Tag Archives: press

You Can’t Smooth the Big Bang

As a kid, I was fascinated by cosmology. I wanted to know how the universe began, possibly disproving gods along the way, and I gobbled up anything that hinted at the answer.

At the time, I had to be content with vague slogans. As I learned more, I could match the slogans to the physics, to see what phrases like “the Big Bang” actually meant. A large part of why I went into string theory was to figure out what all those documentaries are actually about.

In the end, I didn’t end up working on cosmology due my ignorance of a few key facts while in college (mostly, who Vilenkin was). Thus, while I could match some of the old popularization stories to the science, there were a few I never really understood. In particular, there were two claims I never quite saw fleshed out: “The universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling” and “According to Hawking, the big bang was not a singularity, but a smooth change with no true beginning.”

As a result, I’m delighted that I’ve recently learned the physics behind these claims, in the context of a spirited take-down of both by Perimeter’s Director Neil Turok.

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My boss

Neil held a surprise string group meeting this week to discuss the paper I linked above, “No smooth beginning for spacetime” with Job Feldbrugge and Jean-Luc Lehners, as well as earlier work with Steffen Gielen. In it, he talked about problems in the two proposals I mentioned: Hawking’s suggestion that the big bang was smooth with no true beginning (really, the Hartle-Hawking no boundary proposal) and the idea that the universe emerged from nothing via quantum tunneling (really, Vilenkin’s tunneling from nothing proposal).

In popularization-speak, these two proposals sound completely different. In reality, though, they’re quite similar (and as Neil argues, they end up amounting to the same thing). I’ll steal a picture from his paper to illustrate:

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The picture on the left depicts the universe under the Hartle-Hawking proposal, with time increasing upwards on the page. As the universe gets older, it looks like the expanding (de Sitter) universe we live in. At the beginning, though, there’s a cap, one on which time ends up being treated not in the usual way (Lorentzian space) but on the same footing as the other dimensions (Euclidean space). This lets space be smooth, rather than bunching up in a big bang singularity. After treating time in this way the result is reinterpreted (via a quantum field theory trick called Wick rotation) as part of normal space-time.

What’s the connection to Vilenkin’s tunneling picture? Well, when we talk about quantum tunneling, we also end up describing it with Euclidean space. Saying that the universe tunneled from nothing and saying it has a Euclidean “cap” then end up being closely related claims.

Before Neil’s work these two proposals weren’t thought of as the same because they were thought to give different results. What Neil is arguing is that this is due to a fundamental mistake on Hartle and Hawking’s part. Specifically, Neil is arguing that the Wick rotation trick that Hartle and Hawking used doesn’t work in this context, when you’re trying to calculate small quantum corrections for gravity. In normal quantum field theory, it’s often easier to go to Euclidean space and use Wick rotation, but for quantum gravity Neil is arguing that this technique stops being rigorous. Instead, you should stay in Lorentzian space, and use a more powerful mathematical technique called Picard-Lefschetz theory.

Using this technique, Neil found that Hartle and Hawking’s nicely behaved result was mistaken, and the real result of what Hartle and Hawking were proposing looks more like Vilenkin’s tunneling proposal.

Neil then tried to see what happens when there’s some small perturbation from a perfect de Sitter universe. In general in physics if you want to trust a result it ought to be stable: small changes should stay small. Otherwise, you’re not really starting from the right point, and you should instead be looking at wherever the changes end up taking you. What Neil found was that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals weren’t stable. If you start with a small wiggle in your no-boundary universe you get, not the purple middle drawing with small wiggles, but the red one with wiggles that rapidly grow unstable. The implication is that the Hartle-Hawking and Vilenkin proposals aren’t just secretly the same, they also both can’t be the stable state of the universe.

Neil argues that this problem is quite general, and happens under the following conditions:

  1. A universe that begins smoothly and semi-classically (where quantum corrections are small) with no sharp boundary,
  2. with a positive cosmological constant (the de Sitter universe mentioned earlier),
  3. under which the universe expands many times, allowing the small fluctuations to grow large.

