The Bogdanov Affair

Daniel Sternheimer: Mise au point

By this comment I would like to bring the present storm in a teacup to what I feel is its right proportions and implications.

Dieu et la Science Personally, I get better the flavor of some idea in what the Bogdanov brothers (hereafter, I+G) wrote than in a number of papers published in reputed physics journals. But I don't pretend to have universal wisdom and I am in favor of freedom of expression, including for points of view I do not share (which, incidentally, applies to the underlying philosophy of "Dieu et la Science", the book the success of which seems to me a remote cause of the present collective hysteria).

At a time when so many scientific papers consist in just applying some machinery in a context which is, or seems, slightly different of previous applications, it is refreshing that a few intelligent persons having a different perspective try and bring in new ideas. It is then to others, who are more experts, to be inspired by these ideas. That is what happened when I+G were discussing with established scientists who had no idea that I+G should be deemed pariahs, apparently because someone decided so. A number of well-established scientists (who, incidentally, are not so happy to see their names dropped, often out of context) found in those discussions interesting, even original points of view, in spite their often impressionistic style, or maybe because that style triggers reflection better than too precise a formulation.

Publishing a paper is a way to extend that interaction. If a reputed physics journal publishes it, that means that at least one of their referees (usually two) found in the paper ideas and/or results that deserve to be shared with others, and that this did not seem absurd to at least one Editor.

The PhDs they got are merely recognition that the theses have been found deserving being defended by referees and that the author has published papers in refereed journals; plus a recognition of the fact that they worked hard for that and satisfied all formal requirements. We do not have to out-Herod Herod (in German or Yiddish, to be "more papists than the pope", or "more royalists than the king" in French). The low mark they got is justified by their recurrent non academic style.

In mathematics the standards are usually different but refereeing can often take one or two years, and then most journals have a backlog, which increases the delay. Such a delay is intolerable in physics, where the "mean lifetime" of many papers is very short.

In mathematical physics we try to have a process as close as possible to that in physics, with quality assessment as close as possible to that in mathematics: that is very hard to achieve, especially given the burden it brings on referees. It may happen that we publish papers with non rigorous or unfinished proofs, but (at least as far as I am concerned) we require the author to make that clear in his paper. We would not have published I+G papers as they were, because of that; neither would we publish many papers that do appear in physics journals, and justly so, given the present mathematical standards of the community.

There may be some excesses nowadays, hence the uneasiness that is now felt and increases the impact in the media, maybe even triggered the false conjecture that I+G's papers were a hoax (they are far from that). Furthermore, had they been able to write a scaled down paper with a better exposition of part of the ideas and some hints as to how one might prove them some day, mathematical physics journals could probably have accepted a paper like that (from what I understand, some people are now beginning a process that may bring just that).

The standards of the physics community are a necessity in that field. Maybe now, as a positive aftermath of the present fuss, some physics journals will, in theoretical matters, get closer to mathematical physics standards.

By the standards commonly used in mathematics, many theoretical papers, including some that have been rewarded by a Nobel prize (don't misunderstand me, I do not think that I+G have any chance to get even close to such a distinction) would not have been published.

Only now some of the most seminal advances in physics are getting closer to be understood mathematically, and fundamental results are proved in more conventional areas. This requires great talent and hard work.

After some period of eclipse, physics is again inspiring fantastic mathematical advances, and vice-versa. These two communities, that in most of the 20th century became "separated by a common language" (a quotation from Sir Michael Atiyah in his closing lecture of the 2000 International Congress in Mathematical Physics in London, the congress of an Association which by the way was initiated in the early 70's by Flato and myself) are now trying again to understand each other. The attempts are not always successful, but it is important they are made.

The fuss arose (in part) because of the non professional way the articles of I+G are written. But their talent in appealing to young -- and less young -- viewers is almost contradictory with writing in a totally professional way.

They "speak and write cockney", while Oxford accent is the rule in our circles.

They can be made to pronounce "the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain" as it should, but, as in "My Fair Lady", that is very hard; it is a little easier to try and understand and make sense of part of what they want to say, and comment on their papers. That is the correct scientific attitude, (not being pilloried over the Internet) which by the way was invited in the CQG statement:

"...There are at this time no plans to withdraw the article. Rather, the journal publishes refereed Comments and Replies by readers and authors as a means to comment on and correct mistakes in published material."

It was advocated by Julian Schwinger in a different context, concerning a speculative idea:

"I only point out that the argument that has produced contemptuous dismissal of the possibility could be based upon false premise. The subject requires research, not fiat."

When that will happen, the unjustified media fuss around all this will (I hope) have long disappeared. Science progresses by trial and error, by confrontation of ideas and techniques. It is not done with a webcam pointed at you on top of your computer.

Daniel Sternheimer

[N.B. These ideas do not necessarily coincide with the views of all the communities involved. In particular I do not feel myself as being the voice of a particular institution. ]



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