A little experiment

In a New York Times column that exemplifies the highest instincts of science journalism, Dennis Overbye writes about two physicists’ idea that creating a Higgs boson is so abhorrent to the universe that backwards-in-time causal influences have conspired to prevent humans from seeing one—first by causing Congress to cancel the Superconducting Supercollider in 1993, and more recently by causing the faulty electrical connections that have delayed the startup of the LHC.  (For reactions, see pretty much any science blog.  Peter Woit writes that, with the exception of a defense by Sean Carroll, “pretty much all of [the blog chatter] has been unremittingly hostile, when not convinced that these papers must be some sort of joke.”)

One of the originators of the theory, Holger Bech Nielsen, sounded familiar, so I looked him up.  It turns out I once heard him lecture about a plan to predict the specific masses and coupling constants of the Standard Model, by starting from the assumption that the laws of physics were “chosen randomly” (from which distribution was never exactly clear).  It struck me at the time that we had a shnood among shnoods here, a leader in the field of aggressively-wrong physics.

However, I didn’t know at the time about Nielsen and his collaborator Masao Ninomiya’s universe-conspiring-to-stop-the-LHC proposal.  Mulling over the new theory, I realized that it has the ring of truth about it.  Specifically, assuming (as I do) that Nielsen and Nanomiya are correct, their theory can explain an bigger deeper mystery than why we haven’t yet seen a Higgs boson: namely, why haven’t I blogged for a month?  Why, when there’s plenty to blog about … when I just spent two weeks at the Kavli Institute in Santa Barbara for their special semester on quantum computing, when I’m now at Schloss Dagstuhl, Germany, for an exciting, lower-bound-packed workshop on algebraic methods in computational complexity?

Clearly, the universe itself must have decided last month that this blog was so abhorrent to it, it would employ quantum postselection effects to force me to procrastinate whenever I would otherwise have posted something.  An obvious corollary is that, if I do manage to post something nevertheless, it will bring about the immediate end of the universe.

The beautiful thing about science is that theories of this kind can be tested by observation.  So:

3 …

2 …

1 …

40 Responses to “A little experiment”

  1. Vladimir Levin Says:

    Argh! I’d better just kill myself first before the Lovecraftian horrors emerge to do unspeakable things to us all!

  2. Dave Bacon Says:

    Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. I side with those who favor signals from the future.

    “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when,
    But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.” la la la

  3. Arkady Says:

    The idea is not that new. See the 1970s sci-fi novel За миллиард лет до конца света (“Definitely Maybe”) by Russian writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definitely_Maybe_(novel)

  4. MattF Says:

    Speaking of not-a-joke messages from teh future:

    http://www.slowpokecomics.com/strips/terminatrix.html

  5. Steve Says:

    3. Too many real things were happening for you to blog about one thing, and because you couldn’t blog about a single thing you also found yourself unable to blog about multiple things, and so had to blog about nothing.

    2. You were in the process of writing “Computational Complexity for Dummies”.

    1. You were waiting for me to design and construct picket signs, pay the vagrants outside this building to hold them and march in circles to protest your failure to post more gold to Shtetl-Optimize, photograph the demonstration, and post said photo to this blog.

    If so, you blinked first.

  6. John Preskill Says:

    Holger Nielsen is an unusual physicist who sometimes proposes highly speculative ideas. I won’t defend the Nielsen-Ninomiya papers that were the basis of Dennis Overbye’s article in the New York Times, because I have not read them. But on the basis of some of his earlier work that I know, I do not regard Nielsen as a shnood among shnoods.

    The idea of explaining the standard model starting from random dynamics has not been fruitful, but it is not foolish and I find it kind of interesting. The 1981 Nielsen-Ninomiya paper on the topological obstruction to putting chiral fermions on a lattice was seminal, and it had a big influence on my own research in the early 1980s. The 1973 Nielsen-Olesen paper concerning vortex solutions in the Abelian Higgs model is a classic.

    I’m not trying to rebut what you said about the Nilesen-Ninomiya LHC papers; I’m just saying that even if Nielsen is sometimes a shnood, the record indicates that he is capable of doing serious science that deserves our attention.

