Mission Accomplished

A few years ago the asset value of string theory in the market-place of ideas started to take a tumble due to the increasingly obvious failure of the idea of unifying physics with a 10/11 dimensional string/M-theory. Since then a few string theorists and their supporters have decided to fight back with an effort to regain market-share by misleading the public about what has happened. Because the nature of this failure is sometimes summarized as “string theory makes no experimental predictions”, the tactic often used is to claim that “string theory DOES make predictions”, while neglecting to explain that this claim has nothing to do with string theory unification.

A favorite way to do this is to invoke recent attempts to use conjectural string/gauge dualities to provide an approximate calculational method for some strongly coupled quantum systems. There are active on-going research programs to try and see if such calculational methods are useful in the case of heavy-ion collisions and various condensed-matter systems. In the heavy-ion case, we believe we know the underlying theory (QCD), so any contact between such calculations and experiment is a test not of the theory, but of the calculational method. For the condensed matter systems, what is being tested is the combination of the strongly-coupled model and the calculational method. None of this has anything to do with testing the idea that string theory provides a fundamental unified theory.

The yearly AAAS meeting is the largest gathering where scientists present results to the press and try and draw attention to recent scientific advances. This year’s meeting was held over the past weekend and featured a program Quest for the Perfect Liquid: Connecting Heavy Ions, String Theory, and Cold Atoms. While the presentations were largely a serious attempt to explain this area of research to the public, the fact that this has nothing to do with string theory unification somehow doesn’t seem to have been mentioned, with the result one would expect. The program was reported on under the headline A first: String theory predicts an experimental result, with the story beginning:

One of the biggest criticisms of string theory is that its predictions can’t be tested experimentally–a requirement for any solid scientific idea.

That’s not true anymore.

Another report entitled A prediction from string theory? at Physics World starts off:

Skeptics find much to complain about in string theory, but perhaps their most stinging criticism has been its inability to be falsified by experiment. A few years ago, one string theorist even told me that a particle accelerator big enough to “see” a string would be so large that its opposite ends would be causally disconnected. So this is not a problem we’ll be solving any time soon.

Yet even if we’ll never see a string in the lab, it turns out that string theory does make a few predictions about how matter should behave at the quantum level…

The dramatic news that claims that string theory can’t be tested have been refuted was then spread widely by Digg, so much so that the Symmetry Magazine site featuring the story crashed. The discussion on Digg showed what got through to the public from the efforts of the scientists involved:

Without a testable hypothesis it was only a String MODEL. Now we truly have a String Theory.

Michio Kaku just had an orgasm.

Brian Greene’s next book will be titled “Told You So Bitches!”

The one string theorist involved in all this was Clifford Johnson, who gives a minute-by-minute description of his participation here. It ends by invoking the phrase made famous by the last US president:

Mission accomplished. (Hurrah!)

Update: There a better story on this at Ars Technica, which avoids the misleading “test of string theory” claim.

Update: Another story about this is Experimenting With String Theory?, where the author for some reason also missed the fact that this has nothing to do with unification, writing:

So there you have it: finally, a potential concrete way to experiment with the predictions of string theory. But I’ll let the expert say that:

“This is the first time string theory can help experiments,” Johnson said. “We haven’t proven string theory, but have found a place where string theory has been a modest guide and making testable predictions.”

Another string theorist has a long blog entry about this here, where the punch-line is:

And it is just manifestly wrong to say that the lab tests of the predictions of AdS/QCD or AdS/CMT have nothing to do with string theory’s being the unifying theory of gravity and other forces and matter, or a theory of everything, if you wish. They have everything to do with it.

Update: Chad Orzel has sensible things to say about this here, in the context of a more general debate about the role of science journalists. In the comment section Moshe Rozali’s comment I suspect reflects the feelings of most string theorists about this:

As for the specifics of your example, I would comment on it, but I decided to go and extract my own wisdom tooth instead. I think that would be much more fun.

