Eveything old is new again.

I don’t really have a good sense of how much crossover there is between the math blogosphere (such as there is one) and the physics blogosphere (hoo baby!). More specifically, I know that there is some crossover from the physics people to this site, but I am unclear on the other direction. Walt tells me that we have the most read math blog \exists, so I thought I would direct our ten readers to the brouhaha that has managed to coalesce around one of our crossovers, Peter Woit. We link to his blog, so there really is no point to this post, other than for me to comment, that it reminds me of Einstein’s comment “What is all the sturm and drang among the mathematicians?” in reference to the big dust-up brought on by Brouwer’s Intuitionist program, only this time the roles are reversed. Since I have no investment in string theory being correct as far as interpretations go, and only really look at it as some cool mathematics (and get to say “not my area”), I get to embrace the shadenfreud that exists at the core of my being and exhort: FIGHT!, FIGHT!

5 thoughts on “Eveything old is new again.

  1. Even Britain’s leading business newspaper, the Financial Times, recently carried a report on Woit’s book, here:

    http://news.ft.com/cms/s/6edc0bf6-f29d-11da-b78e-0000779e2340.html

    “Nothing is gained by searching for the ‘theory of everything’ ”
    By Robert Matthews of Aston University, Birmingham, UK (FT, 2006-06-03)

    I think this is behind a subscription wall, so some excerpts:

    “They call their leader The Pope, insist theirs is the only path to enlightenment and attract a steady stream of young acolytes to their cause. A crackpot religious cult? No, something far scarier: a scientific community that has completely lost touch with reality and is robbing us of some of our most brilliant minds.

    Yet if you listened to its cheerleaders – or read one of their best-selling books or watched their television mini-series – you, too, might fall under their spell. You, too, might come to believe they really are close to revealing the ultimate universal truths, in the form of a set of equations describing the cosmos and everything in it. Or, as they modestly put it, a “theory of everything”.

    . . . .

    Mr Woit has shown that some very smart people in academia have lost the plot. But why should the rest of us care? The reason is simple: the quest for the theory of everything has soaked up vast amounts of intellectual effort and resources at a time when they are desperately needed elsewhere. We can ill afford to let more brilliant talent vanish into the morass that is M-theory.

    Those who have show signs of having fallen prey to the “sunk-cost fallacy”, the huge intellectual effort needed to enter the field compelling them to plough on regardless of the prospects of success. It is time they were put out of their misery by being told to either give up or find funding from elsewhere (charities supporting faith-based pursuits have been suggested as one alternative).

    Academic institutions find it hard enough to fund fields with records of solid achievement. After 20-odd years, they are surely justified in pulling the plug on one that has disappeared up its Calabi-Yau manifold.”

  2. Lieven commented on his weblog last week on this difference between mathematicians and physicists. I’d throw in a link but his site is down at the moment.

    Peter’s book is getting immense amounts of publicity everywhere, much more than I expected back when he announced the book. He must be very excited.

  3. Walt —

    In the unlikely event that you don’t know of these papers, here are three interesting articles about the differences between physics and mathematics:

    @ARTICLE{jaffe:quinn:bams93,
    author = “A. Jaffe and F. Quinn”,
    title = “{“Theoretical Mathematics”:} {T}oward a cultural synthesis of mathematics and theoretical physics”,
    journal = “Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society”,
    year = “1993”,
    volume = “29”,
    number = “1”,
    pages = “1–13″}

    @ARTICLE{thurston:bams94,
    author = “W. P. Thurston”,
    title = “On proof and progress in mathematics”,
    journal = “Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society”,
    year = “1994”,
    volume = “30”,
    number = “2”,
    pages = “161–177″}

    @ARTICLE{maclane:syn97,
    AUTHOR = “S. Mac Lane”,
    TITLE = “Despite physicists, proof is essential in mathematics”,
    JOURNAL = “Synthese”,
    YEAR = “1997”,
    volume = “111”,
    pages = “147–154″}

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