Yesterday at the KITP in Santa Barbara, George Johnson gave a second talk and led a discussion on the subject of the “String Wars”. The rather remarkable first session was discussed here, here and here. This time people were much better behaved, and the main topic was the media coverage of physics in general, and the past history of the media interest in string theory, and what effects this might have had.
Johnson has put on his web-site copies of various articles from the NYTimes about string theory. The first mention of superstrings was in a piece by Walter Sullivan back in May 1985, just a few months after the “First Superstring Revolution” really got going. This piece included cautionary comments from C.N. Yang about the lack of even “a single experimental hint” and from Michael Green that “I’ve seen many bandwagons come and go.” Interestingly, already at this time the main suggested test of string theory was astrophysical or cosmological, with the Times referring to a recent Nature article about the possibility of seeing effects of the “shadow matter” that one gets from the other E8 in the E8 x E8 model popular back then (and still popular to this day).
Much of the KITP discussion concerned what effect news stories and popular books promoting string theory have had, with several people noting that they think they have been responsible for the large number of students they have seen wanting to do graduate work in string theory. Someone in the audience also pointed out that the continual use of the modifier “super” seems to get people’s attention, with students showing up wanting to study “supersymmetry” even though they didn’t know what it was, and it was much harder to get them interested in, say, “diffractive scattering.”
The latest Nature Physics has a fairly sensible editorial (Tied Up With String?) about the string theory controversy. Popular promotion of string theory continues today at Stanford, where the Wonderfest Festival of Science is featuring Raphael Bousso and Leonard Susskind discussing “Is the World Made of Strings?”