Reviews in The Economist, Slate and the Times

This week’s issue of The Economist has a review of my book and Lee Smolin’s, entitled All Strung Up. It’s quite positive about the point of view on string theory that Smolin and I share, and correctly identifies where we see things differently about the role of mathematics. Nothing in it that will be news to readers of this blog.

Yesterday I also saw two reviews that I don’t think much of. The first is Gregg Easterbrook’s piece at Slate, The Trouble With String Theory. It’s a very enthusiastic review of Smolin’s book, and when I started reading it my initial reaction was positive, although it did seem a bit over the top. As I read on, besides wondering “Hey, is he going to mention my book too?”, I started to remember who Easterbrook is, and how stupid some of his previous writings on physics were. By the end of it, I was very glad Easterbrook had left me out of it. One sometimes depressing aspect of being on this side of the string theory controversy is seeing who some of one’s allies are.

Easterbrook is best known as a sports writer writing about the NFL, but for some reason various prominent publications feature his writing on other topics. The biggest mystery of all is why places like Slate and the New Republic have him writing about science, a topic he seems to know nothing about, and be actively hostile to. For once, Lubos Motl’s paranoid rantings about “anti-science” people who dislike string theory do actually have someone they legitimately apply to. This latest Easterbrook effort isn’t even original, he’s plagiarizing himself, writing:

Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

which isn’t very different than what he was writing in the New Republic three years ago:

Ten unobservable dimensions, an infinite number of invisible parallel universes–hey, why not?

Yet if at Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or top schools, you proposed that there exists just one unobservable dimension–the plane of the spirit–and that it is real despite our inability to sense it directly, you’d be laughed out of the room.

The second new review that I don’t think much of is one that I got a copy of late last night (after a party held to celebrate the US publication of my book). It will appear this Sunday in the New York Times Book Review and is the first really hostile review of the book by a science writer that I’ve seen. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how positive the reviews of the book have been so far, since I initially expected much more of a mix of sympathetic and hostile ones. Most science journalists have seen years and years of string theory hype go by, with no progress towards any of the promises made for the theory ever actually being fulfilled, and this has left them with a more and more skeptical attitude towards the theory. The Times reviewer, Tom Siegfried, most recently wrote a book entitled Strange Matters: Undiscovered Ideas at the Frontiers of Space and Time, and somewhat earlier a book called The Bit and the Pendulum: From Quantum Computing to M-theory. Both books feature a breathless, gee-whiz, completely credulous take on the most speculative ideas around, thoroughly mixing science fiction and fact, with little interest in distinguishing the two. At the time I was writing my book, ones like Siegfried’s were models for me of the opposite of what I was trying to do, so I’m not surprised he didn’t much like what I wrote.

Unlike most authors who don’t have any viable way of responding to reviews they consider unfair and misleading, it’s all too easy for me to do so here, so a response to the review follows.

Siegfried complains that I use technical jargon, for example by discussing “perturbation expansions”. While there are certainly places in the book that have some technical material in them that most people would be best advised to skip over, this isn’t one of them. To understand anything at all about the current state of string theory, you need to have some idea about what a perturbation expansion is. This is carefully explained at one point in the book. It’s not clear to me what Siegfried’s point is. Does he not know what a perturbation expansion is? If so he shouldn’t be writing or reviewing books on this subject. Does he think that the audience for this kind of book is not capable of following such an explanation? If so, he has a profound lack of respect for the people who read these books. As far as I can tell, they cover a very wide range of backgrounds, but most of them have had a good high school or college education, and many have taken a calculus class where they have been exposed to power series expansions, and I explicitly refer to this in my explanation.

One can write a book like this by refusing to try and explain anything that can’t be explained to someone with only a grade school education, but that’s not what I was doing. I don’t think you can honestly communicate much about the current state of particle theory and string theory if you follow this tactic. My decision was to first see which topics I wanted to try and write about, then do my best to give an honest explanation in the simplest and clearest terms that I could manage. Some topics end up being pretty accessible to everyone, others do require significant background to understand and appreciate. I think most readers of the book will learn some things from it, while not understanding everything. But they won’t go away from the book being fooled into thinking they understand something that they don’t.