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82 Responses to Mission Accomplished

  1. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Peter,

    You said “Actually, Yang-Mills theory was invented to describe part of the standard model (the strong interactions)”

    Not true. Go back and read the original paper. YM theory was invented to reconcile isospin invariance (which had new experimental results supporting it) with the concept of local fields. They give the impression that they think global rather than local isospin invariance is inconsistent with local fields. In any case, they decide to see what they can deduce if isospin invariance is made local. I don’t believe the claim that they were trying to describe the strong interactions is supported by any statements in their paper.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    H-I-G-G-S,

    Actually I have read the paper, and seriously studied the history of that era. I’m well aware that what they were gauging was isotopic spin, but it really is true that what they were hoping to get was a theory of the strong interactions. There’s nothing in the paper about the weak interactions, the introduction is all about the strong interactions (nucleons, mesons, no leptons), then they state:

    “We then propose that all physical processes (not involving the electromagnetic field) be invariant under an isotopic gauge transformation…”

    It was only several years later, after V-A, that people like Schwinger and his student Glashow started working on the idea of using Yang-Mills theory to get a theory of the weak interactions.

    If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe David Gross, who writes in

    http://psroc.phys.ntu.edu.tw/cjp/v30/955.pdf

    “The application of Yang-Mills theory to the strong interactions-the original motivation for the theory- was even trickier”

  3. Peter Woit says:

    One more, in case you also think Gross doesn’t know what he’s talking about:

    See Weinberg’s

    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0401010

    “Yang and Mills [9] in 1954 constructed a gauge theory based not on the simple one-dimensional group U(1) of electrodynamics, but on a three-dimensional group, the group SU(2) of isotopic spin conservation, in the hope that this would become a theory of the strong interactions.”

  4. Troy says:

    Peter,

    “”"I have a high opinion of science journalists, but I’m not one.”"”

    Okay, let’s break this down more. Now that we agree that being called a science journalist is not an insult, hopefully you will stop thinking that I’m attacking you. I’m not.

    “”"The blog is aimed at other physicists and mathematicians who share my interests. What I wrote in the book and what I write on the blog is based upon training that includes a Ph.D. in particle theory from Princeton, and 25 years since then during which I’ve spent most of my waking hours thinking about and teaching mathematics and physics.”"”

    This is all true. But this doesn’t mean that your current activity is not closer to science journalism than to original scientific research.

    “”"There’s a huge amount of material on this blog and in the book, anyone can judge for themselves whether it is reliable and I know what I’m talking about.”"”

    All true again. I don’t say you don’t know what you are talking about either. I did not say that and I never implied it. All I’m saying is that writing a blog and popular science book, even with the strong credentials you have, does not constitute scientific activity, in my opinion. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this, this is not an attack, not a creepy ad hominem, etc, nothing like that, it’s a simple observation that doesn’t contain anything insulting.

    “”"I have no idea who you are, or why you are on this campaign to claim that I am not a scientist, a campaign conducted from behind the mask of anonymity. Frankly I find this extremely creepy”"”

    Let’s not get into the discussion of posting anonymously, this will only sidetrack the discussion.

    I did not say you are not a scientist. I certainly start getting the feeling that you are a slightly bit paranoid. Again, I did not say you are not a scientist. What I said is that your most recent activity, writing a blog and a popular science book, does not constitute original scientific research activity.

    Example: Terence Tao is a scientist. He writes a blog. His blog does not constitute original scientific research, based on which one could label him a scientist. We think about him as a scientist for other reasons, for example his papers, theorems, etc, etc, all the usual stuff. But he is not spending 100% of his time on original science research, he does other stuff too. He does popular science too, popular science writing, science journalism, etc. His blog is an example of his popular science activities. I bet he wouldn’t be offended if somebody would point it out that his blog writing activity is popular science writing. In fact he knows this.

    Just as John Baez knows that his This Week’s Find is popular science writing, aimed at scientists, but something that does not meet the strict requirements of rigorous science. But he would not be offended by this. In fact, that’s exactly the reason he does what he does. He wants a free form of exchange of ideas without the burden of rigorous academic channels and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s pretty good that he is doing what he is doing. He is also a scientist and large part of his time is spent on original scientific research. His blog writing activity is something else though.

