This Week’s Hype

Fewer and fewer science writers these days are credulous enough to keep promoting string theory, but there still are some around willing to keep writing overhyped stories about how theorists have finally found a way to get some sort of prediction of something observable out of string theory. One of these is Tom Siegfried, who has a new article in Science magazine entitled A Cosmic-Scale Test for String Theory? which reports that “some string theorists now believe they’ve found a way to make superstrings observable.”

Siegfried reports for Science from PASCOS 2006, where he finds two results worth writing articles about. One of these is the recent preliminary neutrino oscillation results from MINOS, which certainly are worth reporting, but the second is the cosmic superstring hype that has been around for nearly three years now, and which I’ve commented on in various places, including here and here. The hype surrounding this topic first got seriously going with a press release from UCSB more than two years ago, in which Polchinski claimed that cosmic superstrings were “potentially visible over the next year or two” at LIGO. Now that this time period is up, the hype has to be modified, and Siegfried informs us that:

LIGO may not be sensitive enough to detect them, but a planned set of three space-based gravitational wave detectors known as LISA would be a good bet.

As is always the case with string theory, there aren’t any real predictions here. The hype is based on the fact that, among the nearly infinitely complicated string theory models people have studied, it is in principle possible to come up with ones in which superstrings created in the early universe would expand to a very large “cosmic” scale and thus be observable. They would show up in various astronomical observations, but no one has yet seen the slightest evidence of such a thing. One can claim that it is logically possible that such things exist, with exactly the right properties to have escaped observation so far, but to be visible to the LISA experiment if it really does manage to get funded and operate sometime in the next decade. While this is logically possible, saying that “it would be a good bet” is pretty absurd; I doubt that any physicist would be willing to put money on this unless given very high odds.

The hype surrounding cosmic superstrings tends to completely confuse the kind of cosmic strings that occur as defects in the Higgs field in some GUT models (which have been studied for about 30 years now) with the kind that are supposed to come from elementary strings. Siegfried’s article includes a graphic purporting to show a “network of enormous ‘superstrings'”. As far as I can tell, this is nonsense, since the same graphic occurs here, in an article from 2000, long before the “cosmic superstrings”, where it is described as showing “cosmic strings form[ed] from a random initial distribution of phases of a hypothetical field called a Higgs field.”

Oh, and the fact that I think this is a pretty sad example of bad science reporting by someone completely taken in by the string theory hype machine has nothing to do with the fact that its author recently wrote an extremely hostile, unfair and inaccurate review of my book…

Update: For an example of the kind of misinformation spread by stories like this, see this blog entry by another science journalist, over at Seed’s ScienceBlogs.

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27 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. D R Lunsford says:

    This byzantine logic should cast doubt on all cosmological speculation.

    -drl

  2. Timothy Clemans says:

    Every review for NEW on amazon.com is gone, gone and amazon.com also says thar it has not been released yet.

  3. woit says:

    Timothy,

    Looks like some sort of mix-up at Amazon, they never did get the publication date of the book right. I’ve asked the people at Basic Books to look into it.

  4. anthropologist says:

    I went to see Smolin at his book presentation in Princeton just this week. I think since the guy is taking on the string theory, his salesman skills ought to be better. His presentation definitely lacked the passion that would ignite the masses. Sometimes he was getting carried away and talked too much about specifics, I do not think most of the audience was up for that. Even worse, he started to make excuses on the subject why he discussed the sociological factors in the book at all in an unconvincing sort of way.

    I think that you guys (critics) must concentrate your efforts on making your message well defined, coherent, and easy to understand. Then just keep hammering it. OK, you are not gonna win the admiration of the string crowd, that is clear, but what about just giving great presentations? Sell your criticism, you’ve chosen to do this, so stick to it. That is why some reporters may not understand it, because you are not impressing them enough. Give them drama, they will chose to promote it for their own selfish reasons.

  5. Seth says:

    To anthropologist,

    I think it’s a real shame if it turns out that scientific truth has to be debated in sound bytes rather than reasoned arguments.