Siegfried’s review is unremittingly hostile, with virtually everything he has to say about what is in the book a misleading and less than accurate characterization. According to him I allege that people only do string theory because Witten has “mesmerized” them, mainly use quotes that reflect what people thought 20 years ago, engage in irrelevancies about masturbation, etc. This last has to do with a quote from Gell-Mann (He used to say, “physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation”, changed his mind after 1984) that I discuss because it reflects well the attitudes of particle theorists towards mathematics, and the relation between the two subjects is one of the central concerns of the book. This discussion may be tasteless, but it is not at all irrelevant to what I was writing about.

Siegfried claims that my central accusation is that string theory makes no predictions and that I am flat-out wrong about this. He writes:

…string theory does make predictions — the existence of new supersymmetry particles, for instance, and extra dimensions of space beyond the familiar three of ordinary experience. These predictions are testable: evidence for both could be produced at the Large Hadron Collider, which is scheduled to begin operating next year near Geneva. These predictions are not of the specific quantitative kind that would definitively prove string theory true or false, but their confirmation would certainly be taken as impressive support.

The fact of the matter is that string theory makes none of the “predictions” Siegfried has been led to believe by the hype about string theory that he seems to have swallowed whole. It predicts nothing about what extra dimensions might be visible at the LHC, not even their number. Similarly, it does not predict that superpartners will be visible at the LHC or what their properties will be. His use of the term “supersymmetry particles” indicates how little familiarity he has with the subject, while still feeling quite comfortable accusing me of getting this all wrong.

Siegfried is rather more kind to Smolin’s book, but also manages to mischaracterize it, insisting that Smolin is not content with favorable evidence for string theory, but is demanding some much higher standard of definitive proof. He ends by comparing both of us unfavorably to Schwarz and other 1970s string theorists, noting that they didn’t complain about the dominant research program in particle theory during their day. The problem with this argument is that the dominant research program was gauge theory and the standard model which, very much unlike string theory, had a huge and increasing amount of experimental evidence backing it up. If it hadn’t had this, I strongly suspect that Schwarz and many others would have also been complaining, loudly.

Update: There’s a short, but very well-done, review of the book in today’s Guardian. Also a mention in the Toronto Star, where science journalist Jay Ingram describes how:

A few years ago, the occasional physicist would confide in me that string theory — the idea that matter is composed of super-tiny vibrating strings — would one day be seen to be wrong, a big mistake.

Update: The review in the Times is here.

Update: The Boston Globe has a quite positive review of my book and Smolin’s here.

Update:  More coverage of this in USA Today.  This piece includes a quote from John Schwarz that experiments will verify string theory in the future, and implies this will happen at the LHC. Lubos has his trademark insightful commentary.

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81 Responses to Reviews in The Economist, Slate and the Times

  1. Gina says:

    “Who knows, the hero ‘that comes up with the Next Good Thing’ may only become hero after being inspired by NEW.”

    A better bet yet is that she will be a string-theorist.

  2. Gina says:

    And here is my own last-week review.

    “NOT EVEN WRONG”, by Peter Woit; A review

    (Replies and comments are very much welcomed, also you ReNorm)

    Peter Woit is wrong claiming that “string theory” is “not even wrong”. It is questionable if the distinction between “right”, “wrong” and “not even wrong” coined by Wolfgang Pauli should be taken as a serious way to classify scientific theories (and even if this is the correct translation to English of Pauli’s terms). It is a nice gimmick, though, and a great name for the book. In any case, the insights and truths offered by string theory, one of the most daring intellectual endeavors of our time, may well be wrong. They may also prevail as an important and unique part of physics. We cannot tell which way string theory will go.

