This Week’s Hype

Commenter CIP pointed out that today’s New York Times has one of the worst examples of string theory hype I’ve seen in a while. Based on this observation of an expected QFT anomaly effect in a condensed matter system, the NYT has an article An Experiment in Zurich Brings Us Nearer to a Black Hole’s Mysteries. Not only is the headline nonsense, but the article ends with

The experiment is also a success for string theory, a branch of esoteric mathematics that physicists have used to try to tie gravity into the Standard Model, the laws of physics that describe the other forces in the universe. But string theory has been maligned because it makes predictions that cannot be tested.

Here, Dr. Landsteiner said, string theory was used to calculate the expected anomaly. “It puts string theory onto a firm basis as a tool for doing physics, real physics,” he said. “It seems incredible even to me that all this works, falls all together and can be converted into something so down to earth as an electric current.”

There’s no connection at all to string theory here. The NYT seems to have been taken in by string theorist Landsteiner and press release hype like this, not noticing that the paper had no mention of string theory in it. The hype is timed to the paper’s publication in Nature, where the editor’s summary gets it right, referring to QFT not string theory:

Johannes Gooth et al. now provide another intriguing connection to quantum field theory. They show that a condensed-matter analogue of curved space time can add an additional, gravitational component to the chiral anomaly in Weyl semimetals. The work opens the door to further experimental exploration of previously undetected quantum field effects.

Someone really should contact the NYT and get them to issue a correction. In particular, any string theorists who care about the credibility of their field should be doing this.

Update: For a couple more stories about this, IEEE Spectrum has Black Hole Power: How String Theory Idea Could Lead to New Thermal-Energy Harvesting Tech, Nature has Big Bang gravitational effect observed in lab crystal.

Update: The author of the NYT piece did make some changes in the last two paragraphs to make things less misleading.

Update: This has finally appeared in print today, in an abbreviated version, minus among other things the string theory business.

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54 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. Peter Woit says:

    G Euphrates,
    Thanks, I thought I had fixed that typo, now done.

  2. Art says:

    As of this morning, the referenced NY Times article is truncated to 4 paragraphs, with no mention of Dr. Landsteiner.

  3. Tony Zito says:

    Non-specialist Community College physics teacher here. Is any part of this akin to the question of whether Bekenstein discovered black hole thermodynamics, or just an interesting analogy? Is there a chance that there is any significant physical connection between this experiment and black hole physics, so that, for example, we could really learn something about event horizons by keeping this up?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Tony Zito,

    There’s no significant connection to actual black hole physics or black hole thermodynamics here.

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