Two Years Later

This week is the second anniversary of this weblog, so perhaps a good moment for some reflections on what has been happening over the past two years.

In many ways, the weblog has been successful far beyond my wildest dreams. My original expectation was that there would be a handful of people with similar interests who would regularly read it, and it would be quite a success if I ended up with a couple hundred readers. I don’t have completely accurate recent statistics, but recently each day at least several thousand people are checking up to see what is going on here. This is quite gratifying, and makes the significant amount of effort and time I’ve been putting into this seem worthwhile. It has been interesting to note from looking at some other blogger’s publication records that starting an active weblog seems to correspond to starting to write many fewer papers. My one regret is that the time spent on this has definitely taken away from time that could be devoted to finishing and writing up various research projects. In the future I hope to find a better balance on this issue.

One of the main topics covered on this blog, and by far the most controversial, is the ongoing story about string theory and its dominance of theoretical high energy physics. The public perception of string theory seems to me to have changed significantly recently, as more and more science journalists have started to realize that things are not going well. Many of them have moved from a stance of uncritical acceptance of the claims of string theorists to a more skeptical and balanced view of the subject. The kind of overhyped popular string theory article that was a staple for 20 years is increasingly unlikely to be written by professional science journalists. Such things now occur most often in places like university press releases, authored by people with no experience in the subject.

I’d like to think I had something to do with this, but there are much larger forces at work. The field of string theory has suffered a remarkable intellectual collapse, one that is not just a matter of opinion, but can be quantified in various ways. For many years Michael Peskin has written up a discussion of the yearly list of top cited HEP articles. I wrote up postings discussing the 2003 and 2004 lists. By 2004 there were only two post-1999 string theory papers among the list of 50 most heavily cited (the early 2002 Berenstein et. al. PP waves paper, and the early 2003 KKLT paper), and Peskin seems to have stopped writing up a discussion of the list, possibly because there was virtually nothing new to discuss. SPIRES has not yet produced a 2005 list and I don’t know if they ever intend to, but from some data gathered at physicsforums.com it would appear that the only two string theory papers likely to have accumulated the 150 or so citations needed to make the top 50 in 2005 are exactly the same two as in 2004. The subject has come to nearly a dead stop, and that rather than the complaints of its critics is behind the sense of crisis felt by many of its practitioners.

The panel discussion at Strings 2005 in Toronto was rather remarkable. For the first time, members of the audience started to raise real questions about what was going on in the subject and the panel members had difficulty in putting a positive face on the situation. It will be interesting to see if a similar discussion occurs at Strings 2006 this summer in Beijing.

The two post 2000 papers that are widely cited reflect the two main topics that string theorists are still working on. One is AdS/CFT, which many, many people work on since it is the best thing to have come out of the string theory project. There doesn’t however seem to be much significant progress in this area. The second paper, by KKLT, is the one that really launched the whole landscape business. The fact that it is the most recent hot area of activity in string theory is something that even most string theorists find very disturbing. Over the last couple years, the original implausible hopes that something could be gotten out of the Landscape have been pretty convincingly crushed. Leading figures in the field have abandoned the Landscape and moved out into the swampland of theories that have nothing to do with the real world and may or may not be low energy limits of a string theory. It remains very unclear what the point of this is.

The most active string theory blogs are becoming ever more bizarre, with increasingly strange behavior of all sorts from Lubos Motl, and Jacques Distler following the lead of others into the swampland while firmly sticking to the idea that my criticisms of string theory are some sort of illegitimate crackpotism. While most string theorists are well aware of what bad shape the field is in and casting about for something new to do, the true believers are exhibiting something more and more approaching religious fanaticism.

Unfortunately, leading figures in particle theory show no signs of being willing to publicly address the increasingly disturbing state of the subject. Part of my problem with the arXiv is the feeling of many that I do not have the stature in the community necessary to justify being allowed to make the kind of critical comments I have been making publicly. I’m willing to agree with this point, but it remains unfortunately true that those whose responsibility it is are doing little to address the situation. The whole field of particle theory is becoming increasingly damaged by these problems, and only one aspect of this is the problem of public perceptions, which is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

I have no idea where this story is going next. The general attitude seems to be to hunker down for the next few years, try and wait out the crisis and hope that LHC results will save everything. This doesn’t seem to me to be the right way to address the serious problems that are all too obvious right now.

