Of Particular Significance

Reminder to Readers

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

POSTED BY Matt Strassler

ON 08/09/2012

A pause from the usual stuff for a necessary reminder: please keep the comments of a non-personal nature. Talk about the science; if someone makes a mistake, say so, but don’t attack their personalities and intelligence. While I was away from the computer there were a number of comments that turned very nasty toward an individual, and I don’t want that happening here. I did some editing of the worst stuff, but I’d much rather not have to.  Yes, I know some very nasty personal things about me have been said in past comments; but while you’re free to defend me when that happens, please don’t say anything offensive about someone else.

The relevant comments, however, did have some content, which I’ve tried to leave in place.  They were relating to the Milner $,$$$,$$$ prizes (here’s the NY Times article.)  Once-respected Nature News, whose reputation is in precipitous decline within high-energy physics, did a story on the Milner prize in which the only people quoted (other than awardees saying “ooh” and “aah”) were Milner himself and blogger Peter Woit. No matter what you think of the prize [and I have my own serious concerns], it is shocking that an article in Nature on this subject does not quote a single scientist, within or outside the field, whether for or against the prize. I’ve asked for an explanation. Have scientists become invisible? Do we have no rights to express our own opinions anymore?  Are we destined to have our fates and research determined by former science students who haven’t been in the field for decades but have become extremely wealthy and/or extremely vocal?  Hello?  Is anyone sensible still out there?

At least today the same reporter managed to quote George Smoot, who, last time I checked, has actually contributed something to science itself.  Maybe Nature News could find a few more real scientists to interview.

Also disturbing is that although part of Woit’s statement in the first article is scientifically inaccurate, Nature published it anyway (and the only counter to it was from non-scientist Milner.)  And Scientific American also did not note the error, passing on the article to its readers.  Quality control on articles written for public consumption remains a serious problem for communicating particle physics to the public.  [Woit said that theories studied by some of the awardees — perhaps Seiberg, and/or perhaps Arkani-Hamed, he didn’t specify — are now ruled out by LHC data.  I wish it were true; it would make my job a lot easier.  But unfortunately, it takes a very long time for the LHC to rule theories out, because we have to search carefully, and the searches done so far are still by no means complete.  And that’s why I, and others doing real work at the LHC, have to spend days at workshops — making sure a sufficiently thorough search is carried out.  Only with a proper search can we draw a strong conclusion, worthy of the adjective “scientific”, as to what is and isn’t ruled out by LHC data.]

My own opinion, for what it is worth, is that the Milner Prize’s first step has not been healthy for science.  No matter how well-educated a person is about a topic, it is a mistake for that person to award prizes on the basis of his or her own personal opinion, with no advisory committee and no widespread call for nominations.  Furthermore, since the awardees will apparently form part or all of the new committee, the project is already in danger of becoming a self-reproducing system.  It’s clear to anyone in the field that all of the awardees are obviously deserving of recognition; but they’re all already famous and mostly well-paid.  What upsets me is that there is a long, long list of deserving scientists, some of whom have received little recognition despite their important work, and some of whom could really use some research money and/or time off from teaching — and Milner overlooked them all.  In short, the first Milner prize round involves hero-worship [BTW, no heroines allowed, it would appear] and that does not obviously serve the public or the scientific process.

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28 Responses

  1. I can fully agree with prof. Strasser/ P. Woit’s stance regarding the Milner’s prize. What the contemporary physics is seriously lacking is the support of practical findings and approaches, which lead into testable predictions. It’s OK to appreciate the fundamental findings and bright ideas, but the bright ideas which are proven correct first should be considered brightest. I’m affraid, the Milner’s prize goes in the exactly the opposite direction. The sad example of cold fusion will become a big memento of mainstream physics of last twenty years. BTW only 1,5 million dollars is needed for buying of one E-cat unit and making sure, it really works as claimed at rigorous scientific basis.

