Two days ago, I stumbled across L’equation Bogdanov at the local bookstore in Grasse, France. That was a surprise, since that particular store is where I go to buy gifts or kids school books. It is generally not too strong on science books. That means that the book is intended for a rather wide distribution. Lubos Motl, writing an introductory book? About the Bogdanovs? That was sure to pique my curiosity!
Well, call me biased, but…
If you occasionally read my blog, you may know that I have reasons to not really like Motl too much, after he wrote a rather silly and inflamatory column about one of my posts. If you have some time, read my post, then Lubos’, and try to find any correlation between the two. For example, Lubos’ first point presents me as supporting the idea that “The goal of science is to wait for a “new Einstein” or a savior,” when my own text precisely criticizes Lee Smolin’s famous question Why is there no new Einstein. I’m still wondering how he could attribute me any of the ideas he seems to claim were mine in his ten bullets list…
The first pages of the book left me with the same kind of feeling, the feeling you get when looking at a picture from Salvador Dali, that some people care more about their interpretation of beauty than about mundane things like reality or truth. It sure makes for great art, impossible visions of what could almost be, stuff that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. But in science, I don’t think that it has as much value. I will illustrate this shortly.
Still, I refrained from writing this post immediately after reading the introduction (an ode to Lubos the Great that is in itself “worth its weight in peanuts”, as we say in French). Instead, I chose to remain focused and read the book to the end. Although, for the first time in years, I read a book while scribbling all over it with a pencil. Ultimately, reading it through was the right thing to do, as some parts of the book are not entirely worthless.
However, if you are interested in something else than Lubos’ passionate yet sterile debate about strings vs. the rest of the universe, I unfortunately have to recommend spending your 19€ elsewhere. And if Lubos’ point of view interests you, there isn’t much in the book that you won’t find on his blog. But since I realize I’m biased, I’ll try to support this opinion with facts. And I’ll try to keep these facts simple and verifiable, including by the “layman”.
There are some relatively good things in this book if you are willing to sift through mud. The mandatory review of physics history in chapter 2 is much less intertwined with the primary topic of the book than, say, in Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. But it has the redeeming quality that it shows the relationships between various physicists, illustrating “standing on the shoulders of giants” better than many other “histories of physics”.
Chapter 6, “The strange adventure of the Bogdanovs“, is probably the most interesting part in the book. It appeared slightly less surrealist than the rest of the work. It essentially argue that the Bogdanovs did not deserve the attacks they received, because even if their work is hard to follow (Lubos himself grants that he had trouble following it), their efforts seem a genuine attempt to contribute to physics rather than a malicious attempt to play some elaborate hoax on physicists. I’ll refer the reader to what has been written on the subject. The Bogdanov affair, as it is now called, is a complex case of the sociology of science, and tempers certainly flared more than they should have.
Anyway, this chapter is especially good coming from Lubos, as it illustrates that he can sometimes show some balance and moderation in his writings.
Unfortunately, these few nuggets are hard to find in a book that is, overall, mediocre, mostly because Lubos never seems to have decided who the target audience was. Is this an introductory book intended for laymen, as seems to be indicated by multiple footnotes like on page 61, explaining what a wave is, or a very vague explanation of what complex numbers are on page 156? Actually, Lubos himself calls his book the “100th vulgarization book on supergravity” on page 165…
But then, if it’s an introductory book, the order is all wrong for this target audience. Lubos talk about topics such as black holes entropy and horizons on page 55 and 56, and again about information loss in black holes on page 89, and at several other places. And then, on page 125, a footnote finally tells us what a black hole is. Huh? Ah but wait, there’s another such explanation on page 75! Confusing enough?
Similarly, Lie groups are introduced by a footnote on page 29 that finds it useful to illustrate this with “the Lorentz group SO(3,1)” and “SU(2)”… How can the layman have any idea what SO(3,1) or SU(2) might be? If at least there was a forward-reference to the page 165, where Lubos attempts to explain the importance of symmetries and Noether’s theorem, but nope… One last example: why explain complex numbers on page 156 if the introduction insists on “imaginary time measured by imaginary numbers” and the lack of total order on the complex plane on… page 14!?!
And if the book is for a wide audience, some topics are pretty advanced for someone who would not know what waves or complex number are. For instance, how can such a person feel about the argument given on page 102, that there’s a problem in LQG because spectra of surface operators are not gauge invariant? Seriously?
