Ten Years of Not Even Wrong

This blog was started a little bit over ten years ago, and I’ve been intending for a while to write something marking the occasion and commenting on what has changed over the past ten years. I’ve found this mostly a rather discouraging topic to think about and whatever I have to say about it is going to be pretty repetitive for anyone who regularly reads this blog, so I’ll keep this fairly short.

Re-reading some of the early postings I’m struck mainly by how little has changed in ten years. Back in March 2004 I was writing about a David Gross talk promoting string theory, about whether CMB measurements would give information about GUT scale physics, about how string cosmology seemed to be an empty subject, and about new twistor-based methods for computing gauge theory amplitudes. There’s been a lot of progress on the last topic since then, but little change for the others.

One big change over the past ten years is that the argument that string-theory based unification is a failed project is no longer a particularly controversial one, with most physicists now leaning to this conclusion. Last night even Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory acknowledged that this isn’t working out and he needs to find something else to work on (see here). Maybe even Sheldon’s real life model will soon reach this conclusion. Ten years ago the argument one often heard was that string theory was the winner in the marketplace of ideas, with skeptics just sore losers. These days, it’s string theorists who are more often complaining about the unfairness of this marketplace.

One development that is just starting to have a major impact is the failure of the LHC to find any evidence of SUSY, leading to increased skepticism about SUSY extensions of the standard model. This is a developing story, with results over the next couple years from the LHC likely to make this a textbook example of what scientists do in the face of experimental disconfirmation of their most cherished ideas.

The discovery of the Higgs has been a wonderful vindication of the ideas and techniques of high energy physics, both experimental and theoretical. As we learn more about the Higgs the lesson seems to be that this sector of the Standard Model behaves in the simplest way possible. This is a significant new piece of information about nature, although a frustrating one since it doesn’t provide a hint of how to improve the Standard Model.

On the whole though, I fear that thinking about changes over the last ten years mostly puts me in a not very good mood. Some of the depressing developments and trends of the last ten years are:

  • One reaction to string theory’s failures in the marketplace of ideas has been a Russian billionaire’s decision to try and manipulate that marketplace by injecting tens of millions of dollars into it on one side. The largest financial prize in science now is devoted to each year rewarding people for work on a failed project. This is corrupting the marketplace in a significant way.
  • Some of my earliest postings back in 2004 were about KKLT, the string landscape and the multiverse. At the time I was sure that if the landscape proposal being pushed by the Stanford group became widely accepted as an implication of string theory unification, that would be the end of it. Surely no sensible person would try and argue for an extremely complicated, inherently unpredictive theoretical framework. Boy, was I wrong. As I’ve gone on about far too often here, the current multiverse mania is a disastrous and shameful episode for fundamental theoretical physics, threatening its essential nature as a science.
  • Most physics departments have reacted to the failure of string theory by at least partly blaming this failure on the over-emphasis of mathematics, instead of the fact that this was just a wrong idea about physics. An interesting document I recently ran across is this one about the connections of particle physics with other disciplines, written by my advisor Curtis Callan and Shamit Kachru. Mathematics is mentioned in a section discussing past successes in cross-fertilization with other fields, but it appears not at all in the rest of the document discussing opportunities for the future.

I’m quite surprised that I’ve continued to find topics worth blogging about ten years down the road, this is something I never expected when this started. Right now I’m hoping for something unexpected in coming years, that I’ll be writing about something different and much more interesting ten years from now!

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62 Responses to Ten Years of Not Even Wrong

  1. AcademicLurker says:

    I’ve found your blog to be very entertaining and informative, although I work in a very different area of physics and so don’t appreciate many of the technical aspects of the discussions. The sociological aspects, on the other hand, have been consistently interesting.

    It seems like an odd coincidence that the 10 year anniversary of Not Even Wrong coincided so closely with Sheldon Cooper giving up on string theory…

  2. Peter Donnelly says:

    Can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your blog, which I’ve been tracking ever since I read your book (in old fashioned paper format.)

