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Bogdanov Affair

The Bogdanov Affair is an academic dispute regarding the legitimacy of a series of theoretical physics papers written by French twins Igor and Grichka Bogdanov (alternately spelt Bogdanoff). These papers were published in reputable scientific journals, and were alleged by their authors to culminate in a proposed theory for describing what occurred at the Big Bang. The controversy started in 2002 when rumors spread on Usenet newsgroups that the work was a deliberate hoax intended to target weaknesses in the peer review system employed by the physics community to select papers for publication in academic journals. While the Bogdanov brothers continue to defend the veracity of their work, many physicists have alleged that the papers are nonsense, considering this evidence of the fallibility inherent within the peer review system. The debate over whether the work represented a contribution to physics, or instead was meaningless, spread from Usenet to many other Internet forums, including the blogs of notable physicists and both the French and English Wikipedia encyclopedia projects. The ensuing dispute received considerable coverage in the mainstream media.

The authors' credentials to write on cosmology are based on Ph.D. degrees they obtained from the University of Burgundy; Grichka Bogdanov received his degree in mathematics, and Igor Bogdanov received his in theoretical physics (in 1999 and 2002 respectively). Both were given the low, but passing, grade of "honorable"; in Igor's case, this was given only after the work was accepted for publication in respected physics journals, to establish merit of his work. When later challenges to the legitimacy of the papers submitted by the Bogdanov brothers arose, the debate spread to the question of whether the substitution of a "publication requirement" by university professors when they do not understand students' work is a valid means of determining the veracity of a paper. However, the intrinsic complexity of topics like quantum groups and topological field theory—in addition to the excessive use of jargon by those who study these areas—makes it difficult to avoid such delegation, since often specific expertise is necessary in order to fully understand and evaluate the claims made in papers on these topics.

Since the early 1980s, Igor and Grichka Bogdanov have been widely known in France as television-show hosts. Their shows like Temps X (and more recently Rayons X) deal with topics in popular science and science fiction, and have attracted a large number of viewers. The celebrity status of the Bogdanov brothers in their home country may have helped spread this controversy from the scientific community to mainstream media and online forums.

Origin of the affair

The Bogdanov twin brothers were born to a Russian father Yuri Mikhailovich Bogdanov (b. Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), 28 January 1928) and an Czech-Austrian mother of African descent Maria Dolores "Maya" Kolowrat (b. Basle, 28 February 1926), both of whom came from aristocratic families that fled their homelands to settle in France, on August 29, 1949, in the commune of Saint-Lary in the Gers, which is part of the Gascony region of southern France. They both studied applied mathematics in Paris, but then in the early 1980s began a career in television, producing a show entitled Temps X (Time X). This programme, which covered topics in popularized science and science fiction, earned them a considerable amount of celebrity.

Temps X continued for ten years and was followed by other shows in the same genre. In 1993, the brothers began work toward doctorates, first working under the mathematical physicist Moshé Flato of the University of Burgundy. Flato died in 1998, and his colleague Daniel Sternheimer (of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique) took over the job of supervising the Bogdanovs. According to Sternheimer, the twins viewed themselves as "the Einstein brothers" and had a propensity to voice vague, "impressionistic" statements; he considered guiding their efforts "like teaching My Fair Lady to speak with an Oxford accent." As he told The Chronicle of Higher Education, Sternheimer did not consider himself an expert in all the topics Grichka Bogdanov included in his thesis, but judged that those portions within his specialty were Ph.D.-quality work.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, reporter Richard Monastersky noted that the back cover of the Bogdanovs' 1991 book Dieu et la Science (God and Science) claimed that the brothers held doctorates when they did not. This book provoked a dispute of its own in 1992, when University of Virginia astronomy professor Trinh X. Thuan accused the Bogdanovs of plagiarizing his book The Secret Melody: And Man Created the Universe (eventually published in English translation in 1995). After a legal battle in France, Thuan and the Bogdanovs settled out of court, and the Bogdanovs later denied all wrongdoing. Thuan suggested that the plagiarism suit pressed the brothers to obtain doctorates as fast as possible.