    “Landscape”, the possibility of a huge number of theories that we may never be able to choose between, may be an artifact of string theory itself, or just of string theory in its present form. But it can also be an “impossibility result” which reveal a genuine problem with our ability to describe physical reality at some scales, if we like it or not.

    Whether string theory will prevail or not, it seems hard to argue that string theory contributed important insights and technical infrastructure to mathematics and to physics.

    It is important (also for string theorists; at least on weekends) to be aware, that even if “string theory” is a “theory of everything”, string theory is not “everything”. In mathematics we see many examples of such a distinction. Mathematical logic is a “mathematical theory of everything” that was developed in order to understand the foundations of mathematics. But while mathematical logic formally includes all other mathematics, in reality it is a beautiful field which is one out of many fields of mathematics and, as a matter of fact, a rather separate field. It took many decades before important links between mathematical logic and other mathematical disciplines were found.

    There is no a priori advantage or importance to the theory which study the most fundamental and general rules. (In my own mind, relevance is of key importance which is why from all sciences my own heart goes to Chemistry.) But there is no a priori disadvantage either.

    Peter Woit is a scholar. Modern science and academic life do not give sufficient incentives for true scholarship and large parts of the book exhibit both genuine scholarship as well as Woit’s gifted ability to present and discuss in non-technical terms complicated mathematics and physics.
    Another advantage of the book is that Woit does not offer alternatives of his own to string theory. Woit does present a few nice ideas and observations that deserve to be pursued,

    When it comes to string theory, Woit has concerns (some shared by string theorists), complaints (a few justified), suspicions, and unrealistic expectations (like everybody else); but Woit does not have a case.

    Recommendation: For a layman wanting to read about string theory I would recommend Brian Greene’s “The Elegant Universe” over Woit’s new book. An intelligent reader should use plenty grains of salt to any new scientific theory and any popular book describing it. Woit’s “case against string theory” may be of some interest to string theorists and other theoretical physicists. I suspect that this is the audience Woit really wants to address.

    As I explained elswhere, some of the choices Woit has made as for what to include as well as some of his rhetoric are disappointing.

    I am also not happy with Woit’s analysis of sociology, politics and funding of science. For a scientist, trying to explore something completely new (e.g., a replacement for string theory,) is a very very risky business. Woit aims at a
    system which allows scientists to take riskless risks. As there is no such thing as a riskless risk, Woit’s ideas on this front may deserve the title “not even wrong”.

    Gina

    (And thank you Ebgert for the analogy with mathematical logic.)

  3. Gina says:

    Gina–do you have a background or degree in physics?

  4. TheGraduate says:

    Gina,

    One thing I’ve disliked about many of the reviews so far, including yours, is that they spend a lot of time arguing the string theory case for the string theorists instead of reviewing the actual book.

    I just don’t understand how it makes sense to review a book with a polemic about why it makes sense to continue doing some theory that the book is critiquing.

    I would have thought the more sensible thing to do (in a review) is to analyze the author’s main points and outline:

    1. The facts that the author states which are incorrect

    2. The deductions the author makes with correct facts but incorrect logic

    3. Correct deductions made by the author with correct facts which are nevertheless constitute an incomplete analysis

    By doing this, one gets at the quality of the author’s arguments.

    In that sense, my feedback to your review would be to be more specific and support your points … but that is my liberal arts education coming out …

    As your opinion, I guess it’s fine. There is only so much one can put into a random post on a blog. But as written, your point of view seems unsubstantiated.

  5. TheGraduate says:

    Gina,

    I normally wouldn’t have commented on your review but you did ask for commentary.

  6. woit says:

    Gina,

    Please stop submitting repetitive and non-substantive comments here, as well as ones that show little understanding of the issues involved. I’m happy to debate people with a serious background in string theory who want to discuss the arguments in my book, but you’re just wasting my time.

