String Theory by Press Release

The KITP at Santa Barbara seems to be going all out to hype claims of observability by LIGO of effects of cosmic strings. The front page of the KITP website prominently features the story, and adds the personal phone numbers of the authors to encourage the press to contact them (something I’ve never seen theoretical physicists ever do before). Maybe these guys have already hired an agent.

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16 Responses to String Theory by Press Release

  1. JC says:

    I always felt a lot of that stuff which attempted to connect QCD with a string theory, looked kind of “ad hoc” and never really appeared to be all that convincing. When Maldacena’s AdS-CFT stuff first came about it looked like a more sophisticated version of that “ad hoc” QCD string stuff, which initially I thought looked promising. After many years of folks working out the consequences of the AdS-CFT duality, I’m less convinced today of it’s promises. Attempting to do string loop calculations on the AdS side seems to be a difficult problem, which so far hasn’t produced many convincing results.

    In the end, that Maldacena AdS-CFT stuff may very well be just another “ad hoc” result in a long line of other “ad hoc” QCD string models.

  2. JC,

    Search for “QCD String” in both hep-th and hep-ph. It started to be propagandised with the new century. I saw this campaign, then, as a way to drive people back into physics. Sort of leaving a scape gate.

  3. JC says:

    Speaking of weird string papers, just noticed this paper

    “Hadron pair photoproduction within the Veneziano model”

    In 2004, I never would have thought anybody was still doing the string theory or dual resonance model stuff with respect to hadronic physics. The last time anybody took this stuff seriously, was when “California Dreamin” was still a top 40 hit song?

    A time warp back in time, to a more innocent and naive time period in physics history.

  4. Peter says:

    Thanks, I’m glad to hear that that you find the material here interesting, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people take and interest in it and make comments. But I’d rather not get involved in adding anything more elaborate to the site, mainly because I don’t want to put any more time into it than I already do.

    That said, if you or anyone else wants to set something up and manage it themselves, I’ll certainly set up links from here.

  5. Anonymous says:

    OT request – would it be possible to implement a discussion section? Or desirable from your point?

    Some of us have a homemade board that runs on software written by one of our gurus (based on Zope and MySQL) that would be easy to implement for someone who knows Linux.

    I find this place more interesting than sci.physics.*.

  6. raj says:

    Maybe string theorists are adopting the techniques of the “creation science” crowd. And just when they caught the attention of US “public television.” Witness Nova’s series in the last year or two about string theory.

  7. JC says:


    Some folks are willing to make all kinds of weird long term bets. Since they are not betting large amounts of money, if any money at all for that matter, they’re simply not “putting their own money where their mouth is”.

    If their bets end up being correct, they’ll claim victory. If their bets end up being incorrect, they’ll just “whitewash” it away by saying something like “I was young and stupid, but now I’m wiser”, etc … or some other amusing excuse. There’s no huge monetary losses on their part, regardless of whether they are right or wrong in the end.

    If they’re wrong in the end, the most that will happen to them perhaps would be the depressing realization that they wasted a large portion of their working lives on something that was garbage in the end. It would be like “waking up” from a bad dream of being a member of a weird religious cult.

  8. Thomas Larsson says:

    For the last 20 years, Ed Witten has repeatedly stated that string theory makes one postdiction, gravity, and one prediction, supersymmetry. Alas, the natural signatures of supersymmetry have *already* been ruled out by experiments – this is what people mean when they say that supersymmetry requires finetuning at the percent level, isn’t it? Thus, unless one gives up naturality (which was the only experimental motivation for SUSY in the first place), Witten’s one string theory prediction has *already* been proven wrong. Pretty much bottom line.

  9. Peter says:

    The Fermilab story is about results of a fixed target experiment called SELEX, see hep-ex/0406045.
    They stopped taking data in 1997, but recently went back to reanalyze their old data to look for to see if they could find evidence for the new states Babar was claiming.

    They seem to have pretty good evidence for a new meson with a strange and charm quark, and supposedly much narrower than theoretical predictions. I really don’t know how reliable the theory of the spectrum for such states is, so don’t know how surprising this is.