In 1999 and 2002 respectively, Grichka and Igor Bogdanov obtained Ph.D. degrees on the basis of two theses (Grichka in mathematics and Igor in theoretical physics) from the University of Burgundy. In 1999 Grichka Bogdanov received the rare low passing grade of "honorable" for his Quantum fluctuations of the signature of the metric at the Planck scale, on the condition that he considerably rewrite his thesis, emphasizing the mathematical portions over the physics content. On the same day, Igor Bogdanov failed the defense of his thesis Topological Origin of Inertia. His advisor subsequently agreed to allow him to obtain a doctorate if Igor could publish three peer-reviewed journal articles. After publishing the requisite articles, Igor successfully defended his thesis three years later on a different topic under the direction of two advisors. His new thesis, Topological State of Spacetime at the Planck Scale, also received the same low passing grade of "honorable", one that is seldom given, as Daniel Sternheimer told New York Times science reporter Dennis Overbye. In justifying the conferring of doctoral degrees to the Bogdanovs, Sternheimer told the Times, "These guys worked for 10 years without pay. They have the right to have their work recognized with a diploma, which is nothing much these days."

The two brothers published a total of six papers in physics and mathematics journals, including Annals of Physics and Classical and Quantum Gravity, which are both reviewed by referees. After reading the abstracts of both theses, German physicist Max Niedermaier concluded that the papers were pseudoscientific, consisting of dense technical jargon written to sound scientific without having real content. In Niedermaier's view, the Bogdanovs had tried to prove the existence of weaknesses within the peer-review system, much in the same fashion that physicist Alan Sokal had published a deliberately fraudulent paper in the humanities journal Social Text. On 22 October 2002, Niedermaier wrote an email to this effect which was then widely distributed. An eventual recipient, the American mathematical physicist John Baez, created a discussion thread on the Usenet newsgroup sci.physics.research titled "Physics bitten by reverse Alan Sokal hoax?" which quickly grew to hundreds of posts in length.

This verbal wrangle soon attracted worldwide attention, both in the physics community and in the international popular press. Following Niedermaier, the majority of the participants in the Usenet discussion thread created by Baez also voiced the assumption that the work was a deliberate hoax, which the Bogdanov brothers have continued to deny. After hearing that the Bogdanovs disputed that their work was a hoax, Niedermaier issued a private and public apology to the Bogdanov brothers on 24 October 2002 for having so assumed from the outset. However, this proved to be Niedermaier's last public comment on the affair: he has endorsed neither the validity nor the merit of the work in question.

Reports and comments from scientists

Thesis reports

The brothers' thesis reports, of which there were seven in total, contain generally positive remarks. The following are excerpts from the reports which the Bogdanovs have themselves quoted as evidence of their bona fides:

  • Roman Jackiw, from MIT: "The author proposes a novel, speculative solution to the problem of the pre-Big-Bang initial singularity ... the thesis and the published papers provide an excellent introduction to these ideas, and can serve as a useful springboard for further research in this area".
  • Costas Kounnas, from ENS Paris: "I found this work very interesting, with many new ideas about quantum gravity ... the author proposes an original and interesting cosmological scenario."
  • Jack Morava, from the Johns Hopkins University: "the thesis work of Igor Bogdanov is of great interest, dominated by new ideas with fundamental physical implications in cosmology and in many other fields connected with gravitation."

Igniatios Antoniadis (of the École Polytechnique) later reversed his judgment of Grichka Bogdanov's thesis. Antoniadis told Le Monde,

J'avais donné un avis favorable pour la soutenance de Grichka, basé sur une lecture rapide et indulgente du texte de la thèse. Hélas, je me suis complètement trompé. Le langage scientifique était juste une apparence derrière laquelle se cachaient une incompétence et une ignorance de la physique, même de base. (I had given a favorable opinion for Grichka's defense, based on a rapid and indulgent reading of the thesis text. Alas, I was completely mistaken. The scientific language was just an appearance behind which hid incompetence and ignorance of even basic physics.)