    So back to you. Your blog and book writing activity is the same. It’s popular science writing or science journalism. You have a PhD. You graduated from a good school, you wrote a couple of papers. So you are a scientist. But in the last 5-10 years, you did not carry on your scientific research, instead you are writing this blog and writing a book and publish drafts of some scientific ideas as blog postings. There is nothing wrong with this. But Terrence Tao and John Baez does this type of popular writing and original research on top of that. You apparently dropped original research and stick with popular writing. That’s a difference between you and Terrence Tao or John Baez.

    I simply don’t understand why it’s so hard for you to admit this. It’s not a stigma. It doesn’t make the value of your writings any smaller. Nobody will think less of you. But if you continue to go against the facts I outlined above maybe we don’t agree as to what constitutes original science research and what constitutes popular science writing.

    I think I made my definitions clear (Terrence Tao’s blog or This Week’s Find are both popular science writings, aimed at scientists, for example). If you disagree, please let me know what you think is original scientific research and what is popular science writing.

    Best,
    Troy

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,

    I’ve already answered you repeatedly. I’m no Terry Tao, but I currently spend many hours a week working on original scientific research in the narrowest possible sense (my work on BRST and Dirac Cohomology), and I have been doing this my entire adult life. Some of this has appeared on the blog, more will in the near future, as well as ultimately in more conventional forms. If you want to describe me as a scientific researcher who has a problem with not writing things up for publication out of a combination of laziness and not being willing to publish things that he’s not happy with, that would be fine.

    This is a posting about a rather egregious example of string theory hype. Instead of discussing that, you’re on an obsessive and off-topic campaign to convince the world that I’m not a scientific researcher but a journalist. I don’t know anything about who you are, or why you are trying to do this. It really is creepy though.

  6. Sung Lee says:

    Troy,

    Your tactics is so transparent. What you are trying to implicate is that Peter is not a scientist but a scientific journalist, therefore his criticisms about string hypes are less credible.

    I presume a lot of regular readers of this blog are professional physicists or mathematicians. I myself is a mathematician. Even without your pointless effort, I believe people can use their own judgment to see whether Peter’s argument is credible or not. If you have a problem with his criticisms, you just need to point out what the problem is with your own rationales. If you are a string theorist, I would personally like to hear about your expert counter argument on Peter’s criticisms. While I agree mostly with Peter’s criticisms about string hypes, I believe it is still too early to dismiss string theory itself. I personally am interested in string theory and am trying to understand it along with standard QFT.

    If you really have something to say to counter argue with his criticisms, please do. Otherwise, quit it.

    Best,
    Sung Lee

  7. anon. says:

    The H-I-G-G-S and Troy arguments are of the philosophy:

    ‘When in hole, keep digging.’

    No matter how many failures there are, no matter how many false claims are exposed, no matter how much spin and hype is proved vacuous, there is no apology. Far from it…

  8. Re: Troy vs. Peter

    The naked Emperor is funny, but the naked Emperor throwing insults is truly hilarious.

  9. Joey Ramone says:

    Many people accused my band the Ramones of not being a real band because we did not put out top-40 hits like Boy George in the 80′s.

    I recall getting a snail-mail fan letter from Troy. Back then we did not have email and blogs, so people had to pay for stamps and envelopes when they sent anonymous words belittling us. I saved “Troy’s” letter. Here it is:

    “Joey–So back to you. Your band and record-making activity is the same. It’s alternative rock or punk rock. You learned some chords. You got yourself a decent guitar, you wrote a couple of songs. So you are a musician. But in the last 5-10 years, you did not carry on your higher musical duties as did Billy Idol and Tears for Fears, instead you are performing for a dozen fans in Toledo Ohio and ignoring the corporate music scene. There is nothing wrong with this. But Adam Ant and Madonna also perform in Toledo and compose corporate top-40 music on top of that. You apparently dropped corporate top-40 music and stick with punk/alternative. That’s a difference between you and Adam Ant and Madonna.”

