Reviews and Errata

The August edition of Seed magazine is out on the newstands, and it contains a joint review entitled “No Strings Attached” by Charles Seife of my book and of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics. The article and magazine issue are not online at the moment. The latest issue of Physics World contains a review by Gordon Fraser, entitled String theory gets knotted.

Both reviews give a reasonable description of what the book is about, and take the first part of the book to task for being hard going, worrying that the reader may give up before getting to the less technical later parts. Seife writes “the level of detail is inconsistent” and Fraser describes “a level of detail that is unpredictable”, and this is true enough. It was a conscious decision to put together history, some basic explanations of math and particle physics, together with some explanations of the rather arcane joint successes of math and physics in recent years, all in as compact form as possible. There is a warning in the text that almost everyone is going to find parts of this hard to follow and should judiciously skip ahead. My goal was to write something that almost everyone would get something out of, from people new to the subject to those with quite a bit of technical knowledge. Undoubtedly this was an overly-ambitious idea, but on the whole I’ve been pleased so far to hear that people with a wide range of backgrounds seem to enjoy the book.

Because I cover so much ground in so few pages, many technical terms and ideas don’t get properly explained. Both Seife and Fraser fault me for not explaining “synchrotron radiation”, which is true enough, although I use the term in context to describe X-rays produced when electrons are accelerated in a synchrotron. Seife says that I don’t define “eigenstate”, although I do give a one-sentence definition immediately after first using the term. It’s true though that anyone who hasn’t taken a linear algebra course will probably just find this baffling.

Fraser complains about inaccuracies in the book, and he has found two of them: I describe Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus as taking place at Cambridge when it was really Manchester, and while this experiment is first properly described as involving the scattering of alpha particles, at a later point in the book it is inaccurately referred to as involving scattering electrons. Some of his other complaints seem to me unfounded. I don’t say that Isabelle was canceled before planning was underway for the SSC, and I don’t understand why he claims there was no “competing collider” at CERN (the reference was to the SpS, being used as a p-pbar collider starting in 1981).

I’ve just written up an errata page for the book, which includes the two errors mentioned by Fraser. It can be found here.

Update:  John Horgan’s review of Not Even Wrong that appeared in Prospect is available at his web-site.

Sabine Hossenfelder has the first review of Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics, together with an interview with Smolin.  Lubos responds to this by explaining that Sabine is a woman, thus intellectually inferior, and prone to engage in “female physics”.

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26 Responses to Reviews and Errata

  1. L. Riofrio says:

    I sympathise with your difficulty in getting things published. Keep at it; I look forward to reading your book. The best way to bury a bad idea is to come up with something better.

  2. Johan Couder says:

    I have to agree – your book is indeed “hard going” at times. In spite of having ‘some’ mathematical background I probably wouldn’t have struggled through if as an interested “layman” I hadn’t already read so many popular books on quantum physics, relativity and string theory before.
    But I’m glad I did. I kept buying the latest ‘popular’ books on string theory afraid as I was of missing out on the “Big Revolution” in theoretical physics. If anything your book made me realize string theory may very well not be the “Holy Grail” its proponents purport it to be.
    It also saddens me some string theorists do not seem to have the ‘grandeur’ of at least “agreeing to disagree”. I’m glad though your colleague Brian Greene doesn’t seem to be one of them, because I do admire him as a science popularizer (and as a scientist of course).
    I’ll never reach the heights of your mathematical understanding (not by far) , but at least you didn’t give me the feeling of being a complete moron. It obviously took a lot of courage to do what you did, and I (and many others I’m sure) thank you for that.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I think a varying level of detail is a very good idea. I enjoyed the book back to back, and the fact that the level was not always the same was stimulating to me, rather than the other way round. I did not skip pages, even if in a couple of instances I was having trouble understanding the details.

    So this kind of criticism is unfounded IMO.

    T.

