The news that next week’s “Science Times” will run an article by NYT reporter James Glanz in which several leading string theorists say that they are giving up on the idea is rapidly spreading throughout the particle theory community. Evidently Glanz recently went down to Princeton to interview Edward Witten, who took the opportunity to announce that he has changed his mind about whether string theory will ever be a “Theory of Everything”. When Glanz contacted other string theorists and read to them what Witten had said, almost all of them told him that they too had been having their doubts about the theory.
Glanz quotes Witten as follows:
“One night a few weeks ago I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to make sense of Douglas’s latest work on the KKLT proposal and all of a sudden it really hit me that this is a completely lost cause. If perturbative string theory has any relation to Planck scale physics, then KKLT or something like it should work and string theory is vacuous since it can never predict anything. If perturbative string theory isn’t useful then we really don’t have anything since we’ve never been able to come up with a non-perturbative version that makes sense. Twenty years of this is enough. It’s time to give up.”
When Glanz asked him what he intends to do now, Witten responded:
“I don’t really know. There are still promising ideas about using string theory to solve QCD, and I could keep working on those. Maybe I should take up something completely different, like biology. I’m starting to worry that John Horgan was right about the ‘End of Science’. Right now I just definitely need a long vacation.”
When Glanz read Witten’s statement over the phone to David Gross, Frederick W. Gluck Professor of Physics at UCSB and Director of the Fred Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, Gross thought for a moment and then told him “Yeah, despite my quote last year from Churchill, I’ve also been thinking of giving up. Not sure though how I’m going to break this to the two Freds.”
The news of Glanz’s article has had dramatic effects at many universities and research institutes. At MIT yesterday, Prof. Barton Zwiebach shocked students in his Physics 8.251 “String Theory for Undergraduates” class by announcing that he wasn’t going to collect the homework due that day and was canceling his lectures for the rest of the semester. He also asked Cambridge University Press to halt publication of his new undergraduate textbook called “A First Course in String Theory”, the release of which had been planned for next month.
Search committees at several institutions that hadn’t finished their hiring yet this season held new meetings to decide how to react to the news. A prominent theorist at a UC campus told me in an e-mail that “our chair had the phone in his hand and had already dialed the number of a string theory graduate student from Princeton we were going to offer a post-doc to. I ran into his office as soon as I heard the news and stopped him just in time. Last week we were sure that string theorists were the smartest guys around and considered only them for jobs, but now there’s no way we’re going to hire any more, ever!”.
At the Institute in Princeton this year’s “Summer Program for Graduate Students in String Theory” scheduled for July has been canceled, with one of its organizers remarking “what graduate student would now be crazy enough to show up for a program like this?” Next week’s conference on “The Status of M-theory” at the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics has also been canceled on very short notice. The director there, Michael Duff, commented “We had to do this because the status of M-theory is all too clear. It’s passed on! This theory is no more! It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! … This is an ex-theory!”