    Without Troy’s insights, I doubt we’d ever been inducted into the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame.

  10. Will says:

    I think everyone is misinterpreting Troy’s point. I think Troy’s claim is that Peter does not have credentials like Shelly Glashow to counter string theory. This does not mean that Peter is not entitled to his opinion. I think Peter has done a good job in pointing out websites, lectures etc in both math and string theory.

  11. Will says:

    My last thought is that I hope Peter would show the details in the flaws about the new development in arguments in string theory as opposed to touching on tangential point. Anyways, there I rest my case and I will not say more in this post.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Will,

    I don’t think anyone is misinterpreting Troy’s attack on my credentials. Anyone who wants to judge arguments about string theory based purely on the credentials of who is making them should ignore me and listen just to Nobel prize winners and senior faculty at places like Harvard and Princeton. On the other hand, if you want to make your own judgment about this scientific controversy, you might want to read what I have to say, what string theorists have to say, and make up your own mind. One thing you may notice is that often, in cases like this posting, string theorists don’t bother to try and defend the indefensible hype coming from their colleagues that I am pointing out, and instead try and attack my credentials. This tactic hasn’t worked out for them so far, but they keep at it…

  13. Joey Ramone says:

    I remember when Troy and Will used to follow us around after concerts, yelling at us from behind masks–”You are no Depeche Mode! You are no Duran Duran! You are no Dexy’s Midnight Runners!”

    Boy, did that creep the band out.

    It turns out they were fans of Tears for Fears, but attacking our credentials never did get Tears for Fears into the Rock’n'Roll Hall of Fame.

    And attacking Peter probably won’t save string theory.

  14. Aaron Bergman says:

    Are you bashing Dexy’s Midnight Runners? Because if you are, I’m not sure I can stand for that. I mean, they have the toora and the loora. You can’t beat that shit.

  15. Will says:

    Peter,

    Well, I almost feel compelled to make one more argument. If you see nobel lauretes like Weinberg, Thooft, Nambu, Gross, Gell Mann and others in particle physics tradition we know for a fact that they tend to support string theory.

    In fact a number of them have worked in the fields and there is no denying this. These are not conspiracy theories. Now, obviously like with any discipline, there are skeptics within particle physics community but their criticism are more constructive and not outright negative.

    Other criticism come from subdisciplines of physics. For instance people like Philip Anderson have opposed even building particle colliders: his battles with Weinberg about this issue and the congress hearings are well documented. As good as people like Anderson or other condensed matter physicist are, their skepticism is only good to understand their taste.

    If one looks at physicist who have thought deeply about the problems in quantum gravity, it would be misleading to claim that most distinguished physicist are against string theory. In fact the evidence suggests quite the contrary.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Will,

    Deciding a scientific question by counting up how many Nobel prize winners are on each side of the question is one way to do it, another is to actually learn about the subject and make up your own mind. By the way, you don’t seem to mention Veltman, Wilczek, Glashow,, and ‘t Hooft doesn’t seem to me to be much of a fan of string theory unification. I have no idea what Kobayashi and Maskawa think.

    In recent years I’ve had the honor of discussing the issue with many eminent physicists, including a sizable number of Nobelists. They each have their own take on the situation, I think it’s a mistake to simplify any of their views to “for” or “against”. One thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t any real disagreement about the fact that string theory has not worked as a unified theory. Some remain optimistic that this will change, others are very skeptical.

    To get back to the topic of this posting, the misleading story about string theory and experiment. There I don’t see any disagreement. I can’t think of any physics Nobelist who would want to defend the “string theory finally makes contact with experiment” headlines as not being misleading.

