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Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Science Set Free From Truth," by John Horgan. Editorial, New YorkTimes, 16 July 1996.

"Don't Pull the String on String Theory," by Alan Sokal. Letter to the Editor,New York Times, 22 July 1996.

John Horgan's editorial describes his notion of "ironic science"---theoriesthat are impossible to test directly. The example he gives is string theory,which asserts that matter is made up of tiny vibrating strings. String theoryis "ironic" because verifying the existence of these strings is a practicalimpossibility. Ironic science, Horgan writes, "cannot give us the truth." Hemakes reference to an article written by physicist Alan Sokal and published ina sociology journal in May 1996. Sokal wrote the article as a hoax to ridiculeviews about science currently popular in sociology and related fields. Thearticle stated that string theory might help to liberate scientists from"dependence on the concept of objective truth." While acknowledging that theSokal article was a hoax, Horgan believes this statement has some validity. Ina Letter to the Editor written in response to this editorial, Sokal explainsthat string theory is an attempt to reconcile quantum mechanics and generalrelativity. Although a direct experimental test of string theory isimpossible, he points out, it should not be rejected on "spurious philosophicalgrounds."

-Allyn Jackson

American Mathematical Society