Unstrung

This week’s New Yorker has an article about the controversy over string theory, written by Jim Holt, with the title Unstrung. On the web-site there’s also a link to Woody Allen’s 2003 humorous New Yorker piece on string theory, Strung Out.

The New Yorker article pretty much gets the story right, although the description of the Bogdanov affair isn’t completely accurate. The Bogdanov papers were about quantum gravity, but were not string theory papers (although they claimed to be motivated by string theory, and at least one referee described their results this way). Holt also describes members of the Harvard string theory group as unsure whether the papers were a fraud or sincere, which does correspond to an e-mail that circulated at the time. However he doesn’t mention that at least one member of the Harvard string theory group to this day not only believes the Bogdanov papers were written sincerely, but considers them to be serious scientific research (an opinion shared by very few others).

Holt accurately describes Smolin’s book as more accessible than mine, then chooses a very good example of an “indigestible” sentence from my book:

The Hilbert space of the Wess-Zumino-Witten model is a representation not only of the Kac-Moody group, but of the group of conformal transformations as well.

That is an example of some of the very advanced material I tried to include in a few places in the book. It’s the precise expression of the mathematical relationship of representation theory and QFT that has been worked out in recent decades in two dimensions, exactly the thing that I would argue we should be trying to understand in the physical case of four dimensions. To the extent that the book contains a positive argument about alternatives to string theory, my decision was not to over-hype it, but to try and explain a point of view about the history of the relation of mathematics and quantum field theory that implicitly leads to this way of thinking.

Also out today is an article by JR Minkel on the Scientific American web-site entitled That’s Debatable: Six Debates at the Frontier of Science. The first of the debates listed by Minkel is Is String Theory Unraveling?, and it’s largely about the landscape. It includes a couple quotes from me, as often the case a bit abbreviated to make them sound even more provocative than I intended…

Update: The usual sensible commentary on the New Yorker review from Lubos. Holt is a “cretin from the garbage bin of the journalistic colleges”, I’m the “black crackpot” (due to the color of the cover of my book, Smolin is the “blue crackpot”). Lubos reports on the reaction to the review from “one of the leading physicists of the current world” (presumably one of his colleagues):

What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they choose f***ing instead of writing about things that they don’t like and they don’t understand?

Update: The story has made it to Slashdot.

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72 Responses to Unstrung

  1. TheGraduate says:

    Thanks.

  2. Chris Oakley says:

    More press coverage of NEW and TTWP in today’s New York Sun.
    It pains me to see Professor Sir Martin Rees so unashamedly anthropic.

  3. Bee says:

    Hi Peter,

    well if Holt doesn’t read my blog, he should ;-)

    Maybe because I’m older than you I’m less of the opinion that the problem is inherently in the judgment of senior people. As far as pushing people into working on bad ideas about string theory (or other trendy subjects), I just don’t see that it’s mainly the older people doing this.

    True, I didn’t mean to blame age reasons. The problem is the judgement of established people who are in the power of selecting newly employed candidates. This however comes most often with an age gap. That doesn’t mean though that this necessarily has to be the case, and I know several quite notable exceptions myself.

    Then there is the issue of inertia. One person doing research might be willing and flexible enough to readjust his/hers projects over time. A group is less likely to do so. The larger the group the stronger the resistance to change. String theory is a prime example, but not the only one. It’s not even a problem of science in the first place, but you’ll find it in other fields as well. E.g. politics. How many of our current problems are caused by a generation of politicians who just keep doing what has been done, because that’s what always has been done, and refuse to realize that things have changed dramatically in the last decades?

    Best,

    B.

  4. JPL says:

    Gina:

    Let’s take the analogy between string theory and the “bootstrap pogram” a little further. Judging from your attitude towards string theory, it looks that you would have expected proponents of the “bootstrap program” to admit failure even *before* an alternative successful theory (QCD) came along. This seems unreasonable.