    Perhaps this is the kind of thing that could be confirmed and studied in more detail at SLAC or Cornell. Maybe there is something unexpected lurking in the physics of these mesons.

  10. JC says:

    The string theory advocates and “fanatics” over the years have sounded very similar in “spirit” to those folks who were ranting and raving about the “New Economy” during the 1990’s dotcom bubble. After the dotcom bubble bursted in 2000, there were still many folks ranting about the “New Economy” for several years after, thinking that the Nasdaq “correction” was just temporary and that “prosperity” was just “around the corner”. After about a year or so, the more level headed folks “woke up” and became more skeptical and less willing to “suspend disbelief”. With time many of the advocates finally came to accept the notion that the “new economy” was just overblown hype, while the “fanatics” to this very day are still steadfast in their beliefs and refuse to capitulate. With time even some of the “fanatics” will eventually come to their “senses”. For many folks, it would be very difficult emotionally to invest one’s self in movements or ideas which don’t work in the long term, especially when there’s a huge investment of time, money, and ego involved.

    A very similar sort of pattern happened the years before and after the 1929 stock market crash too.

    Frequently movements or ideas that are built up by hype and overblown promises, end up following speculative “bubble” type behavior with the bubble frequently “bursting” after awhile when the hype deviates too much from reality to be sustainable in convincing many people to “suspend disbelief”.

  11. D R Lunsford says:

    There is some kind of excitement at Fermilab:

    Any ideas?

  12. Peter says:

    The problem isn’t that string theorists need encouragement to try and come up with an experimental prediction that can be tested. Most of them desperately would love to be able to do this. But the theory is so ill-defined it inherently can’t predict anything.

    The claims for “tests” of string theory are never-ending. I’d guess there’s on average a new one once a month or so. A lot of science journalists are fooled by these claims, see for instance last year’s article about string theory in Scientific American by George Musser that tells us that “in the mid-1990s the theory started to click together conceptually. It made some testable, if qualified, predictions.”

    Pretty much all the string theory “tests” are of the sort: “string theory predicts that X could happen” where X is something potentially observable. Note carefully the “could”, they never say X “will” happen. In all these “predictions” string theory is compatible with some huge range of possible phenomena which include X (although X is exceedingly unlikely and there is no good reason to expect it to happen). These aren’t real scientific predictions since when X isn’t observed, this doesn’t imply string theory is wrong. But it’s amazing how many people are taken in by this stuff.

  13. Tim says:

    To JC,

    Maybe this is a good thing. While their “test” may be dubious, if they get enough attention (and it seems like they have) it will encourage others to attempt to develop (and publicize, of course) other experimental string searches. Grounding theory in experiment is a good thing. Of course, if the theory is as poorly developed and vague as advertised here no possible experiment would be conclusive (not even wrong).

  14. Peter says:

    Hi Thomas,

    This particular hype is different than the landscape hype and not inconsistent with the monovac philosophy, so no reason for Gross to suppress it. The truly sad day will be when the KITP starts issuing press releases about the stupendous Landscape.

  15. JC says:

    Perhaps this is the beginning of a series of “last gasps” of air for string theory?

    When theoretical physicists are using the same hype and propaganda tricks that are common in political or marketing campaigns, one wonders if there’s something really rotten underneath the surface that they’re attempting to “whitewash” over. (ie. The anthropic stuff may be similar to maggots or termites slowly eating away into the string theory edifice of “legitimacy”.)

    It’s sort of like what they call the “cockroach effect” on the financial markets. Every time there’s “hints” of anything going wrong inside a company, everybody starts selling the company’s stock in a knee-jerk vote of “no confidence”. A sign of “bad news” (whether explicit or implicit) may very well be just “one cockroach” popping up at the surface, while underneath the surface is a whole colony of cockroaches and numerous deeper problems about the company in question.

  16. Thomas Larsson says:

    A long time ago, when Walter Kohn was director and the ITP didn’t have Kavli’s initial attached to it, I spent a year in grad school at UC Santa Barbara (a totally awesome place, fer sure). It saddens me that a place which meant a lot for my scientific worldview now is the center of such excesses. And what does the prophet of the cult of monovacuism in the office below Polchinski’s say about this?

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