  17. Joey Ramone says:

    Yes–like the String Theorists of your era, Dexy’s Midnight Runners had all the funding in the early eighties. They had all the lighting, intricate stagesets, professional choreography, fx, makeup & hair, complex story, and cool costumes:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXLHUThBib8

    All we had were our leather jackets and a single camera which didn’t move, and we didn’t even dance:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMD7Ezp3gWc
    The only time I ever met Weinberg, T’hooft, Nambu, Gross, and Gell Mann was during the filming of this video. You can see them around 1:00-1:10.

    When one juxtaposes these two videos it is quite surprising that we–the Ramones–were the ones who ended up in the Rock’n'Roll hall of fame–not DMR. I would have never guessed, as you know how those “hall of fame” things go. Twenty years from now, when people watch an Elegant Universe, they will probably be surprised that nobody won a Nobel for String Theory.

  18. Aaron Bergman says:

    You can talk about the Rock and Roll hall of fame all you want, but you never had a fiddle in your band. Never had and never will.

  19. H-I-G-G-S says:

    Peter,

    Perhaps Yang and Mills were hoping to develop a theory of the strong interactions. Perhaps not. Where is the evidence that they were? You don’t cite any statements from their actual paper. You don’t direct me to any historical documents where they were interviewed about their thoughts. If you did I would be happy to have a look and I might be convinced that this was indeed their motivation. Instead you argue by appeal to a higher authority, in this case Gross and Weinberg. Of course when they argue about the importance of string theory you do not agree with them, but when they support a point you like they are suddenly experts who cannot be disputed. Gross was 13 years old when the Yang-Mills paper was published. Why do you think he should know what they were thinking?

    PH

  20. Peter Orland says:

    H-I-G-G-S,

    I once read the Yang-Mills paper when I was much younger (though I was probably older than thirteen. Maybe I was twenty. Or seventy. I can’t recall). They were trying to describe vector mesons, which were regarded as fundamental mediators of the nuclear force (along with the pion). Sakuri and other people were thinking of the Yang-Mills particle as rho mesons.

    The mass was inserted by hand, since they didn’t know about Y-O-U at that time.

    As far as I know, the first people to try to apply the idea to the weak force were Schwinger and Glashow (his student).

  21. Pawl says:

    Re: Will’s comments on unification and particle physics

    There is a premise here — which seems to be unquestioned by many superstringers — that the problem of quantizing gravity is enough like a particle physics problem that it will be solved by a particle-physics-type approach. True, the electromagnetic, strong and weak interactions were all described by quantum field theory, but we may need something of a different (and arguably deeper) character to tackle gravity — which affects causal relations in a way the other forces do not.

    From this point of view, one should be especially cautious about particle physicists who endorse some particular quantum gravity program, because there is the question of whether they are so conditioned by successes in their own field they may not appreciate the very real possibility that it may be necessary to move beyond it.

    It might be interesting to consider how string theory is viewed by relativists. While there certainly are some relativists who do string theory, it seems to me that on the whole relativists have at best a wait-and-see attitude towards string theory.

    (I agree with Peter that citing what other people think is really a distant second to having an informed opinion of one’s own. I am trying to make the point that to have an informed opinion it would be a mistake to rely only on expertise in particle physics.)

  22. Will says:

    Pawl,
    I was answering Peter’s point that senior faculty at Harvard and Princeton were overwhelmingly against string theory.

    I was pointing out names just to show that, in fact the balance of people with serious credential tips towards string theory and others who are skeptical make constructive arguments as oppose to whining about what a new scientists magazine thinks about string theory because a string theorist did not do a “good job” in a press conference. Again, any one string theorist is not representative of the entire field and these are mind numbing arguments.

    Pawl, I however agree with you that everyone should make an informed decision and forum such as this almost inevitably engage people in discussion which has less to do with science but press releases, who said what and so on. I have said repeatedly, that
    scientific debates are won in black boards as opposed to sociological comments in blogs or press releases.

    Hence, I am urging people to make more scientific arguments as opposed to just playing the game which now seems old and not at all constructive.

