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The Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, 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, in 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. 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 French 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 in part 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."

In Mr. Baez's initial message about the Bogdanov brothers to his newsgroup, sci.physics.research, he said 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 53-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 twin 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 is affiliated with the university and is also a research professor in Dijon with the National Center for Scientific Research.

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

Mr. Sternheimer says that Grichka was granted his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1999, 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 his field, and "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.

Mr. Sternheimer says that the twins' rivals in the world of popularizing science have engaged in character assassination and that scientists have unfairly attacked them for their unconventional theories, which he says are worthy of discussion.

Igor sought his doctorate at the same time but withdrew his thesis because the review committee was too hostile, he says. He later contacted Jacobus J. Verbaarschot, a professor of physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, to serve on his thesis committee. According to Mr. Verbaarschot, he and Mr. Sternheimer agreed that Igor could defend his thesis 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 students 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," he says. "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."

'A Real Cop-Out'

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 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 will not comment on the Bogdanov 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 case.

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

In the wake of criticism over the paper, the journal issued a statement saying that the Bogdanovs' paper "made it through the review process even though, in retrospect, it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal."

In addition to attacking the Bogdanovs' science, several physicists have charged that the brothers have recycled their work. Besides the papers in Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity, the twins worked together on a paper published in the Italian journal Il Nuovo Cimento. Igor has published two papers by himself, in the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics and the Chinese Journal of Physics. Mr. Verbaarschot says he was disturbed that three of the five papers contain essentially the same material. In fact, when Igor appended four of the papers to his thesis, two of them had exactly the same abstract. The brothers respond that the published versions of the abstracts are different and that the papers, while similar, contain important distinctions.

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 supportive 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). The judge initially ruled in Mr. Thuan's favor, but the two parties later settled out of court rather than go through an appeal. The brothers deny any wrongdoing.

The plagiarism suit 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 mysterious people, not as hoaxers."

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 plans.

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."

When Theory Goes Too Far

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 few 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 fashionable."

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 articles."

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Copyright © 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education