Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Big bang Theory hits close to home

On a recent episode of  The Big Bang Theory Sheldon gives up String theory because, after working on it for 20 years, he has nothing to show for his efforts. I have been asked `is anyone working on P vs NP or have they given up because after 20 years of effort they have nothing to show for their efforts.'' Aside from GCT I don't know if anyone is ``working on it'' though it depends on what ``working on it'' means.

During the episode there were some random things about science that were said. If it was math I may have a sense if it was nonsense or not. Here I am not quite sure, so I list some and see what you think, or what you know, or what you think you know.

  1. A physicist named Barry says that he's not a String Theorist- he's a String Pragmatist. Is there such a thing as a String Pragmatist? 
  2. Sheldon referred to his attempt to compactify extra dimensions. Do string theorists do that?
  3. Penny said that giving up a field is like breaking off a relationship. What do you think of that? When I stopped doing computability and started doing combinatorics it was not a clean break. I gradually stopped looking at logic journals and started looking at combinatorics journals. But there are awkward moments- like when I study  Computable Combinatorics.
  4. Does the magazine Cosmopolitan really have an article on how to deal with a breakup in, to quote Sheldon, literally every single issue.
  5.  Is Geology:Science like the Kardashians:real celebrities? Actually, since the notion of a celebrity is just to be well known, I suppose the Kard's ARE real celebrities. But the real questions is- do Physicists look down on Geology?
  6. Is Standard Model Physics less advanced than string theory?
  7. Is Calculation of nuclear matrix elements a fad?
  8. Are string theory books so large that a bully would use one to hit someone over the head with? (There is a really heavy book on gravity which is better and more appropriate.)
  9. Has string theory made any progress towards proving that it's correct in the last 20 years?
  10. Will the TV-RESET rule make it such that Sheldon is back doing string Theory soon? This is also called the Dirty-Harry rule: no matter how many times Dirty Harry is kicked off the force, he's back by the next movie. Sometimes by the next scene.


  1. On String Pragmatism: Barry said that he studies string theory because there's grant money available and it can't be proven (which presumably gives him cover for never proving it). It'd be interesting to know if that actually happens. For P v. NP, though, it seems more likely that it can't be proven and there's no money in approaching it (directly).

  2. I normally just lurk here, but I feel like procrastinating today.

    1. Yes, it's called a phenomenologist.
    2. Yes.
    3. It's similar because we develop ties to our field and the people in it.
    4. Yes.
    5. Part 1: it's ill-posed. Part 2: No, physicists don't look down on geologists. We look down on "postmodern literary theorists" (cf. Sokal hoax).
    6. Mathematically, yes, somewhat. But it has the virtue of being backed by experiments.
    7. No.
    8. A bully would probably use a fist first, or something else more aerodynamic.
    9. No, in the sense that a theory can't prove itself correct. An experiment can corroborate a theory; that's the best we can hope for in science.
    10. Pass. "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." --Niels Bohr

    1. Regarding 9: I've heard that string theory has not been able to set up experiments to even corroborate it. Is this true? If not then has there been progress?

      Regarding 10: Its also been attributed to Yogi Berra. I did an experiment to try to corroborate your theory that it was Bohr and I think you are correct. More Google hits say Bohr, and it just has the look and feel of something that is the kind of thing Yogi Berra said, but did not. So I conclude Bohr until further evidence comes in.

    2. I believe Yogi's quite is "The future ain't what it used to be", which may be apt for string theory as well.

      But we are predicting the future of a fictional character and you can be sure by the last episode Sheldon will still be a physicist as well as we know Leonard and Penny will end up together.

    3. Both Yogi Berra and Niels Bohr said vague, cryptic things that were open to interpretation, yet profound and insightful. I'm really glad to see that some of their quotes even get cross-attributed.

      "When you come to a fork in the road, take it" -- Niels Bohr, talking about quantum superposition.

  3. My BibTeX database holds this aphorism:

    "Decline is always an emotional business"

    The quotation is from the historian (and chemist) David M. Knight's article "The application of enlightened philosophy: Banks and the physical sciences" (1994), which is collected in Sir Joseph Banks: A Global Perspective.

    Sir Joseph Banks served as president of the British Royal Society for 41 years (1778-1819), and Knight's maxim refers to the decline in vigor of British physical science, relative to continental physical science, that took place during these years.

