Rock Guitars Could Hold Secret to Universe

From the Bolton News:

ROCK guitars could hold the key to the origins of the universe, hundreds of young science pupils were told.

The Institute of Physics held a lecture in Bolton entitled “Rock in 11 dimensions: where physics and guitars collide”.

And acoustics physicist Dr Mark Lewney told more than 600 youngsters who attended that the vibration of guitar strings may answer unsolved questions about the Big Bang.

This event is just one of a year-long lecture series promoting string theory at schools throughout Great Britain. According to the promotional material the LHC will help verify string theory experimentally (and it will start up in May….).

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23 Responses to Rock Guitars Could Hold Secret to Universe

  1. Thomas Love says:

    They’re starting the brainwashing early. Let’s just wait and see what the LHC produces. But the presenter has done “years of research into guitar physics at Cardiff University” which of course makes him an expert on string theory and elementary particles. That’s as logical as anything I’ve read in a book on string theory.

  2. nigel cook says:

    String theory and rock have much in common: intoxication, many groupies, and putting vibrating strings to a use that makes a few people very rich and famous. String theory as a rock culture makes sense. One reason to go to rock concerts is socialising. People investigating string theory may likewise do it to fit into physics culture and to get funding, just as venues hire and promote popular rock groups. Others study string theory because they really believe it’s the best thing on sale, similar to arguments for liking a particular rock group or even a political party or religion.

  3. csrster says:

    Why “Rock” guitars? Don’t other types of guitar have vibrating strings? Or does the universe also have twin Floyd Rose humbucker pickups, a scooped fretboard, and a Jackson custom knife-edge tremolo arm?

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  5. Steve Myers says:

    What amps is he using? How many watts? Is it 5 or 10 strings? Or 10^500?

  6. Eric says:

    Well, actually surfing holds the key to the universe. Just ask the ‘next Einstein’.

  7. Professor R says:

    I actually heard this talk when Mark Lewney came to our college last year. The surprise is that the talk was very very good (as talks for schoolkids go), a real performance…

    The title is misleading – the talk was mainly a first introduction to particle physics, with emphasis on the forthcoming LHC experiments – what it is for, what it might detect. Mark used the guitar to great effect – more as a prop/gimmick/musical interlude than anything to do with string theory (hard to explain uness you were there). In addition, the guitar was used for several analogies, not least in describing bound states …

    Re string theory, the theory was only mentioned towards the end of the talk, and Mark was v careful to stress that it lies in the speculative area of physics…

    All in all I amazed by this lively talk, and so were the students – you can see reviews from other physicists (favourable) on the IoP website…..Cormac

  8. Sultan says:

    Sounds like that line from Spinal Tap: It goes to 11.

  9. Ken Muldrew says:

    Didn’t Pythagoras already try this tactic (but with a lyre instead of a guitar)?

  10. jpd says:

    Re: Erics surfing comment. The rest of the world may think surfing is strange,
    but growing up in California, its not extraordinary at all. Its like being surprised if someone from Switzerland skis. They have mountains, we have an ocean, get over it.

  11. otto schtirlitz says:

    What do you think about this article?

    Great PR work by Lee Smolin and a sad state of affairs for science is all I can say. Poor Ed, I hope he’s got a good sense of humor and is not embarrased by this stuff.

  12. woit says:

    “otto schtirlitz”

    This isn’t exactly on-topic and your question already came up a couple weeks ago:

    I gather that Lubos is pretty upset about this and sees it as somehow the work of that “hostile imbecile” Peter Woit, and evidence of the decline of Western Civilization.

    No, I had nothing to do with it and Lee Smolin’s list of “new Einsteins” would not be mine. Two problems with even thinking about such a list are that:

    1. No physicists have made much progress at all in fundamental theory, so calling anyone a “new Einstein” is pretty silly.

    2. Witten’s achievements are so off-scale that if your list is longer than one, it’s going to include people who are not in his league.

    I strongly suspect Ed is not too traumatized by finding out that Lee considers him a new Einstein and has included him in a list of others with much lesser achievements.

  13. Observer says:

    Sadly this is another shoot on the foot for string theory.

  14. Dr Lewney says:

    Christ it’s chilly in here. There’s enough negative energy to make a bleedin wormhole.

    Mea culpa for the poster and press releases. I’m afraid such painful oversimplification of an hour’s lecture into a few soundbites which are suitable for a local paper and which stand a chance of getting kids to come to the frigging lecture is sadly necessary in today’s competitive educational climate.

    But thanks to Professor R, the only one here who has actually seen it, for the kudos. I state explicitly that String Theory might be a load of bollocks, and endeavour to be even-handed in explaining the issues. No, I’m not a particle physicist, but I had to submit the script to four UK experts and their reviews were very positive. And I’m not even that arsed if it is a “shoot on the foot” (irony? nah) – if it increases the uptake of physics A level amongst the audience even slightly, I’ll be chuffed.



  15. Professor R says:

    hey Mark, great to see your post!
    You should know they’re still talking about your lecture here (an obscure country college in Waterford, Ireland). Myself, I think it was a very good example of performance, and I try to incorporate some of your tricks into BB talks I give to local schools. Sadly, most lecturers don’t think in these terms when they mount the podium, (including this year’s Tyndall lecture, no comparison).

    In fairness to Peter, I think his bailiwick is not string theory, or string theorists, but the constant over-emphasis of this area of physics in the media ( and in the jobs market). A lot of theoreticians would agree with this, including some prominent sting theorists who were cronies of my Dad.

