The Thin Line of Theory

There’s a quite interesting article on the controversy over string theory that appeared yesterday in the Boston University student newspaper. It gives some insight into the political battle now going on in many physics departments.

The Boston University physics department has always been in the shadow of its more prominent neighbors just across the river in Cambridge. A few years ago they attracted Glashow away from Harvard, and I’ve been told a big selling point for him was that he would no longer have to be part of a department dominated by string theorists. He’s one of very few particle theorists who has consistently and publicly complained about what is going on in string theory. In the article, he forcefully makes the analogy between Einstein’s failed unification efforts and string theory:

“It is tragic,” Glashow said, “but now, we have the string theorists, thousands of them, that also dream of explaining all the features of nature. They just celebrated the 20th anniversary of superstring theory. So when one person spends 30 years, it’s a waste, but when thousands waste 20 years in modern day, they celebrate with champagne. I find that curious.”

Ken Lane, one of Glashow’s colleagues at BU, says that “String theory is not physics” and that he doesn’t know of any BU faculty who think that string theory belongs in the physics department. He does seem to think that it belongs in a math department, something I have some problems with. While certain parts of string theory are mathematically interesting and do belong in math departments, most of what string theorists do is not mathematics. For instance, the many string theorists making anthropic arguments about the “Landscape” are not doing mathematics and it’s pretty insulting to mathematicians to say that they belong in math departments.

Lane believes string theory is on its way out, and that the LHC will finish it off:

“I think I can safely predict that string theory is going to wither and die when exciting results start coming out of the LHC.”

Cumrun Vafa of Harvard seems to be spitting mad at the idea that BU won’t hire string theorists, referring to them as “foolish” and “childish”, which is not normally language academics use when talking to the press about their Nobel-prize winning colleagues at neighboring institutions. Vafa was a student of Witten’s a year or two behind me at Princeton, but I haven’t talked to him since my postdoc days. He’s definitely a smart guy, but also definitely a fanatic.

Vafa graduated from Princeton in 1985, just as the string theory fad hit. He went to Harvard as a postdoc, where most of the senior people were pretty skeptical about string theory, although willing to hire smart young postdocs doing it. I heard he was very upset in 1986 when Glashow published his article with Ginsparg in Physics Today attacking string theory, and even threatened to leave. But over the next decade or so he managed to marginalize Glashow, get more string theorists hired, and consolidate power around them. Finally Glashow left, and by now the string theorists heavily dominate the theory group. Of the active theory faculty, Vafa, Strominger, Minwalla and Motl are full-time string theorists and Randall and Arkani-Hamed do more phenomenological work, work whose justification is often given in terms of string theory. This just leaves Georgi remaining, and at the moment he has his hands full dealing with the fact that the president of Harvard is a sexist buffoon.

For Vafa to accomplish this undoubtedly took some single-minded dedication to furthering the interests of string theory and thwarting its opponents, but now that string theory so overwhelmingly dominates the field, it’s pretty disturbing to see him continuing to behave like a complete fanatic. I’ve been told that after Brian Greene’s Nova TV show about string theory came out, Vafa was heard to say that he didn’t care if it was any good; as far as he was concerned anything that promoted string theory was great. He’s quoted in the article as saying

“Theoretical developments have indicated string theory is a very important part of physics,” Vafa said. “It has already proven foolish. It’s past the point.”

I’m guessing there’s a typo here, one assumes he doesn’t mean that string theory is foolish, but that opposition to it is. He completely ignores the argument that string theory has not predicted anything and thus is not science, calling people who make this argument “childish”. His arrogant attitude towards those who don’t believe what he does is pretty breath-taking, matched only by that of his younger colleague Lubos. He finally dismisses the whole BU physics department with the logically incoherent:

“I think they are doing a disfavor to BU. I don’t want to pass judgment, but not having a string theory group puts [BU physics] out of first rate in my opinion.”

I think he does want to pass judgement and already has. If you’re a theorist who might someday have to deal with him as someone evaluating your grant proposal, deciding whether to hire your student, etc., do you think you might think twice before making a “childish” or “foolish” public comment about what is going on in string theory these days?

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32 Responses to The Thin Line of Theory

  1. Anonymous says:

    Levi,

    Did you see that the paper was dedicated to Giordano Bruno? And that he paraphrased a Pete Seeger/Peter Paul & Mary song?? And that there is not ONE equation in the entire paper?

    The amazing thing to me – this guy was invited to MIT and CERN for 3 years each. Who makes these decisions? I wonder if these people know how to actually do any calculations?