  4. Hmm says:

    Johan,

    It didn’t take any “courage” for Peter to do what he did. He isn’t a physicist, nor even a professional resarcher of any sort. He has absolutely nothing to lose spouting his trivial ideas, and lots to gain–media coverage and recognition he could never have gotten from doing research. So it didn’t take any courage–no one even noticed him enough to even care what he thought or said before, and nothing has changed in this regard.

    Peter–I’ve said it before. Enjoy your 15 minutes. You’ve taken a pretty pathetic and classless road to try and make a name for yourself, but I guess it takes the sting out of never having enough talent to be kept around in physics. However you should know that there are lots of serious and brilliant people actually struggling to make progress, who both understand your trivial points as well as hundreds of more interesting ones. You are pompous and arrogant with nothing to back it up intellectually; its lucky for you that we live in a general age of mediocrity in this society, which is the only reason you get any coverage at all.

    We are all also STILL waiting for your research ideas, where are they???? Will we EVER see them??? Well it was tough going for you when you were younger, and its not going to get any easier….I’d get cracking if I were you.

  5. Marty Tysanner says:

    Peter,

    Could you please do all of us a favor and delete the above post by “Hmm”? He appears to be nothing more than a puerile, loud-mouthed, air-headed troll who has never initiated nor contributed any useful discussion here. His “contributions” are no more than noise, certainly nothing worthy of a response by you nor anyone else. I am posting something only because I am sick of seeing his meaningless drivel.

    More generally, I really, really wish you would initiate an uncompromising policy where any post that contains a significant personal attack on you or any other poster would be automatically be deleted without further explanation. Something like a simple line just above the comment entry area like “Posts containing ad hominem attacks will be mercilessly deleted” would provide adequate warning. You may feel an obligation to allow others to personally attack you so as to avoid an image of censorship, but in my view that is only appropriate as long as the attacks are restricted to ideas or appropriateness of material, as opposed to purely personal attacks like the one above. Allowing trashy comments like those by Hmm and others of his ilk (e.g., “Michael”) cheapens your blog and gives it too much of an unmoderated Usenet flavor.

  6. Walt says:

    Hmm: You’re helping to kill string theory. Seriously, anyone who’s on the outside of the discussion (and that includes most physicists) who sees these arguments between you and Peter will side with Peter every time. Refuting bad ideas is as much a part of science as developing good ones. Peter has put forth a scientific argument against string theory; that’s part of science. Your whining about the hurt feelings of all the hard workers out there is not.

  7. Hmm says:

    Marty,

    I apologize–seeing Johan call Peter “courageous” pushed me over the edge. I really do have an exceedingly low opinion of what Peter is engaged in, but I agree that it was wrong to respond as I did, not to mention a waste of time.

    So apologies Peter, and please feel free to delete my comments as Marty suggested. I will avoid leaving comments here in the future.

  8. Hmm says:

    OK one last comment in response to Walt: yes, obviously refuting bad arguments is part of science. But Peter has not “put forth a scientific argument”. He hasn’t said a *single* thing that isn’t trivially obvious to everyone in the field; indeed most practicioners (and I’m not talking about Kaku or Greene) have much more insight into the problems of string theory, and at a deeper level, both physically and mathematically. But they also know of many remarkable aspects of the theory that are extremely compelling. The subject is a work in progress, and no one has claimed that the answer is right around the corner. That is why what Peter does is so annoying–he takes the “outsider against the establishment” line when nothing he says is news to anyone inside the subject, pretending he knows what the outcome of all the confusions is going to be, say involving the landscape, when they are very much up in the air, subjects of ongoing research. All he does is boo the people from the sidelines without offering anything positive, and not even giving anything negative that isn’t universally known. And its a little galling when his specific proposals for “alternatives” are so amazingly naive, as you might expect from someone with no real experience in doing original research.

  9. Arun says:

    Stripped of the ad hominem remarks, all that Hmm is saying is – trust the string theorists, what makes string theory compelling cannot be explained to mere mortals, only the problems with string theory can.

