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.