  2. Yeah, after writing that, I thought of Lisa Randall.

    I wonder if the accolades given in theoretical physics are a bit uneven generally. Perhaps because the layperson is very unlikely to really understand which theorists are worthy of awards. (to the extent that people giving these awards are laypeople)

  3. One nit not already picked: I don’t really mind that no ‘heroines’ were included in the first round. It’s too small of a sample size to claim that there is something nefarious going on. Also, can you name a working female physicist that meets all of the other requirements, of the caliber of Nima, et. al?

    (note: I don’t know if one exists…I’m just curious. As a layperson with 1 degree of separation from the physics community, no names come to mind.)

    1. Indeed, the fields that Milner chose to honor continue to have a terrible time convincing the smartest women in the world to chose them for a career; the numbers are very small. A lot of other fields are doing much, much better. So that does limit the numbers of candidates in high-energy physics theory. (High-energy experiment is a completely different matter; consider that XENON100 dark matter experiment is run by Elena Aprile [Columbia], that ATLAS has been headed for quite some time by Fabiola Gianotti [CERN], that miniBooNE had Janet Conrad [MIT] as co-spokesperson, that microBooNE has Bonnie Fleming [Yale] as spokesperson, etc. etc. We may well see one of these people win a Nobel someday.)

      I’m not suggesting something consciously nefarious, just deeply unfortunate and hard to believe; you can certainly choose your criteria carefully (and unconsciously) so that none of the women in those fields rise to the top of your list. Among currently very active senior scientists in theoretical high-energy physics, Lisa Randall [Harvard], Ann Nelson [Washington] and Eva Silverstein [Stanford] are three of the smartest physicists I’ve met; you can choose criteria where at least one would be on the list, and criteria where none of them would be. (Silverstein got a MacArthur fellowship ten or so years ago; neither Nelson nor Randall nor Arkani-Hamed has gotten one, as far as I recall, which I find a little astonishing. The only non-string or non-mostly-string theorist to get one in recent years is Frank Wilczek, who was already on the list to get a Nobel; there’s clearly a double-standard there.) The same goes for a number of men in my field whom you’ve probably never heard of but whom I think might have been seriously considered had Milner slightly adjusted his criteria. Suffice it to say that there are different types of theoretical contributions that are of value to science, not just the ones that Milner chose to honor.

      I don’t know enough of the people in cosmology or quantum computing or the brand of math done by Konsevich to say anything about those fields.

      1. Yeah, after writing that, I thought of Lisa Randall.

        I wonder if the accolades given in theoretical physics are a bit uneven generally. Perhaps because the layperson is very unlikely to really understand which theorists are worthy of awards. (to the extent that people giving these awards are laypeople)

  4. Just one quick question here: what is your definition of a “scientist” as opposed to not-a-scientist like Dr. Woit? If I understand your post correctly, the distinction seems to be that the former has done “real science”. This is very confusing to me, because I am under the impression that high-energy theorists have produced a grand total of zero results since Standard Model was finalized in 1973. More specifically, all big news in particle physics, such as non-zero neutrino masses, non-zero cosmological constant, dark matter or LHC, are all experimental results, which are neither predicted nor explained by theorists. So, exactly what “real science” were you referring to?

    1. If you would read Prof. Strassler’s site not only when Dr. Woit links to it on his blog ;-), you would know that Prof. Strassler appreciates, respects, and praises the good and hard work, which was crucial for the discovery of the higgs for example, a lot.

      You seem not to understand the role of theory and experiment in the scientific process properly, there were some nice articles about this topic here but I cant find the links now, so Prof. Strassler should reexplain it to you.

