My Book: “Gina Says,” Adventures in the Blogosphere String War

I wrote a book. It is a sort of a popular science book and it is also about blogging and debating.

You can download the first part of the book : It is a 94 page pdf file.


 “Gina Says,”

Adventures in the

Blogosphere String War

selected and edited by Gil Kalai


Praise for “Gina Says” 

To download the second part.


Debates portrayed in books, are the worst sort of readings,                        Jonathan Swift.


In the summer of 2006 two books attacking string theory, a prominent theory in physics, appeared. One by Peter Woit called Not even wrong” and the other by Lee Smolin called “The trouble with Physics.” A fierce public debate, much of it on weblogs, ensued.

Gina is very curious about science blogs.  Can they be useful for learning about, or discussing science? What happens in these blogs and who participates in them? Gina is eager to learn the issues and to form her own opinion about the string theory controversy. She is equipped with some academic background, even in mathematics, and has some familiarity with academic life. Her knowledge of physics is derived mainly from popular accounts. Gina likes to debate and to argue and to be carried by her associations. She is fascinated by questions about rationality and philosophy, and was exposed to various other scientific controversies in the past.

This book uses the blog string theory debate to tell about blogs, science, and mathematics. Meandering over various topics from children’s dyscalculia to Chomskian linguistics, the reader may get some sense of the chaotic and often confused scientific experience.  The book tries to show the immense difficulty involved in getting the factual matters right and interpreting fragmented and partial information.

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35 thoughts on “My Book: “Gina Says,” Adventures in the Blogosphere String War

  1. Pingback: Gina Says « Not Even Wrong

  2. I read about your new book at NEW. Just finished reading it. Great fun! I was humbled that you chose to quote my comments on higher dimensions.

    In terms of full disclosure, I was paraphrasing Descartes.

  3. Pingback: Praise For ‘Gina says’ « Combinatorics and more

  4. Nice book ! Blog posts and its comments are clearly the future of literature (i can see Ulam turning over in his grave). Afaik your book is the first to crystalize this fact. I missed that war but i´m fully prepared for the next.
    Indeed, there is an Alternativa to Utopia and it deserves the battle. The subject of the book inspired me a larger comment but i do not like to repeat myself (or do i ?).

  5. I am conflicted about the use of blog comments as an entry point to the issues of the book. There are really two Ginas: one who wants to learn about the issues involved in the discussion— and one who just “likes to debate and to argue.”

    Blog comments teach an old lesson: an argument among academics (bloggers, writers, …) is, first and foremost, an argument. A third party who steps in with no affiliation for any “side” and attempts to organize the relevant points on her own terms will be stepped on.

    Party X disagrees with party Y and they fight. Gina 1 wants to know what they’re fighting about, because it contains a world of interesting ideas. Gina 2 wants to examine debate strategy: will X notice that his own beliefs do not withstand the tests he applies to those of Y? And Y, does he play any more fairly? Will anyone admit to behaving badly? My personal feeling is that I know what Gina 2 is going to find out; I would rather hear more from Gina 1.

    The primary interest of the string theory debate for me is the substance of the debate (or, if you will, the pretext for the debate): What is string theory about? When people disagree about what it is about, what are their reasons? How is this debate like other debates in the history of science? How is it unlike other debates in the history of science? What does it tell us about how scientists reconcile or choose among conflicting points of view?

    I would like to read a book titled “The string theory debate, for those disinclined to the morbid contemplation of human nature.” My feeling is that Gina 1 could write such a book, and it would not contain as many blog comments.

  6. Oh I do hope that blog comments are not the future of intellectual discussion in this world. Part of me still clings to the age-old traditional broadsiding in relevant monthly journals. You know, one of those that no one bar hardcore academics ever touches.

    I worry about this whole situation at times – I mean, let’s face it – Internet’s anonymity means that anyone can say whatever they want and pretend to be an authority on the field. CIA-altered Wikipedia entries anyone? I just hope that Internet is capable of maturing and that flame wars will not be the future of discussion.

  7. Dear Walt,
    Very good points. I think the Gina1/Gina2 description is cute and rather correct. The issues you raise regarding your primary interest are indeed very interesting. You can get some impression on these issues from my book, and even more the impression that these issues are hardly ever really being touched in the “stringwars debates”.