    -drl

  2. Anonymous says:

    We must keep this from Ed, he’ll be devastated. Poor fellow, he seemed so excited…

  3. Thomas Larsson says:

    Peter,

    I realize that it makes sense to spend for Witten to spend a year or two on the twistor string if he finds it promising. However, from what he writes (and that is my only source, I don’t know anything about the subject first-hand) I most definitely get the impression that he doubts the project’s viability. Now, I prefer to work on presumably correct projects rather than presumably incorrect ones, and I suspect that Witten thinks likewise. So that he works on the twistor string but doesn’t believe in it seems to indicate that he doesn’t have any attractive alternative.

  4. Levi says:

    Chris W.,

    Your link in the thread you reference is to the most bizarre paper I’ve seen yet on the ArXiv. It’s hard to imagine that Cumrun Vafa endorses the views in the paper, but who knows? Besides the passage you cite, the author of the paper also thanks Vafa in a footnote on page 3. In fact the paper is worth reading for the footnotes alone. My personal favorite is footnote 4 on page 4, which correctly conveys the flavor of the whole paper:

    although they could send unwanted anti-prisoners, their arrival being known as gamma-ray bursts

  5. Peter says:

    I’m deleting the last couple posts claiming the Pound-Rebka experiment was a fraud because they are off-topic nonsense. If anyone wants to discuss this with quantoken, do it at
    http://quantoken.blogspot.com
    not here.

    By the way, R. V. Pound taught my advanced laboratory physics course, and was an extremely impressive scientist.

  6. Chris W. says:

    View this old post on this weblog, and use your browser to search for “Cumrun Vafa”:

    “Cumrun Vafa thinks that the fact that we do not see aliens around could be the first proof of the existence of brane worlds: all advanced aliens would have emigrated to better parallel universes (our Universe has zero measure).”  [– Beatriz Gato-Rivera]

    If he seriously expressed this opinion it really says something about his judgment.

  7. DMS says:

    “Also, so much of the (suddenly overhyped) particle “phenomenology” these days, a subject which cannot really be done without actual experiments, is simply string theory done badly.”

    This is a joke, right? In case you are serious, LHC will falsify most (perhaps all) these models. That is a good thing. If you want to do something unfalsifiable, there are other subjects like theology.

    The string theorists also show such appalling ignorance about particle physics: like Lubos’ statement (in his blog entry) that phenomenology deals with issues like “adding new digits to the 3 x 3 neutrino mass matrix”. Have they heard about oblique precision electroweak observables S,T,U (hint: nothing to do with dualities)? Do they even care? Details, details, to be worked out later; everything is massless relative to Planck scale… There is a certain comfort in doing such work.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Lubos’ willfull misreading of Peter’s funding comment is a pretty common “technique”, if you want to call it that, from usenet type flame wars. It baits your opponent to go on the defensive, “no, what I really meant was…”. Not the level of discourse one would normally associate with Harvard faculty (even untenured ones).

  9. Peter says:

    Lubos,

    My comment about funding was just pointing out what more than one person has told me. They don’t dare criticize string theory in public because when powerful figures like Cumrun make it clear that they think anyone who criticizes string theory is a “fool” or a “child”, there’s the implicit threat that they will oppose funding grant proposals by fools and children.

    The story about Cumrun’s reaction to the Nova program was told to me by a string theorist who heard him say this.

    Thomas:
    I don’t think it is irrational for Witten or others to keep working on twistor strings for a while even though they have run into problems. They do get very useful tree-level results, and it’s reasonable to see what else they can get out of this idea. If they keep doing it for twenty years though…

    The real problem is that they don’t have any other new ideas about string theory to work on.

    Quantoken:

    Please stop trying to turn the discussion here to your pet ideas about GR. I’ll delete any further comments by you or anyone else about this.

  10. Thomas Larsson says:

    Ever thought about the concept of “work in progress”?

    Work in progress on a non-unitary theory like conformal supergravity? Not really. Sounds kind of LQGish.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Re: Fabio’s comment

    Just like the audience at Bush’s inauguration who booed Kerry:

    Cumrun Vafa = sore winner

  12. Quantoken says:

    It’s indeed interesting Witten suddenly became interested in the Twistor Theory, though no one knows why. String theoretists are a group of sheep blindly following the leading shepherd. Predictably, many people will immediately follow Witten’s footstep into this Twistor thing, though many of them never figured out why. Just look at how many references to Witten’s paper have already been made!

    I am not going to comment on Lubos’s long article, except for that he seems amazingly CHILDISH to even hate to meantion the name Boston University. He must be feeling pretty good about himself being a Harvard assistant professor, not realizing that there is a tradition of manipulating science at Harvard. For example like this INFAMOUS “Harvard Tower Experiment” where they dodged the data to fit what they wanted:

    http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/relativ/gratim.html#c2

    Any one with a little bit common sense in physics can see why the data can not be true and can only be dodged, although I do not doubt the theory of Einstein’s GR itself. I might explain if some one wants to hear.

