from the world's big
Is String Theory Stringing Us Along?
Peter Woit is a mathematical physicist at Columbia University. He graduated in 1979 from Harvard University with bachelor's and master's degrees in physics and obtained his PhD in particle theory from Princeton University in 1985. A prominent critic of string theory, he published a book on the subject, Not Even Wrong, in 2006, and maintains a blog of the same title.
Question: What is string theory?\r\n
Peter Woit: Well the first thing I can say is, when people sit and talk about String Theory, they're actually talking about a very complex set of ideas that lots of people, a very large amount of people have worked on and have done a lot of different things with. Probably what it's best known for and what got people all excited about it in the physicist community is the conjecture that, at the most fundamental level, you can understand matter and the universe in terms not of point particles, which is the way our best theory is, currently, you can understand things, but in terms of, if you like, vibrating in loops of some elementary objects here, your elementary object instead of being a point-like thing is something you should think of more as a one dimensional loop, or a string which is kind of moving around.\r\n
So, it has a lot more - it can do a lot more complicated things than a point, this kind of loop of elementary matter, whatever it is. And so, it gives you a very different class of theories than the ones that have been so successful before. So, during the '60's, this idea was initially developed and initially people tried to do one thing with these passive theories something which didn't work out that well. And then starting in the late '70's and '80's, people then came up with a conjecture that maybe you really could unify all of physics and solve some of the open problems in physics by replacing our standard theories, what we call the standard model with some kind of string theory. So, since this idea because very popular in 1984, and so it's been now 25 years people have been working very hard on that. And I just think the initial thing that got people excited was I would claim it really hasn't worked out and it really can't work out. And that's kind of been, I think, a lot of the reason the controversy has been an argument over this issue of whether this very speculative idea about whether you could use these strings, and you don't have to get a unified theory, about whether that has - is that an idea that's failed or is there still some hope for it, is what I think is really what's the controversial part of it.\r\n
Question: What is the “grand unifying theory” that physicists are trying to formulate?\r\n
Peter Woit: Well, the main thing to understand about the current state of physics is that we have - are in some sense, a kind of victim of our own success. We have an incredibly successful theory called the Standard Model. And it really explains everything that we can observe about and in terms of a very small number of elementary particles and some basic forces between them. And it's a quite beautiful theory and it really is just absurdly successful. Every experiment anybody knows how to do that in principle can be - that this theory has something to say about, it works out perfectly to whatever experimental and in whatever detail you can do an experiment to whatever precision, it come out to exactly as predicted by the model.\r\n
So, we have a semi-unified theory. This quite nice, beautiful structure which explains everything we can see, but it still leaves open several questions. Some of the questions are just kind of why we have all these different particles and they all have different masses. Why do they all have different masses? We don't understand why the electron has a certain mass, quarks have other masses. So, there's just kind of things which the theory doesn't address. It just doesn't answer these questions and then questions which as physicists we think there should be answers to.\r\n
But then there is also one remaining force which isn't part of the standard model, which is the gravitational force. The gravitational force is much, much weaker than these other forces and it has a somewhat different nature, so the problem with it is we don't - these other forces we have something which is a quantum theory. It's quantum mechanics. It really works down to the microscopic level and in terms of this very fundamental idea about reality called quantum mechanics.\r\n
The theory of gravity that we still use is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and it's what we call a classical theory. It's not a quantum mechanical theory. The problem is, you can make an estimate within this theory of how big quantum mechanical effects would be and then that estimate tells you that they are just so absurdly small you can never hope to see them. So, there's kind of this problem of principle. We have this theory which is not a proper quantum mechanical theory and we know that there's things which it can't quite properly explain, but they're far too small for us to study them and to try to see them.\r\n
So anyway, we are not completely happy with this setup. We have a force which doesn't quite fit with the others and which for logical reasons we would like to unify it with these others and understand it as a quantum mechanical theory, and we've never been quite successful in being able to do that. And this is what String Theory was, kind of a promise of a way of how to do that. And that's why people got so excited.\r\n
Question: What do you mean when you say that string theory is “not even wrong”?\r\n
