What the M Stands For

There’s an explanation at the latest Abstruse Goose.

To recycle some of my own writing, from page 107 of NEW, the book:

When I was a graduate student at Princeton, one day I was leaving the library perhaps thirty feet or so behind Witten. The library was underneath a large plaza separating the mathematics and physics buildings, and he went up the stairs to the plaza ahead of me, disappearing from view. When I reached the plaza he was nowhere to be seen, and it is quite a bit more than thirty feet to the nearest building entrance. While presumably he was just moving a lot faster than me, it crossed my mind at the time that a consistent explanation for everything was that Witten was an extra-terrestrial being from a superior race who, since he thought no one was watching, had teleported back to his office.

And, before anyone takes this seriously, I certainly don’t believe this is the explanation for the “M” or that any actual teleportation occurred. To quote the next paragraph of the book:

More seriously, Witten’s accomplishments are very much a product of the combination of a huge talent and a lot of hard work. His papers are uniformly models of clarity and of deep thinking about a problem, of a sort that very few people can match. Anyone who has taken the time to try and understand even a fraction of his work finds it a humbling experience to see just how much he has been able to achieve.

Update: Clifford Johnson at Asymptotia points out a recent talk by Witten to a non-specialist audience about knots. It there is a Martian plot going on here, at least it has led to some wonderful insights about mathematics and quantum field theory that human beings might never have otherwise been able to figure out…

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13 Responses to What the M Stands For

  1. wolfgang says:


    but maybe the truth is that *you* were sent by the Martians to confuse people about string theory 😎

  2. Peter Woit says:


    Actually, it’s the Venusians who sent me, in a so far fruitless attempt to foil the Martian plot…

  3. MathPhys says:

    “And, before anyone takes this seriously, I certainly don’t believe this is the explanation for the “M” or that any actual teleportation occurred.”

    Did you really find it necessary to spell this out, Peter? You must have had such harrowing experiences in the past, you can no longer afford to take any chances.

  4. Chris Oakley says:


    You can’t be too careful. When Steven Weinberg visited Oxford in 1983 there were a dozen or so alien space craft hovering above the city for a whole week. This may not have had anything to do with him, but the whole experience was quite unnerving. They only went when they found that the local shopkeepers were refusing to take their money, which was in plasma form.

  5. Since M Theory is a product of Cambridge, it only make sense that it must like the M in MI5 stand for Mother. Hence its similarity to the pagan great mother worship of Gaia (which I believe is another project of like minded “thinkers.”)

  6. Thomas Larsson says:

    There is of course Glashow’s explanation: the M is really an up-side-down W, for Witten.

  7. Kris Krogh says:

    “it has led to some wonderful insights about mathematics and quantum field theory that human beings might never have otherwise been able to figure out”

    Peter, could you mention which of those insights you feel are important, and why?

    A couple of decades ago, it was widely advertised that string theory had made a fundamental contribution to topology, of which mathematicians were in awe. The claim was that one topology could legitimately be converted to a different one via the singularity of a black hole. Haven’t heard anything about that since. What’s happened there?

  8. Yatima says:

    Okay. Linux does not have decoder for the Witten Talk. H.264? Patent-encumbered. HURRR!

  9. Peter Woit says:


    That quote referred to Witten’s talk about QFT and knots, and specifically I had in mind the work on this topic (“Chern-Simons-Witten theory”) that won Witten a Fields medal. It doesn’t have anything to do with string theory.

    [joke]It seems that the clever Martian plot is to have Witten “discover” incredible deep and obviously significant insights into qft and math, thereby gaining a huge amount of credibility as a genius and guru of the field. This is then used to get people to believe the string theory unification stuff, which would not otherwise be taken seriously.[\joke]

  10. Marcus says:


  11. zanibar says:


    I would explain the joke more like this —

    The Martians think that humans are becoming too advanced technologically — so they deliberately send an agent in disguise to lead the humans astray in order to halt any real scientific advancement …

    Sort of a fake Mathematical Moses leading the Israelites into the desert, but not out of it.

    KRLLL’s credentials and following could have been established with “legitimate” science (unlike Peter’s interpretation), the joke takes this as a given – obviously an insider’s look at physics, going beyond merely copying buzz-words on the blackboard in panel 8.

    The joke hinges on identifying Witten as KRLLL together with the implication that M-theory is really a Martian conceit.

    The last three panels complete the joke. A classic parody of a classic sci-fi theme.

    Reminds me of a truly great episode of the original Outer Limits – “O.B.I.T.” (Out of Band Individuated Teletracer), including the finale.

    See –

    O.B.I.T. (wikipedia)

    O.B.I.T. Epside Review (from David Schow’s amazing site)


  12. Chris Long says:

    You can see Witten’s talk just fine under Linux, e.g. just open the URL in Kaffeine.

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