    Quantoken

  13. Anonymous says:

    Ever thought about the concept of “work in progress”?

    About the actual topic of the post, many smaller dpt. decide not to pursue some areas so that they have better representation in others. Celebrating your (perhaps inevitable) deficiencies is an odd attitude to life.

    Also, so much of the (suddenly overhyped) particle “phenomenology” these days, a subject which cannot really be done without actual experiments, is simply string theory done badly. Might as well have the real thing.

  14. Thomas Larsson says:

    I didn’t see any explanation why Witten is pursuing the twistor string although he evidently thinks that it is wrong.

  15. Lubo Motl says:

    I’ve posted an article about it on my blog.

  16. Thomas Larsson says:

    It’s pretty remarkable that Witten is doing cutting-edge research on the twistor string, which he himself apparently thinks is wrong. Aren’t there any right ideas to investigate at the cutting edge?

  17. Quantoken says:

    Lubos:

    What “cutting edge” research you are talking about? The only edge superstring research is cutting is dominating the whole theoretical physics field and marginalizing alternative approaches. It surely doe not cut any edge in the physical world of reality.

    I don’t know why you would interpret Peter’s original words as “threaten Cumrun of denying his proposals”. Is that a deliberate distortion or your incompetence in reading logically?

    Peter said:
    “If you’re a theorist who might someday have to deal with him as
    someone evaluating your grant proposal, deciding whether to hire
    your student, etc., do you think you might think twice before making
    a “childish” or “foolish” public comment about what is going on in
    string theory these days?”

    The question is not whether super string research should be supported. I think in the spirit of scientific openmindedness, all approaches need to be allowed even some may seem reasonable or unreasonable based on personal opinion. I have no problem continue funding super string theory research, as long as there are people willing to waste their lifetime on that pursuit.

    But I see a problem when one mainstream camp becomes so dorminate and marginalize people of different opinions, to the point that people like Glashaw had to find a refuge away from Harvard. It’s harmful to science.

    Quantoken

  18. Lubo Motl says:

    Some of the things you write, Peter, are not right.

    Cumrun had only judged the program from PBS after he saw it, and he was excited by it – simply because it was a great program. He described it as “something in between physics and video games”. His sons apparently liked it, too.

    Cumrun is also right, of course, that the question for today, 2005, is not “Whether we should study string theory at all?”. This is a question from the Middle Ages that only the people who have lost contact with the current thinking – or those who never had this contact – ask. Theoretical high-energy physics in 2005 without string theory is like quantum mechanics without Hilbert spaces.

    The question is, as often in the past, “What is the right next important step that will be done in string theory?”

    Your proposals to threaten Cumrun with denying his proposals etc. are pretty childish – using Cumrun’s diplomatic speech. I would probably use stronger words. Science is organized differently than you think and the people with enough influence are usually admired physicists.

    Most of us like Shelly Glashow for his personality and we admire him for what he has done several decades ago. But that’s a slightly different question than cutting-edge research.

  19. Thomas Larsson says:

    We may not know much about whatever theory will ultimately unify QM and GR, but we do know what it will be called: string theory! Nati Seiberg has admitted as much.

    Unless, of course, somebody with the right idea has the foresight to protect his intellectual property 🙂

  20. Thomas Larsson says:

    The Glashow-Ginsparg Physics Today article can be found here.

  21. Anonymous says:

    We may not know much about whatever theory will ultimately unify QM and GR, but we do know what it will be called: string theory! Nati Seiberg has admitted as much.

  22. D R Lunsford says:

    Fabio – this is an excellent point. I just finished a book, “102 Minutes”, which is a narrative of the demise of the World Trade Center pieced together from survivor stories and cell phone calls of people who would end up as victims. Immediately after the tragedy, Giuliani, then mayor of NY, attempted to spin it into a tale of selfless heroism. In fact it appears that massive incompetence from one end of government to the other, on all levels, lead to the insane scenario of 200 or so firemen standing around in a nearly empty Tower 1, 20 minutes after the collapse of Tower 2, unable to communicate with people a few hundred feet away. The book is a tacit indictment of public policy and the culture of incompetence that has taken over so many aspects of American life.

    I see the string theory debacle as a direct result of the involvement of incompetent government bureaucracies in science, who will throw money at anything that might one day produce a super-bomb or Buck Rogers death ray.

