The science magazine Nautilus this month has a profile of me, under the title The Admiral of the String Theory Wars. The writer, Bob Henderson, spent a lot of time talking to me and other people around here, including attending my class. I think he did a very good job of handling the complex topic of the debate over string theory, not so easily done in the context of this kind of personal story. Then again, I guess I would think that since he was mainly hearing my point of view, others may see this very differently…
Talking to Henderson brought back memories of a lot of the very odd things that happened during this period, now nearly ten years ago. I also recently realized that this week is the 10th anniversary of the date on which I sent off the final version of “Not Even Wrong” to the publisher (it then went to copy editing, was published a year later). Looking back at it now, I don’t see much that I’d change. The earliest version of the manuscript written around 2003 didn’t discuss the landscape and multiverse business, which only really got going in 2004. By 2005 I did add a chapter on this, but at the time thought doing this might be a bit unfair to string theorists. Surely they were all aware this was obvious nonsense and would quickly themselves put a stop to it. I was very wrong about that and, oddly, it’s over this argument (where I would have thought my point of view was uncontroversial) that I’ve gotten the most grief from certain prominent string theorists (e.g. Polchinski).
For the latest in the string wars, you can watch last night’s Perimeter Institute public lecture by Amanda Peet. It was a promotional effort that reminded me a lot of the kind of thing you see on late night TV, with an inspirational speaker selling a product to a rapt studio audience. The main selling points for string theory were that it “would blow your mind”, that branes explain black hole entropy (the Strominger/Vafa calculations of 20 years ago), and that the world is a hologram (Maldacena from nearly 20 years ago).
After the talk the first question read to her was the obvious one about testing these ideas experimentally. Remarkably, she claimed that string theory was testable, that published work of 10 years ago showed that it could be tested at accelerators, and so far it had passed the tests. What she was referring to was one of the weirder stories of the string wars. At the time Jacques Distler and collaborators wrote a paper entitled Falsifying String Theory Through WW Scattering, which I discussed here. They also wrote to the Wall Street Journal about this (see here). A few months later their paper was accepted by Physical Review Letters, with their claims about string theory removed, I assume at the insistence of a referee (see here). In a spectacular display of chutzpah, when the PRL paper appeared, the authors had their institutions put out press releases claiming that “Physicists Develop Test for String Theory” (see here), exactly the claim that PRL would not let them make in print. It’s this claim that Peet is now using to mislead the public at Perimeter. I think it’s their responsibility to look into this and issue a public correction. Or do they really feel that it is all right for their public lecture series to be used to mislead the public about science?
Update: I probably should have included the relevant question and answer exchange with Peet, here it is:
Q: Any predictions or comments on how and when string theory might be able to be proven experimentally?
A:… there are experiments that can be done, this is published work that has been around for almost ten years now, that you can do experiments in nature in the lab without having to invent equipment that you haven’t invented yet that would test whether or not the assumptions of string theory are true or false. So far none of those experiments has shown a red flag that says string theory is wrong.
Update: Ethan Siegel has a blog entry and live-blogging about the Peet talk. He was hoping that Peet would discuss some sort of connection between string theory and observable physics, didn’t hear any (he seems to have missed the bogus claim about the LHC). Siegel gives an argument that string theory is in principle falsifiable, since it predicts space-time supersymmetry superpartners, although with no prediction for the mass scale. I’ve never heard this before, and I don’t know of any argument that such superpartners must appear in the spectrum of a string theory.
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