2011: A Banner Year for Hype

Since every blogger seems to feel it necessary to have a year-in-review posting, I thought it appropriate to point out that 2011 has been a banner year for string theory and related hype, with about twice as many editions of “This Week’s Hype” as in previous years. One reason for this is the LHC. When talking to journalists, string theorists are rarely willing to admit that the hopes of the past couple decades that string theory would make some predictions about LHC energy scale physics turned out to be a dismal failure, and this tends to lead to confused headlines. Besides the LHC though, there’s a huge on-going effort to promote other bogus “tests of string theory”. This has been going on since string theory’s lack of testability problem first started to get a lot of attention a few years ago. I see no reason for either of these two driving forces to weaken in 2012, so expect more editions of “This Week’s Hype” next year.

String theory supported by early LHC heavy ion results

Cosmologists expect the LHC to turn up evidence for the multiverse

M-theory shows that the LHC will be the world’s first time machine

Neutrons could test string theory

Octonions explain string theory

The LHC tests string theory (more heavy ions)

M-theory is a big success, predicts behavior of 4 qubits

String theory and heavy ions, yet again

Multiverse observed in the CMB – Not

String theorists suggest space wormholes possible

String theory testable with black holes and pulsars

String phenomenologists come up with predictions testable at the LHC

Superluminal neutrinos evidence for string theory

Superluminal neutrinos could be explained by string theory

CMS multi-leptons provide evidence for SUSY

A new laser will tear apart the fabric of space

A nuclear clock will test string theory

The LHC will decide between two versions of SUSY

String theory research is going well, only problems are Garrett Lisi, Lee Smolin and Peter Woit.

Gordy Kane predicts the mass of the Higgs using string theory, just days before the announcement

Superstring theory predicts three space dimensions.

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59 Responses to 2011: A Banner Year for Hype

  1. Giotis says:

    Lee said:

    “Then lets go back to the third book, and please tell me exactly which passages in your view create a negative impression of physics or physicists in general.”

    “What we are dealing with is a sociological phenomenon in the world of academic science. I do think that the ethics of science have been to some degree corrupted by the kind of group think explored in chapter 16, but not solely by the string theory community.”

    and later

    “It may seem strange to be discussing academic politics in a book for the general public, but you, the public, individually and collectively, are our patrons. If the science you pay for is not getting done, it is up to you to hold our feet to the fire and make us do our job.”

    The public should make you do your job?! Well I can’t think of anything else that could create a more negative impression for physicists.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Giotis,

    Lee’s comment here was directed at Eric’s complaint about his “books” and specifically asked for an example of what Eric was complaining about from either of his first two books, to justify the plural. You’re completely ignoring this.

    If Eric wants to provide such examples, or Lee wants to respond to you or Eric, they can do so. But the argument over Lee’s controversial book is really not only off-topic, but very old by now, so please don’t anyone try and carry it on here. I really doubt anyone has anything new to say.

    About this topic, I do want to say though that when I wrote my own book (mostly in 2002), I tried to stick to the science and avoid what could be interpreted as personal criticism of string theorists (perhaps not always successfully, but still…). If I were to write an updated version (not damn likely), I would be sorely tempted to go on at length describing some of the huge number of examples of grotesque, unprofessional behavior that I’ve seen from string theorists in more recent years. My current view is that if there’s any criticism of string theorist’s behavior in Lee’s third book, it’s way too mild.

  3. Eric says:

    Dear Lee,

    The books I am referring to are “Three Roads to Quantum Gravity” and “The Trouble with Physics”, both of which contain attacks on string theory. The attacks in the first book aremore subtle and more-or-less attempt to shade string theory in a bad light in comparison to alternatives, while the attacks in the infamous second book are more direct. The chapter on the “Sociology of Science” is particularly bad. I think it’s fair to say that the second book is basically a reworking of the first.

    Best,

    Eric

  4. Eric says:

    Also, I should emphasize that my point is not to continue the string theory vs. alternatives fight, but rather that the attacks on both sides of this debate are counterproductive to the credibility of the physics community. This also includes Lubos Motl counterattacks. The physics community is all better served if we attempt to work together towards common goals rather than fighting over whose approach is better.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    Eric,

    Note that you’re not providing any of the evidence for your argument that Lee asked for. About his first two books, your only complaint is that one of them makes string theory look worse (as an idea about quantum gravity) than alternatives. This has nothing to do with creating “a negative impression for physics and physicists in general.” Evaluating which scientific ideas are working is a standard part of doing science, and it’s not criticism of scientists to do this.