Of the seven thesis reporters, only Jackiw publicly defended his evaluation. As he told the New York Times, Igor's thesis contained many points Jackiw did not understand; nonetheless, he found the work intriguing. "All these were ideas that could possibly make sense. It showed some originality and some familiarity with the jargon. That's all I ask." For more on this issue, see below.

Published papers

In May 2001, the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity (CQG) reviewed an article authored by Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, entitled "Topological theory of the initial singularity of spacetime". One of the referee's reports stated that the article was "Sound, original, and of interest. With revisions I expect the paper to be suitable for publication. The paper was accepted by the journal seven months later.

However, after the publication of the article and the publicity surrounding the controversy, mathematician Greg Kuperberg posted to Usenet a statement written by Andrew Wray and Hermann Nicolai of the CQG editorial board. Originally sent via e-mail, the statement read, in part,

Regrettably, despite the best efforts, the refereeing process cannot be 100% effective. Thus the paper ... made it through the review process even though, in retrospect, it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal. The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting ... and there was general agreement that it should not have been published. Since then several steps have been taken to further improve the peer review process in order to improve the quality assessment on articles submitted to the journal and reduce the likelihood that this could happen again.

The paper in question has, however, not been withdrawn by the journal. Later, the editor-in-chief of the journal issued a slightly different statement on behalf of the Institute of Physics, which owns the journal, in which he insisted on the fact that their usual peer-review procedures had been followed, but no longer commented on the value of the paper. In particular the sentences "...it does not meet the standards expected of articles in this journal" and "The paper was discussed extensively at the annual Editorial Board meeting ... and there was general agreement that it should not have been published" were removed. The former phrase was, however, quoted in the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Nature. Moreover, Die Zeit quoted the journal's co-editor Hermann Nicolai as saying that had the paper reached his desk, he would have immediately rejected it.

In 2001, the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics accepted an article written by Igor Bogdanov, entitled "Topological Origin of Inertia". The referee's report concluded: "In my opinion the results of the paper can be considered as original ones. I recommend the paper for publication but in a revised form. The following year, the Chinese Journal of Physics published Igor Bogdanov's "The KMS state of spacetime at the Planck scale". The report stated that "the viewpoint presented in this paper can be interesting as a possible approach of the Planck scale physics." Some corrections were requested.

Not all review evaluations were positive. Eli Hawkins, acting as a referee on behalf of the Journal of Physics A, suggested rejecting one of the Bogdanovs' papers: "It would take up too much space to enumerate all the mistakes: indeed it is difficult to say where one error ends and the next begins. In conclusion, I would not recommend that this paper be published in this, or any, journal."

Several of the published papers are nearly identical, differing only in minor respects. The CQG paper summarizes most of Grichka's thesis, but the paragraph order is almost entirely reversed. The Chinese Journal of Physics, Nuovo Cimento and Annals of Physics papers are essentially identical except for their titles and abstracts; typographical errors are also repeated across these versions.

Criticism of the papers

After the start of the Usenet discussion, most comments were critical of the Bogdanovs' work. For example, John Baez stated that the Bogdanov papers are "a mishmash of superficially plausible sentences containing the right buzzwords in approximately the right order. There is no logic or cohesion in what they write." Jacques Distler voiced a similar opinion, proclaiming "The Bogdanov's [sic] papers consist of buzzwords from various fields of mathematical physics, string theory and quantum gravity, strung together into syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless prose."

Others compared the quality of the Bogdanov papers with that seen over a wider arena. "The Bogdanoffs' work is significantly more incoherent than just about anything else being published," wrote Peter Woit. He continued, "But the increasingly low standard of coherence in the whole field is what allowed them to think they were doing something sensible and to get it published." Woit later devoted a chapter of his book Not Even Wrong (2006) to the Bogdanov Affair.

Eventually, the controversy attracted mainstream media attention, opening new avenues for physicists' comments to be disseminated. Le Monde quoted Alain Connes, recipient of the 1982 Fields medal as saying, "I didn't need long to convince myself that they're talking about things that they haven't mastered." Nobel laureate Georges Charpak stated on a French talk show that the Bogdanovs' presence in the scientific community was "inexistent".

