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. Stephen says:

    I know a few condensed matter theorists that are very interested in dualities, and a friend of mine is doing his thesis work technically in string theory, but in trying to work out a QCD dual (his five word summary, it’s obviously much more involved). In a sense, the ability to probe strongly coupled systems using ideas from string theory is a big step, since prior to the advent of duality, from the best of my studying, it was mostly ad hoc attempts to tackle the limit. It’s also opened up a lot of avenues of intellectual thought, and brought a lot of nice connections with mathematics.

    That said, their PR ranges from mumbles of confession that it’s probably not good for anything to downright intellectually dishonest claims to predictions that are a consequence of a formalism more than for a unified theory.

  2. A.J. says:

    Peter,

    Clifford said explicitly that what he’s doing doesn’t constitute a test of string theory. First linked article, 5th & 6th paragraph. “string theory testable?” is a hook introduced by the science journalist. It’s a sleazy rhetorical tactic, but that’s show business for you. I don’t see this is any worse than suggesting that honest research like AdS/QCD is just a PR tactic carried out on behalf of some unnamed “string theorists and their supporters.”

  3. Peter Woit says:

    A.J.,

    I in no way suggested that “AdS/QCD is just a PR tactic carried out on behalf of some unnamed “string theorists and their supporters”” and I really resent that accusation. You know very well that’s not what I think and that’s not what I’ve ever written. I’ve no problem with work on AdS/QCD. Some of it’s very good, some of it’s over-hyped, like any other scientific field. But I am critical of people who go to the press promoting this work in a way that they know full well is misleading. If you’ve spent twenty-five years going to the press promoting a speculative idea about string theory as a fundamental theory, when you go to them about a completely different use of string theory it’s part of your job to explain that they’re different things. The quote from Clifford that you mention doesn’t do that.

    The first story I linked to has a note from the author that explicitly thanks Clifford for helping her fix inaccuracies in the original version of the piece that she posted. If he had a problem with the whole “finally string theorists find a way to test their theory, despite what critics say” story line, he could have had that inaccuracy fixed.

    Look, the many bogus stories about “tests of string theory” that have appeared in recent years are not innocent mistakes caused by journalists who, despite the best efforts of string theorists, are so stupid they can’t understand what they are told, and so pig-headed that they insist on putting misleading headlines and lead paragraphs on their stories.

  4. A.J. says:

    Hi Peter,

    Sorry for the bombast. I hope you’re not too offended. I was rather annoyed by the blunt contradiction between the quotes from Clifford and your claim that string theorists weren’t making it clear that use of string theory in heavy ion physics is not related to any uses string theory might have in very smale scale physics.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about the degree to which string theorists are to blame for the misleading headlines. I should clarify my position a little though: I don’t think these are innocent mistakes on the part of the journalist. I don’t think the journalists are that dumb. I _do_, however, think that journalists write these sorts of headlines, knowing that they’re misleading, because the hype sells the article. “Aspects of string theory useful in heavy ion physics” just isn’t going to attract as many diggs.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    A.J.,

    Sorry, my reading of the two paragraphs you point to is rather the opposite. Acknowledging that this work does not prove string theory unification isn’t the point. Instead of just stating that the research under discussion has nothing to do with the string theory unification, Clifford is claiming that it does (using the logic: “we don’t understand string theory, maybe comparing AdS/CFT-motivated approximations to experimental results in heavy-ion physics will help us understand string theory, and once we understand string theory, we’ll see how to do string theory unification”), He’s welcome to that bit of wishful thinking, but when he uses it on non-experts in the way quoted, it’s not at all surprising that what they take away is the message that string theory unification is moving forward due to this first connection between string theory and experiment.

    One thing about having a blog is that if something you have to say gets seriously misinterpreted, you can correct the record. We’ll see if that’s what Clifford chooses to do.

  6. somebody says:

    As a one-liner, “RHIC might test string theory” is okay I think. But it certainly comes with the caveat that it is not a test of string theory *in the context of unification*.

    But your version ” … the research under discussion has nothing to do with the string theory unification…”, is wrong-er in the other direction. When you say that string theory is merely a “calculational method” for heavy ions, you are profoundly misrepresenting the problem. Nobody knows how to get the stringy “method” starting only with the field theory. The string theory used here is the same one that originated from attempts at unification, applied in a different context, through Maldacena’s gauge-gravity duality. You are essentially saying that gauge-gravity duality is merely a computational tool.