If the universe avoids one of those conditions (maybe the cosmological constant changes in the future and the universe stops expanding, for example) then you might be able to avoid Neil’s argument. But if not, you can’t have a smooth semi-classical beginning and still have a stable universe.

Now, no debate in physics ends just like that. Hartle (and collaborators) don’t disagree with Neil’s insistence on Picard-Lefschetz theory, but they argue there’s still a way to make their proposal work. Neil mentioned at the group meeting that he thinks even the new version of Hartle’s proposal doesn’t solve the problem, he’s been working out the calculation with his collaborators to make sure.

Often, one hears about an idea from science popularization and then it never gets mentioned again. The public hears about a zoo of proposals without ever knowing which ones worked out. I think child-me would appreciate hearing what happened to Hawking’s proposal for a universe with no boundary, and to Vilenkin’s proposal for a universe emerging from nothing. Adult-me certainly does. I hope you do too.

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The Many Worlds of Condensed Matter

Physics is the science of the very big and the very small. We study the smallest scales, the fundamental particles that make up the universe, and the largest, stars on up to the universe as a whole.

We also study the world in between, though.

That’s the domain of condensed matter, the study of solids, liquids, and other medium-sized arrangements of stuff. And while it doesn’t make the news as often, it’s arguably the biggest field in physics today.

(In case you’d like some numbers, the American Physical Society has divisions dedicated to different sub-fields. Condensed Matter Physics is almost twice the size of the next biggest division, Particles & Fields. Add in other sub-fields that focus on medium-sized-stuff, like those who work on solid state physics, optics, or biophysics, and you get a majority of physicists focused on the middle of the distance scale.)

When I started grad school, I didn’t pay much attention to condensed matter and related fields. Beyond the courses in quantum field theory and string theory, my “breadth” courses were on astrophysics and particle physics. But over and over again, from people in every sub-field, I kept hearing the same recommendation:

“You should take Solid State Physics. It’s a really great course!”

At the time, I never understood why. It was only later, once I had some research under my belt, that I realized:

Condensed matter uses quantum field theory!

The same basic framework, describing the world in terms of rippling quantum fields, doesn’t just work for fundamental particles. It also works for materials. Rather than describing the material in terms of its fundamental parts, condensed matter physicists “zoom out” and talk about overall properties, like sound waves and electric currents, treating them as if they were the particles of quantum field theory.

This tends to confuse the heck out of journalists. Not used to covering condensed matter (and sometimes egged on by hype from the physicists), they mix up the metaphorical particles of these systems with the sort of particles made by the LHC, with predictably dumb results.

Once you get past the clumsy journalism, though, this kind of analogy has a lot of value.

Occasionally, you’ll see an article about string theory providing useful tools for condensed matter. This happens, but it’s less widespread than some of the articles make it out to be: condensed matter is a huge and varied field, and string theory applications tend to be of interest to only a small piece of it.

It doesn’t get talked about much, but the dominant trend is actually in the other direction: increasingly, string theorists need to have at least a basic background in condensed matter.

String theory’s curse/triumph is that it can give rise not just to one quantum field theory, but many: a vast array of different worlds obtained by twisting extra dimensions in different ways. Particle physicists tend to study a fairly small range of such theories, looking for worlds close enough to ours that they still fit the evidence.

Condensed matter, in contrast, creates its own worlds. Pick the right material, take the right slice, and you get quantum field theories of almost any sort you like. While you can’t go to higher dimensions than our usual four, you can certainly look at lower ones, at the behavior of currents on a sheet of metal or atoms arranged in a line. This has led some condensed matter theorists to examine a wide range of quantum field theories with one strange behavior or another, theories that wouldn’t have occurred to particle physicists but that, in many cases, are part of the cornucopia of theories you can get out of string theory.