  10. Ummm says:

    “…yes, obviously refuting bad arguments is part of science. But Peter has not “put forth a scientific argument”. He hasn’t said a *single* thing that isn’t trivially obvious to everyone in the field…” – Hmm

    If it is so trivially obvious that stringy stuff has got into a worse situation over the past 20 years, then why get so angry about it?

  11. woit says:

    About Hmm,

    I wish string theory proponents would get their story straight. Half the time I’m someone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, so shouldn’t be listened to because I’ve got it all wrong, the other half of the time, the problem is that I’m saying things that are obviously true to all trained string theorists, so I shouldn’t be listened to because I’m boring.

    Marty,

    In the future I’ll take up Hmm’s offer to delete his comments. While he promises to stop posting here, from past experience he doesn’t seem to believe in keeping his promises.

    I do want to avoid deleting comments from string theorists, no matter how offensive, because I’ve been accused by them of deleting comments I disagree with. One correspondent wrote to tell me that a string theorist had told him that the reason one doesn’t see sensible responses to criticism of string theory on my blog is that I delete these.

    Unfortunately Hmm and Lubos are not alone in their behavior and attitudes in the string theory community. The recent behavior of Susskind shows that this kind of thing is more widespread, involving some very prominent people.

  12. LDM says:

    It didn’t take any “courage” for Peter to do what he did. -Hmm

    One might ask exactly how much courage does it take to work in a discipline, like string theory, where it seems nothing can ever be tested by experiment — and hence there is never a risk of loss of scientific reputation, or ego, by any of your ideas being proved wrong in the lab.

  13. Thomas Larsson says:

    If anything your book made me realize string theory may very well not be the “Holy Grail” its proponents purport it to be.

    “Holy Grail” = non-existent thing which generations of our best and brightest wasted their lives searching for.

  14. Thomas Mulligan says:

    I think the comments of Dr. Lubos and “Hmm” should be retained; they serve to illuminate the very real insecurities present in the string theory community. I do not doubt the noble motivations of string theorists, but even the most objective scientists cannot help but attach an unwarranted affinity to concepts they’ve spent careers studying. Most confront foundational problems with polite resistance; the two mentioned above appear to employ only ad hominem attack: the first refuge of an insecure intellect is insult.

    The work Dr. Woit does here is as important to the advancement of physical theory as anything you’ll find on arXiv; every scientist has a duty to ensure that our accepted theories are empirically adequate, regardless of whether or not that requires an attack on orthodoxy. If string theory becomes a genuine, potent scientific theory, it will be as a result of Dr. Woit’s criticism and not despite it.

  15. D R Lunsford says:

    Thomas,

    I agree about Peter, but I don’t agree about the noble motivations of string theorists. I suppose I use a different definition of nobility, such as could be justly applied to Pauli, Dirac, etc. among other people who respected the truth. But it’s just my opinion.

    -drl

  16. nigel cook says:

    The widely agreed principle maintaining string theory is:

    We are right because everyone else is wrong.

    By and large the public agree – ie stringy hype works – because the public can’t get to see any alternatives clearly; this is due to the stringy hype and censorship of physics by group think stringers. If the public could see all the alternatives, the status of physics would be reduced from a professional objective group enterprize into what would appear chaos. So they have to censor out the alternatives, or physics is finished as a respectable discipline a far as they are concerned.

  17. Peter Orland says:

    Most of the comments on this blog concern the value of string theory as opposed to other approaches to quantum gravity and unification. It surprises me that no one seems to have suggested that part of the controversy isn’t the solution but the problem.

    NO theory of everything is going to do any better than string theory has. What does Loop Quantum Gravity predict? Or dynamical triangulations?
    The difficulty is that any serious attempt to deal with the Planck scale can’t confront the world in the TeV range. Any approach to these specific problems needs hype to make the public think it is of overriding
    importance.

    There are challenging unsolved problems which have nothing do with black holes and Planck scale unification. The culture of the field these days is,
    unfortunately, that little else is of interest. When I was a student, most of the students were obsessed by such problems, but eventually faculty brought them back down to earth by showing them other things to do.