    My own view is that if there’s something about strings that grabs the public imagination (more than quarks, for example), I too am happy to use it as a ‘hook’ to reel in young people to the wonderful world of physics….indeed I suspect an emphasis on the world of the imagination is no harm at all when dealing with young people.
    I remember you were careful in your lecture to present the theory as speculative, and the kids they liked that even more… well done again! Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh

  16. Dr Lewney says:

    Thanks Cormac – I enjoyed my tour of Ireland immensely, and indeed it was the Irish IoP’s recommendation which helped me land this full UK tour.

    Of course some people love a good sneer and I can quite understand how some might consider my poster/press to embody all that IS wrong about String Theory, media hype-wise.

    But ultimately, I think I’m actually doing Peter Woit’s campaign a lot of good. So he’s concerned about String Theory’s monopoly in recruiting maths and theoretical physics graduates, such that other theories lose out in the competition for such precious resources – yeah yeah, big deal.

    I’m concerned about recruiting physics and maths graduates full stop. I’m competing with medicine, law, economics, biochemistry and all kinds of other subjects which a bright kid might gravitate towards. And if I can convince some, jackpot! There’s more chance of there being enough graduates to allow other theories to be explored AS WELL AS String Theory.

    Of course, the fact that the very superficiality and glitziness of String Theory that Peter complains about is ultimately being used to acheive his goals might stick in his craw a bit. But he should be used to that – after all, if it weren’t for String Theory, few people would ever have heard of him!



  17. haha says:

    Don’t worry, Mark. Some of us have noticed for a while that Peter has gone over the deep end. Its just that any comment to that effect gets immediately deleted. Lets see if this one survives.

    This blog started out moderate enough, but now it is a parody on itself. Anything and everything is slowly becoming the fault of the string theory monster.

  18. Peter Woit says:


    I’m glad that Cormac wrote in to tell about what your lecture was actually like. I’d suspected it was likely to be much better than the promotional materials would indicate. Best wishes for the project of getting young people interested in physics. Even if it does involve invocation of string theory hype, at least these days a more skeptical take on this is getting plenty of attention. Hopefully the fact that there’s a lively controversy over the subject will have the effect of getting some people interested in the whole thing.


    Actually on any given day I typically delete one or more comments attacking string theory and string theorists, on the grounds that they’re just hostile and content-free. There probably are a bunch of comments on this posting that I should have done the same thing to. It is a much rarer event that I delete similarly hostile and content-free comments from anonymous string theory partisans, but when I do it is generally because they generate lots of hostile comments in response, and I have to delete the whole thread.

    As for your characterization of this blog, I’ll let what I write speak for itself. My name is on it, and I take responsibility for it.

  19. DaveF says:

    [ vibration of guitar strings may answer unsolved questions about the Big Bang ]

    Ask a dumb question, get a dumb answer.

  20. Josh Carmine says:

    “I’m competing with medicine, law, economics, biochemistry and all kinds of other subjects which a bright kid might gravitate towards.”

    Let’s face it. Kids even seriously considering medicine, law or economics over Physics should probably not go into Physics at all. Some years ago when they might not have had any contact with Physics it wasn’t so, but nowadays it’s almost impossible. So those kids have had contact with Physics and still think about law or economics as an alternative life path?!

    Please, let them go. If they come to the field they will do nothing but pollute it.

    If this is the lecturer’s objective (to “recruit” these kids) then he is doing a disservice to physics.

  21. Dr Lewney says:


    Many thanks for your encouragement. Whenever reasonable, sociable people get to present their positions to each other directly, it usually becomes clear that their differences are less significant than what they agree on. I guess it’s inevitable that this place also attracts mindblind loners looking for something to hate.

    And I’m sure you of all people understand how, despite one’s best efforts, what actually ends up getting presented in the media is always a distinctly lossy compression! If you’re ever over in the UK, or if I ever get booked in your area, it would be an honour to have you in attendance.

    Josh Carmine,

    “So those kids have had contact with Physics and still think about law or economics as an alternative life path?! Please, let them go. If they come to the field they will do nothing but pollute it. If this is the lecturer’s objective (to “recruit” these kids) then he is doing a disservice to physics.”

    This is the sadly typical exclusivist snobbery which is causing physics departments to close for want of students. There is, if anything, far LESS physics in the UK curriculum for 14-16 year olds than there was a decade or more ago – I think that my shows might well be the first exposure to what I’d call ‘proper’ physics (with, you know, maths and everything) that some of these kids receive. And the mere consideration of another subject at FOURTEEN YEARS OLD immediately disqualifies you from a physics career for life and renders you a “pollutant”? I don’t think such a position can be reasonably argued with, so I’m not going to bother.

    I’m actually very open to ideas as to how best to communicate physics to schoolkids. If any of you here could direct me to recordings of your own efforts to do so, or even to upcoming shows I could attend, I’d be very grateful. Armchair advice not so welcome, thanks.



  22. woit says:


    I just checked the file I keep of deleted comments, and could only identify one that came from you. You were using the pseudonym “string-dude”, and your comment had not the slightest thing to do with the posting, but was an attack on Chris Oakley, explaining to him in detail about how he needed to read a textbook on quantum field theory (Weinberg’s).

    Sorry, but off-topic, content-free, hostile comments from people who think it’s a good idea to hide behind juvenile pseudonyms are definitely the sort of thing I delete and will continue to do so. The only reason I can see to allow such things is to try and make string theorists look bad, and I think I’ll resist that temptation. If you want to continue to post hostile comments insulting me, at least start putting your name on them.

  23. Chris Oakley says:

    To be fair to “ha ha”/”string-dude” I have only studied volume 1 of Weinberg in any detail. Battling anonymous foes, though, is like punching air. Why are these people so keen not to be identified?

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