The most positive comments about the papers themselves came from string theorist Luboš Motl. Writing in his blog almost three years after the heyday of the controversy, Motl stated, "[T]he Bogdanoff brothers are proposing something that has, speculatively, the potential to be an alternative story about quantum gravity ... What they are proposing is a potential new calculational framework for gravity. I find it unlikely that these things will work but it is probably more likely than loop quantum gravity and other discrete approaches whose lethal problems have already been identified in detail". This comparison is perhaps less than completely illuminating, since theoretical physicists are still debating exactly how useful an approach loop quantum gravity truly is. (Like string theory and all other attempts to quantize gravity, loop quantum gravity, or "LQG", remains—at least for the moment—beyond the reach of experimental proof or disproof. Debate over LQG is intimately associated with that about string theory's own problems, an often-heated discussion which is beyond the scope of this article.)

Internet discussions

In addition to a few articles in print media, the Bogdanov Affair has been discussed extensively in various newsgroups, webpages and blogs; the Bogdanov brothers have often participated in the discussions, both under their real names, and under several pseudonyms. Most of the pseudonyms were the names of other physicists or mathematicians, purportedly defending the Bogdanovs' work and sometimes insulting their critics, among them the Nobel prize recipient Georges Charpak.

In October 2002, the Bogdanovs released an email containing apparently supportive statements by Perimeter Institute visiting professor Laurent Freidel. Soon after, Friedel denied writing any such remarks, telling the press that he had forwarded a message containing that text to a friend. The Bogdanovs then attributed the quoted passages to Friedel, who said, "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. When your name is used without your consent, it's a violation."

At the start of the controversy in the moderated group sci.physics.research, Igor Bogdanov denied that their published papers were a hoax, but when asked precise questions from physicists Steve Carlip and John Baez regarding mathematical details in the papers, failed to convince any other participants that these papers had any real scientific value. New York Times reporter George Johnson described reading through the debate as "like watching someone trying to nail Jell-O to a wall", for the Bogdanovs had "developed their own private language, one that impinges on the vocabulary of science only at the edges."

Scientific content

Participants in the discussions were particularly unconvinced by the affirmation in the "Topological origin of inertia" paper that "whatever the orientation, the plane of oscillation of Foucault's pendulum is necessarily aligned with the initial singularity marking the origin of physical space." In addition, the paper claimed, the Foucault pendulum experiment "cannot be explained satisfactorily in either classical or relativistic mechanics". The physicists commenting on Usenet found these claims and subsequent attempts at their explanation peculiar, since the trajectory of a Foucault pendulum—a standard museum piece—is accurately predicted by classical mechanics. (Corrections from later theories such as relativity are so small as to be irrelevant.) The Bogdanovs explained that these claims would only be clear in the context of topological field theory. Baez and Russell Blackadar attempted to determine the meaning of the "plane of oscillation" statement; after the Bogdanovs issued some elaborations, Baez concluded that it was a complicated way of rephrasing the following:

Since the big bang happened everywhere, no matter which way a pendulum swings, the plane in which it swings can be said to "intersect the big bang".
However, Baez pointed out, this statement does not in fact concern the Big Bang, and is entirely equivalent to the following:
No matter which way a pendulum swings, there is some point on the plane in which it swings.
Yet this rephrasing is itself equivalent to the statement "Any plane contains a point." If this was the essence of the statement, Baez noted, it cannot be very useful in "explaining the origin of inertia". (For an explanation of how the Big Bang "happened everywhere", see Metric expansion of space.)

