There’s a quite interesting article on the controversy over string theory that appeared yesterday in the Boston University student newspaper. It gives some insight into the political battle now going on in many physics departments.
The Boston University physics department has always been in the shadow of its more prominent neighbors just across the river in Cambridge. A few years ago they attracted Glashow away from Harvard, and I’ve been told a big selling point for him was that he would no longer have to be part of a department dominated by string theorists. He’s one of very few particle theorists who has consistently and publicly complained about what is going on in string theory. In the article, he forcefully makes the analogy between Einstein’s failed unification efforts and string theory:
“It is tragic,” Glashow said, “but now, we have the string theorists, thousands of them, that also dream of explaining all the features of nature. They just celebrated the 20th anniversary of superstring theory. So when one person spends 30 years, it’s a waste, but when thousands waste 20 years in modern day, they celebrate with champagne. I find that curious.”
Ken Lane, one of Glashow’s colleagues at BU, says that “String theory is not physics” and that he doesn’t know of any BU faculty who think that string theory belongs in the physics department. He does seem to think that it belongs in a math department, something I have some problems with. While certain parts of string theory are mathematically interesting and do belong in math departments, most of what string theorists do is not mathematics. For instance, the many string theorists making anthropic arguments about the “Landscape” are not doing mathematics and it’s pretty insulting to mathematicians to say that they belong in math departments.
Lane believes string theory is on its way out, and that the LHC will finish it off:
“I think I can safely predict that string theory is going to wither and die when exciting results start coming out of the LHC.”
Cumrun Vafa of Harvard seems to be spitting mad at the idea that BU won’t hire string theorists, referring to them as “foolish” and “childish”, which is not normally language academics use when talking to the press about their Nobel-prize winning colleagues at neighboring institutions. Vafa was a student of Witten’s a year or two behind me at Princeton, but I haven’t talked to him since my postdoc days. He’s definitely a smart guy, but also definitely a fanatic.
Vafa graduated from Princeton in 1985, just as the string theory fad hit. He went to Harvard as a postdoc, where most of the senior people were pretty skeptical about string theory, although willing to hire smart young postdocs doing it. I heard he was very upset in 1986 when Glashow published his article with Ginsparg in Physics Today attacking string theory, and even threatened to leave. But over the next decade or so he managed to marginalize Glashow, get more string theorists hired, and consolidate power around them. Finally Glashow left, and by now the string theorists heavily dominate the theory group. Of the active theory faculty, Vafa, Strominger, Minwalla and Motl are full-time string theorists and Randall and Arkani-Hamed do more phenomenological work, work whose justification is often given in terms of string theory. This just leaves Georgi remaining, and at the moment he has his hands full dealing with the fact that the president of Harvard is a sexist buffoon.
For Vafa to accomplish this undoubtedly took some single-minded dedication to furthering the interests of string theory and thwarting its opponents, but now that string theory so overwhelmingly dominates the field, it’s pretty disturbing to see him continuing to behave like a complete fanatic. I’ve been told that after Brian Greene’s Nova TV show about string theory came out, Vafa was heard to say that he didn’t care if it was any good; as far as he was concerned anything that promoted string theory was great. He’s quoted in the article as saying
“Theoretical developments have indicated string theory is a very important part of physics,” Vafa said. “It has already proven foolish. It’s past the point.”
I’m guessing there’s a typo here, one assumes he doesn’t mean that string theory is foolish, but that opposition to it is. He completely ignores the argument that string theory has not predicted anything and thus is not science, calling people who make this argument “childish”. His arrogant attitude towards those who don’t believe what he does is pretty breath-taking, matched only by that of his younger colleague Lubos. He finally dismisses the whole BU physics department with the logically incoherent:
“I think they are doing a disfavor to BU. I don’t want to pass judgment, but not having a string theory group puts [BU physics] out of first rate in my opinion.”
I think he does want to pass judgement and already has. If you’re a theorist who might someday have to deal with him as someone evaluating your grant proposal, deciding whether to hire your student, etc., do you think you might think twice before making a “childish” or “foolish” public comment about what is going on in string theory these days?
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