I noticed recently that George Johnson will be journalist in residence and giving a talk on Friday at the KITP in Santa Barbara about “The String Wars”. Somehow I don’t really think that it’s a good thing that this is now being perceived as a “war”. Johnson is the author of an excellent biography of Murray Gell-Mann and writes for the New York Times.
For controversy on the East coast, tonight the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute for Technology in Hoboken will be hosting a panel discussion and debate on The End of Science?, featuring John Horgan and Michio Kaku.
This week’s New Yorker has a couple letters to the editor responding to their recent article about the string theory controversy. One points out that particle theory and quantum gravity is not all there is to theoretical physics. The second is by Lisa Randall, and mainly concerned with claiming that there is now a healthy interaction going between string theory and phenomenology, with most particle physicists eagerly awaiting the LHC.
Update: Today’s New York Times has an Op-Ed piece entitled The Universe on a String by my Columbia colleague Brian Greene, in which he responds to recent criticism of string theory. As you might guess, Brian’s piece doesn’t really convince me to change my mind (as my book and Lee Smolin’s don’t seem to have convinced him).
Brian mentions the possibility of seeing supersymmetry or extra dimensions at the LHC, and possible effects of quantum gravity in the CMB, but acknowledges that these are not definitive predictions of string theory that can be used to falsify it. He also mentions the recent attempts to apply AdS/CFT to heavy ion physics, but these don’t address the use of string theory as an idea about unification.
He deals with the landscape only by making an argument I’ve heard him make before: that just having a unified theory of gravity and particle physics would be a big accomplishment, even it this theory didn’t explain any of the things about the standard model that one would like it to explain. Besides the fact that string theory still doesn’t provide a fully consistent unified theory (since it has no non-perturbative formulation), I’ve always found this point of view problematic. If string theory can’t make any definitive predictions about particle physics, it’s very unclear that one can ever test it, which is a huge problem.
Brian does, unlike some string theorists, acknowledge that it’s possible that string theory is wrong and will have to be abandoned, in particular if “future studies reveal an insuperable barrier to making contact with experimental data”. My argument is that if string theorists accept the existence of the Landscape, such an insuperable barrier appears. He describes string theory critics as calling for research on string theory to be dropped, which really isn’t accurate. Neither Smolin nor I have ever called for this, rather our argument is that research into alternatives to string theory needs to be encouraged.
Update: The George Johnson talk is now available here. It seems that many of the string theorists at the KITP are not very happy about my book and Smolin’s, although it’s unclear if any of them have read either of the books. Amanda Peet claimed that both books have many errors (invoking the NYT review by Tom Siegfried), while Johnson repeatedly told her that it would be a good idea for her to actually read one of the books. She also kept claiming that there is “a backstory” that explains why Smolin wrote his book, but she was dissuaded from elaborating on this when someone pointed out that the talk was on video and would be on the web.
The experience of watching the talk was pretty odd, since Johnson began by connecting to my blog and discussing the fact that I was discussing his upcoming talk. I watched a lot of the talk during commercials of an episode of Numb3rs, and during this episode “Larry” the physicist was working on calculations involving branes, and playing hooky from a string theory conference.
Update: Davide Castelvecchi has put up an interview with George Johnson on his web-site.
Update: It appears that there will be a second talk by George Johnson about this, String Wars 2. After the first one, I’m having trouble figuring out why anyone at KITP thought a second one would be a good idea.