This week’s New Yorker has a quite good article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells entitled “Surfing the Universe” about Garrett Lisi and the controversy generated last year by his paper An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything (which I wrote about here). Unfortunately the article is not available on-line as far as I know.
One of the main themes of the piece is how Garrett ended up getting enmeshed in the controversy over string theory. I’m quoted as agreeing with the writer’s impression that one thing that got Garrett “enlisted in the string wars” was having my name appear first in his acknowledgements:
“It was probably not the most politic thing to do,” Woit said.
The description of the state of the string theory controversy is pretty accurate. Wallace-Wells got the following from Steven Weinberg
String theory still has great attractions, and there aren’t any alternatives… Well, there are alternatives and they’re worse.
and describes the situation as follows:
In physics, as in politics, the competition is crueller in lean times. “In terms of development of new theories, it has been maybe the slowest period in two centuries,” the science historian Spencer Weart said. By 2006, the fight over string theory had begun to leak out of the scientific community. Smolin and Woit published widely reviewed books criticizing string theory, and USA Today published an account of the assault headlined “HANGING ON BY A THREAD?”
The article explains the role of the arXiv and the blogs:
In recent years, as science reporters and interested amateurs have turned to the arXiv – and as some physics personalities have started blogs – the audience for physics has both expanded and fragmented. “I know for a fact that many of the leading figures in the field read the blogs, but so do high-school science students,” Woit, the Columbia mathematician and string-theory critic, said. “The scary thing is that frequently you can’t tell which is which.” The leading blogs have readerships that, while including some loud dissenters, tend to align with the perspectives of their authors – Distler, of the University of Texas, has a blog that attracts many string theorists and enthusiasts, while Woit’s blog draws more skeptics. It works somewhat in the way the blogosphere operates in politics. Andreas Albrecht, a physics professor at the University of California at Davis, said that the blogs had opened physics to a new sort of populism, one that the academic establishment had to figure out how to manage. “It just pushes thoses buttons,” Albrecht said. “There’s some really good stuff, but a lot of really sloppy stuff.” What you have, in other words, is the erosion of the referee and the rise of a scientific underclass.
The above quotes are from passages about the string theory controversy and ones where I had some involvement, but that’s only one aspect of the piece. There’s quite a lot more about Garrett, his story, and the physics/math context he is working in, together with a reasonable take on its significance, with everyone acknowledging that the ideas he is pursuing have problems and are still not such that success can be claimed. At the end of the article, Garrett explains that he’s still at work, now trying to see if an alternate form of E8 will work better.
Update: Lubos has the usual sort of rant about this. He doesn’t seem to have access to the article itself, so is basing his rant on my extracts. As a result, it includes an extensive personal attack on Spencer Weart….
Update: I hear that Bert Kostant has posted on his office door at MIT a copy of his e-mail exchange about E8 with the author of the New Yorker piece. So I guess that it’s all right to point to these files. Also, there’s an on-going Distler/Lisi exchange going on here. I haven’t followed the technicalities of this particular discussion, but the trademark Distlerian argumentation tactics are in operation, ensuring vastly more heat than light.
Update: It turns out that not everyone involved in that e-mail exchange had given their permission to make it public, so the files linked to above have been removed. Kostant has made his comments public, posted here.
Update: The New Yorker article is now available on-line.