So if you want to explore the many worlds of string theory, the many worlds of condensed matter offer a useful guide. Increasingly, tools from that community, like integrability and tensor networks, are migrating over to ours.

It’s gotten to the point where I genuinely regret ignoring condensed matter in grad school. Parts of it are ubiquitous enough, and useful enough, that some of it is an expected part of a string theorist’s background. The many worlds of condensed matter, as it turned out, were well worth a look.

Pop Goes the Universe and Other Cosmic Microwave Background Games

(With apologies to whoever came up with this “book”.)

Back in February, Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb wrote an article for Scientific American titled “Pop Goes the Universe” criticizing cosmic inflation, the proposal that the universe underwent a period of rapid expansion early in its life, smoothing it out to achieve the (mostly) uniform universe we see today. Recently, Scientific American published a response by Guth, Kaiser, Linde, Nomura, and 29 co-signers. This was followed by a counterresponse, which is the usual number of steps for this sort of thing before it dissipates harmlessly into the blogosphere.

In general, string theory, supersymmetry, and inflation tend to be criticized in very similar ways. Each gets accused of being unverifiable, able to be tuned to match any possible experimental result. Each has been claimed to be unfairly dominant, its position as “default answer” more due to the bandwagon effect than the idea’s merits. All three tend to get discussed in association with the multiverse, and blamed for dooming physics as a result. And all are frequently defended with one refrain: “If you have a better idea, what is it?”

It’s probably tempting (on both sides) to view this as just another example of that argument. In reality, though, string theory, supersymmetry, and inflation are all in very different situations. The details matter. And I worry that in this case both sides are too ready to assume the other is just making the “standard argument”, and ended up talking past each other.

When people say that string theory makes no predictions, they’re correct in a sense, but off topic: the majority of string theorists aren’t making the sort of claims that require successful predictions. When people say that inflation makes no predictions, if you assume they mean the same thing that people mean when they accuse string theory of making no predictions, then they’re flat-out wrong. Unlike string theorists, most people who work on inflation care a lot about experiment. They write papers filled with predictions, consequences for this or that model if this or that telescope sees something in the near future.

I don’t think Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb were making that kind of argument.

When people say that supersymmetry makes no predictions, there’s some confusion of scope. (Low-energy) supersymmetry isn’t one specific proposal that needs defending on its own. It’s a class of different models, each with its own predictions. Given a specific proposal, one can see if it’s been ruled out by experiment, and predict what future experiments might say about it. Ruling out one model doesn’t rule out supersymmetry as a whole, but it doesn’t need to, because any given researcher isn’t arguing for supersymmetry as a whole: they’re arguing for their particular setup. The right “scope” is between specific supersymmetric models and specific non-supersymmetric models, not both as general principles.

Guth, Kaiser, Linde, and Nomura’s response follows similar lines in defending inflation. They point out that the wide variety of models are subject to being ruled out in the face of observation, and compare to the construction of the Standard Model in particle physics, with many possible parameters under the overall framework of Quantum Field Theory.

Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb’s article certainly looked like it was making this sort of mistake. But as they clarify in the FAQ of their counter-response, they’ve got a more serious objection. They’re arguing that, unlike in the case of supersymmetry or the Standard Model, specific inflation models do not lead to specific predictions. They’re arguing that, because inflation typically leads to a multiverse, any specific model will in fact lead to a wide variety of possible observations. In effect, they’re arguing that the multitude of people busily making predictions based on inflationary models are missing a step in their calculations, underestimating their errors by a huge margin.

This is where I really regret that these arguments usually end after three steps (article, response, counter-response). Here Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb are making what is essentially a technical claim, one that Guth, Kaiser, Linde, and Nomura could presumably respond to with a technical response, after which the rest of us would actually learn something. As-is, I certainly don’t have the background in inflation to know whether or not this point makes sense, and I’d love to hear from someone who does.

