Susskind on KQED

Someone wrote in to tell me that KQED this morning had Leonard Susskind on to discuss string theory and his book The Cosmic Landscape. Most of the program consisted of him promoting his usual line about the string theory anthropic landscape and how the fact that string theory is compatible with anything makes it a wonderful and exciting new way to do physics. He claimed that there is no longer a substantive split among bright physicists about the landscape, that the only split is over people’s emotional response to it.

There were quite a few strange things in the interview that have little to do with reality. Susskind repeatedly claimed that string theory has a great deal of experimental support, saying:

More and more the things that string theory seems to say seem to jibe and coexist with the things that physicists and cosmologists see in the laboratory.

Near the end of the interview, when asked to cite some experimental evidence in favor of string theory he said that yes there was a lot of evidence including:

1. The existence of gravity.

2. The existence of particles.

3. The laws of the universe.

Quite remarkably he then went on to announce that QCD is a string theory and take credit for it, saying that string theory was “invented by Nambu and myself as a theory of protons and neutrons, an extremely successful theory of protons and neutrons”. According to Susskind, string theory provides “the whole explanation of protons and neutrons and nuclear physics” and that “heavy ion collisions are best described in terms of string theory”.

One questioner asked him about LQG, which he characterized as a “half-baked theory” that was “similar to string theory but not quite the same” and that “even its proponents hope that it is another way of expressing string theory.”

And what of criticism of string theory? Susskind deals with this with purely personal attacks. The interview began with the following:

Michael Krasny: Let’s talk first of all if we can about string theory since you’re kind of called the father of it and all that, I know you’ve been humble on that score, but it’s deserved. Challenges to it, now it’s being challenged left and right… ill-defined, based on crude assumptions.. tell us.

Susskind: You’re talking probably aout some of the books and blogs that have come out in very very big criticism of it. Well, I think one would have to say that some of it is due to a certain kind of grumpiness of people who…um..

Well, for example, there’s one fellow who failed as a physicist, never made it as a physicist, became a computer programmer, has been angry all of his life that he never became a physicist and that physicists ignore him, so he’s now taking out his revenge by writing diatribes and polemics against string theory.

Somehow I suspect this is about me. For the record I’m a faculty member in the math department at Columbia, in an untenured position with title of “Lecturer”, where my responsibilities include teaching, adminstering the department computer system, and engaging in research. Susskind sounds a lot more angry than I’ve ever been, and I certainly don’t feel that physicists are ignoring me.

He goes on to attack Lee Smolin:

There’s another fellow who has his own theory, I won’t tell you who his name is or what his theory is, but he writes lots and lots of theories and his theories go glub, glub, glub to the bottom of the sea before he even gets a chance to put them out there. Physicists don’t take him seriously, he’s angry and so he’s also writing a book complaining…

Just completely pathetic.

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58 Responses to Susskind on KQED

  1. D R Lunsford says:

    MathPhys,

    I too was struck by it when I came across it in the 80s – by its colossal ugliness and metaphysical pointlessness (sorry). That is – if the idea of matter had failed, then it was not the configuration of it that was responsible, rather, the very idea of an exacly localized “thing” of any dimension at all – and it was obvious how it would fail. Also, it was profoundly anhistorical – one, by dredging up Kaluza-Klein theory, which was rightfully dead (Pauli), and second, by ignoring the real problem in quantum theory, the idea of measurement. It was also totally opposed to the more geometrico of GR in spite of its pretensions. Not only was it never a real candidate for a “theory of everything” (who ordered that?), it was completely incompatible with BOTH GR and QM – it was, and is, a theory of nothing. What on Earth were people thinking to believe in such a theory?

    -drl

  2. Juan R. says:

    Chris Oakley said:

    I am surprised that Susskind’s Wiki page fails to mention his other achievements, i.e. that he

    • Developed a cure for cancer
    • Found the Lost Chord
    • Discovered Penicillin
    • Invented Quantum Mechanics
    • Determined the structure of DNA
    • Invented the steam engine.

    Humility?

    Juan R.

    Center for CANONICAL |SCIENCE)

  3. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Stefan,

    “more or less rigorous” means “rigorous” according to the standards of theoretical physics. This misunderstanding of yours is indeed another example of your breathtaking ignorance that all but guarantees that you will probably always be nothing more than a joke.

    I wish you happy interactions with other idiots near the bottom of the sea.

    Best
    Lubos

  4. nigel cook says:

    “… it is now hard to set up a clear criterion for what is crackpotism (should I delete Lenny Susskind’s comments if he decides to write in some day?).” – Peter, http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=128

    I feel sorry for Professor Susskind having to finally respond to your criticisms of his theory, and doing it personally. His theory has received all the mainstream limelight for twenty years and he is promoting his very first book, criticisms are surfacing because now some people realise that it may not be the most helpful theory.

    I watched him on TV somewhere and he is a really nice, down to earth person, actually he is an ex-plumber from New York who started physics a bit later when he went to college to do a gas installation course.

    So if his string theory is full of holes and leaks, then he is the best person to fix it.

  5. hack says:

    ‘“more or less rigorous” means “rigorous” according to the standards of theoretical physics.’

    Which more specifically means “can’t be disproved with five minutes of hand-waving argumentation”.

  6. David says:

    I can’t help but notice that Motl again avoided the question that Stefan posed, i.e. what are the problems that Peter enumerated that Motl claims have been proved absent. If such proofs exist, Motl would do well to tell us about them rather than simply insult Stefan. Such a reply would strengthen string theory’s position vs. Peter’s criticism. Dare I suggest Motl adopts his position because he can’t provide such proofs?

  7. Benni says:

    At a speech in munich I have asked Suesskind in person:
    “When we are in the situation that string theory can describe any physics we want, would it not be better to accept this state of string theory and search for alternative theories?”
    Suesskinds answer was:
    “Yes of course. Of course. If you have one tell us of it”
    I think this was a reasonable sentence.

  8. Thomas Larsson says:

    But there is something about string theory.

    MathPhys,
    There is something about CFT – it is the correct, and most likely the ultimate, theory of 2D phase transitions. This does not mean that it is the right theory of 4D gravity. Besides, it is not a theory of everything even in statphys, since it does not say anything about the physically more interesting 3D case.