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Hoax in Physics rocks academia

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Nov 5, 2002, 8:58:04 AM11/5/02
November 5, 2002
French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics

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.

"I hear that two brothers have managed to publish 3 meaningless papers in
physics journals as a hoax -- and even get Ph.D. degrees in physics from
Bourgogne University in the process!" wrote John C. Baez, a professor of
mathematical physics at the University of California at Riverside, on an online
physics discussion group that he helps moderate.

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.

"It's an interesting case study in how stuff that is basically nonsense is
easily gotten past referees these days," says Peter G. Woit, a theoretical
physicist who directs instruction in the mathematics department at Columbia
University. "There really was a serious failure of the refereeing here."

However, the brothers, 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 Bogdanov affair has attracted so much interest among physicists because it
seemed at first to be a case of just deserts.

Several scientists said that the physics world had fallen victim to the same
sort of hoax that Alan D. Sokal had played on the cultural-studies field in
1996. Mr. Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, spoofed the
relativism fashionable in the humanities by writing a satirical paper called
"Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum
Gravity," which argued, among other points, that there is no external reality
and that the theory of quantum gravity has important political implications. He
submitted it to the journal Social Text, which published it in a special issue
on the "Science Wars." (See an article from The Chronicle, May 24, 1996.)

Mr. Baez wrote in his initial message about the Bogdanov brothers to his
newsgroup, sci.physics.research, that while physicists had all laughed about
Mr. Sokal's paper in 1996, it now appeared that they had been bitten by a
"reverse Alan Sokal hoax."

Adding to the insult was the identity of the supposed hoaxers: Two
self-described geniuses -- they say they both have IQ's above 200 -- who have
written science-fiction novels and been the hosts of several television
programs on science, including one that started this fall.

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 Moshé 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.

In their work, the Bogdanovs have explored the early universe, when the entire
cosmos is thought to have spanned an infinitesimally small fraction (10 to the
minus-33rd power) of a centimeter. At such a scale, the brothers say, the
normal ways to measure space and time fail. The fabric of distance and duration
starts to fragment and fluctuate, and physicists must use new mathematical
tools to deal with such problems, they propose.

According to Mr. Sternheimer, Grichka Bogdanov applied for his Ph.D. in physics
in 1999 but was granted one in mathematics instead, on the condition that he
rework his thesis. Mr. Sternheimer says he is not an expert in all points of
Grichka's work and so did not follow his every point. But some of the
dissertation was in Mr. Sternheimer's field, and, he says, "I made sure that
that part deserved a Ph.D. in mathematics." Still, he thinks the brothers'
strength is in popularizing science, not doing it.

Igor Bogdanov sought his doctorate at the same time but was rejected. He later
contacted Jacobus J. Verbaarschot, a professor of physics at the State
University of New York at Stony Brook, to be an adviser on his physics thesis.
According to Mr. Verbaarschot, he and Mr. Sternheimer agreed that Igor could
get his degree if he published three or four papers in peer-reviewed journals,
which he did by the end of 2001. Igor earned his doctorate in physics from the
French university in July.

Both brothers received passing marks of honorable, unusual in a system that
almost always awards très honorable to successful candidates. The passing mark
"only happens to the worst students -- the students you only want to get out of
the system," says Mr. Verbaarschot.

Like Mr. Sternheimer, he did not follow all parts of Igor's work. "This was not
our specialty," Mr. Verbaarschot says, referring to the dissertation committee.
"Nobody on the committee had any deep understanding of the ideas." They relied
on the journal referees who had accepted Igor's papers for publication in order
to judge the finer points of the work.

"In hindsight, the weakness is that there were no real experts" on the
committee, says Mr. Verbaarschot. "Maybe there are no real experts in what they
are doing. What they are doing is so far out of the mainstream."

But scientists who say that they do understand the Bogdanovs' papers deem them
worthless. "I'm quite sure there is nothing of merit in the papers," says Mr.
Baez. "The papers are extremely eclectic in the math and physics terminology
they use. Some people who read these and may not be knowledgeable on the
terminology may give them the benefit of the doubt.

"I can tell that they're not really doing anything with the terms," he
continues. "They're sort of stringing together plausible-sounding sentences
that add up to nothing."

The agreement to use publications as the critical benchmark for granting a
degree is "ass backwards," says Frank A. Wilczek, a professor of physics at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's a real cop-out by the committee
and totally unacceptable."

Mr. Wilczek is editor in chief of Annals of Physics, which published one of the
Bogdanov brothers' papers in February. But he and all of the current members of
the journal's editorial board had recently joined the Annals and did not handle
papers in that issue. He says that standards at the journal had slipped in
recent years because of the illness and death of a previous editor in chief.

Although he declines to comment on the Bogdanovs' paper, Mr. Wilczek says he
intends to raise the journal's standards. As part of that drive, members of the
editorial board now do most of the reviewing. "I'm trying to get much tighter
control, just because of things like this," he says, referring to the Bogdanov

Another of the brothers' papers appeared in Quantum and Classical Gravity,
published by the Institute of Physics, a British learned society. Ian Russell,
assistant direct of the institute's journals division, says that "we deployed
our standard peer-review process on that paper," which involved two independent
external reviewers.