  7. Vladimir Levin Says:

    @John Preskill, I guess he may have become more of a literate crank than a schnood or a schmuck. :D

  8. Scott Says:

    John, I can certainly believe that Nielsen did seminal work in the 70s and 80s—that would explain why you and Sean, two of the most trustworthy people in the entire universe, take his ideas seriously. And maybe he continues to do great work today. All I can say with confidence is that, when he gave the specific talk that I attended, he was shnooding on all cylinders.

    One of the main ideas, as I remember, was that the geometry of spacetime should literally be a random graph. Someone pointed out that a random graph looks nothing at all like a 4-manifold; it’s an expander (though being physicists, they didn’t use that term). Apparently Nielsen hadn’t considered that in 25 years or something of giving talks about this idea. I repeatedly whispered to the physicists next to me (who’d known Nielsen for decades) to ask for clarifications; I assumed I was misunderstanding something, since the proposal couldn’t possibly be that unhinged. They told me that it was worse than I thought.

  9. Shahab Says:

    How dare you do such potentially destructive experiments? What if your theory was right? ;)

  10. Sim Says:

    Relax Scott, it’s not what you think. Of course Nielsen don’t give this story a shit. It’s just a smoke screen.

    To mask what? To mask he found the Higgs of course! He just wants him alone to teach him some manners.

    http://abstrusegoose.com/118

  11. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It’s an interesting, if sometimes only for negative reasons, to look at mathematicians and scientists who have adopted radical world views. One notable example is the mathematician Craige Schensted. He independently discovered the influential Robinson-Schensted algorithm to define and compute the “shape” of a word or a permutation, and to fill a tableau with that shape.

    In the 1990s, Schensted changed his name to Ea Ea. As it says on his home page, “better to dance naked in the sun than to hide silent in the shadows”.

  12. Barbara Terhal Says:

    Well, I think the interesting question here is to what extent H.B. Nielsen’s current work is an extreme aberration of approaches in theoretical physics to understand the high-energy world (that is “he is gone off the deep-end”) or alternatively, his ideas constitute a somewhat faraway point on a continuum line of ideas in theoretical high-energy physics.

    Modern theoretical physics runs the risk of combining the worst of two worlds; being physics it values explanative power, speculation and leaves the door open for non-rigorous arguments. Being theoretical-mathematical, it may lack ties to experimental data and become a world by itself.

  13. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It isn’t fair to interpret Nielsen’s fatuous “theory” of the LHC’s problems as any typical failing of theoretical physics. Nor as a faraway point of theoretical physics. If you pick a widely cited paper in hep-th or hep-ph at random, then usually it really accomplishes something. Good work in theoretical physics is typically supported by consistency checks, or by experiments, or extended calculations, or explicit mathematical rigor.

    It is true that unaccountable proposals are a professional hazard of theoretical physics. (This is not a new thing.) Since a theory paper doesn’t strictly have to be rigorous and doesn’t strictly have to be tied to experiment, it doesn’t strictly have to be about anything. But every discipline has professional hazards, just different ones. Moreover, this Nielsen paper is beyond the pale.

    I have to view this New York Times article as a minor insult to the profession. Of all the things that they could have written about, they chose to write about this. Plausibly Overbye is off the hook if he was played by Nielsen. Or plausibly Nielsen is off the hook if Overbye cynically granted him publicity. Somehow between the two of them, it’s their fault.

    We’ve been here before. In 2002, the New York Times devoted an exclusive spread to Wolfram’s silly book. That same month, they completely ignored the Beijing ICM. (That is, the national edition did. The New Jersey edition had a short announcement that a local prof had won the Fields Medal.) They had had articles about new Fields Medalists at times in the past, but until the Madrid ICM in 2006, that had fallen by the wayside.

  14. rrtucci Says:

    I totally agree with Greg’s last statement. I blame Overbye most of all for this affair. I think he is a jerk. He is generating and influencing the news rather than reporting it—a capital sin in journalism. He picks an insignificant story and makes a big deal out of it, when there are so many more worthy science stories to tell.