    Aside I  Joseph Banks is the real-life template for Patrick O'Brian's character Sir Joseph Blaine, regarding whose activities the US Central Intelligence Agency is pleased to provide background information; see also Jeremy Strong's "Sir Joseph Banks and the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian" (2012). These works inspire in us an appreciation that today's STEM researchers enjoy opportunities for 21st century enterprise and adventure that are as rich and lively as any tale of Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and Joseph Blaine.

    Nowadays multiple traditionally strong STEM disciplines similarly are perceived to be in decline; examples include string theory, quantum computing, complexity theory, and even wet-bench chemistry and biology. Needless to say, passions are aroused!

    Aside II  Recent much-discussed essays regarding 21st century academic decline include Clay Shirky's "The End of Higher Education's Golden Age" (2014) and Alberts, Kirschner, and Varmus' "Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws"

    Question  What lessons does Banks' STEM generation provide to our STEM generation?

    Considerations  The decline of physical science in Britain during the Napoleonic era was not absolute, but only relative. Supposing that today's widely perceived and universally deplored scientific declines — in string theory, quantum computing, complexity theory, wet-bench chemistry and biology etc — similarly are relative, it is natural to ask: What STEM disciplines are relatively gaining in vigor, and are showing good promise of sustained future gains? Given that researchers — young ones especially — "vote with their feet", how are present-day researchers voting? Are they voting wisely? In what respects is the character of the STEM community changing in consequence?

    In these matters everyone has their own opinion, and consequently discussions are "a emotional business" … nowadays as in in the Napoleonic era.

    Conclusion  "It is very hard to predict, especially the future.” (Danish proverb, commonly ascribed to Niels Bohr)

  4. There's plenty of current and past work on lower bounds in various models of computation. The results obtained thus far (by GCT or other approaches) are of course very far from showing that P is not NP but this is arguably "working on it", at least in a somewhat loose sense.
    Someone should let Sheldon know about this!

  5. Garbage Can Theory?

  6. `is anyone working on P vs NP or have they given up because after 20 years of effort they have nothing to show for their efforts.''

    I think the reduction in popularity of classical complexity was the field walking away when it failed to make substantial progress on the P=?NP or other similar conjectures.

    The area of study itself is still very interesting and of crucial importance to computability. It is safe to say that in the future with the discovery of novel techniques we will see a revival on interest once again.

  7. My answers differ somewhat from Steve's

    1. There are string theorists who behave like what Barry calls a "String Pragmatist", but I suspect that is more a function of needing to get publications out to get the next job and keep the grant money flowing. It would be a pretty bizarre area to get into if you were not deeply interested in the fundamental physics, at least at the beginning.

    2. Yes, the extra dimensions are supposed to be rolled up like a tube so that we don't notice them. Google "Calibu-Yau manifold". Having said that, some string theorists advocate "large extra dimensions" in which the extra dimensions are not compactified, but we live on a lower dimensional membrane in a higher dimensional space. The latter models have been largely ruled out or rendered implausible by the LHC though.

    3. Do we ever really give up a field?

    4. Yes

    5. No. If you're a string theorist named Lubos Motl then you look down on computational complexity instead.

    6. If you mean "uses less advanced mathematics" then yes. If you are referring to not only our ability to confirm its predictions experimentally, but also to tell what those predictions actually are, then no.

    7. No, but here I think they mean the specific application of string theory methods to these problems and also maybe to problems in condensed matter physics. If so, then the answer is probably yes, although I imagine that some techniques from string theory will eventually just get absorbed into these fileds, shorn of their origins in string theory.

    8. The most well-known string theory books come in several volumes, none of which are particularly big so, as you suggest, Misner, Thorne and Wheeler would be a better choice.

    9. Here I differ from Steve in that I would regard it as progress if someone could show that the standard model emerges from string theory in a natural way in an appropriate limit. Since no other theory of quantum gravity has managed to do this either, showing this would give us an idea that string theory is on the right track compared to other theories. It is difficult to say that no progress has been made on this problem, but recent experiments are making it unlikely that we can uniquely obtain this limit in a natural way, hence all the speculation about the landscape, the multiverse etc. I am still open to the possibility that some new idea might resurrect the attempts to derive the standard model in a more natural way.

    10. No. BBT makes some effort to have the activities of the physicists track the actual activities of the fundamental physics community. So long as the string theorists are either focussing on applications to other fields, drawing general lessons for quantum field theory (e.g. AdS/QFT), or lost in the multiverse quagmire, I see no reason why they would have Sheldon turn back.