The August 25th issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement has a feature article by Leonard Susskind about my book and Lee Smolin’s entitled “Hold Fire! This Epic Vessel Has Only Just Set Sail…” (unfortunately only available to subscribers). The bulk of it consists of two parts: an extended analogy designed to show what he thinks the current state of string theory is, and a long ad hominem argument about why people shouldn’t listen to me and Smolin.
In Susskind’s analogy, the current state of particle physics is like the 15th century European view of the world, aware that there was a large Atlantic ocean out there, but with no idea of what lay beyond it. String theorists are like ship-builders, building vessels that intrepid string theorist explorers will courageously pilot out into the risky unknown. I’m a “Chicken Little” figure, telling people that if they do this they’ll fall off the end of the earth. Smolin is a builder of ships that don’t float.
Susskind mostly ignores the contents of my book and Smolin’s, which, in his analogy, both provide detailed analyses of the history and current state of a shipbuilding project, which, despite massive investment, has led only to a huge, overweight vessel which can’t even get out of the harbor. Both of us are arguing that this project needs to be restructured and largely abandoned, and investigation of other ship designs supported and encouraged.
The part of Susskind’s long ad hominem argument that attacks Smolin is just stupid, vicious, and offensive and I won’t repeat it here. Given how limited the successes of string theory have been, his attacks on Smolin’s work as ideas that are not working out is completely indefensible.
Susskind devotes a surprisingly long part of the article to discussing me and my career, and I have to admit that what he has to say is, while less than completely accurate, far more sympathetic than I would ever have suspected, especially given the many harsh things I’ve had to say about him here and elsewhere. He describes me as “one of those Princeton mavericks, who had the guts to work on other questions, in particular modern nuclear physics [by which he means QCD]“, and criticizes (during the mid-eighties) “an unusual degree of hubris in Princeton, a smug, arrogant dismissal of any ideas that didn’t fit the string theory agenda.”
Susskind’s interpretation of my early career is sympathetic, but a bit off. I actually left Princeton in the summer of 1984, just before the string theory “revolution” hit. I spent the early years of the era of string theory dominance at Stony Brook, with limited contact with what was going on in Princeton. Susskind doesn’t quite directly say so, but he strongly implies that my criticisms of string theory are motivated by bitterness at not being able to have a successful career in a physics department due to the domination of string theory. What actually happened is that in 1987, after my postdoc at Stony Brook, I did find myself unemployed, and at the time wasn’t too happy that string theory dominance was one of several reasons no one was much interested in hiring me. I spent a year as an unpaid visitor in the Harvard physics department and got a part-time job teaching calculus as an adjunct instructor at Tufts. During this year I had plenty to live on, but did face an uncertain future and wasn’t so happy about it. People at Harvard and at Tufts were quite helpful, and in the spring I was offered an excellent job for the next year at MSRI, the math institute in Berkeley. After that I came to Columbia, and from my time at MSRI on, I have no complaints whatsoever about my career, feeling I’ve probably done better than I deserved, living in the places I most want to live, working with excellent colleagues under good conditions. So, as far as the embittered part of my career goes, it was pretty much limited to a short period of about a year, almost 20 years ago, during 1987 and 1988.
Susskind ends his discussion of me with something positive:
But Woit is correct to remind us how important diversity and humility are in the face of the vast sea of ignorance.
and ends his review by quoting ‘t Hooft as a sceptical critic of string theory, finishing with:
This leads ‘t Hooft to another important point: diversity of viewpoints is to be cherished, not suppressed. This is something that Woit and Smolin have properly reminded us of, and string theorists should not be allowed to forget it.
So, all in all I’ve quite mixed feelings about this piece. Susskind’s attack on Smolin is highly reprehensible, and the way it ignores discussion of real issues, concentrating on dubious analogies and ad hominem argument, is disappointing. But, I have to admit that in his more than charitable discussion of one of his fiercest critics he shows a capability for gentlemanly behavior I wouldn’t have suspected (and wish he had shown Smolin), and, in the end he recognizes and admits that Smolin and I are making an important point that string theorists need to take note of.
Update: Several people have pointed out that the same issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement also includes a quite positive review of Not Even Wrong by Philip Anderson. On the whole it’s accurate, although I think Anderson neglects to mention that, lacking experimental results, I’m much more of a believer in the possibility of using mathematics to make progress in particle theory than he is. There are quotes from and discussion of the review at a new blog here.
Update: The THES in a later issue has a letter about Susskind’s article, which correctly points out that answering criticisms of string theory by claiming they come from a “mid-level theoretical physicist” or a member of the “Chicken Little Society”, didn’t address the fact that in the same issue these criticisms were coming from an extremely distinguished theorist and Nobel Laureate (Anderson). The letter writer’s reaction to Susskind’s article was:
Moreover, Susskind’s defence of string theory not only failed to address Anderson’s key criticism of string theorists – namely that their theorising is not grounded “on the acute observation of nature” – but rather reinforced this impression.