      And note that the referee has taken the ball out of the game to calm things down:
      If you keep complaining and insulting players of the other team or even start to attack the referee himself, you risk to be shown the red card and getting banned … 😉


    2. Experimental results do not come out of thin air. Theorists calculated that an experiment like the LHC would be needed in order to find the Higgs particle; that’s why the LHC was built with the energy and collision rate that it has. Theorists calculated that the rates for Higgs production and decay would be of a sort that two-photon and four-lepton final states would be the most important; that’s why both ATLAS and CMS were designed to be so good at measuring the energies of photons and leptons. Theorists pointed out that a cosmological constant could be detected by measuring supernova light curves; that’s why observers went out and measured them. Theorists pointed out that neutrinos could be studied using big water tanks.

      Theorists don’t just invent theories. They do calculations within existing or speculative theories, and propose relevant experiments, and new interpretations of old experiments, based on those calculations. Indeed, the most important work that I have done in my career is in this class. And that’s why theorists and experimentalists meet regularly, as they did at the workshop I described last week.

      If your notion of “real science” is that a theorist is like the mythical Einstein day in and day out, then you have a very limited view of both theorists and Einstein. Not all of Einstein’s work was inventing new theories either.

      1. “If your notion of “real science” is that a theorist is like the mythical Einstein day in and day out, then you have a very limited view of both theorists and Einstein. Not all of Einstein’s work was inventing new theories either.”

        Well said, that man. The role of the hard working professional who draws a salary as a professor of physics doing the experimental instrumentation analysis is indeed vital to today’s popular notion of science, and should not be dismissed by popularist ideas that science is about trying to be revolutionary. As Feyerabend said (in Against Method, 1975), science is not a particular any method of working, or a search for ultimate truth or simplicity, but the most useful method available at the time, even if it appears to the layman to be more like a professional technician dealing with analysis of instrumentation, than a revolutionary or maverick like one popular image of Einstein.

  5. I personally am “disturbed,” to use your term, by this idea of “real work” which takes “days” to complete. I’m sure that many serious scientists from any band of the interpretive spectrum consider their work to be “real” and that days often roll into years and decades.

    1. I don’t think you understood the context. Of course any real work is made up from many small sub-projects embedded within larger ones, and some of those sub-projects take hours, others days, others months. But I was in conversation with someone who makes lots of statements about the Large Hadron Collider but has never done any real work contributing to it, while I worked overtime for the last six months on making sure the data gathering is optimized http://profmattstrassler.com/articles-and-posts/lhcposts/triggering-advances-in-2012/data-parking-at-cms/, and I’m working now to make sure the results of the workshop http://profmattstrassler.com/2012/08/07/a-real-workshop/ are properly summarized and delivered. So when I say someone’s statement about LHC data is incorrect, I do know what I’m talking about, and I don’t have a lot of time to argue with people who wouldn’t contribute anything positive to the LHC no matter whether or not I convinced them.

  6. “A pause from the usual stuff for a necessary reminder: please keep the comments of a non-personal nature. Talk about the science; if someone makes a mistake, say so, but don’t attack their personalities and intelligence.” I don’t think all the comments today meet this standard.

  7. Not sure why the Milner Prize is any worse than that prize created in trust by another rich guy named Alfred Nobel. Of course, all true scholars should decline such prizes (just as Grigory Perelman declined the Fields Medal) and also decline to visit institutions bankrolled by rich individuals, such as the Kavli Institutes or the Perimeter Institute.

    1. John — I strongly disagree with you. You’re mixing things up, and either misinterpreting what I said or making a point of your own that contradicts my views. First, I’m not saying Milner’s prize and Nobel’s prize are inherently bad, but I do think that scholars do not go into their respective fields for the money (there are much easier and faster ways for smart people to make money, cf. Wall Street) and giving individuals large sums of money as a simple prize, one that is not intended directly to help their research program, does not do much for science. It is important to recognize great scientists and make them famous; it is not important, in my view, to make them especially rich. But second, it is a **completely** different thing for a private person to found a research institution, such as Kavli and Perimeter and the Institute for Advanced Study itself. On the whole I support such things, because they are not aimed at giving money to individuals in honor of their past work, but instead to supporting research and training in hopes of creating future work… and as such have immense potential societal value. Of course the details matter — not all such institutes work out equally well, and there is a tendency for too much money to go into some areas of research and not enough into others. But I think, in general, one should make a sharp distinction between Milner and Nobel on the one hand and Kavli and Lazarides (Perimeter’s founder) on the other.