Urs Schreiber, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hamburg, noted that the mention of the Foucault pendulum was at odds with the papers' general tone, since they generally relied upon more "modern terminology". (According to George Johnson, the Foucault pendulum is "an icon of French science that would belong in any good Gallic spoof.") Schreiber identified five central ideas in the Bogdanovs' work—"'result' A" through "'result' E"—which are expressed in the jargon of statistical mechanics, topological field theory and cosmology. One bit of jargon, the Hagedorn temperature, comes from string theory, but as Schreiber notes, the paper does not use this concept in any detail; moreover, since the paper is manifestly not a string theory treatise, "considering the role the Hagedorn temperature plays in string cosmology, this is bordering on self-parody." Importantly, Schreiber points out that the fourth "result" (that the spacetime metric "at the initial singularity" must be Riemannian) contradicts the initial assumption of their argument (an FRW cosmology with pseudo-Riemannian metric). The fifth and last "result", Schreiber notes, is an attempt to resolve this contradiction by "invok[ing] quantum mechanics". The Bogdanovs themselves described Schreiber's summary as "very accurate"; for more on this point, see below. Schreiber concluded,

Just to make sure: I do not think that any of the above is valid reasoning. I am writing this just to point out what I think are the central 'ideas' the authors had when writing their articles and how this led them to their conclusions.

Eli Hawkins of Pennsylvania State University voiced a similar concern about "The KMS state of spacetime at the Planck scale".

The main result of this paper is that this thermodynamic equilibrium should be a KMS state. This almost goes without saying; for a quantum system, the KMS condition is just the concrete definition of thermodynamic equilibrium. The hard part is identifying the quantum system to which the condition should be applied, which is not done in this paper.

Damien Calaque of the Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg, commented adversely about Grichka Bogdanov's unpublished preprint "Construction of cocycle bicrossproducts by twisting". In Calaque's estimation, the results presented in the preprint did not have sufficient novelty and interest to merit an independent journal article, and moreover the principal theorem was, in its current formulation, false: Grichka's construction yields a bialgebra which is not necessarily a Hopf algebra, the latter being a type of mathematical object which must satisfy additional conditions.

As mentioned above, among the most positive comments on the papers came from physicist Luboš Motl:

...Some of the papers of the Bogdanoff brothers are really painful and clearly silly ... But the most famous paper about the solution of the initial singularity is a bit different; it is more sophisticated.

...it does not surprise me much that Roman Jackiw said that the paper satisfied everything he expects from an acceptable paper—the knowledge of the jargon and some degree of original ideas. (And be sure that Jackiw, Kounnas, and Majid were not the only ones with this kind of a conclusion.)

...Technically, their paper connects too many things. It would be too good if all these ideas and (correct) formulae were necessary for a justification of a working solution to the initial singularity problem. But if one accepts that the papers about these difficult questions don't have to be just a well-defined science but maybe also a bit of inspiring art, the brothers have done a pretty good job, I think. And I want to know the answers to many questions that are opened in their paper.

Motl's measured support for Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime, however, stands in contrast to Robert Oeckl's official MathSciNet review, which states that the paper is "rife with nonsensical or meaningless statements and suffers from a serious lack of coherence," follows up with several examples to illustrate his point, and concludes that the paper "falls short of scientific standards and appears to have no meaningful content."

The HKU and HKUST confusion

For months, the domain name of the "International Institute of Mathematical Physics" created by the Bogdanovs, th-phys.edu.hk, created erroneous suggestions amongst forum participants as to a possible link with The University of Hong Kong or the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The participation of an unidentified "Professor Yang" provoked additional confusion. Using an e-mail address at the domain th-phys.edu.hk, an individual publishing under this name wrote to a number of individuals and on the Internet to defend the Bogdanov papers. This individual wrote to physicists John Baez, Jacques Distler and Peter Woit; to New York Times journalist Dennis Overbye; and on numerous physics blogs and forums, signing his name "Professor L. Yang—Theoretical Physics Laboratory, International Institute of Mathematical Physics—HKU/Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong." Note that it is HKUST which is located in Clear Water Bay, not HKU, whose main campus is located in the Mid-levels of Hong Kong Island.

