Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Superstrings: a collective cognitive and mood disorder or just one job among others?

Before starting I want to emphasize that I have nothing against strings nor string theorists. Superconformal symmetries are extremely profound discovery and super-conformal symmetries - albeit generalized ones - are symmetries of also TGD Universe. TGD Universe is also filled by string like objects but with a concrete connection to the existing physics unlike superstrings. The fact however is that superstring models have failed as a physical theory since something very very essential - about which I have tried to tell in this blog - has been lacking. Despite this the hegemony is in full power still today. Why this continues to be the case has baffled me often and stimulated my non-professional attempts to understand superstring hegemony as a social phenomenon with no intent to insult any individual who happens to be part of this community.

When super string models became the only game in the town, I painfully experienced what it is me who seems to be the only person in his right mind in the town. When collective madness prevails, it is healthy persons which are taken to the mental asylum as we know from history, and also I was thrown outside the academic community. Of course, not all people working with string models are possessed by a collective mania or suffer from the aggressive non-communicative mood often assigned to people that many of us call crackpots. For many people involved, super strings are just a job and they do their best to keep their jobs. Unfortunately, this pragmatic attitude has contributed to the continuation of the collective mood disorder so that super string models have become a deep professional tragedy for very many who have devoted their best years for them. For a physicist looking this collective cognitive disorder as an outsider, the situation has been a continual cause of frustration since it is clear that a collective belief in a claim like "Our theory cannot predict anything but because it is the only possible theory, we must just accept this" will destroy theoretical physics as science. There are indeed good reasons to cross the fingers and hope that the superstring era of physics will be over some day and transforms to a fascinating research topic for sociologists, psychologists and many others interested in collective cognitive and mood disorders.

What it is to be a crackpot?

Superstring hegemony has more than often labeled its critics as crackpots with inferior intelligence. I have personally tried to avoid the use of this term - perhaps for the simple reason that it has been applied systematically to me and I know how insulting this characterization is. With the experienced pains in good memory, I start by asking what are the reasons why person is experienced as a crackpot.

Probably every scientists has met someone whom he would call a crackpot, with good or not so good justifications. Consider first the manner how this kind of person tries to communicate his idea. In old days, when I had a job in university, I sometimes met a person in a kind of manic, almost aggressive mood, and telling about his great idea to everyone. I have also received year after year in mail the same pile of pages with nothing new added. I am also familiar with not so friendly emails: the person might start by stating "your theory is false" but without any justifications, and continue by telling that because you are incompetent in this and this manner, you should stop working with your theory about which you have written eight books. He could also continue with a long list of great scientists whom he has proven to be totally wrong. After all this he regards it as obvious that you will start to read the attached file and make comments about it.

Usually this kind of theory contains some horrible elementary blunder already at the first page. You can try communicate this state of affairs in a polite tone or at least tell that this point I fail to understand, perhaps you should try to make this point clearer. Typically this kind of theory also fails to explain or predict anything. You could also try to suggest that he should perhaps use some time to learn certain basic facts about physics and mathematics in order to get additional perspective. All this is useless, your friend is unable to listen, and approaches with his pile of material some other target.

When crackpot label is used for political purposes and it certainly is (quite routinely by some bloggers of super string Empire), it only means that person has "wrong" idea, he does not believe in string theory for instance. To be wrong is not of course to be a crackpot in any reasonable sense. Trial and error is the most important and effective method of science and perhaps the most important teaching of this method is the realization how easy it is to be wrong: bold "is" transforms to a cautious "might be" and the list of pros becomes accompanied by a list of cons.

If there is something special in the brain circuits of a scientists able to make discoveries, it is the ability to invent objections against their own ideas, and give up the dead idea and rapidly re-organize to create a new one. I cannot avoid the temptation to draw a parallel with a creative jazz musician or with classical composers who were able to produce new highly original compositions one after another and sometimes even transcend the style of their own time. There is nothing wrong in being wrong but the situation changes if person repeats fanatically decade after decade same claims without any progress and without taking any notice of objections.

Can community behave like a crackpot?

One could probably add more items to the list above but it already makes possible the attempt to define what the notion of crackpot like state of mind could mean at collective level. Here super string hegemony comes unavoidably in mind as a school example (with no personal insults intended: the neurons of a person suffering mania are just ordinary friendly neurons trying to receive rewarding and avoid punishing transmitters). The 20 first years of superstring model was very much like a period of collective mania accompanied by euphoria, hallucinations mixed with the perceived reality, and reckless and megalomanic behaviors. Mania reached its peak when the archive was filled with e-prints about dualities and we were told that even mathematics itself reduces to M-theory.

Then came the response of string model skeptics and suddenly the euphoria was over. No new fantastic discoveries anymore. A painful journey towars Monday morning had begun. Physics ceased to be just trivial low energy phenomenology and not so rewarding attempts to build what is called super string phenomenology have begun. It is easy to sense that the mood has been rather depressive for several years. Even string bloggers can only rarely drive themselves to praise or even discuss the string e-prints of hep-th. There are of course still talk about the inability to predict anything as the greatest breakthrough in natural sciences since Newton but even these prophets seem to have difficulties in reaching the trance. Also the extremely aggressive tone of the hegemony against critics became familiar during the first years and the bloggers defending M-theory were ready to make even the rudest personal insults. Perhaps it is needless to mention that most of these behaviors are assigned also to those whom many of us call maniacs or crackpots.