Peter Woit: Well, so that's a famous phrase among physicists, it goes back to a well-known theorist called Wolfgang Pauli in the '50's and the story is that toward the end of his life someone - I guess he was well-known for being very hyper-critical of things that were going on and would get up in the middle of a seminar and start saying it's wrong, it's completely wrong. And then late in his life someone asked him about some work of some speculative idea that someone - and shook his head and said, "Well that one's not even wrong." And so, it's a well-known phrase among physicists. It kind of carries I think two meanings. One of them is more somewhat of a term of abuse, "well that's so bad it's not even wrong." But there's a more interesting it is, it's a more technical meaning that very often you have a speculative idea and if it's not a very good idea, or it turns out that you end up not being able to do very much with it, you end up not being able to predict with it, or to - it's just not useful, so there's also a notion of not being "not even wrong," in the sense that it's not an idea which can be fully developed or can be turned into something which is powerful enough to actually predict something and actually be wrong.\r\n
So, one problem of the String Theory is that it's kind of a theory which can explain what the problems are, but the problems are such that you can't even pin it down and say this is exactly what it predicts, so lets go out and test it. So, it's not even capable of being wrong, or being falsified, or being showed to be wrong. So, that's the more relevant meaning here really.\r\n
Question: Will string theory ever be verifiable or unverifiable?\r\n
Peter Woit: Yeah, well as I said, String Theory is actually a very complicated story. If you start out with this hypothesis that maybe your ephemeral objects are not points, but are these strings, there's a lot of different things you can try and do that you have a whole different class of theories you can play with. So, I think a lot of - if you look at what most people, who are still going String Theory are doing, they're actually not directly trying to develop this unified theory anymore. They're off doing other things with String Theory. People these days are trying to apply it to problems in nuclear physics; they're applying it to problems in Solid State Physics, understanding super conductors. So, the people who are still interested in it are often kind of - even if they may or may not explicitly admit that they've given up on the unified theory idea, but they're often doing other things. So, there's a very active pursuit of String theory with other applications that don't have anything to do with unification.\r\n
It's also turned out to be very interesting in mathematics. There's a very, one of the things that I'm most interested in is the intersection between mathematics and physics and the way the two fields affect each other and ideas from physics lead to very interesting things about mathematics, ideas in mathematics get used in **** in physics. And String Theory has been very, very fruitful in terms of raising questions which have led to very interesting mathematics. So, there's a very active field of research kind of in between math and physics in String Theory. But it just doesn't seem to be relevant to this question of unification.\r\n
Question: What model would you propose as an alternative to string theory?\r\n
Peter Woit: Well, I certainly shouldn't - my criticism of String Theory is not that, well, if you guys have just realized that you should be doing such and such, that would solve a lot of problems. I don't actually - I don't think that I - I have some of my own ideas which I am very excited by it which I'm pursuing which are also new ideas about how to use mathematics to do things in physics which don't have anything to do with String Theory and which kind of, at least lead me to see there's a lot of areas, a lot of things we don't understand which are closer to the standard model which we do know works. There's a lot of mathematical structure behind the standard model which is still kind of mysterious and which is not well understood and I think pursuing that is more likely to get us somewhere than the String Theory Unification idea. Just because you're starting from something which you know - a theory which you know is right and trying to further develop your understand of that theory is maybe a more fruitful thing to do than trying to just throw all that out and start afresh with something more speculative.\r\n
I guess one thing to talk about is this - what's happening in Geneva this month, so a lot of the problem with the field, as I said, is this business of being a victim of our own success, not having any experimental results that disagree with the theory, which makes it very, very hard to figure out how to improve a theory if you've got no clues as to what might possibly be wrong about it and needs to be changed. And so, there's this accelerator called the LHC, it's **** in Geneva and it's been in development for quite a few years now and it's been a long process getting it working, but just over the past month, they are finally going to subject beams into the accelerator and start colliding these beams and start doing some new physics. Over the next year they'll start raising the energy of this accelerator to the point where it will be in a new energy regime which allows us to get experimental data about what's happening at a high energy, which corresponds to what's happening at shorter and shorter distances.\r\n
To see what's happening in shorter and shorter distances, in some sense you need to use shorter and shorter wave length, or higher and higher energy probes, and this new accelerator, it finally promises some data in this new energy range beyond what we've been able to see so far. And there are reasons to believe that this new energy range is one where we can start getting some answers to some of these questions especially about mass. About why do different particles have different masses?
Recorded on December 16, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
The "Not Even Wrong" author explains one of physics’ most famous theories—and why it may have led thousands of scientists down a cold trail.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.
Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.
An article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry raises questions about the goal of these advocacy groups.
- Two-thirds of American consumer advocacy groups are funded by pharmaceutical companies.
- The authors of an article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry say this compromises their advocacy.
- Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness act more like lobbyists than patient advocates.