  8. I think that Dilaton puts the whole controversy in good perspective! All 9 recipients of the Milner prize have done major contributions to fundamental physics. For example, Alan Guth is one of the very few cosmologists responsible for putting together the Standard Model of modern cosmology, and this is no mean feat. I think he deserves the prize, no matter what he does with the money! I am not singling him out, but it so happens that I have a fair understanding of inflationary cosmology, and I cannot say the same about string theory, in which, I’m told, Ed Witten has done marvelous things… So I believe the whole controversy is, em, rather inflated…

    1. Everybody who knows physicist (male and female!) who deserve the big, smaller, or a special interannual award and who are in need for some money for their research will be able to suggest them as awardees soon here 🙂 :


      (This was my last spam to this topic; the in my opinion needless controversy obviously bugged me somehow …)

  9. The new physics prize was of course privately funded, and therefore to question the amount and people who were chosen I find irrelevant, as it was a donor’s choice. As to whether it will be sustainable in the future may be questionable. Nowhere is it said that a committee would make a better choice – judging by Nobel Committee awards given in the past few years – not necessarily in the scientific field. When looking at physics blogs, one can not fail to notice that in some of them personal attacks are more prevalent than the physics-science as such. Pity. Therefore it is reasonable to say that a group of people may not necessarily agree as to whom any prize, for that matter should be awarded to. Many a time very quiet and modest people one hardly reads about much in the public, contribute more to the scientific field, then those in the contrary position.

    1. See my comment above about “donor’s choice”; donors can cause disasters if they do things without consent and consultation. Committees may not make better choices — often they do not — but a wisely chosen committee can at least represent the needs of the field more broadly, even if its recommendations are only advisory in nature.

      Anyway, as far as I can tell, the Milner prize is one thing our field didn’t really need. I can think of a few things we really do desperately need, at least in the U.S.

      1. … but could it not be that the people who got the price are responsible enough to do something useful and helpful for the field with at least a part of the money they obtained ? Maybe others who have good ideas about what is most urgently needed or should be absolutely done to help particle physics for example, could just ask them to talk about how these things can get done most efficiently, instead of condemning Milners generous foundation 😉 ?

        I think these days, with the actual recession used as an excuse to cancel more or less drastically physics fundings everywhere in the world, every cent that can be gained for physics is a good thing. And as I`ve seen in a table contained in a recent issue of the journal of our German Physics Society (DPG) about the changes of funding in the US, the more fundamental (or less applied) fields such as particle physics or cosmology are far the worst and first to get negatively affected by drastic cuts …

        So I see this Fundamental Physics Prize as a very good thing and a sign that there are still some people out there who care about (fundamental) physics and want to help. And I see no problem in the fact that this price is just dedicated to fundamental physics (instead of including other valuable sciences such biology, chemistry, etc too). Mr. Milner has defined it that way and it is his right to do it like this.

        Of course it would be nice if other people with enough “financial power” could see the Milner’s foundation as an incentive to do similarly cool things for other sciences too 🙂
        I agree that it would be a good idea for others who want to follow Milner s example to ask leading scientists in the field they want to support about what kind of help is most urgently needed 🙂


      2. Maybe one should have a look at what is the purpose for the installation of the Fundamental Physics Price
        before condemning the whole Milner thing right away from just reading what is said in newspapers, blogs, and other media.