Update: Some anonymous person really has too much time on their hands. But I’m honored.

Update: One or more people definitely have too much time on their hands. Besides the Not Even Wrong parody mentioned above, there’s another one, and also Cosmic Variance and Lubos Motley’s Stringy Climate Theories. This last one informs us that

Recent fake blogs have brought shame to the Internet:

(1) http://motls.blogspot.com pokes fun at Dr Lubos Motl, by posting a mixture of insane climate drivel, interspersed with attacks on theoretical physicists. I can reveal it is fake.

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47 Responses to Two Years Later

  1. Garrett says:

    String theorists will work on something. (And no, not burger flipping, as much as you might wish…) It is a gradual revolution. People will work on things that aren’t strings, but keep referring to strings, or say their work is “string inspired.” Eventually, someone will find something cool, maybe tenuously connected to past string work, and everyone will jump on that. Then, after awhile, people will see that the connections to strings are superfluous. And that multi-decade endeavor will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Such is the way of crowd dynamics, even really frickin’ smart crowds.

  2. Garrett says:

    Oh, and yes, nice job Peter — congrats on your anniversary and much deserved blog success. I think you’re playing a bigger role than you’re willing to admit.

  3. a says:

    String theory predicts nothing, and LHC might find nothing.
    In a few years we might have to reconsider anthropic models more seriously.

  4. Ijon Tichy says:

    The public perception of string theory seems to me to have changed significantly recently, as more and more science journalists have started to realize that things are not going well. Many of them have moved from a stance of uncritical acceptance of the claims of string theorists to a more skeptical and balanced view of the subject.

    One would think they would strive for a skeptical and balanced view of all areas of science, not just string theory. Unfortunately, much of science journalism is of the mindless cheerleader variety, uncritical and unquestioning, leaving the largely disinterested public with a rather distorted view of the enterprise. Science needs its critics, especially in highly speculative fields like high-energy physics and cosmology. So you can understand why I believe that this blog is carrying out an important role. Keep up the good work, Peter Woit.

  5. Chris Oakley says:

    I sometimes wonder whether some HEP researchers really understand what research is all about. An interesting but speculative idea did not work. So what? Move on and try something else. Brand loyalty makes no kind of sense in this game: there are just models that are good at describing nature and models that are not. Nature and Occam’s razor are the arbiters. Distler (the “flaming spear in the stringy god’s left hand”) and Motl (the “hammer in the stringy god’s right”) seem to think that criticism of ST is a personal attack on themselves. That is not how it works. We are all Sherlock Holmeses, rooting around the dustbins of reality for clues as to how the universe works. Some hypotheses fit the facts well, some do not. Some hypotheses can be stretched and squeezed in an unattractive way to fit the facts, but why bother? Why not just try something simpler?

  6. Thomas Larsson says:

    Happy anniversary, Peter.

  7. anon says:

    ‘… Lubos Motl, and Jacques Distler following the lead of others into the swampland while firmly sticking to the idea that my criticisms of string theory are some sort of illegitimate crackpotism.’

    What someone should do is expose some of belief systems of these ‘defenders of the faith’.

    None of them are as holy as you Peter. I know Lubos is a deviant of mainstream views on climate change, so he’s a ‘crackpot’ in that sense. Then you just apply his own brand of guilt by association, and hint that if he has eccentric views on climate, he’s ST work is probably guilty by association with a cranky brain.

    Since Jacques is moderator of trackbacks and allows them from Motl’s blog which is as full of crackpot climatic postings as it is ST, Jacques is guilty by association too. I won’t mention Kaku’s interests in UFOs, but sincerely someone should make the public aware of their guilt by association to loony ideas. BTW, does anyone know any deviancy of Susskind (apart from physics)?

  8. Juan R. says:

    Congrats for your contribution to light in this nigthmare called string “theory”.


    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  9. a says:

    Have you seen the lunatic stuff distler posts on his blog?

    By comparison, motl seems positively sane.

  10. robert says:

    Your blog has made vey interesting reading over the past two years. And to think I stumbled upon it, having been thoroughly impressed when watching ‘The Elegant Universe’. Keep ‘keeping it real’.