    Actually, unreasonable or not, that is more or less what took place. After the GWS model for Weak Interactions came along and Neutral Current experiments backed its perdictions, people began to believe that Strong Interactions were most likely also understood by a Yang-Mills theory (Sakurai had tried this in the early sixties before the Higgs mechanism came along); Deep Inelastic scattering experiments had essentially shown that quarks were massless point-sources at high energy which contradicted the whole “microphysical democracy” spirit of the bootstrap. By the late sixties early seventies the analytical S-matrix school had essentially lost steam even before assymptotic freedom was understood and QCD fully recognized.

    Today we may be going through a similar stage where String theorising is losing steam on its own even if no obvious alternatives have been “shelved”, as you put it! One thing does not imply the other, I am afraid.

  5. jeremy says:

    Peter,

    This is a review on NEW, sort of.

    http://www.nysun.com/article/40425

  6. Thomas Love says:

    Max Planck wrote:

    An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarised with the ideas from the beginning.
    (New York 1949).

    Unfortunately, his statement is true about untrue “innovations”. Many of the major opponents of string theory are dying and leaving string theorists in charge.

    The people who need to read NEW are the people who control the purse strings. Cut the financing and we will be able to hear the rest of the orchestra (good music requires more than strings).

  7. Gina says:

    WHY THE EMPHASIS ON TWO DIMENSIONAL MODELS?

    Peter wrote

    ” It is the precise expression of the mathematical relationship of representation theory and QFT that has been worked out in recent decades in two dimensions, exactly the thing that I would argue we should be trying to understand in the physical case of four dimensions.”

    Indeed one very nice point raised in Peter’s book is the fact that many of the successes of physics and mathematics related to string theory and earlier physics are coming from two dimensional model. I asked around among my friends:

    ” Why can’t you do anything as impressive for D>2, after all nobody, not even strings theorists claim that our universe has two dimensions? ”

    It seems that for D>2 scientists are simply stuck and things look very gloomy. “Arn’t there any ideas around,” I asked. Well, there are a few. One guy told me with a spark in his eyes about an idea to move directly from D=2 to D=4 and to base models on “homological” notions which will extend important “duality” properties for planar model. He talked about things like “Poincare duality” and “signature” and was quite excited but then admitted that these are all just ideas. (I guess this is the same old Poincare.) Another guy had much hope from representation theoretic extensions of notions from conformal analysis which are prominent for two dimensional models. But this is also in a very premature state. A third guy praised the “Heisenberg Lie group” as a place to “be in high dimensions and to feel in two dimensions”.

    There are ideas but overall there is some feeling that studying higher dimensional models is a waste of time. Some of these guys actually spent a lot of time and got nowhere.

    I tried to be tough on them and I asked if sticking to the cozy D=2 and looking for the coin under the lamp is all about the summer salary.

    “No, Gina” they said “this is not the reason”. They said they simply do not know what do. They need a tip of a string to hold to in order to start (Often it turns out they just hold their own shoe laces). In this case they have nothing, they said. The are quite savvy in failures they said. But doing D>2 leads to “not even a failure”. They did sound convincing but you never know with these wise guys.

    USEFUL DIVERGENT SERIES

    Peter wrote to my question: “Some divergent series are “asymptotic” approximations to some function, which means that, at a fixed order, the truncated series is a better and better approximation to the function as the expansion parameter gets small (even though, at fixed small parameter, as you go to higher order, the series sooner or later diverges). The perturbation series for QED is supposed to be such an asymptotic expansion. This kind of divergent series can be quite use ful, giving very good approximations.”

    Hmmm, this sounds very good indeed. A sort of “Calculus I” way I can think about such a thing of a function which is described at any point by a useful divergent series is that the terms of the series are themselves only approximation to a correct description of the function by a convergent series. (and these approximations are worse and worse for higher terms in the series.) Is this naive way to look at it reasonable? Is there a better intuition for what these useful divergent series are?

    UNIFORM OPINIONS

    Peter asks in the book if mathematician will regard superstring theory as mathematics and writes: “They [mathematicians] would uniformly say: ‘certainly not!”

    I do not know about mathematicians attitude about string theory but judging from my experience with mathematicians, I think that no set of mathematicians will have a uniform opinion about ANYTHING.

