The Bogdanov Affair

Statement by Daniel Sternheimer:

November 5, 2002:

Dear Ark,

I congratulated [Robert Coquereaux] for being one of the few who have healthy views about this "storm in a teacup". I agree with his statement and conclusion...

In my opinion, [the Bogdanov brothers] genuinely believe in what they are doing. They were "wunderkinds", with an extremely high IQ, but they have a hard time understanding that they are not the "Einstein Bros." and that, in our diversified society, no talent is universal.

Their real talent is in popularization of science: they understand a lot, can even contribute to the scientific advances in interaction with others, but it is very hard for them to write papers in one of the styles accepted by the [scientific] communities. That is their curse, because they have (for unrelated reasons) enemies who want to bar them from popularization using any means, including finding people who (often naively, sometimes because they feel that the twins' style exposes too much the weaknesses of too many works in physics, or a combination of this and more, including following rumors spead) use the imperfections in formulation to disqualify the twins' original ideas instead of looking seriously at these ideas.

On the mathematical side, when they have a vague idea, it is possible with a lot of effort to make them (especially Grichka) write a small precise paper (and even then, in the last moment they may add what they think is a brilliant remark, but which is not so related to the remainder and can be badly formulated). That is what Majid has done, and that is an achievement. You seem to be trying to do the same with your discussion on the web: it is possible, because they have a point, but it is very difficult.

On the physical side, they have read a lot, understand in broad lines a lot, do get from it a somewhat original point of view, can even bring in new ideas, and can (especially Grichka) talk about it in a fascinating manner, at almost any level. That is their talent. Writing is an other thing. Their style is impressionistic.

In mathematics, a precise painting, or a photograph, are required. Sometimes the picture is slightly blurred, but then someone else can come to the same place and correct it -- once the place is discovered. I know of two Fields medallists, among the best, in that category.

In physics, the picture is often, for a mathematician, surrealistic. Some very good mathematical physicists can make it precise, but it requires a lot of effort and a long time. If there is a solid physical intuition behind it, the result can eventually make sense. The Dirac "delta function" is a very good (albeit elementary) example.

Their natural tendency is an impressionistic style, which is the best for popularization of science. You do not look at a picture by Sisley from a distance of 20cm, but from 2m it makes sense and conveys the impression. Then someone else can come and translate that impression in a more conventional style.

The [Bogdanov's] contribution to science can be looked at in the same manner. That is why they impress so many good physicists with their ideas and points of view. But one should not pick on the impreciseness of some details, even if the devil is there. Rather, one should try to understand what they mean and write it in a more conventional way. Many good scientists (even mathematicians) proceed in this way, like a sculptor: first a rough "ébauche", then a more precise rendering, and usually (but not always, especially in modern art) a fantastic masterpiece.

Unless someone else takes a lot of time with them, they stop at the first stage, what for others is an ébauche. Why not consider that as a new form of modern division of research work? Others should be inspired from what can be understood from the twins' writings and (especially) orally expressed ideas, and bring that into a more conventional form. Picking on what for a humanities thesis is a misplaced comma or rather abundant misspellings, does not contribute to the progress of science. Getting new ideas out of that does.

As to the formal (Ph.D.) issue, my role was more that of a Journal Editor. I understand the general ideas underlying their works. I find them a valid attempt towards a progress in science, even if I am not convinced that it is THE solution, assuming there is one.

The mathematical part of Grichka's thesis in itself is worth the rarely given passing mark ("mention honorable") he got, even more so if one takes into account the physical motivations. As to Igor, I relied on the community of physicists. He has a point. If referees in reputable journals consider his developments worth publication and if two external distinguished scientists sign reports that there is enough for a Ph.D., why should I be "more papist than the pope" and bar him from getting a degree he could get for the same work in a number of universities? (Not in France, because of the axiom that some of their enemies have spread, that the twins are charlatans, and because they never miss an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot.)

In view of the imprecisenesses, I insisted on the same mark (passing) as Grichka. So did Simonoff, the Jury chair, who knows them for many years and was their first supervisor -- and already in 1991/92 got pressures, which also went to Bordeaux I university to deny them renewal of registration. Simonoff can confirm that point, and I remember the facts because that is how Moshe and Dijon came in. Moshe felt that this was unacceptable a priori censorship, almost a witch hunt. What follows is a natural corollary, for honest independent people.

Good luck in your endeavour! I appreciate the effort, but maybe you should wait until you come to France to finish the work with the twins. It requires many face to face discussions, and they are as stubborn as a Cadet de Gascogne can be.



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