The book also does not do a very good job at explaining anything. I invite the interested readers to contrast Lubos’ explanation of the importance of correlated systems and (even if the name is not given) the EPR paradox on page 67 with that given by Brian Greene around pages 107-109 of “The Fabric of the Cosmos”, and you will understand what I mean.
So in general, the book does a very poor job addressing the layman. For someone with a little bit more knowledge, it’s irritating to see various comments that are either overly simplistic or just plain wrong. For instance, on page 157, another footnote argues that you need imaginary numbers to build a circuit breaker!
All too often, a moderately educated person like myself might expect to learn something, only to realize that he’s been fooled once more. For example, on page 156, there is a footnote on Hopf algebra, that doesn’t even begin to explain what they are, but basically tells us that Hopf played music with Einstein! Similarly, on page 103, the footnote about the hamiltonian constraint only vaguely tells us what the Hamiltonian is, but nothing about the constraint which seems to be the heart of the discussion. Fooled again!
And then, there are way too many plain errors. There’s one I can’t help but laugh about, because of Motl’s insistence on calling me a “French programmer” in his blog, apparently with the intent to ridicule my ability to say anything about physics. On page 103, in a discussion about separable and non-separable Hilbert spaces, Lubos states that a bit can hold 256 values. Well, “everyone” knows that a bit contains 2 values, usually represented as 0 and 1, and that it takes 8 bits to make a byte, which does indeed represent 28=256 values. But then, being able to work on computers is apparently a bad thing for Motl, who describes Peter Woit as being merely “in charge of computer systems” at Columbia University, on page 33…
That’s not the only such major error. On page 55, he writes that if you ever see a cup of cold coffee warm up while the table cools down, you can immediately call the French Academy of Science. Well, maybe I should, because that’s exactly what happens whenever the table is hotter than the coffee cup. I did not add the word “cold” before “coffee”, Lubos did, but I strongly suspect he intended to write “hot coffee”. On page 72, Lubos states that Einstein should in no way be held responsible for nuclear weapons. This is simply not true: Einstein’s letters were highly influential on the decision to develop the first A-bomb, irrespective of Einstein’s later regrets (he called this his “greatest mistake”). There is a mention of “the european GPS and Galileo” on page 77 (Galileo is the european GPS). On page 157, Lubos apparently attributes the invention of complex numbers to Hero of Alexandria, which is stretching the truth, to say the least.
This leaves the impression of a book that was barely proofread, an impression in stark contrast with the surprising self-promoting tidbit Lubos gives us on page 122, that for his greatest pleasure, he had reported 120 errors in a book by Joe Polchinski, who he essentially describes as a failed perfectionist. Instead of embarassing Polchinski, Lubos might have wanted to spend a little more time improving the quality of his own writings!
But the worst aspect of the book is, without a doubt, that it seems to be a barely disguised excuse to attack other physicists and indulge in more of the sterile debate that opposes Lubos Motl and people like Peter Woit or Lee Smolin. Living in France, I hoped I might have a chance to evade that dispute. Too bad. Most of chapter 4, for example, is dedicated to this. This would be legitimate if it was on topic. But it’s not, and Motl instead resorts to sneak tactics, name calling, all techniques that made him a persona non grata in so many places.
Let me put it this way: I like the Bogdanov brothers, not for their self-promotion or for their theories, but because I loved their TV shows. And I feel almost sorry for them that Lubos Motl used their names and pictures. With the Bogdanovs on the front cover, the book is almost guaranteed to sell at least a little in France, since the Bogdanov entertained so many of today’s adults back when they were kids.
But for what? A book in which Lubos Motl talks less about the Bogdanovs than about the alleged damage that Lee Smolin or Peter Woit made to physics, and why all these folks are (in Motl’s view) idiots. I mean: who cares? If a book was ever going to restore the scientific credit of the Bogdanovs, that’s certainly not it, and it’s too bad, because on that point, Lubos might be right. But if he wanted to support to the Bogdanovs, he would have been well inspired to focus on their work and very temporarily put aside his personal griefs, at least for the time it took him to write the book. But even that was apparently too much to ask!
Update: For the french readers who would be tempted to believe the arguments of Lubos Motl that loop quantum gravity is reintroducing aether, there’s an excellent answer to this very question from Prof. Rovelli (in French) in this conference. The question is asked from the audience at 1h08m15s into the video.