    As I have said repeatedly, you adamantly refuse to recognize the UNDERSTANDING we have gleamed through string theory, while knocking it for the lack of experiments. At RHIC, what people are trying is precisely to put this understanding to work and actually get some low energy experiments out. This is another example where thinking about the (experimentally inaccessible) Planck scale, opens up new understanding about *low energy physics* and makes previously unanticipated experimental tests a possibility. Indirectly this could give us confidence in our ideas about the Planck scale.

    Finally, try not to be so negative. In your hurry to attack string theory, you seem to have lost sight of how amazing this RHIC/ALICE thing actually is. :-)

  7. Gil Kalai says:

    “…any contact between such calculations and experiment is a test not of the theory, but of the calculational method.”

    This is not entirely true. Successful applications of ST calculations in other areas can be regarded as a (weak) support for the theory itself. The boundaries between “calculational methods” and “conceptual understanding” are often not clear cut.

  8. Peter Woit says:

    somebody,

    I regularly report on the new understanding that progress in learning about string theory has led to. For particle theory, that new understanding is the existence of the landscape, and the inherent uselessness of string theory as a theory of unification.

    I know very little about heavy ion physics, but I have to admit that I find it pretty funny to see the way string theorists now go on about how certain calculations in the subject are one of the most exciting developments in physics. Way back when (mid-eighties), I did some finite-temperature lattice QCD calculations (all this means is that you look to see what happens when one of the dimensions is smaller than the others). This supposedly was of relevance to the heavy ion experiments then being planned. I remember what most string theorists attitude at the time was about non-perturbative QCD calculations of possible relevance to heavy ions. As far as they were concerned, such a subject was about as not-exciting as could be imagined. Things have changed…..

  9. somebody says:

    Peter says: “I did some finite-temperature lattice QCD calculations ….. I remember what most string theorists attitude at the time was about non-perturbative QCD calculations of possible relevance to heavy ions. As far as they were concerned, such a subject was about as not-exciting as could be imagined.”

    Peter, I understand your frustration (we have all been there when working on unfashionable things), but I think the reason for this is scientific. The properties of heavy ions become of *conceptual/theoretical* ineterest when we are using something absolutely unprecedented (black holes) to attack the problem. Lattice approaches, while tremendously useful and important, did not require such a new theoretical perspective. The interesting message from the viewpoint of fundamental theory here is not the heavy ions themselves, but that heavy ions are telling us something about the two basic structures in physics: gauge theories and gravity.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    somebody,

    The story about my past was about something that amuses me now, and has nothing to do with frustration, then or now. 20-some years ago I was working on doing calculations of topological invariants of lattice gauge fields and running Monte-Carlo simulations. I knew nothing about heavy-ion physics, and it wasn’t a topic that interested me (there are lots of topics in science the study of which I have sufficient respect for to know I don’t want to put in the time required to make a contribution to them). The fact that string theorists weren’t interested either wasn’t to me at all remarkable. Seeing the way some of the same people I knew then now go on about the subject now is pretty funny.

    The one constant seems to be the level of hype being spouted. Back then it was hype about a grandiose, fundamental, mathematically revolutionary theory that would provide a unified theory of everything, now it’s hype about an “absolutely unprecedented” crude approximation technique to predict the viscosity in a quark-gluon plasma. Perhaps you can see the humor…

  11. CWJ says:

    “but that heavy ions are telling us something about the two basic structures in physics: gauge theories and gravity.”

    That is sheer nonsense. That’s like claiming studying eigenmodes in, say, bridges tells us something about quantum mechanics which also uses eigenmodes.

    Duality is a tool, like eigenmode analysis, and if it proves useful in heavy ions, that gives one confidence that it may prove a useful tool in other areas. But successful application of duality to heavy ion physics does not mean that it validates, in any way, the underlying picture of string theory–only the usefulness of the tool.

    If you wonder why Peter, and much of physics, is suspicious of string theory, it’s exactly because of overreaching statements like this.

  12. somebody says:

    CWJ: “That is sheer nonsense. That’s like claiming studying eigenmodes in, say, bridges tells us something about quantum mechanics which also uses eigenmodes.”

