String Theory Skeptic

The latest Forbes magazine has an article entitled String Theory Skeptic, which gives me a lot more credit for the problems of string theory than I deserve.

The article as I just saw it online appears to have a minor editing problem, with the quote

It’s common in physics for people to have incredibly ambitious ideas that don’t pan out but lead to rich mathematical ideas that end up being very useful.

which is attributed to Peskin in the middle of the article, appearing a second time at the end, right after a quote from me. In any case, even if Peskin is the one who said it, not me, it’s something I very much agree with, and perhaps a good summary of the string theory situation.

Update: I gather that the Peskin quote is the “knockout quote” of the piece, set off and summarizing things, with the online formatting what makes it appear to be in the body, at the end.

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48 Responses to String Theory Skeptic

  1. That sounds like Peskin. He taught me graduate mechanics.

  2. DaveC says:

    Peskin wrote a theory of ‘Cooper pair mass’ which had condensed matter theorists I know wincing at its ‘ambitious’ nature, ie, the fact that it completely ignores pretty much everything that’s understood about superconductivity in real stuff!

  3. dan says:

    “Princeton’s Witten declines to discuss Woit, saying in an e-mail that he prefers to debate these issues only with “critics who are distinguished scientists rather than with people who have become known by writing books.””

    OUCH. I infer that Witten remains a strong string theorist believer

  4. Peter Woit says:

    dan,

    From what I’ve seen, my impression is that Witten has decided he’d rather not debate these issues at all, a choice I respect. If he only debates people at least as distinguished as himself, he may not have anyone to argue with…

  5. Garrett says:

    Not a bad article. They made things sound pretty grim for strings. And apparently you’re equal to Q?

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    I think I get it. God talks only to Witten, and Witten talks only to God. String Theory is God’s revelation to Witten, and he will only impart more to mankind when they are ready.

  7. dan says:

    Ok but Marcus has posted over at PF that Witten was having “doubts” about strings and was working on other fields but apparently that’s just wishful thinking.

    “String theory was a bubble waiting to be pricked,” says Woit, 51. “The fundamentals just weren’t there anymore.”Fans of string theory are well aware that the tide has turned. said his very brightest string theory graduate students are having trouble getting work.

    Is that true? No wonder you’ve become a lightening rod for string theorists like LM & others

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

    You’ve got to love how the logic progresses here:

    “Princeton’s Witten declines to discuss Woit, saying in an e-mail that he prefers to debate these issues only with “critics who are distinguished scientists rather than with people who have become known by writing books.”

    “If he only debates people at least as distinguished as himself, he may not have anyone to argue with…” -PW

    “I think I get it. God talks only to Witten, and Witten talks only to God. ” -CO

  9. Marcus says:

    To dan,
    What I reported over at PF is a matter of record. I don’t speculate about Witten’s state of belief or non-belief, as you unfortunately do. Like several other top researchers he has given clear signs recently that his interests are not confined to string. (Perhaps they never were, and we are simply being reminded of an obvious fact.)

    At Strings 2007 he presented his work on 3D QG. He did not attend Strings 2008. He did not present a paper at Strings 2009, but gave a public lecture which was about nonstring physics. His talk this summer at Cern was about prospects for new physics away from the high energy frontier.

    I think it’s ridiculous to focus such attention on Witten or to speculate about one person’s state of “doubt” or non-doubt. You implied I ascribed “doubt”, but I don’t recall even using the word. I think you need to look at the overall picture. That includes looking at the makeup of recent research by *several* prominent people who were formerly more focused on core string topics. What are they actually doing? Where is the significant creative work occurring, in which areas and directions?

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Garrett,

    The photographer asked me to write something on the board, I think what I wrote was an expression for a BRST-like operator as a supercommutator with a Dirac operator. Then I stood in front of it…

    H-I-G-G-S,

    I suspect that Witten would be even less likely to be willing to debate anonymous blog commenters than book-writers.

  11. Martin says:

    Hi Peter,

    Wow! It seems string theorists must really be on the defensive if Witten isn’t active in this field anymore.

    Have you considered what you will blog about when nobody is interested in string theory anymore? Reminisce about the times when an unkind comment by you provoked angry retorts: “I always used to enjoy a good bash with old Lubos”, etc.?

    Cheers Martin

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Martin,

    I suspect string theory will be around in various forms for quite a while. However, I can already reminisce about the the days when string theorists argued that string theory had won the battle in the marketplace of ideas…

  13. Marcus says:

    *Wow! It seems string theorists must really be on the defensive if Witten isn’t active in this field anymore.*

    ?

