There’s a project I’ve been working on for the last couple years that I haven’t wanted to write about here until it was further along, but now seems to be a good time. I’ve written a book, also entitled “Not Even Wrong”, and the British publisher Jonathan Cape is bringing it out in England, publication date March 16th from what I last heard. It will presumably appear later in the U.S., with the publisher here still to be arranged. Right now I’m putting some final touches on the manuscript, and hope to have a final version within the next week or so. You can take a look at the latest version of the cover art, and someone last night wrote to tell me that Random House in Canada has a catalog entry for the book.
The book contains material on several related topics, including a history of the standard model from a mathematically-informed perspective, a description of the history, current status and prospects of high energy accelerators and particle physics experiments, some of the history of recent interactions between mathematics and physics, a history of supersymmetry and string theory and attempts to use them to get beyond the standard model, comments on the notion of “beauty” in theoretical physics and on the sociology of how particle physics is pursued and supported, especially in the U. S.. There’s also a section explaining exactly what the problems with supersymmetry and string theory are, making the case that these are ideas that have failed conclusively, together with an explanation of what the whole “landscape” controversy is about.
The story of how the book came to be is roughly as follows. I started writing it in 2002, and had something pretty well finished by the end of that year. Early in 2003 an editor from Cambridge University Press heard about what I was writing and stopped by to see me when he was visiting Columbia. He got interested in the idea of having Cambridge publish the book, but I think he had no idea of how controversial this topic was. During 2003 the manuscript went through a couple iterations of refereeing at Cambridge. The first round of referee reports included a very positive report from a non-string theory particle theorist, a non-committal report from a mathematician who works on things related to string theory, and an extremely negative report from a string theorist.
I’d been quite curious to see how a string theorist referee would respond to the manuscript, since I was pretty sure all my facts were right, and I assumed that they would have trouble recommending against publication of something without being able to show that it said something incorrect. This first string theorist referee was described to me as a “well-known mainstream string theorist”. He or she dealt with the problem of not being able to find anything wrong with what I had written by claiming that arguing against string theory was like arguing against teaching evolution, and that “I think that you would be very hardpressed to find anybody who would say anything positive about this manuscript”, using this as an excuse for only coming up with one example of something incorrect in the manuscript. By now I’m pretty used to the tactic that was used to do this, but at the time I was pretty shocked by it. A sentence I had written was taken out of context and one of the words was changed from a singular to a plural, allowing the referee to construe the sentence in a way that allowed him or her to claim I wasn’t aware of some important developments in physics.
This experience convinced me that at least some string theorists were in far worse shape than I had imagined, suffering from the delusion that no one who knows what they are talking about could possibly criticize string theory, and willing to stoop to pathetic levels of dishonesty to maintain this point of view. I had off and on been worried that I was being too harsh in some of my criticisms of the behavior of string theorists, but after seeing this report I stopped worrying about this.
The Cambridge editor seemed to believe that the negative referee report lacked credibility, and that it even gave some evidence for the problems I was claiming existed in the string theory community. But for Cambridge to publish a book, a board of academics who act as advisors have to sign off on any decision. The editor felt that this round of referee’s reports would not be enough to convince them, so the manuscript was sent out to two more referees, both theorists who have worked on string theory. It took quite a while for these reports to come back, and when they did, one of them was very positive and recommended publication. The second however was quite negative. This referee found nothing inaccurate to complain about, but said that while he or she agreed with many of my critical comments about string theory, basically string theorists were the ones who should be evaluating the theory, and Cambridge shouldn’t be publishing the opinions of the likes of me. I couldn’t really disagree with this; string theorists are the ones who should be critically evaluating what has happened in the field, but the problem is that they’re not doing it.
At this point the editor still felt that he would have trouble getting approval to publish the book, and offered to try another round of referees, but this seemed to me a waste of time. String theorist referees were clearly willing to strongly recommend against publication even when they couldn’t point to anything inaccurate in the book, and the way the Press works, it was unlikely to publish something over the strong objections of some very prominent people. I then circulated the manuscript to editors at several other university presses. Two of them wrote back that while they found the book very interesting and well-written, a university press just could not publish something so controversial.
A friend of mine then put me in touch with a prominent New York literary agent. Her advice was that, if the manuscript was extensively rewritten to remove some of the more technical discussion, she thought she would be able to easily sell it to a trade publisher. I had mixed feelings about this idea, since if I removed some of these more technical chapters, I would be in the position of criticizing string theory, while not giving the details of what the problems with it were. I had also sent the manuscript to a few quite prominent mathematicians and physicists to ask them for advice about what to do with it. This led to some very interesting e-mail exchanges that I learned a lot from. Finally I heard from Roger Penrose, who offered to put me in contact with his publisher, Jonathan Cape. The editor at Jonathan Cape decided that they would like to publish the book, and that they were perfectly happy with it having some technical parts (which, after all, were quite a bit less technical than much of Penrose’s recent book, which has been a great success).
So, that’s the story until now of the book. I’m certainly curious what reaction it will get when it is published, and of course hope that it will stir up a serious debate on the issues currently surrounding string theory. I also hope the book will provide some explanations of what has been going on at the interface of particle physics and mathematics that a wide range of people will be able to get something out of, from members of the general public with an interest in science and math to professional researchers in both fields.