NEW in the WSJ

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article by Sharon Begley entitled Has String Theory Tied Up Better Ideas In Field of Physics? (sorry, subscription required for on-line version). The summary of the article goes

After two decades in which string theory has been the doyenne of best-seller lists and the dominant paradigm in particle physics, some critics say it may be tying up better ideas.

and in some sense it covers for the public in simplified form the discussion going on over at Cosmic Variance at the moment. It quotes Lee Smolin and me as critics, with Mike Peskin as the only defender of string theory. Peskin acknowledges the compactification problem, and then makes only a strikingly weak argument for string theory: that it can claim some success because it explains the number of generations. This “explanation” in terms of the topology of the Calabi-Yau is no explanation at all, since you can get any value for this number you want. I don’t see how changing the parametrization of your ignorance from that of a single natural number to that of the topology of a Calabi-Yau is any improvement.

I assume that any moment now Lubos will be producing a rant comparing Sharon Begley to one sort of animal or another.

There’s also a long review of Not Even Wrong from John Walker over at his blog called Fourmilog. He does a good job of laying out the controversial argument of the book, and we seem to be mostly in agreement, although I don’t share his conviction that government funding is a major source of the problem.

Update: I just heard that official publication date in the US is September 8, although books should be for sale a bit earlier than this. Lubos has a posting about the WSJ article, less of a rant than some of his recent ones. He has restored his anti- Sean Carroll screed, which was a classic that many people were sorry to see suppressed.

Update: A commenter points out that the WSJ article is available on-line here. There’s also a mention at Slashdot. The extensive discussion there is heavily anti-string theory which is an interesting sign of the times, but also convinces me that the idea of moderating this kind of discussion by having participants vote on which comments are worthwhile just doesn’t work at all.

Update: There’s commentary on this from science writer David Appell here, who pretty much gets the situation right.

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26 Responses to NEW in the WSJ

  1. QWERTY says:




  2. woit says:



    I don’t know sales figures for my book, and from what I hear publishers tend to be cagey about these numbers with authors (since they determine the size of the check they have to write). I’ve also heard that they way the book business works, bookstores can return unsold books. So, you don’t know how many books you’ve sold until you see how many unsold ones come back, which can take quite a while.

    And, whether the book sells well or not has nothing to do with whether I or my critics are right. Whether a book has a good argument or not in it doesn’t necessarily correlate with how it sells (some would argue that the these things are inversely correlated…).

    Supersymmetry is very useful in math, and this is not a shame, but a very interesting phenomenon, the reasons for which I think we still don’t completely understand. When we do, we’ll have learned something very important.

  3. FYI, Lubos has re-edited his post re: Sean Carroll; at least, the section quoted my blog has been changed. The basic point remains unaltered, though.

  4. woit says:

    Off topic bickering about background independence deleted. Please don’t do this unless you have something completely new to say on the subject and it actually has something to do with the posting.

  5. Garrett says:

    Hey Peter, congratulations, you just got slashdotted:

    Perhaps fortunately, they didn’t link directly to NEW, or your machine might have melted…

  6. nukular says:

    As a PhD (pure qft) physicist, I was a little curious about this book after a blurb on slashdot. It seems reaonable then that I would browse my way to the Amazon webiste, only to read Lubos’ “criticism” and find myself scratching my head. I have to admit this is the first time that I have decended into this pit but his comparision of string theory to the modern theory is WAY over the top. While not an expert at either string theory or evolution I know enough about both to make an educated statement or two, but the fact is that the evidence for the modern theory of evolution is overwhelming! Comparing the any of the actors in this drama Demski is quite inflamatory and completly inappropriate. I expect better…

  7. ks says:

    It’s not really funny to notice that besides the notorious Lubos all kinds of freelancing witch-hunters and exorcists are around to crack “crackpots” in science and accuse them for having “weird”, “silly” and “abnormal” ideas. In the 70s and 80s philosophers like Paul Feyerabend accused science to be like the catholic church i.e. repressive, dogmatic and hierarchical. Now one might get the opposite impression that the research frontier becomes ever more splitted into antagonistic sects following one or the other set of speculative ideas and a bunch of millenaristic preachers whith or rather without charisma. Paul Feyerabends “anarchism” was likely mentioned to be some multicultural tolerance. Now it turns out to be the exact opposite: a late medieval hystery and persecution of alteration. Unfortunately there is no “age of reason and progress” at the dawn because this is our own imaginary scene, where we are still living in.

  8. Who says:

    Sharon Begley’s WSJ article is available online as a reprint in a Florida paper
    I haven’t compared this with the original in the WSJ

  9. John A says:

    I’ve made my comment to Lubos thus:

    If you’re deliberately trying to make Peter Woit look even more sane and string theory ever more implausible by making hysterical ststements such as these, then you’re going the right way about it.