    Inaccurate premise. The comment does not appear to make sense even as sarcasm.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    One can debate whether this matters, but from what I can tell, Witten has not given up on the idea of string theory based unification, but, not seeing how to make progress on this, has generally been working on other things.

    The main problem for string theory unification in recent years is not me, nor Witten, but just that evidence against the workability of the idea continues to mount. The high visibility of string theory landscape anthropic pseudo-science has also taken its toll.

  15. David Nataf says:

    Why would Forbes Magazine have an article on string theory?

  16. Peter Woit says:

    David,

    They have a column called “Ideas and Opinions”, presumably they thought their readers might find this story interesting. This is far from the first time they have had articles related to string theory, see for instance

    http://www.forbes.com/2008/10/07/nobel-prize-physics-oped-cx_mk_1007kaku.html

    http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2002/0204/068.html

    I once remarked to a friend of mine that business magazines seemed to have an unusual interest in my critique of string theory. He pointed out that they tend to be on the lookout for contrarians and contrarian ideas. If you could have sold string theory short a few years ago, you could have made a lot of money….

  17. Mitch Miller says:

    Interesting to see Baez’s crackpot index quoted by a journalist in a major publication.

  18. Don Murphy says:

    I believe the interest from business magazines stems from their believe that there may be an exploitable technology resulting from string theory that could make them all rich some day.

  19. Don Murphy says:

    Sorry for the typo in the previous post: believe vs. belief

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Don,

    I seriously doubt that a significant number of the readers of Forbes or any other business magazine are so far gone that they think string theory technology is an investment opportunity worth considering.

  21. dan says:

    “The main problem for string theory unification in recent years is not me, nor Witten, but just that evidence against the workability of the idea continues to mount. The high visibility of string theory landscape anthropic pseudo-science has also taken its toll.”

    “said his very brightest string theory graduate students are having trouble getting work. ”

    Is there any evidence that the reason fewer openings offered to string theory is specifically the result of bursting the string theory hype?

  22. Don Murphy says:

    Perhaps they’re not that far gone, yet. But I do know they mine seriously all that goes on in the world of scientific theory hoping to find that one nugget that will emerge as potential technology. I mean think about it. To the uninitiated the thought of strings as the fundamental unit of existence could mean the ability to create life from scratch, to become the architect of new worlds. Science fiction? There is no doubt. But that is what all the hype has been about.

  23. John Baez says:

    What I really like is how they used the crackpot index to determine that Peter is not a crackpot. It does indeed work both ways.

    He’s never sent anyone a letter in green ink saying that he has a revolutionary theory he wants them to examine, but they have to promise first not to tell anyone about it. Nor has he threatened string theorists with show trials in which they will be forced to repent of their misguided views. Nor has he called Witten a “self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy”.

    Of course this doesn’t mean he’s right. But the writer at Forbes was wise to run him through these tests before writing the article.

  24. Koray says:

    “Princeton’s Witten declines to discuss Woit, saying in an e-mail that he prefers to debate these issues only with “critics who are distinguished scientists rather than with people who have become known by writing books.””

    Ouch. I infer that Witten is calling Smolin not a distinguished scientist?

  25. Marcus says:

    John Baez wrote: *But the writer at Forbes was wise to run him through these tests before writing the article.*

    It is reassuring to see a member of the financial community prudently performing such due diligence regarding his source. Perhaps you could also provide financiers with a similar checklist for detecting nutcase derivatives and credit swaps.

  26. intrigued says:

    Dear Peter,

    What do you think of the work done in twistor theory and twistor-string theory by Arkani-Hamed and collaborators?

    Do you also feel that research in this direction is futile? If not, why is it different from the situation in string theory?

  27. There have been some famous debates in physics and astronomy: Bohr vs Einstein, the nebulae, the big bang. String theory isn’t really ready for that – you need at least something that can be tested, at least in principle. I suspect that there are a couple of Nobelists who would duke it out with Witten, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to take them on either.

    He’s probably right. What would they talk about? Einstein formulated a number of clever thought experiments to challenge Bohr and clarify the foundations of QM, but what could either side say on strings?

    ‘Tis pretty!
    ‘Tis not!

    The problem, as someone might once have mentioned, is that so far, at least, string theory is not even wrong.

  28. Peter Woit says:

    intrigued,

    The work you mention certainly isn’t futile. Unlike string theory, it’s not making grandiose but unsupportable claims about unifying all of physics. Instead it’s an investigation of the structure of 4d gauge theory amplitudes using new ideas about how to work in twistor space rather than the usual space-time. We know 4d gauge theory is important and part of real physics. Ideas about how to reformulate it to uncover new structure are obviously interesting, with final significance depending on what new structure one finds.

