Quanta Magazine has over the past couple years been establishing a well-deserved reputation as the smartest and best science journalism around. At the opposite extreme, over many years of interacting with science journalists, the most embarrassingly incompetent one I’ve run across has been KC Cole, so I was surprised today to see that Quanta has published a piece by her.
Back in 2006 she wrote a review for the LA Times, basically explaining that Lee Smolin and I shouldn’t be listened to because we were incompetent embittered failures who didn’t understand the beauties of string theory. When I contacted her and the LA Times to complain that her review had completely misrepresented what I wrote in my book about neutrino physics, she wrote back to explain to me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, whereas she was an expert on neutrino physics. Her other main evidence for my ignorance was this:
As for Woit’s claim that string theory has “absolutely zero connection with experiment,” experiments already planned for a new European particle accelerator will look for the existence of extra dimensions and extra families of particles — both predicted by string theory. In fact, many statements about string theory in these books are plain wrong.
The topic of her new article is The Strange Second Life of String Theory, which makes the claims that string theory has failed as a theory of quantum gravity (which will be news to a lot of string theorists), but that “it has blossomed into one of the most useful sets of tools in science.”
The article has all sorts of interesting quotes from experts about the state of string theory these days, mostly indicating that people have given up on it and are trying to figure out how to move on. For instance:
David Gross: “After a certain point in the early ’90s, people gave up on trying to connect to the real world,” Gross said. “The last 20 years have really been a great extension of theoretical tools, but very little progress on understanding what’s actually out there.”
Robbert Dijkgraaf: “But now we have this big mess.” “Things have gotten almost postmodern.”
“Nobody knows whether to say they’re a string theorist anymore,” said Chris Beem, a mathematical physicist at the University of Oxford. “It’s become very confusing.”
At last year’s big annual string theory meeting, the Stanford University string theorist Eva Silverstein was amused to find she was one of the few giving a talk “on string theory proper,” she said.
Juan Maldacena jokingly defines “string theory” as “Solid Theoretical Research in Natural Geometric Structures.”
Like many of his colleagues, [David] Simmons-Duffin says he’s a string theorist mostly in the sense that it’s become an umbrella term for anyone doing fundamental physics in underdeveloped corners. He’s currently focusing on a physical system that’s described by a conformal field theory but has nothing to do with strings.
I’m amused to hear that according to Maldacena and Simmons-Duffin, it appears that I’m a string theorist. One thing Cole gets right is that most theorists are now working on questions about quantum field theories. Sean Carroll objects to this:
It’s the kind of work that makes people such as Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, wonder if the field has strayed too far from its early ambitions — to find, if not a “theory of everything,” at least a theory of quantum gravity. “Answering deep questions about quantum gravity has not really happened,” he said. “They have all these hammers and they go looking for nails.” That’s fine, he said, even acknowledging that generations might be needed to develop a new theory of quantum gravity. “But it isn’t fine if you forget that, ultimately, your goal is describing the real world.”
It’s a question he has asked his friends. Why are they investigating detailed quantum field theories? “What’s the aspiration?” he asks. Their answers are logical, he says, but steps removed from developing a true description of our universe.
Instead, he’s looking for a way to “find gravity inside quantum mechanics.” A paper he recently wrote with colleagues claims to take steps toward just that. It does not involve string theory.
Cole tells us that
Like many a maturing beauty, string theory has gotten rich in relationships, complicated, hard to handle and widely influential. Its tentacles have reached so deeply into so many areas in theoretical physics, it’s become almost unrecognizable, even to string theorists.
According to her, string theory has made “essential contributions to cosmology” (this likely is news to cosmologists), especially by revealing the multiverse, which is now “taken for granted by a large number of physicists”, one of whom you might think is David Gross, since she writes:
Inflationary models get tangled in string theory in multiple ways, not least of which is the multiverse — the idea that ours is one of a perhaps infinite number of universes, each created by the same mechanism that begat our own. Between string theory and cosmology, the idea of an infinite landscape of possible universes became not just acceptable, but even taken for granted by a large number of physicists. The selection effect, Silverstein said, would be one quite natural explanation for why our world is the way it is: In a very different universe, we wouldn’t be here to tell the story.
This effect could be one answer to a big problem string theory was supposed to solve. As Gross put it: “What picks out this particular theory” — the Standard Model — from the “plethora of infinite possibilities?”
Silverstein thinks the selection effect is actually a good argument for string theory. The infinite landscape of possible universes can be directly linked to “the rich structure that we find in string theory,” she said — the innumerable ways that string theory’s multidimensional space-time can be folded in upon itself.
The piece ends with a different genre of hype:
Arkani-Hamed believes we are in the most exciting epoch of physics since quantum mechanics appeared in the 1920s.
I actually spent much of the day down in Princeton at the IAS, attending some of the talks at the Natifest in honor of Nati Seiberg’s 60th birthday. Lots of different ideas were discussed by the speakers, with essentially no mention of string theory. A serious journalist who talked to all the people Cole did would likely have noticed the obvious and framed the same material quite differently: string theory hasn’t worked out and theorists have moved on to other things, with the center of gravity of the subject now the deeper study of quantum field theory.
Update: I took a look again at the KC Cole review of my book, the second page of it is here. It was even more dishonest and unethical than I remember. She takes my
superstring theory has had absolutely zero connection with experiment,
and turns it into
Woit’s claim that string theory has “absolutely zero connection with experiment,”
Note how pulling a phrase out of sentence, you get to do fun stuff like change the tense of the sentence.
On the neutrino issue, Cole writes:
To say, as Woit does, that fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored will come as news to the dozens of physicists who’ve been working on these problems for years.
This is based on the fact that on page 93 of the US edition I write, after giving a description of the things the standard model leaves unexplained, including a parameter count that ignores neutrino masses:
One complication that has been ignored so far involves neutrinos.
and then go on to explain about the experimental evidence for neutrino masses. The “ignored so far” obviously means “ignored so far in this chapter”, not “fundamental mysteries about neutrinos are being ignored” by physicists.
When I contacted her to complain about this, her response was that there was nothing wrong with what she had done, and that, unlike me, she was an expert on neutrino physics.
The Quanta article has lots of her characteristic “quotes”, words or phrases pulled out of context. I’ll bet that lots of those misrepresent what the person being quoted actually said. I’d urge the Quanta editors to re-fact check this piece, asking for full quotes, in context.