    Best wishes

  11. Joao Leao says:

    Being a long time lurker to your blog I take this oportunity to thank you and congratulate you on what you have accomplished here. Besides the obvious fact that it takes guts to point out a “naked emperor” in any court, I think the success of “Not Even Wrong” owes much to your level-headedness and your gift for clear writing. Though I cannot claim that I always agree with you, I am probably more radical than you in what I consider conceptual and critical failures in today’s fundamental (super)physics. You are surely right in pointing out that the recognition of the general malaise is spreading through the ranks! This is also underscored by the increasing “prickliness” of the “defenders of the faith”. (Arrogance and insecurity often go hand in hand! ) These are hard times for physics and, as much as it may hurt you, your time is well spent in providing and “driving” this critical vehicle. And it should be noted that you try your damnest to keep it constructive.

    Hang in there!

  12. Who says:

    the empirical science ethic (only theories vulnerable to test by a do-able experiment) is almost 400 years old
    your blog is 2 years old
    and upholds that ethic
    bravo Peter

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novum_Organum

    Novum Organum (1620)

  13. Zelah says:

    Happy anniversary Peter.

  14. Urbano says:

    Congrats. And keep it going :-)!

  15. Dumb Biologist says:

    Happy 2nd!

  16. Dick Thompson says:

    Happy anniversary from a daily peruser. You have performed and are performing a valuable service.

    The string theory community is better than the likes of Motl, Distler, and the anthropic landscape crew, and we can hope it will come to its senses shortly. There is hope there, for example in Lisa Randall’s models and the higher category approaches promoterd by Urs Scheiber and John Baez, among others.

  17. Kea says:

    Happy anniversary to you and the WMAP release!

  18. Ron Avitzur says:

    Happy anniversary!

    Thank you for providing a forum for so many educational discussions, and for a fascinating glimpse “behind the curtains” into the human side of the process of science.

    Keep up the great work! (And good luck striking a balance between all the time this takes, and continuing your own research.)

  19. Dumb Biologist says:

    They say you’ve finally arrived (where I can’t say) if you’ve been lampooned. One of course would hope for a good lampooning…

  20. Peter, congratulations for this endeavour. Two things.

    One, you know very well that this blog is not just a blog. It is in places like this that science makes progress sometimes. Public arenas are scarce, hampered by good manners, and people will not speak up too easily with the first thing that springs to their mind. It is in a successful blog such as yours, ran by a respected scientist such as you are, and frequented by lots of silent listeners as well as by a few vocal individuals, that the scientific debate becomes hot, useful, and constructive (well, not always, but signal to noise seems good). So thanks! for running it, and if you think about ramping down the blogging for that other paper you wish to write… Well, write it here. You’ll get more attention and constructive criticism in the making.

    Two, as an experimentalist in HEP I feel I have been left driving blind. I have spent the last ten years of my life constructing tools to find the Higgs boson, and I do not even know for sure if I would prefer if it was there or not after all. Many colleagues are so into Susy they think it is just a matter of time until they bump in spectacular cascade signatures. I wish I was convinced by it myself, but no, cannot see the real appeal. String theory looks so far out to me I never even ventured into trying to understand it. In a word, I need guidance, or I will lose interest. Will the good old days when the world was either S-T or V-A, and we physicists only had to go figure it out, ever come back ?
    I hope by reading your blog I will keep some inspiration…

  21. woit says:

    Tommaso,

    Thanks for the encouragement! I do hope in the future to try and write some things here that will be ultimately part of a paper I’m writing (although I fear this may drive away much of my audience….)

    It’s a tough time to be an experimentalist, but, it could be worse, you could be a high-energy theorist, which has really been a frustrating business for quite a while now. Good luck in your hunt for the Higgs!

  22. Kris Krogh says:

    Peter,

    Thanks for your courageous stand these two years, that the job of physicists is not to tell us about the imaginary but the physical.

  23. Hooman says:

    Congradulations Peter on your second year of this SUPERB blog. Every branch of scientific endevour needs sharp and rational, criticism. But I believe this blog is much more than a simple ‘anti-string’ voice. It is a wealth of interersting information and a source of inspiration for all people who are interested in “modern Natural Philosophy”.
    Pauli would be have been very pleased with your efforts….;-)

  24. Justin says:

    Congradulations for your contribution to the continuing decline of high energy particle theory.

  25. Michael says:

    Peter, if you find running this blog “gratifying”, what word would you use to describe a successful academic career?

  26. Santo D'Agostino says:

    Peter,

    Congratulations on producing a valuable scholarly contribution.

