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Physics in trouble December 4, 2006

Posted by dorigo in Blogroll, books, food, news, personal, physics, science, social life, travel.

Last Saturday, upon arriving in Chicago, I went downtown and spent a couple of hours at the Borders of Michigan Avenue. Time really flies there… In the end, I bought two books, one by Raymond Kurzweil (“The singularity is near”) and another by Lee Smolin (“The trouble with Physics”).

I will post about my impressions on Kurzweil’s book later. I rather started reading Smolin’s book, which has been at the center of a heated debate lately, together with Peter Woit’s “Not even wrong”. For details, a good site to visit is Peter’s blog, http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog/.

I only read a chapter and browsed carelessly through the rest, but I can already say I find Smolin’s “Trouble with Physics” a very pleasant reading and a well-written account of the situation fundamental physics has been facing in the last thirty years. The book has no formulas whatsoever, and I am sure outsiders will find it just as good a reading as insiders.

Which brings me to my thought of the day. The fact that people like me ends up reading about the status of theoretical particle physics in a divulgative book rather than in scientific journals is kind of depressing. I am no theorist, but I did study physics for ten years. A laurea, a PhD, several schools, plus 15 years of experience as an experimentalist. Notwithstanding all of the above, the level of theoretical discussions in most of today’s scientific papers is way above my head, and I have to settle on material such as Smolin’s or Woit’s book to know what is going on in theoretical physics.

Sure, I do follow theory seminars in my Physics department now and then (more then than now). But most of the times things get too complicated after the first 20 minutes. This is frustrating and is a side-effect of the complexities into which theoretical particle physics has spiraled in the last years of unbound speculation.

By the way, in the evening I visited the “Cafe’ Iberico” on La Salle Avenue with Giorgio and Simone (the new Ph.D. student for CDF in Padova, who took the picture below). The tapas were as good as ever… I only advise to get there early (as we did – we were all jetlagged and hungry) or an hour wait is quite normal on Saturdays… 



1. J - December 4, 2006

It’s all way beyond me but I find it interesting that theories that can’t be tested are so prominent in what was once the quintessential hard science. I can imagine the allure such theories must possess for the handful of folks on the planet that can grasp them. Nevertheless, since they can’t be tested, spending time and resources on them would seem to be, at best, mental masturbation.

2. dorigo - December 4, 2006

Hi J,

indeed, the capital m in M-theory has been thought to have that very meaning. Maybe it should be dubbed “MM-theory”.

Spending time on it is ok, if it is not mine. Spending resources is also ok, if it is commensurate to the promises, the intermediate results, and the testable predictions the theory makes. Promises are huge, intermediate results null, and testable predictions non-existent. You can draw your own conclusions…


3. Alejandro Rivero - December 4, 2006

-Any questions?
– (silence)
-Well I will do a question/remark myself… blah blah blah, does it?
-Hmm, indeed could be or could be not
-More questions, or remarks?
– (silence)
-Well, lets thank the speaker again
– (applause)

4. Jacques Distler - December 4, 2006

Notwithstanding all of the above, the level of theoretical discussions in most of today’s scientific papers is way above my head

Is there a date, before which you found the typical high energy theory paper comprehensible?

I ask, because I expect to find the average condensed matter theory paper, or the average paper on astro-ph or on the math arXivs to be a very tough slog. Certainly, the further one is out of graduate school, the less likely it is that the stuff one learned in grad school will suffice to be able to follow a paper in field X.

In one’s particular subfield, one is continuously in a position of learning new stuff. But in some other subfield? Not unless one makes an ongoing effort to keep up.

5. dorigo - December 4, 2006

Well Jacques, I think you are right – in a way, the forefront of theoretical physics has always been tough. But the amount of specialization one needs these days to grasp even a small part of the typical paper – the abstract and its implications, say – has, I think, grown considerably with respect to the past.

You are also right on the need for a continuing effort if one wants to be able to touch the ball in today’s game. And I am an old dog who fails to learn new tricks…


PS how are my 750$ doing ? 😉

6. dorigo - December 4, 2006

Lol Alejandro, I hope _your_ seminars get a better audience 🙂


7. Thomas Larsson - December 5, 2006

Maybe it should be dubbed “MM-theory”.

From the introduction of hep-th/0102159:
“modified (or massive) M-theory which we call MM-theory.”

8. Alejandro Rivero - December 5, 2006

I have given two or three seminars in ten years. The first one in Marseilles in 1995 was actually about some topic in my thesis work, the audience being 5 persons, down to two at the end. So I guessed I was not a bussiness I was good at. I gave another last year, by request, on Koide’s formula, and it seems I got it to be funny enough. But most of the seminars I attend have an ending similar to the one above in comment #3 😦

9. dorigo - December 6, 2006

There you go, Thomas!

Alejandro, I am a bit more surprised of your lack of activity as a speaker in university seminars, than on the lack of questions 😉

I know, it is kind of frustrating to spend time to prepare a nice seminar and get little attendence. Pretty much like writing good stuff in a blog and counting hits with one’s fingers…. I guess these are the rules of the game: theoretical physics does not attracts big crowds. It is not for crowds in extasy that you chose to be a theoretical physicist, however, right ?… Right ??? 🙂


10. Davide Vadacchino - March 1, 2007

I am an italian theoretical physicist wannabe ( maybe graduating in july ) and i’m being scared by what you are saying here 🙂

I understand that a very specific paper might be hard to read by someone who’s not “in the field” but i always guessed that theoretical papers should be written to be readable by experimentalists because no one but the experimentalists are going to prove a theory right or wrong.

If my guess is right, then i think there is a problem 🙂

Is that thought a sign of my twisted mind?


11. dorigo - March 1, 2007

Hi Davide, welcome here and best wishes for your graduation!

I think your reasoning is correct – although theory has its own means to get in the experimentalists’ way even if they do not read the theory papers 😉

So your mind might still be twisted, but it does not show up particularly because of the above comment 🙂


12. dianesummers - July 31, 2008

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