        Its goal is to strenghten the love, appreciation, and understanding of fundamental physics in the public (which is as I thought not that different from what Prof. Strassler tries to do with this nice site amoung other things …?). At present, too many people who decide about science funding and the global broader public generally think fundamental (or theoretical physics in a broader context) is despensible as can be seen by vigorous and not alway constructive discussions in some blogs and in the comments below popular online articles about fundamental physics topics. Mr. Milner wants to contribute to an improvement of this sad situation by his foundation. The winners are expected to explain their research in pulblic lectures (I look forward to watch these 🙂 …) and there will be a “junior price” each year too to support younger researchers. Additional special awards as seen fit appart from the smaller and the big annual price are possible too.

        I think the initial winners deserve the price due to their contriutions to fundamental phyics. To grouch about who should and should not have been awarded in this initial round or to principally begrudge the field of fundamental physics having installed this new price is really petty-minded and mean in the context of Mr. Milner s generous and nice deed. People who do this even publicly in powerful media should be ashamed of themself !!!

        Of course this is just how I think about it and nobody has to agree … 🙂

  10. My theory is that Milner actually hates string theory and now attempts to destroy it by giving some people enough money so they can afford a lot of other distractions, while poisoning the atmosphere in the field to the extent that people can no longer work with one another. The myth of Eris comes to mind. Personally I love string theory and believe it is probably right, but I think a $3M prize is very excessive for any researcher, particularly ones already doing fine in academia. I’d rather see the money go to endowed chairs.

  11. Dear Professor,
    As I’ve said before, I love this blog – your ability to explain complex stuff simply yet accurately is amazing – but I disagree with you a little on this one. I don’t think its a bad idea for rich individuals (or corporations) to sponsor scientists (or artists, for that matter). Frankly, I think its better than having taxpayers do it. Just think if the SSC (? – the cancelled Texas one) had gotten a few sponsors ( just name a few particles after a corporation…) – it would be up and running today. In any case, I’m not sure I buy the (implicit) argument that public money is good and private money is bad – there’s too much of that idea floating about today anyway.
    As far as Dr. Woit is concerned, I guess I agree with you about ad hominem attacks, but he does seem [Edited by host] who gets taken far too seriously by laymen, a point which isn’t made enough by real physicists. Just a little bit of research reveals some fundamental misrepresentations in most of what he says.

    1. Andy — there’s no implicit argument here against private money. My plan at Rutgers (before the recession hit) was to raise private money to help set up an LHC institute. But I don’t think the assumption that it is fine and appropriate for rich individuals to dole money out however they personally see fit is one that you ought to accept unquestioningly. Philanthrophy needs to be done with the consent and participation of the beneficiaries; otherwise it generally fails, and sometimes it causes complete disasters. For instance, you can completely destabilize an organization that is functioning well if you just hand one of its members a million dollar check without understanding the implications.

  12. Matt,

    First, thanks for removing the personal attacks. If you disagree with someone about something, blogs make all too easy the ugly tactic of hiding behind a pseudonym and/or misrepresenting who you are, while launching irresponsible and unfair personal attacks, safe in the knowledge that you can never be held to account for anything wrong you write, or for the ethics of your behavior. Those responsible for blogs need to keep this problem in mind.

    About the Nature piece, (which you don’t link to, it’s at). First of all, your “whose reputation is in precipitous decline within high-energy physics” I think is nonsense. If you can back it up with evidence you should do so. I had a fairly long conversation with Geoff Brumfiel on the phone that morning. He was also talking to Milner and some of the prize winners, among others, but I got the impression he was also aware that not everyone in the physics community thought the prize was a good idea (for reasons that include the ones you mention). However, think about it for a minute: how many prominent particle theorists, candidates for a $3 million check sometime in the next few years, were likely to go on the record for him that morning explaining the problems with the prize?

