I have been neglecting this series over the summer, so there are rather a lot of things to highlight today.
- The most interesting piece of physics news over the last few months has been that the wealthy Russian investor and physics fan, Yuri Milner, decided to award a 'Fundamental Physics Prize' to 9 theorists he chose himself. The amount of the award is a staggering $3 million each, wired overnight into the physicist's bank accounts — as many people have pointed out, this makes the prize worth far far more than the Nobel Prize. Suddenly being a physicist almost appears to be a lucrative career choice. The lucky physicists were Nima Arkani-Hamed, Alan Guth, Alexei Kitaev, Maxim Kontsevich, Andrei Linde, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, Ashoke Sen and Ed Witten. All big names in theoretical physics.
- Unsurprisingly, the award of this prize generated a lot of debate. For one thing, it is a huge amount of money. For another, the prizes were awarded basically on the whim of one man, who is not a physicist himself. But perhaps the most controversial thing was reported in the New York Times:
Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later.This was picked up on by Peter Woit, who is of course well-known for his dislike of some of the work on string theory that the said physicists are famous for, and was highly critical of the prize, including in an article for an Italian newspaper (English transcript from his blog). I guess most physicists would share his unease with the prize, if perhaps not with string theory itself. It was quite amusing to read Matt Strassler finding himself in a position of agreement with Woit but managing to attack him nevertheless (I get the feeling he really dislikes Woit).
- Motivated by this discussion, Strassler did put up a very interesting and nuanced personal defence of string theory. Whether you have an opinion on 'The String Wars' or not, you will probably have heard strong criticisms of string theory. This piece will provide some balance.
- Among the other worthwhile physics discussions were two guest posts at Cosmic Variance: by Terry Rudolph and Douglas Finkbeiner. Both discuss recent research work (in quantum mechanics and searches for dark matter, respectively) and both include interesting little insights into the world of academic publishing.
- Outside physics, I saw a piece by Dr. Dave Hone in the Guardian science section that includes the lines:
[...] we have dinosaurs everywhere around us. We have dinosaurs nesting in trees in our gardens, tiny dinosaurs that can hover and fly backwards and feed on nectar, aquatic dinosaurs that live in Antarctica. There are dinosaurs that we eat, we have dinosaurs that can circle the globe without landing, intelligent and puzzle-solving dinosaurs, tall and flightless dinosaurs that can sprint at over 40 miles and hour, and brightly coloured and beautiful dinosaurs almost too numerous to mention.
- Of course the big news over the summer has been the Olympics. It's been impossible to miss the outpourings of national pride in British newspapers at Team GB's medal tally and I have heard also of despondency in countries such as Russia and Australia. But what is the benefit to a nation from this arms race for medals? This was discussed, rather provocatively perhaps given the timing, by Ian Johnson in the New York Review of Books.
- There's been a lot of discussion in the US about the Republican presidential ticket, and in the UK about the dire state of the national economy, now in a longer slump than during the Great Depression. Paul Krugman made the obvious connection, and labelled Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne "Britain's Paul Ryan." That post includes a graph that should be shown to everyone who still believes austerity in the recession is the answer to anything:
predicted back in 2010:
The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits — and so it is. But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction.See also here.
- Of course some people might remember the 20 "leading economists" who wrote an open letter to The Sunday Times supporting George Osborne's fiscal plans back before the 2010 election. Well, some time ago the New Statesman had the bright idea to go back and ask them if they still stuck by their advice: 9 of the 20 had changed their minds, 10 refused to comment, and only one still agreed with himself.
- You might wonder what a poor politician is to do: if you have only a degree in History and an ideology as substitutes for genuine competence, you naturally rely on the advice of professional macroeconomists. But when the economists disagree with each other, which ones should you listen to? Jonathan Portes had a post laying out some sensible criteria for judging who to take seriously. Unsurprisingly, people like Krugman, Simon Wren-Lewis and Martin Wolf passed the test, but none of the Sunday Times economists did. Portes notes that not all those who pass his test always agree with each other — but he still always takes them seriously.
- The New York Review of Books carries a review of two books on the current global and American economic mess by Paul Krugman (End This Depression Now!) and Joseph Stiglitz (The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future). What particularly interested me here was learning just how radical Stiglitz appears to be.
- Incidentally, for those who were interested in the Niall Ferguson episode featured here, John Cassidy in the New Yorker has a longer look at the arguments, and comes to the same conclusions: Ferguson is a lightweight who is being repeatedly knocked to the canvas, and this "isn't a fair fight".
- And finally, since I'd like to end on an uplifting note, here's a video to cheer us all up.