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.