    Lets ignore the over-assertiveness.

    About the analogy: in this case it does not work. Because if eigenmodes were difficult to access experimentally (which is the situation with string theory), it makes perfect sense to study them where we can, to see what we can learn. Eigenmodes are a really bad example in this context, because they are one of the easiest objects to do experiments with: remember that almost everything we know about physics comes from perturbation theory around the harmonic oscillator eigenmodes of systems.

    Peter, no need to clarify, I wasn’t implying that you were “frustrated” in any profound way.

  13. CWJ says:

    somebody: No, eigenmodes are a really good example, because it illustrates the confusion of mathematics with physics–which is what you were doing.

    “remember that almost everything we know about physics comes from perturbation theory around the harmonic oscillator eigenmodes of systems”

    Not true (although a narrow view typical of particle theorists). Perturbation theory is a very useful tool, but it’s not the only tool. For example, in my field, nuclear structure, there are many people whose entire career revolves around applying group theory to everything. They couldn’t do perturbation theory to save their lives, but they have productive, meaningful careers that teach us a lot about physics.

  14. somebody says:

    The whole reason why research is often on non-perturbative stuff is BECAUSE we understand things well when perturbation theory is valid. This is your second example where you are confusing cause and effect.

    Also, asseriveness is cool, but substance is better. I have tried to be polite, but your hostility towards the (perceived) top of the foodchain is really showing.

  15. cwj says:

    somebody: “The whole reason why research is often on non-perturbative stuff is BECAUSE we understand things well when perturbation theory is valid. This is your second example where you are confusing cause and effect.”

    Umm… no.The reason research is carried out on applying group theory to physics is because nature seems to exhibit deep symmetries, which is of fundamental interest completely independently of how well perturbation theory works. This is true in particle physics, in nuclear and molecular physics, in condensed matter physics, and so on.

    somebody, are you claiming to be top of the food chain?

  16. Peter Orland says:

    There is a point being overlooked in this discussion. AdS/CFT methods have not solved any of the hard non-perturbative problems in QCD or condensed-matter physics. These methods work with large bare coupling constants (that is, the coupling with the UV cut-off is large), where there is no universality. Qualitatively, I don’t see that this activity is better or worse than lattice strong-coupling expansions. One strong-coupling method is no more universal than another.

    AdS/CFT methods will probably give some more interesting results (for CFT’s especially). But, in spite of early optimism, I don’t think these techniques are going to be useful in studying fixed points of non-supersymmetric theories.

  17. Troy says:

    Peter,

    I truly don’t understand what your problem is (apart from the non-scientific issue of “science publishing”, “public perception of science”, “PR of science” and such topics, which are, clearly, not natural science. I will use the terms “science” and “natural science” as synonyms for this post.).

    Yang-Mills theory was not invented to describe parts of the standard model. Does it make it bad that it is used for something completely different today than what it was invented for? Of course not. Similarly, does it make string theory bad that it is not used for what it was invented for? Of course not.
    Don’t worry about the Yang-Mills example, I (or you) could come up with literally hundreds of ideas and topics that found their “real” application somewhere else than was originally intended.

    You might say that the original researchers on Yang-Mills (prior to the standard model applications) didn’t hype their work as much as string theorists hyped their work. But this point, may it be valid or invalid, is completely a non-science point. It has to do with PR, press, journalism, etc, but it’s definitely not science itself.

    So please be honest and say that you don’t have a science point to make, but rather you’d like to comment on PR, press, journalism and similar topics.

    Best,
    Troy

  18. Thomas Larsson says:

    What has AdS/CFT explained about asymptotically free, non-conformal gauge theories? By “explained” I mean explained in the past tense, not hopes for the future.

  19. somebody says:

    Peter O. says: “But, in spite of early optimism, I don’t think these techniques are going to be useful in studying fixed points of non-supersymmetric theories.”

    Fixed points are easy because they are always conformal and conformal theories are what AdS is directly good for. The more interesting part is actually to get to a confining theory, like QCD. Also supersymmetry is already broken, because we are at finite temperature.