  6. Stefan says:

    Peter,

    While I fully support (and applaud) all your committed effort(s) to keep theoretical physics from spiraling into the void of (unverifiable) speculation and flights of imagination, I think inevitably the only realistically *result-driven* way to attract individuals to your cause is to provide a reasonable alternative (or alternatives) to the current paradigm [i.e. string theory]. If you are harping – irrespective of what you criticise against – about how all of string theory has been unable to predict any new physics without providing a meaningful alternative to the prevailing circumstance(s) your voice will not resonate as much as it would otherwise; yes, it’s true there are valid and substantive reasons for not believing in string theory “hype”, but show us an alternative: until then, you are only trying to tell people to do ‘nothing’ instead of ‘something’ – and perhaps that may not go down well with generally motivated young people in hep…

    [To further remark, it is to my knowledge (YPP Survey) that most people who join HEP research do so for intellectual satisfaction; therefore, to tell them to remain idle – instead of working on what is perceived as one of the best approaches currently available for unification – is probably not going to go down well… The only solution is to provide a viable alternative and demostrate verifiable results… ‘string theory’ may not do that as yet (or perhaps it may never be able to do so) but as Urs Schreiber writes in his review of NEW, it has many fascinating properties that *may* be of significant value in the future… none of us can really tell as yet…]

    Stefan

  7. Tom Siegfried fan says:

    Peter, how can you know for certain that strings haven’t already been discovered, and merely have been misunderstood?

    Atoms were long around before people knew for certain they existed.

    For example, maybe widely-observed ‘UFOs’ are actually the ends of cosmic strings, flying about in the Earth’s upper atmosphere?

    Extra-dimensions have evidence long broadcast on TV (see the Twilight Zone and other programmes). Maybe ghosts and psychic phenomena, widely reported, are the really solid evidence for string theory. Nobel Laureate Professor Josephson has long said so, and has a paper on arXiv: http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/0312012

  8. Geon says:

    Stefan, I agree 100% with you.

  9. Stefan says:

    To add, I am greatly encouraged by your research-topic. I have perused Amazon[.com] for relevant titles. I am quite interested in RT-QFT connections.

    Where should I start? Give us [non-experts] clear guidance…

    Post-Script:

    As per your suggestions I have included the various titles you recommended to my ‘To Purchase Now’ Wish List. If you want to include other titles please feel free to e-mail me.

    Regards,
    Stefan

  10. TTT says:

    Guys, this blog did an excellent job demoting string theory, so that whenever I hear the word ‘string” I wanna scream, it makes me wanna p**k. The problem with all this is that having reached this critical disgust mass I begin to p**k every time you push your bashing further. I think it is important to stop from time to time and direct your energy (blog’s pages, that is) to something really really different and interesting. We have already heard everything we need to know about how ****ed up the string theory is, so, please, for a change, just to keep your fans sane, do something different.

    It is just the nature of human psychology at work here. Now, I’m a little bit nurvous everytime I open your page: I’m simply afraid to find another dragging about the string theory, about someone reporting something from some string conference, etc etc, and it doesn’t matter anymore whether it turns out negative or positive.

    How about a month without the word “string”?? would that be too hard?

    sorry but you begin to seem like a cult of its own, and that’s not good. This is just a friendly remark:-)

    Something different! Pleeeease?:-)

  11. Peter Woit says:

    anthropologist and TTT,

    Let’s see, one of you wants me to simplify the message and keep hammering on it, the other one thinks I’ve gone too far and that I should stop mentioning string theory…. I’m tempted to conclude that maybe I’ve got it about right. The posts of the last couple weeks actually have had relatively little string bashing, although there has been a lot of string related stuff because I’m mentioning the reviews of the book (that topic should die down soon). It seems to me that the amount of string hype appearing in serious publications has definitely decreased, but as long as it’s still appearing in places like Science, I intend to keep commenting on it.

    Stefan and Geon,

    Yes, of course it would be much better if I had an alternative TOE that made testable predictions that I could explain to everyone here, thus giving them something obvious to work on. Unfortunately I don’t have that. If I did I probably wouldn’t be spending time writing this blog, but instead would be enjoying the high life of fame, fortune and groupies that attends Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicists. I really think people who want to work seriously on particle theory at this point should just get over trying to find someone to tell them what to do, string theorist or anti-string theorist, and just try and come up with their own ideas. If you don’t want to do this, but want to join a promising, healthy research program where you can make useful contributions to science by following someone else, you probably shouldn’t be trying to work in this particular field at this particular time.

