally admiring and occasionally adulatory biography, title as above, Samuel Eliot Morison notes Columbus's extermination of the native Taino Indians:

Those who fled to the mountains were hunted with hounds, and of those who escaped starvation and disease took toll, whilst thousands of the poor creatures in desperation took cassava poison to end their miseries. So the policy and acts of Columbus for which he and he alone was responsible began the depopulation of the terrestial paradise that was Hispaniola in 1492. Of the original natives, estimated by a modern ethonlogist at 300,000 in number, one third were killed off between 1494 and 1496. By 1508, an enumeration showed only 60,000 alive. Four years later that number was reduced by two thirds; and in 1548 Oveido doubted whether 500 Indians remained. Today the blood of the Tainos exists only mingled with the more docile African Negroes who were imported to do the work that they could not and would not perform.

The fate of this gentle and almost defenceless people offers a terrible example to Americans who fancy that they will be allowed to live in peace by people overseas who covet what they have.
(That last remark is perhaps more meaningful when you know that the copyright year is 1942.)

The monstrous policies that drove this extermination were motivated by the greed of Columbus and his royal sponsors for gold. This opening act of history's greatest genocide was done in the name of gold, God, and the Crown, and justified by piety. Three hundred thousand might not seem like many compared to the approximately thirty million whose death in Mexico was occasioned by the Spanish conquest, but it seems somehow worse. The Aztecs were even more bloodthirsty than the Spanish, after all, but they lacked their terrible weapons, of which by far the most destructive were Old World diseases.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Psstt! Hey Buddy!

Can I borrow ten bucks, just for today?

Yeah, I know, I borrowed ten yesterday, and the day before, and so on.

No, I won't pay you back tomorrow, but I will borrow another ten spot. Yeah and the next day too.

Oh yeah, I've got a wife and three kids, so could you make it $50?

That's what we borrow every day, America. Ten bucks each for every man, woman, and child. About $3 billion, total. More than a trillion a year that we borrow from the rest of the world.

I can't say that it makes me very optimistic about the future.

Even the Republicans are worried. That's why they are working so hard to steal enough to make it through the coming hard times.

String Theory and its Discontents

Burton Richter Takes a Shot at string theory in the October Physics Today.


To me, some of what passes for the most advanced theory in particle physics these days is not really science. When I found myself on a panel recently with three distinguished theorists, I could not resist the opportunity to discuss what I see as major problems in the philosophy behind theory, which seems to have gone off into a kind of metaphysical wonderland. Simply put, much of what currently passes as the most advanced theory looks to be more theological speculation, the development of models with no testable consequences, than it is the development of practical knowledge, the development of models with testable and falsifiable consequences (Karl Popper's definition of science). You don't need to be a practicing theorist to discuss what physics means, what it has been doing, and what it should be doing. ...

The last big advance in model building came a bit more than 30 years ago with the birth of the standard model. From the very beginning it, like all its predecessors, was an approximation that was expected to be superseded by a better one that would encompass new phenomena beyond the standard model's energy range of validity. Experiment has found things that are not accounted for in it—neutrino masses and mixing and dark matter, for example. However, the back-and-forth between experiment and theory that led to the standard model ended around 1980. Although many new directions were hypothesized, none turned out to have predicted consequences in the region accessible to experiments. That brings us to where we are today, looking for something new and playing with what appear to me to be empty concepts like naturalness, the anthropic principle, and the landscape.

Theory today
I have asked many theorists to define naturalness and received many variations on a central theme that I would put as follows: A constant that is smaller than it ought to be must be kept there by some sort of symmetry. If, for example, the Higgs mass is quadratically divergent, invent supersymmetry to make it only logarithmically divergent and to keep it small. The price of this invention is 124 new constants, which I always thought was too high a price to pay. Progress in physics almost always is made by simplification. In this case a conceptual nicety was accompanied by an explosion in arbitrary parameters. However, the conceptual nicety, matching every fermion with a boson to cancel troublesome divergences in the theory, was attractive to many. Experiment has forced the expected value of the mass of the lightest supersymmetric particle ever higher. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN will start taking data in 2008 and we will know in a couple of years if there is anything supersymmetric there. If nothing is found, the "natural" theory of supersymmetry will be gone.

(Via a comment in NEW).

Burton Richter is a Nobel Prize winner in physics and former director of SLAC.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Falsifiability and Predictivity

GLENDOWER I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

HOTSPUR Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?

.....................Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene I

If string theory turns out to be right, string theorists will turn out to be the greatest heroes in the history of science.

.....................The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

One of the knocks against string theory is the Popperian idea that a good scientific idea should be falsifiable - it should predict something new that can be tested by experiment. My favorite string theorist has a long post up about falsifiability in physics and string theory. I don't know much about string theory, but, unfortunately, one doesn't need to know much to know that a lot of what he says is crap. Some examples:
In all of its [string theory's] known formalisms, it has fixed Lagrangians and quantitatively accurate and rigorous formulae just like renormalizable quantum field theories. Again, it predicts various masses and cross sections.

