Discover Interview Online

There’s an extended version of the interview of me by Susan Kruglinski in the February issue of Discover magazine that is now available, for free, on-line.

Before anybody starts yelling about AdS/CFT or topological strings when they read the headline “No one has a plausible idea about how string theory can explain anything”, I’ll just point out that, yes, it’s certainly plausible that some day string theory will explain something about QCD, and it already has explained some things in mathematics. The headline is a summary of some things I say in the interview, and in context it should have been clear I was talking about the use of string theory to predict anything not already predicted by the standard model.

Update: Harvard string theorist Lubos Motl has posted his commentary on the Discover article. If you read the comment section there, keep in mind that he is deleting comments from anyone who disagrees with him. I encourage anyone new to the current controversy over string theory to read what I have to say, read what Lubos has to say, and carefully look into the scientific issues involved to make your own judgement about what is going on here.

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109 Responses to Discover Interview Online

  1. Thomas Larsson says:

    Lastly, without appealing to reality by consensus, I think the blogs should start a head count in the anti-string camp, perhaps with an arxiv `call-to-arms’ note, & ram it down PhysicsToday’s throat. Just to drop a few names on record for starters: Feynman, Glashow, Veltman, well, you get my drift…


  2. Chris Oakley says:

    It is Dirac, their godfather, who justified the stringy crusade with his aphorism, “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations, than truth”.

    You cannot blame Dirac for a trend that only really got going in the year that he died. Personally, I think that the “anything goes” mentality can be traced back to something that Dirac was most definitely not responsible for, namely the endorsement of mathematical chicanery in physicists’ desperation to “explain” the Lamb Shift from about 1947.

  3. woit says:


    I really don’t agree that the problem is that string theorists have left physics for mathematics. The mathematically sophisticated parts of string theory are actually the valuable ones that may someday lead somewhere. What’s really useless and dangerous are things like the “Landscape”, which are quite “physical”, involve very little math, but are completely noxious and threatening to turn particle theory into pseudo-science.

    Given the lack of new experimental results, the pursuit of new ideas about physics based on their mathematical beauty actually seems to me as promising a thing to try as any. It is a great shame that the failure of string theory threatens to discredit research in this direction.

  4. mathjunkie says:

    It seems Lubos reacted violently in his webpage.

    For balancing the views between stringy people and anti-stringy people, I hope the Discover magazine could have interviewed Lubos as well.

  5. Who says:

    *For balancing the views between stringy people and anti-stringy people,*

    personally I think science benefits more from calm reasoned debate (by people able to understand others’ viewpoint) and I think P. does admirably in the calm-reasoned category

    so for balance, on a panel, I would match P. with somebody else—-not someone violent, emotional, bigoted. Same if I were publishing back-to-back interviews in a magazine.

    I don’t know who it would be—-there’s David Gross (but being a nobelist he’s awfully heavy)—-Robbert Dijkgraaf is a terrific talker and an attractive advocate—-no, too much glamor for what I have in mind. It is not about salesmanship it is about honest reasoning over scientific priorities.

    Now I think of it! Imagine matching Peter with Andy Strominger—-back to back interviews! those are two people who would take pains to understand each other viewpoint and to address each other concerns.
    both would scrupulously refrain from adhominem attack. Bravo.

    BTW if it were a THREE way balanced thing, I would put up Laurent Freidel as a representative of the alternatives to string research.
    I would not just pit Andy and Peter. It is really a triangle, as I see it.
    Anyway there is a potential for calm reasoned balanced discussion (no vituperation, no acrimonious Motley) and it might be good for the physicis community. Hope this not too much off topic.

  6. woit says:


    I also very much hope that Discover will do a profile of Lubos.

  7. Tony Smith says:

    Who suggests that “… a THREE way balanced …” discussion might be good.

    An example of a very good “THREE way” discussion is the book “Triangle of Thoughts” (English translation AMS 2001) by Alain Connes, Andre Lichnerowicz, and Marcel Paul Schutzenberger. The flavor of the book might be seen in the following excerpt from A.C.’s part of the trialogue:
    “… String theory was supposed to apply to strong interactions … this theory of little strings moving in space-time implkes the existence of particles of spin 2 and zero mass like the graviton. … string theory has so far been tested only on a strictly mathematical level … in physics, we are still far from the mark. … we can hope that string theory will make it possible to understand the arbitrary constants appearing in the Standard Model, that is, in particle physics; but so far the theory offers nothing substantial in this respect.
    One of the major problems is that … supersymmetry … must be broken in order not to contradict the experimental results of the Standard Model …
    … A true theory would no doubt have to explain the arbitrary parameters of the Standard Model …”.

    Please read the book to get the full context of those and many other issues discussed therein.

    Tony Smith

  8. Who says:

    Hi Tony, I have not seen “Triangle of Thoughts” but there is an interesting trialog about QG available on arxiv, as a sample of this form:

    Ted Jacobson, Donald Marolf, Carlo Rovelli

    Ted Jacobson has been a critic of Loop Gravity and related QG in recent years, serves as deviladvocate sometimes at conferences, voicing skepticism, and specializes in observational tests that constrain QG.

    Don Marolf has done string research mainly I think, but collaborates with Loop people sometimes. So the trialog is people who are on different sides of quite a lot of issues but can still talk amicably.

    I wasn’t thinking of a trialog actually, but of some magazine publishing three separate interviews back to back.

    A. a critic (like Peter or Larry Krauss, actually many people are vocal critics, some representative)

    B. a string practitioner—someone who can acknowledge problems but give a reasonable defense

    C. a nonstring researcher who doesnt bother criticizing string!

    I have never heard Freidel, for instance, say anything about string. he is too busy with his own research and seems just not interested in string.

    Often times you have string apologists for whom string is a huge issue and they act like “if you are not for us you are against string (and motherhood :-))” and all these people who do QG are our ENEMIES and they are our detractors and we must discredit them etc.

    But actually many intelligent creative researchers just are not interested in string and never seem to talk about it (at least in public) and they just do their work

    (the problem is the artificial restriction of career opportunities for these people in the US, I think—-highly qualified people are in effect denied access to the job market if they do something that is perceived as rival to string—but I don’t hear these people openly complaining, instead I hear Smolin sometimes in a sense complaining FOR them. )

    so I would publish a triangle of interviews partly just to show that the issue is not just PRO and CON string—there is active QG research by people for whom string is basically IRRELEVANT. Having the discussion always focus on pro-and-con string gives a distorted picture because inflates string importance.

    well I’m not a magazine editor and no one should hold their breath waiting for a brace of cool interviews about diversifying particle theory research in the US or anything like that.

    congratulations to Discover for having the one with Peter that they did, which is some progress at least

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