Sometime around now is the tenth anniversary of my first foray into the business of public criticism of string theory. I wrote something up over the end-of-year holiday in 2000, and circulated it by e-mail to a list of prominent theorists (some of whom I knew, some I didn’t), asking for advice. The main motivation was that it seemed to me that it had become clear that string theory had failed as an idea about unification and while this was increasingly well understood in the particle theory community, the news had not gotten out to the wider world. Instead, a fairly active campaign to promote string theory to the public continued unabated. This was a rather peculiar situation, one that I felt someone should do something about, and I was curious what my correspondents thought of it. Most responded with quite interesting comments on their views on the matter, and one of them put me in touch with an editor at Physics Today. After some back and forth with Physics Today it became clear that they were unlikely to publish anything on the matter, especially from me, so in February I posted what I had written to the arXiv as String Theory: An Evaluation.
Hard as it is to imagine, back in those days there were no physics blogs. Perhaps the closest thing was Usenet newsgroups, especially sci.physics.research, where John Baez and others had taken on the thankless job of moderating discussions which often addressed issues about string theory. The archive of these discussions is here, and some discussion of my arXiv piece broke out there, appropriately in a thread about Lie algebra cohomology. For my first posting joining that discussion, see here. This led to my first encounters with the surprising phenomena of Jacques Distler and Lubos Motl.
Scientifically, not much has changed in ten years, but the public perception of string theory has changed a lot and become much more realistic. The next decade will undoubtedly be dominated by the effects of whatever we learn over the next few years at the LHC, although I don’t think this is likely to affect proponents of string theory unification very much. Many of the remaining defenders of this idea are by now pretty well dug in and make it clear that “never give up” is their policy, even if it involves abandoning all hope of understanding this universe and putting faith in the existence of others.
One outcome of this that I never expected ten years ago is that I now have a book that has been published in Czech, with the title Dokonce ani ne spatne. I can’t read a word of it, which doesn’t matter except that I’m intrigued to see that Martin Schnabl has written an afterword and wonder what he has to say. The publisher just sent me a few copies, but I can’t think of anyone I know who reads Czech to give them to. Other than Lubos, of course, but I suspect he wouldn’t appreciate the gesture…