I’m well aware that there’s far too much these days on this blog about the controversy over string theory, but two things have appeared today in the press about this that aren’t accurate, and I can’t resist using this platform to issue corrections. Readers who have had enough of this are warned to move on to some other blog with fresher material.
The Observer (the Sunday version of the British newspaper the Guardian) has an article today by Robin McKie, entitled String theory: Is it science’s ultimate dead end? On the whole, the article is a well-written piece about the controversy over string theory. I talked to McKie on the phone, and he quotes me as saying something that is probably an abbreviated version of what I actually said.
‘Too many people have been overselling very speculative ideas,’ said Woit – author of Not Even Wrong – last week. ‘String theory has produced nothing.’
The first part of this quote is fine, but “String theory has produced nothing” is not what I think, and presumably was part of some longer statement. String theory has certainly produced some very interesting mathematics, as well as some promising ideas about strongly coupled gauge theories. It has produced nothing useful about unification and how to get beyond the standard model.
The McKie piece also has some strong quotes in defense of string theory from David Gross, Samjaye Ramgoolam and Michael Green:
‘String theory is on the right path,’ said David Gross, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and another Nobel prize winner. ‘But this path is quite long. Further breakthroughs are required.’
I’m kind of wondering why he claims that definitely string theory is on the right path. Perhaps he also had some caveats that got dropped.
‘said Sanjaye Ramgoolam, of Queen Mary, University of London. ‘There are a number of ways that we could prove – or disprove – string theory. For example, Europe’s new Large Hadron Collider may well be powerful enough to provide evidence that suggests we are on the right road.’
This kind of invocation of the LHC as being able to prove or disprove string theory always strikes me as less than honest.
According to Green:
“There is no alternative to string theory. It is the only show in town – and the universe.’
Again, perhaps some caveats have been dropped here.
The second piece with inaccuracies that appeared today is a review of my book and Lee Smolin’s in the LA Times by K.C. Cole. It’s entitled Strung Along and is basically a hit-job on me and Smolin. Some of the things in it are so dishonest and incompetent as to be pretty hilarious:
In fact, many statements about string theory in these books are plain wrong… To say, as Woit does, that fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored will come as news to the dozens of physicists who’ve been working on these problems for years.
At first I couldn’t figure out why she was attributing to me the insane statement that “fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored”, but after taking a look at all the references to neutrinos in the book, I finally figured it out. On page 93 of the US edition I write, after giving a description of the things the standard model leaves unexplained, including a parameter count that ignores neutrino masses:
One complication that has been ignored so far involves neutrinos.
and then go on to explain about the experimental evidence for neutrino masses. The “ignored so far” obviously means “ignored so far in this chapter”, not “fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored” by physicists. This recalls some of the hilarities in Lubos’s review of my book. It’s absolutely amazing that a supposedly serious journalist would do this kind of thing.
There are plenty more claims in the review that are pretty much the opposite of reality:
To mathematician Peter Woit and physicist Lee Smolin, however, the search for beauty is ruining physics.
Actually my view is quite the opposite: what’s ruining physics is pursuing very unbeautiful theories (Susskind is fond of calling them “Rube Goldberg machines”) for which there is no experimental evidence.
I’ve never met Cole and she knows nothing about me personally, but she seems intent on painting me and Lee as embittered failures:
Woit, and Smolin… write mostly about how string theory has ruined their careers.
I don’t think there’s anything in Smolin’s book about how string theory has ruined his career (and he’s had quite a successful one). As for me, there’s no such sentiment expressed in the book and my feelings about this are quite the opposite. If it weren’t for string theory, most likely my academic career would have led at best to a job at a not very good institution in a place I really wouldn’t be very happy living. Because of string theory I moved into mathematics early on, and have ended up with an academic position I’m extremely happy with, living in my favorite place in the world. String theory didn’t “ruin my career”, it made a very happy one possible.
As I said, I don’t know Cole, so I don’t know why she decided to write this kind of dishonest hit-job. Perhaps it has something to do with her professional association with string theorist Clifford Johnson at USC. I’ve long suspected that Clifford was the author of the referee report for Cambridge which compared doubting string theory to doubting the theory of evolution, and constructed evidence that I didn’t know what I was talking about by taking a sentence in my manuscript out of context and changing a word. One is often wrong about such guesses, probably I’ll never know…
Update: Amazing how quickly one finds out things one thinks one will never know. Over at Clifford Johnson’s blog, Capitalist Imperialist Pig asked him if he was the referee who tried to stop Cambridge University Press from publishing my book. His answer: “that’s all just silly and irrelevant”. OK, now I know…
The funny thing about this is that Clifford has been bitterly complaining about the fact that the book is being marketed and publicized to a wide audience, but it appears that he was the one who stopped it from being published a couple years ago in a form where it would have reached many fewer people. Priceless.
Update: Thanks to “Another Grad Student”, who in the comment section over at Clifford Johnson’s blog did a better job than I could of explaining to him why I was no longer bothering to respond to his endlessly condescending, sneering and dishonest comments. Anyone who thinks there is anything to the accusations Johnson and Distler are making about me over there is encouraged to read for themselves some of the many comment threads where I have tried to have serious discussions with them.
More substantively, it’s clearly a waste of one’s time to try and debate these issues with someone who is on record as claiming that criticizing string theory is like criticizing the theory of evolution.
Update: Clifford Johnson has denied being the CUP referee in question, or having anything to do with the Cole “review”, saying here that he has not even read the book. My apologies to him for incorrect suggestions made in this posting, and my misunderstanding of his later comments.