  23. woit says:

    Will,

    I never claimed that “senior faculty at Harvard and Princeton were overwhelmingly against string theory”, something which is very much not true. I just wrote that if all you care about is credentials, they’re the people you should be listening to, not that they as a group agree with me about string theory or anything else.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    H-I-G-G-S,

    Wow. The refusal of some particle theorists to admit it when they’re wrong about something is nothing short of spectacular.

    Actually I did cite a relevant statement in the paper. My claim that Yang and Mills were thinking about the strong interactions is based upon my knowledge of the history of the period, not on the quotes from Gross and Weinberg. I quoted them because they are very serious scholars, with a deeper knowledge of the history than my own, since they are personally closer to it.

    This whole topic seems worth a blog posting…

  25. Pawl says:

    Will,

    You’ll notice that my arguments are either directly scientific or go to the question of whether the authorities others cite are likely to have considered all pertinent scientific issues.

    If you do want to encourage rational argumentation, I suggest you write courteously, avoiding terms like “whine.”

  26. Mitch Miller says:

    Peter wrote:
    “This whole topic seems worth a blog posting”

    I know you probably don’t take requests but some posts about the historical development of particle theory topics and how people reacted to things when they were first presented would be very interesting (i think) to alot of your readers and is something that is not found in detail very easily online. So if you were leaning in that direction I think it could make for some good posts.

  27. Hi Peter,

    I thought you’d get a kick out of this job posting for a “short-term science research assistant” that recently appeared on Mediabistro.com. Whoever posted the job lumps string theory in with meditation, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis:
    http://www.mediabistro.com/joblistings/jobview.asp?joid=87703&page=1

  28. TCO says:

    pop culture has already moved on and decided that string theory is unphysical and untested. you won the meme war. don’t let some Motl dead enders dissuad you. Even if the job holding onto professors don’t agree…the public has already written of string theory. It’s stock price is in the crapper. Trading on the pink sheets now. Even just regular physicists think so.

  29. Troy says:

    Peter,

    TCO and Joey Ramone illustrate my point very well. They both talk about popular culture. It might be the case that the standing of string theory in pop culture is declining but just as it did not matter one bit what the standing of string theory is in pop culture when this standing was high, it does not matter one bit now when this standing is low. This is simply because pop culture and science are two different things and, for me at least, science is infinitely more important when discussing the merits of a scientific field.

    There is nothing wrong with pop culture. In fact, I like it a lot. But it has nothing to do with science.

    And in the last years you have contributed a lot to pop culture but exactly zero to science. As soon as you decide to contribute to science again I’d be more than happy to change my opinion.

    You, in fact, promised almost a year ago that you will write up your ideas on BRST in the form of a paper by the summer of 2008:

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=673&cpage=1#comment-36514

    At that time you still recognized that writing this blog is less important than science itself. You wrote “I probably should be spending less time on the blog….” and it seemed you wanted to dedicate more time to science. This seemed encouraging but now there is still no paper, not even an arxiv posting and you even seem to have changed your mind and you started to think that blogging is part of your scientific activity.

    What happened? What made you change your mind? Why don’t you say today that “I should be spending less time on blogging and more on writing science research articles.”?

    Given your super paranoid reactions, let me reiterate:

    1. I’m not attacking you.
    2. I’m not saying you are not a scientist
    3. I’m not questioning your credentials (in fact, I wrote that your credentials are strong)
    4. I’m not bringing in personal/character/etc issues into the discussion
    5. I’m not posting anonymously because I’m “hiding”
    6. I’m not a string theorist (in fact, I have never written a paper on string theory)
    7. I’m writing anonymously because I believe it’s possible to discuss the merit of my posting on merely the posting itself, regardless of who the author is

    Best,
    Troy

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,
    Your obsesssion about this topic really is creepy. Latest news about the BRST project is that I spent yesterday working on rearranging the paper, based on some better understanding of what is going on that the last couple months of work has led to, this week hope to get more written.

  31. Troy says:

    Peter,

    I’m eagerly waiting for the arxiv preprint, since this is a very interesting topic!

    Best,
    Troy

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