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September 14, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook is a Renewable Resource

Gregg Easterbook, today in Slate:

Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

Gregg Easterbook, 10/27/03 in The New Republic:

At Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other top schools, researchers discuss ten unobservable dimensions, or an infinite number of imperceptible universes, without batting an eye...Yet if at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools, you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension--the plane of the spirit--and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you'd be laughed out of the room.

And remember kids, always recycle.

September 14, 2006 | Permalink


"Renewable Resource" s/b "Hack". He's a tenured professor at the school of "I don't understand the math so it must all be superstition." It's impressive that in three years he hasn't made any effort to understand that which he criticizes- too busy writing Haiku about football cheerleaders, I guess.

Posted by: SP | Sep 14, 2006 12:35:14 PM

Incidentally, if you want to understand 10 dimensional space, this is a very good layman's explanation.

Posted by: SP | Sep 14, 2006 12:36:42 PM

Unfortunately, that layman's explanation is pretty much nonsense.

Posted by: Aaron Bergman | Sep 14, 2006 12:40:58 PM

> if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions
> about which he can speak with great confidence ...

> If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension,
> the plane of the spirit ...

One of these two can do the math and show his work.

Posted by: Joel Hanes | Sep 14, 2006 12:41:20 PM


Both can. You just choose one over the other for convenience.

Posted by: partyofdeath | Sep 14, 2006 12:45:19 PM

No Princeton professor has ever posited a theory with ten unobservable dimensions, so far as I know. Plenty of people have posited that the universe has 10 or 11 dimensions, of which four are observable with current technology.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Sep 14, 2006 12:51:58 PM

party of death,
OK, show me the math for "the plane of the spirit."


Posted by: aimai | Sep 14, 2006 1:10:11 PM

What does Easterbook think they do at the Yale Divinity School?

Posted by: me2i81 | Sep 14, 2006 1:14:06 PM

Aaron, is there a better layman's explanation out there?

"Both can. You just choose one over the other for convenience."

Hello, Mr. Kettle? This is the pot calling...

Posted by: Kylroy | Sep 14, 2006 1:18:38 PM

Straw man much? I know the point of this article is his Hackery, but his point is also false. Theoretical physicists are approached with much more skepticism outside of there niche than theologians; how many people "know" that God exists versus the small realm of physicists who believe in unseen dimensions. Even if you only survey scientists I would imagine that you'd be surprised how many skeptics you'll find. I am a PhD candidate in a top flight chemistry program and I think over half my associates would approach that level of physics with healthy skepticism. Granted thats anecdotal, but an anecdote is a bit better than a bald unsupported asserstion.

Posted by: Chip | Sep 14, 2006 1:27:27 PM

I'm convinced the Tuesday

Still funny, though.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Sep 14, 2006 1:40:01 PM

Lots of problems with Easterbrooks' argument(s), it seems. First, as Ginger pointed out, the theory posits 10 or 11 total dimensions, not unobservable dimensions.

Second, no one would be "hooted down as a superstitious crank" for stating a belief in a spiritual plane, even at Princeton.

Third, even the most ardent supporter of String Theory allows for the possibility that it isn't correct, hence the "theory." The most ardent supporters of a spiritual plane are a bit more rigid.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Sep 14, 2006 1:43:23 PM

In the article, Easterbrook quotes a like-minded physicist/author as asserting "String theory now has such a dominant position in the academy that it is practically career suicide for young theoretical physicists not to join the field."

I find this very hard to believe.

Posted by: kth | Sep 14, 2006 1:47:43 PM

The Internet can be cruel. :)

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Sep 14, 2006 2:01:29 PM

I find this very hard to believe.

Indeed. The correct statement is "it is practically career suicide for young physicists to become theoreticians".

(It's all relative, of course -- a string theory PhD is still more likely to get you a professor position than e.g. an art history PhD.)

Kind of odd that the Easterbrook article doesn't mention Peter Woit's book. (Not that I agree with Smolin or Woit.)

Posted by: Allen K. | Sep 14, 2006 2:03:59 PM

What's funny to me is that you have a better memory of Easterbrooks' writings than he does.

What's sad is his total lack of understanding of theoretical physics. Max Planck is spinning in his grave. Whether it is spin up or spin down is for someone else to determine.

Posted by: joshowitz | Sep 14, 2006 2:11:49 PM

As noted above, the mathematic foundation of string theory is fairly clear (in the context of one capable of being a "young theoretical physicist"), and the experimental discoveries support the conjectures. Comparable acts of "career suicide" would include:

  1. going into chemistry while professing the phlogiston theory
  2. being a mathematician without understanding set theory or calculus
  3. teaching French, German, or Japanese literature while not being able to read any language other than English

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Sep 14, 2006 2:16:54 PM

That's an excellent point about Yale Divinity (or even Harvard Divinity or, say, Princeton Theological Seminary).

Moreover, people have been studying and debating the spiritual plane now for what, 8,000 years or so?

String theory, clocking in at 25 years or so, seems more concrete now.

He's a self-plagarist, obtuse and shockingly defensive about a belief system that a mere 2.5 billion people or so share.

Posted by: Jay B. | Sep 14, 2006 2:19:55 PM

What's funny to me is that you have a better memory of Easterbrooks' writings than he does.

No, what's funny (well, sad) is that Easterbrook, like pretty much every other Republican, is hoping that the public and the press will continue to forget anything that a Republican says before the most recent Republican talking point. It's that sort of thing that allows them to continually change positions on any given issue (except librul-hating) without any repercussions.

Posted by: paperwight | Sep 14, 2006 2:22:49 PM

i wonder where mr. easterbrook stands on rod serling's theory of a "dimension of sight and sound" he called "the twilight zone"...

Posted by: r@d@r | Sep 14, 2006 2:27:13 PM

Spiritual plane = history and culture -- yes, people have been studying it for some time.

Posted by: Harold | Sep 14, 2006 2:33:03 PM

Yeah, it seems difficult to believe but logical to consider that there may be spatial dimensions outside our current observational abilities, due to arguments derived from mathematical physics and cosmology.

It seems easy to believe for many but not logical to consider that one of those dimensions may be magical, that there is not one argument leading to its prediction or discussion by physics or cosmology, and the entire argument for its existence is that a lot of people believe in it.

Posted by: El Cid | Sep 14, 2006 2:34:06 PM

Recycling columns
walk backwards to the window
when cashing paycheck

Posted by: Pat | Sep 14, 2006 2:34:55 PM

To be fair to Gregg, if he'd just write down the 5-dimensional spiritual Hamiltonian of his theory, or maybe derive it from a spiritual action principle, we can get to work checking it out scientifically. This is science after all, so we can ask scientific questions...What is the topology of the spirit? Is God compactified? What are the elementary particles of belief, and do they interact via the strong or weak force? So many interesting questions about which I'm sure Gregg will enlighten us all.

Posted by: jfaberuiuc | Sep 14, 2006 2:37:06 PM

Well since he hasn't had a new thought in years, changing the wording is just a waste of time.

Posted by: Rob | Sep 14, 2006 2:39:39 PM

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