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,

    Actually, Yang-Mills theory was invented to describe part of the standard model (the strong interactions)…

    This posting is about the problem of scientists misleading the public about certain scientific issues. If the idea of someone pointing out that this is going on bothers you, you might want to skip a lot of the postings on this blog.

  21. somebody says:

    cwj: “The reason research is carried out on applying group theory to physics is because nature seems to exhibit deep symmetries, which is of fundamental interest completely independently of how well perturbation theory works.”

    Understanding dynamics is the pre-eminent goal of physics, my friend. You are not seeing the woods for the trees.

    “somebody, are you claiming to be top of the food chain?”

    No, I am claiming that you are at the bottom of it. :-)

  22. cwj says:

    “Understanding dynamics is the pre-eminent goal of physics, my friend.”

    And if dynamics has a deep group symmetry, then all the perturbation theory in the world won’t help you.

    Talk about your hostility, somebody. We can trade insults all you like, but I’d be happy to compare funding and citation profiles with you. I’m pretty sure I’m much higher up the food chain than you.

  23. Peter Orland says:

    Somebody said:

    “Fixed points are easy because they are always conformal and conformal theories are what AdS is directly good for. The more interesting part is actually to get to a confining theory, like QCD. Also supersymmetry is already broken, because we are at finite temperature.”

    What you are saying is incorrect. Perturbative properties of fixed points are easy, as you say. But the challenge in QCD is not finding confinement in a strongly-coupled cutoff theory. Wilson showed that thirty-five years ago.

    The real problem is to show that confinement and a mass gap persist to weak bare coupling near the fixed point. This is what is needed to find the string tension and the mass gap after renormalization. This is where the AdS/CFT/QCD approaches have gone nowhere. I’ve worked on this problem a long time, and take my word for it – it is something I understand.

  24. Peter Orland says:

    Sorry if you could see the steam coming out my ears, somebody. I have explained (or at least tried to explain) this stuff at the end of my field theory class. That is why I reacted strongly to the implication that I don’t understand it.

  25. Troy says:

    Peter,

    “This posting is about the problem of scientists misleading the public about certain scientific issues. If the idea of someone pointing out that this is going on bothers you, you might want to skip a lot of the postings on this blog.”

    What bothers me is not that you point out anything. What bothers me is that continue to insist that this blog and book and similar polemic is part of your scientific activity. I argued, that it is not scientific activity. You apparently don’t deny this. Then, it would be best to not portrait yourself as a scientist making scientific points, but rather as a popular science writer, science journalist, etc.

    Best,
    Troy

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,

    This blog contains a wide mix of things, from notes on my current main research activity about interpreting BRST symmetry in terms of Dirac cohomology (more to come soon, sorry that has slowed down…) to expository comments and pointers to information about topics in math and physics that interest me, to news of various kinds, to attempts to counter efforts to mislead people about certain topics in physics. You don’t hear here about my personal life, you do hear about the areas of math and physics that my professional life is devoted to.

    Popular science writers and science journalists don’t have the kind of training or professional background necessary to understand what is going on in cases like this one and to see that they are being misled. Scientists who do have such a background owe it to the public to speak up when they see this kind of thing going on. I would argue that this is part of the responsibility of a scientist, and, yes, legitimate scientific activity.

    Funny, but you seem utterly unconcerned about the topic of this posting, the fact that the public is being misled about what is going on in a certain scientific research area. Instead of trying to defend what you know to be indefensible, you choose to (anonymously) write in to attack me. It continues to amaze me how much of this kind of behavior I’ve seen the past few years. The combination of having some physicists going out and actively misleading the public, and then others anonymously attacking anyone who objects to this is not exactly doing much for the public perception of this field.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve deleted the latest of the Peter O./somebody exchange. This kind of discussion is just not enlightening anyone about anything. Enough.

  28. Troy says:

    Peter,

    I’m not attacking you. I’m not unconcerned about the topic of your post. I don’t know why you got that impression. I explicitly said that it doesn’t bother me that you make a point about anything.

    What does bother me though is that you portrait this part of your work as science. In my opinion it is not. It is science journalism, popular science writing, etc, etc. This is not an attack on you, since science journalism and popular science writing is nothing bad. I don’t see how you can interpret this as an attack.