  7. Thomas Larsson says:

    will continue its dominance as SUSY-GUT can be embedded in the string framework. Lubos and Jaques believe this will be an outcome, Lubos is willing to bet money,

    Of course, this also means that somebody else is willing to bet money against them – in Distler’s case, somebody with inside information from the Tevatron. Also note that Motl’s original bet involved the date 2006. Depending on the exact conditions and his success in renegotiating them, he may already have lost his bet in less than four months.

  8. Dan says:

    Dear Mr. Larsson, I’ve not heard of someone with inside information from TEV betting against Distler on SUSY. Could you elaborate?

    Peter, when you say that string theory cannot be falsified, stringy unification theories are built on top of SUSY-GUT, which predict proton decay half-times. If the current null result from Kakimone continues, then at some point in the future SUSY-GUT’s can be ruled out by experiment as SU(5) have been, hence string theory unifcation scenarios built on SUSY-GUT’s would be experimentally falsified. (stringy unification scenarios is the one reason to take string theory seriously).

  9. Thomas Larsson says:

    Here.

    Of course, nobody knows the outcome of future experiments for sure, but I would take Dorigo in 2006 a lot more seriously than Motl in 2001. Not only because he is in the loop, but also because he formulated his bet after five more years of experiments yielding null results for susy (Tevatron, SuperK, PEDM, muon g-2, …).

  10. Renormalized says:

    “I am also not happy with Woit’s analysis of sociology, politics and funding of science. For a scientist, trying to explore something completely new (e.g., a replacement for string theory,) is a very very risky business. Woit aims at a
    system which allows scientists to take riskless risks. As there is no such thing as a riskless risk, Woit’s ideas on this front may deserve the title “not even wrong”. ”

    This shows a total lack of understanding or insight into what Peter has said from the beginning. He is not asking for a riskless risk (I feel dumb even copying riskless risk), He is asking for strings to be tied to reality in even the smallest way.

  11. Thomas Larsson says:

    If the current null result from Kakimone continues, then at some point in the future SUSY-GUT’s can be ruled out by experiment as SU(5) have been, hence string theory unifcation scenarios built on SUSY-GUT’s would be experimentally falsified.

    Can you be more specific about when this is supposed to happen?

    In hep-ph/0005095 Pati wrote on p 4:

    “strongly suggests that discovery of proton decay should be around the corner. In fact, one expects that at least candidate events should be observed in the near future already at SuperK.”

    This was written in May 2000. Is September 2006 still in the near future from that?

  12. Steve Myers says:

    Peter,
    I read the review in the NYTimes. Yes, sounds like the guy has an agenda & knows little math-physics. But a point I made months asgo : reading reviews, for an author, is not worth the time. Best criticism comes from editors & trusted friends in the field.
    Another general point: if someone’s grounds for doing or believing something is not based on reason, you can’t reason them out of it.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    Dan,

    My impression is that you can get a fairly wide range of predictions of the proton lifetime out of different supersymmetric GUT models, so unfortunately experiments won’t be able to rule out the whole class of such models anytime soon.

    LDM and Steve,

    I’m not very interested in criticism from Siegfried, his own books are models of what I think is wrong with popular books on physics, and he seems to understand very little about this subject. His arguments in his review don’t make much sense, they seem to be purely motivated by distaste for the fact that anyone would criticize the subject he has been spending his time promoting. I don’t think he would see himself as being irresponsible, he clearly hates what I was doing with my book, and wants to discourage anyone from buying it.

    In practice, his review completely trashes my book, but is much kinder to Smolin’s. The net effect I think is that it encourages people with any interest in the subject to buy Smolin’s book (which is doing extremely well since the review). As far as getting the news out to the general public about what the situation with string theory is, fine with me if Smolin ends up being much more successful at doing that than me.

  14. Alejandro Rivero says:

    I’d not say that Dorigo his bet is based on “inside information”; in fact his blog is one of the best efforts to pass experimental information towards a wider public community (I hope you will mostly agree; I think I am not biased by his quoting of my preprints).

