The Bogdanov Affair

Daniel Sternheimer responds to:

French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics

(which has been posted in full on a newsgroup. A few excerpts for background are inserted before Daniel's response):
It didn't move at quite the speed of light, but the rumor last month circled the globe within minutes and roiled the ranks of theoretical physicists. It seemed that a pair of French twin brothers who were national television personalities had duped several physics journals by tying together a nonsensical string of trendy terms and mathematical equations in papers that slipped through the peer-review process. [...]

Over the next week, more rumors, facts, and accusations spread through e-mail messages and telephone calls as physicists engaged in a round of finger-pointing, with many Americans lining up to chastise their Continental counterparts. In the end, the case turned out to be far more complex than a hoax, and it exposed potentially wide cracks in how theoretical physicists judge one another's work. [...]

Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, maintain that they are doing serious work that seeks to answer one of the most fundamental questions of all: What was the universe like at the moment of the Big Bang? At that instant, all space and time were squeezed into a point without any width or duration -- an infinitesimal space called a singularity. "For the first time, we have a description of the content of this initial singularity. That's quite valuable and important," says Grichka, who blames the current controversy on longstanding grudges held by French scientists and members of the French publishing industry. [...]

The 49-year-old Bogdanov brothers have an unusual and eclectic past. In an interview, the two say their parents both came from aristocratic families -- Russian on their father's side, Austrian on their mother's -- that fled their homelands to settle in France. Their mother's father, they say, was Roland Hayes, one of the first successful black concert singers in the United States. Always good in science, the brothers intended to pursue doctorates in physics but got sidetracked when they started a television show, in 1980, that ran for 10 years. Other shows followed, and they collaborated with Jean Guitton, the French philosopher, in writing a best seller, God and Science (Grasset, 1991). The two say they started serious work on their dissertations in 1993. They studied under Moshe Flato, a mathematical physicist at Bourgogne. When Mr Flato died, in 1998, they continued with his colleague Daniel Sternheimer, who teaches at the university and is also a research professor with the National Center for Scientific Research, in Dijon.

From Daniel Sternheimer:

Dear Monastersky,

I have been forwarded the text of your November 5 Chronicle article, entitled "French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics". I shall make only a few comments on facts.

1. You write:

"According to Mr. Sternheimer, Grichka Bogdanov applied for his physics in 1999 but was granted one in mathematics instead"

There must be a misunderstanding. Our group (UMR 5029) is in mathematical physics, and its members are affiliated with the Department of Mathematics of Université de Bourgogne or with the Section of Mathematics in CNRS (or visitors and students). I was sole (administrative) supervisor for Grichka in Dijon. In 1999, given his Thesis, though we have a common "Ecole Doctorale" at our UFR ("faculty") Sciences et Techniques, it was clear that Grichka's thesis was in mathematics and that appears on the cover of the final Ms. In both cases there was only one other professor from Dijon to complete the Jury: for Grichka, it was a mathematics professor; for Igor, it was a theoretical physics professor: that is not coincidental.

Dieu et la Science2. You write:

"Trinh X. Thuan, a professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia, sued the Bogdanovs in France a decade ago, charging that, in God and Science, they had plagiarized his book The Secret Melody:And Man Created the Universe (published in English by Oxford UniversityPress in 1995). In the end, he says, the judge found in his favor,and the brothers, along with their publisher, had to pay 80,000 francs to Mr. Thuan. The brothers say that they did not commit plagiarism and that Mr. Thuan had copied earlier work of their own, so they never paid him any money."

"TXT" is certainly a well established astrophysicist and he is also a quite successful writer of essays, even if none of his essays had the success of "Dieu et la Science". But his memory is very partial.

It is true that a first court decision (in "référé" in 1991, confirmed in 1992) gave Fayard and him a modest provision of 50000 FFR (50kF) from Grasset and 15kF from the twins. But in January 1994, four members of the French Académie des Sciences (Yves Coppens, Jean Dorst, André Lichnerowicz, Etienne Wolf) issued an affidavit, confirmed by Jacques Friedel, then President of the Academy, giving among others a non exhaustive list of 9 quotations, 5 of them appearing in "La mélodie secrète", which come from texts by Guitton or the twins prior to the latter (from 1963, 1986 and early 1987).

Prior to that, the magazine Paris Match had given, in its September 12, 1991, and confirmed in affidavits from October 1993 and January 1994, examples proving that TXT had reproduced parts of a "Grand Document" of 50 typewritten pages by Guitton and the twins (December 1986) on the place of God in modern science, and some of another (January 1987) based on the transcript of an interview of Carl Sagan by the twins.

After that a first court decision in March 1994 awarded only 60kF+20KFto TXT for some technicalities. The whole matter of respective accusations of plagiarism went on, but was eventually stopped short by Hachette and an out-of-court agreement was reached, according to which the provisions were returned, TXT renounced to the 80kF, each side paid for the court and lawyer expenses it had made, and the following press release was issued by Hachette (the translation is mine, and I cut some civilities and full names):

"Regretting the echos in the media of the dispute between them, Fayard and their author TXT, Grasset and their authors Guitton and Messrs Bogdanov, have decided to put a final stop to it, leaving to the whole scientific community the expressions and metaphores to which both of them referred, preserving in this way the respective integrityof the authors."