The Bogdanovs have alleged several times that the "domain name 'th-phys.edu.hk' was officially owned by Hong Kong University. This was not confirmed officially by HKU and no Prof. Yang existed on the roster of the HKU physics department. Confusingly, the DNS record of th-phys.edu.hk listed the street address of HKUST (in Clear Water Bay), not HKU. Moreover, the domain had been registered by Igor Bogdanov, and e-mail messages from Professor L. Yang originated from a dial-up IP address in Paris, France. The registration of th-phys.edu.hk has not been renewed.

Suspicions were consequently raised that Professor L. Yang was actually a pseudonym of the Bogdanovs. However, Igor Bogdanov has maintained that Professor Yang is a real mathematical physicist with expertise in KMS theory, a friend of his, and that he was posting anonymously from Igor's apartment. As yet, no such individual has come forward publicly to unambiguously identify himself as this "Professor Yang" and to identify his credentials and institutional affiliation, and no published record of this "Professor Yang" has been offered for examination.

Following this pattern, another academic domain name was also registered in Latvia (http://phys-maths.edu.lv/), hosting the "Mathematical Center of Riemannian Cosmology". Again, this apparent educational institution was registered by Igor Bogdanov. When asked why the Center's website had a Latvian top-level domain, Igor claimed that it had been established and hosted by the University of Riga, after the brothers had attended a conference there in either 2001 or 2002. This claim was greeted with skepticism and was never confirmed by the University.

Spread of the dispute

At the beginning of 2004, Igor Bogdanov began to post on French Usenet physics groups and Internet forums, continuing the pattern of behavior seen on sci.physics.research. A controversy began on the French Wikipedia when Igor Bogdanov and his supporters began to edit that encyclopedia's Igor et Grichka Bogdanoff, prompting the creation of a new article dedicated to the debate (Polémique autour des travaux des frères Bogdanoff—"Polemic surrounding the work of the Bogdanov brothers"). However, the dispute merely spread to the English-language Wikipedia. Eventually, this led the Arbitration Committee—the English Wikipedia's highest decision-making body short of project leader Jimmy Wales—to ban everyone determined to be a participant in the external dispute from editing material concerning it. This decision, which excluded the Bogdanovs themselves along with several supporters and a few vocal opponents, went into effect on 11 November, 2005.

In 2006, Baez observed on his website how for some time, the Bogdanov brothers and a "large crowd of sock puppets" had been attempting to rewrite the English Wikipedia article on the controversy. "Nobody seems to be fooled," he added.

Media involvement

At the start of the controversy in 2002, numerous articles were published in worldwide media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Economist, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as Pravda, Die Zeit and Le Monde.

In 2002, the Bogdanovs launched a new weekly TV show Rayons X (X Rays) on French public channel France 2. In August 2004, they presented a 90-minute special cosmology program in which they introduced their theory among other cosmological scenarios. They were also frequently invited to numerous TV talk shows to promote their book. The French mainstream media, in both the press and on the Internet, covered the renewed controversy to some extent; media outlets that have reported upon it include Europe 1, Acrimed, and Ciel et Espace.

In 2004, the Bogdanovs published a commercially successful popular science book, Avant Le Big Bang (Before the Big Bang), based on a simplified version of their theses, where they also presented their point of view about the affair. Both the book and the Bogdanovs' television shows have been criticized for elementary scientific inaccuracies. Critics cite examples from Avant Le Big Bang including a statement that the "golden number" φ (Phi) is transcendental, which the Bogdanovs allege to be an editorial misprint; an assumption that the limit of a decreasing sequence is always zero; and that the expansion of the Universe implies that the planets of the Solar System have grown farther apart.

A journalist from Ciel et Espace interviewed Shahn Majid from the University of London about his report on Grichka Bogdanov's thesis. Later, Majid claimed on a Usenet post that, in an addendum to Avant Le Big Bang, Grichka intentionally misquoted Majid's opinion on the way this interview had been transcribed. Majid wrote that the French version of his report on Grichka's thesis is "an unauthorized translation partially invented by the Bogdanovs". In one sentence, the English word "interesting" was translated as the French "important". A "draft [mathematical] construction" becomes "la première construction [mathematique]" ("'the first [mathematical] construction'"). Elsewhere, an added word demonstrates that "Bogdanov does not understand his own draft results", notes Majid, who also describes more than ten other modifications of meaning, each one biased towards "surestimation outrancière"—"outrageous over-estimation". Majid's original report describes, he says, a "very weak" student who nevertheless demonstrated "an impressive amount of determination to obtain a doctorate".