    I chexk every day for updates, always disappointing when there isn’t one, but I guess you have a day job also :>)

    Peter Donnelly

  3. Argosy says:

    Congratulation on 10 years of your blog, I’ve been an avid reader for the past few years, though this is my first comment. Keep up the good work!

  4. Congratulations. Your blog and book have served an essential purpose and have upheld the Royal Society’s ‘Nullius in verba’ motto better than almost any other source I know. Keep up the good work.

  5. Brian Dennehy says:

    Just to say thanks for maintaining the blog Peter. I find it to be one of the very best sources of information for what is going in theoretical physics.

    I have also always been impressed by the dignity and calmness of your writings over the years . There is a lot of `sociology’ in the theoretical physics research community and it cannot have been easy to stand up so prominently to criticise the string theory program.

    In the coming years and decades I’m fascinated to see what is made of string theory as an intellectual endeavour.

  6. srp says:

    Can one be a dissenter without being a crackpot, a spokesman for the “silent majority” without being a commissar against the “vocal minority,” and an advocate for more rigorous mathematical foundations in physics without signing onto the most popular mathematical physics fashions? I don’t know, but you’ve making a heck of an attempt for ten years and it’s been very interesting to watch.

  7. Kavanna says:

    Peter,

    I’ve immensely enjoyed both the book and the blog and recommend them whenever the occasion arises. The book has been read — twice, or even more times ….

    Keep up the good work. Opposing the multiverse mania has been an exceptionally crucial and brave thing that you’ve done. Some days, I want to start screaming when I see some multiversal nonsense on the Web, or the new Cosmos, or wherever. Then I come here and calm down.

  8. I finally started watching watching the series Cosmos and 15 minutes in when I heard deGrasse Tyson mention the multiverse in the same breath as verifiable science I could not help but think of this post. Thanks for continuing to shed light on the difference between science and what is ostensible philosophy and faith dressed up and paraded as science.

  9. Edward Hessler says:

    As I think you know, Dr. Woit, I am not a physicist (K-12 educator) but I hope better late is better than never. This is one of my favorite blogs and I check it nearly daily. I don’t understand everything, obviously but you and commenters have helped me think about physics.mathematics more carefully as well as with (I think–so long as there isn’t an assessment of this!) greater insight.

    What a service and I’m glad you do it and enjoy it.

    First, Congratulations.

  10. Love the book. Recently got it and have enjoyed reading it. The history, your central argument and your writing style are all very thought provoking and interesting. I picked it up mainly to understand how to argue against prevailing notions and I believe the book has been instructive. My field isn’t physics but the part of information science dealing with text analytics. I was a physics major as an undergrad but decided after 2 years I was more interested in computers. I’m glad people like you have stuck with it and produced such interesting results.

    I enjoy your blog and I hope that new breakthroughs in physics give you good reason to unconcerned with bad theories and instead can refocus on the majesty of exploring good science.

  11. Bernhard says:

    I’m coming late as a was traveling, but could not miss the opportunity to congratulate you and your fantastic blog. Besides the healthy critic you always provide, this blog is still the best source of HEP news on the blogosphere. I also enjoy very much the math news which I would not have known otherwise, even though I’m generally incapable to appreciate it fully.

    I second Kavanna’s comment. I, and believe many, feel the same way.

    Ten more years (at least) to NEW!

  12. Jim Beyer says:

    Bravo!

    This blog has done more to keep the pressure on String theorists to explain their (non) results than any other entity. You remind them (and us) on almost a day-to-day basis that their excuses-providing double-talk is merely cleverly worded nonsense to keep the grants rolling in.

    Physics has in effect entered a mini dark age that hopefully from which it will hopefully eventually emerge. This blog is proof that at least someone kept the light of rationality on during that time.

    Thanks again. Your effort in this endeavor will hopefully be recognized and appreciated by a wider audience than it is now.

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