Over at bloggingheads.tv today, John Horgan and George Johnson discuss the various excesses of recent physics news reporting covered here over the last week or so (Lisi-mania, evidence of other universes, observation of the CC causing ours to end, etc.), entitling their segment Jumping the Shark. I think this term came up in the comment section here at one point, but for a definition one can consult Wikipedia, where it is described as referring to an episode in the popular US TV series Happy Days in which Fonzie jumps over a shark while water-skiing:
Since then the phrase has become a colloquialism used by U.S. TV critics and fans to denote the point at which the characters or plot of a TV series veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline. Such a show is typically deemed to have passed its peak. Once a show has “jumped the shark” fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original charm.
Jump-the-shark moments may be scenes like the one described above that finally convince viewers that the show has fundamentally and permanently strayed from its original premise. In those cases they are viewed as a desperate and futile attempt to keep a series fresh in the face of declining ratings.
Horgan and Johnson discuss the idea that, with the latest silliness, press coverage of fundamental physics has finally “jumped the shark”, in response to a decline in substantive new results coming out of the subject.
I suspect that most physicists feel that, as a scientific idea, string theory conclusively jumped the shark with the advent of the anthropic landscape. The last year or so has seen an increasing amount of shark-jumping by string theorists desperate to find some way to address the problem of declining ratings. For the latest shark-jump, see this month’s Physics Today, where the first article is entitled String Theory in the Era of the Large Hadron Collider. Much of the article has nothing to do with string theory, describing the standard model and its problems, and how they may be addressed by the LHC. Oddly enough, the abstract of the article doesn’t mention string theory at all, whereas the subtitle (“The relationship between string theory and particle experiment is more complex than the caricature presented in the popular press and weblogs”) makes explicit the goal of responding to claims made here and elsewhere that the anthropic string theory landscape is not really science since it can’t predict anything.
The article heavily promotes the anthropic landscape and the idea that it “predicts” the right value of the CC, claiming that “The landscape and its explorations are exciting developments”, but it really takes shark-jumping to new heights in the final paragraph:
A few years ago, there seemed little hope that string theory could make definitive statements about the physics of the LHC. The development of the landscape has radically altered that situation. An optimist can hope that theorists will soon understand enough about the landscape and its statistics to say that supersymmetry or large extra dimensions or technicolor will emerge as a prediction and to specify some detailed features.
I’ve never before heard of anyone making this kind of claim that string theorists will soon be predicting detailed features of LHC physics. LHC results should start coming in 2-3 years from now. Dine and others have been trying to address the question of whether among the known string backgrounds there are more with high or low supersymmetry breaking for nearly 4 years already (see here), and the answer so far seems to be that this is not possible. Even if it were possible, there is no reason to believe that all classes of string backgrounds are known. There is also no understanding of the cosmological mechanism producing our universe, and thus it remains unknown whether counting backgrounds is even relevant.
For a discussion by Dine of the issues involved here aimed not at the public but at his colleagues, see his talk last year at the Santa Barbara string phenomenology workshop, discussed here.
Update: Lubos weighs in to praise the Dine article for what he sees as its message that the only good phenomenology is string phenomenology:
Right now, it is extremely important for an idea about new physics to be reconciled with the solid cutting-edge picture of reality that is available, namely with string theory. In the absence of doable tests, this is pretty much the most important criterion that decides whether an otherwise conceivable idea is worth research or not.
Update: Here is Chad Orzel’s take on the Dine article in Physics Today. Chad characterizes my attitude towards this sort of thing as “snarky”, while for him the situation is that
You’ve got serious physicists running around jabbering about this sort of stoned dorm-room bull session material…
Oops, I fear that was a snarky comment…
Update: Cern Courier joins Physics Today this month with yet another feature article promoting the multiverse. I’m trying to think of a snarky comment, but I’m too depressed.
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