Scientific Controversy No. 13

I made the mistake yesterday evening of spending it out in Red Hook, at an event billed as addressing the scientific controversy over string theory. The venue was an arts space called Pioneer Works, the brain-child of artist Dustin Yellin (whose formative early experience with physics is described here). The event was sold out (tickets were free, courtesy of the Simons Foundation), and drew a huge crowd of several hundred, mostly twenty-something Brooklyn hipsters.

The guests brought in to discuss the controversy were David Gross and Clifford Johnson, and the moderator was Janna Levin. Levin began the discussion by asking the two of them where they stood on string theory: pro, con or agnostic? This flustered Gross a bit (he’s one of the world’s most well-known and vigorous proponents of string theory) and Levin somehow took this as meaning that he was agnostic. Finally Gross clarified things by saying something like “I’ve been married to string theory for 50 years, not going to leave her now”.

Things then moved on to the usual well-worn hype about GUTs, string theory and unification. The LHC made a quick appearance, with no mention of falsified string theory “predictions” of supersymmetry. Instead Johnson characterized the discovery of the Higgs as somehow a vindication for this unification program. Gross went on to explain that unfortunately testing string theory requires going to the Planck scale where strings would be obvious, but that this was out of the question with any conceivable technology.

Besides being immune to experimental test, Gross also described string/M-theory as not a theory at all, since we don’t know its equations or principles (according to him, it’s a “framework”, see here). The conversation then degenerated into a long and meandering discussion of the black hole information paradox (to her credit, Levin countered Gross’s claim that string theory successfully explained it by reminding him of Polchinski and the firewall business).

The Q and A session consisted of a series of mostly crackpot questions from the audience. Johnson responded to a woman saying she thought that we were oscillating between two universes by telling her that she could see she was wrong by testing her theory. The sudden appearance of testability as a criterion to shoot down vague ideas surely confused her.

On a positive note, neither Johnson nor Gross were interested in promoting the multiverse, and the audience was spared that.

Johnson has a new book out called The Dialogues, written in graphic novel form. My previous experience with him was a rather unpleasant one more than ten years ago, after the publication of my book. He wrote a long sequence of blog posts about what he called the “Storm in a Teacup”, attacking Smolin and me and our books. Attempts to discuss the issues involved with him in the comment section there were confusing at first, until things finally became clear when he explained that he was refusing to read my book or Smolin’s. Dialogue about science was not something he seemed interested in if it involved uncomfortable criticism of string theory.

His book addresses this controversy with a panel in which the physicist figure explains:

Frankly, that’s mostly driven by the press, and a few attention-seeking individuals. Most people have a more nuanced view… It just does not sell newspapers or books.

On the question of “attention-seeking”, one might want to consult Johnson’s forty-plus long series of blog postings about his participation and appearance in TV and movie programs. As far as books go, in an end-note for this panel Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe is recommended. After the Q and A, a long line formed for people to hand their credit cards over to an assistant, then get a copy of Johnson’s book and have it signed.

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9 Responses to Scientific Controversy No. 13

  1. Richard Gaylord says:

    your view of Johnson seems clear (it’s not favorable). can you give us review of Johnson’s book?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Richard Gaylord,

    I did at least read it (granted, that only took about 15 minutes), but, no, I don’t have any interest in writing a review. For one thing, I’ve no interest in the graphic novel format. I stopped reading comics when I was about 12, other than some R. Crumb never picked one up after that. If you do like graphic novels, from the blog entries at his blog you can probably figure out if you’ll like this one.

  3. Bee says:

    Why didn’t you ask a question? Or if you had, what would your question have been?

  4. tulpoeid says:

    “I made the mistake” — apparently you didn’t, being there and reporting is useful, at least for those of us whose nerves couldn’t have stand so.
    “It just does not sell” — does this include research grants and prestigious multimillion dollar awards?
    “The sudden appearance of testability as a criterion to shoot down vague ideas surely confused her” — this must be one of my all-time favourites on here.

  5. Mika says:

    Have you read The Elegant Universe and if so, would you recommend it (or other books by Greene) to a layperson?

  6. Hetzen says:

    After barely managing to finish The Elegant Universe. I felt if I was being told the same sentence over and over without being any the wiser on what it was. It was me walking away dissatisfied with that book that made me find Peter Woit’s and subsequently finding this blog.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    Bee,
    I considered it, but decided not to try for several reasons, including a distaste for people using question sessions to put forward their own agenda, the fact that, whatever Johnson thinks, I’m rather the opposite of attention-seeking, and listening to this had left me disgusted and depressed. Thinking back on it, I still don’t see how a serious counter-argument could have credibly been made by joining the line of people intent on airing their crackpot ideas.

    On the other hand, alerting the Simons Foundation about how their money is being used might be a good idea…

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Mika/Hetzen,
    The mention of The Elegant Universe was just there since it made clear that Johnson was not criticizing pro-string theory books, I don’t want to start a discussion of it here. But yes, of course I’ve read it, and one motivation for my own book was the feeling that the public then, as now, deserves to hear both sides of a debate

  9. Pingback: This Week’s Hype/Fake Physics | Not Even Wrong

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