There’s a new magazine aimed at Harvard alums, named 02138 (after the local zip-code), and its second issue has just appeared. Personally I’ve never quite understood the phenomenon of people who retain a lifelong fascination with the fact that they attended Harvard, but it seems that there are a lot of them, and the magazine is partly aimed at them or at anyone with an interest in the place or its alumni. The university already has an alumni magazine that it sponsors, but 02138 appears to intend to provide something edgier and not so much along the lines of promotional material.
This latest issue contains an article about the string controversy, written by John Sedgwick and with a focus on the Harvard angle, including me, fellow Harvard grad Brian Greene, and current Harvard faculty member Lubos Motl. The piece is called Unstrung Heroes, and for the full thing I guess you’ll have to subscribe to the magazine. I fear that Sedgwick has done an excellent job of accurately putting together the most outrageous statements that he could find on this topic, including some things I told him when he came down to New York a couple months ago. He also got some interesting quotes from quite a few physicists about the current state of string theory. These included Glashow, who “said he considers a big book like Woit’s long overdue, because string theory has gone exactly as we imagined. If anything, he adds, it’s even worse than it was.” Weinberg is quoted as saying:
The critics are right. We have no single prediction of string theory that is verified by observation. Even worse, we don’t know how to use string theory to make predictions. Even worse than that, we don’t really know what string theory is.
Cumrun Vafa “calls string theory the major leagues in the field of quantum gravity. As for other theoretical pursuits, he derides them as little efforts here and there.” Barton Zwiebach promotes string theory as possibly being able to “see the origin of the universe, and the very meaning of how space and time are born and what they are.” Michael Peskin claims that we might discover a universe that existed before time as we know it began, while noting “But there is a big debate as to whether this idea makes any sense.”
Sedgwick tells the story of Lubos Motl’s reference to me as the “black crackpot”, and Lee Smolin as the “blue crackpot” (because of the colors of the covers of our books), and his discussion of the desirability of my death. Lubos has evidently been told he’s not supposed to say things like that anymore, and responded to a request for an interview with “I don’t enjoy elementary human rights right now.” There’s a quote which I think originated as a comment on my blog to the effect that Lubos has done for the image of string theory “what the movie Deliverance did for canoeing holidays.”
Perhaps the most outrageous quote is an accurate one from me characterizing some of my experiences criticizing string theory from a position outside the field’s standard rigid hierarchy as being analogous to what happens when one messes with the dominance hierarchy of a chimpanzee troupe. This leads to a lot of strange behavior, flinging of shit, showing of behinds, and all sorts of bizarre behavior. In order to avoid offending people I wasn’t referring to, I should explain that I had in mind specifically some of my experiences when first starting this blog, see in particular the comment section of this posting.
It’s a bit embarassing that I’m made out to in some degree be the hero of this piece, the oppressed underdog that the author tries to set up in contrast to overlord Brian Greene. Sedgwick sees the story of how string theory dominates an academic field despite very limited achievements as quite analogous to the phenomenon he had personal experience with of how “theory” came to dominate the humanities in academia. I think there is something to the analogy, with both kinds of “theorists” starting out as an insurgent minority needing a certain amount of fanaticism to survive and expand their influence. Both groups revel in the complexity and obscurity of their work, convinced that those who disagree with them are stuck in the past or just too dumb to appreciate the great achievements of the difficult ideas involved in the two kinds of “theory”.
Chris W. has pointed me to a site that brings together the two sorts of “theory”. It’s called Scriblerus Press, is run by Sean Miller, who has a blog and is working on a PhD thesis in English on the topic of “the cultural currency of string theory.” Scriblerus is sponsoring and now looking for contributions to an anthology of short creative works that deal with string theory in one way or another.