  8. Amusing that someone decided to make a book out of this stuff. When do we get to read the rest of it?

    Personally I considered “Gina” to be a tedious semi-troll and was glad when Woit decided to ban “her”. It may be a case of the pot calling the kettle black though, since I later found myself likewise banned for supposedly troll-like behaviour…

    Looking back on those discussions now, they seem both tedious and entertaining at the same time. The physics content was usually boring IMHO (especially for those of us who are not philosophically inclined), but I was intrigued and often amused by the interactions between the eclectic mix of participants (ranging from physicists of the highest caliber like Polchinski to various cranks, nutters, and interested laymen trying to make sense of it all). I never intended to become a regular participant (it was stressful!), but unfortunately was not able to control the urge to interject when the disconnect between what was written in posts and the reality (as I saw it) became too great. Someone had to put the truth out there! ;P

    The ultimate problem with the discussions was that at some point, for the major participants on both sides, the whole thing became nothing more than an exercise in demagoguery. (Some might argue that it was like that right from the beginning, but from my perspective it was only later that this became evident.) A prerequisite for anything sensible to come out of blog debates like those is that the participants enter discussions in good faith. Without that it is never going to amount to more than silliness.

    BTW, a small correction: on page 16 you list me as a participant “on the string theory side”. In fact most of the time I was a proud string-basher, but had a moderate position of “let’s curb string theory excesses (especially the sociological ones)” rather than “strings are evil”. At the same time, and especially towards then end, I was often in agreement with reasonable string theorists like Aaron B. in their opposition to various hypocrisies and nonsense emanating from certain non-string quarters.

    P.S. “String wars” always seemed an inaccurately grandiose description to me, conjuring up images of rival armies going into battle under the directions of their generals. IMO
    the reality it better captured by “string theory punch-up”. The image to have in mind is a redneck bar somewhere in the Midwest of USA, where rival biker gangs and other assorted characters like to go to get drunk and beat the crap out of each other.

  9. Hi amused, nice to meet you again

    Regarding “when do we get to read the rest of it?” I am not sure, but certainly it is possible to follow from the table of context to the original threads and get independent impression. Most of my effort was in selecting the very few postings to represent and then putting them together. Some of the academic chapterettes (in the remaining parts of the book) about debates and controversies and amazing possibilities and category theory, and more appeared also on my blog.

    After little interlude Gina tried her luck on the n-category cafe. Mainly on one thread “knowledge of the reasoned fact” by David Corfield. Several chapters follow the discussion on one comment regarding twelve very basic mathematical facts.

    The last part takes place in one thread of Asymptotia’s “More seanes from a storm in a tea cup IV

    The volume of these blog threads is huge. My entire book has the volume of perhaps 15 percent of a single thread in the tea-cup series, one among thousands of blog threads on the topic.

  10. Congratulations Gil … this book is a very interesting read!

    The Fortnow/GASARCH blog has a thread “Tales of Two Theories” under which I posted an engineers’ point-of-view. The gist of my post is, I wish the book were even longer, and explored more of the practical applications of string theory-type mathematics (no surprise).

    Those mathematics-minded students who are pursuing an engineering degree — in the good company of Dirac, Poincare, Pauling, von Neumann, Wittgenstein, and many more, I will add :) — may be interested in this engineering point-of-view.

  11. When Maxwell was asked about the usefullness of his theory, he responded: “Of what use is a newborn babe?” Even though we know of many problems with Maxwell’s equations, although they are not exact, they are engineerable. String theology has not reached that level.

  12. On the other hand, Thomas, once people has their eyes opened by Maxwell’s equations to the mathematics of wave equations, they began to see wave equations everywhere. And this catalyzed a revolution in engineering that extended far beyond the boundaries of electrical engineering.

    String theory today is performing the same service. It is opening the eyes of engineers to new mathematical conceptions of state-spaces.

    Suppose (for example) that string theory is not the correct theory of matter … it is instead a mathematical framework that (under the proper circumstances) looks like orthodox quantum mechanics. Then if it should happen—as appears to be the case—that quantum simulation is computationally easier on string-theory-type state-spaces, that would be a very valuable contribution of string theory.

    Many discussions of string theory completely overlook this vital point … that the string theory revolution is already providing immensely valuable mathematical benefits to the engineering community.

  13. John–Thanks for the eye opener. I had not considered the engineering viewpoint. When I was a first year grad student in physics(1968), I wanted to take real analysis and abstract algebra since they were prerequisites to
    the study of general relativity. My advisor said “You don’t need all that modern mathematics, all the math you’ll ever need is in Courant and Hilbert” Now it is common for physics grad students to take those math courses, thanks mostly to string theory. I told my advisor that I’d probably be drafted so it didn’t really matter, so he let me take them. I read your QSE paper, very enlightening

  14. Thomas, yes indeed, there are lots of links between practical engineering and string theory—this field is growing explosively.

    One of the most interesting such links (to me) is cited in Section 3.2 in our QSE Group’s recent NJP article Practical recipes for quantum simulation.