    My point is that your observations and points about string theory and the state of particle physics are not science per se. This is because they don’t go through the same academic standard and filter as other scientific work, for example, peer review. You seem to be concerned a lot about the behavior of certain physicists. Do you seriously think that being concerned about someone’s behavior is a legitimate science project? Is it really scientific work? I don’t think so.

    To illustrate my point: suppose you did nothing else at your university only wrote this blog and your book, would you be entitled to your salary? I don’t think so. This is hypothetical because I know you teach. But for the sake of argument, let’s just suppose you only wrote this blog and wrote your book. Do you seriously think you are entitled to your salary at a math and/or physics department whose mission is to further scientific knowledge through original research? I can only hope, that you also don’t think so.

    Best,
    Troy

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,

    You insist on completely ignoring my point that the postings here are of several different kinds, having various and different relations to “doing science”. For example, the notes on BRST are explicitly research science of the kind you insist I don’t do, so I find your (anonymous) comments an attempt to attack me by denying that I am a scientist who does science. I have no idea who you are or what your motivation for doing this is.

    Some things I post here are journalism. Yes, I report news that I find interesting and not readily available elsewhere.

    And to repeat myself again, I do happen to think that countering attempts by scientists to mislead other scientists and the public about scientific issues is a worthwhile scientific activity, and it’s not journalism. I’m not calling up experts, asking them what they think and reporting on this. I’m using my own training, expertise and scholarship to make scientific judgments and argue for them.

    No, I don’t think Columbia University should pay my salary purely to support my writing a book and a blog. They are only one part of what I do, and the other parts (service to the department, teaching, and research) are significantly more important and central to the purposes of the university. However, I do think the book and blog are significant parts of my scholarship, and of some value to others as such. It is also part of the purpose of the university to support such activities. I’m not the only faculty member at a research university who has written a book which is not a research monograph. I’m extremely lucky and grateful to have colleagues and a university administration that is supportive of what I do.

  30. Troy says:

    Peter,

    No, I still don’t attempt to attack you. This blog indeed has some scientific content, but in my opinion it does not qualify as genuine science research activity. You mentioned BRST, which is indeed a scientific topic, but presenting it in a blog, without peer review, without going through the usual channels of academic research, it remains the same category as science journalism and popular science writing. For example, if you would submit your work on BRST to a science journal where others would have the chance to seriously review it and it would get published, it would be a different story. But so far you did not do that. Even if you did, the publication on the blog, in my opinion, still doesn’t count as scientific research.

    It seems to me you have a negative view of science journalists and that is why you want to exclude yourself from this group. I see it differently. Science journalists serve an important and relevant purpose and should be acknowledged for their effort. It’s very important that we have science journalists. Some of the science journalists were scientists themselves, some of them have a PhD. I think you are also this kind of science journalist or popular science writer. There is nothing wrong with that.

    You seem to imply that a journalist is a person who has no expertise and only calls up experts, cut-n-pastes, etc. This view is pretty offending to several science journalists. Good science journalists are not like this and they can be pretty smart and as I’ve said can even have a PhD just like you.

    In order to be clear, in order to not mislead the public, I think it would only be fair if you would present yourself as a science journalist or popular science writer to the public and not as an active researcher. This is because your most important views and messages (regarding string theory, etc) are not in the form of original scientific research, but rather in the form of blog posts and essays. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, this is not an attack on you, but the fact must be stated that you operate in an entirely different way than ordinary scientists who are doing active research.

    Presenting yourself otherwise would be misleading to the public and a science journalist would need to come around point this out to the same public.

    Best,
    Troy

  31. blog reader says:

    Troy, please shut up. You’re just repeating yourself over and over like a cracked record. Give readers credit for being able to read various things and to intelligently draw their own conclusions.

  32. Peter Woit says:

    Troy,

    I have a high opinion of science journalists, but I’m not one. I’ve written exactly one semi-popular book and have no interest or intention to write another. The book was intended for publication by a university press. String theorists put a stop to that and it ended up getting published by a trade publisher and getting much wider attention. 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. 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.

    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

  33. A.E. says:

    This is like saying that experiments have proven the existence of Hilbert Space, because Quantum Mechanics works so well. Hilbert Space is a mathematical tool, that can be used any where including in QM, that a mathematical tool can be used to calculate something in the different context has nothing to do with the questions that mathematical tool was created to respond.