    So, Brumfiel was talking to me: he, like many other science journalists, has followed my blog for years, and has been able to make up his own mind about whether its worth paying attention to what I have to say, both in terms of accuracy, and whether I’m being completely idiosyncratic, or reflect opinions of significant parts of the HEP community. The quotes from me of course are very short, with no room for the many subtleties and caveats that would be necessary for perfectly accurate statements, but I think in context they are quite accurate. Going through them:

    1. “theories, such as string theory, that are basically untestable, says Peter Woit”
    This is completely accurate.
    2. “others work on theories, such as supersymmetry and extra dimensions, that are under serious strain as a result of new measurements at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)” The funny thing is that here Brumfiel was not really quoting me (“strain” was not a word I used). What he was referring to was the NYT article that had already appeared that morning, which contained: “Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle thought to have been discovered recently at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proved yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.”
    If you don’t think “under strain” is accurate, go yell at Nima. Personally I think “serious strain” in an understatement when it comes to the results on extra-dimensional models, more than defensible when it comes to the implications of LHC results for “natural” SUSY models.
    3. “A bunch of people are getting $3 million for doing something that is untestable or has just been shown to be wrong,” This is pithy, but accurate: the “untestable” refers to string theory, the “just been shown to be wrong” refers partly to Arkani-Hamed, whose prize specifically refers to “the proposal of large extra dimensions”, partly to the arguments for “natural” SUSY that Arkani-Hamed, Seiberg and Witten have heavily promoted. Yes, an accurate statement about “natural SUSY” would require a much much longer discussion, but “just been shown to be wrong” is a pretty accurate summary of the situation that Nima tries to beautify as “under strain”.
    4. About my commentary about the IAS, etc., I think this is accurate (and not that different than your own comments about the prize).

    All in all, I think the points I was making to Brumfiel are valid ones, and ones that many others in the HEP community share. They were made much more carefully and extensively on my blog, where they led to a long discussion with over a hundred comments, some of them from well-known and respected figures in the community. This discussion I think gave a very good idea what well-informed people think about the virtues and problems of the prize. You would likely be very surprised to hear about the private discussions this led to, and who they involved.

    1. I’m sorry, Peter, but you’re completely missing the point. You’re trying to redirect the discussion, as usual. My beef is not with you, but with Brumfiel.

      You say “However, think about it for a minute: how many prominent particle theorists, candidates for a $3 million check sometime in the next few years, were likely to go on the record for him that morning explaining the problems with the prize? ”

      Aside from the fact that “think about it for a moment” is condescending (as though I did not already think about it) there are many prominent particle physicists who will never get such a check. There are experimentalists, for instance. There are particle physicists who do collider theory and will never be considered. There are Nobel Prize winners such as Sheldon Glashow who have opposed the rise of string theory for years. There are famous biologists and chemists and astronomers who apparently are not eligible. Any one of these people has a significant scientific reputation and can speak to the point. It was completely inappropriate for Brumfiel to quote you (and no scientists) in this context.

      About the quote: Your statement was not accurate as quoted; that might not be your fault, but it is certainly Nature News’ fault. My question was why they published an inaccurate statement. Extra dimensions is also not excluded; again, I wish they were, but black hole searches and resonances are crude methods that do not cover the full range of possibilities. Nor has Arkani-Hamed only studied extra dimensions in his career; the fact that he’s most famous for that isn’t his fault. [It may be partly yours; not sure.]

      The statement that all sorts of theories are under strain, which was made by Arkani-Hamed, is of course accurate. To suggest that I would disagree with that is a straw-man; whenever you collect new data, most theories that anyone has ever invented start to go under strain. It’s accurate, but content-free. To say “just been shown to be wrong” is content-ful, but inaccurate. You’re very careless with words; a good scientist tries to be extremely careful, and you ought to set a better example, in my opinion.

      As for the discussions you had: this too is beside the point. You are a prominent blogger and it’s your role to have these discussions, make a lot of noise, etc., and that’s fine. I would not, despite your statement, be the slightest bit surprised at your various discussions, private and public.

      Meanwhile, my job, for now, is to do science, which is why I kept working and ignored the Milner thing entirely. And I’m going back to work now; please discuss this, and insult me as you like, on your own blog.

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