    I am not disputing that quantum gravity and unification are important problems. They are, and I like to think about them too. But there are other interesting problems of physics which are also challenging and have a better chance of being tested experimentally. I don’t think it will take any less brain-power to solve High-Tc superconductivity, quark confinement or turbulence than to solve quantum gravity. Dark matter and dark energy may have nothing to do with Planck scale physics. Many of the people (like me) who do work in one or more these other areas are as smart as they come (unlike me).

    In practice, some string theorists do look at things like AdS/CFT, which
    may not be relevant experimentally, but has definitely advanced our field theoretic knowledge, and will probably do so for some time. I also am sympathetic to, but more dubious about AdS/QCD, which seems
    to be another strong-coupling approach (we have been able to do strong-coupling calculations since Wilson’s ’74 paper. No one has
    convinced me AdS/QCD is any better). This, however, is the minority
    of string theorists.

    Part of our job as scientists is to be scholars. That means we have to be
    knowledgable about many things. We can argue all we like about which quantum gravity theory is best, or if we instead should go back to the drawing board. I can (and do) participate in such discussions with colleagues. But shouldn’t we also think about other issues?

    There was some famous quote about Academia being so vicious because
    the stakes were so small. I am not finding this joke funny these days.

  18. Who says:

    In Peter Orland’s second paragraph
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=439#comment-14267 the question
    What does Loop Quantum Gravity predict?
    is asked rhetorically, as if the expected answer were “nothing”. In some people’s view it is not a rhetorical question.

    There are a bunch of non-string QG approaches (often referred to under the heading of LQG because it’s a familiar term) that predict various things which are testable. This has permitted or will permit some proposed models to be falsified. There are also some “generic” predictions shared by a broad class of QGs. This is discussed in
    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0605052

    The above link is to a draft chapter of a forthcoming book
    Approaches to Quantum Gravity – toward a new understanding of space, time, and matter, edited by D. Oriti, to be published by Cambridge University Press.

    Another contribution to the same book has bearing on testable QG predictions. It is the draft chapter by Shahn Majid
    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0604130

    In his chapter, Majid says:
    This is also the first noncommutative spacetime model with a genuine physical prediction[1], namely a variable speed of light (VSL). The NASA GLAST satellite to be launched in 2007 may among other things be able to test this prediction through a statistical analysis of gamma-ray bursts even in the worst case that we might expect for the parameter λ ∼ 10-44 s ( the Planck timescale).

  19. anon says:

    “NO theory of everything is going to do any better than string theory has… any serious attempt to deal with the Planck scale can’t confront the world in the TeV range.”

    Just because strings have failed miserably, doesn’t prove it is impossible for others. “Not Even Wrong (N.E.W.)” gives indirect tests such as getting the vacuum energy in supersymmetry (unification energy) to agree with empirical observaton.

    String theory is apparently way out by an astronomical factor of 10^113 (N.E.W. page 179). Another empirical check is that according to unification theories you should be able to predict the way one fundamental force varies with collision energy, given measurements on how the other forces vary as a function of energy. This is a test since data are accurate withi about 3%. String theory fails here too (N.E.W. page 177) where the value of the SU(3) force predicted by SUSY using SU(2) and U(1) forces is higher than experimental data by 10-15%.

    So there are a few indirect tests possible and it is conceivable that some other theory could make progress by correct agreement with these data where strings/SUSY can’t. Another option is some theory which is so radical it may predict masses (Tony Smith being one example) and be checked experimentally that way.

  20. Peter Orland says:

    Who and anon,

    It wasn’t my purpose to put anyone on the defensive. That said, I don’t find your arguments concerning expermental predictions any more convincing than the string theorists’s.

    If you love LQG or another approach (or even decide you want to work on strings!), do it with my blessing. I am just complaining that so many in our field think all life exists at the Planck scale.