I have copies of original documents proving the above facts.

The discrepancies between what TXT told you and the last agreement, which he signed along with all parties involved on May 13, 1995, are (mildly speaking) strange. They are far more serious than many menial errors or misrepresentations that the twins let pass (like some about their age, which I have seen in a magazine quoted as 38 when theywere 50; that was 2 years ago; like many women, TV stars feel often flattered to be thought younger than they are).

Another fact is that the "Secret Melody" is now being re-edited and should be out in December (I found that with "Google"). Still another is that "Dieu et la Science" was never published in English (though it has been translated in many languages), and that lawyers' fees in the US can exceed by far any profit from translations. Any connection between these facts is surely coincidental.

2. You quote Laurent Freidel, who until recently was at ENS-Lyon,"I'm very upset about that because I have received e-mail from people in the community asking me why I've defended the Bogdanov brothers," a very interesting sentence by its tone.

I do not know the truth about the menial facts involved, and I do not know Mr Freidel except for having seen his e-prints on the web. But I find very interesting that he is upset about being seen in the community as defending the twins, as if they were to be avoided like the plague. That is characteristic of the underground rumors that have been circulated in the French physics community, as if it was an axiom that the twins are charlatans. That is unfortunately not infrequent in France, dealing with unconventional people. I am particularly sensitive to that because (at a far different scale) Moshe Flato was subject to it for quite sometime. An anecdote is typical of that.

In 1966 Flato was travelling in "turbotrain" to Caen, where Lichnerowicz and others had organized the second "Colloque de Caen" that was to shape Edgar Faure's reform of French higher education after May 1968 (and where Flato arranged a working breakfast between Giscard d'Estaing, then only former minister and also former student of Lichnerowicz at Polytechnique, and the Israeli ambassador Walter Eytan).

Flato had arrived from the Racah school in Israel in October 1963 and was then visiting professor in Lyon, but mostly still with the de Broglie group at Institut Henri Poincaré (IHP). Next to him on the train was a nice gentleman and of course Flato started talking with him. Soon they discovered that both were theoretical physicists going to the same meeting, and they had a very friendly and lively discussion. At some point the gentleman asked Flato where he was. When Flato answered IHP, the gentleman told him, horrified: "Keep away from Flato!"

Indeed, Flato never hesitated to ask embarassing questions to leading scientists in seminars, e.g. when they were making incorrect statements on group theory. He even did that in 1969 in Stockholm to Gell'Mann during the latter's scientific Nobel lecture at the Royal Institute of Technology. In a typical French way, such an unconventional attitude gave rise to rumors that the gentleman spread further, sure as he was that the nice and smart physicist next to him cannot be that Flato.

Of course, the twins are not of Flato's caliber (very few are). But, mutatis mutandi, the above sentence shows that rumors still play an important role, at least in France.

3. To conclude, I shall borrow a quotation from Robert Coquereaux,from Centre de Physique Théorique in Marseille-Luminy and presently director of the Centre International de Rencontres Mathématiques there. It can be found on the web at the site of Arkadiusz Jadczyk:

I am maybe too much receptive to their charismatic character, but I find the two quite sympathetic. On the top of it they seem to do something nice, at the media level, to draw the attention of young people to Science. When they appear on French TV or radio, they seem to succeed in tempting people to learn more about science, and maybe they can even trigger vocations. What the two brothers also say is that people should be better educated in science, that science is fantastic, that mathematics gives you the right language to be precise and frame your ideas, that by doing that, people would not mix (or would less mix) science and superstition> etc etc. All these ideas are also mine, and yours, I am sure. ...... "Ils ne méritent ni cet excès d'honneur ni cette ignominie..." but they have shown, probably without having such a purpose, that something goes very wrong in our community.

I totally agree with it. The first part was my main motivation in going on with their theses, in addition to my conviction that they were subject to what cannot be called otherwise than character killing, which is unfair, and my moral obligation to assume Flato's legacy.The fuss about their theses should never have happened, and would never have if it was not for those rumors. Still, if out of this can come a serious reflection on what has become of modern theoretical physics in several domains, the impact of their works will turn out to be very positive, far more than the possible impact of their speculative ideas.


Daniel Sternheimer

PS. I do not teach at Université de Bourgogne. Even a serious journalist like you can make menial errors. My position is only with CNRS, a nationwide research organization. For many years I was formally affiliated with groups in Paris, though I came often to Dijon. Since 1996 I am formally affiliated with UMR (Unité Mixte de Recherche) 5029, depending on both institutions (getting a little money from CNRS and much more from the University; salaries are not part of the budget). That UMR is the present form of the research group founded in 1968 by Flato when he came to Dijon.



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