    As is well-known, on linear quantum state-spaces the most general completely positive map on density matrices is given in Lindblad form, and this form has a unitary invariance given by Choi’s theorem.

    What form does this Lindblad-Choi invariance take when when we pullback onto the nonlinear Kähler manifolds that are characteristic of both string theory and large-scale quantum simulation? Section 3.2 calculates this form … and a definite answer is obtained … and yet we are left with the feeling that (as engineers) we have not grasped what Lindblad-Choi invariance is all about.

    Do the string theorists do better? It’s lots of fun to search the arxiv server for articles whose content includes both “Lindblad” and “string theory”. Using the arxiv’s “advanced search” feature, we find fifty-three such articles … many of which are exceedingly interesting … and, yet overall it does not appear (to me) that the string theory community does not presently understand Lindblad-Choi invariance all that much better than we quantum system engineers understand it. That’s why we are now distilling the NJP article’s quantum simulation recipes into the language of string theory … we hope to gain new perspectives on Lindblad-Choi invariance.

    One notable aspect of this work is that the quantum system engineering community presently has a concrete research advantage over string theory community: fifty times less academic competition! :)

  15. John, I did as you suggested and downloaded 10 of the papers. I’ll get back toyou when I’ve read them.

  16. An unusual book, but unusual in the digressive and eclectic manner of Philip J. Davis’ “The Thread: A Mathematical Yarn” and “Thomas Gray, Philosopher Cat”. These days, our mental processes are naturally hyperlinked…

  17. Good luck reading those Lindblad/string theory articles, Thomas.

    You should be aware that (according to my highly imperfect understanding of string theory) there is at least one *major* mathematical difference between the way that string theorists generally think about quantum mechanics, versus the way that engineers generally think about quantum mechanics.

    Namely, it appears that string theorists have (mostly?) embraced from field theory the idea that the state-space of quantum mechanics is a (linear) Hilbert space — but I hasten to add that I might be mistaken in this!

    In contrast, the engineering community has (mostly) adopted from quantum chemistry the notion that the state-space of quantum mechanics is—in practical computations if not in reality—a Kählerian tensor network state-space.

    The consequence is that the engineers and string theorists end up using pretty much the same mathematical toolkit—lots of algebraic geometry, for example—but we embrace rather different ideas as to whether invariances like the Lindblad/Choi invariance are exact laws of nature, versus highly useful approximations that we hope our computer codes will respect reasonably well.

    For this reason, I have long wished for a review article that focused on measurement theory from a “stringy” point of view … can anyone suggest such?

  18. Pingback: Gina Says Part two « Combinatorics and more

  19. I just came across this blog, having not seen the original string theory blog discussion, nor am I familiar with this blog. I downloaded the “first part of the book” pdf. Here’s some feedback just having looked at the first few pages of this. The existing introduction seems to me quite insufficient. After reading the preface, I had the impression that the main contents were going to consist of Gil Kalai plagiarizing the writings of a woman named Gina. It seems like it would be worthwhile explaining the real situation up front.

  20. Hi dzdt,
    Thanks for the feedback. Indeed for most parts the book consists of selecting and editing the writings of Gina (and occasionally of other participants) from blog discussions mainly on string theory.

  21. Hmmm… let me reconfirm. My understanding is that “Gina” is a pseudonym that you (Gil) were using while participating in the string theory blog discussions. Or, perhaps better said, beyond just a pseudonym it was a whole persona, developed with a fictional background (for whatever reason). My point is that by not making this clear, it looks like a work of plagiarism.

    As long as I’m posting, I’ll give a bit more feedback. I read lightly through the whole thing. I’ll have to confess I don’t see the point really. There isn’t enough exposition about the math or physics of string theory or related philosophy or sociology of science for the interest to be content based. There isn’t any honest discussion of the motivations for developing the Gina persona, and very little commentary on what lessons may have been learned from the experiment with the persona. It looks like the point may be a complaint that the blogs hosting the discussion eventually rejected the “Gina” poster as more annoying than helpful in “her” contributions. But it is far from clear that that is an unfair judgment…

  22. “I had the impression that the main contents were going to consist of Gil Kalai plagiarizing the writings of a woman named Gina. It seems like it would be worthwhile explaining the real situation up front.”

    This is precisely the situation! you got it right, baby!

  23. An interesting book (even though I am inclined more to Smolin’s views), and even a beatiful one (in content if not in choice of fonts). And I am delighted to be in it (if only briefly).

  24. Pingback: Chomskian Linguistics « Combinatorics and more

  25. Pingback: The Lost Arts Of War

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