    What surprise me of his bet is that it is not restricted to SUSY but also to any non minimal Higgs. Still, I think that the terms of discovery put on his side of the bet the composite Higgs and 4+0 dimensional model if not new particles are needed.

  15. D R Lunsford says:

    Alejandro – I would accept a single bet of up to $1000 bucks that the Higgs will not be seen at all as such, rather something strange and interesting with neutrino physics (e.g. very massive majoran) that will require a retooling of the SM.

    -drl

  16. A says:

    if somebody is interested in proton decay in supersymmetric models: it is caused by a) triplet Higgsinos and b) vectors. a) is uncertain and typically too fast, but it is easily avoided in more complicated models. b) is more precisely predicted and small, beyond the reach of Super-Kamiokande; it can be reduced only with dirty tricks.
    Hopefully, the next two rounds of proton decay experiments will test b) closing the issue before 2030.

  17. Quantoken Impersonator says:

    One criticism I have with not even wrong, which is excellent in enthusiasm and for inspiring the reader to learn more about the study of the real mathematical physics subject of quantum field theory, is this:

    Woit offers no analysis of the possibility of external refutation of string theory by another theory being successful.

    To understand this, consider other failed theories like phlogiston, caloric, epicycles, mechanical gear cog ether.

    In each case (let’s call these ‘religious theories’ for simplicity), the theory was incapable of falsification within itself because it made no checkable predictions per se, just as is the case for string.

    But in each case the theory was eventually INDIRECTLY FALSIFIED by alternative theories being extended to do more stuff than the religious theory.

    Woit rightly takes a conservative line and doesn’t make grandiose claims that alternatives are likely to overthrow string anytime soon in the way that alternatives overthrew the ‘religious theories’ mentioned above.

    Woit should however acknowledge some probability (however low it seems subjectively) that the end of string will come by some paradigm shift away from M-theory and towards phenomenological modelling, rather than through the failure of the large hadron collider and experiments.

    Because string speculations swamp arXiv and provide so many contradictory “predictions” about the number of “branes” and the mechanism for the strength of gravity, not to mention the landscape of vacuum energy solutions, I’m confident that string theorists are perfectly capable of reading ANY experimental data from LHC as “evidence” for some version of string theory.

    Since the “predictions” are so vague, almost any data from LHC could be read as a suggestive hint that superpartners could exist. People WANT to see confirmation + Woit and Smolin put pressure on the mainstream => the mainstream cooks up some false evidence. Easy! Critics sorted.

    Woit will find it harder to say that the Emperor’s clothes are threadbare convincingly (which will be the case when string celebrates evidence from LHC), than to say the Emperor is naked (the case today in 2006). You’re cornering a wild beast in string theory; it will put up a frenzied fight rather than surrender.

    Woit will be deemed by the media to have a vested evidence in making negative noise and being dismissive towards string, so you’ll be ignored, and I fear that fiddled LHC or other “evidence” for big branes in string theory will sink all atlernatives forever. Even epicycles and phlogiston had some alleged evidence. Can’t Woit survey some alternatives and write an arXiv paper objectively categorising alternatives to string according to how many facts they encompass, and how few speculations they require? (At present Motl is the only one who repeatedly claims to do this, but his scheme has only one category for alternatives: crackpot.)

  18. TheGraduate says:

    Finally got my copy of NEW and T w/ P at the local bookstore this morning.

  19. Yatima says:

    Quantoken Impersonator wrote:

    > In each case (let’s call these ‘religious theories’ for simplicity), the theory
    > was incapable of falsification within itself because it made no checkable
    > predictions per se, just as is the case for string.

    Well, according to Thomas Kuhn (in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’) that would be the normal state of affairs. You don’t need ‘checkable predictions’ as everything is ‘explained’ by your current approach.