  12. Stefan says:

    Peter,

    Thank you for your feedback, but you did not give me any titles for RT-QFT connections. Are there any (yet)?

  13. David Tong says:

    Peter,

    I think your criticism is severely misplaced.

    Firstly, you’re right that it’s important to draw a distinction between cosmic strings and cosmic superstrings. It’s a shame the author didn’t make more of an effort in this regard. It’s kind of a shame that you didn’t either because at times I can’t quite work out what you’re complaining about. In particular, the line

    >

    seems to apply to cosmic strings of all types. It also seems to miss the main point that cosmic strings have a strong and distinctive gravitational wave spectrum. LISA, should it fly, will give us a new window on the universe. At the very least, it will bring down the bounds on the possible existence of cosmic strings by many orders of magnitude. Spergel and other prominent cosmologists find this exciting. Maybe you disagree, but I think it’s right that this work is hyped in the popular press, especially given the current situation at NASA and the fact that LISA is one of the most important science projects in the pipeline.

    As for string theory, the excitement of cosmic superstrings comes partly because they are a generic prediction of large classes of string models. Not seeing cosmic strings will therefore rule out large classes of string models. (You should be happy about this although no doubt you will compain that it will not rule out all string models). But mostly the excitement comes because the properties of cosmic superstrings differ from the properties of gauge theory strings.

    Now one can certainly have a discussion about whether these differences are potentially observable (by LIGO, by LISA, depending on string tensions, etc). One can also discuss whether it’s possible to cook up gauge theories to mimic the behavior of cosmic superstrings. If you wanted to make any kind of constructive criticism of this work, there are plenty of opportunities to do so in the usual scientific fashion — by long calculations and hard work. Instead you prefer to simply bash out another skewed polemic from the sidelines, glossing over the key issues just as glibly as the science journalist you’re complaining about.

  14. TheGraduate says:

    I think probably nobody is more qualified to figure out what is good for the site than Peter. I say this because he has access to the number of visitors per day and we don’t. Don’t forget the lesson of the string theory debacle. We must be data driven!

    It can be hard to stand in front of a bunch of people and criticize others! And I have more respect for people that don’t come to this kind of thing easily.

  15. David Tong says:

    I’m not sure what happened with your comments section, but the line I quoted didn’t appear: it was

    “One can claim that it is logically possible that such things exist, with exactly the right properties to have escaped observation so far, but to be visible to the LISA experiment”

  16. Peter Woit says:

    David,

    Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough, but I thought that it should have been clear that what I was criticizing were the claims being made about fundamental superstrings, not the traditional kinds of cosmic strings that occur in gauge theories coupled to Higgs fields.

    I have no trouble with Spergel or anyone else promoting LISA or other experiments for their ability to set better lower bounds on cosmic strings, although I disagree with you about the desirability of scientists who want to keep their credibility hyping things to the public to get them to be willing to finance experiments. What I seriously have a problem with is what this writer was doing, based on the hype he was being fed by string theorists, which is to promote the idea that LISA is going to “test string theory”. You’re engaging in exactly the same kind of overhype here, with your claim that “not seeing cosmic strings will rule out large classes of string models”. By this argument, since one can find a string theory that predicts just about anything, any particle physics experiment that measures something new is doing this. The Tevatron has “ruled out large classes of string models” and the LHC will rule out more. This isn’t why these machines are important or should be financed.

    I think the superstring models being used here are convoluted, ugly, and there’s not the slightest evidence they have anything to do with reality. Obviously I thus don’t think I or anyone else should be wasting their time on them. People who think otherwise are welcome to do so, they should just stop dishonestly hyping this work to overly credulous reporters, as well as complaining when someone points out the dishonesty.

  17. Tony Smith says:

    Peter, you said that if you “… had an alternative TOE that made testable predictions that [you] could explain to everyone here … [you] probably wouldn’t be spending time writing this blog, but instead would be enjoying the high life of fame, fortune and groupies that attends Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicists. …”.

