Last week, Alan Sokal gave his inaugural lecture at UCL. I went along and took a couple of the students on my MSc course on Enumerative and Asymptotic Combinatorics. His title was “Between combinatorics and analysis (with a little help from statistical physics)”

As anyone who knows Alan would expect, it was a lovely lecture. There was one small surprise: instead of writing on the board, he used a computer (and a computer running Windows at that).

The real surprise, however, came in the introduction. The chair, Professor Vassiliev reminded us of the Sokal hoax, Alan’s famous hit against postmodern nonsense. This was a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, published in the journal Social Text in 1996. It is well worth reading if you haven’t done so: it is full of such gems as

In mathematical terms, Lacan is here pointing out that the first homology group of the sphere is trivial, while those of the other surfaces are profound …

Alan has explained in several places that his purpose was to attack the view that science is just a discourse, no more and no less valid than any other discourse; especially where this view is propounded by people who are demonstrably ignorant of science. However, he doesn’t talk about it too much now.

But Professor Vassiliev pointed out to us that this was not the first hoax to appear in an academic journal. Roberto Oros di Bartini and Bruno Pontecorvo published a paper in the Soviet journal Doklady Akad. Nauk. USSR in 1965, which began

Let us consider a predicative unbounded and hence unique specimen A.

This is supposed to refer to the universe, I think; but it is beautifully obscure!

The paper goes on to resolve the perplexities of modern string theory by proving from the above assumption that A must have six dimensions, three of space and three of time.

Professor Vassiliev regretted that he didn’t have an English translation of the paper, but gave Alan a copy of the Russian version. But a moment with Google would have shown that a fuller version was printed in English translation in the journal Progress in Physics in 2005. This journal appears to be at least as serious as Social Text: other papers in the same issue have titles like “Black holes in elliptical and spiral galaxies and in globular clusters” and “Gravity Probe B frame-dragging effect”. Also, they had forty years to think about it!


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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3 Responses to Hoax?

  1. Pingback: Indians thrilled by Cameron’s cultural visit « ColdSip.com

  2. I have just had an email flyer for a book which, starting from an assumption which seems to me rather like the one described above (but taking six lines to state), derives the fact that the universe has ten dimensions, as in current string theory models.
    I am tempted to say “They can’t both be right”. Indeed, what would have happened in the days when string theory was thought to require 26 dimensions?

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