  15. rrtucci Says:

    Slim Aaronson, I think we should deputize a posse and try to head Overbye at the pass. If wee’s lucky, we can lynch him before sunrise

  16. John Sidles Says:

    The prologue and epilogue of The Emperor’s New Mind together give Penrose’s view (p. 583):

    The ripples of laughter across the room burst into a roar. Adam felt acutely embarrassed. Whatever they should have done, they should not have laughed …

  17. Jon Tyson Says:

    Honestly, after the Jayson Blair scandal I can’t take the NY Times seriously anymore.

  18. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Honestly, after the Jayson Blair scandal I can’t take the NY Times seriously anymore.

    On the other, this reasoning is a bit of stray conservative propaganda. The New York Times has more than 1000 newsroom employees; it is about the same size as a university. In 2003, one reporter was caught fabricating stories. In response, he was fired, his boss was fired, and his boss’s boss (the chief editor of the entire paper) was fired. What more could they have done to clean house than that?

    It is rather worse when a news organization defiantly keeps going and going with a blatantly dishonest journalist or commentator. For instance a Bill O’Reilly.

    Even if the New York Times had anyone as irresponsible as Bill O’Reilly, which they don’t, it wouldn’t make sense to throw out the entire newspaper. It’s likewise illogical to say “I can’t take Berkeley seriously because they have John Yoo;” or “I can’t take CU Denver seriously because they have Ward Churchill.”

    For that matter, Dennis Overbye, who is the target of this post, has written many fine articles for the Science Times. He sometimes shows bad judgement with high-energy theory and with mathematics, but even in those topics, only sometimes.

  19. Niladri Says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holger_Bech_Nielsen
    Holger Bech Nielsen has made original contributions to theoretical particle physics specifically in the field of string theory. Independently of Nambu and Susskind, he was the first to propose that the Veneziano model was actually a theory of strings and this is why he is considered among the fathers of string theory. He was awarded the highly esteemed Humboldt Prize in 2001 for his scientific research. Several physics concepts are named after him, e.g. Nielsen-Olesen Vortex and the Nielsen-Ninomiya no-go theorem for representing chiral fermions on the lattice.
    In the original Dual-Models, which later would be recognized as the origins of String Theory, the Koba-Nielsen variables are also named after him and his collaborator Ziro Koba.

  20. Jon Tyson Says:

    Jayson Blair was fired only after being promoted repeatedly, and after a whole bunch of reporters had to threaten to resign. My problem is not with only one errant reporter, it’s with the fact that the senior management cared more about number of articles written than about veracity, at least until faced with the prospect of a massive walkout.

    At a reputable newspaper he would have been fired without a rebellion from below.

  21. ScentOfViolets Says:

    The idea seems very silly, I agree. But . . . isn’t the experiment being proposed rather cheap? It’s hard to tell from the NYT article, but it leaves me with the impression that it can be done for less than $10K. It’s one thing when a crackpot pushes a notion that can only be disproved with an $80 million experiment – a feature, not a bug for the crackpot btw – and quite another for a theory that can be disproved for under $10,000. Heck, at that level of funding, just put out a tip jar for donations by all the coffee machines at CERN. Put up a website asking for increments of just one dollar. We have fraternities at our school who can come up with that kind of moolah over the weekend with a charity benefit auction.

    And weren’t we, every one of us, taught as canon that data trumps theory, every time? Run the damn experiment and then see if any elaborate explanations for it’s failure appear. The resulting brouha ought to be worth the $10K, easy. Or – queue the organ music – Something Else might happen. Either way, the show is worth the price of admission.

  22. ScentOfViolets Says:

    For that matter, Dennis Overbye, who is the target of this post, has written many fine articles for the Science Times. He sometimes shows bad judgement with high-energy theory and with mathematics, but even in those topics, only sometimes.

    I suspect that this is the reason why physics is still King in the public’s eye. You just don’t get those End of the World ledes with, say, geology, as you do with physics, or sometimes biology. I can very easily see a situation where people like Overbye are given a quota by their higher-ups on a certain type of story that is calculated to grab the public’s fancy. Einstein Wrong! is another popular type(we do like our heroes to have feet of clay after the monuments erected in their honor have been up for a few decades), hence all the ‘faster than light’ misinformation that is regularly published by respected news organizations. Then there is the ‘look, the silly wankers got no common sense’ sort of piece, like the Boltzmann Brain nonsense that the NYT did a while back, wherein the public can congratulate itself for not falling that sort of obvious claptrap.

