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The physics establishment appears to be unable to decide whether papers submitted by two former French TV presenters are a scientific breakthrough or an elaborate hoax. The debunking to date has been done on Usenet groups and informally, over the Internet.

The pranksters evaded the rigorous peer review process employed by scientific journals, and have succeeded in publishing four physics papers. The pair even won themselves PhDs into the bargain.

Grichka and Igor Bogdanov succeeded in having Topological field theory of the initial singularity of spacetime published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity 18, Spacetime Metric and the KMS Condition at the Planck Scale in the Annals of Physics, and a Russian journal, and Igor - this time flying solo - persuaded the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics to publish the Topological origin of inertia.

But curiously, so arcane and abstract is the world of theoretical physics, that the work has yet to be repudiated.

Usenet posters describe the papers as "laughably incoherent". A fascinating thread on Usenet begun by John Baez brought the hoax to light, and persistent questioning by Arkadiusz Jadczyk on his website has done much to expose the pair.

The Bogdanovs apparently foxed a New York Times reporter curious about the case, who after an angry denial from one of the hoaxers - denying that he was a hoaxer - dropped his investigation.

"Does no one have the courage of his convictions to stand up and declare an opinion one way or the other, or is it simply that no one has bothered to actually spend the time to acquire an informed opinion (i.e. more than just skimming the papers for a few choice sentences)?", asks Kevin Scaldeferri from the California Institute of Technology.

So, the only respectable branch of physics in which the Bogdanov's operate appears to be, umm ... pataphysics.

The terrible, terrible conclusion some might draw from the episode is that string physics is no more a "science" than a social science. Several years ago physics professor Alan Sokhal hoaxed the cultural theories establishment with a delightful pastiche that suggested recent quantum theory work proved aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as he explained in his paper A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies:-

"While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance," he wrote.

But if the establishment is so reluctant to expose the prank, is it the fault of hoaxers or the scientific method? The work of many of our most important scientists has been conducted in the margins, contrary to orthodox scientific opinion. Occam's Razor is not only a wonderful thing for debunking junk science, but a terrific way to cut your own arms and legs off. And scientists must eat, so grant-funded research necessarily follows the orthodoxy.

So which is it? Go gentle with us, dear readers, for when it comes to physics I'm as thick as too short Plancks. ®

Thanks to the ever-wonderful RobotWisdom for the link - ao

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