All kinds of invalid proofs
Another thing that I find particularly ugly is the vast collection of invalid techniques of proof Professor Lubos managed to accumulate in a single book. This is particularly annoying for someone who, to do his job well, is supposed to be capable of some seriously solid reasoning. But even the average “layman” is going to be annoyed by all the bogus arguments. Here are a few examples:
- On page 28, we have a pretty long proof by eminent authority, citing names like André Lichnerowicz (and, as if this was not enough, Élie Cartan and Sophus Lie) to give credit to the Bogdanovs. I do not dispute that having a guy like Lichnerowicz recommend the Bogdanovs to their advisor, Moshe Flato, is probably a good sign for them. But you have to remember that this is not enough, in particular in a French context where both Lichnerowicz and the Bogdanovs were celebrities. This reverence to names is spread throughout, including in the way he calls the everyday scale of things the “Planck-Einstein scale”, by averaging the “Planck scale” of very small things with the “Einstein scale” of very big stuff.
- On page 94, a proof by partial enumeration, namely that candidate theories fall into the theories that have not been proven and the theories that have been proven false. This eliminates the most important category, theories where people are still debating. And whether Lubos likes it or not, both string theory and the “atoms of space theories” (to use his bizarre terminology) fall into that category more than in others.
- On page 97, we have both a proof by mutual reference (since Lubos cites his own blog to make a point), and a good case of proof by vehement assertion (quoted directly from the blog, rather than translated back from French):
First of all, Lee reveals his intense hostility against all of modern physics, not just string theory. He believes that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some fundamental level and many people should try to prove it. He also believes that the attempts to falsify the theory of relativity are among the most important topics to work on.
This attack is all the more surprising because Motl himself writes on page 83, about general relativity: “the existence of infinities reminds us that we may not have learned our lesson well, and then suggests that either we asked the wrong question, or our theory is wrong. He then follows on to point similar problems in quantum mechanics. So how is that different from this bad attitude Lee Smolin allegedly has towards “modern physics“? Are the two guys in violent agreement here or what?
- On page 111, we have a proof by appeal to intuition, where we are supposed to believe that LQG is an invention, as opposed to a discovery, making the LQG researchers roughly comparable to a Thomas Edison, complete with a footnote about who Thomas Edison is, in case anybody on Earth doesn’t know! So… LQG is much like Thomas Edison’s inventions? Says who? Why? How?
These are only examples. Finding more is left as an exercise for the reader…
If this was not enough to completely bury that book, there is more, unfortunately. There are various statements in the book that cannot be mere errors, but can only be considered willful lies. The best illustration is a quote on page 151. In the context, the quote, from a referees, is clearly intended to give some credence to the Bogdanov’s idea that a topological field theory is just the thing to describe the early universe. Here is Lubos Motl’s version:
I can accept that in the limit of infinite temperature,
contact can be made with a topological phase of some field theory
Doesn’t this sound as if the guy agreed with the Bogdanovs? Well, fortunately, I have a relatively good memory, and even if the quote is in French in the book, I remembered reading that sentence, so it was just a matter of tracking it down. You can find the complete referee report, helpfully not provided by Lubos Motl, here. And here is the non-truncated version, which you probably would agree sounds much less supportive of the Bogdanovs:
(5) I can accept that in the limit of infinite temperature,
contact can be made with a topological phase of some field theory
(the type of field theory needs to be elaborated on however). The
crucial question, however, is how does the initial topological phase
break down to a universe we see today. It would be of great interest
if the authors’ could at least worry about this issue.
And the little things
Is there more? Well, I think that the rest goes without saying, knowing Motl. There are insults, for example on page 134, where Motl says that he spoke with Lee Smolin numerous times, and that they always had “interesting and peaceful discussions” (sic!), but that “each time we were getting close to the answer to a crucial question, his spirit evaporated in the clouds”. Uh oh! I picked up this one because I thought it was funny, but there are others.
There’s also a rather usual dose of self-promotion (and Lubos is in good company with the Bogdanovs here, if I may give a personal opinion). On page 105, Lubos calls himself a messiah. On page 134, he compares himself to Einstein, specifically referring to himself as another guy from the patent office. On page 143, he mentions the IQ of the “Zweistein”, which they allege is about 210, in a sentence where he presents himself as the new Max Planck. Literally, it reads: By the way, if you bought this book in the hope that a new Max Planck – me in that case – would present the two new Einsteins (the “Zweistein” if you will), well, too bad“. So much modesty in so little space!