    Iow, there is more to science reporting than just straight science reporting. Whether or not this is a good thing is a different story :-)

  23. Jon Tyson Says:

    Oops. Correction. I looked back at the news articles about Jayson Blair and didn’t find (as I remembered) that he was fired after the other reporters rebelled.

    I did find that he was promoted repeatedly despite inaccurate reporting. Furthermore he made it to the national desk despite a previous plea by Landman, his former editor, to “stop Jayson from writing for the Times.”

    See

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/11/national/11PAPE.html?ex=1367985600&en=d6f511319c259463&ei=5007&partner=USERLAND

  24. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I did find that he was promoted repeatedly despite inaccurate reporting. Furthermore he made it to the national desk despite a previous plea by Landman, his former editor, to “stop Jayson from writing for the Times.”

    That’s all true. What you’re missing is, first, errors are not remotely the same as fraud. Yes, inaccuracies are also a bad thing, but they are not in the same category. It is equally true in physics: Inaccurate results are not a scandal; fraudulent results are a scandal.

    Second, and more importantly, you’re missing that this is a main reason that Blair’s boss, Gerald Boyd, and Boyd’s boss, Howell Raines, were both fired. Landman still works for the paper. They both showed poor judgment with Jayson Blair, and that’s one of the reasons that the rank-and-file journalists were angry.

    What I think you’re remembering is that there was a newsroom rebellion to get rid of Raines, not Blair. It was perfectly obvious to Raines and Boyd that Blair had to be fired, but for other reasons as well, the rank and file thought that Raines was a heavy-handed manager.

    So if you’re still dismissing the Times for all of this, you’re blaming the side that agreed with you all along. You’re also blaming people who had nothing to do with it. Should I tell you that I don’t take papers from Harvard seriously, on the argument that the promotion of people like Professor John Mack proved that Harvard is mismanaged?

  25. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I can very easily see a situation where people like Overbye are given a quota by their higher-ups

    Actually, I’ve heard that Overbye is a senior correspondent who enjoys a fair degree of journalistic independence.

    It’s tempting to criticize the Times (or any institution) as the big bad corporation, but in some ways it functions a lot like a liberal arts college. Instructors at a college teach classes that range from strictly assigned syllabi to substantial academic freedom. Similarly, journalists at the Times are on a continuum from assigned stories to substantial journalistic freedom.

    On that note, it is not true that some stuffed shirts cared more about quantity than quality from Jayson Blair. No, Raines and Boyd liked Blair for two reasons: First, his stories were flashy and fast; and second, he was an affirmative action candidate. If anything, the rebellion against them was conservative; other journalists felt that Raines had played too much Calvinball.

  26. ScentOfViolets Says:

    I can very easily see a situation where people like Overbye are given a quota by their higher-ups

    Actually, I’ve heard that Overbye is a senior correspondent who enjoys a fair degree of journalistic independence.

    I don’t see why these two statements have to be in conflict or why they are in this particular instance.

  27. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I don’t see why these two statements have to be in conflict or why they are in this particular instance.

    I very much doubt that Overbye was given any quota by any higher-ups. I think that he wanted to write this story. Of course, journalists are generally expected to grab the public’s fancy, but with seniority they have a lot of discretion for how to do that.

  28. Bilal Shaw Says:

    Scott I know why you haven’t been able to blog for a month. A month from now you will discovered this amazing colossal truth that if revealed will destroy the universe and so the latter is conspiring you from writing your blog, and hence all the travel, conferences etc.

  29. Anon E. Mouse Says:

    Off topic, but awesome nonetheless. You made Engadget, Scott! You may not have been blogging, but the blogosphere has deemed you an “attention-getter”.

    http://www.engadget.com/2009/10/20/physicists-calculate-the-end-of-moores-law-clearly-dont-belie/

  30. David Moles Says:

    See also Larry Niven’s “Rotating Cylinders and the Possibility of Global Causality Violation” (based I believe on a paper of the same name by Frank Tipler), in which any civilization that comes close to creating a working time machine is destroyed by natural causes.