  21. Who says:

    At least one important version of LQG risks falsification next year by astronomical observation—in my view the most promising spinfoam approach actually—if energy-dependence of the speed of light is not observed in gammaray bursts.

    P.O. : It wasn’t my purpose to put anyone on the defensive. That said, I don’t find your arguments concerning expermental predictions any more convincing than the string theorists’s.

    …I am just complaining that so many in our field think all life exists at the Planck scale.

    Be happy then. :-) You did not put anyone on the defensive, but merely showed your lack of familiarity with the subject! No one needs to provide arguments to “convince” you of QG testability, since one simply has to point to cases where non-string QG models have already been constrained or are at risk of refutation by having their predictions falsified empirically.

    If it distresses you that so many have their attention focused at Planck scale, then here is some news to cheer you up—we aren’t stuck down at Planck scale: non-string QG phenomenology has ample scope at the scale of practical near-term observation.

  22. Haelfix says:

    The Planck satellite could in principle pick up QG signatures, and its somewhat of an on going debate in the string theory community if it has the resolution to see Stringy effects or not.

    So while its not a falsifiable prediction, if it does see something it would be wonderful for the entire field. If it doesnt, well it could mean a few things.

    OTOH, With further theoretical refinement it could potentially be upgraded to falsifiable lvls, so keep that in mind. I believe people at Columbia are actually working on this as we speak, so perhaps Peter can ask his colleagues in the physics department what they think.

  23. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    thanks for the link. I didn’t comment very much on the ‘physical’ content of the book. I kind of expect that Lubos will take care of that… would be good if you had the time to write a sensible review on Lee’s book as well. I’d really be interested in your opinion.

    Btw, did you receive an offer from Lee’s publisher to send you a copy of the book? I got a rather weird comment saying that she ‘of course’ did not ask you. No idea what that’s supposed to mean.

    Best, B.

  24. Michael Edwards says:

    Bee,

    Just wanted you to know that some readers of your review got (and enjoyed) the Bigfoot / Big Five joke (and the big game icons) even if a certain person at Harvard didn’t. “Female physics” my (big) foot.

    Cheers,
    - Michael

  25. Peter Woit says:

    Hi Bee,

    Supposedly a copy of Lee’s book is in the mail and I should see it soon. Of course I’ll write something about it here after I’ve read it. I’ve heard from Lee quite a bit about the book, going back to when he first started working on it. No idea what his publisher’s comment was about, perhaps they’re a bit competitive with another publisher… But I think both Lee and I see the appearance of the two books around the same time as a good thing rather than a competition. Our points of view are in many ways complementary and the fact that we reach similar conclusions about string theory from different starting points reinforces what we each have to say.

    Haelfix,

    For the latest on possible imprints in the CMB, see Brian’s talk at Strings 2006

    http://strings06.itp.ac.cn/talk-files/bgreene.pdf

    As far as I know, no one has ever made the claim that this can potentially falsify string theory. The size of effects coming from Planck scale physics is debatable, and depends on the string scale, which is not known. It has to be at large enough distances for you to have a chance to see something. I think you have to be quite an optimist to believe that they’re going to be visible in the Planck satellite data. But it certainly would be very remarkable if such effects are seen. One thing to keep in mind is that these calculations typically don’t actually involve string theory, more things like assuming that there is a minimal length, and QFT modes below that length are cutoff. So, these calculations are sometimes described as “string-inspired”.

  26. Peter Orland says:

    Hi Peter,

    You have just reiterated my point about no theory of quantum gravity being falsifiable. Finding a minimal length (a UV cut-off) proves everybody right and nobody wrong. If such a length isn’t detected by
    the observations, I won’t be surprised if everyone finds a way to wiggle out of it and say “I knew it all the time”.

    Again, I appeal to those of you hotly debating Planck-scale issues to spend time thinking about at theoretical physics at distances above 10^-33 cm. If that isn’t your main interest, try to make it your hobby.

    Regards,
    Peter O.