    Just to make the mathematicians reading this absolutely happy let me state this deep insight more carefully

    Every set of mathematicians will not have a uniform opinion about any issue except possibly for the following cases

    1) It is the empty set of mathematicians

    2) It is a set of a single mathematician over an infinitesimally small amount of time

  8. Thomas Love says:

    Gina Says:

    WHY THE EMPHASIS ON TWO DIMENSIONAL MODELS?

    As a PhD mathematician, I know the answer: because the math is easier there.

    Gina, you and quite a few others seem confused about the meaning of higher dimensions. Think of a dimension as an entry in an inventory form; how many numbers are required to describe the situation? (the standard reporter questions) Clearly, we need to know where and when (x,y,z,y), but we also need to know the field strengths, electric, magnetic, gravity. etc. Each of those require another entry in the form, i.e. a dimension. We also need to know the field strength due to the presence of electrons, protons, neutrinos, pions, etc (some of thse numbers may be redundant). The list becomes interesting only when we can weave it into one coherent whole, one geometry. Then Einstein’s vision of particles emerging from geometry would be realized. After Ed Witten spoke at the 1987 AMS meeting in Salt Lake City, I asked him if strings emerged from the geometry or had to be imposed. He said they were imposed. I knew then that string theory would lead no where.

  9. Gina says:

    ” Gina, you and quite a few others seem confused about the meaning of higher dimensions.”

    You bet! I am very confused!!!

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that people do try to study lattice models and other models for D>2 but somehow do not find there the miracles found for D=2 and they say it is very difficult.

  10. Peter, don’t let Motl bait you into name-calling. His name-calling makes him sound like someone who is upset because he has been exposed for what he is.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Roger,

    Thanks, the advice is good, but all I did was refer to him as “sensible”….

  12. Charles says:

    Dear Dr. Woit,

    However much you might disagree with string theory, how can you justify endorsing an article written by a man who thinks that finding a final theory of everything will by an irrelevance hardly noticed by science.

    You and Smolin give the outward appearance of caring very deeply about this subject, the solution to which could rightly be called the greatest scientific discovery of all time.

    I understand you might have given the interviews in good faith, but I do not understand why you don’t wish to distance yourself from this man’s views. Instead, you proudly link to his text.

    Is it the money from promoting the book? Or is your vendetta against the string community worth bringing down the whole of physics with it?

    When physics is reduced to a branch of sociology in the public’s eyes, things like this happen. You and Smolin bear some of the responsibility.

  13. Charles says:

    My “this” link does not appear to work. It is supposed to link to an announcement made last week from Reading University, UK that they are closing down their physics department due to lack of students interested in physics.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Charles,

    I actually had nothing at all to do with the New Yorker article, never talked to Jim Holt and didn’t “endorse” what he writes, other than to note that he mostly gets his facts right. The last line of his text that you object to so strongly is just making the obvious point that most of science is decoupled from the details of any unified TOE. Go talk to any biologist and ask them what the impact of a TOE would be on their research work.

    Your claim that the publication of my book and Lee Smolin’s this month are partially responsible for the closing of the Reading University physics department is just hysterical and absurd. Both Smolin and I care deeply about the field of fundamental physics and its health. We wrote our books not to make money (I’ll remind you that mine was originally intended to be published by a university press, and was not aimed at the general public, but string theory referees stopped that), but because we are concerned about what we see as a crisis in the field and how it is being pursued. We’re not the ones who created the crisis. You seem to think the answer to it is shooting the messengers.

  15. nigel cook says:

    By the way, my nearest university physics undergraduate-teaching department closed: see http://www2.essex.ac.uk/physics/ for the remains of the department and what it now does.

    For the CAUSE of the decline see http://www.tes.co.uk/2268414

    ‘… A-level physics entries fell 49.5 per cent between 1982 and 2005, from 55,728 to 28,119. Meanwhile, the proportion of 16-year-olds studying A-level physics fell from 6 per cent in 1990 to 3.8 per cent in 2004.’

    See also http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=A-level+physics+decline&meta= for much more info.