    The prevailing theory (e.g. “phlogiston”) would explain any observations made and proponents would push observed anomalies to the boundary, either ignoring/cataloging them or explaining them away (“this could easily be explained by high concentrations of tightly bound phlogiston…needs more study”)

    After anomalies accumulate and remain unexplained, a new ‘paradigm’ is proposed (generally by someone with no vested interest in the prevailing paradigm). That new paradigm then has to win over the existing one. Kuhn writes: “In the sciences, the testing situation never consists simply in the comparison of a single paradigm with nature. Instead, testing occurs as part of the competition between two rival paradigms for the allegiance of the scientific community”.

    Kuhn refutes the existence of a Popperian falsification procedure, any prevalent paradigm having to be flexible enough to (within bounds) accomodate anomalies. Not unreasonable: If there is no competing paradigm, people will just shrug in response to an anomaly and say “we know it doesn’t always work”

    Now, String Theory does not seem to fight, it just assimilates. It looks like an exploration of a mathematical space with the hope that something in that space will be found that, with some specialization/parametrization is able to generate all existing observations – and then some. Unfortunately one does not know whether there is such thing at all and whether it is anywhere in the ‘vicinity’ of the target, M-theory (‘vicinity’ could actually be defined more rigorously here) Most probably though there are many many such things out there, so you want to find the one that is least generalized… I will stop now. Sorry sorry Peter.

    P.S. Kuhn used ‘paradigm’ first, before marketeers misappropriated it, to describe achievements “sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of scientific activity (and) sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practiioners to resolve”.

  20. TheGraduate says:

    What does Kuhn say about the role of needing to get tenure in the propagation of faddish scientific theories?

    I’ve heard a lot about the physics job market being very, very tight and how only the more ‘elite’ physicists get academic jobs these days … I’ve also heard just being able to say you work on string theory carries with it a presumption of being an elite physicist …

    I suppose I’m a bit surprised that there isn’t more discussion of that aspect of things ie the very real possibility of putting a lot of these chaps out of work.

  21. King Ray says:

    I think that as Kuhn describes in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that we are in a period between paradigms where physicists are wandering in the wilderness, doing things such as string theory. It will take a revolutionary new idea to create a new paradigm. Kuhn stated that physics and science do not advance monotonically, but in leaps and bounds when new paradigms emerge. In between paradigms, there is stagnation, like now. It’s been 25 years since I read Kuhn’s book, but certain points he made have really stuck with me.

  22. Chris Oakley says:

    It will take a revolutionary new idea to create a new paradigm.

    I am sick of hearing that a new “revolution” is required in physics. The two most important “revolutions” in physics in the last century were special relativity and quantum mechanics, and I have not even seen the results of these applied honestly and consistently.

  23. Thomas Larsson says:

    Alejandro, I admit that “inside information” was for rhetorical effect. However, Dorigo’s post did confirm my suspicion that past experiments are tightly constraining all kinds of post-SM physics at the LHC. I agree that his site is a wonderful place to learn about experimental HEP.

    Anyway, my point was that Distler’s and Motl’s bets are not strong evidence for SUSY, since insightful people are betting against them.

  24. Gina says:

    In my review there is a typo which makes one sentence ambigious , when I wrote

    “Whether string theory will prevail or not, it seems hard to argue that string theory contributed important insights and technical infrastructure to mathematics and to physics.”

    I simply meant, of course

    “Whether string theory will prevail or not, it is a fact that string theory contributed important insights and technical infrastructure to mathematics and to physics.”

    (To your question, Gina, I do have an academic background but not a degree in physics.)

  25. dan says:

    “Thomas Larsson Says:
    Anyway, my point was that Distler’s and Motl’s bets are not strong evidence for SUSY, since insightful people are betting against them.”

    That’s a good point.

    I actually think that string theory does make “soft predictions” that can be “falsified”, by soft I mean qualitative falsification not quantitative predictions. String theory, since it requires SUSY, and a SUSY theory consistent with known observation. Peter has objected to Distler and Motl’s claim strings “predicts” or “outputs” MSSM (I mistakenly said SM originally) but perhaps the word “embed MSSM in the string theoretical framework” would be more accurate?