The Corruption That Brought Prozac to Market — Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bea9cff2b25efc18b663a011a679ba16"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyaJExxFPAE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Consumer-oriented groups gained steam over the ensuing decades. Their efforts helped inspire the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after over 100 people (mostly children) died from a sanctioned drug, Sulfanilamide. If not for the hard work of these advocates, this case might have been overlooked.</p><p>Early efforts also focused on the food industry, which was increasingly using chemical preservatives. The origin of Consumer Reports can be found in the consumer advocacy movement. Both the food and drug industries were getting a free pass to experiment on citizens with few repercussions.</p><p>These movements provided a social foundation for important advocacy work in the second half of the century. Female-led groups evolved to focus on women's reproductive rights, AIDS, and mental health. As the authors write, these groups struck a balance between working <em>with</em> and <em>against</em> current trends. Sometimes you need to craft legislation with officials; at other times, you have to rage against the machine with everything you've got. </p><p>Advocacy marked an important turning point in public health (and culture in general). These groups were tired of placating to a medical model that treated the male body as the standard. This wasn't limited to anatomy. As I <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/pandemic-warnings-rp-eddy" target="_self">wrote about last week</a>, a high-profile 1970s-era conference about the role of women on Wall St featured no women on stage. You can imagine what reproductive health looked like during that time. </p><p>Advocacy groups made real impact in public health. Then the money began pouring in. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"These groups were funded largely by individual donations with some foundation support, but in the late 1980s, newer women's health groups moved to professionalize, effectively splitting the women's health movement."</p><p>A number of groups resist corporate ties to this day, such as the National Women's Heath Network and Breast Cancer Action. Too often, however, groups argue that their existence depends on corporate funding. This can lead to uncomfortable compromises. </p><p>An estimated two-thirds of patient advocacy groups in America accept funds from the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies gave <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11673-019-09956-8.pdf" target="_blank">at least $116 million</a> to such groups in 2015 alone.</p><p>For example, over a three-year period, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which was founded by two mothers whose sons suffered from schizophrenia, received nearly $12 million from 18 pharmaceutical companies. The largest donor was Prozac manufacturer, Eli Lilly. By 2008, three-quarters of NAMI's budget was funded by the pharmaceutical industry. It gets worse:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An Eli Lilly executive was even 'on loan' to NAMI, paid by Eli Lilly, while he worked out of the NAMI office on 'strategic planning.'"</p>
A customer waiting for his medication at the Headache Bar in a pharmacy in Sydney, Australia. Among the items on sale are 'Paigees with Chlorophyll' and Alka Seltzer on tap.
Photo by Dennis Rowe/BIPs/Getty Images<p>This influx of cash skews public understanding of drugs. It also influences advocates to overlook real problems caused by pharmaceutical interventions, especially when it comes to mental health.<br></p><p>For a real-world example, consider how Xanax came to market. As journalist Robert Whitaker <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e829xdb4AA" target="_blank">explains</a>, an <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1463502/?page=1" target="_blank">initial study</a> was conducted to determine efficacy in treating panic attacks. After four weeks, Xanax was outperforming placebo, which is common with benzodiazepines over short-term usage. But it wasn't a four-week study; it was a 14-week study.</p><p>At the end of eight weeks, there was no difference in efficacy between Xanax and placebo.</p><p>At the conclusion of the study after 14 weeks, the placebo outperformed Xanax. By a lot.</p><p>Why is Xanax still prescribed for panic attacks? Because the pharmaceutical company, Upjohn, only published the four-week data. The 14-week data was not in its favor. Nearly forty years later, over <a href="https://www.statista.com/statistics/781816/alprazolam-sodium-prescriptions-number-in-the-us/" target="_blank">25 million</a> Americans receive a prescription despite its <a href="https://drugabuse.com/xanax/effects-use/" target="_blank">long list</a> of side effects and addictive profile. </p><p>As the authors note, many consumers are not aware of how advocacy groups are funded.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An international study of groups in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa found that the extent of relationships with industry was inadequately disclosed in websites that addressed ten health conditions: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, depression, Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis."</p><p>That's a tangled web of relationships. Pharmaceutical industry funding negatively impacts the work advocacy groups should be focused on: protecting us. NAMI, for example, claims that as a "natural ally" to the pharmaceutical industry, it helps consumers access "all scientifically proven treatments." When the industry ignores evidence of long-term damage caused by its treatments, you have to wonder what's being advocated. </p><p>Although, as the authors conclude, that question is easy to answer. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Instead of drawing insights from patient experience to set organizational agendas and challenge industry agendas, today's groups are silent on high prices and drug harms, oppose efforts to regulate these basic rights, and demand access to drugs that challenge the safety and effectiveness."</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.