    The more the incompetence of these bureaucracies is demonstrated by history and repeated failure, the more intransigent they become.

    -drl

  23. Jan Eidissen says:

    “…any more than it makes sense to count the Harvard string theorists as part of the math department”

    I believe string theory (or LQG) may turn out to be nothing more and nothing less than a highly sophisticated human invention enabling many theoretical physicists to keep busy while another physicist comes out with a sound theory of quantum gravity in which they can work. Meanwhile, labeling is pending.

    “If, on the other hand, there is a rich phenomenology at LHC, string theory enetrprise will be in serious trouble”

    String theory is a well-devised survival tool (for it’s non-falsifiable), so it shall end up being a marginal subject at math departments only when a simpler theory is able to unify GR and QFT or a more plausible alternative comes to scene. I don’t expect the LHC to make any big difference, even after conceding that only SM particle debris has been found within its full energy range.

  24. Quantoken says:

    Peter said:
    “Ken Lane, one of Glashow’s colleagues at BU, says that “String theory is not physics” and that he doesn’t know of any BU faculty who think that string theory belongs in the physics department. He does seem to think that it belongs in a math department, something I have some problems with. While certain parts of string theory are mathematically interesting and do belong in math departments, most of what string theorists do is not mathematics.”

    Wow that really amazed me! Peter, according to you, super string theory are neither physics nor mathematics. Then into which category shall we classify super string theory? Maybe religion? Religious cult do seem to be a fitting category for super stringers 🙂

    Too bad politics played such a big role in the science community. Nothing surprising to me, though. According to Darwin’s theory, which is the ultimate truth in the universe, “survival of the fittest”, the ones surviving in the science community must be the ones most capable of getting fundings. They may not be the ones doing real science, but probably the ones who know to play politics in their hands.

    Ever since science has matured into a MASSIVE industry in where a great portion of the human population jump in to earn a living of bread and butter, politics has become an ever more important factor in the science community. Sad but true. “Science” is as dirty as politics nowadays.

    Quantoken

  25. Peter says:

    I was talking to someone last night who told me that Coleman (who is 68) has not been well and has been on medical leave for the last couple years.

    The kind of cosmology/astrophysics done by the people at the CFA you mention may have some connections to particle physics, but I don’t think it makes sense to count these people as particle theorists (any more than it makes sense to count the Harvard string theorists as part of the math department). There are good reasons that they work at the CFA, not at Jefferson.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Among the phenomologists at Harvard you missed
    Sidney Coleman , plus a few others at CFA who do
    work on interface of particle physics/Cosmology
    such as Avi Loeb, George Field, Matias Zaldarriaga
    and maybe a few others. So I don;t think Harvard
    is all string theory.

  27. DMS says:

    I too was taken aback by Vafa’s arrogant tone. This is what happens if one is a true believer, I guess.

    I noticed the amusing sentence: ” But Harvard’s Vafa said that string theorists share excitement about the LHC, and that experimental results it yields will not prove or disprove string theory.”

    There you have it: straight from the horse’s mouth. So much for predictivity and uniqueness 🙂

    Anyone know the ratio of string theorists being offered post-docs and faculty positions to non-string theorists (among high energy theorists) recently?

    I think, if LHC shows SM Higgs+nothing else (or nothing), string theory will complete the dominance in high energy theory.

    If, on the other hand, there is a rich phenomenology at LHC, string theory enetrprise will be in serious trouble. That should worry Vafa and explain his behaviour.

  28. Fabio says:

    You make an interesting observation about how Vafa’s fanatasism has not been softened by near total domination of the field, and it begs an anology with the political right in the US, who seem to get more fanatical and vitriolic in their rhetoric the more power they accumulate. There must be something about having near absolute power but knowing that it’s built upon such flimsy foundations which causes one to obsessively squash dissent.

  29. flack says:

    I wasn’t aware Glashow had left Harvard.

    I heard Shamit Kaku say a few years ago that Harvard basically capitulated to stringification because they realized that, whether it was good physics or not, that was the only way to remain “hot” as a theory department.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Lane said. “One of the reasons Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel laureate, left Harvard was because they had become way too stringy. We sort of led the way. We did not emphasize string theory, and we attracted Shelly”

    What an achievement that is! Ha! “We sort of led the way”. Yeah, right…..

  31. D R Lunsford says:

    “So when one person spends 30 years, it’s a waste, but when thousands waste 20 years in modern day, they celebrate with champagne. I find that curious.” – S Glashow

    Now THAT is quotable! 🙂 Nice article.

    -drl

  32. Dick Thompson says:

    I suspect the influence, if not the hidden hand, of Sheldon Glashow in BU’s decision to deemphasize string theory.

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