One aspect of this exchange that baffled me was the “accusation” that Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb were just promoting their own work on bouncing cosmologies. (I put “accusation” in quotes because while Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb seem to treat it as if it were an accusation, Guth, Kaiser, Linde, and Nomura don’t obviously mean it as one.)

“Bouncing cosmology” is Ijjas, Steinhardt, and Loeb’s answer to the standard “If you have a better idea, what is it?” response. It wasn’t the focus of their article, but while they seem to think this speaks well of them (hence their treatment of “promoting their own work” as if it were an accusation), I don’t. I read a lot of Scientific American growing up, and the best articles focused on explaining a positive vision: some cool new idea, mainstream or not, that could capture the public’s interest. That kind of article could still have included criticism of inflation, you’d want it in there to justify the use of a bouncing cosmology. But by going beyond that, it would have avoided falling into the standard back and forth that these arguments tend to, and maybe we would have actually learned from the exchange.

Poll Results, and What’s Next

I’ll leave last week’s poll up a while longer as more votes trickle in, but the overall pattern (beyond “Zipflike“) is pretty clear.

From pretty early on, most requests were for more explanations of QFT, gravity, and string theory concepts, with amplitudes content a clear second. This is something I can definitely do more of: I haven’t had much inspiration for interesting pieces of this sort recently, but it’s something I can ramp up in future.

I suspect that many of the people voting for more QFT and more amplitudes content were also interested in something else, though: more physics news. Xezlec mentioned that with Résonaances and Of Particular Significance quiet, there’s an open niche for vaguely reasonable people blogging about physics.

The truth is, I didn’t think of adding a “more physics news” option to the poll. I’m not a great source of news: not being a phenomenologist, I don’t keep up with the latest experimental results, and since my sub-field is small and insular I’m not always aware of the latest thing Witten or Maldacena is working on.

For an example of the former: recently, various LHC teams presented results at the Moriond and Aspen conferences, with no new evidence of supersymmetry in the data they’ve gathered thus far. This triggered concessions on several bets about SUSY (including an amusingly awkward conversation about how to pay one of them).

And I only know about that because other bloggers talked about it.

So I’m not going to be a reliable source of physics news.

With that said, knowing there’s a sizable number of people interested in this kind of thing is helpful. I’ve definitely had times when I saw something I found interesting, but wasn’t sure if my audience would care. (For example, recently there’s been some substantial progress on the problem that gave this blog its name.) Now that I know some of you are interested, I’ll err on the side of posting about these kinds of things.

“What’s it like to be a physicist” and science popularization were both consistently third and fourth in the poll, switching back and forth as more votes came in. This tells me that while many of you want more technical content, there are still people interested in pieces aimed to a broader audience, so I won’t abandon those.

The other topics were fairly close together, with the more “news-y” ones (astrophysics/cosmology and criticism of bad science coverage) beating the less “news-y” ones. This also supports my guess that people were looking for a “more physics news” option. A few people even voted for “more arguments”, which was really more of a joke topic: getting into arguments with other bloggers tends to bring in readers, but it’s not something I ever plan to do intentionally.

So, what’s next? I’ll explain more quantum field theory, talk more about interesting progress in amplitudes, and mention news when I come across it, trusting you guys to find it interesting. I’ll keep up with the low-level stuff, and with trying to humanize physics, to get the public to understand what being a physicist is all about. And I’ll think about some of the specific suggestions you gave: I’m always looking for good post ideas.

Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.

The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.

Should it bother you?

That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.

Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.

Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.

And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.

Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.

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Example:

How do you tell people about it?

One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.

Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.

In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.

The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.

Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.

(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)

They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.

Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?

What if the waterfall isn’t there?

wonder_mountain_dry_backside_waterfall

Like so:

The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.

What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.

As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.

As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.

