I’ve heard that you described Weinberg as “senile”. Is that true?

No, this is completely untrue. Here’s the actual story behind that, you can judge for yourself.

  • In one of my early blog posts, (August, 2004, this one), I linked to a piece in Scientific American by Bousso and Polchinski promoting the multiverse and the string theory landscape. I stand by the substance of what I wrote there (what they are promoting is pseudo-science that Einstein would disapprove of). It seems though that Polchinski was quite upset by what I wrote.
  • In March 2006 he complained about the 2004 posting here, as part of a discussion about why the arXiv was banning trackbacks to my blog (they still are, for reasons no one will reveal, see here). In his complaint he quoted the posting without naming me. When I read it my first reaction was “that’s kind of over-the-top, I wonder who wrote it?” After Googling revealed it was me, I thought it a good idea to apologize to him, which I did here.
  • I learned later that Polchinski was privately telling people “I won’t read Woit’s blog because he wrote that Weinberg was senile” in an attempt to try and personally discredit me (and, it appears, to convince the arxiv to ban trackbacks to my blog, see his acknowledgement here that this was part of the arxiv trackback issue, something not known to me at the time).
  • The story of the supposed Weinberg reference has to do with this November 2005 blog entry, which I’ve just reread and seems to me perfectly accurate. It’s a serious discussion of an article by Weinberg about the multiverse. Back in those days I basically allowed all comments, rarely deleted any (this changed later). In an early comment on this posting, a commenter implied that Weinberg had become a “pathetic old man”. I tried to defend Weinberg in this response:

    One of my colleagues this morning, after being shown the Weinberg article, commented that Weinberg must just be senile. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Weinberg wants to be part of whatever the hot topic in particle theory is, and the landscape is the hot topic these days. It’s being driven mainly by younger people, not by seventy-year-olds, and you can’t put their behavior down to senility.

    A problem with making quick comments on blogs is that they’re often not as well thought out as they should be. I remember thinking after this was posted that its characterization of Weinberg as motivated by “hot topics” was kind of dumb, but I thought the point I was making should have been clear. Weinberg was certainly not senile, and the problem was not him or any “pathetic old men”, but “younger people” who were driving this. One person I specifically had in mind here was Polchinski and his Scientific American article, which was the sort of thing Weinberg would never have written (compare the Scientific American article to the Weinberg article discussed in the posting). It seems though that Polchinski recognized himself here, despite my avoiding naming him.

    I didn’t think this needed saying at the time, but of course I had then and have now the greatest respect for Weinberg, who is one of the great figures of the field. I took my first course on gauge theories from him at Harvard, and learned a lot from his papers and from his books on quantum field theory.

    The story of the episode in my office was meant not to in any way slur Weinberg, but to point out that many scientists find anthropic multiverse claims to be obvious pseudo-science. The colleague in my office earlier that day was not a physicist, but someone generally well-informed about physics, aware that Weinberg was a distinguished physicist, who happened to choose that particular way to express distaste for the multiverse business as pseudo-science. I had explained to him that Weinberg certainly wasn’t senile, that this had somehow become the hot topic among some theorists like Polchinski, and that it was the popularity of pseudo-science among people like him that was the real problem, with the older generation usually more sensible (see for instance his elder colleague David Gross).

In January 2016, Polchinski posted a paper on the arxiv with a section devoted to a personal attack on me based on one sentence in the 2005 blog comment discussed above. This section was removed in a later version of the paper on the arXiv, he says because he recognized that since he had trackbacks to my blog banned, it was unfair that one would not appear to this paper (true enough…). The version attacking me does appear on his website, with added material about what is wrong with me.

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