  6. Bob Levine says:

    @ Eric: “The physics community is all better served if we attempt to work together towards common goals rather than fighting over whose approach is better.”

    Eric, I am having a *very* hard time understanding your conception of science. There is an empirical domain, and there are competing models of it, and if one of them is correct, then either (i) the others are wrong or (ii) some subset of the competing approaches are in effect mathematical variants of each other (think Heisenberg vs. Schroedinger in QM, or Feynman/Schwinger as reconciled in the work of Freeman Dyson). But the conflict between plum-pudding model of the atom vs. the ‘orbital’ (energy-level shell) model, or the analysis of cosmic rays as high energy photons (Milliken) vs. charged particles (Compton) wound up with the defeat of one model and the victory of another, as determined by the tribunal of predictive success. QM displaced classical physics the same way, and there were plenty of classical physicists who viewed the ascension of QM not as progress, but as a bitter defeat. Unfortunately, it is a fact that some approaches will be better than others, at the end of the day, and science’s job is to attempt to find the truth about the material world, not to be a big tent where everyone has to make nice with everyone else. Not everyone can be right, alas. And when one side has presented enormously far-reaching claims with virtually no hard results to back up those claims (look again at Peter’s hype list), the other side(s) can hardly be faulted for pointing out that no, you haven’t even come close to justifying those claims. Debating (civilly but *fiercely*) about ‘whose approach is better’ is a necessary *part* of working together towards common goals.

  7. Lee Smolin says:

    Zarrax,

    “The trouble with X” is a recurrent trope in literary and popular culture that carries overtones of affection and bemusement. It goes back at least to a 1955 Hitchcock film “The Trouble with Harry”. I am sorry if you missed the allusion, but many readers got it. In any case I insist that the characterization of physics I gave was balanced. There was a whole part of the book devoted to new directions. I’ve gotten lots of email from young physicists saying my books-and that one in particular-inspired them to go into physics.

    I don’t know how to answer the rest of your messages because its hard to argue with people who insist on their vague misunderstandings. I am pretty sure I never said anything like, “people were looking for the next Einstein as if they were waiting for the coming of the Messiah”.

    And how does this answer Eric: “it would be an easy error for people to make to assume your other books (which they had not read) had a similar viewpoint.” Yes, and would you assume all of Herman Melville’s books were about whales?

    Similarly, no one I know of “gravitated to Lisi”. Since you think many did, please name one.

    Thanks,

    Lee

  8. Zarrax says:

    Lee: In the book jacket of the edition I have it says “Smolin not only tells us who and what to watch in the coming years, he offers novel solutions for seeking out and nurturing the best new talent- giving us a chance, at long last, of finding the next Einstein”. While technically you may not have written the book jacket, you can’t really blame the reader for thinking as I do since the book jacket is supposed to summarize what the book is about. And I don’t really have the time to go through the book looking for other corroborating comments.

    And here’s something from viii of the introduction: “To put in bluntly, we have failed. We inherited a science, physics, that had been progressing so fast for so long that it was often taken as the model for how other kinds of science should be done. For more than two centuries, until the present period, our understanding of the laws of nature expanded rapidly. But today, despite our best efforts, what we know for certain about these laws is no more than what we knew in the 1970s.”

    Quotes such as these (which I found within five minutes) do convey a negative impression of theoretical physics and physicists, namely that they are stuck and don’t know where to proceed, and are desperately seeking the next Einstein. (And to Woit: Note that a string theorist apologist wouldn’t say the kinds of things I am saying. )

    Lisi did have plenty supporters. I am not a physicist so I don’t know the inside scoop but I did see many quotations at the time from scientists who at least took him quite seriously. I think a google search should still find them.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Zarrax,

    You clearly have absolutely no idea what you are talking about re Lisi, or the problems of theoretical physics, and the only thing you can find to back up your “next Einstein” business is something you know Lee didn’t write. If you want to launch stupid personal attacks on me, that’s one thing, but it was my mistake to not follow my usual policy of deleting anonymous attacks on others.

    It’s now been a very long while since there was an on-topic comment here, so I’ll close comments on this posting.