What’s in a Conjecture? An ER=EPR Example

A few weeks back, Caltech’s Institute of Quantum Information and Matter released a short film titled Quantum is Calling. It’s the second in what looks like will become a series of pieces featuring Hollywood actors popularizing ideas in physics. The first used the game of Quantum Chess to talk about superposition and entanglement. This one, featuring Zoe Saldana, is about a conjecture by Juan Maldacena and Leonard Susskind called ER=EPR. The conjecture speculates that pairs of entangled particles (as investigated by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen) are in some sense secretly connected by wormholes (or Einstein-Rosen bridges).

The film is fun, but I’m not sure ER=EPR is established well enough to deserve this kind of treatment.

At this point, some of you are nodding your heads for the wrong reason. You’re thinking I’m saying this because ER=EPR is a conjecture.

I’m not saying that.

The fact of the matter is, conjectures play a very important role in theoretical physics, and “conjecture” covers a wide range. Some conjectures are supported by incredibly strong evidence, just short of mathematical proof. Others are wild speculations, “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” ER=EPR is, well…somewhere in the middle.

Most popularizers don’t spend much effort distinguishing things in this middle ground. I’d like to talk a bit about the different sorts of evidence conjectures can have, using ER=EPR as an example.

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Our friendly neighborhood space octopus

The first level of evidence is motivation.

At its weakest, motivation is the “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” line of reasoning. Some conjectures never get past this point. Hawking’s chronology protection conjecture, for instance, points out that physics (and to some extent logic) has a hard time dealing with time travel, and wouldn’t it be convenient if time travel was impossible?

For ER=EPR, this kind of motivation comes from the black hole firewall paradox. Without going into it in detail, arguments suggested that the event horizons of older black holes would resemble walls of fire, incinerating anything that fell in, in contrast with Einstein’s picture in which passing the horizon has no obvious effect at the time. ER=EPR provides one way to avoid this argument, making event horizons subtle and smooth once more.

Motivation isn’t just “wouldn’t it be convenient if…” though. It can also include stronger arguments: suggestive comparisons that, while they could be coincidental, when put together draw a stronger picture.

In ER=EPR, this comes from certain similarities between the type of wormhole Maldacena and Susskind were considering, and pairs of entangled particles. Both connect two different places, but both do so in an unusually limited way. The wormholes of ER=EPR are non-traversable: you cannot travel through them. Entangled particles can’t be traveled through (as you would expect), but more generally can’t be communicated through: there are theorems to prove it. This is the kind of suggestive similarity that can begin to motivate a conjecture.

(Amusingly, the plot of the film breaks this in both directions. Keanu Reeves can neither steal your cat through a wormhole, nor send you coded messages with entangled particles.)

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Nor live forever as the portrait in his attic withers away

Motivation is a good reason to investigate something, but a bad reason to believe it. Luckily, conjectures can have stronger forms of evidence. Many of the strongest conjectures are correspondences, supported by a wealth of non-trivial examples.

In science, the gold standard has always been experimental evidence. There’s a reason for that: when you do an experiment, you’re taking a risk. Doing an experiment gives reality a chance to prove you wrong. In a good experiment (a non-trivial one) the result isn’t obvious from the beginning, so that success or failure tells you something new about the universe.

In theoretical physics, there are things we can’t test with experiments, either because they’re far beyond our capabilities or because the claims are mathematical. Despite this, the overall philosophy of experiments is still relevant, especially when we’re studying a correspondence.

“Correspondence” is a word we use to refer to situations where two different theories are unexpectedly computing the same thing. Often, these are very different theories, living in different dimensions with different sorts of particles. With the right “dictionary”, though, you can translate between them, doing a calculation in one theory that matches a calculation in the other one.

Even when we can’t do non-trivial experiments, then, we can still have non-trivial examples. When the result of a calculation isn’t obvious from the beginning, showing that it matches on both sides of a correspondence takes the same sort of risk as doing an experiment, and gives the same sort of evidence.

Some of the best-supported conjectures in theoretical physics have this form. AdS/CFT is technically a conjecture: a correspondence between string theory in a hyperbola-shaped space and my favorite theory, N=4 super Yang-Mills. Despite being a conjecture, the wealth of nontrivial examples is so strong that it would be extremely surprising if it turned out to be false.