    Mr. Larsson, to answer your question,
    I am under the understanding that SUSY-GUT that would be consistent with current observation would be either MSSM- SUSY-GUT SU(5) or SO(10), it’s my understand current observed proton half-life of 10^35 rules out 95% confidence MSSM-SUSY-GUT SU(5)

    “arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0302272 – It is widely believed that minimal supersymmetric SU(5) GUTs have been excluded by the SuperKamiokande bound for the proton decay rate.”

    “arxiv.org/abs/hep-ph/0108104 “We make explicit the statement that Minimal Supersymmetric SU(5) has been excluded by the Super-Kamiokande search for the process $p \to K^{+} …

    That leaves us with MSSM- SUSY-GUT SO(10), which I think can be said to be embedded in the framework of heterotic E8 type string theory (If Peter objects to the word prediction or output). MSSM- SUSY-GUT SO(10) would be the most minimal SUSY-GUT known consistent with current observations of the SM. It also predicts proton decay although I am unsure what half-life it predicts, and predicts masses for superpartners that is within reach of LHC energies.

    This paper
    http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-ph/pdf/0004/0004266.pdf
    states it is highly model dependent.

    In summary: If no proton decay is ever observed + no SUSY seen at LHC energies (or future colliders) + Loretnz violation observed at GLAST + absence other string-inspired observations such as cosmic strings = falsification of SUSY GUT SO(10) = other MSSM models are unlikely to agree with experience == unlikely string theory is correct as a result of experimental and observational evidence.

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Dan,
    As far as I know, the SO(10) SUSY gut doesn’t predict masses of superpartners within reach of the LHC, it doesn’t predict them at all. With current Tevatron bounds, some degree of fine-tuning is needed to make supersymmetry work, so one can worry that one has already lost the supersymmetry explanation of the hierarchy problem. If superpartners have such high mass that you can’t see them at the LHC, you need a lot more fine-tuning. But then again, if you believe many string theorists these days, the hierarchy problem is resolved anthropically anyway.

  27. dan says:

    Dear Peter,

    I probably will need to do some research, and possibly ask the usual suspects who are familiar with the relevant literature in arxiv

    I thought the reason Lubos & Distler are *publically* willing to bet money is that they have reviewed the relevant literature in arxiv and unpublished, on SUSY and SO(10) SUSY GUT and believe that SO(10) SUSY GUT predicts superpartners (i.e neutralino) accessible at LHC ranges (with SO(10) SUSY GUT representing low-energy phenomenology of string theory consistent with known facts) otherwise, they stand to lose money. I suppose the bet could be extended for proton decay.

    The article: “http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/hep-ph/pdf/0004/0004266.pdf” does mention fine-tuning SUSY to match observation.

    It seems to me that most string theorists feel since LHC’s results are still several years into the future (Distler commenting it takes time for LHC to run at spec.) I think for string theorists, it’s business as usual.

  28. Christine says:

    Gina wrote:

    [The Landscape] can also be an “impossibility result” which reveal a genuine problem with our ability to describe physical reality at some scales, if we like it or not.

    For what is worth, maybe an “impossibility result” for string theory, like it or not.

    BTW yesterday I received Smolin’s book from the assistant director of publicity and just from reading the first pages it made my day. Smolin is the voice of lucidness in a sea of… of… hep-th nightmare (yes, except for very few exceptions, doesn’t it look more and more like some kind of physics nightmare?? Why not rename hep-th to str-math, “string mathematics”?). If string theory proves to be correct, I’ll also be one of the first to applause the effort. (I am not particularly against string theory — or “against theories” anyway.). But while the situation is so far from success, other coherent, promissing alternatives must be encouraged. Otherwise, this is not how science must proceed. Even my 7 year old son can understand this.