Additionally, in the same addendum, a critical analysis of their work made by post-doc Urs Schreiber, and affirmed by the Bogdanovs as "very accurate", was included with the exception of the concluding remark "Just to make sure: I do not think that any of the above is valid reasoning", thus inverting the meaning from criticism into ostensible support. Moreover, a polite comment of physicist Peter Woit written as, "It's certainly possible that you have some new worthwhile results on quantum groups", was translated as "Il est tout à fait certain que vous avez obtenu des résultats nouveaux et utiles dans les groupes quantiques" ("It is completely certain that you have obtained new worthwhile results on quantum groups") and published by the Bogdanovs in the addendum of their book.

In December 2004, the Bogdanovs sued Ciel et Espace for defamation over the publication of a critical article entitled "The Mystification of the Bogdanovs". A French court ruled against the Bogdanovs in September 2006, ordering that they pay 2500 euros to the astronomical association which publishes the magazine and in addition cover the magazine's legal costs.

Reflections upon the peer-review system

During the heyday of this Affair, some media coverage cast a negative light on theoretical physics, stating or at least strongly implying that it has become impossible to distinguish a valid paper from a hoax. Overbye's article in the New York Times voiced this opinion, for example, as did Declan Butler's piece in Nature. Posters on blogs and Usenet used the affair to criticize the present status of string theory; for this reason, Woit devoted a chapter of Not Even Wrong, a book strongly critical of string theory, to the Affair. On the other hand, George Johnson's report in the New York Times concludes that physicists have generally decided the papers are "probably just the result of fuzzy thinking, bad writing and journal referees more comfortable with correcting typos than challenging thoughts." Furthermore, as physicist Aaron Bergman pointed out while reviewing Not Even Wrong, Woit's conclusion

is undermined by a number of important elisions in the telling of the story, the most important of which is that the writings of the Bogdanovs, to the extent that one can make sense of them, have almost nothing to do with string theory. ... I first learned of the relevant papers in a posting on the internet by Dr. John Baez. Having found a copy of one of the relevant papers available online, I posted that "the referee clearly didn't even glance at it." While the papers were full of rather abstruse prose about a wide variety of technical areas, it was easy to identify outright nonsense in the areas about which I had some expertise. ... A pair of non-string theorists were able to get nonsensical papers generally not about string theory published in journals not generally used by string theorists. This is surely an indictment of something, but its relevance to string theory is marginal at best.

Jacques Distler mused that the tone of the media coverage had more to do with journalistic practices than with physics.

The much-anticipated New York Times article on the Bogdanov scandal has appeared. Alas, it suffers from the usual journalistic conceit that a proper newspaper article must cover a "controversy". There must be two sides to the controversy, and the reporter's job is to elicit quotes from both parties and present them side-by-side. Almost inevitably, this "balanced" approach sheds no light on the matter, and leaves the reader shaking his head, "There they go again..."

Many comments have been made on the possible shortcomings of the referral system for published articles, and also on the criteria for acceptance of a thesis and subsequent delivery of a Doctorate of Philosophy. Frank Wilczek, who edits Annals of Physics (and is now a Nobel laureate), told the press that the scandal motivated him to correct the journal's slipping standards, partly by assigning more reviewing duties to the editorial board.

Prior to the controversy, the reports on the Bogdanov theses and most of the journal referees' reports spoke favorably of their work, describing it as original and containing interesting ideas. This has been the basis of concerns raised about the efficacy of the peer-review system that the scientific community and academia use to determine the merit of submitted manuscripts for publication; one concern is that over-worked and unpaid referees may not be able to thoroughly judge the value of a paper in the little time they can afford to spend on it. Regarding the Bogdanov publications, physicist Steve Carlip remarked:

Referees are volunteers, who as a whole put in a great deal of work for no credit, no money, and little or no recognition, for the good of the community. Sometimes a referee makes a mistake. Sometimes two referees make mistakes at the same time.