    I cannot claim advanced knowledge of physics, but I do know some philosophy of science. If string theory cannot make testable predictions then it is not a scientific theory, regardless of the intelligence of its proponents, how beautiful its math, how wonderful its consistency. What has bothered me for a good while is that quantum gravity appears no more achievable a unification than it did 20 years ago.

    I heard the same criticism levelled at Steve McIntyre on regarding his finding that large numbers of the better known reconstructions of past climate are statistically meaningless and based upon unphysical assumptions (a finding recently upheld by a specialist panel convened to look at these issues). The retorts back have been (in no order of particular precedence): to compare Steve (and myself) to creationists, Holocaust deniers, to suggest that if they don’t agree with a “scientific consensus” they must be deranged or paid to shill for a shadowy right-wing fossil-fuel funded conspiracy, and so on, that we must be crackpots, that we must be jealous, that we must believe in fairies or ghosts.

    Now, that isn’t to say that Steve McIntyre is vindicated because he is villified – but simply that the reaction to Peter Woit’s book and views are strikingly similar.

    Oh and the repeated refrain of “if you’re so smart why don’t you do a proper reconstruction using tree rings” as if it was all a slip between measurements and calculations.

    Please, I don’t wish to align Peter Woit’s beliefs about one subject with my own about another as if they were equivalent or even that Peter Woit agrees with me(and I’m sure people reading this will have strong views one way or another), but surely the point is that showing that a widely used method is invalid and a derivation mistaken is every bit a part of the scientific method as discovering a new particle or an explanation for a new experimental result. Steve McIntyre has written that in a sense, what he has done is entirely negative, in showing that popular methods for climate reconstruction are invalid, without offering an alternative method.

    I find the invective between what Lubos has written about Peter and what has been written about Steve and myself on occasion to be spookily familiar.

    For those of you who have read the books or the weblog of James Randi know that he receives the greatest diatribes from the most intelligent people who have convinced themselves of notions which are ridiculous (like the idea of Uri Geller bending spoons with his mind). I’m glad to say that in his 70s Randi still delights in demonstrating that the most intelligent people on the planet can be fooled by trickery and easily deceive themselves.

    I’ve no doubt that Lubos Motl and Edward Witten are highly intelligent people, but what should always be remembered is that that very intelligence can lead to foolishness, as James Randi is fond of relating.

    I will buy the Peter’s book (and “The Elegant Universe” as well) so as to get a rounded perspective on this controversy.

    I will add that no scientist I’ve ever met, nor corresponded with, nor read about has been orthodox in everything. All of them had had foibles, weird ideas and made fantastic leaps of illogic on occasion. It appears to go with the territory.

  10. John A says:

    Oh and Lubos has deleted my comment above, and remarked that:

    … I would really appreciate if he stopped nuking my blog articles about theoretical physics – which he does not understand a single bit – with nonsensical and emotionally charged reactions.

    It would appear that I have inadvertently joined a select club.

  11. Isaac says:

    I have to correct your misunderstanding of how Slashdot moderation works. Officially, you can’t both moderate a discussion and participate in it, though undoubtedly some people get around this with multiple login. And the whole body of users doesn’t moderate: moderators are chosen randomly from a pool of “normal” users.

    Which is not to say that the Slashdot moderation system works all that well. But it’s rather more than just people voting on who’s most worth hearing.

  12. Joseph says:

    that explains why “Some people really get tied in a knot about stuff like this.” is the most popular comment on this story.

  13. J.F. Moore says:

    “…the idea of moderating this kind of discussion by having participants vote on which comments are worthwhile just doesn’t work at all.

    If the signal-to-noise ratio is low enough, using any filter becomes pointless.

  14. Benjamin says:

    I have a basic question about scientific methodology. One of the main criticisms of string theory is that it has not not produced a prediction which can be falsified by experiment. But suppose it does, and that prediction is falsified. That is not necessarily the end of the theory (or any other theory). To be fair, the protagonists should have a chance to correct any flaws in their theory, perhaps in light of the new experimental discoveries. That may take time, perhaps quite a bit of time. It seems to me there is never a definite cutoff point for any theory, though as time passes the theory will slowly fade away, unless it mends its ways or a better one comes along. This may seem basic but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  15. Thomas Larsson says:

    Benjamin, something like that has happened already. During the quarter century which I have been seriously interested in particle physics, at lot of people have promised that the experimental discovery of SUSY is just around the corner. It hasn’t happened. Many experiments have tested various natural signals for SUSY – sparticle detection, light Higgs, proton decay, WIMP detection, permanent electric dipole moment, muon g-2, B_s oscillation, and probably several others that I don’t know about. The problem is that all these experiment have produced null results. Also, my impression is that people think that the Tevatron should have seen something weird by now, had SUSY been there in the first place. So you might say that SUSY is almost disproven already.