    The idea of using replacing space-time variables with twistor variables goes back to Penrose 40 years ago, and I’ve always found it very intriguing. Lots of people are working on this now, and there seem to be some quite beautiful new mathematical ideas emerging. So far this seems to all be about scattering amplitudes, I’m curious whether there will be some way to reformulate the theory itself in twistor variables.

  29. chris says:

    “Perhaps you could also provide financiers with a similar checklist for detecting nutcase derivatives and credit swaps.”

    This, indeed, is a fabulous idea!

  30. milkshake says:

    The Forbes article uses the String Wars as illustration how theoretical physics is actually done – I think its unfortunate.

  31. Marcus says:

    *The Forbes article uses the String Wars as illustration how theoretical physics is actually done – I think its unfortunate.*

    Has something abnormal occurred? If so, what exactly was it?
    What I remember goes back to 2003—a vehement attack on Loop conducted at sci.physics.research: numerous reasons why it could never work and why people working on it must be feebleminded. The inappropriateness of this attack—which appeared phony or diversionary—is what got me interested in Loop in the first place.

    2003 was before Peter’s blog, or book, and before Lee’s book which did not appear until 2006. What had, however, happened was the KKLT result and Susskind’s anthropic string landscape response. These were intrinsic string infirmities, not warfare originating from outside.

    Making it look like the ensuing gradual deflation was a war between two rival camps is either cheap journalism or a face-saving cover. The most trenchant criticism of string has always come from senior physicists with no connection to Loop or any other rival approach. I assume these key critics have been motivated to dump anthropery, get the bubble agony over and done with, and restore credibility to the field. So “War” is simply the wrong journalistic cliché, maybe string “Blister” would be a better image.

    But is this not how science is actually done? theoretical physics being no exception. How otherwise do scientific communities correct for mistakes and restore integrity?

  32. The Wombat says:

    G’day,

    Jeffrey Kooistra had an article in the September 09 issue of ANALOG titled THE TROUBLE WITH PHYSICS.

    He discusses some of the same topics as here.

    You might find it of interest.

    The Wombat

  33. Marcus says:

    Wombat, thanks for the pointer to this book review:
    http://www.analogsf.com/0909/altview_09.shtml

  34. The Baron says:

    “Analyzing why people play golf is like exploring the intricacies of string theory – there are so many permutations lacking scientific observation that physicists or golfers can pretty darn well say anything they like and the explanation might stick.”

    –Bill Gross, CEO of Pimco

    http://www.pimco.com/LeftNav/Featured+Market+Commentary/IO/2009/Gross+Sept+On+the+Course+to+a+New+Normal.htm

  35. Martin says:

    Hi Peter,

    “… The work you mention certainly isn’t futile.”

    How far along are Arkani-Hamed and friends in making testable predictions for twistor theory?

    Cheers,
    Martin

  36. Janne says:

    Why would Forbes be interested? Maybe because these days economics and theoretical physics have much in common. Similar challenges are faced in both fields.

  37. Peter Woit says:

    Martin,

    Working on better understanding a theory that has passed thousands of experimental tests is rather different than working on a very speculative idea where you need to find some sort of connection to observable physics. In this case you are starting with an already tested theory, so the real question is whether the methods you are working on allow you to do computations more efficiently, or give other insight into the theory.

  38. onlooker says:

    The Forbes article appears to be the first instance of bad press that Witten has ever gotten. He earned it with the catty personal attack on Woit (and/or Smolin) and the implication that scientist skeptics of string theory are too dumb for their criticisms to be entertained.

  39. Marcus says:

    I didn’t hear catty, and I didn’t even hear bad press. I heard the tense restlessness of someone being forced into an uncomfortable role. The journalist was bugging him by casting him as Mister String Theory. I can imagine someone would hate to be put into that role, especially now.

    Everything Witten has done lately, in major appearances, has pointedly signaled that he’s not wearing the string label. I listened to three 90-minute lectures here at UC Berkeley in 2006 where he didn’t once mention string or M-theory. Then at the end someone on the other side of the hall, I couldn’t tell who, asked what about string, and he gave them a one sentence answer conveying hope, but not conviction.
    Sure he writes some string papers but he also does Langlands.

    What may have sounded like disdain for less eminent fellow academics could just as well have been disdain for the journalist. What business had the journalist suggesting that Witten debate string with anybody? whether grand or modest. He has other things to think about.