I'm a little surprised that anyone is surprised at this. Surely you've seen bad papers published in good journals before this! ... referees give opinions; the real peer review begins after a paper is published.

Following Carlip's logic, one can infer a measure of the influence the Bogdanov papers have had upon the community by studying the references made to them in physicists' subsequent journal articles. The Bogdanov papers are cited a total of three times on the SPIRES database, for six published papers and one unpublished preprint. For comparison, a recent detailed analysis of citation statistics reveals that between 1000 and 2000 citations are expected from someone who advances to a full professor position or a fellowship in the American Physical Society, and around 8000 citations are expected for members of the United States National Academy of Sciences. To focus on cosmological scenarios, a recent and somewhat controversial cosmological model known as the "ekpyrotic universe" was published in 2001 and had already been cited more than 440 times by March 2007. Before the controversy arose, the scientific community had shown practically no interest in the Bogdanov papers; indeed, according to Stony Brook physics professor Jacobus Verbaarschot, without the hoax rumors "probably no one would have ever known about their articles."

The Bogdanovs have not, at the time of writing, published any scientific paper since 2003; however, in collaboration with theoretical physicist Arkadiusz Jadczyk, they have founded the International Institute of Mathematical Physics in order to study and develop their theories. Despite the similarity of name, this is unaffiliated with the reputable Erwin Schrödinger International Institute for Mathematical Physics in Vienna, Austria. Jadczyk has published two papers in peer-reviewed journals claiming this institute as his affiliation. These two papers are not closely related to the issues addressed in the Bogdanovs' previous publications.

Comparisons with the Sokal Affair

Several sources have referred to the Bogdanov Affair as a "reverse Sokal" hoax, drawing a comparison with the Sokal Affair, where the physicist Alan Sokal published a deliberately fraudulent and indeed nonsensical article in the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal's original aim had been to test the effects of the intellectual trend he called, "for want of a better term, postmodernism". Worried by this "more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment," Sokal decided to perform an experiment which he later cheerfully admitted was both unorthodox and uncontrolled, provoking a maelstrom of reactions which, to his surprise, received coverage in Le Monde and even the front page of the New York Times. One of the earliest to draw a comparison between the two events was physicist John Baez, in the seminal post of October 2002 to the sci.physics.research newsgroup.

Both Igor and Grichka Bogdanov have vigorously insisted upon the validity of their work, and possess academic qualifications in the fields in which they are publishing, although the bona fides of their credentials are a bone of contention. In comparison, Alan Sokal was an outsider to the field in which he was publishing—a physicist, publishing in a humanities journal—and promptly issued a statement himself that his paper was a deliberate hoax; indeed, Sokal published the article to expose the weakness of the journal's editorial process. Replying on sci.physics.research, Sokal referred readers to his follow-up essay, in which he notes "the mere fact of publication of my parody" only proved that one particular journal's editors were "derelict in their intellectual duty". (According to the New York Times, Sokal was "almost disappointed" that the Bogdanovs had not attempted a hoax after his own style. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," he said.) Baez, one of the first to make the comparison, later retracted, saying that the brothers "have lost too much face for this to be a plausible course of action."

Cornell physics professor Paul Ginsparg writes that the contrast between the cases is plainly evident: "here, the authors were evidently aiming to be credentialed by the intellectual prestige of the discipline rather than trying to puncture any intellectual pretension." He adds that the fact some journals and scientific institutions have low or variable standards is "hardly a revelation." Both matters have, however, provoked discussion of peer-review reliability, value of academic papers published under credentials alone, and adequate evaluation of scholarly work by academia at large.

References

External links

Initial discussion thread:

Thesis and papers:

Some websites critical of the Bogdanovs:

Bogdanov-related sites (pro-Bogdanov):

Some news items about the controversy:

Blog entries:

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