Science Sundays with John Duffield: Crisis!

There’s been some feather-spitting outrage on the internet this week. It concerns a speech made last month by Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute. He was on-stage for about forty minutes welcoming a fresh intake of graduate students. He said theorists working on particle physics were in a state of confusion, and “to a large extent the theories have failed”. He said the extensions to the standard model were supposed to simplify matters, but made it more complicated. He explained that the number of parameters in the standard model is about 18, whilst supersymmetric theories have at least 120. He also said “string theory seems to predict 101000 different possible laws of physics, this is called the multiverse, and is the ultimate catastrophe”. He went on to say that theoretical physics has led to a crazy situation where theorists seem to have no definite predictions at all. And that there’s a fundamental crisis wherein “the lines of enquiry that have been pursued have sort-of self-destructed”.

You might be encouraged to dismiss this as motivational humour. Don’t. Neil Turok is not stupid, he knew his address would be online. As Paul Wells says, Turok was also addressing the international physics community. And he knew that some of them wouldn’t be too happy about it. For an example, see Luboš Motl’s blog. Motl said Turok’s speech was an anti-physics tirade, and that Turok was a deluded stupid idiot talking bullshit and nonsense. He also said Turok “is not only a crackpot physicist of a sort but a crackpot manager”. The comments are interesting too. Beg to differ and you’re an obnoxious troll spamming your deluded shit, maybe destined for Motl’s blacklist so you can’t comment further. That’s if your initial comment ever saw the light of day. Some bloggers like Motl aren’t just critical, which is their right. They’re underhand, and they’re downright nasty, bringing physics into disrepute. As if physics hasn’t got enough problems already.

I should qualify that by saying it’s particle physics or theoretical physics or “the HEP community” that’s got the problems. As Bobito commented on Peter Woit’s blog, there’s no crisis in other branches of physics such as condensed matter and optics. Au contraire, there’s impressive progress. But also on Woit’s blog you can see Imho commenting that some in the HEP community stubbornly refuse to acknowledge reality, whilst some of the saner minds are looking for new approaches. He also says “we should not expect a public mea culpa as that could harm all of science funding”. Because particle physics is what the public hears about most. If they think it hasn’t delivered they might push for funding cuts all round. It’s like particle physics is the flagship, and all the ships in the fleet are connected by thick steel hawsers. But the flagship is dead in the water, a dead weight that’s threatening to pull the other ships down one by one.

Turok’s talk was a shot across the bows, and I don’t think it’s come out of the blue. The Perimeter Institute owes its existence to Mike Lazaridis, who has donated $170m of his own money. Other Blackberry directors have donated big bucks too, as have Canadian public bodies. See the Perimeter website for details. Only now there’s a cold wind blowing. Blackberry is struggling, Lazaridis is no longer CEO, and the Canadian National Research Council have said they will only fund research that offers social or economic gain. So I can see where Turok is coming from. What rather puzzles me though is that he stressed the need for new concepts, and he’s the author of From Quantum to Cosmos. That’s a book about the history of physics, where there’s concepts galore. For example Maxwell unified the electric field and the magnetic field into the electromagnetic field, and referred to the screw nature of electromagnetism. But the standard model features the “photon field” and the “electron field”, which goes against the grain of Maxwell’s work. Einstein’s concept of fields as structures in space seems to go unheeded too, along with E=mc², the wave nature of matter, and Thomson and Tait’s dynamical vortex “knots”. Despite spinors, despite Dirac’s belt, despite the reference to tornados and hurricanes in Heady Collisions. Concepts from other branches of physics also seem to be missing. Baldomir and Hammond’s Geometry of Electromagnetic Systems is like the invisible man. It’s like topological quantum field theory never happened. It’s like Witten never talked about knots. It’s like the country of the blind.

It’s as if the other ships are flashing messages to the flagship, telling them how to make repairs and fix the pumps and get the ship under way. But the guys on the flagship just aren’t seeing those messages. Some of them even insist there’s no problem at all. They won’t accept that their vessel has been going nowhere for thirty years. They don’t appreciate that Joe Public is losing patience with smoke and mirrors and lack of relevance. They don’t notice that some of the other ships are cutting loose and edging away. They will not face the fact that their precious flagship is listing. The band’s still playing, but it could turn turtle, and it could go down. Especially since there could be a grand slam bomb on the way. Or an Exocet. Even one fired by one of the other ships. Something that some journal editor can’t shoot down. It might be an electron-mass paper coming in under the radar like a cruise missile with a nuclear warhead. Or a photon torpedo from an optical vortex group who are tying light in knots. It would only take one paper or one experiment and BOOM, the flagship erupts and is lost with all hands.

Yes, Turok gave an upbeat performance. He described the situation as an “opportunity”. But I fear he revealed his true concerns in the unscripted question-and-answer session at the end. He said 99.999% of what we do here is wrong”.  And I suspect that isn’t a surprise to the people involved in funding the Perimeter Institute. Or to the people jumping ship, because the Perimeter Institute is not entirely unique. I hope Turok can make a difference. He’s a guy who’s got the guts to step up to the plate and tell it how it is. He’s a guy who shoots from the hip, and he sounds like dinosaur hunter. And hopefully he’s a director who is allowed to direct. Our very own Toruk Makto. Save physics, save the planet. Because make no mistake, physics is at stake here. Science is at stake. The world is at stake. For want of a nail. For want of a Neil.


2 comments on “Science Sundays with John Duffield: Crisis!

  1. James Eadon
    September 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Good to see guys like Neil Turok calling bs on the Strings guys.

  2. duffieldjohn
    September 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    With Woit and Motl involved, I guess it sounds like “string wars” as per the title of Hamish Johnston’s physicsworld blog*. Maybe I contributed to that by referring to just a few salient points. But I’d say Turok was talking more widely about theoretical physics. See this quote:

    “There’ve been grand unified models, there’ve been super-symmetric models, super-string models, loop quantum-gravity models…Well, nature turns out to be simpler than all of these models.”


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