    Or,
    you might find that:
    1 – you are labelled a “crackpot” by Harvard, represented by a distinguished Harvard professor;
    2 – you are blacklisted from posting your “alternative TOE” on the arXiv; and
    3 – your offers to “explain” your “alternative TOE” at seminars etc are ignored by the physics establishment.

    Oh, wait … 1 has already happened to you even without an “alternative TOE”.

    Maybe your reference to “fame, fortune and groupies” is more telling than you consciously intended, as it is consistent with the real objective of the present-day theoretical high-energy physics community being, NOT a “TOE …[with]…testable predictions”,
    but in fact
    winning the game of pursuit of grants, funding, jobs, and bureaucratic empire.

    Tony Smith
    http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/

  18. Peter Woit says:

    TheGraduate,

    Actually I don’t think that the amount of traffic here is a good measure of whether what I’m trying to do is successful. I’m not trying to reach the widest possible audience. One goal is to expose string theory hype, thus reducing the amount of it.. Over the last couple years the amount of this has definitely gone down, for whatever reason, and I’m glad to see that. I also look forward to a near future in which there is so little of such hype in the serious scientific press that it’s not a problem that needs to be paid attention to.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    Stefan,

    The connection between representation theory and QFT has only really been developed in the 1+1 d case. Most relevant here are WZW models. An example of where this is explained is

    Fuchs, Affine Lie algebras and quantum groups

    There’s also a lot of relevant material in the books by Mickelsson, and Pressley and Segal that I’ve recommended. Another place with a lot of material about this kind of thing is the Goddard-Olive reprint volume on Kac-Moody and Virasoro algebras.

  20. hack says:

    Uh oh, you’ve been Slashdotted.

  21. SD says:

    Dr. Shellard was my advisor a long time ago, and I’m pretty sure that picture is just “regular” cosmic strings. 😉

    “The hype is based on the fact that, among the nearly infinitely complicated string theory models people have studied, it is in principle possible to come up with ones in which superstrings created in the early universe would expand to a very large “cosmic” scale and thus be observable. They would show up in various astronomical observations, but no one has yet seen the slightest evidence of such a thing.”

    Try not to get too upset by hype. I think workers in the field, but outside the string theory cathedral, know that it’s interesting to see a prediction made, but not to take it too seriously. Indeed, if the bet were too good the observation would be boring!

    It’s a bit unfair to yell at people for hype, and then engage in hyping the other side as well. That “no one has yet seen evidence” (the slightest evdience, even!) is really not a way to make a substantive remark.

  22. Thomas Love says:

    I was disappointed that neither Peter nor Lee referenced:

    Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics by Andrew Pickering

    The same sort of thing is going on now.

    “He who does not know the past is condemned to repeat it”
    —George Santayana

    And physicists are notorious for their ignorance of history, prefering to pass on historical myths to their students.

  23. woit says:

    SD,

    That no one has seen the slightest evidence for cosmic superstrings is not “hype”, but an accurate, substantive statement. If there were some very slight evidence for such things, one might think it was a good bet that more sensitive observations would produce conclusive evidence. But there isn’t.

  24. Yatima says:

    > “Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics by Andrew Pickering”

    Reference:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0226667995/ref=sib_dp_pt/002-4545818-0805654#reader-link

    1984…a venerable age. Good book? I remember once reading a review of a book with
    a similar title in which it was claimed that the book under review was
    ‘post-modernist’/’relativist’ in the sense that it denied the objective existence of
    quarks at all.

    The Economist’s latest edition cautiously moves the spotlight to LQG:

    http://www.economist.com/science/displayStory.cfm?story_id=7963608

  25. Arun says:

    NPR, Weekend Edition Saturday had a about two minute mention of string theory, Not Even Wrong (and Smolin’s book) – it was at about 8:30 on WNYC.

  26. TheGraduate says:

    Peter,

    I think that the public is an important part of ending the hype becasue the opinion of the public matters to:

    1. those who ultimately fund physics

    2. those who run universities

    3. those who print magazines and newspapers and air tv shows

    I think a lot of activities surrounding the hype are prestige seeking activities and therefore, a lower opinion of string theory in the public sphere will probably diminish the returns of such prestige seeking.

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