    This correlates with string theory’s rise to fame, not Peter Woit’s activities (Not Even Wrong was only set up new in March 2004).

    Stephen Hawking and other string supporters do raise public awareness of string theory to great heights in the UK, and physics books sell, but people don’t study physics. Maybe there is a fear of extra dimensions and wormholes … or maybe they just don’t believe it without some evidence.

  16. Who says:

    I’ve been looking for a way to gauge sales of NEW in the UK and found this:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/bestsellers/books/278434/ref=pd_ts_b_nav/026-8303087-5718006

    this is the UK amazon bestseller list in the “particle and high-energy physics” subcategory of “physics” in “nature and science”

    as of Monday 2 October 1:00 PM eastern, when I looked, Not Even Wrong was #1 on that UK bestseller list

    the UK edition of Smolin’s book is scheduled to come out February 2007—as of now UK amazon is not selling the Smolin book, it simply refers potential customers to overseas dealers, presumably because this saves market for the UK edition next year.

    interestingly at least at the moment with NEW #1 on the UK list, it is leading a number of other books with mass appeal such as Warped Passages (#5 on the list) and two of Brian Greene (Elegant, which is #13, and Fabric, which is #16)

    I have no idea how this translates into numbers of copies sold, but it represents a strong comparative showing—-the other titles being aimed at a broader less technically sophisticated audience.

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  18. Who says:

    to correct something I said yesterday,
    as of today UK amazon is selling Smolin’s book directly instead of referring the customer to overseas distributors
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Physics-String-Theory-Science/dp/0618551050/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b/026-8303087-5718006?ie=UTF8

    the price is 13-some pounds and the book is paired with Peter’s book in a package deal for 26 pounds.

    this is not how it was yesterday—then it looked like UK amazon was going to wait for the UK edition to come out in February. perhaps there was a cataloging error in the computer.

    so far there are not many reviews of Smolin’s book at its UK amazon page, only two that I saw

  19. Who says:

    after 3 days of selling the book, during which it shot up to #6 on the UK amazon physics bestseller list, and to the #2 place on the the narrower “general physics” list, UK amazon stopped taking orders.

    It is now no longer selling the book but instead gives a link to some distributors in the USA where it can be ordered—this is back to how it was before 2 October.

    it could be a “publisher turf” thing, or some hitch in logistics. for those three days UK amazon was trying to serve as a relay—“order it from us, we will get it from overseas and ship it to you” in an estimated 1 to 2 weeks. They did not have the book in stock. Probably got more orders than they could reasonably handle in that fashion.

    Release of the UK edition of Smolin’s book is planned for February 2007. I forget who the UK publisher is. The cover is not that nice electric blue color, so I reckon the US edition is way preferable and would recommend Brits order from overseas. :-)

  20. Who says:

    I occasionally check the UK amazon physics bestseller list and have been seeing Peter’s book at the top of it frequently during the past week or so, for instance today at 7 AM pacific, which I suppose is 2 PM greenwich

    1. Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Continuing Challenge to Unify the Laws of Physics
    by Peter Woit 1414

    2. Wiring Systems and Fault Finding: For Installation Electricians
    by Brian Scaddan 1824

    3. The Illustrated Brief History of Time
    by S.W. Hawking 1927

    4. Physics (Revise AS & A2 (Combined) S.) 1935

    5. God and the New Physics
    by P.C.W. Davies 2197

    6. The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (Penguin Press Science S.)
    by P.C.W. Davies 2205

    7. University Physics with Modern Physics with Mastering Physics (International Edition)
    by Francis W. Sears 2212

    8. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality (Penguin Press Science S.)
    by Brian Greene 2550

    9. The Art of Electronics
    by Paul Horowitz 2705

    the fourdigit numbers are store-wide sales rank, among all book sales.
    the physics list, initial segment shown here, is obviously quite broad and includes exam review, pop phys, god-and-wonder, electronics, audio, straight physics textbooks. Yesterday it had a Terry Pratchett. And of course it has Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking. One can ask how a serious scholarly work like Peter’s gets to the top of such a list.

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