  31. matt Says:

    I was discussing this with some physicists recently, and the topic of computing by postselection came up (i.e., killing yourself if you don’t randomly pick the right answer). I had to explain that a computer scientist is the kind of person who thinks that this idea is crazy, not because it actually is crazy, but simply because postBQP is too powerful of a complexity class to be reasonable. Is that an accurate characterization of the CS philosophy?

  32. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Is that an accurate characterization of the CS philosophy?

    Yes and no. I have a paper that uses Scott’s results on PostBQP. My philosophy is that extinction is a perfectly intuitive way to motivate, remember, or explain PostBQP, but that you shouldn’t confuse exposition with results. PostBQP is a rigorously defined and useful complexity class. Like many complexity classes, it is not meant to be a realistic class, or perhaps only realistic in some very weak sense. That’s pretty obvious from the motivation.

    So a word like “crazy” is too melodramatic. That said, sometimes a definition defies its intentions — is it possible that PostBQP is realistic even though that wasn’t intended? Then it is relevant that PostBQP = PP, which is indeed too big to be reasonable.

    By the way, the definition of PostBQP (and PostBPP) is not exactly that you ask for a retry if you don’t randomly pick the right answer. Rather, after making random choices, you can ask for a retry if you feel stupid, and you can pick any tractable criterion you like for that.

  33. Job Says:

    There are times when i too think the universe is purposedly getting in the way – times when everything goes wrong, usually culminating in a random router/modem failure. That’s the universe’s secret weapon, router failures, it always wins.

    Why would the router or modem fail just then and there? One might trace back the events to point out that logically the router _shouldn’t_ have failed, thus placing the universe in an awkward position. But that never happens, because there’s always “a reason”. “Oh, It’s wireless interference”, “the router was overheating”, “it’s a DNS outage”, says the universe.

    Of course i’m not being serious (not 100% at least) but sometimes i wonder what comes first, cause or effect? What if the effect comes first and the cause is just dynamically derived, upon query, to match the observed events. The universe can always hide behind the uncertainty principle, or Godel’s incompleteness theorems. “Oh, this is what happened and you’re just going to have to take my word for it”, says the universe.

  34. Job Says:

    This is a long shot but i would check if there were any router failures during the LHC tests.

  35. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    This is a long shot but i would check if there were any router failures during the LHC tests.

    Quite likely. The Internet is the Singularity, the Singularity is God, and since the Higgs particle is abhorrent to the universe, God prevented it with a router failure.

  36. Deane Says:

    Having talked to at least one New York Times science writer about this, I would say that someone like Dennis Overbye has a lot of leeway in what stories he chooses to work on, but the editor still decides whether to print each story submitted by Overbye.

    The Times staff tries to do its best to write only about solid science and avoid the nonsense, but it is hardly realistic to expect them to do this better than the scientific community itself.

    A paper written by a physicist with solid credentials that is about particles traveling backwards in time is pretty much irresistible.

  37. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The Times staff tries to do its best to write only about solid science and avoid the nonsense, but it is hardly realistic to expect them to do this better than the scientific community itself.

    It’s hardly fair to take “the scientific community” to be unaccountable remarks from jokers with PhDs. All it would have taken to decide not to run this story was one subway trip to a prestigious physics department in Manhattan.

    A paper written by a physicist with solid credentials that is about particles traveling backwards in time is pretty much irresistible.

    As opposed to, for instance, the International Congress of Mathematicians. That seems relatively easy to resist. (Although to be fair, they did have an article about the Fields Medals in 2006.)

    If you look closely at the Times, there is one section of the paper that treats mathematicians and modern mathematics with great respect: the obituaries. When we croak, then our work is important.

  38. John Preskill Says:

    When we croak, then our work is important.

    Artists, too.

  39. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Artists, too.

    Yes, often, but perhaps not just in the obituary.

  40. Pat Cahalan Says:

    @ John, Scott

    One of the major problems with science shnooders is that they’re usually not shnoody about everything. In fact, they’re usually shnoody only about a very particular set of things (although finding out what that particular set is can be an adventure in and of itself).

    So they can say perfectly reasonable things one moment, and then go… somewhere else… the next.