Messages on the physics newsgroup say that the journal has decided to stop
using the two reviewers who assessed the paper, but Mr. Russell says, "We
wouldn't make a carte-blanche decision not to use referees unless we had
evidence that there was some wrongdoing. No evidence has come to light, that
I'm aware of."

The Bogdanovs say that people have rejected their work because it is so
unconventional. They also charge that past enemies spread the hoax rumor to
harm their careers. They decline, however, to name the enemies.

It is true that the two seem to attract critics easily. They sent out an e-mail
message last month that excerpted apparently supportive statements by Laurent
Freidel, but he denies making those remarks. Mr. Freidel, a visiting professor
of theoretical physics at the Perimeter Institute, in Waterloo, Ontario, had
merely forwarded an e-mail message containing the passage to a friend, and the
Bogdanov brothers attributed it to Mr. Freidel. "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," he says. "When your name is used without your
consent, it's a violation."

The French stars have left others feeling violated as well. 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 University Press 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

The plagiarism lawsuit may explain why the twins were so eager to get
doctorates, says Mr. Thuan. The back cover of their book claimed that they held
doctorates when they did not, and they hurriedly tried to get degrees as the
court case played out in the early 1990s, he says.

John D. Barrow, a professor of mathematical sciences at the University of
Cambridge, says the brothers contacted him at that time with an odd request.
"They were very anxious to obtain Ph.D.'s very quickly, and they tried to con
me into becoming an examiner," he says. "There were two theses that they had
submitted. They were laughable compendiums."

As for the brothers, he says, "I regard them as sinister people, not as

The Bogdanovs say that the statement on the back cover of the book was the
fault of a "clumsy" editor who wrote that they had degrees when they were
actually in the process of earning them. They also deny trying to get
doctorates quickly and say that they had contacted Mr. Barrow about long-term

Such arguments between the Bogdanovs and others do not surprise Jean Staune,
general secretary of the Interdisciplinary University of Paris, who helped Mr.
Thuan with the plagiarism case against the brothers. "They are like water," he
says. "You can never catch them."

Whatever the truth about the two Frenchmen, their case raises questions about
quality control in theoretical physics. Many papers in the field are so arcane
that only a few people can comprehend them, say some researchers. "It has
become acceptable to publish things that are not understandable to a
sufficiently wide audience," says Mr. Verbaarschot, of Stony Brook.

The problem reaches deeper than just publishing, says Mr. Wilczek, of MIT. It
affects the granting of degrees and promotions as well. "Faculties in physics
departments all around have to make judgments on people whose work is
understood by very few if any."

The scientists who sit in judgment often will not acknowledge that they cannot
assess the work of their peers. "It's a very human thing," he says. "Nobody
likes to admit that they don't understand something, especially if it's very

Making matters worse, theoretical physics is straying so far from anything
measurable that it has become difficult to hold it up to any yardstick. "Parts
of theoretical physics have become dangerously complicated and divorced from
empirical roots," says Mr. Wilczek. "I think it's a very dangerous trend."

If the theoretical work explained some phenomenon, then physicists would know
that the research was well done even if they could not understand its nuances,
says Mr. Wilczek. "But if you don't understand it, and it doesn't apply to
anything, then it's really tough to judge."

There is one way, though, for physicists to measure the importance of the
Bogdanovs' work. If researchers find merit in the twins' ideas, those thoughts
will echo in the references of scientific papers for years to come.

Currently, a leading database of scholarly work in high-energy physics shows
that the Bogdanov brothers have earned only one citation, in an unpublished
manuscript written by a nonacademic. Had it not been for the rumor of a hoax,
says Mr. Verbaarschot, "probably no one would have ever known about their

Aaron Bergman

Nov 5, 2002, 5:07:09 PM11/5/02
In article <>,
darc...@aol.comnojunk (Darccity) wrote:

> November 5, 2002
> French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics

It wasn't really a hoax. Apparently they're actually serious. I have a
bunch of stuff posted about this on my page:


Scroll to the bottom for the first post.

Aaron Bergman


Nov 6, 2002, 11:00:18 AM11/6/02
Aaron Bergman <> wrote in message news:<abergman-65738A.17070905112002@localhost>...

> In article <>,
> darc...@aol.comnojunk (Darccity) wrote:
> > November 5, 2002
> > French TV Stars Rock the World of Theoretical Physics
> >
> It wasn't really a hoax. Apparently they're actually serious. I have a
> bunch of stuff posted about this on my page:
> <>
> Scroll to the bottom for the first post.
> Aaron

Actually the daily update on Bogdafuss is at these pages:

General introduction:

Discussion with Bogdanovs on physics:

Comments on Monastersky article and articles by Orlowski,
as well as a recent post "Physics bitten by monopoles"
to sci.physics

ark (Arkadiusz Jadczyk)

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