    All the best wishes,
    Santo

    ps: Michael, you are acting like an ass. Smarten up, will you?

  27. JuanPablo says:

    happy… err… blogversary (?) (did you see http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/where_we_stand/where_we_stand.pdf? seems to be a nice present for today)

  28. D R Lunsford says:

    Well done, and best wishes!

    -drl

  29. Who says:

    speaking of presents, Bert Schroer posted an article today that discusses among other things Peter’s book “The Failure of String Theory”—-and has a fair amount of complimentary things to say.

    I gather Schroer is a respected elder statesman algebraic QFT guy, friend of Ray Streaters since 1960 according to Streater, Schroer’s papers go back to 1961. he is worried about the state of physics and he has ideas of what needs to be done—and he compares and contrasts his views with those in Peter’s book. So it is kind of a nice thing to have happen on your blogbirthday.

    Schroer’s paper that he posted today is
    http://arxiv.org/physics/0603112
    String Theory and the Crisis in Particle Physics

    It has a funny fourline poem in German that originated in Prague sometime before 1940 at a time when a maestro named Motl used to conduct Wagner operas.

    ” … after a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde…. an art critic wrote instead of the usual critical review in next days newspaper the following limerick….:

    Gehe nicht zu Motl’s Tristan
    schau Dir nicht dieses Trottels Mist an,
    schaff dir lieber ’nen viertel Most an
    und trink dir mit diesem Mittel Trost an ”

    it is a tradition in our family that people should get poems for birthdays and is this really so off-topic as all that?

  30. D R Lunsford says:

    It may be flattery, Peter, but it’s lame and misses the real point. No one reads the masters. I lived in the journal stacks – haunted them. I saw the evolution of physics almost first hand – the only trouble was, the authors were dead or scattered, so direct questions were impossible.

    No one reads journals now. They hang around the archive like a pack of goth girls at a record store. Like string theory, the archive is a failure not only in fact, but in concept, because it is too easily subverted by priggish martinets.

    “Not even wrong” is, above all, an homage to Pauli, the great unread and misunderstood hero of physics. When I saw that title, I rejoiced, because I knew that anyone who really loved Pauli also really loves physics, and would defend it against subversion whatever the cost.

    Here’s to Pauli, and here’s to Peter.

    -drl

  31. Aaron Bergman says:

    Re:Schroer —

    My god. It’s like deja vu all over again.

  32. D R Lunsford says:

    ROFL

    -drl

  33. Happy Blogoversary from a daily reader! Some of what you write is waaaaaaaaaaaay over my head (I’m just a useless English major with a fetish for cosmology and particle physics, after all), but it’s always interesting and often wryly funny. I don’t always agree with your views, but you’ve really articulated what had been a vague dissatisfaction with string theory; I never really “got” the “beauty” of it and just didn’t like it. I’m glad others share this view and back it up with some actual evidence and knowledge instead of my non-empirical feelings. Plus, I’m also happy that there’s someone out there being a gadfly and sticking it to THE MAN. He always needs that. Keep up the good work!

  34. robert says:

    Peter

    Please free to delete this, but I cannot restrain myself from commenting once more that ‘Michael’ continues to reveal himself to be a complete shit. Lubos and Distler may take things a little too far from time to time, but at least they make it clear who they are and, especially in the case of LM, produce blogs that contain a great deal of interesting material when they are not going OTT.

  35. anonymous says:

    Robert, Santo & others,

    Please, I would really urge you to just ignore Michael. He’s a troll, out on baiting, and any attention to him is what feeds him.

    Ignoring Michael is easy enough, but now its getting irritating to read such replies are yours.

  36. Haelfix says:

    Wasn’t Shroer the Professor who was harping about DDF/Pohlmeyer string quantization a few years ago? I glanced through his paper and he still seems to have issues with stringy localization.

    Afaik that question is still debated, particularly in the context of string field theory. Is anyone aware of whether its settled now or not?

  37. Chris Oakley says:

    A non-literal translation of the poem, that I hope at least captures the spirit:

    Don’t go to Tristan of Motl’s,
    Don’t appear at this zombie excrescence,
    It’s better just to get some bottles:
    And have a much more pleasant acquiescence

  38. Paradigm says:

    Michael: this year there is a summer school about “Strings and Branes: The present paradigm for gauge interactions and cosmology”. Do you think it is a honest title? Don’t you agree that this blog can help students?