    But then again, this has been a constant theme for string theorists. It was created to help with understanding Nuclear forces, failed there, then it was branded as a tool for QG, resolving divergence issues, failed there too, then it was re-branded as a theory of every thing, that unifies all other fields, spectacularly failed there. now it is being re-branded as a computational tool to calculate stuff in nuclear physics. Here is my question, how many times a formalism must fail for it to be abandoned? Isn’t 40 years enough and devotion of the best minds of physics, creating some of the most intractable body of intellectual work to-date enough ?

  34. anonymous fool says:

    Peter,

    It’s a false argument that anonymity discredits the writer. What discredits a poster is failure to write in good faith; anonymity may or may not be a manifestation of a lack of good faith. There are perfectly reasonable motivations for writing anonymously, not least of which is that it does not seem important that it is I who am writing what I am writing – another way of putting it is that the anonymously written thing can be judged on its merits, not in terms of the perceived merits of who has written it.

  35. Peter Woit says:

    anonymous fool,

    I’d rather not have repeated now the abstract discussion of anonymity on blogs that has taken place here and elsewhere on several occasions. People can judge for themselves what they think, in general, and in the specific. My judgment is that the kind of thing “Troy” is doing is both unprofessional and creepy.

    somebody,

    I’ve deleted your last comment because you refuse to stop attacking people as incompetents who don’t understand basic facts about QFT.

  36. a says:

    Troy, some years ago neither scientists nor science journalists wanted to openly talk about the problems of string theory. Somebody had to do it. Peter did it.

  37. Joey Ramone says:

    Troy writes, “This is because your most important views and messages (regarding string theory, etc) are not in the form of original scientific research, but rather in the form of blog posts and essays.”

    String Theory’s most important triumphs are not in the form of original scientific research which makes physical prediction and can be tested, but rather in the form of blog posts, essays, pop-sci books, and PBS miniseries.

    Regarding the importance of peer-review, my favorite examples are Bruno being burned at the stake, Galileo being placed under house-arrest, Socrates being sentenced to death, and Boltzman being called a crackpot. He ultimately committed suicide before he ever knew of the vast triumph of his ideas. On his tombstone is s=klogw.

    Thank goodness that Troy is of a far more civil era, where the tacit perseuction of those who speak and write about the truth regarding string theory is limited to anonymous blog posts, and the rejection of books reporting on reality by univeristy presses.

    This blog is continually reviewed by thousands of peers. Its words might not fund some antiquated journal’s cartel, where universities are forced to pay tens of thousands for papers–indeipherable papers that are all too often judged and juried by a nepotistic, self-serving system; and are generally published two years after the fact.

    This blog contains philosophy. It contains sociology. It contains science and math. It contains entertainment and journalism. And it is making a far greater contribution to the realm of science than those who are all too happy to run with the disingenous stringster hype/headlines so as to sell copies of their magazines and run up their “diggs.”

    This blog is important *because* it is coming from a genuine, unique perspective. It takes more courage to honestly criticize the system than it does to conform to it, but those who do oft make a greater and more enduring contribution.

  38. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Joey,

    It’s a great honor to be so appreciated by one of my musical heroes, even if it is from beyond the grave….

  39. Thompson says:

    Has anybody seen the new data from the Fermi (formerly Glast) satellite indicating a frequency dependent speed of light? This effect has also been seen previously by the MAGIC telescope, and could be the first experimental probe of string theory (more generally, quantum gravity).

  40. rhofmann says:

    Joey and Peter, let me express it this way. An attack strategy such as issued by Troy clearly expresses the fact that there is nothing constructive both, scientifically and sociologically, to be expected from his camp. It is a sad example of screaming helplessness. As a real physicist I am grateful to you, Peter, for all the informed and uncompromising postings of your blog and for the valuable service your book has done to support physical truth. High regards and thank you!

  41. aliaspg says:

    Troy wrote “What does bother me though is that you portrait this part of your work as science.”

    I may be wrong, but I do get the impression that this statement is linked to a very narrow view of what science is.

    A discussion about the question whether a certain theory X has fulfilled its promises and expectations is an intrinsic part of scientific activity – if it is done by people who know what they are talking about, i.e. scientists.