  40. Paul Jackson says:

    Marcus commented that: “you need to look at the overall picture. That includes looking at the makeup of recent research by *several* prominent people who were formerly more focused on core string topics. What are they actually doing? Where is the significant creative work occurring, in which areas and directions?”

    As the string bubble collapses I get the impression that string folk, so adept at rationalising theory, are migrating into cosmology. Let’s hope that they don’t infect this now evidence-based subject with their bubble-bursting disregard for confirmed predictions.

  41. antipodal says:

    Not sure what thread to post this in, but it seems to be the kind of thing you like commenting on.

    Magnetic monopoles detected in a real magnet for the first time

    http://www.physorg.com/news171209923.html

  42. Peter Woit says:

    antipodal,

    If you look at the paper in question, you see these aren’t actually magnetic monopoles, they’re

    “emergent quasiparticles resembling monopoles”

    which is much less interesting. I’ll leave discussion of them to condensed matter physicists.

  43. onlooker says:

    (marcus )
    “I didn’t hear catty, and I didn’t even hear bad press. I heard the tense restlessness of someone being forced into an uncomfortable role. The journalist was bugging him by casting him as Mister String Theory. I can imagine someone would hate to be put into that role, especially now.

    You’re inventing silly, forced explanations for a silly, unforced error by Witten. He is quite precise with language and knows quite well how to express concepts such as not being Mr String Theory, or Mr Strings-Only, or not wishing to debate string theory, or string theory’s critics not having points worthy of debate. What he actually said doesn’t have any such charitable interpretation, which is why the piece was explicitly and implicitly “bad press” as it concerns this particular utterance by Witten.

    It’s not all bad; the article has the usual material, some of it from Woit, about how brilliant Witten is. This one remark was very far from brilliant , and it is easy for any reader, physicist or not, to understand that.

  44. Marcus says:

    ==quoting onlooker==
    September 6, 2009 at 1:48 pm
    The Forbes article appears to be the first instance of bad press that Witten has ever gotten. He earned it with the catty personal attack on Woit (and/or Smolin) and the implication that scientist skeptics of string theory are too dumb for their criticisms to be entertained.
    ==endquote==

    I may have misinterpreted and you may have summed things up correctly.

    I think of Paul Steinhardt as the string critic par ex.
    His reply to the 2005 Edge question
    http://www.edge.org/q2005/q05_print.html#steinhardt
    is the most concentrated critique I’ve seen. It is hard hitting, focused and constructive. I’d like to hear his views now, almost five years later.

    I’d like to hear a threeway conversation between Steinhardt, Peskin, and Strominger. They are all three about the same age (born around 1952-1954) and might be prepared to discuss matters openly.

    *Debate* is not quite the right word. But something is missing. The string episode may have been a folly, and whatever it was, no one seems to want to be held accountable.

    Leonard Susskind continues to mythologize. David Gross tears his hair with quiet dignity. Witten has better things to do. Maybe senior superstars should not be expected to take responsibility.

    But a frank discussion by two or three slightly junior stars could help clear the air. I’m interested to know what you think, onlooker.

  45. Shantanu says:

    Hi
    Peter,
    Have you looked at Susskind’s most recent colloquium at PI?

  46. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,
    From a quick glance it looks like the standard story he has been selling for years now, without finding a lot of buyers. He seems however to have become delusional, calling it the “post-standard-model” standard model.

  47. onlooker says:

    (marcus writes)

    But a frank discussion by two or three slightly junior stars could help clear the air. I’m interested to know what you think, onlooker.

    There’s an accumulated public explanatory burden resulting from all the evangelism and PR that dominated the discussion since the 1980’s. The smartest people (or at least, an incredibly talented group by any math/science research standard) have been working on this for decades with thousands of papers and no physical output. Either they know something we don’t, and can explain it both in general terms and with specific refutations of any technical criticisms by skeptics; or there is a serious problem with the structure of the field.

    I don’t think it matters how senior the researchers are who address these points. It could be Lubos Motl for all I care. But any string respondents will need to do more than reiterate cliches about “the only game in town”, or point to emerging mathematical structures and holography as clear indicators of progress toward a unified physical theory. Having better computational tools in QFT is nice but that isn’t what the publicity was about for the past 20 years. If the theory was heavily and deliberately oversold it would be refreshing to have some public admission that such is now the consensus (or becoming the consensus) within the field.

  48. Shantanu says:

    Peter, its interesting that Lee introduced him (from what I could tell).

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