The inability and unwillingness of the superstring hegemony to accept critics and communicate with people thinking differently brings also in mind the behaviors described above. When I was young, dissidents were allowed to speak during the last day of physics conferences. They could tell about their pet theories and most importantly, inform about the anomalies of existing theory. Dissidents have indeed very keen eye for anomalies and this is why science community needs them. Even people working in loop quantum gravity have failed to receive invitations to superstring conferences despite that there are quite many of them. I am afraid that the situation is same in all physics conferences nowadays which very effectively supports the often expressed belief that the only problem of standard model is that it has no problems. I am not the only one who has tried to patiently communicate to colleagues about the rich spectrum of anomalies in various branches of physics but found this useless. A further problem is that the people who might have been able to understand my own theory are just superstring theorists. Unfortunately, people like me simply have not simply existed for super string hegemony just like the person politely suggesting that the theory of crackpot might be wrong ceases to exist for a crackpot.

From the crackpot who has chosen you to receive his message, you get year after year the same thick pile of pages with nothing new added. As far as physics is considered, the same pattern repeats itself in the case of superstring models. The tragic blunder in this case case was the completely ad hoc introduction of the notion of spontaneous compactification inspired by the need to build a contact with physics and get also general relativity from the theory. This led to the landscape problem. As Peter Woit observed, also this blunder appeared already at the first page so to say: the problem was pointed out already 1986 by Ströminger, only two years after the first superstring revolution. Nothing new from the point of physics has emerged after that but the hegemony continues to tell that things are better than ever. Obvious failures of internal coherence are also a characteristic for the crackpot theories. In superstring models the division into believers on single unique vacuum emerging magically from nowhere and to those who see the inability of the theory to predict nothing as its greatest victory since Newton represents similar deep internal incoherence.

Madness and genius

It is often said that madness and genius are very near to each other. I believe that this is true. To be creative is to be maximally sensitive and able to change and thus near quantum critical point. I do not claim of being genius but I know that when I am working hardly and ideas flow, I am near the critical point of the cusp catastrophe having mania and depression at its two stable sheets. The ability to develop strong enough reflective level of consciousness telling when things are going too fast is what saves from the catastrophe. In the case of super string community this reflective level would be the dissidents which are not invited to super string conferences and are not allowed to publish in arXiv.org or in journals.

String model as a job among jobs

It would very naive to believe that all people working with string models are in the same mood as the crusaders. Even in crusades there must have been many people who did just business since also crusaders had to eat something and sleep somewhere. I cannot believe that people suggesting that LHC might produce time machines are really serious: more probably they have realized that they get their name and ideas into publicity since this can be marketed as a prediction of super string theory so that New Scientist catches it immediately. For these practical people superstrings are not the final truth, but a job with high status which they are paid for. As long as funding continues all is well. As pragmatic individuals they also know that they must do their best that the funding indeed continues since decade or two as super string theorist means that they are not able to jump to the next fashion. If super string theory is to retain its status as the only known theory of quantum gravity, someone must take care that no-one indeed knows about the competitors. This is achieved by preventing the publication of both alternative ideas and more mature works, both in electronic archives and in so called respected journals. Personally I gave up attempts to publish for more than decade ago.

The second important aspect of being a pragmatic string theorist relates to anomalies. Scientific dissidents do not allow us the luxury of forgetting that our theories are full of anomalies. This is good. Every theoretician having a working theory and with some bits of imagination starts to work like a mad if he learns about an anomaly about which he might be able to say something interesting. Provided that he has the working theory! If not, then it is only human to adopt the attitude of an older statesman, perhaps of an earlier young rebel who has matured during years to realize that the existing theory is probably correct and anomaly a fake. In a fatherly mood this older statesman allows to understand that those trying to and perhaps even able to explain anomalies are lighthearted, ignorant, and - you said it - crackpots.

In the case of super string models the role of an older statesman requires among other things that you become a defender of general theory of relativity as the final description of gravitation in planetary length scales since this is what the arguments about long length scale limit of super string theory predict. For instance, a non-relativistic anomaly in planetary gravitation would be something very non-welcome since it could mean the end of "superstrings as the only known theory of quantum gravity" mantra if the competing theory manages to explain this kind of anomaly. Even worse, it might mean end of also superstring theory itself.

This kind of anomalies have indeed been discovered by NASA and known as Pioneer anomaly and Flyby anomaly. Super string hegemony has not expressed much enthusiasm in the possibility that super string theory could be finally demonstrated to be wrong. I have proposed TGD based explanation for both of these anomalies and discussed a detailed model reproducing the empirical formula for Flyby anomaly in the previous posting. This is a definite victory of TGD but I am afraid that it is not possible to publish this. On basis of the past experience I can guess the justifications of the referees for rejection: "too speculative", "no other researcher refers to TGD", and so on.

I hope that this analysis has made it clear why I feel so important that the superstring era in physics would come to an end. Unfortunately, the entire community cannot go to a therapist and take its medications every morning so that the situation probably will prevail for many years to come.

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