    The internet (blogs etc.) has made these discussions much more public, but doesn’t change the fact that they are an intrinsic part of scientific activity.

  42. woit says:

    Thompson,

    The paper you mention

    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/rapidpdf/1169101v1.pdf

    does not claim to have shown a frequency dependent speed of light, for that they need data from bursters at different distances. What they do do is give a limit on the scale of such an effect: it has to be at an energy level larger than 1/10 the Planck mass.

    If such an effect does really show up, that would be exciting, but not an “experimental probe of string theory”. Problem is, string theory is consistent with pretty much any scale. For an old posting about MAGIC and yes, yet another “finally a test of string theory is found” media story, see here:

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=591

  43. Will says:

    I completely agree with Troy. At some stage, Peter should recognize that he is not exactly an active scientist but an active science journalist whose views are somewhat unobjective. The notes in BRST is of some value, but that doesnt qualify you to claim that you have done work on topics like quantum gravity and so on. If you have done so, you should put in preprint or publish it out. I dont think in this case you will have an excuse to say, the string theory community did not allow you to publish your work. As we all know, that you have done anything of value as far as scientific publication in a long time. I seriously think that you should

  44. Will says:

    ….(remainder of the above post)

    I seriously think that Peter should not be excessively opposed to anything that is of value that comes out from ideas like ADS CMT and so on. I am really concerned about the negative impact on scientific research by these attacks. If there is something objective that you have to say, please publish. Dont try to sway public opinion and do damage to the spirit of scientific research.

  45. Joey Ramone says:

    Hello Will,

    You write, “I completely agree with Troy. At some stage, Peter should recognize that he is not exactly an active scientist but an active science journalist whose views are somewhat unobjective. ”

    Again, one could easily say, “(Insert Name of String Theorist Here) should recognize that he/she is not exactly an active scientist but an active science journalist/science-fiction writer whose views are somewhat unobjective.”

    But Peter actually often defends Ed Witten’s genius, as well as the valuable mathematical contributions that the original String Theorists made, and the funny thing is he does it far better than most of the younger string theorists, who sometimes seem to forget their lines.

    I sympathize with Peter, because as a founding member of the Ramones, I can say we did it not for titles and tenure, but for truth, beauty, and art.

    Wikipedia reports: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ramones

    “The Ramones were a major influence on the punk rock movement both in the United States and Great Britain, though they achieved only minor commercial success. . . In 2002, the Ramones were voted the second greatest rock and roll band ever in Spin, trailing only The Beatles.[9] On March 18, 2002, the Ramones—including the three founders and drummers Marky and Tommy Ramone—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

    Now just as American Idol has replaced authentic rock, modern string theory has replaced authentic physics. We rocked out from the soul, and Peter writes from the soul. He has a sense of humor and is fun to read–my favorite part of NEW is the part where he is at Princeton and he sees Ed Witten up ahead in-between Jadwin and Fine. Witten goes up some stairs, and when Peter goes upstairs, Ed Witten is suddenly gone. Perhaps Witten really does have superpowers, or is other-worldly, Peter reasons.

    Woit speaks for an entire generation of physicists who were oft muscled out of academia because they took the hard path–because when the choice came–to support questionable obfuscation and peer-review groupthink for a salary, title, tenure, and benefits, or to call it as they saw it, they chose the nobler route. And the Lubos Motls of the world–the end result of the Orwellianification of physics– were unleashed on them.

    And that’s why I’m supporting Peter from beyond the grave, because I know how it feels, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

    At the end of the day, it is not the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, nor the honors in Spin and Rolling Stone that give us honor–but it my band–the Ramones–who give honor, meaning, and street-cred to them.

    At the end of the day, it are not all the millions of refereed, peer-reviewed papers on String Theory that give honor to Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, but it are bold intellectuals such as Peter by whom the academy is exalted, furthered, and remembered.

    Now Troy and Will–I forgive you, as you remind me of all the jocks in high school who laughed at us; but I can’t speak for Johnny and Dee Dee, who might not be so kind.

    Will–you write, “I am really concerned about the negative impact on scientific research by these attacks. If there is something objective that you have to say, please publish. Dont try to sway public opinion and do damage to the spirit of scientific research.”

