This Week’s Hype

A few months ago string theorists at Stanford had their university press office put out hype-filled promotional material about their research field, this was discussed here. One odd thing about this was that normally such PR efforts are made in connection with news of a supposed advance, but this press story had no news, just promotion of old and unsuccessful ideas.

This week it’s the turn of the string theorists at Princeton University, with Beyond Einstein: Physicists find surprising connections in the cosmos. Like the Stanford one, this story is not about any recent advance (there haven’t been any) but just a recounting of something from twenty years ago, without any acknowledgment that things haven’t worked out as hoped. To compare and contrast, another Princeton press office effort on the same topic back in 2007 (see here) at least had a specific new paper to advertise. The level of deception of the public though remains constant, no change from the 2007 highly misleading “Princeton Physicists Connect String Theory With Established Physics”.

The way this works, the misleading university press release gets picked up by others, who either just pass along the press release or write something based on it (with an even more misleading title). As an example of the first, yesterday had Gravity is mathematically relatable to dynamics of subatomic particles. For the second, today
Science Alert has Here’s Why String Theory Might Actually Point Us Towards a ‘Theory of Everything’. I suspect we’ll see yet more of this in the next few days as the hype-diffusion process initiated by the Princeton theorists takes its usual course.

The basic, intentionally misleading, PR claim at that bottom of this is the characterization of AdS/CFT as:

The key insight is that gravity, the force that brings baseballs back to Earth and governs the growth of black holes, is mathematically relatable to the peculiar antics of the subatomic particles that make up all the matter around us.

What’s not mentioned is that this has nothing to do with either gravity as experienced by baseballs, or the subatomic particles that make up matter. The AdS/CFT conjecture relates gravity in the wrong space-time dimension (5), with the wrong space-time curvature (AdS) to a quantum field theory that doesn’t describe any known particles (N=4 SSYM). For the last twenty years there has been lots of speculation about the possibility of extending this to the real world cases, but this hasn’t worked out. There’s no known dual QFT to gravity in the physical dimension with the physical sign of curvature, and, from the other side, no known gravity theory dual to the Standard Model.

As with the recent Stanford effort, the great thing about having your own university press office do this and not involve journalists is that they just talk about you and let you say whatever misleading thing you want. No danger that this kind of story will raise embarrassing questions or that it will give a voice to or even acknowledge the existence of anyone likely to raise objections.

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3 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. neil says:

    I do wonder who the PR offices think they are fooling. After all, the fact that string theory is a dead end has reached all the way down to the popular level on “The Big Bang” theory where Sheldon gives it up.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    I think the change in the popular perception of string theory has a lot to do with the decisions by string theorists to engage in this sort of PR campaign. Note that the Princeton article is coming out of the “Office of the Dean for Research”, the office responsible for helping faculty get research funding from public or private sources.

  3. JC says:

    “I do wonder who the PR offices think they are fooling. After all, the fact that string theory is a dead end has reached all the way down to the popular level on “The Big Bang” theory where Sheldon gives it up.”
    You have to give it to them, they´re fighting back in season 11 where Sheldon picks it up again.
    People who love Physics should start writing to TV producers, of this series and others, in order to stop misleading the public.
    We can´t leave Peter and others do all the work by themselves.

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