    As Witten stated repeatedly for 20 years, string theory predicts SUSY. Thus string theory is already having serious trouble with experiments. But when a lot of people have invested entire careers in a program, experimental failure is simply not going to be accepted. It took a long time for H A Lorentz and other aether theorists to accept the Michelson-Morley experiment, Geoff Chew and Fritjof Capra still seem to believe in the analytic bootstrap, and string theorists employed the ultimate excuse for denying experimental facts: the anthropic principle.

  16. woit says:

    In many cases, a theory that makes a wrong prediction can be fixed by making it more complicated. Falsification is not so simple; it often works by forcing the people who believe in a theory to make it more and more complicated, with true believers never giving up, but most people losing interest in the theory because it has become a useless mess.

    This is completely off-topic, since string theory does not make a single prediction, so it hasn’t yet even reached this state. One could argue though that it already has reached the end-point of this process: just to get it to agree with what we already know about the world, its proponents have been forced to turn it into a useless mess (aka the anthropic string theory landscape).

  17. Ponderer of Things says:

    I find it rather remarkable that Lubos retracts a post, and reposts it after a few days of thinking about it.

    It shows that he has limits (maybe he is not completely “out there”).

    I also feel that the tide has been turning in Peter’s favor lately (the past year or so, compared to pre-2005 situation). I think blogosphere has more to do with it, rather than lack of results from string theory.
    The style of argument that we get from Lubos vs. the style of argument from Peter Woit and Lee Smolin may be another reason. People in general and physicists in particular have developed BS detector – so even without getting into details about Calabi-Yau manifolds and multiverses, one can usually tell who is bluffing and who is arguing honestly. It’s like Bill O’Reilly vs. George Clooney, I can tune in half-way into the argument, but the argumentative “bully” style vs. the reasoned and polite voice of conviction tells me everything I need to know.

  18. R. Avry Wilson says:

    Dear Peter,

    I wasn’t sure exactly where to post this comment on your blog, so thought to put it here – if that’s ok.

    Thank you for writing this book. Mere moments after I first came into contact with string theory I recognized its innate failures and ‘endless’ possibilities. Vast, complex, and untestable mathematics is (to me – I don’t wish to offend anyone with the following analogy) as much a waste of intelligence as solving the trillionth prime number, i.e. what exactly is the point of carrying out work that in the end doesn’t really do anything to move us along? My primary concern is why it took so long for someone (anyone) to take a stand against the theory(-ies); to me, it screamed ‘obvious’ to the extreme of pedantic physics. I’d expected string theory would have been dinosaur-bound by 1980.

    From where I stand, the problem has always been simple: limit components to 3 dimensions in all of physics. I remain boggled by any theory that uses multiple dimensions; using unreality will not define reality – ever.

    Kind Regards,

    R. Avry Wilson

  19. ObsessiveMathsFreak says:

    One comment in the Slashdot discussion really leaps out of the page.

    Extra dimensions are the epicycles of Modern Physics

    It’s a very bold statement, and in many ways, has a lot of validity. The physics community owes it to itself to respond to this statement. In what way are extra dimensions fundamentally different from the old theory of epicycles?

  20. Riofrio says:

    Of course they are epicycles, as are dark energy and inflatons. Does anyone remember the Emperor’s New Clothes?

  21. Chris Oakley says:

    In what way are extra dimensions fundamentally different from the old theory of epicycles?

    Well, here’s one way: you can calculate things that agree with experiment using epicycles.

  22. Aaron Bergman says:

    Well, besides the fact that they have absolutely no similarities to speak of, you mean?

  23. Chris Oakley says:

    Not only that, I’ve done it. The Tibetan and (old) Hindu calendar are based on circular lunar and solar orbits with a a single epicycle superimposed. This is used to calculate their calendar, and yes, it is not especially accurate, but it is OK.

  24. sunderpeeche says:

    String theory may go the way of phlogiston and the aether. Both concepts became more and more elaborate (phlogiston had to have negative weight), until something better simply displaced it. But in both cases, there had to be (and there was) expt data (which the theories could only explain by adding more twists to the formalism, until they became untenable). Ultimately, one needs expt (HEP) data, nothing else will displace ST (or LQG or anything else).

  25. JPL says:

    I am afraid the analogy between epicycles and extra dimensions is misleading, since epicycles at least had some predictive power (you could compute observed orbits from them with some effort) and that is surely part of the reason that they lasted 1500 years or so. Extra dimensions, on the other hand, don’t seem to predict much that has been observed!

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