veryone who ever wondered whether physicists were just making it all up when they talked about extra dimensions, dark matter and even multiple universes might take comfort in hearing that scientists themselves don't always seem to know.
Consider Drs. Igor and Grichka Bogdanov, French mathematical physicists and twins, who have recently been burning up the physics world with a novel and highly speculative theory about what happened before the Big Bang. Scientists have been debating whether the Bogdanov brothers are really geniuses with a new view of the moment before the universe began or simply earnest scientists who are in over their heads and spouting nonsense.
The uproar began late last month when rumors, denied by the brothers, began ricocheting around the Internet that they had constructed an elaborate hoax à la that of Dr. Alan Sokal, the New York University physicist who published a nonsense article about quantum gravity in the cultural journal Social Text in 1994. The story was that the pair, who are 53 and better known as the writers and producers of a popular television show in the 1970's and 80's in which they appeared as what might be called science clowns, had posed as string theorists to obtain fraudulent doctorates.
Until then, few physicists had noticed the brothers' theses or their journal articles, which purport to exploit something called the Kubo-Schwinger-Martin condition. It implies a mathematical connection between infinite temperature and imaginary time (don't ask) to probe the state of the universe at its very beginning. Suddenly physicists were trying to figure out what sentences like this meant, if anything: "Then we suggest that the (pre-)spacetime is in thermodynamic equilibrium at the Planck-scale and is therefore subject to the KMS condition."
Dr. Roman W. Jackiw, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who read and approved Igor Bogdanov's Ph.D. thesis, said he found it speculative but "intriguing."
But Dr. John Baez, a physicist and quantum gravity theorist at the University of California at Riverside, who has conducted a dialogue with the Bogdanov brothers on the Web site math.ucr.edu/home/baez/bogdanov, said, "One thing that seems pretty clear to me is that the Bogdanovs don't know how to do physics."
Dr. Peter Woit, a mathematician and physicist at Columbia University, said of the brothers' work, "Scientifically, it's clearly more or less complete nonsense, but these days that doesn't much distinguish it from a lot of the rest of the literature."
Indeed, the problem of distinguishing sense from nonsense goes beyond the Bogdanovs, say some physicists, who worry that far too much junk goes past the referees who vet articles for the scientific journals and the examiners who approve Ph.D's.
"The bigger issue is about scientific integrity, and how theoretical physics gets judged," said Dr. Frank Wilczek, another M.I.T. physicist and editor of Annals of Physics, where one of the Bogdanov papers appeared. "Do people really have a mastery of the field as a whole?"
How the Bogdanovs came to this pass is perhaps a cautionary tale about the way physics is done today. Born in 1949 in a castle in Gascogne, they described themselves as descendants of Russian and Austrian nobility. After studying applied mathematics at the Institute of Political Science and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, the brothers carved out careers for themselves as writers and producers of their science television show, "Temps X" ("Time X").
A particularly murky episode in their careers began in 1991, when they published "God and Science," a book based on conversations with the French philosopher Dr. Jean Guitton. The book was a best seller in France, but the authors were sued for plagiarism by Dr. Trinh Xuan Thuan, an astronomer at the University of Virginia, who claimed they had copied passages from his 1988 book, "The Secret Melody, and Man Created the Universe." The brothers countersued, arguing that Dr. Thuan had borrowed from their earlier writings and Dr. Guitton's.