Month: October 2006

Would String Theory Truly Realize Einstein’s Dream?

When I reviewed Peter Woit’s book “Not Even Wrong,” Several readers of this blog were puzzled by my claim that string theory does not attempt to reconcile Einstein’s theory of gravity and quantum theory. After all, isn’t string theory supposed to be realizing Einstein’s dream of unifying gravity with the other forces, into a final theory of everything, as Brian Greene, the Columbia University string theorist, reminds us in a New York Times op-ed article today? And if not, have the string theorists — and all those who popularize their work — been fooling the public all along? Here I will try to help correct the misconception, and also guess how it may have arisen.

Continue reading “Would String Theory Truly Realize Einstein’s Dream?”

A sciencewriter.org Exclusive: George Johnson on Science, Writing, and Science Writing

George Johnson
Read the complete Q&A with George Johnson

Science versus religion, science versus the postmodernist movement, and the joys and perils of writing about science and math are some of the topics I discussed with George Johnson, a New York Times science writer and the author of seven books.

The interview has lain in the vaults sciencewriter.org for more than two years, and is now published here for the first time. Some of the issues that came up in it, however, are just as critical now as they were back then. In particular, the issue of balancing story-telling and accuracy in science writing is being highlighted by the growing controversy on string theory (see my post on Peter Woit’s Anti-String Theory Book). As I will discuss in an upcoming post, the controversy is raising the question of whether the media have contributed to exaggerating the hype and underplaying the technical challenges that are still in the way of string theory’s success.

I also asked Johnson about his investigative work to uncover the fabrications that led the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to announce it had created of element 118 in 1999, a claim the lab retracted two years later. A different national lab, Lawrence Livermore, now says it has created element 118 together with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia.

Read the complete Q&A with George Johnson

Indomitable Reporters and Suspicious Science Writers

If you thought that covering the Iraq war was a dangerous beat, try test-driving Lamborghinis. In today’s New York Times, Jerry Garrrett approaches the new, 632 hp, 211 mph 2007 Murciélago LP640 conscious of the risks involved:

The motoring press has compiled a frightful record in its testing of Lamborghinis. A colleague at Car and Driver magazine crashed one a while back. A few years before that, at a media event on a European racetrack, a writer took off at full throttle and crashed in the first turn. He and his passenger were killed.

Already, members of the press have totaled at least two LP640’s, which only recently went on sale. Not surprisingly, Lamborghini has become ever more reluctant to turn journalists loose with its cars for solo test drives.

Garrett also has a pearl of a quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, “the great adventurer”: “You know you have achieved perfection in design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away.” How true that is of writing as well.

In the Washington Post, Charles Seife reviews a new biography of Nicolas Bourbaki, the great French mathematician who never existed. Seife points to serious indications of plagiarism, saying that much of the book’s contents appear to be lifted from various sources on the Web. I was seriously tempted to review this book myself, but maybe now I won’t.

Ok, occasionally I too get an urge to do what bloggers do, i.e., provide links to stuff they’ve seen on the Web. My original intention for this blog is still to present mostly original content. An upcoming redesign of sciencewriter.org will allow me to keep the two separate.

Correction: Brian Greene is a Hollywood Star

hollywood starClifford Johnson/Cosmic Variance

In my review of Peter Woit’s “Not Even Wrong”, I joked that string theorist Brian Greene once seemed poised for the leap to Hollywood stardom. But as nitin pointed out in a comment, Greene already is, technically, a Hollywood star. Clifford Johnson found out and wrote about it at Cosmic Variance. If you think his post is a hoax just because it appeared on April 1, check the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce‘s official Walk of Fame directory 🙂

Peter Woit’s Anti-String Theory Tirade

not even wrong
The cover is pretty cool

Until not long ago, it sounded like physicists had found the cure to all the universe’s ills, and possibly to the ills of other universes as well. String theory had taken us to new dimensions, unveiled the ultimate laws of nature, and inspired some way cool computer graphics. The telegenic string theorist Brian Greene had hosted a successful NOVA miniseries and seemed poised for the leap to Hollywood stardom. (Correction, Oct. 13: Brian Greene is a Hollywood star.) Michio Kaku, another string theorist, had nailed one book contract after another, writing with an increasingly science-fictiony tone. Quotes about the successes of string theory — purported by Kaku and others to be the established theory of everything and the ultimate truth about the laws of nature — were often going unchallenged by reporters.

The wind seems now to be changing. Even august publications such as Time and The Wall Street Journal have by now covered the supposed failure of the string theory dream.

Much of the media’s changed attitude may have been inspired by a single man. Through his influential blog Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit has been for the last two years on a zealous, single-minded pursuit to deconstruct the string theory hype.

Woit’s anti-string theory fervor is now packaged in book form under the same name, “Not Even Wrong.” The appearance last month of its U.S. edition (the book came out in Britain first) coincided with the publication of another skeptical book, Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics,” and virtually every publication on Earth has by now reviewed one or the other, or both. (I just got Smolin’s book and will soon review it, too.)

Woit, a lecturer in the math department at Columbia University, in New York, makes an elaborate and often excruciatingly technical case trying to demonstrate that, in reality, string theory never even had a chance to explain the ultimate laws of nature, and that the hype around it is in fact having deleterious consequences on science.

I found Woit’s message alarming but not entirely convincing, and “Not Even Wrong” left me with more questions than answers. Here I will try to airdrop some of my dilemmas into the blogosphere, to see if the ecosystem shows any reaction. Continue reading “Peter Woit’s Anti-String Theory Tirade”

A Baby Picture That’s Worth a Nobel

COBE CMB NASA

In the early 1990s, a NASA probe allowed us to see a new picture of the sky, one our eyes can’t see directly. It’s a picture of the early universe: an inside-out fireball that surrounds us in every direction we look. This year’s Physics Nobel Prize gave recognition to what Stephen Hawking has called the discovery of the (twentieth) century. George Smoot and John Mather will share the prize for their role in the NASA mission, called Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE.

I hate to brag, but COBE was my #1 prediction for this year’s prizes, as James R. points out in his blog, Physics Buzz. Well, actually James reminds me that I wasn’t bold enough to call it a prediction, so I called it a wish.

COBE’s map was later improved upon by a more advanced NASA mission called WMAP, which I wrote about earlier this year. Both COBE’s and WMAP’s pictures are what one would expect from the prevailing hypothesis on the big bang, called cosmic inflation.