    It’s difficult to add something to what has already been so cleverly said elsewhere, except to acknowledge, based on individual experiences, that the sociological effect is real and damaging and somehow must be reduced as much as possible from the scientific activity.

    I look forward to Woit’s book with great interest as well, and see how both books complement each other. It’s a very special moment in the history of science, and all I can hope is that I’ll be able to write a responsible review on these historical books.

    Christine

  29. Gina says:

    Let me make a few more remarks on the discussion above.

    One frustrating thing about this science business is having to keep double checking not only those matters of disagreement, but also matters of complete agreement. There was a single item in the discussion I certainly agreed with Peter about, the need of an honest and self-critical approach, and even this item, on closer examination, is not that simple.

    We do not pay scientists to be just honest we pay them also to be gullible. They have to be gullible mainly regarding their own abilities and also regarding their beliefs on the foundation of the current theory they are working in, the prospects for its success, the relevance of the methods, and the overall importance.They have to be a little blind to the frustrating nature of their profession and to the overwhelming probability of a sense of missing out on their lives down the road.

    To me, Peter, the signal concerning the state of string theory coming from Gross’ “never never give up” statement is not that much different from what you are saying. (I could imagine how I would feel if my personal physician, Dr Gross had told me: “The outcomes of your tests have now arrived, and I will never never never never give up on you, Gina.”) I think Gross’ massage to the young scientists is the more correct one. What I’d tell to them young (and old) brilliant guys and gals is: “Do not give up and always keep your mind open, (and get a life, and put things in proportion, and remember, it is a struggle all right, but it is not really, really, really a war.)”

    So if you feel we are in a bottleneck here, wish to cut some corners, and do not have the patience to wait for the emergence of the next paradigm as beautifully explained by Yetimar (or persistence of this one), maybe it will be a good idea to follow Quant Imp’s suggesting having an arXive-quality document summarizing the alternatives. And maybe my suggestion from a few weeks ago to have a scientific short document with the main point for the “case against string theory” which will elaborate on the main problems and can get a little technical but without the maharishi, and the brothers, and summer salaries and the job market, can also be a useful idea.

    “but in the generic case, a real possibility is that X-theory will achieve one or more of its major goals, making it a solid and permanent part of science, opening up new areas to work on that build on this success”

    One has to be very very gullible (much beyond what is needed for a scientist) to believe that this is the case for a generic scientific theory.

    “Gina, … but you’re just wasting my time”.

    Well, as they say, “A scientist who is not waisting his time is waisting his time”. Anyway, I will try to improve the quality of my remarks (and reduce their frequency), and I hope they will eventually become interesting to you. But please do not delete me from these infinite cyber valleys.

  30. Yatima says:

    Gina, this pertains to your interests, I think.

    Just now I’m burrowing through Lee Smolin’s book (in the middle of the night…hmm double special relativity? tasty!) but I will stop for now and quote from a novel by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky (not to be confused with the Bogdanoffs) called ‘Far Rainbow’ which on the face of it is about an physical experiment going horribly wrong as the underlying governing laws are unknown (a classic, recently explored by Greg Egan) but it actually seems to echo the Great Patriotic War. Anyway, towards the end, Camille, the greatest physicist of Rainbow, is heard to say (he has worked too hard not to mention died a few times):

    “The Great Logician. Logical methods demand absolute concentration. To do anything in science, day and night you have to think about one and the same thing, read about one and the same thing, talk about one and the same thing.. And where can you go from your psychic prism? Away from the inborn capacity to love… You’ve got to love, read about love, you’ve got to have green hills, music, pictures, dissatisfaction, fear, envy… You try to limit yourself – and you lose an emormous part of your happiness. And you know very well you’re losing it. So then to blot out that consciousness and put an end to the torture of ambivalence, you castrate yourself. You tear away from yourself the whole emotional half of your humanity and you leave yourself with only one reaction to the world around you – doubt. Then loneliness lies in wait for you.”

    Hopefully most physicists are not so bitter. But stil, one gets what he means.

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