One of his commenters asks about the mass predictions, and Lubos replies:
the spectrum of masses depends on the vacuum. For example, in all maximally-dimensional vacua of superstring theory at zero coupling, the spectrum of masses of closed string states is

sqrt(2n / alpha')

where "n" is an integer and alpha' is a characteristic dimensionful constant of string theory.
One small detail he omits. For n=0, all masses are zero. For n>0, all masses are Planck scale - 17 or so orders of magnitude larger than any known particle mass.

Another quote:
Although string theory predicts many new phenomena whose details are not uniquely known, it also implies that many old principles are exactly valid. If string theory is correct, the superposition principle of quantum mechanics, Lorentz invariance, unitarity, crossing symmetry, equivalence principle etc. are valid to much higher accuracy than the accuracy with which they have been tested as of 2006.

I suppose string theory can take some sort of credit for crossing symmetry, since it was the inspiration for string theory. All the others, except for one, are familiar components of twentieth century physics used in all physics. String theory implies them only in the trivial sense that a brick house implies bricks. The exception is the equivalence principle. Motl knows, or at least should know, that the scalar fields of string theory explicitly violate the equivalence principle. Witten has even suggested violations of the equivalence principle (if found) as potential evidence for string theory.

Lubos, and Barton Zwiebach, whom he cites, point out that string theory could be falsified by finding all of its solutions (somewhere between 10^350 and infinitely many) and showing that none of them replicated our world. The silliness of this notion has some merit as humor, but is irrelevant to science.

If string theory is to become part of real physics, it will need to start making some unambiguous predictions about the real world that can be tested, not just in the infinite imaginable future, but sometime soon. That day isn't here yet, and pitiful attempts to obscure that fact only invite ridicule.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Isn't it Ironic?

The right wing noise machine recently completed a far fetched and highly counterfactual attempt to blame 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Thus, there is a certain irony in the fact that Bob Woodward has revealed yet one more way that the Bush administration ignored a clear and urgent warning of a potential attack by bin Laden before 9/11. One of the most explosive claims in Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial is that then National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice was briefed by the head of the CIA and another key counterterrorism official on July 10, 2001, that bin Laden appeared to be planning a major attack, quite possibly on the United States itself. Condi issued a categorical denial, but was proved a liar by both witnesses and the paper trail almost immediately.
Rumsfeld, Ashcroft received warning of al Qaida attack before 9/11
By JONATHAN S. LANDAY, WARREN P. STROBEL and JOHN WALCOTT
McClatchy Newspapers
:

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Attorney General John Ashcroft received the same CIA briefing about an imminent al-Qaida strike on an American target that was given to the White House two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The State Department's disclosure Monday that the pair was briefed within a week after then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was told about the threat on July 10, 2001, raised new questions about what the Bush administration did in response, and about why so many officials have claimed they never received or don't remember the warning.

One official who helped to prepare the briefing, which included a PowerPoint presentation, described it as a "10 on a scale of 1 to 10" that "connected the dots" in earlier intelligence reports to present a stark warning that al-Qaida, which had already killed Americans in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and East Africa, was poised to strike again.

Former CIA Director George Tenet gave the independent Sept. 11, 2001, commission the same briefing on Jan. 28, 2004, but the commission made no mention of the warning in its 428-page final report. According to three former senior intelligence officials, Tenet testified to commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste and to Philip Zelikow, the panel's executive director and the principal author of its report, who's now Rice's top adviser.

A new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post alleges that Rice failed to take the July 2001 warning seriously when it was delivered at a White House meeting by Tenet, Cofer Black, then the agency's chief of top counterterrorism, and a third CIA official whose identity remains protected.

Zelikow, recall, is a longtime Rice buddy and currently her Counselor of State at the State Department.

For mysterious reasons, Ben-Veniste, a purported Democrat but Washington insider's insider, has never mentioned this and it did not appear in the 9/11 report.

The vast pit of Bushian incompetence, recklessness, and mendacity is seemingly unplumbable.

Guidance Counselor

So, a string theorist and a chessmaster were sitting in a bar. After a couple of drinks, conversation lagged, and the string theorist said:

"So how did you happen to get into your line of work?"

At that point they were interrupted, because a prostitute came over to offer her wares. The chessmaster demurred, since he didn't have any money, and the string theorist likewise declined since he already had all the physics groupie coeds he could handle.

Since the bar was empty, the hooker was in no hurry to wander off, and the chessmaster invited her to sit down. As soon as she did, he posed the string theorist's question to her.

She pouted, complained that everybody asked that, and then replied: "At first I did it because it was fun, then I did it because people said I was good at it and it was fun, then because I was good at it and they gave me money. Now I do it because I don't know how to do anything else."

The chess guy raised his class, clinked glasses with her, turned to the string man and said: "That's my story exactly. And you?"

The string theorist raised his glass.