    Peter publishes far more than the vast majority of physicists. His output is truly phenomenal on this blog, and again, it is peer reviewed to a far greater extent than the vast majority of string theory papers–even anonymous snarkers without advanced degrees in physics are allowed to review and comment on the blog posts. It is also read far more than string theory papers, and it is having a far more positive influence on science than all those papers, and that–that is what bothers you most. Peter uses words and math in the pursuit of truth, so naturally, time is on his side, as it was on ours–again, Wikpedia writes:

    “The Ramones made little commercial impact, reaching only number 111 on the Billboard album chart. The two associated singles, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, failed to chart at all. At the band’s first major gig outside of New York, a June date in Youngstown, Ohio, approximately ten people showed up.”

    String Theory has generated hundreds of millions and is revered by thousands of fanboys at Digg, and American Idol has also generated hundreds of millions of dollars and is revered by many of the same fanboys, but there is some sort of a mystical “super symmetry” in this world, wherein it are those misfit bands who play to ten people in Youngstown, Ohio–who play with heart, soul, and meaning–who end up defining and era and revolutionizing the world of music–not the winners of American Idol.

    Peter running this rock’roll blog through modern peer-review would be akin to my band–the Ramones–audtioning before Simon Cowell and the American Idol judges.

    It ain’t ever goin’ to happen–neither in this world nor the next–not even in your landscape’s favorite multiverse.

  46. Peter Woit says:

    Well, there certainly appears to be a range of opinions on the Peter Woit issue.

    “Will”,

    I guess it’s clear what some string theorists have decided is the right tactic to deal the Peter Woit problem: try to convince people he doesn’t know what he’s talking about since he’s merely a journalist. I don’t think this is going to work for you.

    You miss the whole point of the posting, which is not in any way critical of AdS/CMT research. What I’m criticizing is the highly misleading way it is being promoted. If you actually care about the reputation of this field, you might want to stop worrying about me, and see what you can do to stop people from going to the press with absurd claims about it. This kind of thing may work with some of the public, but it makes you a laughing-stock among your colleagues, and may have something to do with why no one wants to hire string theorists at the tenure-track level anymore.

  47. Will says:

    Hi Peter,

    There are always going to be people in any fields and subfields who will exagerrate things they do.I dont see that this as a major issue. Also, I dont think this is a problem that is unique to string theory community. I tend to think that string theorist tend to do this lesser than most other discipline.

    It is clear that ADS/CFT has helped us understand different physical phenomena in different energy scales. It has given us valuable too to understand phenomenas that were thought to have no relations what so ever. Now, ADS CFT was borne out of string theory. I dont know if you just despise the word “string theory”. You have been around physicists enough years to understand that we are more or less an opportunist and we tend to work in whatever we can put our hands into.

    In my opinion the term string theorist is too narrow.As you know, only a small fraction of people work in the fundamental theory. Most tend to work in other aspects where they think they can make progress.

  48. Will says:

    continued….

    If some person decides to do a press release about whatever they do, this doesnt reflect the position of the whole community. You should know better than that. String theory is not an organization with a governing board which gives decree for certain press releases. Now, for you to suggest that the whole of string theory community is just working as some giant corporation is just silly.Now your critique of string theory tends to be always social. May be you should try to study the new developments rather than nit pick and focus on buzz words. It would be better than commenting on a cartoon picture in string theory, press releases or Polchinski’s colloquim talk.

  49. Peter Woit says:

    Will,

    Again, this was not a post criticizing AdS/CFT research but was about a specific egregious example of misleading hype. The huge area known as “string theory” has been heavily damaged by the amount of overselling and hype that has gone on for 25 years now, with a serious loss of credibility. You might want to think about what can be done about that, and whether reacting to new even more egregious hype by complaining that someone is criticizing it is a fruitful thing to do.

    Believe it or not, I do spend significant effort trying to learn about what is going on in many parts of string theory, especially the more matematical end, but also others. I wish there was more interesting to report from this effort, but this seems to be a very quiet time for the subject.

  50. N. Nakanishi says:

    I believe that the aim of this blog is to discuss scientific topics and to communicate various opinions, but not to criticize particular person’s activity. I think that the action of Troy and Will is unfair because they criticize not Peter Woit’s opinion but his personal activity, keeping their names anonymous. The natural guess based on their anonymousness is that they are totally non-scientists.