ER=EPR is also a correspondence, between entangled particles on the one hand and wormholes on the other. Does it have nontrivial examples?

Some, but not enough. Originally, it was based on one core example, an entangled state that could be cleanly matched to the simplest wormhole. Now, new examples have been added, covering wormholes with electric fields and higher spins. The full “dictionary” is still unclear, with some pairs of entangled particles being harder to describe in terms of wormholes. So while this kind of evidence is being built, it isn’t as solid as our best conjectures yet.

I’m fine with people popularizing this kind of conjecture. It deserves blog posts and press articles, and it’s a fine idea to have fun with. I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with the Bohemian Gravity guy doing a piece on it, for example. But for the second installment of a star-studded series like the one Caltech is doing…it’s not really there yet, and putting it there gives people the wrong idea.

I hope I’ve given you a better idea of the different types of conjectures, from the most fuzzy to those just shy of certain. I’d like to do this kind of piece more often, though in future I’ll probably stick with topics in my sub-field (where I actually know what I’m talking about 😉 ). If there’s a particular conjecture you’re curious about, ask in the comments!

A Tale of Two Archives

When it comes to articles about theoretical physics, I have a pet peeve, one made all the more annoying by the fact that it appears even in pieces that are otherwise well written. It involves the following disclaimer:

“This article has not been peer-reviewed.”

Here’s the thing: if you’re dealing with experiments, peer review is very important. Plenty of experiments have subtle problems with their methods, enough that it’s important to have a group of experts who can check them. In experimental fields, you really shouldn’t trust things that haven’t been through a journal yet: there’s just a lot that can go wrong.

In theoretical physics, though, peer review is important for different reasons. Most papers are mathematically rigorous enough that they’re not going to be wrong per se, and most of the ways they could be wrong won’t be caught by peer review. While peer review sometimes does catch mistakes, much more often it’s about assessing the significance of a result. Peer review determines whether a result gets into a prestigious journal or a less prestigious one, which in turn matters for job and grant applications.

As such, it doesn’t really make sense for a journalist to point out that a theoretical physics paper hasn’t been peer reviewed yet. If you think it’s important enough to write an article about, then you’ve already decided it’s significant: peer review wasn’t going to tell you anything else.

We physicists post our papers to arXiv, a free-to-access paper repository, before submitting them to journals. While arXiv does have some moderation, it’s not much: pretty much anyone in the field can post whatever they want.

This leaves a lot of people confused. In that sort of system, how do we know which papers to trust?

Let’s compare to another archive: Archive of Our Own, or AO3 for short.

Unlike arXiv, AO3 hosts not physics, but fanfiction. However, like arXiv it’s quite lightly moderated and free to access. On arXiv you want papers you can trust, on AO3 you want stories you enjoy. In each case, if anyone can post, how do you find them?

The first step is filtering. AO3 and arXiv both have systems of tags and subject headings. The headings on arXiv are simpler and more heavily moderated than those on AO3, but they both serve the purpose of letting people filter out the subjects, whether scientific or fictional, that they find interesting. If you’re interested in astrophysics, try astro-ph on arXiv. If you want Harry Potter fanfiction, try the “Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling” tag on AO3.

Beyond that, it helps to pay attention to authors. When an author has written something you like, it’s worth it not only to keep up with other things they write, but to see which other authors they like and pay attention to them as well. That’s true whether the author is Juan Maldacena or your favorite source of Twilight fanfic.

Even if you follow all of this, you can’t trust every paper you find on arXiv. You also won’t enjoy everything you dig up on AO3. Either way, publication (in journals or books) won’t solve your problem: both are an additional filter, but not an infallible one. Judgement is still necessary.

This is all to say that “this article has not been peer-reviewed” can be a useful warning, but often isn’t. In theoretical physics, knowing who wrote an article and what it’s about will often tell you much more than whether or not it’s been peer-reviewed yet.