  39. David Cobden says:

    I want to add my voice to the chorus. This is my favorite blog. I am a condensed matter physicist, presently at the March meeting in Baltimore along with about half the other physicists in America. I see many problems with the way physics is going nowadays, and one of them is the situation in particle theory, which has become detatched from reality. My particle theory colleagues would not agree with this (I hope they don’t take offence and vote against my tenure), but everyone I know in condensed matter would. The particle theory situation is particularly irksome because it gets such a disproportionate share of the limelight, and because many of us who are passionate about physics see this degradation of the traditional scientific method happening at the very core of our discipline. The situation is not going to get better unless we talk about it! Your blog is the healthiest, most coolly moderated discussion physics forum I know of, given the limitations of bloggery. Though there are other good blogs, they seem to skirt around these deepest problems. We need something like Not Even Wrong in condensed matter. I hope you keep it going!

  40. Robert says:

    Happy B’day!

    Come one, Peter, say something on physics/0603112 don’t be shy! Lubos already had his go.

  41. woit says:

    Thanks to all for the blog-bday greetings!

    Robert,

    I’m in the middle of writing something about this. Lubos is just too fast, I can’t beat him on speed.

  42. Who says:

    Lubos comment on the poem is not perceptive.
    he knocks the rhyming—-suggesting it is dumb technically.
    it is not. Lubos reflex contempt misleads him in this case.

    the rhyming is an example of a rather technically challenging
    German light verse form called the schuettelreim
    which has to rhyme on actual Spoonerisms
    (permutations of the syllables which result in other words of different meaning)

    there are German websites devoted to schuettelreim—-to “switch rhyming”, or spooner-rhyming

    Motl should show respect for the poem’s technical competence (and wit). Dont knock it til you try it.

    the verse would be more perfect if one phrase—-viertel Most—were changed to
    drittel Most
    the better to permute into Mittel Trost

    The viertel (a quarter-liter wineglass) being more common than a drittel (a third of a liter glass or mug) would have occasioned the artistic compromise.

  43. Bert Schroer says:

    To Who says
    You are perfectly correct, now I remember that it must have been a “drittel”. It is one of the best schuettelreims in German I know. Most of them only have two lines like:
    Es klapperten die Klapperschlagen
    bis ihre Klappern schlapper klangen
    or
    Es sprach der Herr von Finkenstein
    die Harzer Kaeschen stinken fein
    or (if you don’t mind one with a boy scout flavor):
    Sie zogen aus mit bunten Wimpeln
    und kehrten heim mit wunden Pimpeln.
    But please don’t think that the beauty and perfection of the 4-liner was the main reason for writing my article.
    I will be back on the radar screen with some (hopefully) enlightening remarks on the role of differential geometry and topology in quantum field theory (Schroer versus Woit, but no polemics) only on coming tuesday.

  44. Who says:

    I will be back on the radar screen

    It’s a pleasure. I look forward to seeing you.

  45. Pingback: Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » 2005 Topcites

  46. John A says:

    I read both this weblog and Lumo’s. Sometime I agree with one of you and not the other, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

    Like String Theory, the consensus on climate science is rather less than the hype put upon it by some of its more famous protagonists.

    I do not care for theories which have no testable results or which cannot be replicated. So for Lumo to support String Theory (majoritarian) and climate skepticism (minoritarian) and this blog to do the reverse, is satisfyingly ironic.

    Can I make a suggestion? Try to dial down the rhetoric on Lubos and focus on the substance of the argument.

    Having setup quite a few blogs myself, I can say that I get more scientific content through them (or even despite them) than from peer-reviewed journals. They’re not a nirvana, but they have definitely changed the way academic discourse is conducted.

    I look forward to another couple of years of interesting commentary. I am sure the truth will out.

  47. woit says:

    Thanks John.

    One correction. This blog takes no position at all on climate change and I delete comments from people who try and start debates here on issues like that. I’m a firm believer that my blog should stick to topics that I have some expertise in.

    Focussing on the substance of an argument with Lubos is really not possible, I’ve sometimes attempted it and never gotten anywhere. He is however highly entertaining, and the fact that a Harvard faculty member string theorist is so loony is a truly remarkable one to observe, so I don’t at all intend to ignore him.

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