Getting physics out of the hole
Let me finish this review on a slightly less negative note. On page 188, there is a nice long note about the right processes to follow to identify truly innovative ideas in physics. It’s actually not from Motl, he simply quotes Dr Osher Doctorow, but there are interesting things in there. One I found particularly interesting, is that true creativity is identified by looking at folks who do not just follow, but go one step ahead of the pack. OK, I realize it sounds obvious, but the point being made is really that it’s hard for the pack to judge those who are already ahead. This is one reason why I advocate a more “open-source” approach to peer reviews.
This question interests me. Readers of this blog, if there is any, may know that I have my own pet theory, and that even if I believe it’s dead simple compared to the kind of ideas the Bogdanovs are working on, I still seem to have an extraordinarily hard time getting the point across to any physicist. For example, if Lubos seems to have no problem with the idea that near the singularity, the description of space-time is entirely topological (i.e. there is no “distance”), or even that space-time reduces to “pure information”, whatever that means (page 25), or that there is a lower physical limit to distance (the Planck scale), he still insists that any theory where space-time is not continuous is absurd, for instance on page 102. In my experience, that kind of “historical” position is frequent among physicists.
I hold the exactly opposite view. If there is a minimum length in physics, and if all our physical measurements give results that are not even countable, but actually finite, don’t we need to build that into physics? Isn’t there a clear contradiction between “continuous” and “smallest physical distance”? In other words, if it’s truly a continuum, shouldn’t we be able to find a physical meaning for a distance of 10-250m? That question is essentially the foundation of my “theory“.
A non-local theory of creativity
But since I’m an outsider, I keep asking myself the question: do my ideas make sense, or am I just delusional. In other words, do I have problems getting the point across because I’m ahead of the pack, or because I’m lost in the woods? As Lubos points out, it’s easy to tell in retrospect, but when you are in the middle, it’s much harder. Related question: assuming my ideas do make sense, do I stand a chance of getting the point across someday? Lubos argues on pages 197 and 198 that being an outsider is not necessarily a bad thing. He also reminds us, on pages 177-179, that big guys like Einstein or Heisenberg, had to fight initially. Of course, it would be better if this call for an open-minded approach to physics was not so clearly contradicted by Lubos’ attitude…
Anyway, Lubos and I share at least two things: the same birthdate, and a desire to contribute something to physics. Of course, it’s obvious that just thinking you have something to say is not enough. To paraphrase the Calvin cartoon characters, “You know Einstein had bad grades in math? Well, mine are even worse!” So it’s entirely possible, and not even improbable, that my ideas about physics are simply bogus. However, for the moment, I’m still waiting for any solid rebuttal of what I already wrote. From what I can tell, it looks more like I’m in the “nobody cares” category rather than in the “patently idiotic” category. Ah, delusion… That’s what keeps me alive.
Actually, another thing that gives me hope is that, in my own field, I think it is fair to say that I have shown some creativity, both when I was young and more recently. Maybe, just maybe, having shown some creativity in one field means you might be able to show the same creativity at another place. And if I have beaten someone like John Carmack in the race to the first 3D videogame, maybe I can beat someone like Lubos Motl in the race to the next big idea in physics…
The KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)
But the key thing in my ideas which, I think, is in sharp contrast with Lubos’ approach to physics, the key thing that differentiates the Salvador Dali school of physics in which Lubos excels from the Thomas Edison school of physics that I’d much rather belong to, it’s the clarity of the questions and answers.
As Einstein once said: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. A good test is: do your questions and answers make sense to the layman? Einstein or Feynman were really good at that game. It’s a point I already made earlier on this blog. In the present case, I think it strongly speaks in my favor:
- Lubos asks questions like “can the signature of the metric fluctuate around the Planck scale”, or “are homology cycles in the moduli space of gravitational instantons the right way to represent observables at the beginning of the universe”. He answers things like: “who can say this won’t be the right answer in 2030” (page 144), and he calls that “research”. I’m really tempted to call that a proof by obfuscation.
- At least from my own biased point of view, my own questions seem much simpler. Things like: “why would an invert square law like gravitation or electromagnetism remain an inverse square law when we change the definition of distance” (specifically, from measuring it with solid rods to measuring it with light waves). And my answer is: “because we calibrate the two definitions to match”, which raises another question: “does that calibration hold for all values, at all scales”. No part of these questions or answers is something that the laymen can’t understand. I’m not trying to obscure things behind layers and layers of jargon.
Now, I believe that my questions and answers may hold a key to putting physics back in shape in the coming century. And I believe that Lubos’ questions and answers only confuse things a little further. Again, that’s the difference between the Salvator Dali and the Thomas Edison schools of physics. Of course, I may be wrong, but I’m afraid you’ll have to prove it.